Sundance unveils 2010 lineup

Festival 'put marketability of films off to the side'

Although the Sundance Film Festival might have tried to wring some extra sunshine from its selections last year, the 2010 lineup looks to be back to its typical mirthless self. One could say it has gone from "You gotta give 'em hope" to "You gotta give 'em mope."

"That's our filmmakers," festival director John Cooper said with an amused mix of pride and resignation. "There's some lightness in here somewhere."

Yes, it's wedged back behind the assassinations, political corruption, war carnage, crumbling educational system and Khmer Rouge revelations. The fest, which runs Jan. 21-31 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah, might start to feel like 11 Days of Glummer.

But perhaps that's to be expected. The implosion of the independent distribution system amid the ever-present threats of a maimed economy and two wars has provided festival organizers and filmmakers an opportunity to cut loose and follow their probing passions, however dark.

"In general, we wanted to put industry off to the side, put marketability of films off to the side, and really keep our focus on artistic excellence and originality," said Cooper, overseeing his first Sundance in his new role as festival director. "That's where we're going to best serve the filmmaking community."

With the industry in upheaval, "You don't even know what to do for them anyway right now," he added. "They're going to fall in behind."

Among the festival's 58 competition films (six fewer than last year) in the four U.S. and world narrative and documentary categories are several about the news-dominating war in Afghanistan and its outward ripples.

In the nonfiction realm, Duane Baughman and Johnny O'Hara's "Bhutto" looks into the life and work of the assassinated former Pakistani prime minister; Laura Poitras' Yemen-filmed "The Oath" revolves around the journey of two men from Afghanistan to Guantanamo and the U.S. Supreme Court; and Amir Bar-Lev's "I'm Pat _______ Tillman" delves into the story of the professional football star's death in Afghanistan and his family's ensuing battle with the U.S. government.

"Perfect Storm" author Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington embedded with the Second Platoon in a crucial Afghanistan valley to deliver a ground-level look at the soldier's life in "Restrepo."

Cooper has no regrets about not shying away from current events. "(Audiences) might not want to go there originally, but once one group of people have seen the film, I think they will," he said, noting the Junger film in particular. "He's there with them, you feel it," Cooper added. "I could taste the dirt in that movie."

The four docs are among the competition lineup's 44 world premieres. The festival, including the five out-of-competition categories, features 112 films from 38 countries, including 80 world premieres and 43 first-time filmmakers, 24 of whom have films in competition. Most of these figures are comparable with, if a tad lower than, recent years, and the international reach has grown substantially: Last year's fest repped only 21 countries.

The selections were drawn from 3,724 feature submissions (1,920 from the U.S.; 1,804 international), an increase of 63 films from 2009.

The U.S. dramatic entries continue the nonfiction trend toward explorations of war. Ryan Piers Williams' "The Dry Land" centers on a soldier trying to re-engage his life in Texas, with America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama and Melissa Leo. Leo, who starred in the Grand Jury Prize-winning 2008 Sundance film "Frozen River," also appears in Jake Scott's "Welcome to the Rileys," with James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart, next month.

Actor Mark Ruffalo makes his directing debut with "Sympathy for Delicious," which stars Orlando Bloom, Juliette Lewis and Laura Linney in a story of a paralyzed DJ exploring the world of faith healing.

Although the out-of-competition Premieres section fields most of the more well-known acting and directing talent, higher-profile actors show up in a handful of U.S. dramatic competition features. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams star in Derek Cianfrance's portrait of an American marriage, "Blue Valentine"; Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman star in Spencer Susser's drama "Hesher"; James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels populate Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's look at the Allen Ginsberg obscenity trial in "Howl"; and Anthony Mackie and Kerry Washington star in Tanya Hamilton's period drama "Night Catches Us."

Several nonfiction directors will return to the festival this year. Davis Guggenheim, whose guitar doc "It Might Get Loud" screened in January in the Spectrum section, has his public education film "Waiting for Superman" in competition this year. And Alex Gibney, whose Hunter S. Thompson biodoc "Gonzo" screened at the fest in 2008, returns with the Jack Abramoff expose "Casino Jack & the United States of Money."

"He finds out everything when he takes on a subject," said Cooper, who suspects the Gibney doc will stir up controversy. "It's all there."

(If you're looking for Cooper's "lighter" material, you'll have to check out the newly created Next section, which features "Bass Ackwards," "The Freebie" and "New Low" among its eight noncompetition offerings -- more on that Friday.)

