Four Standouts Among a Crowded Field

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The first part of the Sundance Film Festival belonged to the stars -- Colin Farrell, Tom Hanks and son Colin, Amy Adams, U2 and more. But the latter half of the 10-day film showcase in Park City, Utah, belonged to a Russian mermaid, a group of desperate Midwestern teens, a Nobel Prize winner and a guy who runs around with a bag on his head. USA TODAY's Anthony Breznican highlights some discoveries:

Mermaid

This modern fairy tale features a Russian girl (Masha Shalaeva) who may have the power to grant wishes or just an active imagination. She moves from her family's peculiar home on the seashore to the equally mystical city of Moscow, where she falls in love with a guy who doesn't deserve her and ultimately disappears.

"It's very much a kind of poem film," Shalaeva said through a translator. "I'm saying the love comes not from your brain, but from your heart. And sometimes you cannot explain why it happens."

Many moviegoers described the tone as Amlie-esque, and director/screenwriter Anna Melikyan was named one of Variety's 10 Directors to Watch.

Baghead

Jay and Mark Duplass scored with this low-fi, high-concept comedy about four out-of-work actors who go to a cabin for the weekend with dreams of writing a breakthrough script. Assorted jealousies and lusts arise when they start playing pranks on each other like, who is that in the woods with the bag on his head? Seriously.

Sony Pictures Classics picked it up for distribution, and the not-so-famous stars became instant celebs; cries of "Baghead!" followed them in the streets.

Both squirmingly funny and spookily unsettling, the movie was a gamble, Mark Duplass said. "You can gauge by when the first laugh comes in, and it came in a lot earlier than we anticipated and louder."

American Teen

If this documentary were one of the students it chronicled, it would be the overachiever. After Nanette Burstein's documentary screened, it was the talk of the festival, and Paramount Vantage purchased it for distribution.

It tells the story of a group of seniors at a Midwestern high school, each very different, but struggling with the love, responsibility and dreams that come with the transition from childhood to adulthood.

"It was just the last three years of my life, determined by this moment," Burstein said, laughing nervously at the end of the festival. "I was feeling ready to accept whatever it was. It was kind of an out-of-body experience, not to be overly dramatic about it."

Triage

Subtitled Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma, the documentary features the Nobel Prize-winning former head of Doctors Without Borders and explores why civilian doctors risk their lives to enter war zones and the heart-wrenching compromises that must be made to save the afflicted. A real-life action hero's story.

Orbinski attended the festival, where documentaries such as Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" and "March of the Penguins" launched, and said he hopes his film can strike a similar nerve.

"If the film provokes people to ask themselves what can they do to be a better citizen or member of their community," he said, "then the film is successful."

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