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25 Movies That Defined The Sundance Film Festival

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist January 21, 2014 at 12:05PM

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.
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sex lies and videotape

sex, lies and videotape
What It’s About: Graham (James Spader, in an early career-defining role) is turned on only by filming the sexual confessions of others, and soon finds himself interfering with the relationships of those around him, including Ann (Andie MacDowell), her philandering husband (Peter Gallagher) and her free-spirit sister (Laura San Giacomo). 
Year It Played Sundance: 1989, when Steven Soderbergh’s film dominated a field that included “Heathers,” “Miracle Mile” and “Let’s Get Lost.”  
How Was It Received At The Time? An Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay was one of the bigger accolades the film received as it garnered near-universal critical praise, in addition to the Sundance hosannas and the Palme d’Or in Cannes over films like “Do The Right Thing,” “Mystery Train” and “Cinema Paradiso.” Roger Ebert’s more measured review, however, trod delicately, as he said, “I am not sure it is as good as the Cannes jury apparently found it; it has more intelligence than heart, and is more clever than enlightening. But it is never boring, and there are moments when it reminds us of how sexy the movies used to be, back in the days when speech was an erogenous zone.”
How Big Did It Get? Steven Soderbergh’s debut picture ended up becoming the poster child for the nineties' independent film revolution, pulling in over $25.5m off a budget of $1.2m. In addition to kicking off the career of Soderbergh, one of the medium’s most fascinating and versatile filmmakers, it also launched Miramax to prominence, beginning the era of the powerful indie distributor. The picture has since been added to the National Film Registry. And it also marks a kind of "before and after" point for Sundance itself—it was this perfect storm of Weinsteins, breakout success and all-conquering festival and awards presence that make the industry at large realize there was money in them thar Utah hills, and the "modern" Sundance was born.
Is It Worth The Hype? The breakthrough first film of a great American auteur, it now feels a little chilly and distant, not necessarily like the indie “sensation” it was in the day. But back then, this was a novelty—it made sense that some filmmakers were starting to expand the cinematic vocabulary to observe how adults really do behave behind closed doors. Not titillating in the least, the picture remains intellectually stimulating in the best ways, even if it has a whiff of sterility and amateurishness to it.

Stranger Than Paradise

Stranger Than Paradise” 
What It's About: Divided into three chapters, Jim Jarmusch’s theatrical feature debut is a surreal, minimalist ultra-deadpan comedy in which Willie (John Lurie) and Eddie (Richard Edson) leave New York to visit Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s cousin who’d shown up unexpectedly at his apartment the year before and had since moved to Cleveland. 
Year It Played Sundance: 1985, the same year as influential documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” Coens' debut “Blood Simple,” “ The Killing Fields” and “The Brother from Another Planet” 
How Was It Received At The Time? 'Paradise' actually arrived for its U.S. bow trailing international awards: the Best Debut prize from Cannes and the Golden Leopard at Locarno, and with Sundance not yet the titan it’s been for the last two and half decades one could wonder how much the festival did for the film, and how much the film did for the festival. But Jarmusch being such a quintessential, albeit Euro-influenced, idiosyncratic, American filmmaker (the film was even subtitled “A New American Film”) and his subsequent influence over the U.S. indie scene being so great, the Sundance premiere was a hugely important moment in his career. The festival awarded it the Special Jury Prize, thereby setting its seal on one of the most seminal films in the independent American scene, and honoring early a filmmaker who, especially compared with, say, fellow class of ‘85 honorees the Coens, has remained defiantly off-grid and indie-to-the-bone ever since.
How Big Did It Get? The film made $2.5m off its $100,000 budget, but its real impact was more cultural than financial. It established a very distinctive auteurist voice in Jarmusch that brilliantly married European influences to an offbeat Americana, producing something new and desperately hip, yet not so avant-garde as to be alienating. The film is preserved by the National Registry for its cultural significance, regularly tops polls of cult films, and was and is frequently name-checked as an influence by subsequent generations of independent filmmakers. 
Is It Worth The Hype? Without a doubt. Jarmusch’s episodic, off-key film—part road movie, part odd couple/threesome buddy movie, part morose Samuel Beckett play—is still the purest distillation of his inimitable style (with “Down By Law” maybe a close second). And while Jarmusch would go on to work against bigger canvases, the sparseness of the approach here, the cool simplicity of the black-and-white photography (often of empty locales) and the 100% droll, utterly undemonstrative performances all combine to make the film unassailably timeless. It’s definitely not for everyone, which, as it’s practically become a manifesto for independence in filmmaking, is exactly as it should be.

Reservoir Dogs

Reservoir Dogs
What It's About: A group of criminals (including Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Steve Buscemi) try to hide from cops after a robbery gone bloodily wrong, only to find themselves at each other’s throats in an attempt to uncover a mole.
Year It Played Sundance: 1992, when “Reservoir Dogs” inexplicably lost the Grand Jury prize to the largely forgotten “In The Soup” (which also starred Buscemi—this was a banner year for him). Other notable films that year were “Gas, Food, Lodging,” “Johnny Suede” and “The Living End.”
How Was It Received At The Time? Opinions were intense and sometimes divided, particularly in regards to the film’s violence. Gene Siskel felt it had “more style than substance,” while Todd McCarthy admitted it was “undeniably impressive...but impossible to love.” Hey, speak for yourself, McCarthy.
How Big Did It Get? The picture recovered from the rumored walkouts occurring at screenings nationwide to gross a decent $14 million. However it has proven to be more successful overseas, especially in the U.K. where Empire recently named it “The Greatest Independent Film Of All Time,” and at Cannes where it was invited to screen Out of Competition, thereby inaugurating a long relationship between Tarantino and the festival. But if, stateside, its reputation was more as a watershed moment in the depiction of onscreen violence, it did collect enough eyes to allow director Quentin Tarantino to produce “Pulp Fiction,” and the rest is F-bomb laden, bloody history.
Is It Worth The Hype? As far as debuts go, you can’t get much more intense or impressive than “Reservoir Dogs.” All the QT trademarks are in place as if he’d been making this movie repeatedly for years in his head (which he probably had). The cast, including a never-better Steve Buscemi and an absolutely-savage-but-chillingly-subdued Michael Madsen, keeps this film whirring and, whenever the material begins to stretch, Tarantino effortlessly knits in one of his long, mundane, yet brilliant monologues. All these years later, the debut of QT remains just as much of a gas as it was back at Sundance, and a remarkably lean, precise piece of work that the director himself could revisit and take a few notes from these days. In our humble opinion.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Beasts Of The Southern Wild
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.

Blair Witch Prjoect

The Blair Witch Project
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.

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Features, Feature, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh, Michael Moore, James Marsh, Benh Zeitlin, Coen Brothers, Darren Aronofsky, David O. Russell, Lee Daniels, Jim Jarmusch, Bryan Singer, Kenneth Lonergan, Zach Braff, Richard Kelly, Jared Hess, John Carney, Derek Cianfrance, Hal Hartley, Whit Stillman, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Steve James, Valerie Dayton & Jonathan Faris


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