“No matter what’s happening in the industry, people are going to keep making films,” opined John Cooper optimistically as he revealed the lineup for his first edition of the Sundance Film Festival as director. The world’s main event for independent American cinema, which unfolds Jan. 21-31 in Park City, Utah, will feature a few changes on the old formula, notably no opening-night picture; Sundance USA, which will take select festival films to eight cities as the fest unspools; and new noncompetitive categories called Spotlight, for what are viewed as particularly audience-friendly films, and Next, dedicated to no-budget digital work.
Cooper, who worked for many years as lieu-tenant to departed fest director Geoffrey Gilmore, boldly ventured that “we may even be going into a golden age for independent films, in that the technology will make it possible for the films to be made and for audiences to see them. The industry is going through a major evolutionary stage right now, there’s no doubt about that, but we’re not here to determine how it reshapes itself. We’re serving the filmmaking community rather than the film industry, and we decided to stick to looking for artistic excellence.”
In terms of excellence, Sundance is still riding high from having launched two of 2009’s big indie titles, “Precious” and “An Education,” and Cooper and his new No. 2, veteran programmer Trevor Groth, suspect there may be some pictures this year with similar potential. Cooper bluntly predicted, “I think there will be a lot of activity in sales.”
Given industry turmoil and contractions, particularly within the independent world, as well as general financial realities, Cooper was mildly surprised that the number of submissions to Sundance rose somewhat over the total of a year ago — 2,080 for narrative features, up from 2,038 last year, and 1,644 for documentaries, an increase from 1,623, making for 3,724 films to be viewed by the festival’s seven feature and three docu programmers.
Perhaps even more reassuringly, the festival’s presenting sponsors — Entertainment Weekly, HP, Honda and Sundance Channel — all remained onboard at a time when other fests have scrambled to keep or replace important backers. The festival benefits from the extensive support network enjoyed by its umbrella organization, the Sundance Institute, providing a fiscal foundation that has been minimally affected by the April departure of the institute’s executive director, Ken Brecher, who has yet to be replaced. Ticket sales are running apace with previous years, per Cooper.
As to differences festgoers will notice upon arriving in the mountains next month, the first will be the lack of a traditional opening night. Attributing the idea to Sundance topper Robert Redford, Cooper explained, “We don’t do red carpet, and we don’t have government officials and executives who demand this sort of thing, so we decided we didn’t need that kind of opening night.” Instead, Sundance will jumpstart its competition on the first Thursday evening with screenings of one dramatic and one documentary competing title, as well as with a program of shorts. A Salt Lake City gala will take place as usual with a screening of Aaron Schneider’s “Get Low,” starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray. The film debuted at Toronto in September.
The fest’s Spectrum section, known before as American Spectrum and once perceived as a consolation category for films that didn’t quite make the competition cut, has now been reconceived as Spotlight. Groth defined it as “a place for films we love,” faves from previous fests or pictures otherwise unqualified for competition slots that perhaps need a boost to find their way to the marketplace.
The new category, Next, will consist of eight features of an adamantly independent nature that “will show audiences what no-budget really looks like,” Cooper said. “We wanted to make sure we had a platform for them, so they wouldn’t get lost.” Groth elaborated that, since Next will lean toward narrative films, “Now we can be a little more rigorous about what goes into Frontier,” the fest section devoted to avant-garde and more non-narrative work.
All the American dramatic and documentary competition entries will be seen in their world premieres, and Groth allowed that he and Cooper are pushing toward the goal that all World Cinema entries be world preems as well. This year, the American competish categories retain 16 entries apiece, none of them with distributors, while the foreign dramatic and docu sections have been reduced from 16 to 14 and 12, respectively; dropping the numbers marks an attempt to make sure no significant international titles get lost in the shuffle, an admitted problem in the past due to the fest’s dominant spotlight on American work. This year, fest directors allow to having lost only one film they wanted to the Berlin Film Festival, which takes place in February, shortly after Sundance wraps.
In an effort to “put up a lightning rod about independent cinema,” according to Cooper, Sundance USA will physically bring what’s happening at Sundance to other regions of the country. On the fest’s second Thursday, Jan. 28, eight filmmakers — four from Premieres, two with competitive titles and two from Spotlight — will travel to arthouses in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Boston; Brooklyn; Chicago; Los Angeles; Madison, Wisc.; Nashville, Tenn.; and San Francisco to share their work with audiences there. Fest toppers acknowledge that the effort is “an experiment” designed “to take some of the energy at the festival to connect where there’s an awareness of the spirit of independent cinema.”
