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25 Movies That Defined The Sundance Film Festival

Features
by The Playlist Staff
January 21, 2014 12:05 PM
14 Comments
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Spanking the Monkey

Spanking the Monkey
What It's About: David O, Russell’s feature debut follows Ray (Jeremy Davies), a promising pre-med student, returning home to take care of his bedridden mother in his salesman father’s absence, during which time he and his mother (Alberta Watson) embark on an incestuous affair.
Year It Played Sundance: 1994, same year as “Clerks,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Backbeat,” “Go Fish” and “Hoop Dreams.” 
How Was It Received At The Time: Russell’s first feature picked up the Audience Award at Sundance, and was largely positively reviewed, though some, like Todd McCarthy at Variety, found issue with its tonal inconsistency and immature visual style. The performances, especially from Davies and Watson, were widely lauded and its unflinching but unsensationalist take on taboo subject matter certainly made it stand out from the family-drama crowd.
How Big Did It Get? The film picked up a distribution deal from Fine Line at the festival and went on to be a modest arthouse hit, and it definitely features the kind of performance from Davies that you would have thought would lead to a higher-profile career. But of course what it really did was launch Russell as a writer/director of note and, even this early on, showed his talent for finding moments of comedy amid dramatic circumstances (though this would probably be his most “serious” film until “The Fighter”). It also showcased his ability in eliciting excellent performances, and just look where he is now: directing four actors to Oscar nominations for the second year running.
Is It Worth The Hype? Actually, yes, the film holds up very well even now, as a quietly compelling, offbeat coming-of-age story in which the incest, while of course forming the focal point of the plot, feels like an organic extension of a peculiar family situation and the specific characters involved (Watson’s mother is an especially ambivalent and interesting character) rather than a ploy to manufacture controversy. And depending on your point of view, that it’s not as obviously quirky as some of Russell’s subsequent films can either be a positive or a negative, but suffice to say its sincerity is a necessary counterbalance to its potentially splashy content.

Clerks

Clerks
What It's About: The feature debut of writer/director/divisively outspoken individual Kevin Smith is a black-and-white look at a day in the life of two down-at-heel store clerks (Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson) and their circle of similarly shiftless friends.
Year It Played Sundance: Vintage year 1994, along with “Spanking the Monkey” and “Hoop Dreams” (also on this list), “Suture” and “Fresh” among others.
How Was It Received At The Time? “Clerks” shared the Filmmaker Trophy from Sundance with Boaz Yakin’s “Fresh,” and was famously picked up by Miramax at the festival. That, however is a story unto itself, with Harvey Weinstein reportedly having already been invited to a private advance screening and leaving after 15 minutes, and only reluctantly being persuaded into seeing it at Sundance (more on that story over on Spout). However, with Smith’s stellar Q&A performances and the film playing to the Park City crowd like gangbusters, Weinstein loved his second viewing, which just goes to show the power of the festival atmosphere.
How Big Did It Get? Boasting one of the biggest profit profiles on this list, if you compare its famously credit-card-funded shooting budget of $27,500 to its eventual take of $3.15 million, “Clerks” proved a big hit for Miramax, but only after they hired no lesser a personage than Alan Dershowitz to petition a change in the MPAA’s original rating: the dreaded NC-17. The studio won, the film went out uncut and rated R, and the mixed blessing of Kevin Smith’s career was kicked into the independent film stratosphere. It currently regularly places high on lists of all-time greatest comedies.
Is It Worth The Hype? Absolutely. It’s unpolished, to the point of amateurism in parts, particularly the acting, but the script is genius-level funny and the shooting inventive and highly creative. Most importantly, and probably largely because of its inescapable lo-fi look and the Cinderella story behind its acquisition, it retains the ability to inspire fledgling filmmakers to this day, and even back in 1994 was a shot across the bow of the establishment that provided one of the first, much-needed periodic reinvigorations of the concept of “independent.”

Slacker

Slacker” 
What It's About: A series of vignettes and conversations between the misfits and oddballs of Austin, Texas. 
Year It Played Sundance: 1991, where it was beaten to the Dramatic Jury Prize by Todd Haynes' "Poison." Stephen Frears' "The Grifters" opened the festival, and Hal Hartley's "Trust," John Sayles' "City Of Hope" and Anthony Minghella's "Truly Madly Deeply" were among the other notable premieres. 
How Was It Received At The Time? The film was mostly heralded as the arrival of an exciting new voice, in the shape of director Richard Linklater. Hal Hinson in The Washington Post called it "a work of scatterbrained originality, funny, unexpected and ceaselessly engaging," for instance. Some were a little more skeptical, with the New York Times' Vincent Canby writing "After a while, a certain monotony sets in," but, for the most part, the film got the kind of stellar reviews that make a career. 
How Big Did It Get? You wouldn't call it a smash, exactly, but Orion Classics picked up the movie and took it to a very healthy $1.2 million in the summer of 1991—many Sundance flicks these days would die for the same number. More importantly, it went on to a long life at midnight screenings and stoned VHS viewings, proved to be enormously influential and launched the career of its director, who followed it up with teen classic "Dazed & Confused" and has gone on to become a Sundance staple: "Before Midnight" was one of the big talking points last year, and his latest movie, "Boyhood," premiered in Park City just last night, and by all accounts might be the director's masterpiece.
Is It Worth The Hype? For the most part, yeah. The film's loosey-goosey energy has held up better than the sophomore-year philosophizing, but even the latter works better than in the film's many imitators—the breadth and diversity of subjects and characters is dizzying, the level of invention energizing, and, perhaps most importantly of all, it's very funny. Linklater's moved on to bigger and better things since, but this is the one that told us who he was.

