In some respects, the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival offers a snapshot of the ways in which the independent film scene has dramatically shifted over the past three decades, said fest director John Cooper, from an ever-widening talent pool to an increasingly sophisticated range of technologies available to filmmakers and distributors. In particular, the slate of 117 features (96 of them world premieres) set to unspool Jan. 16-26 in Park City, Utah, culled from a healthy 12,218 submissions, showcase the form at a new level of maturity — more diverse and welcoming to new filmmakers than ever, but also more exacting in terms of quality.
“Independent film in general has been absorbed and embraced as a vital part of the cultural landscape,” Cooper said. “It’s no longer an outsider sport. It really is part of an American art form.”
“I think the completeness of vision is different now from when I first started 20 years ago,” said director of programming Trevor Groth. “There were original ideas then, and there are original ideas now. … But it’s taken time for filmmakers to develop their skills and their full stories.”
Unveiling the 56 films in the festival’s dramatic and documentary competition slates, as well as the 11 titles in the low-budget Next lineup, Cooper and Groth noted the unusual number of films that play with and sometimes transcend the trappings of genre. Some of the American dramatic entries, like Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July” and Norwegian-born helmer Mona Fastvold’s “The Sleepwalker,” make use of intense thriller elements. Carter Smith’s “Jamie Marks Is Dead,” about a ghost with unfinished business, incorporates conventions that viewers will recognize from zombie movies. The World Cinema dramatic competition even includes a full-blown musical, “God Help the Girl,” directed by Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch.
Comedies, too, feature prominently in the lineup, particularly those dealing with taboo subjects, from Madeleine Olnek’s “The Foxy Merkins” and Desiree Akhavan’s “Appropriate Behavior,” both in Next, to German helmer David Wnendt’s sexually explicit “Wetlands,” receiving its North American premiere in the World Cinema dramatic competition. In particular there are several prominent comediennes in starring roles, including Kristen Wiig (appearing with fellow “SNL” alum Bill Hader in “The Skeleton Twins”), Lena Dunham (“Happy Christmas”), Jenny Slate (“Obvious Child”), Aubrey Plaza (“Life After Beth”) and Amy Sedaris (“Ping Pong Summer”).
One of the fest’s more unusual trends is the number of veteran actors in substantial roles, Cooper said, singling out Sam Shepard and Glenn Close for their performances in “Cold in July” and “Low Down,” respectively, as well as Susan Sarandon in “Ping Pong Summer.”
As usual, press and industry attention will focus heavily on the U.S. dramatic competition, which last year yielded such well-received titles as “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “Concussion,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Kill Your Darlings,” “The Spectacular Now” and “Upstream Color,” many of which are now drawing awards buzz via the Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Awards. Two of the higher-profile entries in this year’s lineup are “God’s Pocket,” the feature directing debut of “Mad Men” thesp-helmer John Slattery, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman; and “Happy Christmas,” which stars Anna Kendrick and was directed by the ever-prolific Joe Swanberg (who made his Sundance debut with the 2011 Spotlight entry “Uncle Kent”).
On the nonfiction side, Cooper noted a curious strain of optimism in the characteristically issue-heavy documentary field. American doc entries like “E-Team,” Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman’s film about human-rights workers, and “Fed Up,” a look at child obesity and food-industry malpractice, are notable for their solution-oriented approaches.
The increasingly popular Next sidebar, devoted to low-budget, cutting-edge cinema, has steadily expanded since its first appearance at Sundance 2010. Among the 11 films set to screen (up from last year’s 10) are “Land Ho!,” an Iceland-set road movie directed by Aaron Katz (“Cold Weather”) and Martha Stephens; “Listen Up Philip,” the latest from “The Color Wheel” helmer Alex Ross Perry; and “War Story,” a drama starring Catherine Keener and Ben Kingsley from director Mark Jackson (whose debut, “Without,” played at Slamdance in 2011).
