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Sundance favorites, 2006

It seems every year upon my return from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, there's one movie that I just can't stop thinking about--one that continues to move me. It's never a film hyped by a celebrity cast, rather, it's a relative unknown that takes me on a surprise journey. I walk out of the theater thinking, "This is what Sundance is all about."

No. 2

Two years ago, that film was "Maria Full of Grace," about a pregnant Colombian teenager who becomes a drug mule to make some desperately needed money for her family. Last year, it was "Brothers," a Danish film by Sussane Bier about two brothers faced with a trauma that profoundly transforms their lives and their sense of right and wrong.

This year's No. 1 film for me was "No. 2," by New Zealand playwright and first time filmmaker Toa Fraser. The film is about a typical family--with all its dysfunction--and the final days of its matriarch, Nanna Maria, who is absolutely flawlessly played by veteran American actress Ruby Dee. Nanna Maria wants her kids to throw a party, in traditional Fijian fashion, but not so she can see them all acting on their best behavior. She wants to savor the fullness of life, from the sweet sounds of laughter to the angry words that bring longtime family feuds to a head. The film is about love and the resiliency of family.

Dee received standing ovations at all three Park City showings, and frankly, she melted my heart with her impromptu speech about how much she enjoyed making the film and her overall blessed life. Amazingly, just one day after filming started in New Zealand, Dee got news her longtime husband Ossie Davis had died. Two weeks later she returned to finish the movie, a move she said was in line with her husband's outlook on life.

No word yet on an U.S. distributor for the film, but I'm guessing it has a good shot at the winning the World Cinema Competition. We'll find out tomorrow at the festival's close. (Jan. 31 add--No. 2 did, in fact, win the World Cinema Audience Award in the dramatic category.)

Another Sundance film worth noting is "Wordplay," an awesome documentary by director Patrick Creadon on New York Times crossword puzzle aficionados. Featuring Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz--also known on NPR as "The Puzzle Master"--the film covers the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, but also explains how crossword puzzles are made and features famous crossword puzzlers like Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart and the Indigo Girls.

Incidentally, the film makes clear that the fastest crossword puzzle solvers aren't usually word people, like English teachers or writers. They are techies and nerds, particularly those with an affinity for translating code.

IFC Films picked up "Wordplay" after a round of heated bidding for what sources said was around $1 million, according to Reuters. I'm hoping the film goes through another round of edits before it hits theaters...while the footage was fascinating, some of it was a bit rambling, if not redundant.