It's a flurry of fresh faces

Sundance greets film's next gen

The times they are a-changin' for the Sundance Film Festival.

Although Sundance wouldn't feel like Sundance if at least one film didn't star Paul Giamatti or Patricia Clarkson, the competition lineup unveiled Wednesday by Sundance officials contains an awful lot of newcomers in directing, writing and acting: No fewer than 51 first-time filmmakers, repping 24 nations, will debut their work at the 2008 festival.

Geoffrey Gilmore, the festival's longtime director, sees 2008 as a changing of the guard. "It feels like (this festival) is another generation's effort to move into the film market," he said.

Added John Cooper, director of programming, "These are filmmakers and actors we had not seen before."

Not that the festival lacks for stars. In dramatic competition, where you once found mostly newcomers, such name actors as Anjelica Huston, Winona Ryder, Ray Romano, Maria Bello, Mena Suvari, Nick Nolte, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup, Alan Arkin, Amy Adams and Ben Kingsley, among others, star in features. And, yes, Giamatti and Clarkson each have a film in competition.

But actors and filmmakers seem to come out of nowhere this year. While the Sundance staff tracks film productions all year long, Gilmore insisted that "most of the films in the festival we hadn't heard about."

Cooper cut in, saying, "I wouldn't go that far, but even if it's 25% that would be high."

"I think it's higher," Gilmore responded.

Such was the quality of films that came over the transom that organizers nearly broke their cardinal rule not to expand the festival. In previous years, Gilmore said, everyone felt that the program represented the "cream of the crop." This year, he noted, "it feels like more films could have been included in the festival. Not that we are missing things, but because of the high quality of the films we made the selection from, there were others we wished we could have included."

In all, 121 features, including 81 world premieres, will unspool. The 2008 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 17-27 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah.

It was two exceedingly happy but bleary-eyed officials who announced the lineup of competition films. Gilmore and Cooper admitted that they and their staff had lived through "a tumultuous two months" leading to the announcement.

"More films are coming to us later in rougher shape," Gilmore said. "We were forced to make evaluations based on incomplete work. We were in enough of a bind that we would often watch second cuts. Plus, the staff and I have gone to more places than we ever have to see international work and to broaden the range of our World program."

For Sundance programmers, eye strain is an increasing danger. The total number of submissions for the 2008 festival increased by a staggering 999 films from the previous year. By way of contrast, for the 2007 edition, the increase from the previous year was 273 films. The 8,731 submissions break down this way: From the 3,624 feature-length submissions, 2,021 came from the U.S., while 1,603 were from foreign countries. The remaining 5,107 submissions were shorts.

Usually, the two festival heads make their annual post-Thanksgiving announcement accompanied by a categorical overview of the festival and what the selections say about the state of indie filmmaking. This time, they conceded that while 2008 will be a "special and surprising festival," the films elude categorization. The best they came up with is "personal films."

"The films are not full of solutions for the present day but tell how people made it through the day before," Gilmore said. "They are about survival and how to live life. Plus, there is a lot of irreverence."

In the documentary competition, Cooper noted, there is less reportage than personal films and calls to action. He points to Katrina Browne's "Traces of the Trade," in which the filmmaker investigated her own family, descendants of one of the largest slave-trading families in early America.

In the dramatic competition section, there are many comedies, especially black comedies. Gilmore said that whatever social barometer Sundance possesses seems to indicate a "darkness of spirit" in the zeitgeist — "but with a tone and handle that is decidedly irreverent."

Many of those attending the Toronto International Film Festival in September felt an audience backlash against what Gilmore called "heavily themed work and heavily self-conscious, ideological work." By contrast, those in the Sundance lineup try "to engage with political issues without ideological flag-waving. Part of that is a tendency toward the comic."

In the dramatic competition, Gilmore pointed to writer-director Geoff Haley's "The Last Word," about a writer who makes his living penning other people's suicide notes, or Christine Jeffs' "Sunshine Cleaning," about two sisters who make their living cleaning up crime scenes.

"Nobody I know will laugh at all the comedies," Gilmore said. "They are all so different. You may laugh uproariously at one, and the next one you'll wonder why we included it."

Tone and style also vary dramatically. "Downloading Nancy" from director Johan Renck, about an unhappy wife who orders the guy she meets over the Internet to kill her, is "rigorous and dark," Cooper said. Gilmore calls it "painful to watch." Whereas Anthony (Chusy) Haney-Jardine's "Anywhere U.S.A." is experimental in its storytelling, writer-director Rawson Thurber's coming-of-age tale "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" is "a traditional indie story." Alex Rivera's "Sleep Dealer," a sci-fi tale that emerged from the Sundance Labs, is, Gilmore joked, a combination of "The Matrix," "Blade Runner" and "The Border."

In the documentary competition, several anticipated subjects turn up: Big Oil, Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. military and ecological concerns. Yet such subjects as steroid use, Midwest life and a Laotian family's 20-year struggle to survive the U.S. incursion into that country crop up too.

This also is the year of the biopic: Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, punk icon Patti Smith and director Roman Polanski get portraits. In the World Cinema documentary competition, a British film profiles late stage and film director Derek Jarman.

In one change, the festival will expand the number of awards given to films screening in World Cinema competitions. In addition to the World Cinema Jury Prize in both the documentary and dramatic competitions, international films are now eligible for awards in directing, editing, screenwriting and cinematography.