In keeping with recent tradition, the festival will forego a single opening-night film and kick off with screenings of four competition titles: Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” (U.S. dramatic), Todd Miller’s “Dinosaur 13” (U.S. documentary), Hong Khaou’s “Lilting” (World Cinema dramatic) and Nadav Schirman’s “The Green Prince” (World Cinema documentary). A shorts program will also screen on day one.
The Sundance Film Festival will announce its Spotlight, Park City at Midnight and New Frontier titles Thursday, along with a brand-new Sundance Kids slate devoted to children’s programming. The Premieres and Documentary Premieres lineups will be unveiled Monday.
The full lineup:
U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION
The 16 films in this section are world premieres and, unless otherwise noted, are from the U.S.
“Camp X-Ray” — Directed and written by Peter Sattler. A young female guard at Guantanamo Bay forms an unlikely friendship with one of the detainees. Cast: Kristen Stewart, Payman Maadi, Lane Garrison, J.J. Soria, John Carroll Lynch.
“Cold in July” — Directed by Jim Mickle, written by Nick Damici. A small-town Texas man kills a home intruder, only to see his life violently unravel in Mickle’s follow-up to “We Are What We Are.” Cast: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell.
“Dear White People” — Directed and written by Justin Simien. A tongue-in-cheek look at racial identity at an Ivy League university, where a riot breaks out over an “African-American-themed” party thrown by white students. Cast: Tyler Williams, Tessa Thompson, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell.
“Fishing Without Nets” (U.S.-Somalia-Kenya) — Directed by Cutter Hodierne, written by Hodierne, John Hibey and David Burkman. This story of pirates in Somalia is told from the perspective of a struggling young local fisherman. Cast: Abdikani Muktar, Abdi Siad, Abduwwhali Faarah, Abdikhadir Hassan, Reda Kateb, Idil Ibrahim.
“God’s Pocket” — Directed John Slattery, written by Slattery, Alex Metcalf. The story of a man trying to conceal the truth about the construction “accident” that killed his stepson. Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks, John Turturro.
“Happy Christmas” — Directed and written by Joe Swanberg. A young woman breaks up with her boyfriend and then moves in with her older brother, his wife, and their 2-year-old son. Cast: Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, Swanberg.
“Hellion” — Directed and written by Kat Candler. A 13-year-old delinquent must get his act together, along with his emotionally absent dad, in order to bring back his little brother, who’s been taken away by child protective services. Cast: Aaron Paul, Juliette Lewis, Josh Wiggins, Deke Garner, Jonny Mars, Walt Roberts.
“Infinitely Polar Bear” — Directed and written by Maya Forbes. A manic-depressive father tries to win back his wife by taking full responsibility of their two young daughters. Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide.
“Jamie Marks Is Dead” — Directed and written by Carter Smith. A ghost visits his former classmate, hoping to find the love and friendship he never experienced in life. Cast: Cameron Monaghan, Noah Silver, Morgan Saylor, Judy Greer, Madisen Beaty, Liv Tyler.
“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” — Directed by David Zellner, written by David and Nathan Zellner. A lonely Japanese woman abandons her structured life in Tokyo to seek a satchel of money rumoredly hidden in the Minnesota wilderness. Cast: Rinko Kikuchi.
“Life After Beth” — Directed and written by Jeff Baena. A man is devastated by his girlfriend’s unexpected death, but receives a second chance at love when she mysteriously returns. Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dave DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser.
“Low Down” — Directed by Jeff Preiss, written by Amy Albany and Topper Lilien. This adaptation of Albany’s memoir explores her journey to adulthood while being raised by her troubled father, bebop pianist Joe Albany. Cast: John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Flea.
“The Skeleton Twins” — Directed by Craig Johnson, written by Johnson and Mark Heyman. An estranged brother and sister coincidentally cheat death on the same day, prompting a reunion. Cast: Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell, Boyd Holbrook, Joanna Gleason.
“The Sleepwalker” (U.S.-Norway) — Directed by Mona Fastvold, written by Fastvold, Brady Corbet. A young couple see their lives violently interrupted when unexpected guests arrive at their secluded estate. Cast: Gitte Witt, Christopher Abbott, Corbet, Stephanie Ellis.