Both Cooper and Groth found it difficult to generalize about the nature of the work set to fill the screens at Sundance 2010. Groth noticed a recurrence of the examination of “faith in the modern age” and, especially among documakers, an urge “to tell the truth, to find out what’s going on out there and tell it so as to get their point across in a way that conventional films can’t.” Cooper agreed, noting, “Documentary filmmakers are becoming nonfiction storytellers instead of longform newscasters.”
Looming over everything having to do with mass communications these days is the issue that, as Groth put it, “More people are using more media now than ever, but they want it for free.” The search for new models for making money — in films, music, news — is in full swing, but in the meantime, Sundance, said its director, “is trying to provide a feeling for what’s being made.”
2010 SUNDANCE COMPETITION LINEUP:
- “Blue Valentine” – Directed by Derek Cianfrance, written by Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, a portrait of an American marriage that charts the evolution of a relationship over time. With Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Mike Vogel, John Doman.
- “Douchebag” – Directed by Drake Doremus, written by Lindsay Stidham, Doremus, Jonathan Schwartz and Andrew Dickler, in which a man about to be married takes his younger brother on a wild goose chase to find the latter’s fifth-grade girlfriend. Features Dickler, Ben York Jones, Marguerite Moreau, Nicole Vicius, Amy Ferguson, Wendi McClendon-Covey.
- “The Dry Land” – Directed and written by Ryan Piers Williams, in which a returning U.S. soldier tries to reconcile his experiences overseas with his life in Texas. With America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama, Ethan Suplee, June Diane Raphael, Melissa Leo.
- “Happythankyoumoreplease” – Directed and written by Josh Radnor, about six New Yorkers negotiating love, friendship and gratitude when they’re too old to be precocious and not yet fully adults. Stars Malin Akerman, Radnor, Kate Mara, Zoe Kazan, Tony Hale, Pablo Schreiber, Michael Algieri.
- “Hesher” – Directed by Spencer Susser, written by Susser and David Michod from a story by Brian Charles Frank, in which a mysterious, anarchical trickster enters the lives of a family dealing with a painful loss. Toplines Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Devin Brochu, Piper Laurie, John Carroll Lynch.
- “Holy Rollers” – Directed by Kevin Tyler Asch, written by Antonio Macia, concerning a young Hasidic man in the throes of money, power and opportunity who becomes an international Ecstasy smuggler. With Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Danny A. Abeckaser, Ari Graynor, Jason Fuchs.
- “Howl” – Directed and written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, a “nonfiction drama” about how Allen Ginsberg created the eponymous poem and the subsequent landmark obscenity trial. Stars James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels.
- “The Imperialists Are Still Alive!” – Directed and written by Zeina Durra, about how a French Manhattanite continues her work as an artist in the wake of the sudden abduction of her childhood sweetheart and a blooming love affair. Toplines Elodie Bouchez, Jose Maria de Tavira, Karim Saleh Karolina Muller, Marianna Kulukundis, Rita Ackerman.
- “Lovers of Hate” – Directed and written by Bryan Poyser, about how the reunion of estranged brothers is undermined when the woman they both love chooses one over the other. With Chris Doubek, Heather Kafka, Alex Karpovsky, Zach Green.
- “Night Catches Us” – Directed and written by Tanya Hamilton, which focuses on the eventful return of a young man to the race-torn Philadelphia neighborhood where he grew up during the Black Power movement. Features Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Jamie Hector, Wendell Pierce, Jamara Griffin.
- “Obselidia” – Directed and written by Diane Bell, about the amorous awakening of a lonely librarian with a beguiling cinema projectionist in Death Valley. Toplines Gaynor Howe, Michael Piccirilli, Frank Hoyt Taylor.
- “Skateland” – Directed by Anthony Burns, and written by Burns, Brandon Freeman and Heath Freeman, in which dramatic events in early ’80s small-town Texas force a 19-year-old skating rink manager to see his life in a new light. With Shiloh Fernandez, A.J. Buckley, Ashley Greene, Brett Cullen, Ellen Hollman, Heath Freeman.
- “Sympathy for Delicious” – Directed by Mark Ruffalo and written by Christopher Thornton, which centers on a newly paralyzed DJ who gets more than he bargained for when he seeks out the world of faith healing. Stars Orlando Bloom, Ruffalo, Juliette Lewis, Laura Linney, John Carroll Lynch.
- “3 Backyards” – Directed and written by Eric Mendelsohn, in which a quiet suburban town becomes intense emotional terrain for three residents on one strange day. Toplines Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, Elias Koteas, Rachel Resheff, Kathryn Erbe, Danai Gurira.
- “Welcome to the Rileys” – Directed by Jake Scott, written by Ken Hixon, about a damaged man who seeks salvation by caring for a wayward young woman during a business trip to New Orleans. Stars James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart, Melissa Leo.
