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While the film selections and celebrities shift at the Sundance Film Festival from year to year, the focus and celebration of independent film does not. Sure, the "indie" tag has become more of a genre in recent years as Hollywood conglomerates such as Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, and Paramount Vantage have emerged to blur the lines. And while Sundance prides itself on its detachment from big finance and studio politics, it does not take long before you realize the nation's largest film festival is not immune from corporate influence and the "who-knows-who" game of Hollywood.

I recently returned from my fifth trip to Sundance in the last six years, and am convinced that the festival continues to be an advocate and incubator of (independent) storytelling and visual expression. Each year, amid the smattering of alumni filmmakers and cast that make their way back to the event, a new class emerges worthy of recognition.

Here are some highlights from 18 different films I watched last week.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

One of the festival's most talked-about films has no one you've ever heard of attached to the project—and that is its beauty. First-time director Behn Zeitlin leads this unassuming cast in a tale of survival within one of America's poorest communities, a frequently flooded and evacuated section of Southern Louisiana known as "The Bathtub." While most "coming-of-age" films take place in the teen years, this one occurs through a six-year-old named "Hushpuppy" (Quvenzhané Wallis), the heart and soul of the story. If Sundance gave out Best Actress awards, Quvenzhané's performance would be hard to beat.

Beasts of the Southern Wild received my top vote of the festival and apparently did the same for ...

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