IndieWire's Playlist Team Rounds Up The 25 (Well, 5) Films That Defined The Sundance Film Festival

As you might have noticed from the wall-to-wall level of coverage over the last week or so, the Sundance Film Festival has grown considerably from its humble beginnings back in 1978, when it was inaugurated as the Utah/US Film Festival and had a remit to showcase exclusively American-made independent films, and to promote filmmaking in the region. Robert Redford's involvement as a guiding patron led to its name change in 1981, from which point on it expanded gradually, until a kind of Cambrian explosion occurred with the arrival of "sex lies & videotape" 25 years ago. This, a film that, with only a touch of hyperbole, could be said to have remade the festival into the modern titan it is today. In fact, like some of the films it has championed over the years, the main gripe with Sundance these days is that it has become a victim of its own success, selling out its original independent aims to become a media and celebrity-driven extravaganza, which has been co-opted as little more than a testing ground for studios on the prowl for a cheap acquisition. It once was David, the complainers claim, but now it's become Goliath.

But maybe that is a rather unfair assessment of a festival that continues to do great work in terms of championing new filmmakers and delivering to them a conduit to get their films seen by a larger number of people (if queuing up behind Ashton Kutcher on the odd red carpet is the price to pay for increased exposure, we can't see too many struggling independent filmmakers complaining). Through the years, the festival has had an enormous impact on the independent filmmaking landscape, launching the careers of some of the very directors, actors, screenwriters and producers without whom we can't imagine what the film industry, let alone this blog, might look like.

And even as it has showcased these talents, Sundance has been symbiotically affected by many of them too, basking in the halo effect of its association with some of the most respected film professionals working today, even as the image of the ideal “Sundance Film” has changed over the years. So what we have here is not a list of the biggest films the festival has ever produced, nor even the best, but simply an eclectic selection of 25 films that we judge to be quintessentiallySundance,” in that their fortunes were materially altered by their exposure at the festival, and they, in their turn, further defined our idea of what the Sundance Film Festival is all about.


What It's About: Residents in an area of New Orleans known as The Bathtub are forced to evacuate as floodwaters rise, leaving behind a tiny ragtag community, which includes a feckless dad and his young daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who is forced to learn independence and who might just be magic.

Year It Played Sundance: 2012, where it won the Grand Jury prize against “The Comedy,” “Keep The Lights On,” “The Sessions,” “ Smashed” and “Middle Of Nowhere.”

How Was It Received At The Time: Director Benh Zeitlin was hailed almost immediately after the film’s premiere, and it duly went on to win the Grand Jury Prize as it became the sensation of the festival. A.O. Scott called it “a blast of sheer, improbable joy,” and Roger Ebert hailed it as a “remarkable creation.”

How Big Did It Get? First-timer Zeitlin was feted with the Camera d’Or at Cannes and received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Director. The film grossed an impressive $21 million as well.

Is It Worth The Hype? The critiques of this film loom larger a couple of years after it hit, with accusations of “poverty porn” and cultural misappropriation. But when you’re watching this debut feature, it’s impossible to ignore the triumphant central performance of Quvenzhané Wallis as the heartbreaking little girl at the center of this pastoral magic-realist melodrama. Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s rousing score boosts her journey of self-discovery in a frighteningly changeable world, and when she belts out “After you die I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself!” it’s impossible not to want, like a big lumbering prehistoric creature, to follow this kid wherever she wants to go.


What’s It About: Three young filmmakers head out to the woods to investigate the stories of a malevolent spirit haunting Burkitsville, Maryland.

Year It Played Sundance: 1999, an otherwise-legendary year for film, but one where Sundance honored the likes of “Happy, Texas,” “Tumbleweeds,” “The Minus Man,” and “Judy Berlin." Huh.

