The Sundance Film Festival can seem like a most indecipherable hybrid: It’s a movie-industry gathering, a wannabe Mardi Gras, a celebrity pit stop.
It's also, of course, a place where some of the most memorable films of our time began their auspicious lives. Without Sundance, we’d never know about the youngsters who disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville Md., "Vote for Pedro" would be little more than a junior-high electoral slogan. And Al Gore would just be just another ex-vice president.
SUNDANCE: Full coverage
This year's festival, which kicks off Thursday in Park City, Utah, promises its own intrigue. There are no shortage of worthy films -- from dense docs to poignant dramedies to post-midnight pulp. Here are a few storylines to keep an eye on:
Better than the 1%. The Occupy movement is now more than a year old, and the films that tap into its vibe are thick on the ground. "The East," from the indie darlings Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling, is a much-anticipated scripted story about anti-corporate activists (some would call them terrorists) on a dangerous mission. "99%--The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film" has emerging filmmakers from around the country telling the story of the movement from the inside. And "Inequality for All" is a documentary about wealth gaps as explained by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich—and that, speaking of Al Gore, will try to do for the economy what "An Inconvenient Truth" did for the environment.
Harold and Maude Redux. Relationships between women and much younger men have occasionally been the stuff of dramatic films over the years. For some reason it's on the mind of filmmakers here--in Liz Garcia's "The Lifeguard," in Hanna Fidell's "A Teacher," in Anne Fontaine's "Two Mothers." Taboos go out the window in these button-pushers. We’ll see if filmmakers are pushing the right buttons.
Actor action: Sundance is a place where actors try to redefine themselves. Will we take Joseph Gordon-Levitt seriously as a director (porn dramedy "Don Jon's Addiction")? What about Lake Bell (the voice-actor tale "In a World")? How about Ashton Kutcher as one of the great thinkers of our generation ("jOBS")? Sundance is a place to experiment, to wander free, to shatter conventions--until the critics savage you, anyway.
SUNDANCE: A video guide
The “Beasts” effect: Well-made drama that puts a premium on authenticity has long had a place at Sundance, from “Spanking The Monkey” nearly 20 years ago to last year's coming-of-age darling "Beasts of the Southern Wild." This year a number of films try to join their ranks. Jordan Vogt-Roberts' "Toy's House" follows three teenage boys in the wilderness, David Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" chronicles a prison escapee on a mission and Logan and Noah Miller's "Sweetwater" examines violent machinations among the dispossessed in 19th century New Mexico.
Headline-ripping. What would Sundance be without filmmakers trying to key into what’s happening in the news? "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer" examines everyone's favorite Russian provocateurs, "Linsanity" looks at everyone's favorite Rudy-esque athlete, and "We Steal Secrets" explores not everyone's favorite WikiLeaks founder.
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