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Chris Hicks: My favorites from 20 years at Sundance

Published: Thursday, Jan. 26 2012 6:44 p.m. MST

Gong Li in "Raise the Red Lantern"

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As another 10-day Sundance party winds down, nostalgia comes floating my way — as it seems to do every year around this time — and I recall some of the films that played when I covered the film festival during its first two decades (to include the pre-"Sundance" years).

But don't worry. This isn't going to be one of those personal memoirs about rubbing shoulders with the rich and entitled. This has to do with the movies, which the festival repeatedly insists is what the event is really all about. (Notwithstanding the emphasis placed by the media on stargazing.)

To be honest, this was inspired to some degree by the story on this page last week by Blair Howell, in which he picked 10 Sundance films that families could see together, enjoy and perhaps even discuss — and the fact that six of them were documentaries.

I wrote many stories back in the day about how festivalgoers should look more to the documentaries than the narratives. True, narrative films are more popular in general, but Sundance movies are all new and unseen and untested. You never know what you're going to walk into, for good or ill.

Movie buffs don't mind that so much since even a bad or tasteless or ridiculous or highly eccentric film gives us something to banter about. And film fanatics tend to see a lot of them during the 10 days of Sundance.

But for the average moviegoer, especially the one attending only a random film or two during the festival, it can seem like a wasted expense of time, effort and money to take a day off, drive in bad weather, navigate the Park City traffic (vehicle and foot), wait in a long line and then sit through a movie that is weird, disgusting, unfathomable or simply boring.

Of course, some of the logistics can be leavened these days by the many satellite theaters showing Sundance films around the state. But in terms of what you may see, if you're not a risk-taker, you are generally safer with documentaries, especially if the subject matter interests you.

This is not meant to disparage the many fine narrative films that play at Sundance. And there have been many. It's just that it's hard to know what you're getting yourself into when your only GPS is the festival film guide, which tends to praise everything equally.

A couple of years ago, upon reading of a Sundance premiere film that paired Robert Duvall with Bill Murray, I immediately thought of all those awful, ill-fated team-ups of respected actors with manic comics — Walter Matthau and Robin Williams in "The Survivors" (1983), Gene Hackman and Dan Aykroyd in "Loose Cannons" (1990), Duvall and Will Ferrell in "Kicking & Screaming" (2005), etc.

But Duvall and Murray turned out to be a dream team, and the film, "Get Low" (2009), is one of my favorites to ever come out of Sundance. Go figure.

So here are some of the movies (mostly narratives) that surprised and delighted me during the festival's first 20 years, gleaned from world, regional and competition premieres (and listed chronologically). All are available on DVD.

"The Whole Shootin' Match" (1978), a primitive black-and-white character piece about two small-town Texas rednecks. One of only six films in the first festival's independent competition, and still, arguably, the best example of the competition's spirit and intent.

"Heartland" (1980), a warm and completely engrossing true tale of a widow in 1910 Wyoming and her unlikely marriage to a stern Scottish homesteader, starring 30something Conchata Ferrell (now the housekeeper on "Two and a Half Men") and Rip Torn.

"Burden of Dreams" (1982), a thrilling documentary chronicling the unbelievable but true adventures of Werner Herzog as he struggles to film his epic "Fitzcarraldo" in the Amazon jungle.

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