Even if I spent the day trudging around in wet, slushy shoes and even if I didn't have a single real meal, experiences like catching "Winter's Bone" on Saturday (Jan. 23) evening are the reason you go to festivals like Sundance.

I'd heard nothing at all about "Winter's Bone" and was mostly interested in it because of supporting players John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt and because writer-director Debra Granik showed significant skill working with actors on "Down to the Bone," her feature debut.

But "Winter's Bone" was one of two or three early evening screening possibilities and it was only my choice because a desired early afternoon screening was over-booked, forcing me into a different movie and causing me to exit the theater at exactly the right time to get into the line for "Winter's Bone." That's why, like so much that goes down at Sundance, my screening decision was based more on pure convenience than artistic imperative.

Whatever, the cause, it was fortuitous. "Winter's Bone" is the best film I've seen this Festival and also one of the best films I've seen in the past year, a drama I appreciated more as I became increasingly immersed in its unique world.

[Full review of "Winter's Bone" after the break...]

"Winter's Bone" is going to have critics reaching for glib and simple descriptions. Is it Hillbilly Noir? Or maybe it's Ozark Gothic? Either of those work fine.

Really, "Winter's Bone" joins a long line of independent-minded regional American thrillers and I'd put it in a category with genre classics like Carl Franklin's "One False Move" or James Foley's "At Close Range" or something more recent like Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River." That's good company to keep.

Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, "Winter's Bone" is the story of 17-year-old Rhee Jessup (Jennifer Lawrence), who lives in a remote corner of the Ozarks raising her brother and sister and caring for her troubled mother. When her father, a crystal meth dealer and general ne'er do well, skips bail and vanishes, Rhee faces the possibility that her family might lose their home and land. Only able to rely upon herself, Rhee attempts to track down her father. Soon, though, she's asking the sorts of questions that threaten the hierarchy of her mountain clan, where everybody's related by blood and everybody's got secrets to hide.

Hill people are easy to caricature, but Granik and Anne Rosellini's script is respectful of the ties that bind this extended family and of the effort that's required for for them to have survived with rituals and social niceties that have to be hundreds of years old. So yes, some of the characters are cooking meth and most of them have what you might describe as "weathered" faces, but these aren't inbred Hollywood-style yokels. They're people who happen to live off the beaten path.

The story is a mystery and a thriller, but hardly a conventional one. Rhee doesn't much care about getting her father back or solving the case of his disappearance. She wants exactly enough resolution to keep the bounty hunters and repo men off of her front lawn. A dropout without any finances, Rhee isn't resourceful, but she's determined and dogged.

Appearing in every scene, Lawrence gives a breakout performance which is -- in a very different way, obviously -- as revelatory as Carey Mulligan's Sundance arrival last year. In many ways, Lawrence's performance is even more surprising than Mulligan's, because was only on my radar as the tarty teen daughter on "The Bill Engvall Show," which is about as far as you can get from anchoring an intense, moody drama like "Winter's Bone." Lawrence looks like a young Jennifer Jason Leigh and this performance reminded me of some of those early, totally committed Leigh performances.

The standout of the supporting cast is Hawkes, as Rhee's uncle, a role that allows the "Deadwood," "Eastbound & Down" and "Me and You and Everyone We Know" star to be both threatening and nuanced. The rest of the supporting performances add to the lived-in feeling of the movie as a whole.

Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough create a world of digital grays and browns that mirror the beaten-down characters, while Granik and editor Affonso Gonçalves start the film with slow-moving atmospherics and build to some tension and shocks by the end. And adding to creation of the environment is Dickon Hinchliffe's score, featuring more than a little banjo twang.

Full disclosure: As is always the case at Sundance, appreciation of any movie is often tied to whatever you saw beforehand. Can I rule out the possibility that after an afternoon of consecutive middling Mumblecore flicks in "Douchebag" and "One Too Many Mornings," I embraced the nuanced and well-executed genre work of "Winter's Bone" a little more than I might have otherwise? Anything's possible. All I can say is that my respect for "Winter's Bone" grew with every minute, culminating in an ending that will frustrate some viewers, but that I found absolutely perfect.

Sadly, I think I have more to say about "Winter's Bone," but it's too darned late and I'm too darned tired to write anymore. I look forward to seeing which studio is going to snag this one in the days to come...

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A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.