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Sundance-400This year was Sundance’s 30th anniversary, and Festival Executive Director Keri Putnam made sure we all knew that “the mission hasn’t changed” even though we’ve seen significant transformations and a remarkable evolution over the years. Sundance Institute now boasts 18 labs throughout the year and includes documentary, music, theater and new media arts throughout the more traditional narrative aspects of the 10 days in Park City, Utah.

“The history [of the festival] and the products speak for themselves,” said Founder Robert Redford at the fest’s opening press conference, where the question of financial stability in the US and the independent film market was addressed as well.

“Like American families have had to tighten the belt,” said Director John Cooper, “[filmmakers] tighten the belt and get through [the tough times. And it’s worthy to note], Sundance has generated $374 million for Utah over the last five years.”

By the end of the fest, this year’s numbers in sales of indie titles wasn’t has hefty has previous years either. Last year, The Way, Way Back went for nearly $10 million, and the biggest sale so far in 2014 has been for The Skeleton Twins at $3.5 million. The writer-director Craig Johnson also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award for his script.

And although there was no single breakout film like last year’s Fruitvale Station or the year’s previous Beasts of the Southern Wild, here are some titles – all from first-timers – to look out for because they were just darned good: writer-director-actor Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior, Cutter Hodierne’s Fishing Without Nets (who left the fest with the U.S. Directing Award), and Justin Simien’s Dear White People (who took home the Breakthrough Talent Award for his writing and direction).

The opening night film Whiplash, by pseudo-first-time feature director (he had directed one previous feature while still attending Harvard University), ended up taking home the highest honor on the closing night and the Audience Award. Miles Teller, from last year’s fest breakout The Spectacular Now, and JK Simmons give stellar performances, and the movie sold to Sony Pictures Classics for a reported $3 million.

With hearts won instead of awards, Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement brought some hysterical talent to the Midnight Section with What We Do in the Shadows – a vampire mockumentary. Waititi had won the Grand Jury Prize for Boy in 2010 and Clement is the genius behind the Kiwi-US crossover Flight of the Concords.

And on a more somber note, Aaron Paul (aka Jessie Pinkman) made his return to the small screen with a poignant performance as a widowed and struggling single father in Kat Candler’s emotional Hellion. First-time actor Josh Wiggins at only 15 years old gives Paul a run for his money with acting chops that are often only seen in veteran child-actors – if that’s such a thing.

We wish it were possible to see all 118-programmed feature films (never mind the shorts and Slamdance lineups), but a few highlights of the more popular titles never hurt anyone, right? For a complete list of this years’ winners, click here