LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Sundance Film Festival Wednesday unveiled the 64 films that will compete at the January 2008 event, featuring something rarely seen at the top forum for U.S. independent film -- a lot of comedy.
"The Last Word," for instance, is billed as a romantic comedy about a writer of suicide notes, and "Choke" tells of a mother and son coping with a "fear of aging, sexual addiction, and the dark side of historical theme parks."
To be sure, many of the 2008 festival films are the dark dramas that typically screen at the 10-day festival founded by Robert Redford to showcase movies made outside Hollywood.
But others take an atypically light-hearted approach to subjects, which box office experts say is what current audiences are craving.
"Last year, if a lot of the work seemed to be expressly political or offer moral judgment, then it seems that is not the case this year," said festival director Geoffrey Gilmore.
"There certainly is a dark sensibility ... but a lot of people are taking a very irreverent attitude toward it."
Sundance has featured comedy in the past. Best picture Oscar nominee "Little Miss Sunshine" debuted at the 2006 festival.
But Sundance's must-see titles are often more akin to 2007's "Grace is Gone," starring John Cusack as a father who must tell his kids their mother was killed in the Iraq war.
This year, 3,624 feature films were submitted from the United States and around the world, up from 3,287 last year.
Sixteen movies in each of four categories -- U.S. dramas and documentaries and world dramas and documentaries -- were chosen to compete for awards and many will be among the most talked-about titles at art house cinemas in 2008.
Other U.S. dramas include "Pretty Bird," starring Billy Crudup and Paul Giamatti, which tells of three fledgling entrepreneurs who create a rocket belt, and "The Wackness" with Ben Kingsley and Mary Kate Olsen about a teenage drug dealer who trades pot in exchange for free psychiatric counseling.
World cinema dramas include Jordan's "Captain Abu Raed" about an airport janitor regaling poor kids with tales of his fantasy life as a pilot and France's "I Always Wanted to be a Gangster," about criminals who are lousy at robbing people.
Gilmore reckons that the indie filmmakers showing work at Sundance are not so much ignoring hard facts of contemporary life as they are finding a way to smile through the madness.
"For us, it has made the festival's lineup very surprising and very unpredictable," he said.
The lighter tone of Sundance 2008 seems to jibe with what is happening at box offices. Dark dramas such as "Eastern Promises" and war movies like "In the Valley of Elah" have flopped, while escapist fare such as "Enchanted" and comedy "Superbad" have beaten expectations.
Meanwhile, the Sundance documentaries feature a range of topics from the environment to global finance and celebrities. "Flow: For Love of Water" looks at water resources, "I.O.U.S.A" explores U.S. debt, and "Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson," looks at that iconoclastic journalist's life.
Among the world documentaries, Britain's "A Complete History of My Sexual Failures" follows a man as he talks to his ex-girlfriends about why he's a miserable boyfriend, and Pakistan's "Dinner with the President" looks at issues ranging from religion to women's rights in that volatile country.
A full list of Sundance competition films can be found at www.sundance.org/festival.