The world documentary competition category includes work from Cambodia ("Enemies of the People"), the Palestinian Territories ("Fix ME"), Ireland ("His & Hers"), Denmark ("The Red Chapel"), Brazil ("Secrets of the Tribe") and Switzerland ("Space Tourists"). A German documentary, Fatima Geza Abdollahyan's "Kick in Iran," revolves around the struggles of Iran's first female Taekwondo Olympic athlete.

The international smorgasbord spreads throughout the world cinema narrative competition, with films from Iraq ("Son of Babylon"), Bolivia ("Southern District"), Estonia ("The Temptation of St. Tony"), South Korea ("Vegetarian"), New Zealand ("Boy") and Poland ("All That I Love"). Javier Fuentes-Leon pulled together Colombian, French, German and Peruvian backing for his gay-themed ghost story, "Undertow," and Chris Morris directed the British entry "Four Lions," a rare comedy about British jahadis.

The festival's longtime programming director, Cooper took over the director slot from 19-year vet Geoffrey Gilmore after the 2009 edition closed and Gilmore took the job of chief creative officer at Tribeca Enterprises. The new sheriff's main mission was to make the most of his deputies.

"This festival's run by a staff," Cooper said of pushing for a new sense of collaboration. "The programming staff in particular is very well-seasoned. People have been here for a long time, and I really wanted to bring them up in to the process more. I didn't want it to be a one-person festival. The more voices you have in the room at programming, the better the festival you're going to have.

"This is a festival that a lot of people own -- the press own it, the filmmakers own it -- and I wanted to change the attitude of the festival a little bit," he added.

It helped that the festival programming staff hadn't lost anyone. Trevor Groth moved into Cooper's director of programming position, and shorts programmer Kim Yutani has been added to the feature programming staff.

One of the notable changes to January's rollout is the ditching of a traditional opening-night film in concept and event. The program will simply just begin Thursday night, with one dramatic film scheduled for 6:15 p.m., one documentary scheduled for 9:30 p.m. and a contemporaneous shorts program at the Egyptian Theatre.

"You basically start your engines at the get-go," said Cooper, who determined that Sundance doesn't have the same practical reasons for centering on a single kick-off film -- such as government shout-outs or sponsorship attached to that night. "If anybody wants to start a real subsidy of Sundance, I will let them bring the opening-night back," he added with a laugh.

"Twelve," a drama from director Joel Schumacher and writer Jordan Melamed, will screen as the festival's closing-night film.

"I just wanted something that was young and raucous and a little bizarre," Cooper said of choosing the film, which stars 50 Cent, Chace Crawford and Emma Roberts in a story about sex, drugs and murder among privileged kids on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Organizers continue to tweak aspects of the festival's layout. The Redstone Theatre at Kimball Junction, north of Park City, won't be used this year, and the music cafe, which was outside last year, has been moved back into an indoor gallery space at the bottom of Main Street.

Apple is working with the festival to design an iPhone app that will have all the festival's information on it, and the fest is upgrading its online film guide to be more interactive and functional.

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Although sponsorship and attendance have taken a hit in recent years as a result of individual and corporate financial hardship, Cooper maintains that interest has never waned and pass and packet sales have held this year, as has the volunteer force. "We worked hard, we started early," Cooper said. "It's all coming in very healthy."

On the plus side, the blizzard of ambush marketing that grew over the years continues to recede. "That's dying on its own," Cooper said with a scoff. "The first thing to go in a financial crisis is marketing money."

The complete Sundance competition lineup is on the next page.



2010 Sundance competition lineup:

U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Blue Valentine (Director: Derek Cianfrance; screenwriters: Derek Cianfrance, Cami Delavigne, Joey Curtis). A portrait of an American marriage over time. Cast: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, Mike Vogel, John Doman.

Douchebag (Director: Drake Doremus; screenwriters: Lindsay Stidham, Drake Doremus, Jonathan Schwartz, Andrew Dickler). On the verge of getting married, Sam insists he escort his younger brother, Tom, on a wild goose chase to find Tom's fifth grade girlfriend. Cast: Andrew Dickler, Ben York Jones, Marguerite Moreau, Nicole Vicius, Amy Ferguson, Wendi McClendon-Covey.

The Dry Land (Director-screenwriter: Ryan Piers Williams). A U.S. soldier returning home from war struggles to reconcile his experiences abroad with the life he left in Texas. Cast: America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama, Ethan Suplee, June Diane Raphael, Melissa Leo.

happythankyoumoreplease (Director-screenwriter: Josh Radnor). Six New Yorkers negotiate love, friendship and gratitude at a time when they're too old to be precocious and not ready to be adults. Cast: Malin Akerman, Josh Radnor, Kate Mara, Zoe Kazan, Tony Hale, Pablo Schreiber, Michael Algieri.

