Paul Rudd, Kevin Smith, Miranda July, James Marsh and Steve James will be back in Park City, along with first-time filmmakers Vera Farmiga, Joshua Leonard and Paddy Considine
The Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday, and while it will be this writer's first trek to Park City, Utah (follow all the action on Deal Central and Twitter), it will be a welcome return for many filmmakers.
Chief among them is Kevin Smith, whose career was launched after his $27,000 black-and-white debut feature "Clerks" took Sundance by storm in 1994.
See Slideshow: Sundance 2011: The Films We're Dying to See
This year, Smith is bringing his most ambitious film yet, "Red State," a political horror movie starring 70-year-old Michael Parks in what is sure to be one of the most talked-about performances over the coming weeks.
While many believe that The Weinstein Co. has the inside track on acquiring "Red State" thanks to its founders' long-standing relationship with Smith, the candid director has already announced plans to select a distributor immediately after its first screening via auction, with eBay bids also welcome.
Sundance director John Cooper noted that the festival is "known for that magic in the theater that helps films get sold and drives prices up." Cooper said he's "seeing more civility in how films are bought and sold. Sometimes it feels rushed and frantic, but it doesn't need to be. While some films will be picked up faster, the trend of late has been more thoughtful buying."
Miranda July's "Me and You and Everyone We Know" was a festival darling in the past, and this year the quirky artist will be showing audiences "The Future," in which she and Hamish Linklater play a couple whose decision to adopt a stray cat changes their perspective on life.
After winning the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in 2008, "Man on Wire" director James Marsh returns with another buzzworthy documentary, "Project Nim," which chronicles the life of a chimpanzee who was raised and nurtured like a human child as part of a groundbreaking experiment in the 1970s.
Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha has been at Sundance several times in recent years, and this year he'll be promoting "Elite Squad 2," a crime-ridden sequel to the most successful film in Brazilian box office history. Padilha is also serving as a juror for the 2011 World Cinema Documentary Competition.
Acclaimed "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James is also back with "The Interrupters," a documentary about former Chicago gang members who disrupt violence in their neighborhoods as it happens.
Sundance selected Jason Eisener's short film "Treevenge" back in 2008, and the genre director returns with his feature debut "Hobo With a Shotgun," which is already shaping up to be one of the hottest titles at the festival. Rutger Hauer will be looking to recapture his mojo in this blood-soaked nod to the grindhouse movies of the 1970s and '80s.
Six years after the haunting success of "Mean Creek," writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes returns with "The Details," which boasts star power in the form of Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks. They play a couple struggling to save their marriage amidst infidelity and ties to a murder.
"Super Size Me" filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is back in Park City with "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," which already has Sony Pictures Classics in hot pursuit. The meta-documentary takes an in-depth look at product placement, branding and advertising in entertainment, and follows Spurlock as he tries to find sponsors for his movie.
"Douchebag" director Drake Doremus also returns with "Like Crazy," which is certain to be on buyers' radars thanks to the presence of Hollywood's current "It" girl Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone"). She co-stars alongside Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones. The latter duo play college sweethearts whose love is tested when she's required to leave the country and they're forced to face the challenges of a long-distance relationship.
T. Sean Durkin's "Martha Marcy May Marlene" will be one of the hottest acquisition titles at the festival. Elizabeth Olsen is poised to break out with her performance as a damaged young woman who struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult led by John Hawkes ("Winter's Bone").
Olsen also stars in "Silent House," a carefully choreographed psychological thriller from "Open Water" director Chris Kentis.
Sundance is just as important to first-time filmmakers, of which there are many this year. JC Chandor's script for "Margin Call" lured an impressive ensemble including Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons. The film tracks a prominent investment bank during a tumultuous 24-hour period during the early stages of the financial crisis.
John Michael McDonagh's "The Guard" stars Brendan Gleeson ("In Bruges") as a small-town cop in Ireland who crosses paths with a straight-laced FBI agent (Don Cheadle) investigating an international drug smuggling ring.
