The Ten Best Films of Sundance 2013

By  · Published on February 1st, 2013

Forgive us if we may be so bold, but this year’s round of “Ten Best” films from the Sundance Film Festival is really just the ten films we liked the most. We have taste, and we’re not afraid to use it! (Or, alternately, please like all these things that we like, we promise they are really good!) This year, five Rejects attended the festival in the snow (can you believe they let us in?), and while we all have different cinematic soft spots, you’d be surprised over how many films struck all of us, and in different ways. (We cried a lot.)

This year’s festival certainly had a few themes that stuck out – lots of sex, nudity, inappropriate relationships, and so much more seemed to be the order of the day – but our list of the ten best films of the festival is far more interested in less lascivious features, much more tuned into films that delivered strong characters and even stronger senses of self. Boldness paid off. Honesty was rewarded. Tears? Well, tears definitely didn’t hurt. Find out which ten films won our hearts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, presented after the break.

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley is Canadian, but instead of holding that against her we should be celebrating her as an incredibly fine film director. Her first two films (Away from Her, Take this Waltz) are strongly affecting dramas filled with humanity, but while her new movie moves away from fiction into the documentary realm it retains that same emotional power. It’s a personal story about her and her family, but she infuses it with warmth, honesty and a surprising amount of humor. It’s a glimpse into another family’s skeleton closet and a reminder that we all have our own hidden shames that just might be defused with a little bit of light and understanding. -Rob Hunter

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth’s return to Sundance in the form of Upstream Color ended up being the most talked about film at the festival. Everywhere you turned, people were talking about about the movie and debating its meaning. One of the most common overheard phrases was “Did you see Upstream Color? Because I didn’t get it.” But it isn’t the type of film that you “get,” instead it is something that washes over you, becoming an experience in the process. While it isn’t as immediately accessible as Primer, it will set up shop and resonate in your brain long after the credits have rolled. -Kevin Kelly

The Way, Way Back

Coming-of-age tales are a dime a dozen, but when done right they find the magical balance between pure entertainment value and an emotional connection to your own younger years. While your mileage may vary on the latter part the directorial debut of writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants) is a very funny and convincingly dramatic story of one boy’s summer. The laughs come in large part from Sam Rockwell’s spectacular turn as an immature water-park owner while Steve Carrell delivers probably his first intentionally humor-free performance as the obnoxious step-dad. The film’s greatest achievement though is in its recognition that not all of life’s problems can be wrapped up over one crazy summer…let alone one 96 minute movie. -Rob Hunter

The Spectacular Now

Even before we arrived in Park City, the word was out – James Ponsoldt’s latest was the film to see. It had the pedigree – Ponsoldt last crafted another Sundance hit with his Smashed, screenwriters Scott Neudstadter and Michael H. Weber penned fan favorite (500) Days of Summer, and its lead actors are stars-in-the-making Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller — so why then was it such a surprise just how good Spectacular actually is? Perhaps because in a crowded field of coming-of-age tales, Ponsoldt, Neudstadter, and Weber were not afraid to go dark and deep? Or maybe because Woodley and Teller both turned in the most unaffected performances of the festival? Or was it that we were all just so happy to see a high school film that actually felt like high school – hilarious and messy and heartbreaking and real? It was probably all of those things, and many more. It’s a winner. -Kate Erbland

Toy’s House

Combine a director with a Funny or Die background (Jordan Vogt-Roberts), and pair him with a writer from The Late Show with David Letterman (Chris Galletta), and the result is Toy’s House. This funny and touching film about three boys who abandon their own lives to build their own fantasy house in the woods is a bit reminiscent of I Declare War from last year’s Fantastic Fest. But where War takes a turn for the dark, Toy’s House stays light and humorous, thanks largely in part to the performances from the actors, especially Moises Arias as the off-kilter Biaggio. You’ll probably identify your own dysfunctional family somewhere in here, while you fantasize about your own cabin in the woods. -Kevin Kelly


Powerful. Fruitvale takes the real life story of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) and shows you a day in his life leading to his tragic end on New Year’s Day in 2009 at a Bay Area BART station. Ryan Coogler’s debut feature is not a documentary, but is instead a narrative depicting a young man and all his flaws (and admirable traits) becoming more of a comment on how sometimes, no matter where you are in life, being in the wrong place at the wrong time can change everything. And that singular truth is devastating. -Allison Loring

Fill the Void

This tightly-wound drama, about a young Hasidic woman facing a difficult choice about her future, unfolds entirely within the closed-off world of that ultra-religious Jewish community in Israel. Written and directed by the Orthodox Rama Burshtein, it’s a tender, honest movie that resists caricature in its portrait of characters experiencing love, grief and other powerful emotions, set against a backdrop that’s at once familiar and foreign, isolated, and communal. -Robert Levin


Matthew McConaughey’s natural charm and laidback attitude made him the perfect actor to portray Mud, a drifter with stars in his eyes and hope in his heart, but a troubled past his “positive attitude” may not help him outrun. Surrounded by a talented cast, Mud is a coming-of-age tale, a tragic romance, and a thriller all in one, but the film gives each of these genres a real texture and depth showing that life is never just one thing, it is everything, all at once. -Allison Loring

Escape From Tomorrow

Disney’s insidious brand of corporatized magic is taken down a peg in Randy Moore’s brilliant hallucinogenic fantasy that was one of the most talked-about films at Sundance. Over the course of a nightmarish day at Disney World, dad Jim (Roy Abrahmson) loses his mind, falling victim to a fusillade of David Lynchian-horrors on America’s favorite rides. We’re not sure if you’ll ever get to see this movie, but we hope that somehow, some way, you can. -Robert Levin

The East

Here is a follow-up film that delivers. Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling already made Sundance history with their 2011 stunner, Sound of My Voice, but could they possible do better with their latest outing? The answer is yes. And no. A slicker, more formal feature than the homespun SOMV, The East certainly feels like it’s got more money and time behind it (because, well, it does), but it also doesn’t shy away from the mystery and finely-tuned performance work that made SOMV so great. Even better? With a nearly two-hour runtime, The East was up against some swift-moving ninety minute films at Sundance, but it never feels its length, it’s just that relentless. -Kate Erbland

An author similar to Hydra. Its articles have many authors. It has many heads. Please don’t cut off any of its heads, we’re trying to work here.