If the Sundance Film Festival has always been the place to discover tomorrow’s biggest stars in front of and behind the camera during the past 30 years, it seems to have become even more fruitful in recent years. From young filmmakers like Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), and Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) to ready-to-launch superstars like Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Dane DeHaan (Kill Your Darlings), Hollywood has quickly found its future in the snowy peaks of Park City. “One of the biggest changes in the last 30 years is how independent film has become such a vital part of the cultural landscape now,” says Sundance director John Cooper. “It’s no longer an outside-Hollywood thing. It’s its own art form, and we’re feeling the power of that and the surge of that as we move forward.”
Put another way, though, independent film is no longer just for aspiring filmmakers and undiscovered actors. Yes, it’s still the place where unknowns arrive with hopes of becoming the next Felicity Jones or Lee Daniels. But it also represents opportunities for established superstars to play, to flex dormant muscles, and to reinvent themselves. Among today’s announcement of Sundance’s 2014 Dramatic and Documentary competitions, as well as its NEXT section – which highlights digital filmmaking with an eye on tomorrow’s storytelling techniques – were films starring Kristen Stewart, who plays a conflicted Guantanamo Bay prison guard in Camp X-Ray; Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway, who plays the sister of a comatose musician in Song One; and Saturday Night Live alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader reuniting to play distant twins in The Skeleton Twins – a drama!
Sundance wouldn’t be Sundance, though, if it were just its rich and famous alums coming back to play. “I was particularly proud watching Catching Fire and sort of remembering Winter’s Bone and remembering Jennifer Lawrence at the festival as a young actress, seeing what she was going to become,” says Cooper. “There’s some great discoveries that I think are going to come out of this festival, too.”
In fact, Cooper and Sundance’s director of programming Trevor Groth think this year’s crop of films – culled from more than 12,000 submissions and including 96 world premieres – is the deepest and most polished slate in history.
One simple reason: technology. “This toolbox of innovation is now in the hands of all filmmakers, so it’s very democratic,” says Cooper. “They’re able to do some major things with very little money, and that is showing up in the quality of the work.”
As a direct result, this year’s Sundance will feature a surprising amount of genre films. “We always have had a genre element in the festival, in our Midnight category especially, and an occasional film like Reservoir Dogs in the competition,” says Groth. “But this year, we felt it even more throughout, and I do think it touches on them having the resources to expand the kind of films they can make and then also having the originality to tell them in fresh ways.”
Exhibit A: Life After Beth, a zombie love story with DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza. Or the dark Texas thriller Cold in July, which stars Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard. Or God Help the Girl, a contemporary musical from Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian.
One other trend: It’s the year of the funny ladies. “Though not always in exactly the role you expect them in,” teases Cooper. In addition to Wiig and Plaza, there’s Jenny Slate in Obvious Child, about one woman’s worst Valentine’s Day ever. And in Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas, Anna Kendrick plays a recently-single woman who moves in with her brother and his wife (Melanie Lynskey). Lena Dunham plays the wife’s best friend. “It’s sort of like Swanberg’s Hannah and Her Sisters,” says Cooper. “With more mature subject matter and women’s roles kind of holding the thing together. It’s really three different types of women together, and they form an unlikely trio of friendship.”
Adding to the Sundance’s team sense of excitement is the trio of films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition that are extensions of short films that originated at the festival. Hellion, which stars Aaron Paul, appeared in an abbreviated fashion in 2012. The hook for Fishing With Nets, which tells the story of Somali pirates from their desperate perspective, was also cast in a short from two Sundances ago; and last year’s Jury Prize winning short Whiplash returns as a festival-opening feature starring Miles Teller.
Similarly, the Zellner brothers, David and Nathan, return to Sundance with Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, starring Pacific Rim’s Rinko Kikuchi as a Japanese woman who comes to America to find the hidden treasure that Steve Buscemi’s character buried on the side of the road in Fargo. Yes, you read that right. (It’s based on a true story.) “We’ve shown about six of the Zellner’s shorts and two films in other categories,” says Groth. “They’ve been doing what they do for so long, staying true to their visions, no compromising, and here they are [finally] in our competition. That one I’m really excited about.”
And if you’re not excited about that movie, than you don’t understand Sundance.
The 2014 Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 16-26.
Click below for the Drama, Documentary, and NEXT categories, courtesy of the Sundance press release. More lineups, including the Park City at Midnight slate and festival Premieres, will be announced in the next few days.