The sleepy Utah ski resort of Park City explodes into life once again as Hollywood and the world's press bombard its slopes. This is the Sundance Film Festival, which despite its modest indie circuit origins (as the Utah/US Film Festival in 1978) is now America's foremost film festival, perhaps in industry clout only behind Cannes and Toronto worldwide. Yet its credibility isn't based on big name stars and auteurs, but as the first stop for hot new American filmmaking talent. It's not just the legendary debuts made by Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh that maintain its star ranking for any Hollywood producer - more recent breakthrough films from Debra Granik (Winter's Bone), Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) show momentum remains in the snow-tipped peaks of Utah.
This year's edition is less heavy on star-driven features than in previous years but there are still names that attract the attention. Kelly Reichardt, Whit Stillman, Ira Sachs, John Carney, Todd Solondz and Kenneth Lonergan come to Park City to bring their latest alongside a host of filmmakers we hadn't even heard who hope to make the next Little Miss Sunshine and Donnie Darko. Those unknown filmmakers bring such highlights as Polish-vampire-mermaid-love-story The Lure, the secrets of a cult at the heart of Hollywood (Holy Hell) and the story of Obama's first date with Michelle (Southside with Me). Our top picks include the latest from Reichardt (Meek's Cutoff, Night Moves), Certain Women, a Montana-set drama about kidnapping in small-town America starring Laura Dern and Jared Harris. We're hoping for much from Stillman's Love & Friendship, a period drama adapted from a long-unpublished Jane Austen novella starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevingy.
Kenneth Lonergan - who has made two outstanding movies in You Can Count on Me and the vastly underrated, legally-wrangled Margaret - returns with Manchester by the Sea. Its synopsis suggests a dark family drama, but even so the Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams-starrer is the hottest ticket of the festival. Other top tips include Rebecca Hall-starring Christine, Antonio Campos' film on the true story Christine Chubbuck, the TV newswoman who committed suicide live on TV in 1974, which could raise Hall's immeasurable talents to the attention of next year's awards season. Plus: Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe lost on a desert island in Swiss Army Man; Viggo Mortensen heads Captain Fantastic about a reclusive family living in the forests of the Pacific Northwest re-entering American society; and Asif Kapadia returns to fiction filmmaking after Amy with First World War drama Ali & Nino. Finally, Werner Herzog is among the plethora of documentary filmmakers at Sundance, his Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World promises a mash-up of the history of the internet and the terrifying possibilities the web can bring upon mankind. So normal service for Herzog, then.
The 2016 Sundance Film Festival takes place between 21-31 January. Follow our coverage here.
Ed Frankl | @Ed_Frankl