Even as we begin to wrap up 2011, we begin the adventure for 2012 with today's announcements of the first wave of titles for next year's Sundance Film Festival.  I'm in the middle of running down my last few films for this year, and I'm focused on just making it to December 9th, when my year is sort of officially over.  The reward for all of this work?

A blank slate, and as of today, I get to start figuring out what my January looks like.

This afternoon, the Sundance Institute released the line-ups for several of the sections of this year's festival, including the U.S. and World Cinema Dramatic and Documentary Competitions.  Our team has already published the full line-up as announced, section by section, and you can see those here and here and here.  HitFix will be in Park CIty to cover the festival of course, starting with the kickoff of January 19th, and I'm already overwhelmed just based on this early list of things.

Sundance says they've chosen 110 feature-length films from 31 countries, with 46 first-time directors in the mix.  We'll get a look at some of the more adventurous sections of the festival, like NEXT, New Frontier, and of course Park City At Midnight tomorrow, and I'm sure many of my immediate must-sees will come from those lists.  For now, though, let's look at the sections they have announced:

U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Did you see the teaser trailer for Tim and Eric's "Billion Dollar Movie" today?  Freakshow.  As expected.  What I did not know is that they also starred in a film called "The Comedy," and it looks like that's playing in the Dramatic Competition, which is enough to make me sit up and take notice immediately.  Especially with this as a synopsis:  "Indifferent even to the prospects of inheriting his father's estate, Swanson whiles away his days with a group of aging Brooklyn hipsters, engaging in small acts of recreational cruelty and pacified boredom."  Okay.  I'm in.  I'm unfamiliar with Rick Alverson, but that description and that cast has me hooked.

I'm very curious to see what Mark Webber's done as a writer/director.  I met Mark on the set of "Scott Pilgrim," and he struck me as a very ambitious guy, someone who had much more to offer than "just" acting.  It look like he's called in some friends for help on "The End Of Love," which is about a young man dealing with fatherhood when the mother of his young child dies.  Shannyn Sossamon, Jason Ritter, Amanda Seyfried, and Scott Pilgrim himself, Michael Cera, are all part of the film as well.

Is Jonathan Kasdan another one of those Kasdans?  Wouldn't shock me at all.  He's the writer/director of "The First Time," which sounds like a sort of "Before Sunrise" for high school kids who meet at a party and spend a long weekend falling in love.  I don't recognize anyone in the cast by name, but that's fine.  Something like this needs to be really special to stand out from a million other loosely similar films, and I'm curious to see what it is.

So Yong Kim's "For Ellen" sounds like it could be powerful, a look at a musician on an overnight drive to confront his estranged wife about custody of their daughter, and with Paul Dano and Jena Malone onboard, I've got high hopes.

The same is true of "Hello I Must Be Going," from director Todd Louiso, which is about a woman in her 30s who moves back in with her parents, defeated by life, only to meet a teenage boy whose "attention" changes things for her.  If Melanie Lynskey is playing the lead, that's exciting.  I've always felt that she's just as interesting as her "Heavenly Creatures" co-star Kate Winslet, but a totally different type and perhaps a little harder to write for.  This is a really interesting set-up, and I'm going to do my best to see it.

Ry Russo-Young's "Nobody Walks" is co-written by Lena Dunham, meaning there will be much attention focused on the film that stars John Krasinski, Olivia Thirlby, and Justin Kirk.  Dunham's fans and detractors both have been waiting to see what she'd do after the success of "Tiny Furniture," and this is the story of an artist from New York who stays with a family in LA for a week, with her presence evidently setting off a whole slew of fireworks within that family dynamic.

I don't know Colin Trevorrow or Derek Connolly, but their film "Safety Not Guaranteed" sounds great.  "A trio of magazine employees investigate a classified ad seeking a partner for time travel."  With Mark Duplass and Aubrey Plaza onboard, you don't really need to tell me anything else.  I'm there.

