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Jack Black, Kristen Wiig and Sarah Silverman headline Sundance 2015

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Z For Zachariah

Over the past three decades, the Sundance Film Festival has transcended its humble origins as founder Robert Redford’s field of art house movie dreams to become North America’s vanguard showcase for independent cinema. Just ask Owen Wilson or Steven Soderbergh, Amy Adams or Quentin Tarantino, all of whom got their starts at the fest: it’s the place where seriousness of intent and raw talent combust under the blinding world spotlight to create new stars.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the fest’s 2015 installment, which kicks off in Park City on Jan. 22. An influx of Hollywood funny people basically remade Sundance in their own image.

With today’s unveiling of the festival’s much-anticipated line-up of Dramatic and Documentary competition films, as well as its NEXT section (which highlights digital technology and cutting-edge storytelling), it’s impossible to ignore the roll call of well-known comedians appearing in both comedic and dramatic movies this year. Among them: Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, Molly Shannon, Jeffrey Tambor, Nick Offerman, and Flight of the Conchords co-star Jemaine Clement.

Kristen Wiig returns for a second consecutive year with two new movies, The Diary of a Teenager in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and Nasty Baby in NEXT. And even Ken Jeong, who plays hotheaded crime kingpin Leslie Chow in the blockbuster Hangover trilogy, arrives with Advantageous, a sci-fi drama in competition.

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“It makes sense when you think about comedians’ inherent ability to observe human nature,” says John Cooper, director of the Sundance Film Festival. “It’s all sort of connected in taking on those personas. They’re always looking for the root of comedy or human desires in these characters. For empathy.”

Earlier this year, of course, former Saturday Night Live funnywoman Jenny Slate recalibrated her career with the breakout Sundance dramedy Obvious Child. And in 2015, Silverman seems poised to similarly upend her image (for chipper yet foul-mouthed comedy schtick), starring in I Smile Back as a suburban mom struggling to maintain a facade of normalcy amid troubles with adultery and substance abuse. “It’s high drama,” Cooper says. “It’s like you’ve never seen Sarah Silverman before.”

Stand-up comic turned filmmaker Bobcat Goldthwait, meanwhile, arrives at the fest from the other side of the camera with his debut documentary, Call Me Lucky, about a Boston bar comedian who became an influential political activist. “It’s an interesting moment around stand-up comedians like we’ve never had at Sundance before,” says the festival’s director of programming, Trevor Groth.

Which is in no way to suggest that Sundance has given short shrift to dramatic fare starring “dramatic” actors in 2015. In the World Cinema Dramatic competition, Slow West features Michael Fassbender as a mysterious traveler leading a Scottish teen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) across the 19th century American frontier in search of the woman he loves.

“It’s a Western for sure, but a really fresh take,” Groth says. “Because the genre has been done so well in the past and everyone knows its patterns, they take that history and create a new way of telling the story by not filling in all the backstory but by filling in the beats. I felt like I was listening to a Western song as I was watching it.”

The Australian-Irish dramatic thriller Strangerland marks the directorial debut of Kim Farrant and stars Nicole Kidman as a woman whose two teenage children vanish into the Australian desert.

“It’s raw,” says Cooper. “It’s part thriller, part psychological drama. Kind of a throwback to [Kidman’s] early work like Dead Calm. You feel her pain in this film.”

The Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 22-Feb. 1.

Click below for the Dramatic, Documentary, and NEXT categories, courtesy of the Sundance press release. More lineups, including festival Premieres and the always-buzzy Park City at Midnight schedule, will be announced in the next few days.

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