Sundance tries a broader outlook

Special to The Times

The Sundance Film Festival is finally growing up. Even as it has enjoyed increased cache and huge success, for years it has been known for self-consciously quirky films that lean heavily on dysfunctional families and relationships. For the 2007 edition, festival programmers say, filmmakers are looking beyond the familiar and the personal to the world at large.

"I think it's something that you went from one era where there was an awful lot of examination of our personal lives and people treating the focus of their world as being what was right in front of them to the realization that the world is a much broader and more troubled place than just your own neighborhood," festival director Geoffrey Gilmore said.

In addition to the previously disclosed "Chicago 10," the festival announced Thursday that opening night Jan. 18 will also include a screening of "Away From Her," the feature directing debut of actress Sarah Polley. Closing the fest Jan. 28 will be Nelson George's "Life Support."

Just because the festival has matured doesn't mean there won't be swarms of celebrities looking for exposure, and agents looking to close the next big deal.

Among world premieres will be "Chapter 27," a look at John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman, starring Jared Leto and Lindsay Lohan; "Black Snake Moan," filmmaker Craig Brewer's follow-up to "Hustle and Flow," with Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson; "Year of the Dog," the directing debut of screenwriter Mike White with Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly; and "The Good Night," with Penelope Cruz and Gwyneth Paltrow, written and directed by sibling Jake Paltrow.

Some of these may go on to prosper long after the festival, as numerous titles that premiered at the 2006 edition, such as "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Half Nelson," have continued to find an audience and are competing for attention in the year-end awards season. In addition, the short list of 15 documentaries in the running for Academy Award nominations included five that debuted at Sundance.

Programmers say this year has seen a rise in socially aware films such as James C. Strouse's "Grace Is Gone," starring John Cusack as a man dealing with his wife's death in Iraq, Gina Kim's cross-cultural "Never Forever" and Adam Bhala Lough's "Weapons," an examination of violence in a working class suburb.

Screening in the the Park City at Midnight section will be Gregg Araki's "Smiley Face," David Wain's "The Ten," and Crispin Hellion Glover's "It Is Fine! Everything Is Fine."

The renamed New Frontier examines what Gilmore calls "the nexus between art, technology and film" by spotlighting more experimental works.

One unusual trend in this year's selections is the number of fictional features made by directors known for documentary work. Filmmakers Chris Smith ("The Pool"), Nick Broomfield ("Ghosts"), George Ratliff ("Joshua") and Jeffrey Blitz ("Rocket Science") all move from fact to fiction, while Robinson Devor heads in the opposite direction with the doc, "The Zoo."

Two late-addition special screenings will be a part of the lineup as well. One, "The Last Mimzy," is a science-fiction/fantasy film directed by New Line Cinema founder and co-chair Bob Shaye. "Autism Every Day," a documentary directed by Lauren Thierry, is an exploration of the difficulties faced by mothers of autistic children.

Among filmmakers returning to Sundance are Tamara Jenkins, Hal Hartley, Rory Kennedy, Tom DiCillo, Steve Buscemi, Justin Lin, David Gordon Green, Jessica Yu and Tommy O'Haver.

"We obviously like discovery," said John Cooper, director of programming. "But this year we're also talking about old filmmakers coming in new guises," Gilmore added, "filmmakers people might be familiar with turning in work that's very different from what's expected."

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