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25 Movies That Defined The Sundance Film Festival

by The Playlist Staff
January 21, 2014 12:05 PM
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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 quintessentially “Sundance,” 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.

Hoop Dreams” 
What It's About: A documentary directed by Steve James following two black Chicagoan teenagers, William Gates and Arthur Agee, from underprivileged backgrounds as they experience financial, social, familial, educational and personal setbacks pursuing their dreams of a pro basketball career. 
Year It Played Sundance: 1994, alongside “Clerks” and “Spanking the Monkey” (both on this list), “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Fresh”. 
How Was It Received At The Time? Winning the Audience Award at Sundance was just the beginning of the film’s success. It sparked a three-way bidding war, with Fine Line Pictures winning out, due to a fairly unprecedented (for a documentary) deal for the filmmakers which they in turn shared with their young stars and their families (once that money was no longer in danger of revoking their amateur status or scholarships). (More here in The Dissolve’s excellent oral history.) 
How Big Did It Get? “Hoop Dreams” took $7.8m at the box office, making it one of the highest-grossing docs ever at that point. Its huge popularity also led to a change in the voting process in the documentary category for the Academy Awards when neither it nor the following Sundance’s breakout doc “Crumb” were nominated, despite huge acclaim. In subsequent years its stature has only increased to the point that it topped the 2007 International Documentary Association’s poll of the 25 all-time greatest docs (interestingly, the Documentary Oscar winner from that year didn’t even place). 
Is It Worth The Hype? The film is as immersive now as it ever was, and if it doesn’t feel quite like the lightning bolt it may once have been, that’s probably because its influence on subsequent documentary filmmakers has made itself felt so strongly. It is also a sobering watch today—20 years on and the problems and injustices faced by William and Arthur are still depressingly prevalent. For his part, James is back at Sundance this year with "Life Itself," his documentary about one of "Hoop Dreams"' earliest and most vocal supporters, Roger Ebert.

The Unbelievable Truth” 
What It's About: Writer/director Hal Hartley’s feature debut, the film follows newly released convict (Robert John Burke) as he returns to his hometown and becomes romantically involved with a young, apocalyptically-obsessed aspiring model (Adrienne Shelley) even as rumors of his murderous past threaten his ascetic existence. 
Year It Played Sundance: 1990, along with “Roger and Me” and “Metropolitan” (both on this list), “Longtime Companion” and Jane Campion’s “Sweetie”.
How Was It Received At The Time? By the standards of the rest of this list, “The Unbelievable Truth” had a pretty low-key reception, though largely a positive one where it was seen/reviewed. But that would become par for the course for Hartley, whose whole career seems to exist on a track that runs parallel to, and some way off from, that of the rest of the independent filmmaking community. 
How Big Did It Get? The film made a decent profit, but never blew up or made a breakout of its director the way some others we mention here did (funny to imagine a world in which Hal Hartley and, say, Quentin Tarantino swap places). However it did do two main things: it established Hartley’s very specific talents in regards to dialogue (especially his trademark circular conversations) and a certain self-awareness that skewered the potential pretension of his stories. It also got him invited back to the festival the following year, with a more polished take on similar themes (also starring Shelley) in “Trust.” That film won him a screenwriting award and confirmed the promise of ‘Truth’ but retrospectively we can look on Sundance’s championing of his debut as the driver behind a consistent if reliably under-the-radar career. In fact, we’d maintain that Hartley’s is exactly the sort of career that a festival like Sundance is really designed to nurture: not as a springboard to something bigger, but as a needed conduit to allow his small films to find the small audiences they need in order for the next film to become a viable proposition. Less of a rockstar than Jarmusch, Hartley is no less independently-spirited, and for all we sometimes bemoan Sundance’s more recent evolution into the massive juggernaut it is today, we have to give it props for supporting filmmakers like Hartley (who has had five films in total play there). 
Is It Worth The Hype? What little hype it’s ever had...yes, it’s still an offbeat, funny, and oddly touching film that has such finely tuned, deadpan dialogue that it feels fresh and inventive, even if some of the trappings have dated. And it establishes Hartley’s voice perfectly, a voice of which we are very fond (check out our retrospective if you don’t believe us).

