It’s rare for the Sundance Film Festival to start with a documentary. Yet organizers say this year’s opening night film, “Chicago 10,” represents just the sort of bold gambit the nation’s top independent-cinema venue likes to see in its movies.
“It’s a film that I think at one level is really basically about risk-taking, about people who want to change the world, so in that sense, it’s inspiring,” said Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the festival, which is overseen by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. “It speaks to what goes into the struggle for social change, which is not unlike what goes into the personal vision of independent film.”
Premiering Thursday night at the 11-day festival in the ski resort town of Park City, “Chicago 10” is director Brett Morgen’s stylistic retrospective of the turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention and the trial of anti-war protesters that followed.
Instead of a dusty lesson that might be ancient history to youngish Sundance crowds, Morgen weaves archival footage with original animation and a voice cast that includes Nick Nolte, Jeffrey Wright, Mark Ruffalo and Roy Scheider to put the courtroom drama and its flamboyant players into perspective.
“I don’t think anyone’s seen a film quite like this before. I’m expecting it to be explosive on opening night,” said Morgen, a Sundance veteran who screened his boxing documentary “On the Ropes” and his Robert Evans chronicle “The Kid Stays in the Picture” at past festivals.
“There was an energy and a passion I saw in my footage and through research of that era. I wanted to make a film not so much about a historical, academic encounter of what happened but something with that youthful energy like it was captured in a bottle and unleashed today.”
The festival’s closing film is “Life Support,” starring Queen Latifah as a former drug addict who becomes an AIDS activist, a drama that director Nelson George based on his sister’s life.
In between, Sundance will screen about 120 feature-length movies and dozens of short films from around the world to audiences of fellow and future filmmakers, industry executives and general lovers of independent cinema.
Film distributors will scour the lineup for the next big independent hit such as last year’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” which Fox Searchlight scooped up at Sundance and turned into a $60 million success, one of the top-grossing movies ever to come out of the festival.
And celebrities will crowd the snowy streets of Park City for premieres, parties, concerts and other events.
Two Samuel Jackson filmsAmong films premiering at Sundance are two starring Samuel L. Jackson: director Craig Brewer’s “Black Snake Moan,” in which Jackson plays a Southern bluesman who becomes protector for a promiscuous abused woman (Christina Ricci), and Rod Lurie’s “Resurrecting the Champ,” with Jackson as a former boxing champion now living on the streets.
Other premieres include Tamara Jenkins’ “The Savages,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings forced to care for their ailing father; Mike Cahill’s “King of California,” with Michael Douglas as a man just out of a mental institution and reuniting with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood); Jarrett Schaefer’s “Chapter 27,” a portrait of the killer of John Lennon that features Lindsay Lohan and Jared Leto; and Jake Paltrow’s “The Good Night,” with Penelope Cruz, Martin Freeman, Danny DeVito and the director’s sister, Gwyneth Paltrow, in the story of a man whose ideal woman exists only in his dreams.
The 16 films in Sundance’s main dramatic competition include one already stirring debate over a rape scene involving a character played by 12-year-old Dakota Fanning in Deborah Kempmeier’s “Hounddog.”
The dramatic competition also features such high-profile titles as Zoe Cassavetes’ romantic comedy “Broken English,” with Parker Posey and the filmmaker’s mother, Gena Rowlands, wife of the late independent-film master John Cassavetes; David Gordon Green’s domestic drama “Snow Angels,” starring Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell; and James C. Strouse’s “Grace Is Gone,” featuring John Cusack as a husband and father whose wife is killed in military action in Iraq.
Some films come into Sundance with theatrical distribution already in place, but most play at Sundance in hopes of clicking with buyers who will take the movies beyond the festival circuit.
“I really would be lying if I didn’t say I hope it gets a great distribution deal,” “Grace Is Gone” director Strouse said. “I think it’s the type of film that can play well, the type of film that can catch on in the Midwest, where I’m from.
“The bottom line for Sundance and the people organizing it is they want to get good movies out there for an audience that’s looking for something maybe not made at a big studio.”