“Native Son,” a buzzy adaptation of Richard Wright’s blistering novel, will open the next Sundance Film Festival, which will also feature Zac Efron playing Ted Bundy, Viola Davis starring in a comedy and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a leading figure in a rollicking political documentary.
Sundance programmers announced the heart of their coming lineup on Wednesday — one that John Cooper, the festival’s director, called “layered, intense and authentic.” All told, 112 feature-length films were selected from 14,259 submissions, a 6 percent increase from the 2018 festival. Rosters for short films, experimental cinema and independently produced TV series will be unveiled in the coming days.
“There is more of a directness to the films this year — let’s dive straight into that gray area where the problem is and look at it,” Cooper said, adding that he thought indie film was emerging from a period where it was “a little more lyrical and drifty in its ideas.”
Founded by Robert Redford and staged annually in the affluent ski town of Park City, Utah, Sundance has long been known for showcasing diversity on both sides of the camera. For the first time — perhaps to prod the mainstream movie factories to speed up inclusion efforts — Sundance prominently included statistics about its 2019 class. Forty percent of the movies chosen were directed by one or more women, 36 percent were directed by filmmakers of color, and 13 percent came from directors who identify as members of sexual and gender minority communities.
Sundance has moved away from its history as a freewheeling bazaar where swarms of hanger-on celebrities come to hot-tub hop and film distributors throw money around in all-night bidding wars. But the festival remains the pre-eminent showcase for American independent film. The past festival’s lineup included multiple films that helped define the year in art-house cinema, including “Sorry to Bother You,” “Eighth Grade,” “Leave No Trace” and the documentaries “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
It is anyone’s guess what movies will break out at the coming festival, which will run from Jan. 24 to Feb. 3. But one good bet is “Late Night,” a sassy comedy starring Emma Thompson as a legendary late-night talk-show host who — to smooth over diversity concerns — hires her only female staff writer, played by Mindy Kaling. “Late Night” was directed by the newcomer Nisha Ganatra from a screenplay by Kaling. Its producers include Scott Rudin.
Other established stars pepper the selections. Davis and Allison Janney anchor “Troupe Zero,” an Amazon Studios comedy about a misfit girl in rural 1977 Georgia who forms a makeshift Girl Scout-style group. Jake Gyllenhaal reteams with his “Nightcrawler” director, Dan Gilroy, for an art-world horror thriller called “Velvet Buzzsaw.” And Chiwetel Ejiofor directed, wrote and stars in “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” the true story of a Malawian boy whose invention saved his village from famine.
As ever, documentaries will give Sundance much of its heat. Progressive-leaning festivalgoers, for instance, will undoubtedly rally behind “Knock Down the House,” a documentary from Rachel Lears that follows insurgent political candidates, including Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected Democratic congresswoman from Queens.
Here are five other films that stand out:
A24, the hip independent film company behind “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird,” has already acquired distribution rights for this contemporary reimagining of Wright’s 1940 novel. Starring Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) as Bigger Thomas and directed by the newcomer Rashid Johnson, “Native Son” tells the seminal story of a young black man whose bleak destiny has been determined by society. The rising-star cast includes KiKi Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and Nick Robinson (“Love, Simon”).
‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’
Joe Berlinger, the Oscar-nominated documentarian, returns to narrative directing for the first time since his disastrous “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” in 2000 with this look at the serial-killing Bundy through the eyes of his girlfriend, played by Lily Collins. While Efron has said that the film does not glorify Bundy, who murdered more than 30 women in the 1970s, one Sundance programmer called his performance “warm and heartfelt and lovely.”
‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’
This nonfiction portrait of one of the true dark artists of American politics was directed by the very busy Matt Tyrnauer (“Studio 54,” “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood”). In announcing “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” as part of its documentary competition, Sundance noted that Cohn influenced President Trump — he was his personal lawyer, and the film’s title is a quote from Trump — and described the movie as a “thriller-like exposé” that reveals how “a deeply troubled master manipulator shaped our current American nightmare.”
‘We Are Little Zombies’
This may be the most international Sundance ever. The festival’s high-profile premieres section, for instance, includes films from Ireland, Britain, Australia, Norway and Germany. The widening of the festival’s aperture reflects the influence of Kim Yutani, who became director of programming in May. “We Are Little Zombies,” about orphaned teenagers who form a band, comes from Makoto Nagahisa, a Japanese director who previously won a Sundance grand jury award for a short film.
‘Ask Dr. Ruth’
The 90-year-old sex therapist and Holocaust survivor Dr. Ruth Westheimer — “a cross between Henry Kissinger and Minnie Mouse,” as a journalist once put it — has been a pop culture fixture since the 1980s. She has written more than three dozen books, hosted at least five television shows and, in recent years, become a Twitter devotee. Now arrives a potentially crowd-pleasing legacy documentary, directed by Ryan White, who is best known for the 2014 same-sex marriage documentary “The Case Against 8.”