It's a sure thing: The Sundance Film Festival kicks off the new year with a dense program of new work from around the world. Far less certain is what happens to the films afterward. However, in its second year under director John Cooper, Sundance shows the promise of pulling off a difficult feat: Returning the event to its indie vibe while programming films that will appeal to audiences outside Park City.
The festival seems to be getting better at integrating smaller projects into more prominent parts of its program. Last year, the newly launched "Next" sidebar for ultra-low budget projects and newbie directors had critics claiming it marginalized the very work that it needed to place front and center. This year, the Next section remains but other areas of the festival also show a greater acknowledgement of little-known talent.
For example, Sundance has created a new "Documentary Premieres" section that sets aside many of the star directors of the nonfiction realm — from Morgan Spurlock to Steve James — to make room for a less recognizable bunch in the competition categories. And plenty of Sundance documentaries need homes, such as "The Redemption of General Butt-Naked," an emotionally unsettling look at the conversion of a Liberian warlord into a Christian minister, and "Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times," a title that sells itself.
Possible breakouts include "Martha Marcy May Marlene," a curious thriller from first-time director Sean Durkin about a woman haunted by memories of her time spent in an oppressive cult. Building on a short film that played at Cannes last year, Durkin's follow-up is matched in anticipation only by word-of-mouth praise for its lead performance by Elizabeth Olsen (sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley). A documentary by first-timer Jon Foy, "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles," is positioned as this year's more-assuredly true "Catfish." And Evan Glodell is getting early buzz for his visually complex "Bellflower," an apocalyptic love story with a Next budget.
Of course, it wouldn't be Sundance without a few recognizable faces attracting distributor interest, but some of them have assumed different roles this time around. Actors Josh Leonard, Vera Farmiga and Paddy Considine each make their directorial debuts with "The Lie," "Higher Ground" and "Tyrannosaur," respectively. Bigger movies screening out of competition include a pair of Fox Searchlight titles, "Cedar Rapids" and "Win Win," neither of which will probably generate as much attention as Kevin Smith's inevitably controversial "Red State"—although it does not have a distributor, but at the beginning of Sundance, that's practically a badge of honor. (Smith supposedly plans on auctioning off the rights to his movie after its first screening.)
A more common Sundance phenomenon is the presence of stars in projects much tinier than the attention brought on by their names. "Terri," which features John. C. Reilly as a high school vice principal who takes the titular lonely teen under his wing, has the sort of logline that suggests the cringe-worthy clichés of cheesy Sundance dramas. But the details tell a different story. Dubbed a "crowdpleaser" by those who have landed an early peek, "Teri" marks the third feature of director Azazel Jacobs, whose "Momma's Man," a delicate tale of family nostalgia, played well at Sundance two years ago before receiving a minuscule release later in the year. With Reilly on his side, Jacobs could manage to use this Sundance to inch up his profile a few more notches.
Mumblecore icon Joe Swanberg (nobody earned that label better than him) finally breaks free of his South by Southwest roots with his first Sundance entry, "Uncle Kent," his most accessible work to date. Drake Doremus, whose provocatively named comedy "Douchebag" had a muted response at Sundance in 2010, takes a more daring step forward with the relationship drama "Like Crazy." Miranda July emerges from obscurity in the wake of 2005's beloved "You and Me and Everyone We Know" with "The Future."
With the exception of "Uncle Kent," none of these movies have theatrical destinations yet, but the auspices are strong. Sony Pictures Classics, IFC, Magnolia and HBO bought a number of Sundance movies in advance of the festival and are poised to capture a few more. Sony's existing offerings include Susanne Biers' "In a Better World" (the recent Golden Globe winner for best foreign film) and Jeff Nichols' follow-up to the lyrical drama "Shotgun Stories" with "Take Shelter," which contains an intense role for Michael Shannon in his second collaboration with the director.
Magnolia's genre label, Magnet, brings the witty DIY Norwegian monster movie "The Troll Hunter" to Sundance's midnight section, while IFC continues its tradition of premiering several movies on VOD concurrent with their festival premieres, including the Swanberg film. HBO arrives with a diverse grab bag of nonfiction features, including "Bobby Fischer vs. the World," the assisted suicide portrait "How to Die in Oregon" and "Project Nim," an opening night selection from James Marsh, the Oscar-winning director of "Man on Wire."
Sundance's midnight section contains some of its more old-school traits: Scrappy projects destined for cult appeal rather than commercial prosperity. "The Catechism Cataclysm," Todd Rohal's zany tale of a mindless young priest (Steve Little of HBO's "Eastbound and Down") will excite as many audiences as it turns away. Calvin Reeder, whose delightfully odd horror shorts have wowed Sundance audiences for several years, makes his feature-length debut with "The Oregonian," which ought to satisfy the genre fans it aims to please. And "Troll Hunter" will energize genre fans and the unconverted alike with its clever blend of social commentary and low-budget special effects.
Whether or not the current "Next" section finally validates its existence, many Sundance filmmakers will vie for the "Next" title as they scramble to make the most of 10 days in the snow. At first glance, Sundance has enough routine mid-sized commercial prospects and likely sleeper hits to allow for the premature verdict that 2011 was "a good year" — or at least a familiar one. Stay tuned.