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Sundance announces its 2016 lineup, offering an array of timely films

Over its 31 editions, the Sundance Film Festival has showcased timeless tales of people enduring heartbreak, coming of age, attempting violence and, occasionally, encouraging a vote for Pedro.

But when the 32nd gathering begins in Utah next month, it’s plausible the standout films will come from different ranks: the timely and the topical.

Sundance, where cinema insiders gather to unveil and argue about the latest film discoveries, announced its lineup Wednesday, disclosing 65 world premieres in narrative and documentary categories. The headlines are not far from filmmakers’ minds: The competition slate includes movies about abortion rights, a prominent ISIS victim, fraternity hazing, embattled LGBT teens, the current tech investment spree and the Sandy Hook tragedy.

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“There are a lot of movies that bubble up out of the zeitgeist and make it to the screen faster than they used to,” John Cooper, the director of the festival, said in an interview. “Back in the day it could take years. Now they seem to be right on it.”

Documentary is the most obvious venue for newsy explorations. This year the doc sections will include Kim A. Snyder's "Newtown," about the Connecticut town in the wake of a mass shooting; Brian Oakes' "Jim," an examination of the life of Jim Foley, the journalist famously beheaded by ISIS in 2014; and "Kiki," Sara Jordenö’s look at a safe space created by gay and transgender young people of color.

And Dawn Porter's "Trapped" has an almost eerie timing — it examines the existential fight faced by abortion clinics in America.

But the 11-day festival, which starts Jan. 21, also features a number of narrative films that echo modern concerns.

Meera Menon's "Equity" offers two timely subjects for the price of one: Anna Gunn stars as a female investment banker bumping into a glass ceiling who then turns to a controversial tech IPO; by taking place after the 2008 financial crisis, the film is a spiritual follow-up of sorts to the upcoming Wall Street drama “The Big Short.”

And in “Goat,” the director Andrew Neel, working off a script by David Gordon Green, examines fraternity hazing, with Nick Jonas in a lead role.

There are, to be sure, plenty of movies that exist well outside the headlines. In Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan’s “Swiss Army Man,” a survival story with a “Weekend at Bernie’s” twist, Paul Dano plays a man stranded in the wilderness who discovers a body and then must bring him home. In what might be an added benefit for some, the dead body is played by Daniel Radcliffe.

And other films come in a time-tested Sundance vein: In Chris Kelly’s “Other People,” a gay comedy writer must cope with familial tensions when he moves home to Sacramento, while marital strife is on the mind of “The Intervention,” the directorial debut of the actress Clea DuVall.

But many indeed run parallel to the headlines, scuttling hope for independent film fans of a movie-theater escape from CNN.

“We are so assaulted so quickly by what's happening that as filmmakers we can’t help but react to it,” said Neel, whose “Goat” looks to offer an expose on hazing through a fictional tale of two biological brothers caught up in Greek culture.

But if the trend springs from a quickening pace — both of modern life and the filmmaking that can respond to it — directors see their role as doing more than just being swept up in the frenzy. Though reacting to the news, they aim to offer a more meditative and measured response to it.

 “Every day we go by so many billboards, have so much information pumped at us. I literally click on the BBC homepage 30 times a day,” Neel said. “What I think we’re trying to do is reflect on that with a story that goes beyond the immediate reaction.”

That applies to the doc competition as well, which this year includes Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's "Weiner," offering what may or may not be a revisionist look at the scandal surrounding politician Anthony Weiner.

In the last few years, other timely documentaries moved the story beyond the quick-hit news cycle; "Blackfish," which premiered at Sundance in 2013, augured a cultural change in how consumers view Sea World and was partly responsible for a recent change in the park's policy.

Even movies set in period — programmers note a number of them this year — can bounce off the headlines in interesting ways. In Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” the actor dramatized the story of Nat Turner, who led a black slave rebellion in 1831, also starring as the lead character.

