When choosing Thursday's opening night features in Park City, Utah —World Cinema's "Belgica" (Felix van Groeningen), comedy writer-director Chris Kelly’s semi-autobiographical "Other People" and Kevin Macdonald's documentary "Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang" —Sundance director John Cooper and chief programmer Trevor Groth were looking for diverse movies that would "inspire inspire and excite audiences, that were different," Cooper told Indiewire.
The programmers work long and hard figuring out which sections to place the films each year. And always, they reflect a range of changes and shifts going on in the independent marketplace. They were impressed this year with the innovative storytelling, such as competition titles "Swiss Army Man," starring unlikely duo Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe ("It's a wild film, creating both confusion and excitement," said Cooper), Sian Heder's "Tallulah," starring Ellen Page, Elizabeth Wood's "White Girl," Andrew Neel's doc/fiction hybrid "Goat," and American indie filmmaker Chad Hartigan's "Morris from America," which was filmed in Germany.
Sundance programmers nurture their cinema partnerships with people around the world, drawing a large sampling for the audiences, exhibitors, talents scouts and distributors at Sundance. "Independent film evolution is happening," said Cooper. "We see it it in increased depth of storytelling, a true understanding of craft, and the changing face of the modern documentary, experimenting in the genre in interesting ways."
Groth cited "a nice mix of first time filmmakers and first time festival attendees." Many actor-directors are on display this year, from Nate Parker's passion project, Nat Turner drama "The Birth of a Nation," to Clea Duvall ("The Intervention") as well as films from John Krasinski ("The Hollars") and Diego Luna ("Mr. Pig").
Whit Stillman ("Metropolitan") is back with Jane Austen-style period piece "Love and Friendship," one of several period pictures this year, including "Birth of a Nation," Maggie Greenwald's "Sophie and the Rising Sun," "Amy" director Asif Kapadia’s fiction feature "Ali & Nino," and "Indignation," the directorial debut of screenwriter and former Focus Features CEO James Schamus, who adapted the Philip Roth novel set in the 50s at Winesburg College.
The programmers cited a rise in the number of young actors with breakout potential, in adventure "Waikiki Hunt," dramas "White Girl" and "Morris from America," and NEXT teenage lesbian love story "First Girl I Loved." "The young actors stand out," said Cooper. "They deliver fully nuanced performances in a way you don’t often see in kids that age."
This year's subject matter includes several "unsung heroes," said Cooper, "people finding their place in the world, with endings that are good news and not." ("Christine" is about an '80s journalist who shot herself on television.) "Fluid sexuality is a theme, which is refreshing, it's a new place filmmakers can experiment, and changes in romance and romantic comedy"—such as "Southside with You," the story of the first date of Barack and Michele Obama. "It's a love story, told in this different way."
On the World Cinema front, Groth sees a trend away from heavy dramas and toward comedies (including sex comedies from India and Lebanon) and cult horror films ("The Lure" is a "Polish vampire mermaid love story").
The Sundance programmers saw many surprises, said Cooper, who anticipates a robust acquisitions market this year with many unclaimed world premieres seeking homes. "It all comes back to the use of craft to bring the story out, that's what talks for us," he said. Just because it boasts a raft of stars doesn't mean a new indie package will land a Sundance berth.
World premieres include new films by Werner Herzog, John Carney, Kenneth Lonergan, Kelly Reichardt, Ira Sachs and many more leading lights of indie cinema, many of which will be in play with buyers looking to fill their 2016 slates. In addition to these arthouse stalwarts (see also: Liz Garbus, Joshua Marston, Spike Lee, D.A. Pennebaker), the festival is putting on more episodic web TV and cable series, recognizing that many "of our known filmmakers in our community are working in television," said Cooper. Making its debut here is Steven Soderbergh's collaboration with Amy Seimetz and Lodge Kerrigan, "The Girlfriend Exoerience." bringing further attention to the now-common crossover from film to TV.
Sundance fave Todd Solondz returns with "Weiner Dog," which marks "an interesting take on the world," said Cooper, "so modern and fresh, always. This film has a sweeter approach to the world, but it's still him."
Among the Spotlight selections is Oscar contender "Embrace of the Serpent" as well as 2016 release "The Lobster," starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, and two Sony Pictures Classics fall festival debuts, Rebecca Miller's delightful "Maggie's Plan," starring Greta Gerwig, Julianne Moore and Ethan Hawke in an unusual love triangle, and Don Cheadle's directorial debut, jazz icon Miles Davis biopic "Miles Ahead."
On the cutting edge of technology, New Frontier, celebrating its 10th anniversary, is showcasing 30 virtual reality experiences, 11 installations, three feature films and one live performance..
Among the mobile VR experiences are "Double Conscience," a portrait of contemporary Compton, Calif. with a soundtrack by Kendrick Lamar, and "Stonemilker," a virtual reality collaboration between Vrse.works creator Andrew Thomas Huang and Björk. "We're seeing such rapid development in virtual reality (VR) work," said Cooper, "compared to last year, so much more, we watched hours of it."
The VR installation displays many approaches to this new form of storytelling, including "The Blue Encounter," which brings you face to face with a blue whale in the ocean, looking into its eyes. "I like the ones that go to a place, like Masai," said Cooper, "out on the plains as a figure walks toward you, in a space with a family as life is going on, you’re sitting there with people. And some of the animation stuff is so crazy."
The innovative program, which features subjects ranging from the Ebola outbreak and domestic violence to life on Mars—in a companion piece to Ridley Scott's "The Martian"—will also be available, in part, to viewers unable to make the trek to Park City. Audiences will be able to download more than 20 selections to view on mobile VR headsets. This year's festival will also include a slate of New Frontier short films.
Let the madness begin, as we all take our slice from this massive smorgasbord.
—Matt Brennan contributed to this report.