At Sundance Film Festival, Darkness and Little Light |

At Sundance Film Festival, Darkness and Little Light

john horn

By John Horn

Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD — Sundance Film Festival programmers have finished sorting through all 3,624 feature films submitted for January’s festival, and while the resulting lineup won’t be as depressing as recent years, it won’t be all mirth and merriment.

In announcing the selection of documentary and dramatic competition titles, the selection committee for the nation’s top showcase of independent film favored movies focusing on an array of serious issues, including rape, economic crisis, immigration, government secrecy, sexual addiction, suicide, murder and drugs.

Not all of those films are as grave as their subject matter: One of the festival’s most anticipated works ” Amy Adams in “Sunshine Cleaning” ” unfolds in the world of crime-scene biohazards, yet it’s a black comedy.

“There’s a lot more comedy, and it’s more human,” says John Cooper, Sundance’s director of programming. “There’s less ideological filmmaking. I think filmmakers realize audiences are weary. So the only thing you can do is go more personal.”

The Park City, Utah, festival has become a premiere shopping stop for distributors of specialized cinema, and in past years has yielded the art house hits “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Waitress,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Garden State” — and that’s just what Fox Searchlight has snapped up.

Acquisitions executives already are circling several Sundance titles as gotta-see screenings: “Sunshine Cleaning,” Sam Rockwell in “Choke,” Jason Ritter in “Good Dick,” the adaptation of Michael Chabon’s “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” Elle Fanning in “Phoebe in Wonderland” and Ben Kingsley as a stoner shrink in “The Wackness.”

“It was hard this year ” there were so many titles, and they were better” than in the past, Cooper says.

A number of Sundance alumni are returning to the 2008 festival.

In the documentary field, Edet Belzberg (2001’s “Children Underground”) is back with “An American Soldier”; Nanette Burstein (2002’s “The Kid Stays in the Picture”) has “American Teen”; Alex Gibney (2005’s “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”) returns with “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson”; Patrick Creadon (2006’s “Wordplay”) has “I.O.U.S.A.” and Robb Moss (2003’s “The Same River Twice” ) is back with “Secrecy.”

In the narrative competition, Neil Abramson (1997’s “Without Air”) has “American Son” starring Nick Cannon, and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (2006’s “Half Nelson”) return with the baseball drama “Sugar.”

For the 2008 festival, a total of 121 feature films were chosen, representing 24 countries and 55 first-time filmmakers.

“People wonder if we’re still a festival of discovery,” Cooper says. “With 55 first-timers, I think the answer has to be yes.”

Sixteen American documentary competition films were picked out of 953 submissions, while an equal number of U.S. dramatic competition films were culled from 1,068 submissions.

The other submitted features were international documentaries (620 pared down to 16) and international narratives (983 trimmed to 16).

Founded by actor and director Robert Redford, the 24th festival runs Jan. 17 to Jan. 27.