As we finish up, we wanted to provide a quick, handy recap of the festival just ended. It was one of the most diverse and expectation-defying Sundances in recent memory, one in which several of the most high-profile movies disappeared without a trace, their spot in the limelight taken by two films -- a lesbian dramedy that wasn't even supposed to come to the festival ("The Kids Are All Right") and a low-budget guerrilla documentary shot by a few twentysomething photographers ("Catfish") -- for which few would ever have predicted greatness.Admittedly, there was plenty of buzz around films we simply didn't get a chance to see -- notables include award winners "Winter's Bone" and "Animal Kingdom" -- so we won't make claims of exhaustiveness (just exhaustion). But among the couple dozen we did watch, here are the seven (fewer than 10 but enough slots to avoid faking a "tie") that caught our attention -- and are well worth catching when they make their inevitable march to theaters and TV screens. If there's a theme to the list, it's that, as Kenneth Turan notes in his excellent essay rounding up this year's festival, the documentaries stood out even more than usual. Below, the seven Sundance movies to put on your list in 2010:
7) "Lucky" -- It's a simple but intoxicating premise -- find all the overnight millionaires who cashed in winning lottery tickets and lay out what happened to them after they held up that big fake check. "Spellbound" director Jeffrey Blitz cleverly tracks down these winners and creates a psychologically significant portrait of what instant, undeserved success can do to someone's psyche and life.
6) "Blue Valentine" -- The only movie with any stars on this list; in fact, it's the only scripted feature made for more than a tiny budget that's on this list. But it's here for good reason. There's an almost hypnotic quality to how Derek Cianfrance shot his marital drama, and how stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play the couple carrying out that drama. Even when they're fighting like De La Hoya and Pacquiao, you can't take your eyes off their interaction, so intense and believable it's almost chemical.
5) "Waiting for Superman" -- Sitting in a movie theater listening to someone make a comprehensive case for why the U.S. educational system is entirely, thoroughly, in some ways irrevocably, and certainly royally messed up may not be everyone's idea of a rip-roaring night out. But Davis Gugghenheim's meticulous documentary is compelling and scary in ways that the spookiest horror movie only dreams of being. One can only hope the film will get a productive policy debate going like his "Inconvenient Truth" did a few years back. Welcome bonus: an ending showing the fate of some of the children that the film tracks would make a granite wall cry.
4) "Restrepo" -- The argument against this story of a platoon stationed on a dangerous stretch of Afghanistan terrain is that it's more a collection of footage than a fully realized film. Maybe so. But the urgency of that footage and the access that directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger get, and give us, makes it so that their film is pretty much the most eye-opening way you could spend 90 minutes watching images on a screen. Hundreds of TV programs and features have been made on the subject, but none so vividly give the sense of what it's like to live, and die, as a contemporary U.S. soldier.3) "The Freebie" -- Katie Aselton isn't married to co-star Dax Shepard in real life; her husband is Mark Duplass. But fans of the mumblecore pioneer will find much to admire about this story (which Aselton directed and Duplass executive produced) of a seemingly happy couple going through a mutually-agreed breach of their vows. Actually, everyone will find much to admire about this film, with its enchantingly (and sometimes viscerally) natural dialogue and tonally rich performances. As Hollywood studios continue to pass off movies like "It's Complicated" as legitimate explorations of love and fidelity, it's refreshing that a new generation knows what the real thing looks like.
2) "The Tillman Story" -- If you thought you knew all you pretty much needed to know about Pat Tillman's life and the reaction, both cultural and governmental, to his death, Amir Bar-Lev is here to show you otherwise. The director's film does what many great documentaries do: takes a small subject and turns it into something epic. At once a deft Michael Moore-style expose of Bush-era military conspiracy and a humanist portrait of a man who resisted categorization, "Tillman" is documentary filmmaking at its finest.
1) "Catfish" -- By now the backlash is almost over and the backlash to the backlash is underway. But the debate over whether Henry Joost's and Ariel Schulman's movie about a young photographer's strange online relationship with a seemingly wholesome Midwestern family cut corners by withholding information is beside the point. The directors have created one of the most jaw-dropping, suspenseful and touching pieces of filmmaking on the Sundance screen in years. And they did it with no budget and no track record -- in fact, they did it without even realizing, at the early stages of production, that they would be shooting a full-length film. Sundance organizers touting a 'return to roots' should be proud. The rest of us were simply impressed.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photos: Above, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine;" below, Pat Tillman in "The Tillman Story." Credit: The Sundance Film Festival