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Sundance Film Festival Unveils 2012 Competition Lineup

New films from Antonio Campos, Eugene Jarecki and Kirby Dick will compete in the 28th annual Park City event, running Jan. 19-29.

Park City Utah - H 2011

Many of the filmmakers whose work has been selected to screen at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival are "questioning the status quo of the American dream," says festival director John Cooper. “Having babies, in a relationship, getting married — a very authentic, independent way of looking at all that stuff.”

The festival unveiled its official competition lineup Wednesday, and that always provides an occasion for independent film watchers to offer up their annual assessments of the health of the industry. But to hear Cooper tell it, the last few years of contraction and confusion have produced a solid new business.

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“The independent film movement is very healthy right now,” says Cooper, in his third year as director. “It’s a good place to be. With so many financial challenges you would think it wouldn’t be, but maybe that’s that whole thing of art succeeding more when there are a lot of challenges to the world itself.”

The U.S. narrative competition consists of 16 world premieres, including So Yong Kim’s For Ellen, about a struggling musician fighting for custody of his daughter starring Paul Dano and Jena Malone; Ry Russo-Young’s Nobody Walks, which follows a New York City artist as she wreaks havoc with one family’s lives over a weeklong visit in L.A. starring John Krasinski and Rosemarie DeWitt; James Ponsoldt’s Smashed, about the effect on a young married couple when the woman decides to get sober; and Youssef Delara and Michael D. Olmos’ Filly Brown, a drama about a Mexican girl who copes with her mother’s incarceration through hip-hop music.

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Actor-writer Mark Webber, who co-wrote Joshua Leonard’s 2011 Sundance premiere The Lie, will appear in two films in competition this year: Save the Date from filmmaker Michael Mohan, and The End of Love, which Webber also wrote and directed. Sheldon Candis’ Luv features an orphaned 11-year-old Baltimore boy coming to terms with the truth about his uncle, while Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere follows an African-American woman struggling to keep her identity after her husband is incarcerated.

“We are, and always have been, a festival about the filmmakers," said Sundance Institute founder and president Robert Redford. "So what are they doing? What are they saying? They are making statements about the changing world we are living in. Some are straightforward, some novel and some offbeat but always interesting.”

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Meanwhile, Antonio Campos’ intense Simon Killer, about a recent college graduate who falls in love with a Paris prostitute, could provide some provocation. (Campos is part of Borderline Films, which also produced Sean Durkin’s 2011 drama Martha Marcy May Marlene, and he had his film Afterschool at Cannes in 2008.) “That one’s going to rattle some cages,” says director of programming Trevor Groth.

Every year when the program is announced, journalists and other observers inevitably search for trends and messages in the films and filmmakers that have been selected. The most notable aspect of the festival’s 28th edition, however, may just be a surge in quality brought on by the new limitations of the business, particularly on the narrative side.

“I was very optimistic putting the program together,” says Cooper. “The films that we saw have a general quality that is better. There’s a bar that’s being raised each year from the filmmakers between themselves, knowing what they have to do to compete in the independent film world. They’re a little more exacting in their storylines and characters. That authenticity reads as interesting and fresh and makes you want to see these movies because they don’t seem like a rehash of old stories.”

The fest’s four competition categories — U.S. narrative and documentary, world narrative and documentary —include 58 total films, 48 of them world premieres and 26 from first-time filmmakers. The festival program as a whole, which includes six out-of-competition categories (those titles will be unveiled Thursday and Monday), will feature 110 feature-length films from 31 countries, including 88 world premieres. While the total number of feature-length films that will be screened is slightly down, the number of submissions rose once again, about 6 percent, from 3,812 films in 2011 to 4,042 this year (2,059 U.S.; 1,983 international).

As usual, the documentary programs cover a host of artistic, political and social issues “in a real, deep, comprehensive way,” Cooper says. Included in the U.S. doc category’s 16 world premieres are Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s look at the collapse of U.S. manufacturing in Detropia; Kirby Dick’s exploration of rape in the military in The Invisible War; Eugene Jarecki’s assessment of the War on Drugs in The House I Live In; and Macky Alston’s look at an openly gay bishop in Love Free or Die: How the Bishop of New Hampshire is Changing the World.

The twelve films in the world doc section include Yung Chang’s China Heavyweight, about poor rural Chinese teenagers recruited to become Western-style boxing champions; Mads Brügger’s The Ambassador, about a white diplomat operating in Central Africa; and Omar Shargawi and Karim El Hakim’s ½ Revolution, about the back-alley dramas behind the recent Egyptian revolution.

Several years ago when Cooper took over the festival, he discarded the traditional opening-night film and replaced it with a complete mini-program that runs Thursday night, Jan. 19, and includes one film from each of the main competition categories as well as a shorts program. This year, those feature films are the U.S. narrative entry Hello I Must Be Going from director Todd Louiso and screenwriter Sarah Koskoff; the U.S. documentary entry The Queen of Versailles from director Lauren Greenfield; the world narrative entry Wish You Were Here from director Kieran Darcy-Smith, who wrote the screenplay with Felicity Price; and the world documentary entry Searching for Sugar Man from director Malik Bendjelloul.

Throughout the fest, Sundance audiences may note an unusual prevalence of films with female protagonists (especially in comedies), from both male and female directors, perhaps stoked by the recent Sundance successes of movies such as Winter’s Bone (Jennifer Lawrence, 2010) and Martha Marcy May Marlene (Elizabeth Olsen, 2011). In many cases, these new films provide potential breakout lead platforms for actors typically found in secondary parts — Lizzy Caplan in Save the Date, Olivia Thirlby in Nobody Walks and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed. “The emerging talent, the actors and actresses that we’ve brought to light in the last couple of years, that’s always exciting for us,” says Cooper.

Also (re-)emerging this year is the Racquet Club Theatre, which traditionally had shown many of the U.S. narrative competition films but was shut down for renovation last year. In January, the venue will be back in action as the MARC (Municipal Athletic Recreation Center), a reconfiguration that involved turning the theater sideways, giving it a better design, a bigger screen and more comfortable, though fewer, seats. Much of the Documentary Premieres program (which will be announced Dec. 5) will take up residence there. The re-instated venue provides some much needed breathing room for scheduling, especially since there will inevitably be more films added, shifted and dropped in the coming weeks — last year, Gus Van Sant’s Restless was pulled from the line-up not long after it was announced.

The festival’s runs January 19-29 with screenings and events in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah. At the 2011 festival, Like Crazy from co-writer-director Drake Doremus won the grand jury prize for U.S. dramatic film, while the grand jury prize for U.S. documentary went to Peter D. Richardson’s How to Die in Oregon. Director Anne Sewitsky and screenwriter Ragnhild Tronvoll’s Happy, Happy from Norway won the world cinema dramatic grand jury prize, while Danfung Dennis’ Hell and Back Again won the grand jury prize for world cinema documentary.

The complete line-up follows after the break