“Song One” — Directed and written by Kate Barker-Froyland. When an accident leaves her brother comatose, a woman sets out to retrace his life as an aspiring musician, leading to an unexpected relationship against the backdrop of Brooklyn’s music scene. Cast: Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen, Ben Rosenfield.
“Whiplash” — Directed and written by Damien Chazelle. A talented young drummer pursues perfection at any cost in Chazelle’s follow-up to “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons.
U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
The 16 films in this section are world premieres and, unless otherwise noted, are from the U.S.
“Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory” — Directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett. A man discovers that songs embedded deep in memory can ease the pain of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
“All the Beautiful Things” — Directed by John Harkrider. An account of a close friendship between two men, tested by betrayal when one of them is falsely accused of rape.
“Captivated — The Trials of Pamela Smart” (U.S.-U.K.) — Directed by Jeremiah Zagar. An examination of the media’s impact on Smart’s 1991 murder trial, which became one of the highest-profile criminal cases of all time.
“The Case Against 8” — Directed by Ben Cotner, Ryan White. A behind-the-scenes look at the unlikely team that took the first federal marriage equality lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Cesar’s Last Fast” — Directed by Richard Ray Perez, Lorena Parlee. A portrait of Cesar Chavez’s devotion and personal sacrifice in fighting for economic justice on behalf of America’s poorest workers.
“Dinosaur 13” — Directed by Todd Miller. An up-close look at one of the greatest discoveries in history.
“E-Team” — Directed by Katy Chevigny, Ross Kauffman. A look at the high-stakes investigative work undertaken by four intrepid human-rights workers.
“Fed Up” — Directed by Stephanie Soechtig. An expose of the food industry’s 30-year campaign to mislead the American public, resulting in one of the worst health epidemics in history.
“The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz” — Directed by Brian Knappenberger. Documents the life and accomplishments of programming prodigy and information activist Swartz before he took his life at the age of 26.
“Ivory Tower” — Directed by Andrew Rossi. An inquiry into whether college is worth it in an era of soaring tuition costs.
“Marmato” — Directed by Mark Grieco. A historic Colombian mining town becomes the center of a modern gold rush when a Canadian company seeks to excavate the $20 billion in gold beneath residents’ homes.
“No No: A Dockumentary” — Directed by Jeffrey Radice. A portrait of former baseball player Dock Ellis, who once pitched a no-hitter on LSD and subsequently spent decades counseling drug abusers.
“The Overnighters” — Directed by Jesse Moss. The story of a pastor seeking to help the desperate men who work in the North Dakota oil fields.
“Private Violence” — Directed by Cynthia Hill. An intimate portrait of domestic violence against women as told through two personal stories.
“Rich Hill” — Directed by Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos. An examination of challenges, hopes and dreams of the young residents of a rural American town.
“Watchers of the Sky” — Directed by Edet Belzberg. This documentary interweaves five stories of courage by humanitarians working to end genocide around the world.
WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION
The 12 films in this section are world premieres unless otherwise specified.
“52 Tuesdays” (Australia) — Directed by Sophie Hyde, written by Matthew Cormack. An emotionally charged drama about a 16-year-old girl whose mother reveals her plans for gender transition. Cast: Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Del Herbert-Jane, Imogen Archer, Mario Spate, Beau Williams, Sam Althuizen. International premiere.
“Blind” (Norway-Netherlands) — Directed and written by Eskil Vogt. A woman who has recently lost her sight retreats into the safety and isolation of her apartment, alone with her husband and her thoughts. Cast: Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Henrik Rafaelsen, Vera Vitali, Marius Kolbenstvedt.
“Difret” (Ethiopia) — Directed and written by Zeresenay Berhane Mehari. A young lawyer operates under the government’s radar helping women and children, until one girl’s case blows her cover. Cast: Meron Getnet, Tizita Hagere.