How Was It Received At The Time: Maybe the first big hit of the internet era, “The Blair Witch Project” benefitted from a multimedia advertising approach; spurring word of mouth that was equal parts misinformation and speculation in an attempt to convince filmgoers that what they were seeing was real, or at least presented in such a realistic way that you'd find yourself in some doubt. For some, it worked: Roger Ebert awarded the film four stars. For others, not so much: the picture also earned a Razzie nomination for Worst Movie.

How Big Did It Get? One of the films that made Artisan a hot distributor before the studio folded into Lionsgate, it collected an absolutely unprecedented $248 million worldwide and was a massive hit on video and DVD. The sensation fizzled out soon after though: the actors involved couldn’t seem to find much other work, with one of them allegedly working for a furniture-moving company years later. A hasty sequel, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” materialized a year later, ditching the found footage angle and performing far worse than the first picture, scuttling plans for a trilogy. Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick eventually split up, both of them making under-the-radar horror films that frequently went straight-to-DVD. That being said, the film’s influence was considerable. Not only did movies start utilizing the internet heavily for their marketing campaigns, particularly horror films, but the found footage “genre” took off. A decade after the film was released, one could argue that found footage horror films made up half of the genre’s output, yielding pictures like “The Last Exorcism,” “Paranormal Activity,” “Cloverfield” and “[Rec].”

Is It Worth The Hype? A found footage snob would consider that the method of storytelling wasn’t new, with stuff like “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Man Bites Dog” from years earlier. Still, it’s hard to deny the visceral force of the film today. Watching it in the dark, maybe with a glass of wine, you can still forget that this was the start of a Sundance sensation, and get the sense that you are watching something forbidden, not meant to be seen. The hate is understandable: found footage is a ridiculous genre, one where movies only happen because we’re to assume someone concerned with self-preservation wouldn’t just put down the camera. But among the genre’s scariest entries, this one still rises above.


What’s It About: An eccentric outcast (Jon Heder) pools his resources to get his best friend elected class president.

Year It Played Sundance: 2004, where the Grand Prize went to “Primer” and the festival saw an influx of exciting talent in films like “Maria, Full of Grace,” “Down To The Bone,” “The Woodsman” and “Garden State” (also covered in this list).

How Was It Received At The Time: Reviews were mixed-to-positive: Michael Atkinson at The Village Voice memorably called it “a movie that, despite all indications to the contrary, is one absolutely no one likes.” Roger Ebert also claimed the character of Napoleon was altogether unlikable, while A.O. Scott claimed director Jared Hess had “a lot of talent, and a lot to learn.” David Edelstein was one of the film’s many supporters, calling the film “a charming ode to nerds.” The movie was enthusiastically purchased by Fox Searchlight, Paramount and MTV Films and given a strong limited summer release.

How Big Did It Get? “Napoleon Dynamite” grossed a pretty solid $46 million, but no one was prepared for the mainstream popularity the film achieved. Leading man Jon Heder became an in-demand actor for a short while, memorably trading barbs with Will Ferrell in in the hit “Blades Of Glory.” Hess went on to work with Jack Black on “Nacho Libre,” also becoming an in-demand filmmaking name. However it’s telling about the nature of the film's then-and-there popularity that some years later, both would be free enough to work on Fox’s short-lived “Napoleon Dynamite” animated series, which felt just a couple of years too late.

Is It Worth The Hype? It’s ironic that people have long since stopped paying attention to Hess, given that his storytelling and visual acumen improved each time out: 2009’s “Gentlemen Broncos” is a minor triumph in deadpan inanity. But “Napoleon Dynamite” is a crude, often intentionally opaque exercise in futility, bereft of any truly inspired comic ideas and over-reliant on Heder and company’s admittedly spot-on performances (Aaron Ruell is a revelation as Napoleon’s brother). It’s a gag-fest, in other words, with enough jokes tied together to feasibly call it a movie. For some audience members, that’s more than enough, but it robs it of true classic status.


What It's About: Depressed and medicated twentysomething Andrew (Zach Braff, directing himself from a self-penned script) returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral, reconnects with old friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and falls for self-confessed pathological liar Sam (Natalie Portman), while trying to make sense of his place in the world.

