In theory the juries, critics and distributors are there to ensure that the best movies at any given festival make their way into the marketplace. But films inevitably get lost in the shuffle, and besides, there's no accounting for taste. Here are 10 movies I'd install in the Sundance canon that were unfairly dismissed or ignored or that simply slipped into obscurity. What's notable (and depressing) is the disproportionate number of black filmmakers on this list.
10. BLACK & WHITE & RED ALL OVER (1997)
Written and directed by the team of DeMane Davis, Harry McCoy and Khari Streeter, this ambitious debut puts a subversive spin on the theme of black-on-black violence by keeping the violence off-screen and confining the action (which is mostly talk) to a single Boston apartment.
9. WHO KILLED COCK ROBIN? (2005)
Travis Wilkerson's first feature, following up on the lyrical agitprop of his Butte, Montana documentary AN INJURY TO ONE, portrays the life of a rootless teenager in the same dead-end town: shoplifting, hanging out in abandoned mines, grappling with the decline of employment prospects and labor movements. A bold and unfashionable film in every sense, not least its earnest political stand.
8. SUTURE (1993, shown in 1994)
David Siegel and Scott McGehee have gone on to higher-profile work (e.g., THE DEEP END, BEE SEASON), but their excellent debut, a playful high-concept neo-noir with a genuinely inspired concept ("lookalike" half-brothers are played by a black and a white actor), should have a bigger reputation than it does.
7. SURE FIRE (1990, shown in 1991)
A Utah land developer becomes consumed by his get-rich scheme in this bleak, troubling drama, a typically uncompromising depiction of the curdled American dream from longtime indie agitator Jon Jost.
6. TRANS (1998, shown in 1999)
After breaking out of a juvenile detention center, a teenager goes on the lam in the strip-mall dead zone of southwest Florida. With its woozy rhythms and trance-inducing sound design, Julian Goldberger's impressive debut worms its way into the fractured psyche of its protagonist.
5. ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (2006)
Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes, reuniting after 2001's GHOST WORLD, turn their attention to the hypocrisy of art school and the art establishment. Widely condemned for being too mean and cynical, this bilious screed is a giddy blast of focused contempt, aimed at the strivers, poseurs, and sellouts that clog any artistic ecosystem.
4. THE SLAUGHTER RULE (2002)
Anchored by David Morse and Ryan Gosling's rock-solid performances, Alex and Andrew Smith's feature debut is a high-plains tone poem about the bonds and frictions between sons and father figures. Shot in majestic CinemaScope by Eric Edwards, it barely sneaked into theaters.
3. SLEEPWALK (1986, shown in 1987)
Sara Driver's first feature-length film is an eccentric, faintly magical mystery about a Manhattan woman's quest to translate an old Chinese manuscript. A distinctive voice who made only one other feature (1993's WHEN PIGS FLY), Driver was also the producer of STRANGER THAN PARADISE; Jim Jarmusch (her then boyfriend and now husband) shared cinematography duties on SLEEPWALK. Not available on DVD.
2. CHAMELEON STREET (1990)
Actor-writer-director Wendell B. Harris Jr. won the Grand Jury prize (from a jury that included Steven Soderbergh) for this sharply funny, furiously inventive take on an actual Detroit con artist whose adopted personas include Time reporter, French Yale student and surgeon. Despite raves, this breathtakingly bold film got only the tiniest of releases and became a cult footnote (it finally came out on DVD in 2008). Harris has not directed since.
1. TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (1990)
Charles Burnett spent much of his career being championed by critics as an unheralded master. His debut, KILLER OF SHEEP, completed in 1977, was released in 2007 to great, belated acclaim. His third film, which won a special jury prize at Sundance, still isn't available on DVD. A family melodrama set in South Central L.A. but steeped in Southern folk superstition, this is vintage Burnett: a lived-in, full-blooded film with a strong sense of place and community.