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine
What It's About: Derek Cianfrance’s heartbreaking film examines, through temporally juxtaposed editing, the relationship between Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) from their first encounter, through the blush of love, marriage and parenthood, right up to the relationship’s dissolution.
Year It Played Sundance: 2010, along with “Winter’s Bone,” “Animal Kingdom,” “A Prophet,” “The Killer Inside Me,” etc. 
How Was It Received At The Time? The response was overwhelmingly positive, especially to the partly improvised performances of the two leads and to Cianfrance’s clever editing and lovely photography. The Weinstein Company picked it up and, as with “Clerks,” fought the initial NC-17 rating (because of a cunnilingus scene FFS) down to an R.
How Big Did It Get? It made $12 million off its $1 million budget, but its real legacy is in the careers it transformed. Whether or not there are second acts in American lives, there was certainly one in Derek Cianfrance’s career as, following his 1998 debut, “Brother Tied” (which also premiered at Sundance), the director disappeared from the big screen for over a decade, largely directing TV documentaries in the interim. But his return to Park City essentially relaunched him, and made him, second time at bat, one of the most exciting “new” filmmakers to emerge that year. He seems also to have been riding a crest of generational attention due to casting of Gosling and Williams, both of whom were poised to blow up at any moment, and giving each a brilliant showcase for their talents—Williams would garner an Oscar nomination and Gosling would star in Cianfrance’s follow-up “The Place Beyond the Pines.”
Is It Worth The Hype? Yup, it’s a terrific, honest portrayal of the reality of a relationship in which neither party is a monster and both are at one point madly in love, but even that proves just not enough to be sustainable. It’s what happens after the “happily ever after” part of the fairytale, after the “The End” card of the romantic comedy, and it’s brilliantly played by Williams and Gosling.

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko
What It's About: Donnie is a bright but troubled teenager plagued with dreams and hallucinations that are in some way related to time travel, and that appear to be warning him of an approaching tragedy he cannot clearly foresee.
Year It Played Sundance: 2001, same year as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Memento,” “In the Bedroom” and “Dogtown and Z-Boys”.
How Was It Received At The Time? Following largely positive, occasionally rapturous reviews out of Sundance (Roger Ebert being a notable dissenter), the film nonetheless scrambled to find distribution, eventually landing with Newmarket Films largely thanks to producer and star Drew Barrymore’s tireless efforts to get the film a theatrical release. But then it more or less disappeared at the domestic box office, at least partially as a result of its release just weeks after the September 11th attacks.
How Big Did It Get? The film’s international release the following year saw it recoup its budget, but it was really on DVD that it made its money ($10 million, reportedly). Meanwhile its status as a cult film was growing, seeing it play extended Midnight Screening runs and gain in reputation to the point that Kelly got to release a Director’s Cut in 2004, which no longer had the studio-mandated 2-hour restriction. As a cultural artifact, the film also had a major impact, launching Kelly to prodigy status (he was only 26 years old when he wrote and directed “Donnie Darko”), making a breakout leftfield star of Jake Gyllenhaal, and even seeing the world lose its shit for Michael Andrews’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” which became the spookily iconic centerpiece of its popular 80s-inflected soundtrack.
Is It Worth The Hype? The cautionary tale of “wunderkind” Richard Kelly’s subsequent career aside, the film itself remains a fantastic mindfuck, a wonderfully enigmatic eerie-toned puzzle box featuring a role for Gyllenhaal that more or less defined his twitchy, soulful intelligence. Just avoid the director’s cut where possible and stick with the tighter and more confident theatrical version.

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14 Comments

  • 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. youtube.com/watch?v=vLAUaCJWOK4

  • 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

    CORRECTION: WE (COLUMBIA PICTURES) BROUGHT EL MARIACHI TO SUNDANCE - COLUMBIA DIDN'T PICK IT UP FROM THERE.

    AND HOW COULD YOU DO A ROUND UP WITHOUT HUSTLE & FLOW WHICH WON THE AUDIENCE AWARD AND SOLD FOR 9MILLION DOLLARS?

  • 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? http://igg.me/at/californiadreamingbook/x/5944165 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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