PARK CITY, Utah — A fresh dusting of snow over Park City heralded the beginning of the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday.
Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford opened the festival by characterizing the slate of 117 feature films as products of "dark and grim" times and the "suffering from a government that's in paralysis."
"Even though the work reflects hard times, there's not paralysis here," the 75-year-old filmmaker said at an afternoon news conference. "They're breathing life into fresh, new stories."
The selection of films are "as diverse as they can be" and no overriding theme has emerged, said festival director John Cooper.
"Independent film is the theme," he said.
For 11 days every January, Sundance becomes the focal point of the independent film world as established directors and stars mix with up-and-coming talent, while theatrical distributors prowl the festival looking for the next indie hit, and film lovers just have a good time being the first audiences to see new movies.
"You can't make a film with a festival in mind, and it's not something I would have expected or taken for granted. But it's always kind of the dream in the back of your mind," said Lauren Greenfield, who premiered her debut documentary "Thin" at Sundance in 2006 and returns this time with one of the opening-night films, "The Queen of Versailles," chronicling the housing-bust story of a couple that tried to build a palatial 90,000-square-foot mansion.
"I think it's this really magical environment, a place that's such a nurturing, supportive influence for independent films. Even when you're out there making your film, I think that you think about Sundance, and it just kind of gives you motivation."
Also opening Thursday is "Hello I Must Be Going," actor-turned-director Todd Louiso's U.S. dramatic entry that centers on a love story between a 19-year-old man and a 35-year-old divorcee, and stars Melanie Lynskey; the world-cinema drama "Wish You Were Here," a dark story of a vacation gone wrong from Australian filmmaker Kieran Darcy-Smith that stars Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer; and Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul's world-cinema documentary "Searching for Sugar Man," a portrait of promising 1970s singer-songwriter Rodriguez and his fade into obscurity.
Sundance also is a launch place for films that already have distributors, who show off their films hoping to build buzz among audiences and the legions of cinema journalists and bloggers who attend the festival.
"All the film press in North America is at Sundance to discover films," said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which is showing director Nadine Labaki's Lebanese drama "Where Do We Go Now?" and Gareth Huw Evans' Indonesian action tale "The Raid" at the festival. "Sundance is like the best place to set up a film for release. You have instant press junkets at Sundance."
Among the more established filmmakers showcasing their work at the festival are Spike Lee with his urban drama "Red Hook Summer," in which he reprises the character he played in "Do the Right Thing"; Stephen Frears with his sports-wagering caper "Lay the Favorite," starring Bruce Willis, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rebecca Hall; documentary veteran Joe Berlinger with his Paul Simon portrait "Under African Skies"; and Julie Delpy with her relationship comedy "2 Days in New York," in which she stars with Chris Rock.
The Sundance Film Festival has grown tremendously over its 28 years, but Redford said the institute's mission remains the same: to support and encourage independent filmmakers and provide a platform for their work to be seen.
"There are those people who say, 'Why give money to art? It means nothing,'" Redford said. "I think it means a lot. And we're here to try and prove how much it does mean. So we can only do what we can do, but we're going to keep doing it.
The Sundance Film Festival continues through Jan. 29.
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen is on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/APSandy . AP Movie Writer David Germain contributed to this report.