Award-winning short filmmaker Andrew Okpeaha MacLean makes his feature debut with "On the Ice," a suspenseful look at two Alaskan teens who are forced to explore the limits of friendship and honor in the aftermath of a violent tragedy.
Sam Levinson's "Another Happy Day" concerns a wedding that features an impressive quartet of leading ladies (Demi Moore, Kate Bosworth, Ellen Barkin and Ellen Burstyn).
Bosworth will also be seen in Elgin James' directorial debut "Little Birds," which stars Juno Temple. She earned raves at last year's festival for her breakout performance in "Dirty Girl," which is still awaiting release. Temple and Kay Panabaker play two 15-year-old girls who test the limits of their friendship when one follows the other to Los Angeles.
Oscar-nominated actress Vera Farmiga steps behind the camera for "Higher Ground." She plays a frustrated young mother who turns to a fundamentalist community for answers. The film co-stars Hawkes and Joshua Leonard.
Leonard, who starred in "The Blair Witch Project" over a decade ago, also makes his directorial debut with "The Lie," a comedy based on a New Yorker magazine short story about a man who tells a lie to get out of work and inadvertently changes his life.
Another actor transitioning behind the camera is Paddy Considine, whose directorial debut "Tyranosaur" stars the intense duo of Peter Mullan and Eddie Marsan.
Of all the acquisition titles, Jesse Peretz's comedy "My Idiot Brother" is the most likely to start a bidding war. Its commercial prospects look strong thanks to an all-star ensemble including Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Banks, Rashida Jones and Emily Mortimer.
Mark Pellington's dramatic thriller "I Melt With You" stars Jeremy Piven, Thomas Jane and Rob Lowe, while Dito Montiel's "Son of No One" stars Channing Tatum, Al Pacino and Katie Holmes. Both films will likely have no shortage of suitors lining up with their checkbooks out.
In addition to several other returning filmmakers such as Miguel Arteta ("Cedar Rapids"), David Mackenzie ("Perfect Sense"), Tom McCarthy ("Win Win") and Lee Tamahori ("The Devil's Double"), a handful of veteran actors will be looking to make waves.
Besides Parks, "Red State" stars industry favorite John Goodman, who will likely work wonders with Smith's snappy dialogue. "The Wire's" Isaiah Whitlock Jr. is said to be a scene-stealer in Fox Searchlight's "Cedar Rapids," while Esai Morales has been garnering early buzz for his work in "Gun Hill Road."
Sundance is also known for its surprises, and there are several wild cards TheWrap will be keeping its eye on this week, including Ian Palmer's boxing documentary "Knuckle" (Hollywood is contemplating a feature remake), Evan Glodell's "Bellflower" and a trio of midnight movies — Andre Ovredal's "The Troll Hunter," Calvin Lee Reader's "The Oregonian" and Lucky McKee's "The Woman."
On the talent side, UTA recently signed Brit Marling, a multi-hyphenate who stars in both "Another Earth" and "Sound of Your Voice." Robert Longstreet is set to appear in a trio of Sundance films, "Septien," "The Oregonian" and "The Catechism Cateclysm," a Rough House Pictures production about a priest ("Eastbound & Down's" Steve Little) who goes on a canoe trip with a former metalhead (Longstreet) whom he idolized in high school.
Lindsay Pulsipher ("The Oregonian") and Pollyanna McIntosh ("The Woman") are other up-and-coming young actresses who will be looking to capitalize on Sundance buzz.
Sundance will be expanding its online presence this year, offering live streaming video of key festival events such as press conferences, Q&As, screenings, roundtable discussions, interviews with talent and daily video highlights. In an effort to help drive awareness and interest in Sundance, the festival will also stream Kevin Macdonald and Ridley Scott's user-generated documentary "Life in a Day."
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