'Listen Up Philip'
'Listen Up Philip'

On the eve of the Sundance Film Festival's 30th anniversary, director John Cooper and chief programmer Trevor Groth got on the phone to discuss their 2014 lineup for the U.S. and World Cinema Dramatic and Documentary Competitions, as well as the out-of-competition NEXT section of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, which tends to include more avant-garde and experimental low-budget fare. The festival runs from January 16-26 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah.

"Happy Christmas"
"Happy Christmas"

For the 2014 edition, the programmers picked 117 feature-length films representing 37 countries and 534 first-time filmmakers, including 34 in competition. These films were selected from 12,218 submissions (72 more than 2013), including 4,057 feature-length films and 8,161 short films. Of the feature film submissions, 2,014 were from the U.S. and 2,043 were international. An astonishing 96 feature films at the Festival will be world premieres, which is why critics and reporters run around Park City with their heads cut off. 

And there are 54 first-time feature filmmakers, some of whom started with shorts familiar to the programmers. Women are well-represented throughout the program, at about the same level as last year. And there are 23 projects that were supported by one of the Sundance labs. Cooper cited  visually beautiful Somali pirate movie "Fishing without Nets" as an example of a film that went from short to feature within the Sundance farm system, as well as NEXT film "Imperial Dreams."   

The fest will also present feature-length films in the Spotlight, Park City at Midnight, New Frontier, Premieres and Documentary Premieres sections, but those announcements, as well as selections for the Short Film section and new Sundance Kids section of films for younger audiences, are forthcoming.

Full U.S., World and NEXT section lineups are after the jump.

What are the trends this year? "One of the major trends is the use of genre in independent films across all programs," says Cooper. "Classic story lines are being enhanced by genre to make stories" -- like Jeff Baena's dramatic competition zombie horror film "Life After Beth" and Carter Smith's ghost story "Jamie Marx is Dead" -- "more fresh and interesting." 

Cooper adds that this year "comedies reign supreme, which is unusual coming from the indie film community, which has been changing a lot over the years." (The western genre is also making a comeback in some of the sections.) Of course the Midnight section is packed with genre films, per usual. NEXT discovery title, Desiree Akhaven's "Appropriate Behavior," "is so crisp and funny," says Groth, "the writer-director-actress is a real force, like Lake Bell last year, this actress has that breakout potential."

In the NEXT program, says Groth, "haunting" dramatic competition film "A Girl Walks Home at Night"--one of the surprise discoveries in the selection that Groth had not been tracking-- provides "an interesting take on a vampire story," and Jim Mickle returns to Sundance with tough thriller "Cold in July." "Throughout the sections, indie filmmakers are taking genre elements and sprinkling them throughout their stories in new and personal ways."

"Jamie Marks Is Dead"
"Jamie Marks Is Dead"

Why now? Cooper suggests that technology and its advancements give filmmakers "more tools in their tool kit to play around with visual and special effects. Technology is an influencer, putting the tools in so many peoples' hands. The quality and the originality in the films we're seeing is mixed in with a high level aesthetic." 

Another factor, say Cooper and Groth, is that just as actors have figured out that getting away from the studios and making indie films is a must, so have below-the-line craftspeople, from cinematographers and editors to composers, encouraged by a lower barrier to entry. They are taking the directing reins, with sophisticated art direction and attention to detail, even period pieces. "Coming in the bar is set every year," says Cooper. "As American indie filmmakers are informed by the films that came before them, the bar gets placed every year for excellence. They're being able to spread their wings a bit." 

Among the more established filmmakers included in the dramatic competition are first-timer and SXSW favorite Joe Swanberg ("Happy Christmas"), which Groth describes as "exceptionally mature for him," and the Zellner brothers, returning with "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter."  Another higher-profile title is Jeff Preiss's "Low Down," starring a strong ensemble led by John Hawkes, Elle Fanning, Glenn Close and Peter Dinklage. 

And "Mad Men" star John Slattery makes his feature directing debut in competition with darkly comedic "God's Pocket," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, "Mad Men" co-star Christina Hendricks and John Turturro.   

Among the competition docs, the programmers noticed that the films are more timely, with topical urgency, as news events unfold at a rapid rate, citing the work of human rights investigators in "The E-Team" and "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz," about a hacker who committed suicide while he was being protected by the FBI. 

"Mr. leos caraX" explores the mystique of the French director ("Holy Motors")  "It doesn't dispel the mystique," says Groth, "it enhances it, and plays him up as a character of cinema. It's a great fun watch." The programmers also singled out "Dinosaur 13" as an eye-opener about the science behind scavenging and dating old skeletons. "It's an epic tale of discovering all the fallout and problems, it's a fascinating story," says Cooper. "It watches like a thriller," adds Groth, "it incorporates elements that you never expected when you started." 

With the World Cinema program, says Cooper, "the outreach Sundance has done over last couple years has paid off as we are discovering trends in international filmmaking that parallel the U.S. indie movement, styles and personal stories, social mores, telling stories of their countries especially in places like India, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Ethiopa."

Groth declares that 2014 marks the year that the festival's presentations will be almost fully digital--they won't be 100%, more like 80-90% digital-- "and some haven't decided yet."