Looking at the Heart of Sundance Film Festival Lineup


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Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon in “Other People,” which will play on opening night of the Sundance Film Festival.

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Sundance Film Festival

LOS ANGELES — Daniel Radcliffe playing a corpse, not just in a scene but throughout an entire film. A James Franco-produced fraternity hazing drama starring a Jonas brother. A hot-button documentary about an Islamic State public execution.

It can only be Sundance.

At the next Sundance Film Festival, scheduled for Jan. 21 to 31 in Park City, Utah, and environs, 120 feature films and roughly 70 shorts will “launch onto the global stage, beginning their journeys through our culture,” as Robert Redford, Sundance’s founder, put it in a statement on Wednesday. Programmers culled the lineup from 12,793 submissions, a 5 percent increase from last year.

This time, the festival’s center — the 32 American-made narrative films and documentaries, all world premieres, that compete for grand jury and audience prizes — will include movies that are notable for their multiculturalism (on both sides of the camera), seriousness, and, as ever with Sundance, deeply idiosyncratic topics.

Playing on opening night, a high-profile slot where films like “Whiplash” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” have debuted in recent years, will be “Other People,” a comedic drama about a gay, big-city comedy writer who moves home to Sacramento, Calif., to care for his conservative, gravely ill mother. Directed and written by Chris Kelly — and based on his own experience — “Other People” stars Jesse Plemons (“Fargo,” “Friday Night Lights”) and Molly Shannon. (The movie counts the actor Adam Scott as a producer.)

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Nate Parker, center, with Armie Hammer, left, and Jayson Warner Smith in Mr. Parker’s directorial and writing debut “The Birth of a Nation.”

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Elliot Davis

“We want opening night to get our audiences fired up, and ‘Other People’ will do that,” John Cooper, the festival’s director, said over lunch earlier this week. “It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It makes you a little angry.”

One of the more ambitious entries belongs to Nate Parker, known for roles in “The Great Debaters” and “Non-Stop” who will make his feature directorial (and writing) debut with a provocative drama called “The Birth of a Nation.” It follows a literate slave and preacher in the antebellum South who, after witnessing atrocities against fellow slaves, goes on a rampage.

Trevor Groth, Sundance’s director of programming, said that “The Birth of a Nation” carried a similar theme to “Goat,” which features Nick Jonas as the younger of two brothers who belong to a college fraternity where brutal hazing occurs. (Along with Mr. Franco, “Goat” counts the indie powerhouse Christine Vachon as a producer.) “You see how human beings are forced into extreme behavior,” Mr. Groth said. “And it gives you a deeper understanding of how these things happen, and, hopefully, how you might stop them from happening moving forward.”

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Paul Dano, top, and Daniel Radcliffe in “Swiss Army Man.”

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Joyce Kim

One of the quirkier competition films — Sundance will disclose selections for its starrier Premieres section on Monday — belongs to a pair of directors known for music videos, Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan. Their “Swiss Army Man,” billed as a comedic adventure drama, stars Mr. Radcliffe as a dead man (seriously) and Paul Dano as a hopeless man stranded in the wild who discovers the body.

An unusual number of selections have period settings. “Southside With You,” a biographical romantic drama, follows a young President Obama, played by Parker Sawyers, as he tries to woo his future first lady, played by Tika Sumpter. “Christine,” based on the true story of a troubled reporter (Rebecca Hall) who committed suicide on live television in 1974, was directed by Antonio Campos, known to cinephiles for “Simon Killer.”

Sundance, coming up on its 32nd installment, has long served as a launching pad for documentaries. “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” which went on to win the 2014 documentary Oscar, was first seen in competition at Sundance in 2013, for instance. This time around, one of the most anticipated nonfiction films will undoubtedly be “Jim,” which looks at the 2014 beheading of James Foley, an American journalist, by the Islamic State. The film was directed by Brian Oakes, one of Mr. Foley’s childhood friends.

Also sure to generate attention is “Weiner,” from Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, who followed Anthony Weiner during his problem-plagued 2013 run for mayor of New York; “Gleason,” about the former professional football player Steve Gleason, who was given a diagnosis of A.L.S. in 2011; and “Holy Hell,” billed as an exposé of an unidentified “love, secretive, spiritual community led by a charismatic teacher in 1980s Hollywood.” (Sundance would not even identify the director of “Holy Hell.”)

In keeping with a recent trend in documentary filmmaking, nontraditional, sometimes controversial storytelling techniques will be on full display, Mr. Cooper said. The director Penny Lane, for instance, uses animated re-enactments and “one seriously unreliable narrator” to trace the “mostly true” story of a man who found success selling a goat-testicle impotence cure, according to Sundance’s lineup guide. Her film is called “Nuts!”

Correction: December 2, 2015
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the documentary “Weiner.” The filmmakers followed Anthony Weiner during his problem-plagued 2013 run for mayor of New York; they did not have access to him leading up to his 2011 resignation from Congress amid a lewd online scandal.

Correction: December 3, 2015

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of a picture caption with this article omitted an actor’s surname. He is Jayson Warner Smith, not Jayson Warner.



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