Lake Bell, writer, director and star of 'In a World ...'
November 28, 2012 at 09:05 PM EST

Daniel Radcliffe in a murder story involving the icons of the Beat Generation. Keri Russell in comedy about a woman obsessed with Jane Austen. Kristen Bell as a lifeguard in a dangerous relationship. And the return of the filmmaker behind the sci-fi indie classic Primer.

These are among the films making their debut in the competition category at the Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 17-27 in Park City, Utah.

Other announcements — such as those for the Midnight Movie and Premiere sections — will come in the days ahead, but first the festival likes to highlight those films that will be competing for the jury prizes this year.

As for trends, this year … ?

Sundance Festival director John Cooper and Trevor Groth, the chief programer, share a look before venturing forward with slight smiles.

“We did see a trend in the way sexual relationships are handled, across all the programs,” Cooper says. “Meaning, the head-on approach the filmmakers are taking to explore sexual relationships in our modern society. Also, I think, it’s interesting to show sex both as power and sex as a human need and desire. And we see the perspective of both men and women. It permeates the whole program — bold and clear and authentic.”

“Historically, we’ve always had a film or two that really delved into this,” adds Groth. “Even last year with The Sessions, it was like that. But this year it came in a wave that we really felt. I find that interesting, to analyze: What was out there in the filmmaking community, and the world, that triggered this exploration of where we’re at with sexual relationships?”

Among the competition films that fit that group are Afternoon Delight, with Kathryn Hahn (TV’s Parks and Recreation) as a housewife who hires a stripper (The Dark Knight Rises‘ Juno Temple) as her nanny; Kristen Bell in The Lifeguard, as a woman sleeping with a high-school kid, and Concussion, with Robin Weigert (TV’s Sons of Anarchy) as a woman who wakes up from an accident determined to shake off her old life. It also comes into play with Touchy Feely, the latest from Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister filmmaker Lynn Shelton, with Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston and Josh Pais in the story of a massage therapist who develops an aversion to human contact.

Harry Potter star Radcliffe continues to move away from The Boy Who Lived by taking on the role of Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, which co-stars Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall and Boardwalk Empire‘s Jack Huston (this time without the half-mask) in the story of a murder involving the founding writers of the Beat Generation.

And Russell, who had the indie hit Waitress at the festival in 2007, returns as a lovesick woman looking for love in 19th century places in Austenland, from director Jerusha Hess, the co-writer of Napoleon Dynamite.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Rooney Mara co-stars with Casey Affleck in the lyrical Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, about a pair of escaped prisoners fleeing the law in the hills of Texas, while Octavia Spencer, the best supporting actress Oscar-winner from The Help, turns up opposite Chronicle‘s Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale, based on the true story of a young man’s final day before being cut down by police.

Among the straight-up comedies, Groth said, include Smashed director James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, starring Miles Teller (Project X) as a high school kid trying to rescue a shy girl, played by Shailene Woodley (The Descendants); and Toy’s House, about three runaway boys, co-starring Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, and Alison Brie — among several others that walk the line between darkness and humor. “There were some years when I’d say we didn’t have a single comedy in our competition,” Groth adds with a shrug.

“I know …” Cooper groans. “How did we make it through?”

Fans of Sundance past will be eager to see Upstream Color, the first feature from writer-director Shane Carruth since his low-fi but deeply beloved time-travel story Primer. It’s hard to tell what it’s actually about, based on the vague description in the programming announcement, but it sounds like another variation on a sci-fi theme, about a man and woman “entangled in the life-cycle of an ageless organism.”

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