Year It Played Sundance: 2004, alongside “Primer,” “Maria Full of Grace,” “Super Size Me” and “Goodbye Lenin.”

How Was It Received At The Time: After a very positive response at Sundance and reviews that saw “Scrubs” star Braff repeatedly referred to as a “triple threat,” the film landed a joint distribution deal between heavy hitters Fox Searchlight and Miramax.

How Big Did It Get? The film was helped by a smart rollout strategy that kept it playing regional festivals and advance Q&A screenings prior to its wider theatrical release, so it picked up several “breakthrough” type awards and built word of mouth. It ended up pulling in $35.8m worldwide, making it hugely profitable even after having been bought for $5m (twice its production budget), and gained Braff a grammy for the indie pop, Shins-heavy soundtrack. But beyond the numbers, “Garden State” was an early example of what has come to be seen as kind of the Platonic ideal of the Sundance movie, for better or worse: independent but with recognizable stars; helmed by a first-timer destined to be hailed as a wunderkind; dealing with the neurotic, white, middle class American experience.

Is It Worth The Hype? It probably deserves neither the overpraise it received at the time, nor the vitriol that Braff haterz have retrospectively heaped on it. It’s overly navel-gazey and self-involved, yes, but it does have a good few well-observed and heartfelt moments for all its moony trappings.


What's It About: A dysfunctional family (headed by Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear), complete with suicidal gay uncle (Steve Carell), silent son (Paul Dano) and drug-addicted grandpa (Alan Arkin), take a road trip in a VW camper van to deliver their youngest member (Abigail Breslin) to a California beauty pageant.

Year It Played Sundance: 2006, where it was one of the most high-profile premieres. Other big movies that year included "The Illusionist," "Lucky Number Slevin," "The Science Of Sleep," "Thank You For Smoking," "Kinky Boots," "Friends With Money," "Alpha Dog," and, in the dramatic competition, "Half Nelson," "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints," "Sherrybaby" and prize winner "Quinceanera."

How Was It Received At The Time: Word was mostly very good, especially at the festival itself, where it was a word-of-mouth hit. Roger Ebert wrote that "You just won't see a better acted, and better cast movie" and that it "harks back to the anti-establishment, countercultural comedies of the 1970s such as 'Smile' or 'Harold and Maude,'" while Manohla Dargis in the Times concluded "there's a melancholy here that clings to this family, which however triumphant and united, may well remain stuck in the national Hooversville located at the crossroads of hope and despair." But not everyone was on board: Dennis Lim wrote in the Village Voice from Park City that the film was "a concentrated hit of Sundance pain."

How Big Did It Get? Very, very big indeed. A huge audience hit at the fest, Fox Searchlight snapped it up for $10.5 million, plus 10% of the eventual gross, one of the biggest deals in festival history. And it paid off, too: the film took $60 million domestically, and a grand total of $100 million worldwide. It could also be one of the most successful Sundance movies at the Oscars along nominated for four, including Best Picture, and, unlike fellow four-time nominee "Beasts of the Southern Wild," winning two, for supporting actor Alan Arkin and writer Michael Ardnt (who went on to pen "Toy Story 3" and, for a time, the new "Star Wars"). It also won the top prize from the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild of America.

Is It Worth The Hype? "Little Miss Sunshine" has, over the years, become something of a figurehead for 'the Sundance movie'—quirky comedy with some sad bits, movie stars taking a pay cut, indie-rock soundtrack, bright marketing campaign, etc. Some of that is fair, but we'd argue that the film does a better job at what it sets to achieve than most of its imitators. Sure, it's kind of a watered down "Flirting With Disaster," to name but one, but Arndt's script is both funny, and takes the characters and their situations seriously, and with compassion, and the direction, from feature debuting duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is tonally assured. The cast are pretty uniformly great too, especially Steve Carell.

The twenty other Sundance films can be read at the ( SOURCE )

What are your favorite films to have come out of the Sundance Film Festival, ONTD?