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Films starring Aubrey Plaza, Jenny Slate selected for Sundance competition

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Variety December 4, 2013
Sundance Unveils 2014 Competition, Next Lineups
by Justin Chang

Genre-busting entries crowd the Park City festival's 30th-anniversary slate.

In some respects, the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival offers a snapshot of the ways in which the independent film scene has dramatically shifted over the past three decades, said fest director John Cooper, from an ever-widening talent pool to an increasingly sophisticated range of technologies available to filmmakers and distributors. In particular, the slate of 117 features (96 of them world premieres) set to unspool Jan. 16-26 in Park City, Utah, culled from a healthy 12,218 submissions, showcase the form at a new level of maturity — more diverse and welcoming to new filmmakers than ever, but also more exacting in terms of quality.

“Independent film in general has been absorbed and embraced as a vital part of the cultural landscape,” Cooper said. “It’s no longer an outsider sport. It really is part of an American art form.”

“I think the completeness of vision is different now from when I first started 20 years ago,” said director of programming Trevor Groth. “There were original ideas then, and there are original ideas now. … But it’s taken time for filmmakers to develop their skills and their full stories.”

Unveiling the 56 films in the festival’s dramatic and documentary competition slates, as well as the 11 titles in the low-budget Next lineup, Cooper and Groth noted the unusual number of films that play with and sometimes transcend the trappings of genre. Some of the American dramatic entries, like Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July” and Norwegian-born helmer Mona Fastvold’s “The Sleepwalker,” make use of intense thriller elements. Carter Smith’s “Jamie Marks Is Dead,” about a ghost with unfinished business, incorporates conventions that viewers will recognize from zombie movies. The World Cinema dramatic competition even includes a full-blown musical, “God Help the Girl,” directed by Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch.

Comedies, too, feature prominently in the lineup, particularly those dealing with taboo subjects, from Madeleine Olnek’s “The Foxy Merkins” and Desiree Akhavan’s “Appropriate Behavior,” both in Next, to German helmer David Wnendt’s sexually explicit “Wetlands,” receiving its North American premiere in the World Cinema dramatic competition. In particular there are several prominent comediennes in starring roles, including Kristen Wiig (appearing with fellow “SNL” alum Bill Hader in “The Skeleton Twins”), Lena Dunham (“Happy Christmas”), Jenny Slate (“Obvious Child”), Aubrey Plaza (“Life After Beth”) and Amy Sedaris (“Ping Pong Summer”).

One of the fest’s more unusual trends is the number of veteran actors in substantial roles, Cooper said, singling out Sam Shepard and Glenn Close for their performances in “Cold in July” and “Low Down,” respectively, as well as Susan Sarandon in “Ping Pong Summer.”

As usual, press and industry attention will focus heavily on the U.S. dramatic competition, which last year yielded such well-received titles as “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “Concussion,” “Fruitvale Station,” “Kill Your Darlings,” “The Spectacular Now” and “Upstream Color,” many of which are now drawing awards buzz via the Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Awards. Two of the higher-profile entries in this year’s lineup are “God’s Pocket,” the feature directing debut of “Mad Men” thesp-helmer John Slattery, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman; and “Happy Christmas,” which stars Anna Kendrick and was directed by the ever-prolific Joe Swanberg (who made his Sundance debut with the 2011 Spotlight entry “Uncle Kent”).

On the nonfiction side, Cooper noted a curious strain of optimism in the characteristically issue-heavy documentary field. American doc entries like “E-Team,” Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman’s film about human-rights workers, and “Fed Up,” a look at child obesity and food-industry malpractice, are notable for their solution-oriented approaches.

The increasingly popular Next sidebar, devoted to low-budget, cutting-edge cinema, has steadily expanded since its first appearance at Sundance 2010. Among the 11 films set to screen (up from last year’s 10) are “Land Ho!,” an Iceland-set road movie directed by Aaron Katz (“Cold Weather”) and Martha Stephens; “Listen Up Philip,” the latest from “The Color Wheel” helmer Alex Ross Perry; and “War Story,” a drama starring Catherine Keener and Ben Kingsley from director Mark Jackson (whose debut, “Without,” played at Slamdance in 2011).

In keeping with recent tradition, the festival will forego a single opening-night film and kick off with screenings of four competition titles: Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” (U.S. dramatic), Todd Miller’s “Dinosaur 13″ (U.S. documentary), Hong Khaou’s “Lilting” (World Cinema dramatic) and Nadav Schirman’s “The Green Prince” (World Cinema documentary). A shorts program will also screen on day one.

The Sundance Film Festival will announce its Spotlight, Park City at Midnight and New Frontier titles Thursday, along with a brand-new Sundance Kids slate devoted to children’s programming. The Premieres and Documentary Premieres lineups will be unveiled Monday.

The full lineup:

U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

The 16 films in this section are world premieres and, unless otherwise noted, are from the U.S.

“Camp X-Ray”

“Cold in July”

“Dear White People”

“Fishing Without Nets”

“God’s Pocket”

“Happy Christmas”

“Hellion”

“Infinitely Polar Bear”

“Jamie Marks Is Dead”

“Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”

“Life After Beth” — Directed and written by Jeff Baena. A man is devastated by his girlfriend’s unexpected death, but receives a second chance at love when she mysteriously returns. Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Dave DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser.

“Low Down”

“The Skeleton Twins”

“The Sleepwalker”

“Song One”

“Whiplash”

NEXT

The 11 films in this section are world premieres.

“Appropriate Behavior”

“Drunktown’s Finest”

“The Foxy Merkins”

“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”

“Imperial Dreams”

“Land Ho!”

“Listen Up Philip”

“Memphis”

“Obvious Child” — Directed and written by Gillian Robespierre. A Brooklyn comedian is dumped and fired, then learns she’s pregnant — all in time for Valentine’s Day. Cast: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind.

“Ping Pong Summer”

“War Story”

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