USA TODAY - With stories featuring a female Gitmo guard, a musical genius who wears strange headgear and a blue-collar worker who is counseled by talking pets, the annual Sundance Film Festival will embrace the decidedly offbeat when it begins its 11-day run Thursday.
"We like to keep audiences engaged and give them something unexpected," says Trevor Groth, director of programming for the Park City, Utah-based festival, which traces its roots as an indie-film showcase guided by Robert Redford to 1984. This year's edition will showcase 187 feature films and shorts, including 67 in a juried competition, whose winners will be announced Jan. 26.
A key theme running through some of those entries is top stars taking on unusual roles:
• Kristen Stewart plays a Guantanamo Bay detention camp guard who bonds with a jihadist prisoner in Camp X-Ray.
• Ryan Reynolds portrays a disturbed factory worker who gets advice from his talking cat and dog in The Voices.
• Michael Fassbender takes on the role of a musical genius whose face is tucked away under a giant ceramic head for the entirety of Frank.
• Jesse Eisenberg plays a timid man whose new co-worker is his spitting image - but his polar opposite - in The Double.
Slightly more conventional films will feature SNL's Bill Hader, who is taking on his first serious role as a suicidal man who reconnects with his estranged sister (Kristen Wiig) in The Skeleton Twins; and John Lithgow and Alfred Molina playing companions of 39 years who get married and face unexpected problems in Love Is Strange.
Among the "firsts'' at the gathering will be a new Sundance Kids program, with films for children ages 5 and up, and veteran actors making their directing debuts, including William H. Macy (with Rudderless), John Slattery (God's Pocket) and David Cross (Hits).
"It's always interesting for us when actors make that transition," says festival director John Cooper.
Every year, there are "it" actors who pop up in several Sundance films, and this time, the double-dipping roster includes Elle Fanning, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Christopher Meloni, Elizabeth Moss and Anton Yelchin.
On the flip side are mainstream stars making low-budget fare. "I love the notion of more seasoned actors drawn to independent film," Cooper says, citing a crop that includes Sam Shepard and Don Johnson (both in Cold in July) and Glenn Close (Low Down).
"And it's not stunt casting, either," Cooper adds. "These are serious roles in serious films."
(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)