The Sundance Film Festival that kicks off Thursday afternoon in Park City, Utah, will offer its share of celebrity sightings, glitz and mayhem (though somewhat less than it once did, as this astute essay from Salon's Andrew O'Hehir points out). But for film fans, the festival remains, as much as ever, a place where the biggest story lines and actors emerge -- basically, if it happens at the festival, it will happen in the wider world of cinema eight or 10 months from now. So let us be your guide for these coming Sundance days. We'll start you off with six mini-trends we're keeping an eye on.
Red light, green light. Rodrigo Cortes had one of the most ballyhooed genre films at Sundance in recent years when "Buried," the Ryan Reynolds-starrer about a man trapped in a coffin, premiered there two years ago. Cortes is back with another conceptual horror movie, a supernatural thriller called "Red Lights." But will audiences get a chance to see it? Last time, Lionsgate paid a cool $3 million for "Buried" only to see it flop. We'll see if another buyer bites this time around. (It does star Robert DeNiro as a blind psychic, so ... you know.) Cortes isn't the only one with a genre title: The found-footage movie "V/H/S," from a host of young horror comers, and an intriguing film called "John Dies at the End" will try to spook the spirited post-midnight crowd.
Love is in the air (sort of). Sundance is known for its dark dramas, its heavy relationships, its ... light comedies? A panoply of sweet films, many of them centering on young love, or at least the struggle to maintain it, are landing at this year's festival. A small sampling includes the Rashida Jones-Andy Samberg romance-cum-breakup story "Celeste & Jesse Forever" (keep a count of how often it's compared to "(500) Days of Summer"), the high school tale "The First Time" and the wedding comedies "Bachelorette" and "Save the Date." Expect one or more to break out and form a critical part of the inevitable "Not Your Father's Sundance" story.
Everyday America. If the features are light, the documentaries are bleak, bleak and bleak. Rape in the military, hunger, AIDS, the war on drugs, the housing bust. Also, Detroit. The last few years the breakout docs have ranged from the wonky ("Waiting for Superman") to the experimental ("Exit Through the Gift Shop") to the poignant ("Being Elmo," "Buck"). But things will get downright gritty this year. For starters, Kirby Dick's story, "The Invisible War," examines the aforementioned military subject in a movie that's already earning raves. (Check back in this space shortly for Kenneth Turan's take on it; you can also read his shortlist of recommended films here.)
Drama queens. Of course, it wouldn't be Sundance without a strong lineup of dramas, the genre that keeps on giving. Back in 2010, the lineup was particularly strong, with Winter's Bone" and "Blue Valentine" among the movies that premiered there. This year, keep an eye out for a story about a disabled man who hires a sex surrogate (Ben Lewin's "The Surrogate"); a drama about a man who takes up with a mysterious French prostitute ("Simon Killer"); a "Margin Call"-evoking financial drama (the Richard Gere-starring "Arbitrage"); the Melanie Lynskey-starring illicit romance ("Hello, I Must Be Going") and a film in which Paul Dano is a young rebel grappling with fatherhood ("For Ellen"). Good times.
Sales game. The average filmgoer doesn't pay much attention to how many available titles are bought for distribution at a given festival. But it's relevant just the same: The number directly affects how quickly films get out to your local multiplex. Last year, more than two dozen movies sold, but most of them didn't fare very well. That could put a damper on how many movies are bought this year -- though don't tell the sellers, who remain optimistic.
Two guys named Tim and Eric. They already have a huge following from their Adult Swim and various live and Web-related efforts. Can Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim make a go of it in the feature world too? They'll try with "Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie," a fictional tale they wrote, directed and star in about their attempt to construct a movie, then a shopping mall. (Will Ferrell, who also produced 'Bachelorette," has a supporting part.) As if that isn't wacky enough, the comedic pair star in a movie called "The Comedy" that isn't a comedy -- it's a drama.
Sellers anticipate a bounty of deals
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-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim in "Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie." Credit: Magnolia Pictures