Of the 120 or so feature films that play at the Sundance Film Festival every year, only about half wind up being released in U.S. theaters. Another couple dozen premiere on cable, and a few more go straight to DVD -- though of course no one ever hears about them, since they were under-the-radar indies that didn't play theatrically. Such is life.
There's often a certain fairness to this, as it's often the mediocre or bad films that get swept into oblivion. But sometimes good movies get this treatment, too, worthy flicks that just couldn't attract a theatrical distributor but did manage to make it to DVD. I've been keeping track of these titles over the years, and here are seven of them. They never played on the silver screen outside of film festivals, but you can find them all on small silver discs through Amazon and Netflix.
Run Ronnie Run! (Sundance 2002). This hilariously offensive satire was spun off from HBO's Mr. Show, featuring an oft-arrested white trash dunce named Ronnie Dobbs (David Cross) who becomes famous after he gets his own Cops-like reality show. The behind-the-scenes skirmishes are already known to hardcore Mr. Show fans -- creators David Cross and Bob Odenkirk clashed with the director, Troy Miller, and eventually disavowed the film -- but the movie is nearly as funny as the sketch show that spawned it.
Devil's Playground (Sundance 2002). To outsiders, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Amish community is rumspringa, wherein Amish teens are let loose to explore the world and get a taste of earthly pleasures before committing themselves forevermore to the simple life. This documentary by Lucy Walker follows the paths of several such teens as they sow their wild oats, providing a glimpse into a world most of us have no contact with, and telling a compelling story in the process.
Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (Sundance 2000). MGM changed its mind on theatrical distribution and sold this ensemble drama to Showtime, though it was released in theaters overseas. It boasts a great cast of actresses, including Glenn Close, Kathy Baker, Holly Hunter, Calista Flockhart, Cameron Diaz, and Amy Brenneman, in a series of loosely connected vignettes about the problems modern women face. It might be a "chick flick," technically, but it sure has some terrific acting.
Lift (Sundance 2001). The lovely and underappreciated Kerry Washington stars in this solid drama about a Boston woman who works in an upscale department store and acts as a professional shoplifter on the side. The world of "boosting," as it's known, is pretty compelling, but the movie's focus on family relationships is even stronger, making it relevant even to those of us who don't steal for a living.
A Question of Faith (Sundance 2000). Originally called Blessed Art Thou, this is a most unusual examination of religious faith and miracles. It's set at a California monastery where one of the brethren declares that he has become a woman overnight -- and, what's more, that he/she is now pregnant. This is so preposterous that the higher-ups can't believe it, yet they must remember that certain elements of Christianity's origins sound far-fetched, too. Where's the line between miraculous and ridiculous?
The Best Thief in the World (Sundance 2004). Here's a very likable, light drama, about a 12-year-old New York City boy named Izzy whose lack of supervision has led him to mischief. His mother, played by the always-great Mary-Louise Parker, is preoccupied in caring for his two younger siblings and their father, who just suffered a stroke, so Izzy starts to fall in with the wrong crowd. It's a coming-of-age film, but it avoids the usual high melodrama of such movies, preferring instead to be low-key and affable.
Rolling Kansas (Sundance 2003). Thomas Haden Church directed and co-wrote this comedy about five young men in search of a massive secret government-owned marijuana farm rumored to exist in Kansas. The usual road-trip shenanigans and pot-comedy hijinks ensue; the film certainly doesn't win points on originality. But it has a lot of laughs, and it's easy-going and pleasant. Besides, any film that starts with the quote "Somewhere out there is a big-ass forest of weed," then attributes it to Thomas Edison, can't be all bad.