For the first time in its history, the Sundance Film Festival went online this year, forced out of theaters in Park City, Utah, by the coronavirus. And it turns out, virtual Sundance was a lot like in-person Sundance in the most important ways.

Although the festival provided opportunities for talks, events and even a virtual spaceship where people’s avatars could bump into each other and chat, it was the movies themselves that beckoned. The Sundance rabbit hole was no less real for being streamed instead of screened, as my informal tally of 24 films over six days suggested.

And some of Sundance’s most cherished verities proved gratifyingly eternal: As usual, the documentaries proved to be exceptionally strong components of the 73-film program; cardinal themes emerged (this year having to do with environmental and technological anxieties); and a crowd-pleaser is a crowd-pleaser — even when it’s being shown not in a packed house but in thousands of individual houses.

This year, that honor went to “CODA,” a heartwarming coming-of-age dramedy by Sian Heder that swept the festival’s awards ceremony for dramatic features on Tuesday (it earned the audience award, grand jury prize and directing award, as well as a special citation for its ensemble cast). Tartly funny, affecting and elevated by playful Motown musical numbers, “CODA” features a breakout performance by Emilia Jones as a Gloucester, Mass., high school senior. Like most kids her age, Jones’s character is trying to find herself amid a loving but stifling family; the fact that her parents and brother are deaf — her hearing character is the family’s official translator — makes her struggle for independence more specific, but no less universal.

Directed by Heder with a winning combination of sincerity and knockabout humor, and spiked with enormously appealing performances from Jones’s deaf co-stars (Marlee Matlin, Troy Kotsur and Daniel Durant), “CODA” was an instant hit with viewers, critics and distributors: After a bidding war, Apple TV Plus wound up winning worldwide rights for $25 million, a Sundance record.

Watching “CODA” epitomized the pure joy of discovery that the festival has become known — and, frankly, overhyped — for. When it was over, I couldn’t wait to inform my husband that I’d just seen a wonderful film. “I could tell,” he said dryly, referring to the laughs and sniffles he’d heard from his upstairs office. Experiencing “CODA” in solitude served as a bittersweet reminder that nothing beats watching a movie with a crowd of people who are being similarly transported — the unspoken collective lift that proves why movies aren’t truly finished until they’re seen by an audience. But the fact that Apple saw value in the film means that old-fashioned (if admittedly formulaic) values such as laughter, tears, vivid characters and meaningful emotional journeys still matter in the movies, even after a year of near-existential disruption.

I had the same feeling as I watched “Mass,” a shatteringly powerful drama about two couples coming to terms with a tragic event they shared several years earlier. Written and directed by Fran Kranz and featuring another breathtaking ensemble performances from Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaac, Ann Dowd and Reed Birney, “Mass” is executed with such thoughtfulness and pin-drop delicacy that it first demands a moment of silence before viewers will want to talk through the questions it raises about accountability, healing and forgiveness.

With luck, “Mass” will find the audience it deserves; in the meantime, several other acquisitions suggested a healthy market for visual storytelling — which, if 2020 taught us anything, is still as relevant as ever. Sony Pictures Classics bought the narrative feature “Jockey” (about an aging rider grappling with professional and personal challenges), Bleecker Street picked up “Together Together,” an platonic-romantic comedy starring Ed Helms as a would-be single father who befriends his pregnancy surrogate, and Netflix snagged Rebecca Hall’s black-and-white period piece “Passing,” about an African American woman posing as White in the 1920s.

As in years past, many of the hottest films at Sundance were documentaries: One of the festival’s earliest sales was Neon’s purchase of the masterfully executed “Flee,” in which filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen uses archival news footage, home movies and animation to dramatize the searing story of his childhood friend, an Afghan refugee named Amin. Juno Films picked up “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World,” a haunting, tenderly mournful portrait of Bjorn Andresen, whose life was upended when at 15 he was cast by Luchino Visconti in his adaptation of “Death in Venice.”

Both “Flee” and “The Most Beautiful Boy in the World” center on teenagers, who were the stars writ large at this year’s Sundance, in which a number of films examined the experiences young people either in retrospect or in real time. One of the finest nonfiction films at the festival this year was “Cusp,” in which filmmakers Isabel Bethencourt and Parker Hill plunge viewers into the carefree, chaotic, sometimes terrifying lives of three tough and irrepressible teenage girls in an unnamed Texas town.

Girlhood is anything but sugar and spice in “Cusp,” which conveys an unvarnished portrait of young women left to their own, often self-destructive, devices. But, even though they’re relatively directionless, the protagonists of “Cusp” share a recognizable brand of insecurity and swagger with the overachievers of the absorbing “Try Harder!,” about a highly competitive high school in San Francisco.

And, despite wildly different expectations, those academically driven students have more than a little in common with their counterparts across the bay at Oakland High School, where filmmaker Peter Nicks spent a year filming graduating seniors for his intimate, often heartbreaking “Homeroom.” As in his previous films — “The Waiting Room,” about Oakland’s Highland Hospital and “The Force,” about the city’s police department — Nicks evinces an observant eye for institutional cultures and how they can either break or be bent by the human beings who inhabit them.

“Homeroom” was one of the rare movies at this year’s Sundance that was in a position to acknowledges the cataclysms of 2020 head-on. While most of the films had been made pre-pandemic — offering the audience an unexpectedly soothing images of life before six-foot perimeters, face masks and elbow bumps — “Homeroom” provided an anguishing record of how its young subjects were forced to process sudden grief and loss, first because of the spreading illness and then with the killing of George Floyd.

As an invaluable time capsule of social history and public memory, “Homeroom” played like the sobering second cousin of “Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised),” the directorial debut of musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who excavates lost footage of the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival — known then as “Black Woodstock” — and brings the event back to life with astonishing skill and insight. (The film understandably earned both the audience and grand jury documentary awards this year; on Thursday, it was purchased by Searchlight Pictures and Hulu.)

Bursting with electrifying performances by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Mavis Staples and Gladys Knight and the Pips, “Summer of Soul” becomes something bigger than a concert film. Thanks to Thompson’s alertness as a storyteller, what could have been simply a pleasing collage of sounds, images and retro-chic fashion instead became a profound interrogation of erasure and, as festival director Tabitha Jackson put it in her introduction, an act of historical reclamation. Like many of the strongest films at Sundance this year, “Summer of Soul” served as a reminder of the time-honored fundamentals that have always made movies worth watching. And it pointed to a cinematic future that, even in light of the difficult year just past, looks exceedingly bright.