“The Disobedient” (Serbia) — Directed and written by Mina Djukic. Two childhood friends reunite in their hometown, then take a bicycle trip around their old haunts. Cast: Hana Selimovic, Mladen Sovilj, Minja Subota, Danijel Sike, Ivan Djordjevic.
“God Help the Girl” (U.K.) — Directed and written by Stuart Murdoch. A musical about some messed-up boys and girls and the music they made. Cast: Emily Browning, Olly Alexander, Hannah Murray, Cora Bissett, Pierre Boulanger.
“Liar’s Dice” (India) — Directed and written by Geetu Mohandas. The story of a young woman who leaves her native land with her daughter to search for her missing husband, encountering a free-spirited army deserter along the way. Cast: Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Geetanjali Thapa, Manya Gupta. International premiere.
“Lilting” (U.K.) — Directed and written by Hong Khaou. An intimate drama about a Chinese mother mourning her son’s untimely death and the sudden appearance of a stranger who doesn’t speak her language. Cast: Ben Whishaw, Pei-Pei Cheng, Andrew Leung, Peter Bowles, Naomi Christie, Morven Christie.
“Lock Charmer” (El cerrajero) (Argentina) — Directed and written by Natalia Smirnoff. A 33-year-old locksmith begins to have strange visions about his clients and decides to put this strange talent to use. Cast: Esteban Lamothe, Erica Rivas, Yosiria Huaripata.
“To Kill a Man” (Chile-France) — Directed and written by Alejandro Fernandez Almendras. A hard-working family man gets mugged by a neighborhood delinquent, setting off a chain of violence and retribution. Cast: Daniel Candia, Daniel Antivilo, Alejandro Yanez, Ariel Mateluna.
“Viktoria” (Bulgaria-Romania) — Directed and written by Maya Vitkova. In communist Bulgaria, a woman gives birth to a daughter who, despite being born with no umbilical cord, is hailed as the baby of the decade. Cast: Irmena Chichikova, Daria Vitkova, Kalina Vitkova, Mariana Krumova, Dimo Dimov, Georgi Spassov.
“Wetlands” (Germany) — Directed by David Wnendt, written by Claus Falkenberg and Wnendt. A graphic adaptation of Charlotte Roche’s bestselling novel about an 18-year-old girl obsessed with her own bodily secretions. Cast: Carla Juri, Christoph Letkowski, Meret Becker, Axel Milberg, Marlen Kruse, Edgar Selge. North American premiere.
“White Shadow” (Italy-Germany-Tanzania) — Directed by Noaz Deshe, written by Desh and James Masson. A survival drama about a young albino boy who goes on the run after witnessing his father’s murder. Cast: Hamisi Bazili, James Gayo, Glory Mbayuwayu, Salum Abdallah. International premiere.
WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION
The 12 films in this section are world premieres unless otherwise specified.
“20,000 Days on Earth” (U.K.) — Directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. A docu-drama hybrid and examination of the artistic process that imagines 24 hours in the life of Nick Cave.
“Concerning Violence” (Sweden-U.S.-Denmark-Finland) — Directed by Goran Hugo Olsson. A synthesis of newly discovered archival material documenting Third World struggles, accompanied by text from Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth.”
“The Green Prince” (Germany-Israel-U.K.) — Directed by Nadav Schirman. An account of one of Israel’s prized intelligence sources, who was recruited to spy on his own people for more than a decade.
“Happiness” (France-Finland) — Directed by Thomas Balmes. A portrait of social change as seen through the eyes of an 8-year-old Bhutanese monk whose village is about to be connected to electricity. North American premiere.
“Love Child” (South Korea-U.S.) — Directed by Valerie Veatch. Covers the 2010 trial of a young South Korean couple accused of neglect when their addiction to an online fantasy game resulted in the death of their infant daughter.
“Mr. Leos Carax” (France) — Directed by Tessa Louise-Salome. A portrait of the maverick director behind such films as “Holy Motors,” “The Lovers on the Bridge” and “Pola X.”
“My Prairie Home” (Canada) — Directed by Chelsea McMullan. A musical documentary portrait of Canadian transgender singer Rae Spoon, featuring visual interpretations of the artist’s songs. International premiere.
