By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Genre-bending films dominated the 2014 lineup announced on Wednesday for the U.S. feature film competition at the Sundance Film Festival, the top U.S. festival for independent cinema.
The competition will showcase 16 films spanning serious and comedic efforts, with many fusing together the traditional cinematic conventions of different genres.
"They kind of struck us as surprising, a lot of the storylines this year, especially in competition. A lot of them were unexpected," John Cooper, director of the Sundance film festival, told Reuters.
Examples of films that cross genres include the zombie romance "Life After Beth," written and directed by Jeff Baena and starring Dane DeHaan and Aubrey Plaza, and "Jamie Marks is Dead," a ghost comedy by writer-director Carter Smith.
"'Life After Beth' is a really innovative approach of using some of the conventions of a zombie film but putting it in an indie young love story," said Trevor Groth, the director of programming for the film festival started by actor and director Robert Redford in 1978.
Some of the selected U.S. drama contenders also turn the spotlight on the plight of people in difficult jobs, like the a guard at Guantanamo Bay in "Camp X-Ray" starring Kristen Stewart, or a Somali fisherman turned pirate in filmmaker Cutter Hodierne's "Fishing Without Nets."
"These are stories that people know that are accessible. We always tell people to make the movies that they know, and there's such diversity in what that is," Cooper said.
Both Cooper and Groth also noted a rise in the use of comedy to lighten the drama, spurred by both the critical and commercial success of last year's "Silver Linings Playbook," which landed key Oscar nominations and a best actress Oscar win for lead star Jennifer Lawrence.
"(Dysfunctional family stories) are one of the stalwarts of independent films, but it's done with a little more of a twist, a little more creativity than in the past, a little more comedy. There's a lot of comedy intermixed here," Cooper said.
Notable films fusing comedy into family stories include "Happy Christmas" starring Anna Kendrick as a young woman who moves in with her older brother and his family after a break-up, and "The Skeleton Twins," starring Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as estranged twins brought together after cheating death.
Now in its 30th edition, the Sundance Film Festival, backed by Redford's Sundance Institute, is held in snow-covered Park City, Utah. The upcoming festival will begin on January 16, and run through January 27.
The festival will feature 117 feature-length films representing 37 countries, selected from more than 12,000 submissions. In addition to the 16 films in the U.S. drama competition, there will be 16 U.S. documentaries, 12 world cinema dramas and 12 world documentaries in competition.
The opening day films set a tone for the festival and include the U.S. drama "Whiplash" a story of a young drummer pursuing perfection in his craft played by actor Miles Teller.
Among the documentaries selected for the festival are "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz," following the journey of internet activist Swartz before he committed suicide this year, and "No No: A Dockumentary" about a 1970s baseball player who famously pitched a no-hitter while high on LSD.
In recent years, many indie films that have garnered critical success from the festival, have gone on to be major awards contenders, such as 2012's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" and 2013's "Fruitvale Station," which is a strong contender in Hollywood's upcoming awards season.
The movies in the premiere section of Sundance, which do not compete and often feature more prominent directors, will be announced on December 9.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker)