LOS ANGELES >> The dramatic contenders at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival span history, genre and setting, from the slave days in the South to the gay-sex scene today in LA's Korean spas.
What unites them, says festival director John Cooper, is excellent storytelling and a "thorough understanding of the craft of filmmaking, especially writing."
On Wednesday, Cooper and programming director Trevor Groth announced the slate of American and international dramas and documentaries in competition this year at the annual festival in Park City, Utah.
"Independent film is evolving right now," Cooper said. "There seems to be a real want and need for different kinds of stories."
Stories of a slave who helps his owner, for example, as in writer-director-actor Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation"; or of a first-generation Korean-American navigating traditional cultural expectations and his own emerging identity in "Spa Night."
Other selections include "Swiss Army Man," starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, about a hopeless loner who befriends a dead body; and "Tallulah," starring Ellen Page and Allison Janney, about a young woman who steals a baby from a wealthy family.
While most Sundance films won't be seen outside the festival for many months, moviegoers everywhere should be excited about what these movies say about the state of cinema, Cooper said. The 117 feature-length films showing at the January festival were culled from more than 12,700 submissions.
"It proves that there's a choice out there, that there are other options for your entertainment," he said. "It's the beginning of a cultural year, and also the discovery of new talent: talent that go onto direct other films, and acting talent that go on to be in other films and really become what's driving the film business forward."
Recent Sundance success stories include Colin Trevorrow's hyper-charged career trajectory, from premiering his first feature at Sundance in 2012 to directing the summer smash "Jurassic World"; and "Fruitvale Station" director Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan, who followed up their 2013 Sundance hit with this year's "Creed." Jennifer Lawrence also first broke out at Sundance five years ago with "Winter's Bone," which brought her first Oscar nod.
The festival's domestic documentary slate features stories of unsung heroes, such as ALS advocate and former NFL star Steve Gleason, and perspectives on gun violence and social media. Titles include "Newtown," about the community's recovery from the 2012 mass shooting at an elementary school, and "Audrie & Daisy," about two teenage victims of online bullying.
Cooper and Groth said there's a sexy undercurrent to the international dramas: A group of college brainiacs try to lose their virginity in "Brahman Naman" from India; a mermaid falls in love with a man in Poland's "The Lure"; a woman forms a relationship with a wolf in Germany's "Wild"; and "Male Joy, Female Love" from China is described as a portrayal of "an unlimited cycle of love stories."
The Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 21 to 31.