Page last updated at 10:00 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Strong British showing at Sundance

Films showing at Sundance 2009
Clockwise from top left: Motherhood, Afghan Star, The Informers, An Education, Mary and Max.

By Tom Brook
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

A record number of films from Britain will be unveiled at the 10-day Sundance Film Festival, which gets underway in the Utah ski resort of Park City on Thursday.

The festival, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, is hosting 12 full-length British features for the first time.

Among the movies creating an early buzz are In The Loop, a satire directed by Armando Iannucci, starring Sopranos kingpin James Gandolfini and Steve Coogan.

James Gandolfini in In The Loop
In The Loop teams James Gandolfini with Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison
Produced by the team behind hit BBC Four satire The Thick Of It, it's a political farce that follows British and American government bureaucrats in the build up to a fictional war.

Another British film generating advance interest is the world premiere of An Education, starring Emma Thompson and Peter Sarsgaard.

Writer Nick Hornby adapted the screenplay from an autobiographical essay by journalist Lynn Barber - which tells how she was seduced by an older man in 1960s London.

British documentaries being screened at the festival include Afghan Star - which chronicles the emergence of pop culture in Afghanistan as four contestants risk their lives to sing in a music talent show.

UK films are enjoying great critical appreciation internationally
Claire Chapman, UK Film Council
A larger than life British figure, Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, will be at the centre of The September Issue - a US-produced film which has been given the prestigious Salt Lake City Gala slot.

The fly-on-the-wall documentary goes behind the scenes in the nine months leading up to the magazine's eagerly-awaited September issue.

Commenting on the strong British presence at Sundance, Claire Chapman, executive director of the UK Film Council US, says: "The number of UK films running the North American film festival circuit is a great illustration of the success of British cinema.

"It is clear that UK films are enjoying great critical appreciation internationally and have been riding this wave over the past few years."

Star Power

The festival will open with an Australian claymation story, Mary and Max.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette and Barry Humphries lend their voices to this tale of a pen pal friendship between a young Australian girl and an isolated, middle-aged, obese man in New York.

Although Sundance aims to shine a light on low budget independent films made outside the US studio system, plenty of big name Hollywood stars will be appearing in festival pictures.

Uma Thurman, Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon, Kevin Spacey, William Hurt, Pierce Brosnan, Billy Bob Thornton and Ashton Kutcher all have films at Sundance.

I Love Philip Morris
Ewan McGregor and Jim Carrey will attend the premiere of their film
Richard Gere will be appearing in the New York cop film Brooklyn's Finest, alongside stars Ethan Hawke and Don Cheadle.

Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor headline the cast of I Love You Philip Morris, which is being described as a gay prison romance.

Sundance is guided in its mission by Hollywood icon Robert Redford - one of the festival's founding fathers - who continues to emphasise the festival's independent focus.

But this year independent cinema faces enormous challenges. The entire film industry has been rocked by hard times and last year's festival yielded few hits.

Several independent film distributors have gone out of business - and the recession is really squeezing cash-starved film-makers.

The recession is also taking a toll on Park City itself.

Bill Malone, president of the Park City Chamber of Commerce, says reservations for overnight accommodations are "probably tracking at about 8% behind where we were last year" - when some 45,000 festival-goers attended.

But programmers maintain this year's slate of Sundance films is far from gloomy. Themes of social alienation have been trumped by social engagement.

Fresh approaches

There's also talk of Sundance becoming more global.

Festival organisers describe a new generation of film-makers who are bringing original approaches to established genres.

The romantic drama, for example, has undergone an overhaul. Paper Heart is a romantic hybrid: A part-documentary and part-scripted comedy starring Juno's Michael Cera.

Another romance film, Peter and Vandy, is a non-linear depiction of love in New York "with no beginning and no end".

Sam Rockwell in Moon
Moon stars Sam Rockwell as a man whose mind unravels on a lunar base
Sundance is also highlighting the work of several activist film-makers, with works that examine a range of issues from the plight of dolphins to the dumping of toxic oil waste.

In recent years Sundance has given a platform to film-makers who have delivered harsh critiques of the US military and its policies in Iraq.

But this year, a film called Taking Chance (starring Kevin Bacon) bucks any perceived anti-military trend.

It is a film inspired by real events about a young Marine escort officer who takes the remains of a 19-year-old soldier killed in Iraq to his family in Wyoming.

Science fiction - a genre not normally associated with independent film-making - is also making an appearance at Sundance.

Relatively inexpensive digital technology has given low budget film-makers the opportunity to make sci-fi projects that would have only been possible within the realm of the big studios until a few years ago.

Britain even has its own sci-fi entry, Moon, which stars Kevin Spacey and Sam Rockwell.

Sundance will exhibit its long-standing social conscience with Earth Days, its closing night film, which traces the history of the modern environmental movement from the 1970s onwards.

Sundance literature describes the film as inspiring and hopeful - qualities many recession-weary film-makers will be looking for in Park City over the next 10 days.

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