- “Winter’s Bone” – Directed by Debra Granik and written by Granik and Anne Rosellini, which focuses on the dangerous efforts of an Ozard Mountain girl to track down her drug-dealer father while keeping her family intact. With Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Kevin Breznahan, Isaiah Stone.
- “Bhutto” – Directed by Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara, written by O’Hara, a look at the life of the assassinated former Pakistani prime minister.
- “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” – Directed by Alex Gibney, an investigation into the world of imprisoned super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his cronies.
- “Family Affair” – Directed by Chico Colvard, which examines resilience, survival and the capacity to accomodate a parent’s past crimes on the road to satisfying the longing for family.
- “Freedom Riders” – Directed by Stanley Nelson, about civil rights activists who challenged segregation in the South in 1961.
- “Gas Land” – Directed by Josh Fox, which looks at toxic streams, dying livestock, flammable sinks and people with weakened health in the vicinity of natural gas drilling.
- “I’m Pat ——- Tillman” – Directed by Amir Bar-Lev, which focuses on the efforts of the family of the pro football star to take on the U.S. government after he was killed by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan in 2004.
- “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” – Directed by Tamra Davis, a portrait of the celebrated ’80s artist.
- “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” – Directed by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, a forthright glimpse into the life and comedic process of the veteran comedian.
- “Lucky” – Directed by Jeffrey Blitz, which examines what happens when ordinary people hit the lottery jackpot.
- “My Perestroika” – Directed by Robin Hessman, an analysis of the transition of the U.S.S.R. as seen through the lives of five Muscovites who came of age at the time of communism’s collapse.
- “The Oath” – Directed by Laura Poitras, lensed in Yemen, about two men whose fateful encounter in 1996 led them to Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, 9/11, Guantanamo and the U.S. Supreme Court.
- “Restrepo” – Directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, for which the two filmmakers accompanied the Second Platoon in a crucial valley to reveal the soldiers’ intense labor, fights and camaraderie as they take on the Taliban.
- “A Small Act” – Directed by Jennifer Arnold, which spotlights how a young Kenyan, whose life was dramatically changed when a Swedish stranger sponsored his education, later reciprocates by founding his own scholarship program.
- “Smash His Camera” – Directed by Leon Gast, which uses the story of notorious paparazzo Ron Galella to examine issues such as the right to privacy, freedom of the press and celebrity worship.
- “12th and Delaware” – Directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, a look at how the abortion battle continues in unexpected ways on an unassuming corner in the U.S.
- “Waiting for Superman” – Directed by Davis Guggenheim, which uses multiple interlocking stories to analyze the crisis in U.S. public education.
WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION
- “All That I Love” (Poland) – Directed and written by Jacek Borcuch, about four small-town teenagers who form a punk rock band in 1981 during the growth of the Solidarity movement. With Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, Jakub Gierszal, Mateusz Banasiuk, Olga Frycz, Igor Obloza. North American premiere.
- “Animal Kingdom” (Australia) – Directed and written by David Michod, which centers upon a 17-year-old boy who, in the wake of his mother’s death, is thrust precariously between a criminal family and a detectives who hopes to save him. Stars Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville. World premiere.
- “Boy” (New Zealand) – Directed and written by Taika Waititi, a study of how two young brothers reconciles fantasy with reality when their father returns home after many years. Features Waititi, James Rolleston, Te Aho Eketone. World premiere.
- “Four Lions” (U.K.) – Directed by Chris Morris, written by Morris, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, a comedy about some self-styled British jihadis. With Chris Wilson, Kevin Eldon. World premiere.
- “Grown Up Movie Star” (Canada) – Directed and written by Adriana Maggs, which spins on a teenage girl left to care for her rural father when her mother runs away. Features Shawn Doyle, Tatiana Maslany, Jonny Harris, Mark O’Brien, Andy Jones, Julia Kennedy. U.S. premiere.
- “The Man Next Door” (Argentina), written and directed by Mariano Cohn and Gaston Duprat, about two neighbors who clash over a wall separating their properties. With Rafael Spregelburd, Daniel Araoz, Eugenia Alonso, Ines Budassi, Lorenza Acuna. International premiere.
- “Me Too” (Spain) – Directed by Alvaro Pastor and Antonio Naharro, about the unconventional relationship between a 34-year-old college-educated man with Down syndrome and his free-spirited co-worker. With Pablo Pineda, Lola Duenas, Antonio Naharro, Isabel Garcia Lorca, Pedro Alvarez Ossorio. International premiere.
