Upbeat mood for Sundance


It looks like the 25th annual Sundance Film Festival is borrowing the late Harvey Milk's famous line: "You gotta give 'em hope."

Despite the war-weary, economically ravaged state of the nation and the industry, the Sundance Institute announced a generally upbeat 2009 competition lineup Wednesday. While the offerings certainly include some somber fare, the roster breathes enough fresh takes on romance, sci-fi and politics to satisfy moviegoers and industry players looking for some warmth during the snowy 11-day event.

At least that's how fest organizers Geoffrey Gilmore, Sundance's longtime director, and John Cooper, its programming director, choose to see it.

"What you might have expected is that the festival would be really reflective right now of a very dark time, and it's not really true," said Gilmore, in his 19th year overseeing the fest. "We haven't seen the numbers drop, we haven't seen productions severely impacted yet by these factors, and we really haven't seen a darkness in terms of content. In fact, if anything, the films are engaging and entertaining."

Added Cooper: "The interesting question is: As filmmakers all tend to know what's going on in the industry, is that stopping anybody from making films? No, it's not. And the quality of films and the quality of filmmakers has gotten better."

Of the festival's 118 feature-length selections, 16 will vie for honors in each of the four competition categories: U.S. docs, U.S. dramatic, world docs and world dramatic. While the number of world premieres is up this year, from 81 to 89, the number of first-time filmmakers is down, from 51 to 39 (two-thirds of those are in competition). Twenty-one nations are represented across all festival sections.

The 3,661 feature-length submissions, up 37 from last year, divide into 1,905 from the U.S. and 1,756 from the rest of the world. The festival's 2009 incarnation is set to run Jan. 15-25 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah.

As of Tuesday, the fatigued Sundance staff had locked in the labyrinthine screening schedule, a logistical mindscrew represented by an entire wall in their Beverly Hills offices jammed with corkboard calendars and hundreds of color-coded posts.

In the dramatic lineup, the romantic romp has received a generational face lift in several selections.

"Paper Heart," directed by Nicolas Jasenovec, takes a meta-approach to the relationship between actors Charlyne Yi and Michael Cera. Jay DiPietro's "Peter and Vandy" tells a nonlinear story about New York love, and Shana Feste's "The Greatest" harnesses star power to tell a story of tragedy counterbalanced by unexpected love.

"One of the themes of the festival is the kind of new-generation love story," Gilmore said. "There's this way of telling love stories right now by a new, younger generation that's different, that's fresh, that's original."

The nonfiction competitions include films that continue the trend in the past few years of documentarians crossing the line from observation to explicit activism.

Louie Psihoyos' "The Cove," Joe Berlinger's "Crude" and Bill Benenson and Gene Rosow's "Dirt the Movie" — about dolphins, oil and soil, respectively — unfold as tools for "a call to action," Cooper said. Rupert Murray's "The End of the Line," about overfishing, and John Maringouin's "Big River Man," about a swim down the Amazon, consider similar approaches in the world doc category.

"You start to see people who are looking at environmental issues in global terms, with a global concept," Gilmore said. "There's this sense that in order to deal with problems of dolphins or overfishing, you don't just deal with the shores of the U.S. — you have to deal with oceans all over the world because it's an international industry. "

The doc competition also fields several personal explorations of family members: Dana Perry investigates her son's mental illness and death in "Boy Interrupted"; Natalia Almada tells the story of her great-grandfather, Mexican President Plutarco Elias Calles, in "The General"; and Sarah and Emily Kunstler explore their famous civil-rights attorney father in "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe."

A rare mini-trend this year is a trio of science fiction films, a genre not often associated with low budgets or independent filmmaking. Although they considered a half-dozen possible entries, Cooper and Gilmore settled on three that have taken advantage of inexpensive digital techniques to bring future dreamscapes to life.

"The Clone Returns" (Kuron Wa Kokyo-Wo Mezasu), from Japanese writer-director Kanji Nakajima, tells the story of a Japanese astronaut who dies, is revived as a clone of himself and travels to his childhood home. The Sony acquisition "Moon," which will screen out of competition in the Premieres section, stars Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey in another returned-astronaut tale. And in the drama competition, "Cold Souls," written and directed by Sophie Barthes — a veteran of the institute's director and screenwriter labs — imagines a dryly comic world where people, including an overtaxed American actor played by Paul Giamatti, can put their souls in storage.

"We've had such a delimited vision as to what independent film is going to be that every year we are now always saying, 'We have to expand this' — and the genres now are opening themselves up," Gilmore said.

In an effort to bring more visibility to the competition films, organizers are moving them from their typical 9 a.m. and noon slots to noon and 3 p.m. at main competition theaters like the Eccles. This meant the Premieres section, which typically occupied the 3 p.m. slot, had to be cut back from 24 to 17 films.

Several other logistical changes have taken place.

The festival has added the Temple Theatre to its central Park City spread. The 260-seat venueis part of a just-completed synagogue complex that includes a cafe but no parking. American docs will be the main screening focus there.

Fest organizers also finally have succeeded in taking over the huge, tented gifting-lounge area and converting it into a venue for festival parties and press junkets. It is not clear whether there will be a resulting drop in celebrity attendees.

"Everybody likes to get something for free, but very few people would view it as the motivation to show up," Gilmore said.

An unusual X-factor this go-round is potential fallout from California's passage of Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage in the state. Almost immediately, protesters began publicly considering boycotts centered on Utah — where the Mormon church, which campaigned in favor of the measure, is headquartered — and the Cinemark Holiday Village Cinemas in Park City, which houses three theaters screening international docs during the festival, because Cinemark's CEO contributed to the "Yes on 8" campaign.

Fest organizers are taking a wait and see approach to the Prop 8 issue.

"You've got to be sensitive," said Gilmore, who noted the festival's consistent support of gay-themed films. "There may be people who want to do something at the festival, and we'll deal with that. We don't really have an alternative."

Added Cooper, who tried to minimize the number of films screening solely at the Holiday: "If a filmmaker chooses not to do their Q&A because they don't want to go into the Cinemark theater, we're going to support that. What else can you do?"

Should protests become an issue, Gilmore and Cooper have left open the possibility of adding screenings to accommodate affected filmmakers.

"There is an irony to Sundance being in Utah, which one has to deal with," Gilmore said.