Hesher (Director: Spencer Susser; screenwriters: Spencer Susser, David Michod). A mysterious, anarchical trickster descends on the lives of a family struggling to deal with a painful loss. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Devin Brochu, Piper Laurie, John Carroll Lynch.

Holy Rollers (Director: Kevin Tyler Asch; screenwriter: Antonio Macia). A young Hasidic man, seduced by money, power and opportunity, becomes an international Ecstasy smuggler. Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Danny A. Abeckaser, Ari Graynor, Jason Fuchs.

Howl (Directors-screenwriters: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman). A nonfiction drama about young Allen Ginsberg finding his voice, the creation of his groundbreaking poem and the landmark obscenity trial that followed. Cast: James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeff Daniels.

The Imperialists are Still Alive! (Director-screenwriter: Zeina Durra). Juggling the abduction of her childhood sweetheart as well as a blooming love affair, a French Manhattanite makes her way as an artist in a hostile world. Cast: Elodie Bouchez, Jose Maria de Tavira, Karim Saleh Karolina Muller, Marianna Kulukundis, Rita Ackerman.

Lovers of Hate (Director-screenwriter: Bryan Poyser). The shaky reunion of estranged brothers takes a turn for the worse when the woman they both love chooses one over the other. Cast: Chris Doubek, Heather Kafka, Alex Karpovsky, Zach Green.

Night Catches Us (Director-screenwriter: Tanya Hamilton). In 1978, political and emotional forces are set in motion when a young man returns to the race-torn Philadelphia neighborhood where he came of age during the Black Power movement. Cast: Anthony Mackie, Kerry Washington, Jamie Hector, Wendell Pierce, Jamara Griffin.

Obselidia (Director-screenwriter: Diane Bell). A lonely librarian believes love is obsolete until a road trip to Death Valley with a beguiling cinema projectionist teaches him otherwise. Cast: Gaynor Howe, Michael Piccirilli, Frank Hoyt Taylor.

Skateland (Director: Anthony Burns; screenwriters: Anthony Burns, Brandon Freeman, Heath Freeman). In the early 1980s in small-town Texas, dramatic events force a 19-year-old skating-rink manager to look at his life in a new way. Cast: Shiloh Fernandez, A.J. Buckley, Ashley Greene, Brett Cullen, Ellen Hollman, Heath Freeman.

Sympathy for Delicious (Director: Mark Ruffalo; screenwriter: Christopher Thornton). A newly paralyzed DJ gets more than he bargained for when he seeks out the world of faith healing. Cast: Orlando Bloom, Mark Ruffalo, Juliette Lewis, Laura Linney, John Carroll Lynch.

3 Backyards (Director-screenwriter: Eric Mendelsohn). A quiet suburban town becomes an intense emotional terrain for three residents over the course of one curious autumn day. Cast: Embeth Davidtz, Edie Falco, Elias Koteas, Rachel Resheff, Kathryn Erbe, Danai Gurira.

Welcome to the Rileys (Director: Jake Scott; screenwriter: Ken Hixon). On a business trip to New Orleans, a damaged man seeks salvation by caring for a wayward young woman. Cast: James Gandolfini, Kristen Stewart, Melissa Leo.

Winter's Bone (Director: Debra Granik; screenwriters: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini). An unflinching Ozark Mountain girl hacks through dangerous social terrain as she hunts down her drug-dealing father. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Kevin Breznahan, Isaiah Stone.

U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

Bhutto (Directors: Duane Baughman, Johnny O'Hara; screenwriter: Johnny O'Hara). A journey through the life and work of recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto, former Pakistani prime minister.

Casino Jack & the United States of Money (Director: Alex Gibney). An investigation into the lies, greed and corruption surrounding D.C. superlobbyist Jack Abramoff and his cronies.

Family Affair (Director: Chico Colvard). A documentary that examines resilience, survival and the capacity to accommodate a parent's past crimes in order to satisfy the longing for family.

Freedom Riders (Director: Stanley Nelson). The story behind a band of civil rights activists called the Freedom Riders who in 1961 creatively challenged segregation in the American South.

Gas Land (Director: Josh Fox). A cross-country odyssey uncovers toxic streams, dying livestock, flammable sinks and weakening health among rural citizens on the front lines of the natural gas drilling craze.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child (Director: Tamra Davis). The story of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Directors: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg). A glimpse into the comedic process and private dramas of the legendary comedian and pop icon.

Lucky
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