"It's rare that a group of us programmers will walk into a movie, and walk out unified in our response," said festival director Geoffrey Gilmore.
The movie is one of 17 Premiere films that will screen Jan. 19-29 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and the Sundance resort. Festival organizers announced the Premiere films late Wednesday, capping three days of unveiling 120 titles.
The drama - written and directed by Sundance alum Nicole Holofcener ("Walking and Talking," "Lovely and Amazing") - centers on three married women, their husbands and their one single friend. The cast includes Jennifer Aniston, Scott Caan, Joan Cusack, Jason Isaacs, Catherine Keener and Frances McDormand.
Gilmore, who is an admirer of Holofcener's films, said her new film shows "a level of accomplishment that is so impressive. It's so exciting to see her working at this level. This is filmmaking that, to me, captures independent storytelling at its best."
For the first time, Sundance will feature a closing-night premiere, on Friday, Jan. 27. "We thought that the best way to end the festival was with a closing night . . . to end the festival in a fun way," Gilmore said.
The movie in that final premiere slot is to "Alpha Dog," a crime drama about a notorious drug dealer. The movie, directed and written by Nick Cassavetes ("The Notebook"), stars Emile Hirsch, Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone.
The festival's Salt Lake City opening gala - moving this year to the Rose Wagner Theatre - will feature the British comedy-drama "Kinky Boots." The movie stars Joel Edgerton as a man trying to save his father's shoe factory, with the unlikely help of a cross-dressing cabaret performer named Lola (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who played the villain in "Serenity").
Besides Holofcener and Cassavetes, other Sundance veterans and established filmmakers are unveiling their new films in the Premieres section, including: Terry Zwigoff ("Bad Santa"), Wim Wenders ("Wings of Desire"), Finn Taylor ("Cherish"), Paul McGuigan ("Wicker Park"), Jonathan Demme ("The Manchurian Candidate"), Patrick Stettner ("The Business of Strangers"), Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") and Kirby Dick (the Oscar-nominated documentary "Twist of Faith").
Among the stars in the Premieres program: John Malkovich, Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange, Eva Marie Saint, Edward Norton, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Julia Stiles, Forest Whitaker, Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Morgan Freeman, Lucy Liu, Neil Young, Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Sarah Polley and Tim Robbins.
The 2006 Festival Premieres slate
"Alpha Dog," written and directed by Nick Cassavetes ("The Notebook"), a drama based on the life of the notorious drug dealer Jesse James Hollywood. Emile Hirsch ("Lords of Dogtown"), Justin Timberlake, Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone lead the cast.
"Art School Confidential," a drama about a young man ("Bee Season's" Max Minghella) who finagles his way into art school, only to find that a murder has made him a celebrity. Also starring Sophia Myles, Matt Keeslar, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent and Anjelica Huston. The director and writer of "Ghost World," Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes, reteam here.
"Cargo" (Spain/United Kingdom), a drama in which a backpacker in Africa stows away in a European-bound cargo plane. Peter Mullan leads the international cast; directed by Clive Gordon, and written by Paul Laverty ("Sweet Sixteen").
"The Darwin Awards," a comedy starring Joseph Fiennes and Winona Ryder as two experts investigating a possible winner of a Darwin Award, which are given to "those who accidentally kill themselves in really stupid ways." Finn Taylor ("Cherish") writes and directs; the supporting cast includes David Arquette, Tim Blake Nelson, Juliette Lewis, Julianna Margulies and Chris Penn.
"Don't Come Knocking," directed by Wim Wenders ("Wings of Desire") and written by Sam Shepard, who stars as a washed-up Western actor who returns home and confronts his past. Jessica Lange, Tim Roth, Gabriel Mann, Sarah Polley, Fairuza Balk and Eva Marie Saint star in the film, which was partly shot in Moab, Salt Lake City and Wendover.
"Friends With Money," written and directed by Nicole Holofcener ("Lovely & Amazing"), tells of three married women, their husbands, and their only single friend. Jennifer Aniston, Scott Caan, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener and Frances McDormand star.
"The Illusionist," a romantic drama starring Edward Norton as a magician in Vienna, circa 1900, who uses his powers to secure the love of a woman above his social standing. Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell co-star for director-screenwriter Neil Burger.
"Kinky Boots" (United Kingdom), a comedy-drama about a man (Joel Edgerton) trying to save his father's shoe factory - and finds an ally in a cabaret singer named Lola ("Serenity's" Chiwetel Ejiofor). Julian Jarrold directs; Tim Firth and Geoff Dean wrote the screenplay.
"Little Miss Sunshine," a comedy set in the world of pre-teen beauty pageants, directed by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin and 9-year-old Abigail Breslin star; the writer is Michael Arndt.
"A Little Trip to Heaven" (Iceland/U.S.A.), a thriller in which a couple (Julia Stiles, Jeremy Renner) tangle with an insurance investigator (Forest Whitaker) over her dead brother's insurance policy. Directed and written by Baltasar Kormakur.
"Lucky Number Slevin," a crime drama starring Josh Hartnett as a man caught in a case of mistaken identity - and a murder plot involving a New York crime boss (Ben Kingsley). Directed by Paul McGuigan (who worked with Hartnett in "Wicker Park"), written by Jason Smilovic. Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Lucy Liu also star.
"Neil Young: Heart of Gold," a concert film shot over two nights at Nashville's legendary Ryman Auditorium. Emmylou Harris shows up to perform with Young. Directed by Jonathan Demme, whose "Stop Making Sense" ranks as one of the greatest concert films ever.
"The Night Listener," a mystery thriller starring Robin Williams as a radio host who starts communicating with a 12-year-old fan, only to find the boy's identity is in question. Toni Collette, Bobby Cannavale, Joe Morton, Rory Culkin and Sandra Oh star. Patrick Stettner ("The Business of Strangers") directs a script by Armistead Maupin ("Tales of the City"), Terry Anderson and Stettner.
"The Science of Sleep" (France), stars Gael Garcia Bernal ("The Motorcycle Diaries") as a man trying to get control over the people in his dreams. Directed and written by Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind").
"Thank You For Smoking," in which writer-director Jason Reitman (Ivan's son) adapts Christopher Buckley's scathing satirical novel about a tobacco-company spokesman (Aaron Eckhart). Maria Bello, Sam Elliott, Katie Holmes and William H. Macy co-star.
"The Secret Life of Words" (Spain), about a nurse (Sarah Polley) who uses her vacation to tend to an oil-rig worker (Tim Robbins) suffering severe burns. Julie Christie also stars for writer-director Isabel Coixet ("My Life Without Me").
"This Film Is Not Yet Rated," a documentary by Kirby Dick ("Twist of Faith") that peeks into the secrecy of the MPAA's movie-ratings system.
Eva Marie Saint