El Mariachi
What It's About: As a result of an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, a musician and a ruthless criminal drug lord cross paths, leading to a wild and ridiculous chase through the streets of Mexico.
Year It Played Sundance: In 1993, “El Mariachi” did battle with “Silverlake Life,” “Ruby In Paradise” and Bryan Singer’s “ Public Access.
How Was It Received At The Time? The picture was snapped up almost immediately by Columbia Pictures even though it didn’t win an award at Sundance. Reviews were generous, particularly from Todd McCarthy of Variety, who said the film had “a verve and cheekiness” that compared to Sergio Leone and George Miller, though perhaps a large part of the narrative was dedicated to the shoestring budget and gonzo attitude of the film's director, just one year after newly-minted enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino had set Park City alight.
How Big Did It Get? Columbia’s purchase of the film was essentially a show of faith in writer/director Robert Rodriguez. The film itself only made $2 million in theaters, but it led to a remake/sequel, “Desperado,” that showed what Rodriguez could do with a beefed-up budget. It was an effective showreel that eventually turned Rodriguez into a hot, in-demand helmer of cheap-thrill actioners with a witty sense of humor. By the time he closed the trilogy with “Once Upon A Time In Mexico,” Rodriguez had secured his place in Hollywood. “El Mariachi” is now in the National Film Registry.
Is It Worth The Hype? Rodriguez had intentions so modest for his $7,000-budgeted actioner that he envisioned it as a direct-to-video hit at best. The film itself is not without its charms, but that feels right: Rodriguez has made it this far based on his hustle and good humor more than his talent, as he’s basically a one-man filmmaking machine. But “El Mariachi” is ultimately a silly trifle, a time-waster of a thriller that wears its miniscule budget on its sleeve. While it’s less authentic and, at times, overly phony, “Desperado” is a much more enjoyable adventure.

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  • Indie Film Minute | February 18, 2014 5:29 PMReply

    What a strong reminder of the magic that Sundance spins. Sure it has become a huge commercial circus, but at its center it serves and celebrates independently produced films that are full of nuance and heart - and which otherwise would likely not find their place. Great list though there are so many more. How about The Station Agent? Great film that launched a lot of careers - Tom McCarthy, Peter Dinklage, Bobby Connavale (well maybe not "launched" but - Patricia Clarkson).

  • Roger Dodger | January 24, 2014 2:49 AMReply

    If there was a #26 to put on this list it would have to be Bill & Chong's *Adventure: Coloring Darkness Being a veteran film critic, I believed this short was overlooked at Sundance due to its drug content and evil villain Tarman.

  • Crazyxcrazy | January 23, 2014 8:32 PMReply

    Garden State! really?!???

    One of the most hateable films ever made, could have been saved by seeing manic pixy cu'nt Portman's face being caved in during the last seen

  • STEPHANIE ALLAIN | January 23, 2014 5:02 PMReply



  • Daniel | January 23, 2014 12:54 AMReply

    Great list! Little Miss Sunshine, Once, Spanking the Monkey, Slacker, and Napoleon Dynamite are not only great sundance films, but some of the greatest films ever.

  • michael | January 22, 2014 11:14 PMReply

    how many of these were chosen by programmer Alberto Garcia? A lot. He doesn't get the credit he dererves for putting sundance on the map.

  • Elias Schulkin | January 22, 2014 8:25 PMReply

    There were some great films at Sundance this year, but has anyone seen California Dreaming yet? Definitely an incredible journey.

  • Mark | January 22, 2014 8:09 PMReply

    I see the royal judges of the internets intentionally left off "Happy, Texas", a movie that TRULY changed how movies are bought and sold at Sundance.

  • VS | January 21, 2014 11:50 PMReply

    No Brick?

  • Nate | January 21, 2014 9:13 PMReply

    Before Sunrise. 1995.

  • Dave's deluxe | January 21, 2014 3:40 PMReply

    Wow. Which "supreme rulers of all time" came up with this definitive list?

  • TimParker | January 21, 2014 1:08 PMReply

    Thanks for introducing me to Hal Hartley, nice to see a director with so many films that he also wrote. Have not seen any of his, so I'm looking forward to checking them out.

    Also, You Can Count On Me is one of my favorite movies. And Margaret too. I hope Lonergan can get another film made before 2020!

  • Chally | January 21, 2014 12:50 PMReply

    Interesting, for a festival credited with launching the New Queer Cinema, you don't list a single gay film.

  • Pig Bodine | January 21, 2014 12:22 PMReply

    I think you mean "Academy Award _nomination_" for sex, lies.... It was nominated for best original script (alongside Crimes & Misdemeanors, Do the Right Thing and When Harry Met Sally) but they all lost to Dead Poet's Society.

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