We are just two weeks away from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and the excitement is palpable. If you've already taken a look at the festival line-up and, like us, are not sure which movies to see, you're in luck. During the annual 2018 Sundance Film Festival Preview, presented jointly by The Salt Lake Tribune and the Sundance Institute on January 2, Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming Trevor Groth shared a behind-the-scenes look at how he and his team of 10 staff members select the films, what's new for the upcoming fest, and which films he's most excited about. Here's the scoop: 

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Leimert Park / U.S.A. (Director: Mel Jones, Screenwriters: Davita Scarlett, Mel Jones, Kady Kamakate)

New At The Fest

Exciting developments this year for the festival include a brand new, state-of-the-art 500 seat theater in Park City, new awards for all Festival Favorite and NEXT, a standalone Indie Episodic section, and more free screenings in Park City and Salt Lake City. The new theater, dubbed "The Ray," will not only be one of the biggest theaters in Park City, it will also host the New Frontier projects along with the Kimball Arts Center (previously located at Claimjumper on Main Street). 

The creation of the Indie Episodic section is to "Do for TV what Sundance did for film," said Groth. "Episodic work right now reminds us of indie film in the early days. There's an unknown, mysterious quality and creative outbursts. It's a form of rough and raw storytelling, similar to shorts, that offers unfettered freedom to push boundaries." 

Top Picks: Dubbed "The Ultimate Binge Watch," some highlights from the Indie Episodic section include High & MightyThe TradeLeimert Park, Adulteres, The Mortified Guide, and America To Me. Groth also gushed about the only documentary episodic Wild, Wild Country which will be show in its entirety (6 parts) because its the kind of episodic that you're dying to know what happens next and is more wild and out there than any piece of fiction. 

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Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster appear in Leave No Trace by Debra Granik, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Girl Power!

Landing on a theme for a festival as large as Sundance, with its diverse array of films, can be difficult admitted Groth, but this year is definitely about women. After a tumultuous past 12 months, starting with the Women's March to the widespread purging in Hollywood from sexual harassment allegations, this year's crop of festival films feature some truly powerful female stories and performances. "Even though these filmmakers have been working for years on some of these projects, they resonate more with audiences because all these things are hitting in this moment," said Groth. "We have a lot of strong, complex female characters in both the narrative and documentary section. This year we are also blessed to have very high-caliber actresses who we can see stretching themselves in roles and taking the leads." Just to name a few, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Daisy Ridley, Keira Knightly, Chloë Sevigny, and Andrea Riseborough. On the documentary side, you'll see even more female driven stories with films including one about Jane Fonda, human rights activist Nadia Murad, women's rights attorney Gloria Allred, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (who will be attending the festival). 

Top Picks: In addition to pointing out the interesting stories and stellar female performances, Groth put the spotlight on three particular documentaries about women The Devil We Know, Half The Picture, and A Woman Captured), as well as Leave No Trace and 8th Grade

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Lu Over the Wall / Japan (Director: Masaaki Yuasa, Screenwriters: Reiko Yoshida, Masaaki Yuasa, Producer: Eunyoung Choi)

Comedy and Kids

"There's a misconception that Sundance is all about morose dramas," said Groth. "But we're always hungry for comedy as programmers. They set the tone for many festivalgoers, but they are also hard to find because good comedy is difficult and there are a lot of things that can go wrong." That being said, Groth was happy to report comedy is strong this year. 

Top Pick: If you want side stitch hilarity than you need to see Futile and Stupid Gesture about comedy wunderkind Doug Kenney, who co-created the National LampoonCaddyshack, and Animal House. Although it will be available on Netflix, Groth emphasized the film will never be more alive and fun than it is in a packed theater. Netflix and Amazon are both becoming major players at the festival, but Groth is hopeful a balance will be struck between this massive companies and smaller distributors who focus on theatrical releases.

You don't need to be a child to fall in love with the films in the Kid's section of the program. "I think there's a lot of people who still don't know about the Kid's section, but it really has some amazing work this year and we have high hopes for all of them," says Groth. His favorite was Lu Over The Wall, a Japanese anime film that will have its English language premiere at the festival. The other films in the category are White Fang and Science Fair, which Groth also spoke highly of.

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Quiet Heroes / U.S.A. (Director: Jenny Mackenzie, Co-Directors: Jared Ruga, Amanda Stoddard, Producers: Jenny Mackenzie, Jared Ruga, Amanda Stoddard)

Utah Spotlight

Sundance has its roots in Utah and festival programmer do make an effort to showcase work from here. Sometimes they find it and sometimes they don't. This year, they happened to find two amazing documentaries both dealing with LGBTQ issues and the Mormon Church: Quiet Heroes and Believer. "We strongly believe in the ability of filmmakers to spark change in the world and we have high hopes that these two films will be able to do so," said Groth. 

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Mandy / Belgium, U.S.A. (Director: Panos Cosmatos, Screenwriters: Panos Cosmatos, Aaron Stewart-Ahn, Producers: Daniel Noah, Josh Waller, Elijah Wood, Nate Bolotin, Adrian Politowski)

Everything Else

Finally, if you really want to find cutting edge filmmaking and take advantage of seeing cinematic work that will be harder to find outside of the festival setting, Groth stressed making the effort to see films from the NEXT, Documentary, World Cinema, and Shorts sections. These categories feature films that will be hard to find after the festival is over while projects with big stars are all but guaranteed distribution. "The true beauty of Sundance are those magical discoveries. Documentaries used to be the best kept secret at the festival, but I think people are catching on to the fact that it's often our strongest area." 

Top Picks: For a documentary really pushing the boundaries and incorporating magical realism don't miss 306 Hollywood from the NEXT section. Also from NEXT, We The Animals, reminiscent of Beasts of the Southern Wild in its depiction of childhood. If you love bizarre, trippy films, grab a double espresso and tune into Mandy playing in the MIDNIGHT section. Also catch documentaries Three Identical Strangers, Crime & Punishment, Minding The Gap, and The Sentence. And although they aren't premiering at Sundance, the SPOTLIGHT for favorites from other festivals are always worth it, so if you have the chance, you should see The Death of Stalin, BEAST, and The Rider.

Individual Tickets for the Festival will be on sale from noon to 8 p.m. mountain time on January 11. Learn about additional free screenings for Utah locals with Best of Fest and Townie Tuesday


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