Modern weddings are one of the most intense experiences anyone can survive, so it's no surprise filmmakers continue to use them as the jumping off point for drama each year, and "Save The Date" by Michael Mohan sounds like a solid riff, especially with a cast that includes Lizzy Caplan, Alison Brie, Martin Starr, Geoffrey Arend, and Mark Webber, who sounds like he's going to be very busy at the festival this year.

Another "Scott Pilgrim" cast member will be stretching with "Smashed," a love story about a couple whose bond is built around everything they share, including a love of drinking.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Octavia Spencer, Nick Offerman, and Megan Mullally star, which sounds like an outrageously good cast to me.

And finally, it wouldn't be Sundance without John Hawkes being in something, and "The Surrogate" sounds like a winner.  Ben Lewin's film is about a 36-year-old virgin with an iron lung who decides to hire a professional sex surrogate to help him finally make an important step into manhood, and Helen Hunt and William H. Macy co-star.

And that's just the U.S. Dramatic Competition.  This gets overwhelming quickly because I feel like I'm at a buffet running out of room on my plate and I haven't even made it past the salad bar yet.

U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

I know our own Dan Fienberg looks forward to the documentaries each year, but he's not alone.  I'd still say one of the best experiences I had in a theater all year was at "Project NIM," one of the first films I saw in 2011 at the opening night of Sundance this year.  Non-fiction films are an important part of my moviegoing diet, so I'm just as excited to see what's on this list.

Issue films are a major part of the documentary programming, and something like "The Atomic States Of America" or "Chasing Ice" sound like strong ways into a dialogue about the viability of nuclear power or the effects of climate change.  I like the idea of director Jeff Orlowski using time-lapse photography to look at the way glaciers are changing, because that's going to be pretty hard to argue with as a visual document.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady are really strong documentarians, and "DETROPIA," their new film, uses the collapse of Detroit as a portrait of where we are in America right now, which could be a very hard mirror to stare into for two hours.  Likewise, "ESCAPE FIRE," which deals with the broken American healthcare system, could be one of those films that deals in hard truth but is almost too painful to watch for those of us on the front lines of that struggle.  And Eugene Jarecki's tackling one of the issues that I feel really defines us in the wrong ways these days, the effects of America's War on Drugs and the absolute failure of those policies for the last 40 years, which could make "The House I Live In" one of the more incendiary titles this year.

Kirby Dick, easily one of the most significant guys working in documentary today, is tackling a difficult subject in "The Invisible War," which looks at the way rape is covered up and dealt with inside the US military, and I can't imagine that's going to be easy to sit through.  One of the keys to tackling subject matter like this is finding some light in the darkness, and "How To Survive A Plague" by David France is a good example, a movie about how AIDS went from a death sentence to something people can manage for decades.

In addition to the issue-driven docs, we'll also see several personality-driven ones, including "Marina Abramaovic The Artist Is Present" and "ME At The ZOO," a film about Internet meme Chris Crocker.  There's a documentary about the Lithuanian National Basketball Team at the '92 Olympics, as well as a look at the openly gay Bishop of New Hampshire and his struggles between faith and desire.  The housing collapse is documented in "The Queen Of Versailles," which sounds like a bit of a horror film about a young couple who were in the middle of construction on a house when things fell apart, and in case we aren't quite clear yet on how bad things can get, "Slavery By Another Name" should be a lovely look at what happened after the Emancipation Proclamation, while "We're Not Broke" seems to be a look at how corporations are still gaming the system even after everything started to fall apart.

WORLD CINEMA DRAMATIC COMPETITION

With this section, I find that it often pays to just take a chance and sample things that might not be first on the list, because there are so many gems here that don't have the benefit of recognizable stars.

"4 Suns" is a Czech film about a guy trying to live up to the responsibilities of being a father and a husband and struggling with those roles, which means I'll probably have to watch the whole thing with one hand over my eyes, on edge if its hits too close to home.  "About The Pink Sky" is a Japanese film about a girl who finds a wallet full of money which she returns to the rightful owner, and I'm curious to see where that decision takes her and her friends.  Greece has been center stage in international headlines recently, and their film industry is starting to turn out some really provocative work these days, and  "L" is the story of a man caught up in the struggle between motorcycles and cars from the perspective of a man who actually lives in his car.

