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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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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"

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.

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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