The Sundance Film Festival is back and bigger than ever with more than 100 world premiere features selected out of a record-breaking 14,259 submissions from 152 countries.

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday with a jam-packed lineup of screenings and events through Feb. 3 in Park City, Salt Lake City and at Sundance Mountain Resort.

Buzz films premiering this year include “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” featuring Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in a chronicle of the serial killer’s crimes as told from the perspective of his longtime girlfriend; “Late Night,” starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling in the story of a legendary late-night talk show host hiring her only female staff writer; and “Honey Boy” with Shia LaBeouf, which explores the stormy past of a child TV star and his ex-rodeo clown father.

Politics, as always, is a popular topic among the films showing at the 2019 festival, from documentaries like “Knock Down the House” about a movement of insurgent candidates who challenge powerful Congress incumbents to premieres like “Official Secrets” about British Intelligence whistleblower Katharine Gun, played by Keira Knightley.

Kim Yutani, Sundance Institute’s director of programming, told the Daily Herald the festival’s programmers try not to select films according to any specific themes or topics and strive to view the submissions with a “collective open mind.”

“We let the quality of the work and the voices and visions behind it dictate the program’s direction,” Yutani said in an email. “Our role here is to support artists in telling the stories they want to tell, not dictate what those type of stories should be, and we take that very seriously.”

But it makes sense politics is especially popular among the films this year now that some time has passed since the last presidential election, according to Yutani.

“Due to the long turnaround time of making a movie, it’s generally roughly two years after an event that we start seeing finished films reference and respond to it,” Yutani said.

The environment is also a subject that is prevalent among films such as “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch,” which explores human planetary domination, and wildlife conservation movies like “Tigerland,” “Honeyland” and “Sea of Shadows.”

“The environment is another topic that is always present at the festival, which I trace back to Sundance Institute’s founder, Robert Redford,” Yutani said. “The environment has always been a huge passion of his, and led him to establish the institute and festival here in Utah.”

Yutani said she is very proud of the entire lineup for the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, but is particularly looking forward to seeing audiences’ reactions to the international and documentary sections.

“We’ve long been known for being the home of independent American cinema, but I feel thanks to the strides we’ve made over the past few years, our international sections are now on par with our domestic lineup,” Yutani said. “And, while we have had many breakout documentary films over the years, last year was a special year with many of the documentary films from our lineup, such as ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,’ ‘RBG’ and ‘Three Identical Strangers’ particularly catching on with audiences and becoming box office hits. This year I expect that trend to continue with many of the films in our documentary sections poised to strongly connect with filmgoers.”

The festival is also introducing a new space in Park City, New Frontier Central, for innovative virtual reality and offscreen work, as well as the Talent Forum, which will support new artists from Sundance Institute’s Artists Labs programs by allowing them to show their work and connect with others in the industry, Yutani said.

Sundance Institute’s goal through the film festival is to support artists and showcase their work while also introducing audiences to art and artists they might not have encountered otherwise, according to Yutani.

“We have many artists that I’m very excited to bring to audiences and then watch their careers grow,” Yutani said of this year’s lineup.

Among the filmmakers to be featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is a Brigham Young University professor. Robert Machoian, an associate professor of photography at BYU, has shown films twice before at the Sundance Film Festival and was selected this year for his short film “The Minors.”

“The film is about a grandfather who’s in a band with his grandkids, and it’s about them practicing for shows and stuff,” Machoian told the Daily Herald. “I’ve kind of been exploring over the last couple films this idea of dreaming and the aspect of what’s appropriate to dream, is it inappropriate to dream, and aspects of … dreaming as far as goals and desires to achieve things. Obviously, being a filmmaker, filmmakers are dreamers in general. Sundance is a great example of that.”

The Sundance Film Festival is unique because those who attend include not only film lovers who are excited about cinema, but also industry professionals looking for emerging artists to support, which opens up opportunities for filmmakers showing their work there, according to Machoian.

“For me, Sundance is always kind of the goal to be able to screen my films there,” Machoian said. “I think the Sundance Film Festival is always trying to figure out the best way to help independent filmmakers.”

From Machoian’s perspective, the 2019 Sundance Film Festival features many independent filmmakers who are “constantly making work and constantly trying to grow.”

“I think this year, my own personal opinion is that it’s a lot of seasoned filmmakers that have really consistently fought to make independent cinema that are back there this year with more amazing work,” Machoian said.

Machoian said he hopes those who attend the Sundance Film Festival will “gain an appreciation for independent cinema,” which he thinks tries to remove itself from ideas of financial gain and “thinks a lot about what to say about the world and what’s going on in the world.”

“I think cinema is one of the greatest experiences that allow audiences to gain empathy towards the character within the film, and that can evoke change, understanding somebody else’s perspective through watching a film,” Machoian said. “I think independent cinema in particular strives to tell those stories in very unique ways and ways that identify with an audience, so I’m hoping we can grow as a society to appreciate it more, to allow more opportunities for those stories to be told.”

Features Reporter

Sarah Harris writes about arts and entertainment for the Daily Herald.

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