11 forgotten Sundance Film Festival gems you can watch right now

Can't make it to Park City this year? Stay in and program your own festival with these overlooked gems.

Over the next 10 days, more than 100 new films will screen at the Sundance Film Festival — and if history is any guide, most of them will never be heard from again. A lucky few, however, may follow in the steps of Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite, and Whiplash and find mainstream fame; a couple dozen will find limited success within arthouse circles; and the rest will fade into obscurity.

But not all of these forgotten films deserve to be forgotten. And there's nothing stopping you from curating your own festival at home. Below, you'll find some forgotten Sundance premieres from the last 15 years — all available to stream on Netflix, and all much, much better than most of what shows up at the multiplex. Give a few of these forgotten gems a chance, and get the experience of Sundance without waiting in line:

1. American Son (2008)

The charismatic Nick Cannon is surprisingly good in this authentic-feeling drama about a Marine spending 96 hours at home in Bakersfield, California, before being shipped off to Iraq. Realistic touches abound, and Cannon's performance, despite being the work of careful rehearsal, feels loose and informal — cavalier in one scene, terrified in the next.

2. The Believer (2001)

Ryan Gosling wowed audiences and critics alike in his first major film role, playing a disaffected, self-loathing Jewish boy who becomes a violent neo-Nazi skinhead. The searing, provocative drama won the Grand Jury prize but had trouble finding a distributor, preventing it from garnering the post-Sundance acclaim it would surely have gotten otherwise. It also set the path for Gosling's career; with the possible exception of The Notebook, he's hardly made a normal, easy film ever since.

3. Control Room (2004)

During the Iraq War, George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld called the Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera "anti-U.S. propaganda" and "the mouthpiece for Osama bin Laden." This documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at the truth, which was a little more complicated than that. (Al Jazeera was as opposed to the war as Fox News was in favor of it.) At the very least, it's enlightening to see the perspective of Al Jazeera's news reporters, who weren't just visiting the scene, but grew up there.

4. The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002)

Set in the 1970s amid the raging hormones of Catholic schoolboys, this humorous, insightful coming-of-age story stars Emile Hirsch and Kieran Culkin as mischievous lads with an imaginative streak, and Jodie Foster as the strict teacher who's the target of their mischief. The film's inventiveness abounds, including animated fantasy sequences courtesy of Todd McFarlane.

5. For the Bible Tells Me So (2007)

An uplifting, heartbreaking documentary about the struggle between religious faith and homosexuality, viewed through the eyes of a handful of gay Christians whose stories will touch and inspire you. There are theologians, biblical scholars, and even Desmond Tutu, discussing what the Bible actually says about homosexuality (spoiler: not much), and how those verses have been interpreted over the years.

6. Go Tigers! (2001)

Before Friday Night Lights, there was this colorful documentary about an Ohio town where high school football reigns supreme, dominating every aspect of local life. Focusing on three star players, all of whom credit football with keeping them out of trouble, director Kenneth A. Carlson lets both points of view — the one that says these people are crazy, and the one that says it's good for the community — have a presence in the film.

7. Happy, Texas (1999)

This light and loopy comedy, starring Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam as escaped convicts who hide out in a small town while posing as a gay couple, is only remembered for the wrong reasons: It's often held up as a cautionary tale about Sundance exuberance. The feel-good hit of Sundance 1999, it sold to Miramax for a record $10 million... then recouped less than $2 million when it hit theaters in the fall. Since then, it's been tainted by its box-office gross, remembered as a poor financial investment instead of the charming, sunny morsel it actually is. Unfair!

8. L.I.E. (2001)

L.I.E. is a tough sell: It's about an unsupervised 15-year-old boy (Paul Dano) who is befriended by a local pedophile (Brian Cox). But don't let that stop you! Unsettling yet admirably discreet, the film is less about sex offenders than it is about the heartbreaking effect of what happens to adolescents when they're left to become adults without proper guidance. It's an artful, well-acted, cathartic experience — even if it will occasionally make you wince.

9. Mary and Max (2009)

This Australian claymation production is sweet and bizarre, telling the story of a curious-minded Aussie girl who becomes pen pals with a neurotic American (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman), whom she chooses randomly from the New York City phone book. Their friendship spans 20 years, addressing serious subjects like mental illness while maintaining the film's oddball sensibilities. You've never seen anything quite like it.

10. Tadpole (2002)

Demure farce and smart comedy are served up simultaneously in this sophisticated trifle about a precocious Upper West Side teenager (Aaron Stanford) who's in love with his stepmother (Sigourney Weaver), but ends up seduced by her sexpot friend (Bebe Neuwirth). A restaurant scene with the three of them and the boy's father (John Ritter), all harboring secrets, is a modest mini-masterpiece of comic timing. Bonus for short attention spans: Tadpole is only 78 minutes long!

11. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011)

What if the chainsaw-wielding maniac in a slasher film wasn't psychotic, but merely misunderstood? That's the elegant premise behind this rip-roaring horror comedy, in which the title characters — harmless good ol' boys from West Virginia, played by Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine — inadvertently terrify a carload of snobby college kids who stumble upon their cabin in the woods. It's a blissful, bloody surprise that's on the verge of becoming a cult classic.


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