“The Notorious Mr. Bout” (U.S.-Russia) — Directed by Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin. A profile of war profiteer, entrepreneur, aviation tycoon, arms dealer and documentary filmmaker Viktor Bout.
“The Return to Homs” (Syria-Germany) — Directed by Talal Derki. A portrait of young revolutionaries fighting for justice in the titular Syrian city. North American premiere.
“Sepideh — Reaching for the Stars” (Denmark) — Directed by Berit Madsen. A young Iranian woman challenges traditions and expectations with her dream of becoming an astronaut. North American premiere.
“We Come as Friends” (France-Austria) — Directed by Hubert Sauper. A look at colonization a human phenomenon from the director of “Darwin’s Nightmare.”
“Web Junkie” (Israel) — Directed by Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia. A look at a Beijing rehab center where Internet-addicted Chinese teenagers are deprogrammed.
The 11 films in this section are world premieres.
“Appropriate Behavior” (U.S.-U.K.) — Directed and written by Desiree Akhavan. The story of the identity struggles facing a young Persian-American bisexual woman in Brooklyn. Cast: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Scott Adsit, Anh Duong, Arian Moayed.
“Drunktown’s Finest” — Directed and written by Sydney Freeland. A coming-of-age story about three very different young Native Americans living on a reservation. Cast: Jeremiah Bitsui, Carmen Moore, Morningstar Angeline, Kiowa Gordon, Shauna Baker, Elizabeth Francis.
“The Foxy Merkins” — Directed by Madeleine Olnek, written by Lisa Haas, Jackie Monahan and Olnek. A prostitute buddy comedy about two lesbian hookers working the streets of New York. Cast: Lisa Haas, Jackie Monahan, Alex Karpovsky, Susan Ziegler, Sally Sockwell, Deb Margolin.
“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” — Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. Residents of the Iranian ghost town Bad City are stalked by a lonesome vampire. Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Dominic Rains, Marshall Manesh, Mozhan Marnó, Milad Eghbali.
“Imperial Dreams” — Directed by Malik Vitthal, written by Vitthal and Ismet Prcic. A 21-year-old reformed gangster is released from prison and returns to his old stomping grounds in Watts, Los Angeles. Cast: John Boyega, Rotimi Akinosho, Glenn Plummer, Keke Palmer, De’aundre Bonds.
“Land Ho!” (U.S.-Iceland) — Directed and written by Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz. A bawdy throwback to 1980s road movies, about two former brothers-in-law who head to Iceland in an attempt to reclaim their youth. Cast: Paul Eenhoorn, Earl Nelson, Alice Olivia Clarke, Karrie Krouse, Elizabeth McKee, Emmsje Gauti.
“Listen Up Philip” — Directed and written by Alex Ross Perry. A writer faces various mistakes and miseries affecting those around him, including his girlfriend, many ex-girlfriends and enemies. Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Jonathan Pryce, Krysten Ritter, Josephine de La Baume.
“Memphis” — Directed and written by Tim Sutton. The story of a strange singer’s doomed journey through the mythic city of Memphis. Cast: Willis Earl Beal, Lopaka Thomas, Constance Brantley, Devonte Hull, John Gary Williams, Larry Dodson.
“Obvious Child” — Directed and written by Gillian Robespierre. A Brooklyn comedian is dumped and fired, then learns she’s pregnant — all in time for Valentine’s Day. Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind.
“Ping Pong Summer” — Directed and written by Michael Tully. A youthful snapshot of the summer of 1985, set in Ocean City, Md. Cast: Susan Sarandon, John Hannah, Lea Thompson, Amy Sedaris, Robert Longstreet, Marcello Conte.
“War Story” — Directed by Mark Jackson, written by Kristin Gore and Jackson. A war photographer retreats to a small town in Sicily after being held captive in Libya. Cast: Catherine Keener, Hafsia Herzi, Vincenzo Amato, Donatella Finocchiaro, Ben Kingsley.