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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - It seems fitting that starting a new decade, the Sundance Film Festival will try to chart a new course for the next generation of independent film when it raises its curtain on Thursday.
The gathering, backed by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute for film, is the premiere U.S. event for movies made outside Hollywood's major studios. Each year thousands of industry executives and cinema lovers trek to the mountain town of Park City, Utah, east of Salt Lake City, for the festival.
This year Sundance has a new director, John Cooper, who promises a renewed focus on films that push boundaries.
The rise of indie film over more than two decades closely tracks interest in Sundance as it put directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Michael Moore in its spotlight.
Current Oscar hopefuls "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire'" and "(500) Days of Summer" were hits at Sundance 2009 and festival-goers will be looking for 2010 success stories from more than 120 films screening there over 10 days.
Executives are optimistic business is picking up and filmmakers see renewed attention on dramas dealing with human frailty and heart.
"The past couple of years have been pretty challenging on the independent film side, in general. However, the audience is still there," Bob Berney, chief of independent film distributor Apparition, said about the overall climate for indie movies.
"It (2010) will be really good for independent films and ... quality films will find their way out there."
What is "new" for Sundance 2010 is really quite old. Cooper said he has encouraged the festival programmers to turn their attention to what made the festival a success -- films and filmmakers that push the boundaries of storytelling and art.
He has re-tuned opening night away from one, media-hyped premiere to three events -- one for full-length dramas, a second for documentaries and a third for short films -- showcasing each of the festivals' three main groupings of movies. All of them will be part of the event's competitions, which feature first-time writers, directors and new actors.
To be sure, there is star power in movies such as corporate downsizing drama "The Company Men," starring Ben Affleck and directed by John Wells ('ER'), and rock 'n' roll saga "The Runaways" with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning.
A few movies being talked-about ahead of the event include "Hesher," a tale of young angst starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt; "Holy Rollers," about drug-dealing Hasidic Jews; and opening night's "HOWL," a blend of animation and fictional storytelling that recounts the young life of poet Allen Ginsberg.
"I think you're seeing a return of emotion in troubled times ... stories with real heart and real emotional truth," said Galt Niederhoffer, whose "The Romantics," starring Katie Holmes among others, tells of old friends convening for a wedding and reveling in their previous glory days.
The notion of reacquainting oneself with the past -- coupled with a sense of optimism among industry players as they look ahead -- seems to epitomize Sundance 2010.
The festival begins Thursday and ends January 31. Awards for best films, directors and writers will be handed out on January 30.
Reporting by Bob Tourtellotte; Editing by Mary Milliken and Bill Trott