When the Sundance Film Festival was in its labor pains 30-odd years ago, founder Robert Redford had earned just a single nomination for the best actor Academy Award. And while that hasn’t changed (he’ll almost certainly be among the Oscar nominees this week for "All Is Lost"), almost everything else has: Sundance, which opens Thursday, has become one of the biggest events of its kind in the world; American indie cinema has been altered beyond recognition; and every January, little Park City, Utah, becomes a magnet for stars, press, celeb-watchers and about 80 percent of the town’s annual income.
If a movie gets in, the talent travels, too -- which means a lot of gawking-to-come on Main Street.
Among the dramatic competition films this year, "The Skeleton Twins" will feature Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell in a non-comedy. "God’s Pocket," the directorial debut of "Mad Men’s" John Slattery, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Richard Jenkins, Christina Hendricks and John Turturro. "Twilight’s" Kristen Stewart plays a guard at Guantanamo Bay who develops a relationship with a prisoner in Peter Sattler’s "Camp X-Ray." And Lena Dunham ("Girls") returns to the big screen in "Happy Christmas," which also stars Anna Kendrick and is written and directed by Joe Swanberg.
Also: The blackly comedic "Frank," from Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, boasts Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal, while Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana go to bat for first-timer Maya Forbes in "Infinitely Polar Bear."
Documentaries are always big at Sundance, notoriously so ("The documentaries are better" is as common a refrain as "Can I park here?"). Among the notable entries are a few from Sundance alumni, including Andrew Rossi ("Ivory Tower," about the high cost of college) and Ross Kauffman, who with Katy Chevigny has made "E-TEAM," about human-rights workers.
A real guilty pleasure will be "No No: A Dockumentary," about former pitcher Dock Ellis, who threw a no-hitter while on LSD. Likewise, "Captivated: The Crimes of Pamela Smart," about the woman who inspired Nicole Kidman in "To Die For."
A couple of other notables: Michael Winterbottom’s "Trip to Italy" reunites Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who made "The Trip" such a joy.
And on Jan. 26, the closing night film -- "Rudderless," directed by William H. Macy -- brings together Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Felicity Huffman, Selena Gomez, Laurence Fishburne and Macy himself in a drama about grief, paternity and rock ‘n’ roll.
Lots to do, lots to see. Nowhere to park.