By Lucas Shaw
NEW YORK (TheWrap.com) - Thanks to Richard Gere and the financial crisis, the Sundance Film Festival is returning to its indie roots this year.
The festival, which starts Thursday, has long served as a launching pad for smaller movies, as it did last year in catapulting "Beasts of the Southern Wild" to four Oscar nominations. However, as the festival has grown in stature, it also has craved big-ticket movies with brand-name stars, from John Wells' "The Company Men" (Ben Affleck and a reported $15 million budget) to Antoine Fuqua's "Brooklyn's Finest" (Richard Gere and a $17 million budget).
"At previous Sundances, there was a real effort to try and have very high-profile mainstream films," Jessica Lacy, head of ICM's international and independent film department, told TheWrap.
But this new crop, she said, "all feel like unique, independent films. The distribution landscape lends itself to making and having more kinds of these films, and there are more opportunities for them to be distributed."
Indeed, two recent Sundance premieres - "Margin Call," a drama about the early stages of the financial crisis, and "Arbitrage," Nicholas Jarecki's film about an unscrupulous hedge-fund manager - validated the increasingly popular strategy of simultaneously releasing films in theaters and on video by demand or other platforms.
Now, more buyers are trying new approaches, actors, directors - and even stars are more willing to make the small movie.
With that in mind, here are 13 movies (of varying size) to keep your eye on at Sundance:
Do two Sundance darlings add up to a third? James Ponsoldt, whose "Smashed" charmed the festival in 2012, directed this adolescent romantic comedy written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, whose "(500) Days of Summer" debuted in 2009.
The film hits many of the same notes - youth, romance, adventure, alcoholism and two people with very different perspectives on how to live. It also stars a pair of up-and-coming actors, Miles Teller of "Project X" and Shailene Woodley of "The Descendants."
It's been more than 20 years since Anita Hill came into the public spotlight during the nomination hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, where she accused him of sexual harassment. But there has never been a better time for this documentary - just months after an election year that featured a "war on women" and two candidates who came out with outrageous statements about rape.
Hill helped pave the way for new conversations about sexual harassment. Freida Lee Mock, who won an Academy Award in 1995 for her documentary "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision," combines archival footage and present-day interviews to examine the politics of sexism, then and now.
David Gordon Green made some good movies in the last decade, including "George Washington," a coming-of-age tale set in North Carolina, and "Pineapple Express," a stoner comedy-action movie.
"Pineapple Express" marked the beginning of the end for Green, as his indie sensibility fell into the studio system with couple of forgettable comedies - "Your Highness" and "The Sitter."
Now he's back in his comfort zone, writing and directing an adaptation of an Icelandic movie featuring the male bonding of Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch.
Think Judd Apatow meets rural America.
Can a series of small independent films be considered a franchise?
Richard Linklater returns with the third installment in his charming, talky sequence of romantic dramas. First there was 1995's "Before Sunrise," which introduced us to Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) - two adults who meet on a train, stay up all night getting acquainted only to find they are falling in love but can't stay together.
Nine years later, the couple stumble into one another briefly in Paris in "Before Sunset," a sequel that landed on many top critics' year-end "best of" lists. Now they're back again, nine years later and this time in Greece. How will their story end this time?
A year after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, two gunmen petrified an already-shaken nation with a series of sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area that left 10 dead.
John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo were dubbed the "Beltway Snipers," and while it's hard to think of two less sympathetic figures, they are at the center of Alexandre Moors' fictionalized account from the perspective of the shooters in which Moors explores what led them to commit such attacks. Isiah Washington plays Muhammad and Tequan Richmond plays Malvo.=
The film is not for the faint of heart.
"THE WAY, WAY BACK"
Jim Rash and Nat Faxon have shown they can act, Rash on "Community" and Faxon in a number of film roles. They also write: The pair won Oscar gold for 2011's "The Descendants."
But can they direct? Years ago, they penned a script about an awkward 14-year-old boy on summer vacation with his family. After several filmmakers failed to make the movie, Rash and Faxon took over and brought Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell and Toni Collette along for the ride.
Fasten your seat belts.
"DON JON'S ADDICTION"
Joseph Gordon-Levitt started as a child star, became an indie darling in "Brick," a leading man in "Looper" and founded a production company in between. Now he's directing a script he wrote.
Gordon-Levitt stars as Jon, known to most as Don Jon because the very sound of his voice makes women disrobe. Joe realizes his frequent carnal snacking leaves him feeling a bit, well, empty, so he tries to remake his life - with the help of Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore.
"THE LOOK OF LOVE"
Steve Coogan is Paul Raymond, an ambitious Brit who built an empire of strip clubs and men's magazines in stuffy, Puritanical Britain.
The "King of Soho" may not be well known stateside, but Coogan keeps trying to change that.
Working with Michael Winterbottom, with whom he made the uproarious "The Trip" and the well-received "24-Hour Party People," Coogan will next try to prove himself - as a dramatist.
"WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS"
Alex Gibney, an Oscar winner for "Taxi to the Dark Side" and an Oscar nominee for his movie about the Enron scandal, seems to enjoy upbraiding institutions of authority.
Here, Gibney saddles up for a documentary on one of the most controversial figures in modern times - Julian Assange, left, founder of WikiLeaks. Did Assange pull back the curtain on official malfeasance or commit a crime by publishing secrets?
"THE CRASH REEL"
Snowboarding is a beautiful sport to behold, and this film combines awe-inspiring aerial acrobatics with the heart wrenching story of Kevin Pearce. While training for the 2010 Winter Olympics, Pearce crashed and suffered a severe brain injury.
Oscar-nominated director Lucy Walker follows Pearce's daredevil efforts, his injury and his recovery, framing it in the larger context of athletes who risk their lives to excel at a sport.
Three boys escape suburban Cleveland to build a house in the woods. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, a "Funny or Die" director, with a script from the Black List, this movie and its star, Nick Robinson, have a lot of buzz heading into Sundance.
Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally and Allison Brie bring some comedic heft to a young cast. And doesn't everyone want to escape Cleveland?
A South Korean legend crashes America's darling festival with Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska.
Not enough? Park Chan-wook is a director you should know from films, such as "Thirst" and his Vengeance Trilogy. "Oldboy," the centerpiece of those three violent thrillers, which include "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" and "Lady Vengeance," is being remade by Spike Lee.
Now Park has made his first English-language film, a thriller about a young woman named India (Wasikowska) who becomes obsessed with her uncle.
"WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE? THE LIFE AND TIME OF TIM HETHERINGTON"
The Academy nominated him for an Oscar, Louis C.K. honored him with his show but no words can do justice to the injustice of Tim Hetherington's premature death.
Hetherington was a photographer, who, after working for years in East Africa, traveled to war zones in Afghanistan, leading to "Restrepo," a documentary he made with Sebastian Junger (Hetherington is at right in the picture with Junger)
In January 2011, that film was nominated for an Oscar. Three months later, Hetherington was killed during the civil war in Libya. Two years later, Junger returns with this film. Niche? Sure, but a damn good one.