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    Sundance Explores Mysteries, Wonderland

    The Sundance Film Festival is going to literally have The Last Word next year.

    The dark comedy about a writer who makes a living penning other people's suicide notes, starring Winona Ryder, Wes Bentley and Ray Romano, is one of 16 U.S.-made features that will be screening in competition at the Robert Redford-founded annual ode to artful filmmaking set to take place Jan. 17-27 in Park City, Utah.

    Eighty-one films, including The Last Word, will also have their world premieres at Sundance, which is hoping to raise industry spirits and recapture the simple pleasures that are fine acting, directing and writing after what was an all-around disappointing year at the box office.

    "There’s something of a malaise in the independent arena right now," festival director Geoffrey Gilmore told the New York Times.

    "Maybe audiences are finding films that they’re exhausted by, or perhaps they find them too familiar—too much playing toward a sense of expectations. This is a festival that, regardless of where these films go in the broader marketplace, there’s a lot of films that you’d walk out of and go up to somebody and you’d want to tell them about."

    One thing cineastes might want to be telling each other about is the assortment of fresh faces looking to make a splash both behind and in front of the camera, with most of the 121 features representing at least 24 countries set to unspool having slipped into the bunch with neither fanfare nor household names.

    The upcoming fest will feature the work of 29 first-time directors who were lucky enough to have their projects plucked from the 3,624 feature-length films submitted, more than a third of which came from outside the U.S.

    As usual, the 64 fictional and nonfiction films competing in the dramatic, documentary, world cinema drama and world cinema documentary categories run the gamut in subject matter, from ensemble family dramas and dark comedies to treatises on Iran, steroids and why some people make bad boyfriends (A Complete History of My Sexual Failures).

    Among the little films that just might are Frozen River, Courtney Hunt's directorial and screenwriting debut about a desperate single mom who gets sucked into an illegal immigrant smuggling ring, and Sugar, about a Dominican baseball star's journey to the U.S. minor leagues, which marks director Ryan Fleck and co-scribe Anna Boden's follow-up to last year's critical smash Half Nelson.

    And then, on the other hand, you've got Mary-Kate Olsen locking lips with Ben Kingsley. That much talked-about onscreen smooch will have its world debut in The Wackness, about a teenage drug dealer who falls for his pot-addicted psychiatrist's daughter.

    While nearly 90 films boasting A-list casts were rejected to make room for greener talent, it's not as if audiences won't be seeing stars in '08.

    Billy Crudup and Paul Giamatti star in the gritty comic caper Pretty Bird, about three inventors who resort to kidnapping and murder after they fail to perfect their design for a rocket belt. Similarly dark-hearted is Choke, Clark Gregg's adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel, starring Sam Rockwell as a sex-addicted conman whose mother, played by Anjelica Huston, is in a mental hospital and needs his financial support. 

    Also getting the big-screen treatment is The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, based on Michael Chabon's coming-of-age tale about a college graduate who butts heads with his gangster father, starring Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller, Mena Suvari and Nick Nolte.

    Elle Fanning will be making a decidedly more benign Sundance appearance than sister Dakota did last year. The nine-year-old stars in Phoebe in Wonderland as a disgruntled youngster who, inspired by her drama teacher, decides to inject her dysfunctional family with a dose of whimsy. Bill Pullman, Felicity Huffman, Patricia Clarkson and Campbell Scott are on hand to make the magic happen.

    Meanwhile, Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn and Alan Arkin are looking to clean up with Sunshine Cleaning, Sylvia director Christine Jeffs' utterly charming-sounding film about two sisters who start their own biohazard and crime-scene cleanup business.

    The competing documentaries (16 American, 16 World Cinema) hail from five continents and take on the usual array of hot topics and niche subject matter.

    Josh Tickell's Fields of Fuel follows the Veggie Van-driving filmmaker's quest to promote alternative fuel sources. Christopher Bell uses Bigger, Stronger, Faster* to examine the competitive culture that compelled his two athlete brothers to take steroids. The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo and Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma provide different yet sadly similar views of Africa. In I.O.U.S.A., Patrick Creadon tries to explain why this country is so screwed up financially and talks about how to avert an economic meltdown.

    Patti Smith: Dream of Life, Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired hone in on the respective artists' craft and at-times tormented personal lives.

    And In Prison My Whole Life, director Marc Evans' study of convicted killer and award-winning journalist Mumia Abu Jamal and the justice system that has condemned him to death should win an honorary award for building cultural bridges. The documentary was made in the U.K., and features rappers Snoop Dogg and Mos Def, reggae singer Smoof, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker and linguist Noam Chomsky, who's always ready to lend a hand when it comes to criticizing domestic policy.

    For the first time, films in the international categories will not only be competing for the World Cinema dramatic and documentary jury prizes, but will also be eligible for awards in directing, editing, screenwriting and cinematography.

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