- “Nuummioq” (Greenland) – Directed by Otto Rosing and Torben Bech, written by Bech, a contemporary story of how a young man pieces together aspects of his past and gets on with his life while journeying through Greenland’s imposing landscapes. Stars Lars Rosing, Angunnguaq Larsen, Julie Berthelsen, Morten Rose, Makka Kleist, Mariu Olsen. World premiere.
- “Peepli Live” (India) – Directed and written by Anusha Rizvi, a satire about the media frenzy created when an impoverished farmer announces that he’ll commit suicide so his family can receive government compensation. Toplines Riz Ahmed, Arsher Ali, Nigel Lindsay, Kayvan Novak.
- “Son of Babylon” (Iraq) – Directed and written by Mohamed Al Daradji, the tale of a young Kurdish boy and his grandmother as they travel through Iraq searching for the remains of their father/son in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s fall from power. With Yasser Talib, Shazda Hussein, Bashir Al-Majid. International premiere.
- “Southern District” (Bolivia) – Directed and written by Juan Carlos Valdivia, a look at social change that envelopes an upper-class family in La Paz, Bolivia. Toplines Ninon del Castillo, Pascual Loayza, Nicolas Fernandez, Juan Pablo Koria, Mariana Vargas. North American premiere.
- “The Temptation of St. Tony” (Estonia) – Directed and written by Veiko Ounpuu, which centers upon a mid-level manager with an aversion to being “good” who confronts life mysteries as he loses his grasp on his once-quiet life. Features Taavi Eelmaa, Rain Tolk, Tiina Tauraite, Katarina Lauk, Raivo E. Tamm. World premiere.
- “Undertow” (Colombia-France-Germany-Peru) – Directed and written by Javier Fuentes-Leon, an offbeat ghost story in which a married fisherman on the Peruvian seaside tries to reconcile his devotion to his male lover within the town’s rigid traditions. Stars Cristian Mercado, Manolo Cardona, Tatiana Astengo. North American premiere.
- “Vegetarian” (South Korea) – Directed and written by Lim Woo-seong, about a housewife whose strange dreams and resulting meat aversion cause trouble with her husband and attract the interest of her artist brother-in-law. Toplines Chea Min-seo, Kim Hyun-sung, Kim Yeo-jin, Kim Young-jae. International premiere.
WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
- “Enemies of the People” (Cambodia-U.K.) – Directed by Rob Lemkin and Thet Sambath, which recounts the shocking revelations that ensue when a young journalist whose family was killed by the Khmer Rouge befriends the perpetrators of the Killing Fields genocide. World premiere.
- “A Film Unfinished” (Germany-Israel) – Directed by Yael Hersonski, in which film found in Nazi archives reveals the means used to stage Warsaw ghetto life. World premiere.
- “Fix Me” (France-Palestinian Territories-Switzerland) – Directed by Raed Andoni, in which Andoni seeks different forms of help for a relentless headache in his hometown of Ramallah. International premiere.
- “His and Hers” (Ireland) – Directed by Ken Wardrop, in which 70 Irish women offer insights into the relationships between women and men. World premiere.
- “Kick in Iran” (Germany) – Directed by Fatima Geza Abdollahyan, about the struggles of the first female Taekwondo fighter from Iran to qualify for the Olympic Games. World premiere.
- “Last Train Home” (Canada) – Directed by Fan Lixin, which focuses on the ordeals of a Chinese migrant worker who, along with many others, tries to reunite with a distant family. U.S. premiere.
- “The Red Chapel” (Denmark) – Directed by Mads Bruegger, about a journalist without scruples, a self-proclaimed spastic and a comedian travel to North Korea under the guise of a cultural exchange visit to challenge the totalitarian regime. U.S. premiere.
- “Russian Lessons” (Georgia-Germany-Norway) – Directed by Olga Konskaya and Andrei Nekrasov, which looks into ethnic cleansing in Georgia revealed by an investigation of Russian actions during the 2008 war. World premiere.
- “Secrets of the Tribe” (Brazil) – Directed by Jose Padiha, which examines the scandal and infighting within the academic anthropology community regarding the representation and exploitation of indigenous Indian in the Amazon Basin. World premiere.
- “Sins of My Father” (Argentina-Colombia) – Directed by Nicolas Entel, which delves into the life and times of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar through the eyes of his son, who fled Colombia to lead his own life. North American premiere.
- “Space Tourists” (Switzerland) – Directed by Christian Frei, a humorous look at billionaires who pay large sums to travel into outer space for fun. North American premiere.
- “Waste Land” (U.K.) – Directed by Lucy Walker, which reveals how lives are transformed when international artist Vik Muniz collaborates with garbage picker in the world’s largest landfill in Rio de Janeiro. World premiere.