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Sundance 2012 preview

Some of the most anticipated films coming to Park City this month

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Independent films are often stereotyped as gloomy, cold, and painful, but at Sundance 2012 those words are more likely to describe the weather. The annual indie showcase, which runs in Park City, Utah, from Jan. 19 to 29, is particularly warm and cozy this time around, with a lineup dominated by comedies and featuring dramas that tend to be more touching than harrowing — although there’s some of that, too. (EW is a sponsor of the festival.)

? The mood at Sundance this year could be epitomized by the so-funny-it-hurts Sleepwalk With Me, a semiautobiographical tale co-written and directed by stand-up storyteller Mike Birbiglia, who stars as a struggling comedian who discovers there’s hilarious material in the many ways life is kicking his ass. ”[I learned] you can talk about these things you’re ashamed of and find a deeper connection with people,” Birbiglia says. ”That one thing you’re most reluctant to tell? That’s where the comedy is.”

? Safety Not Guaranteed is another comedy fueled by desperation, telling the story of a regretful man (Mark Duplass) who takes out a classified ad seeking a partner for time travel, attracting the attention of skeptical magazine writers (Parks and Recreation‘s Aubrey Plaza and New Girl‘s Jake Johnson). ”He may start off seeming a little odd, but Mark plays it in a very grounded and human way,” says director Colin Trevorrow. ”We thought, ‘What if he really thinks he’s going back in time, but people just make fun of him?”’

? A number of female-driven comedies fill the festival, one of them Kirsten Dunst‘s Bachelorette, about a woman seething with envy over a friend’s impending wedding. ”What we usually see in films is the over-glorification of female friendships,” says writer-director Leslye Headland. ”There’s a very thin line between jealousy and loyalty.”

? Director-actress Katie Aselton‘s Black Rock begins like a chick flick but turns into a thriller, with a group of girlfriends discovering a secret on a remote Maine island. ”There’s nothing paranormal or bizarre,” says Aselton, trying to preserve some mystery for the debut. ”But things go terribly wrong, and it’s the worst-case scenario.”

? The festival will also feature a few offbeat family tales, among them Spike Lee‘s Red Hook Summer, about a Brooklyn boy named Flick (newcomer Jules Brown) and his preacher grandfather (The Wire‘s Clarke Peters). ”Flick wants nothing to do with the church, but the grandfather talks Jesus and Christianity 24/7,” Lee says. ”So they don’t get along.”

? Rapper Common turns up in LUV, a crime-thriller version of the classic coming-of-age story, playing an ex-con whose 11-year-old nephew (Michael Rainey Jr.) discovers the dark past of his beloved uncle. ”There’s a lot of love there, but a lot of danger,” Common says. ”He wants to straighten his life out and be a great example to his nephew, but then he has to go into survival mode.” All of these movies enter Sundance hoping to find distribution, so survival is a key part of the festival overall. Common says it’s good to premiere LUV there because ”the history and cachet and prestige of Sundance is incomparable. It’s one of the great honors for an independent film. That’s winning the award already.” Lee has a much more succinct answer for why he’s bringing Red Hook Summer: ”We got to sell this motherf—er!”