And from a more recent period (and in a lighter vein), a new romance between a young law associate and his mentor in Chicago circa 1989 is chronicled in Richard Tanne’s “Southside With You.” The film follows Barack Obama and the future first lady on their whirlwind first date. The burgeoning couple is played by the British actor Parker Sawyers and “The Game” and “Gossip Girl” star  TV star Tika Sumpter.

In an unusual coincidence, there are two films drawn from the same real-life event. In Antonio Campos’ narrative tale “Christine,” Rebecca Hall plays a 1970s Florida anchorwoman who places an undue amount of pressure on herself, with her drama playing out in front of the camera. In Robert Greene’s documentary “Kate Plays Christine,” the indie-film actress Kate Lyn Sheil is seen preparing to play the role of the same anchorwoman — although, in a further twist, it is a reconstruction and not for an actual movie.

Making matters stranger still: the two "Christine" films are not related and were made separately from each other. And compounding the meta feel: the real-life story helped inspire the movie "Network."

Programmers said they cannot recall a time when a doc and a narrative movie based on the same event played at the festival.

“The same year we showed ‘Hoop Dreams’ we did show ‘Hardwood Dreams,’ which was like an L.A. version of the story,” said director of programming Trevor Groth. “But as far as I know this has never happened before.”

And though the events told in the "Christine" films happened four decades ago, their death-of-privacy issues are highly current, programmers said. "I think these films talk about living our lives with a camera and social media, just the worst-case scenario of it,” Cooper said.

The desire to weigh in on topical matters may be part of the reason so many new voices  have emerged. The festival said the competition is made up of 28 first-time feature flmmakers — nearly half the slate. Overall, Sundance received 4,081 submissions for all categories, with just 98 accepted for world-premiere slots.

As they prepare to roll out to fans, media and, in many cases, buyers,  the films must contend with a perception of a difficult market. It has been a year in which some of the most high-profile Sundance titles have failed to perform commercially.

Three of the biggest acquisitions, and most buzzed-about films in 2015 were  “The Diary of a Teenage Girl," “Dope“ and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl;” the latter film even won the rare twofer of audience and jury prize in the U.S. competition. But all three movies came and went from theaters quickly — a reversal of the previous year, when Sundance debuts “Boyhood” and “Whiplash” became breakouts.

Those duds can cast a pall over a  festival. In fact, the 2015 Sundance entry with the most influence among current awards contenders, “Brooklyn,” made comparatively little splash at the festival and, with its genteel rhythms and period setting, was perceived by many as an atypical Park City film.

Organizers, however, say they seek to get away from such definitions.

“We always try to dispel the idea there’s such a thing as a typical Sundance movie,” Groth said. “New twists on telling the story, different approaches to discovering a world — that's what we’re looking for.”

In that vein, the festival on Thursday announced "Holy Hell" — a documentary about a secretive 1980s West Hollywood community whose director has not been revealed — as well as Next, the section it created several years ago to focus on emerging filmmakers and, implicitly, compete with SXSW.

Among the movies on the Next slate this year are Matt Johnson’s “Operation Avalanche,” a period conspiracy tale involving NASA and the CIA; J.D. Dillard's “Sleight,” about a young street magician who gets caught up on the wrong side of the law; and the Argentinian political thriller "Jacqueline" from writer-director Bernardo Britto.

Even the Next films come with a gloss of the topical: modern misogyny is explored in Tahir Jetter’s "How to Tell You're a Douchebag” while Kerem Sanga’s “First Girl I Loved” offers a Los Angeles-set tale of a high-school lesbian romance. 

In a film sure not to fit into any trend, director Penny Lane (of course) has made “Nuts!” — a movie about John Romulus Brinkley, who in the 1920s perfected (he said) a goat-testicle impotence cure.

More Sundance announcements are due in the coming days, including from the experimental section New Frontiers on Thursday and, on Sunday, the high-profile Spotlight and Premieres sections. Those typically includes veteran filmmakers and offer a fresh burst of potential discoveries, though it is unlikely in the intervening time that Daniel Radcliffe, or any goat anatomy, will spring back to life.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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