Los Angeles - The Sundance Film Festival opens in the mountains of Utah on Thursday with a provocative mix of movies focused on topical and timely issues, as well as the usual selection of quirkier fare.
The annual gathering, founded in 1985 by iconic actor Robert Redford, will shine the spotlight on some 120 independent features, many by newcomers trying to make their mark.
"We sense that an independent film evolution is happening, and we see that in three ways: depth of storytelling, thorough understanding of craft, and experimenting in genre," said festival director John Cooper.
"We also know that there's a strong audience for independent films," he added.
"I think these adventurous audiences are really going to be excited by the energy, creativity, and fresh perspectives in these films."
The festival takes place as Hollywood is swept up in a storm of criticism over the lack of diversity in this year's Oscars acting nominations, and the issue is sure to come up in Utah.
The event - known for showcasing films that go on to receive critical acclaim and Hollywood awards season glory - features both documentaries and scripted dramas.
(Spike Lee's documentary film, "Michael Jackson's Journey from Motown to Off the Wall," will premiere at the festival. AP)
This year's lineup offers an array of films that deal with timely issues such as gun violence in the United States, abortion and the rise of the Islamic State extremist group.
One documentary attracting a lot of festival buzz is Newtown, which explores the aftermath of the 2012 massacre that left 26 people dead, including 20 school children, in Connecticut.
"I felt like every time one of these incidents happen, we become more and more desensitized and wanted to sort of pierce through that desensitisation by doing something that was way more experiential," filmmaker Kim Snyder said in comments released by festival organisers.
Another documentary about US journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by the Islamic State group, will make its debut at Sundance.
Two separate films about the 1974 on-air suicide of a news reporter in Florida will also be featured, as will a quirky documentary entitled Nuts, about a small-town doctor in Depression-era Kansas who made a fortune claiming he could cure impotent men by transplanting goat testicles into them.
Obama love story
Other entries deal with hot-button issues including Jewish settlers in the West Bank, child brides in Afghanistan, online bullying and college hazing.
One US drama with an offbeat story line - Swiss Army Man - features a hopeless loner stranded in the wilderness who befriends a dead body, and together they embark on a bizarre journey home.
(Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in the film, "Swiss Army Man,". AP)
The dead body is played by British actor Daniel Radcliffe, who first shot to fame as the Boy Wizard in the Harry Potter series.
Even President Barack Obama is getting a spot in the limelight with a romantic drama that chronicles his 1989 romance as a young law associate with his future wife Michelle.
The lineup of foreign films includes Halal Love (and Sex), which pokes fun at the "complicated balancing act of romantic desire and religious devotion in the Muslim world," and raunchy Indian comedy Brahman Naman, about a trio of nerdy college students bent on losing their virginity on a trip to Calcutta.
(Tika Sumpter, left, as Michelle Robinson, and Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama, in the film, "Southside With You". AP)
Place to get noticed
Overall, Sundance received 4,081 submissions for feature films, of which 98 were approved for world premiere slots.
In past years, films that have premiered at the festival have earned rave reviews, and many directors, including Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh built their reputations there.
Last year, the crop of movies shown at the festival yielded Brooklyn, which is up for three Oscars next month including best picture and best actress for its Irish star Saoirse Ronan.
Jennifer Lawrence became a sensation at Sundance six years ago with Winter's Bone, for which she earned her first Oscar nomination. She is now an Oscar winner.
The festival runs through to 31 January.