The Czechs aren't the only ones struggling with family-related issues.  Both Turkey, with "Can," and Brazil with "Father's Chair," are sending family-driven dramas to the festival this year.  I love that Argentina's entry is about an Elvis impersonator with reality issues, and I'm pretty dedicated to seeing "The Last Elvis," just as I'm itching to see "Teddy Bear," a Danish film about a painfully shy 38 year old bodybuilder who leaves the safety of his mother's home to go to Thailand in search of love.  These are films I can't see anyone in America making, and that's what makes them exciting.  The UK film "My Brother The Devil" is part of a long tradition of English crime films, while "Wish You Were Here" sounds like a tense Australian thriller, something they traditionally do very well.    The last few years have been particularly strong for Chilean cinema, so both "Violeta Went To Heaven" and "Young & Wild" are automatically on my radar.

But there's one title out of the entire international section that is first priority, and that's "WRONG," the new film from Quentin Dupieux, whose last film "Rubber" was such a wonderful, surreal surprise, and I'm sure the search for a lost dog is going to be anything but normal in his hands.

Check out the trailer and you'll see what I mean: 

WRONG (sundance teaser) from oizo mr on Vimeo.

God, that looks good.

WORLD CINEMA DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

With the state of the world today, is it any wonder there seems to be a glut of intriguing documentaries rolling in from all over the globe?  "1/2 Revolution" is a Danish film but deals with the Egyptian revolution and the journey of two filmmakers who were arrested as they tried to document it.  Meanwhile, "5 Broken Cameras" is a co-production between Palestine, Israel, and France, and deals with what happens when a separation barrier is built in a Palestinian village where a journalist and his son live.  It's important to see how other countries handle the media in a time of change, since we seem to love to tell people how to do it right even as we stifle a free press here in America, and I would think there are some important lessons contained in these movies this year.  For example, "BIG BOYS ONE BANANAS!" is a follow-up to a documentary about the Dole fruit company which resulted in some major legal battles and some real insight into just how broken the freedom of the press really is right now.

I think "The Ambassador" sounds amazing, the story of "what happens when a very white European man buys his way into being a diplomat in one of Central Africa's most failed nations."  Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Movies like this offer a micro view that can make some very macro points about the world right now, like "China Heavyweight," a film about boxing in China and the way individuals play their part in a larger system they may not agree with.  It sounds like many of these movies are about a struggle to find a personal identity on a larger national stage, like "Putin's Kiss," which deals with a 19-year-old girl's journey within a Russian youth movement, or "Gypsy Davy," about a white boy from Alabama who wants to be a Flamenco guitarist, or "The Law In These Parts," which looks at the Israeli military legal system in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which is pretty much the definition of tension and conflict.

I love it when a documentary is built around a real-life mystery, and "The Imposter" sounds riveting, the story of a 13 year old who vanished from Texas in 1994, only to show up almost four years later in Spain, telling a story of kidnap and torture that may or may not be true.  Not everyone wants to sit through something that heavy each time out, though, and "Indie Game: The Movie" paints a picture of the world of game development outside the system right now, which could make for a great underdog story, while "Searching For Sugar Man" is a look at a forgotten musician who almost made it big in the '70s before dropping off the face of the Earth.

Will I see everything I picked here today?  Not at the festival.  Will I see things I didn't put on this list?  Absolutely.  This is just a first reaction to an announcement, and you can see why it's both a great way to start the film year and also sort of a reminder that film never really takes a break.  You're never really "done" watching movies, because just as soon as you catch up, you can expect a new flood of things worth seeing.  There's no better way to kick off the year than with the feast that Sundance lays out, and it looks like this year's going to be an interesting one.

Make sure to check back tomorrow for our look at the next batch of announcements, and join us in January when all of Team HitFIx will be live in Park City to make sure you've got a front-row seat for the fest yourself.