The 2012 Sundance Film Festival opens Thursday, January 19th, screens 200 films culled from 9,000 submissions, and closes with Cooper in "The Words" on January 29th in Park City, Utah. An annual gathering of celebrities, filmmakers, press, Hollywood brokers, and hangers-on, this year's event promises to be particularly star-studded, with ample gritty independent filmmaking to balance out the hype. Here are my picks for must-see films:
• "This Must Be the Place": Oscar winner Sean Penn returns to his comic roots -- "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" -- in a dramedy about a seen-it-all, done-it-all hair band rocker who jump-starts his life by setting out to hunt a Nazi war criminal living in the U.S. With music from David Byrne. Can't wait!
• "Ethel": Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy ("Ghosts of Abu Ghraib") turns her camera on her mother, Robert F. Kennedy's widow. Ethel Kennedy was pregnant with Rory when Sirhan Sirhan assassinated her husband, JFK's younger brother, in 1968. Here, Bobby's youngest daughter pieces together an intimate portrait of her wing of the Kennedy dynasty -- with never-before-seen family footage and interviews with her mother and seven of her 10 siblings.
• "The Words": In the closing-night thriller, an ambitious plagiarist ("sexiest man alive" Bradley Cooper) discovers that once he steals another man's prose, the script of his own life goes very, very dark. Also starring Zoe Saldana and Olivia Wilde.
• "Predisposed": Oscar winner Melissa Leo ("The Fighter") and Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg ("The Social Network") star in a contemporary comedy about a piano prodigy coping with his loving but drug-addicted mother. When she has to be shipped to rehab on the day of his big piano audition, family conflicts boil over. Oscar winner Ron Nyswaner ("Philadelphia") co-wrote and co-directed with newcomer Phil Dorling.
• "Goats": A terrific ensemble cast including Vera Farmiga, Keri Russell, and Ty Burrell supports this coming-of-age comedy about a talented teen ("The Good Wife's" Graham Phillips) trading Tucson for an East Coast prep school. It's a funny, poignant portrait of the New Age world he leaves behind, including his beloved pot-growing guru, the Goat Man (David Duchovny).
The indie fest kicks off this Thursday with Lauren Greenfield's controversial "The Queen of Versailles." The documentary, which explores the impact of the recession on a billionaire Florida developer, his wife, and their Versailles-inspired 90,000-square-foot megamansion, is already the subject of a defamation lawsuit filed by the movie's subject, David Siegel.