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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.
14
"Blood Simple"
"Blood Simple"

Blood Simple
What’s It About: A man (Dan Hedaya) who suspects his wife (Frances McDormand) of infidelity hires a shady P.I. (M. Emmet Walsh) to murder her and her lover (John Getz) only to find that the killer has his own twisty motives.
Year It Played Sundance: The Coen brothers had some hearty company in 1985, where “Blood Simple” played alongside “Stranger Than Paradise” (elsewhere on this list) and “The Brother From Another Planet.”
How Was It Received At The Time? “Blood Simple” was the deserved Grand Prize winner at Sundance, and the film earned the Coens worldwide attention, grossing a little under $4 million—at the time strong numbers for an independent release. In his four-star review, Roger Ebert praised its economy, saying it is a film in which "everything that happens seems necessary."
How Big Did It Get? Though not as oft-quoted or deeply beloved as some of the Coens’ other films, “Blood Simple” is considered a touchstone of eighties independent cinema. It was also the debut of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who went on to essay the “Men In Black” films. The young lady in the lead is Frances McDormand in her first role: she later won an Oscar for a Coen Brothers film, “Fargo.” In the late nineties, the Coens supervised a “Director’s Cut” that shortened the film by three minutes, allowing the picture’s reputation to grow. It's also, as far as we know, the sole Coens film to spawn a Chinese-language remake (albeit a loose one): acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou later tackled the material in his sumptuous comedy, “A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop.”
Is It Worth The Hype? “Blood Simple” is something of a Rosetta Stone for the Coens' filmography. Sparse, funny, and archly ironic, the picture encapsulates the duo's subtle, consistent ode to hardboiled noir as well as existential comedy, and remains a picture of infinite pleasures through and through.

Pi, Aronofsky

Pi
What’s It About: In Darren Aronofsky's feature directorial debut, a math savant (Sean Gullette) becomes dangerously obsessed with the power of a 216-digit number, and his knowledge of how to use it draws the attention of insidious, sinister outside forces.
Year It Played Sundance: “Pi” shared space at Sundance with Grand Prize winner “Slam” as well as “Buffalo ’66,” “Smoke Signals,” “High Art” and “Hav Plenty.”
How Was It Received At The Time? “Pi” was a surprising $1 million purchase by Artisan. Most critics were impressed but guarded, and certainly circumspect when it came to the film's box office potential: Owen Gleiberman claimed it looked “like the ultimate college masterpiece,” while Richard Corliss preferred to discuss director Aronofsky himself, claiming he was a “genuine experimenter.” Ultimately the film pulled in a little more than $3 million at the worldwide box office.
How Big Did It Get? “Pi” marked the beginning of an auspicious big-screen career for Aronofsky, who unveils the megabudget “Noah” in the spring. The movie itself has a considerable reputation in indie circles, but it’s not considered an essential watch, particularly considering the rough edges of Aronofsky’s craft had been, in many ways, sanded down by the time of the Oscar-acclaimed “Black Swan.
Is It Worth The Hype? “Pi” is ultimately a minor affair, a ludicrous no-budget tripfest that carries a propulsive rhythm (no doubt thanks to a colorful soundtrack) and an action movie verve, but ultimately it's fairly incomprehensible. You can see exactly why Aronofsky was in demand after watching the film, but you can also see why a movie like “Pi” offers very little for the audience to absorb. Often, it feels lifted by youthful creative energy alone, never coalescing into the enigmatic mind-bender it thinks it is.

The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects
What’s It About: A ship fire and a mass murder leave behind one witness, fast-talking career criminal Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), who knows the truth about the discovered corpses and is gradually coerced into sharing the story of his accomplices (including Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollack and Stephen Baldwin) with the dogged detective (Chazz Palminteri) on the case.
Year It Played Sundance: “The Usual Suspects” was part of a crowded 1995 Sundance slate, one that also included “Living In Oblivion,” “New Jersey Drive,” “Nadja” and Grand Prize winner (!) “The Brothers McMullen.”
How Was It Received At The Time? Bryan Singer’s second feature (his first, “Public Access,” was a previous Grand Prize winner at Sundance) played at both Sundance and Cannes before gaining a mainstream release by Regency Pictures. Roger Ebert was a famous detractor, placing the picture on his “Most Hated” list, but critical reception was otherwise strong.
How Big Did It Get? The picture was a surprise summer indie hit, grossing $23 million and launching Singer onto the studio A-List, where he’s spent his career thus far making superhero epics like “X-Men” and “Superman Returns.” The picture netted an Academy Award for screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie as well as one for Best Supporting Actor Kevin Spacey, launching his career into leading-man territory. Well before the internet age, “Who is Keyser Soze?” became something of a pop culture meme.
Is It Worth The Hype? Hell yes. You wonder exactly where Singer’s potential went, given the twisty nature of this perversely entertaining crime caper. Even when you know that a massive twist is coming, you can still appreciate how tightly the film’s narrative is woven, as a crackerjack cast spills hardboiled bons mots in one of the best post-Tarantino crime films of the nineties.

Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite
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 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.

Michael Moore's "Roger and Me"
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Michael Moore's "Roger and Me" will celebrate its 25th anniversary at TIFF this year.

Roger And Me
What’s It About: Documentarian Michael Moore struggles to get a meeting with General Motors CEO Roger Smith regarding the closing of several auto factories in his hometown of Flint, Michigan.
Year It Played Sundance: In 1990, “Roger And Me” was the standout documentary, while other narrative features included “House Party,” "Longtime Companion,” “Metropolitan” (listed here) and “To Sleep With Anger.”
How Was It Received At The Time? The film received no awards at Sundance, though it eventually popped up at a number of festivals, earning a $3 million distribution deal from Warner Bros. Pauline Kael was a famous detractor, calling it “a piece of gonzo demagoguery.” Roger Ebert existed on the other end of the spectrum, enthusiastically defending the film from attacks by discussing how Moore’s use of a flexible timeline was more about the nature of storytelling on film.
How Big Did It Get? “Roger And Me” is one of the most influential documentaries in history, singlehandedly altering the format and bringing it into the homes of people who otherwise would have never watched a news magazine on the big screen. His use of humor also led to an evolution of the art form, as the medium now bears witness to several different, more lighthearted approaches to even the darkest subject matter. The picture grossed $7.7 million, and has since been preserved by the National Film Registry.
Is It Worth The Hype? By the time Moore was seen in his next film, “The Big One,” he had grown to be the insufferable lightning rod he is today, infusing his do-gooderism with a large dose of ego, his sense of humor waning. But, once upon a time, Moore made a remarkable picture. “Roger And Me” remains an unsettling, but wholly entertaining bit of agit-prop cinema, fueled alternately by witty liberalism and indignant social anger, all leading up to a symbolic punchline which Moore would later revisit, to diminished returns, in other films. Later Moore pictures would be hits, but none carried the intimacy and precise scope of his very first.

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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