The Sundance Film Festival is preparing to resume its role as the great equalizer of the cinema world.
This is where complete unknowns can suddenly find themselves sought-after talent among Hollywood distributors. This is where marquee talent such as Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Chris Rock turn up in thoughtful, non-studio flicks.
And it's where eager audiences get to grill stars and filmmakers about the creative process during question-and-answer sessions after screenings.
Overseen by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, the festival is the top U.S. showcase for independent film. The 11-day festival includes 118 feature-length films and 96 shorts.
Opening the festival Thursday night is director Adam Elliot's "Mary and Max," a clay-animation tale about a pen-pal friendship between an 8-year-old Australian girl (voiced by Toni Collette) and an obese middle-aged New Yorker (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Filmmakers say one of the festival's big lures is rubbing elbows with fans who brave the cold, snow and mob scene of Sundance to see something different than what they'll find at their local multiplex.
"That's the best thing about going to a festival, especially Sundance," said Bobcat Goldthwait, writer-director of the dark Sundance comedy "World's Greatest Dad," starring Robin Williams.
"I feel like I'm a rich guy who pays money to go to one of those fantasy baseball camps and gets to play baseball with the pros. That's what it's like for me."
"The Office" co-star John Krasinski makes his directing debut with the comedy "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men"; Rock plays host for the documentary "Good Hair," exploring African-American hairstyles; and Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan star in the melodrama "The Greatest."
Other big-name entries include Richard Gere, Don Cheadle and Ethan Hawke in Antoine Fuqua's cop drama "Brooklyn's Finest," Uma Thurman in the domestic tale "Motherhood," Kevin Spacey as analyst to Hollywood A-listers in "Shrink" and William Hurt and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the apartheid story "Endgame."
Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore said key themes this time are "romance and activism."
Sundance is heavy on cautionary environmental stories, among them the dolphin tale "The Cove," the oil-pollution chronicle "Crude" and the earthy ecology study "Dirt! The Movie."
"What you see is people going out and making stories not just identifying problems and documenting what that is, but trying to identify solutions," Gilmore said. "The environmental work you see these days doesn't end with a description of the crisis we're in. It ends with a description of what you can do to help us get out of this crisis."
On the romantic side, Sundance offers quirky stories of passion and affection, including "Don't Let Me Drown," a teen love story set in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks; "Peter and Vandy," chronicling a couple's relationship from hopeful start through slow deterioration; and "Humpday," a tale of old buddies who attempt a "work of art" - an amateur porn flick of straight guys having sex with each other.
Jim Carrey appears in his first Sundance film with one of those romances, "I Love You Phillip Morris," playing a gay con man who meets the love of his life (Ewan McGregor) in prison.
"It's just such a goodhearted, sweet, beautiful, really funny movie. It dares to be romantic," Carrey said, adding a dig at Utah's Mormon church over its involvement in the passage of California's gay marriage ban. "I just think it's a perfect movie for these days, and I'm just so glad it's premiering there. First of all, it's in Utah, which is kind of poignant after Proposition 8."
- PHOTOS: What's Brewing in Steamy Hallows, the Harry Potter-Inspired Cafe19 Pictures
- PHOTOS: Frida Kahlo at the Brooklyn Museum doesn't hold back23 Pictures