The 17 Best Movies at Sundance 2013

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Paste saw somewhere north of 50 movies in 10 days at Sundance 2013, between film writer Jeremy Mathews, film editor Michael Dunaway and editor-in-chief Josh Jackson. We didn’t catch everything, but enough to bring you a list of 17 worthwhile movies—comedies, dramas, thrillers and docs—a few of which already have distribution and will be making it to your movie theater very soon.

8. The East
Director: Zal Batmanglij
Stars: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgaard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Julia Ormond
Director Zal Batmanglij and Actress Brit Marling join forces again as co-writers in their fast-moving followup to 2012’s Sound of My Voice. The East is the story of a private-firm intelligence agent (Marling) looking to infiltrate a shadowy group of anticorporate terrorsists. Marling is wonderful as always, Alexander Skarsgaard is appropriately mysterious as the leader of the group, and Ellen Page turns in her best performance in years. The film was produced by Ridley Scott, and the Hollywood pedigree shows; Batmanglij seems to be making his bid for the brass ring here, and he should get it.—Michael Dunaway

7. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
Director:   David Lowery  
Stars:   Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Ben Foster
Ain’t Them Body Saints may be set in the present, but its story is ageless. It feels like the kind of classic outlaw tale that could have been in a film of any era. Director David Lowery and cinematographer Bradford Young have created a lyrical journey through golden fields, dark nights and run-down buildings of rural Texas. While it’s built on strong tradition, the compelling characters and gorgeous imagery ensure that it’s never routine. The film boasts superb performances by Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara and Ben Foster. It builds suspense on multiple levels—not only from the characters’ situations, but from the personal, high-stakes decisions they each must make.—Jeremy Mathews

6. Touchy Feely
Director: Lynn Shelton
Stars: Rosemarie Dewitt, Allison Janney, Ellen Page, Josh Pais
Lynn Shelton’s followup to last year’s wonderful Your Sister’s Sister is very different—not a chamber piece, less overtly funny, more challenging. At times it feels scattered. But Allison Janney, Ellen Page, and especially Josh Pais are strong in supporting roles, and Rosemarie Dewitt continues her emergence as one of the most interesting indie actresses around. As her massage therapist Abby worries about moving in with her boyfriend, she begins to experience a physical manifestation of her anxiety: an extreme aversion to touch. Dewitt brings immediacy and urgency to her desperate search for a fix.—Michael Dunaway

5. Muscle Shoals
Director: Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier
Stars: Etta James, Keith Richards, Percy Sledge, Gregg Allman, Alicia Keys, Bono, Aretha Franklin 
By now there’s a formula for the music-scene documentary, but Greg ‘Freddy’ Camalier wasn’t content to follow. For starters, the cinematography is blockbuster-worthy, bringing to life not just the iconic studios but the landscape of this quiet Alabama town on the banks of the Tennessee River, which feels like a character in the film. Add to that impressive archival footage and memorable modern-day interviews with musicians who cut records there (Percy Sledge, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin), the studio players who created that Muscle Shoals sound and the musicians they influenced (Bono, Alicia Keys), and you have the best documentary of the festival.—Josh Jackson

4. Upstream Color
Director: Shane Carruth
Stars: Shane Carruth, Andrew Sensenig, Amy Seimetz
Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color builds a stunning mosaic of lives overwhelmed by decisions outside their control, of people who don’t understand the impulses that rule their lives. Told with stylistic bravado and minimal dialogue (none in the last 30 minutes), the film continually finds new ways to evoke unexpected feelings. The visuals combine with extraordinary sound design and rhythmic cross-cutting to create a hypnotic portrait of the story’s intertwined lives. An elaborate, intellectual sci-fi concept fuels the film, but a rich sense of humanity gives it power.—Jeremy Mathews

3. Mud
Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland
Two years ago, Jeff Nichols turned heads at Sundance with his second film Take Shelter. He’s back, this time in the spotlight section, with Mud, a coming-of-age thriller about two young boys who encounter a man on the run in rural Arkansas. Ellis (Tye Sheridan from Tree of Life) lives on the river with his parents, who are on the brink of splitting up, when he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living alone on an island in the river. It’s a sweet tale that displays plenty of faith in humanity without ever veering into sappiness and always keeping you on the edge of your seat—just the kind of thing you hope to find at a festival like Sundance. And Nichols once again coaxes amazing performances from his cast.—Josh Jackson

2. Fruitvale
Director: Ryan Coogler
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Chad Michael Murray, Kevin Durand, Octavia Spencer, Ahna O’Reilly
Walking into Fruitvale, you probably already know what happens at the end; it’s based, after all, on the very high-profile 2009 shooting of a young African American by a subway police officer in Oakland on New Year’s Eve. Just in case you don’t know the story, director Ryan Coogler shows you the shooting in the first two minutes of the film. It’s a bold move, and it telegraphs his intent—the film is not about building up suspense around what will happen; it’s about showing the last day in the life of this young man, his good and bad choices, and the potential tragically cut short. The Wire’s Michael B. Jordan is perfectly cast, with his immediate and irresistible charisma, and Octavia Spencer is wonderful as his long-suffering mother.—Michael Dunaway

1. Before Midnight
Director:   Richard Linklater  
Stars: Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke 
Before Midnight concludes one of cinema’s great trilogies—assuming it stays a trilogy. Director Richard Linklater and stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have built a beautiful study of life and love, each chapter of which stands on its own while adding emotional resonance to the other two. The series’ trademark intense, thoughtful and personal conversations remain. An early scene holds on one perfectly acted two-shot in a car for 13 minutes. The discussions are often as hilarious as they are engaging. Hangups, regrets and doubts have have become a greater part of Jesse and Celine’s lives, and the film reflects that. But it also reminds us what made the couple such a lovable pair that they could hold our interest for 20 years.—Jeremy Mathews