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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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Garden State
What It's About: Depressed and medicated twentysomething Andrew (Zach Braff, directing himself from a self-penned script) returns home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral, reconnects with old friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and falls for self-confessed pathological liar Sam (Natalie Portman), while trying to make sense of his place in the world.
Year It Played Sundance: 2004, alongside “Primer,” “Maria Full of Grace,” “Super Size Me” and “Goodbye Lenin.”
How Was It Received At The Time? After a very positive response at Sundance and reviews that saw “Scrubs” star Braff repeatedly referred to as a “triple threat,” the film landed a joint distribution deal between heavy hitters Fox Searchlight and Miramax.
How Big Did It Get? The film was helped by a smart rollout strategy that kept it playing regional festivals and advance Q&A screenings prior to its wider theatrical release, so it picked up several “breakthrough” type awards and built word-of-mouth. It ended up pulling in $35.8 million worldwide, making it hugely profitable even after having been bought for $5 million (twice its production budget), and earned Braff a Grammy for the indie pop, Shins-heavy soundtrack. But beyond the numbers, “Garden State” was an early example of what has come to be seen as kind of the Platonic ideal of the Sundance movie, for better or worse: independent but with recognizable stars; helmed by a first-timer destined to be hailed as a wunderkind; dealing with the neurotic, white, middle class American experience.
Is It Worth The Hype? It probably deserves neither the overpraise it received at the time, nor the vitriol that Braff haters have retrospectively heaped on it. It’s overly navel-gazey and self-involved, yes, but it does have a good few well-observed and heartfelt moments for all its moony trappings. You can check out our review of Braff’s current Sundance film “I Wish I Was There,” which reportedly revisits similar dramedy territory, here.

James Marsh's "Man on Wire"

Man on Wire
What It's About: A breathtaking documentary featuring interviews and reconstruction footage, directed by James Marsh, about Philippe Petit’s 1974 illicit high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Year It Played Sundance: 2008, the year of “Be Kind Rewind,” “Choke,” “In Bruges,” “The Wackness” and “Towelhead” among many others.
How Was It Received At The Time? Against perhaps not the most competitive lineup Sundance has ever seen, “Man on Wire” really ruled the roost, picking up both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for documentary, the first time a non-U.S. film managed that double. Magnolia picked it up for U.S. release.
How Big Did It Get? The film brought in nearly $3 million domestically, which is hardly astounding, but it did go on to have a very successful DVD release. More important, though, was the film’s critical domination of that year’s conversation—it was all over most critics’ year-end lists and went on to scoop the Academy Award for Best Documentary and the equivalent at the Independent Spirit Awards, along with the BAFTA for Best British Film. And though we set little store by RT ordinarily, it is remarkable that its Rotten Tomatoes review score is holding at an unheard-of 100% to this day. It also launched the more prolific period of James Marsh’s career, allowing him to work more continually across narrative (“Red Riding,” “Shadow Dancer”) and documentary (“Project Nim”) ever since.
Is It Worth The Hype? An unreserved yes. Marsh stated he was attracted to the film because he viewed it as a heist movie, and that element of thrillerish excitement is certainly there. However the film is also a terrifically moving look at friendship and the toll that one man’s tunnel-visioned drive and talent can take on his relationships, as well as a portrait of a truly extraordinary, but not always likeable, man.

You Can Count On Me
What It's About: Not, despite its title, an '80s rom-com starring Patrick Dempsey and/or Jon Cryer, writer-turned-director Kenneth Lonergan’s debut feature follows single mother Samantha (Laura Linney) whose life is upended when Teddy (Mark Ruffalo), the troubled brother to whom she used to be very close, drifts back into her life.
Year It Played Sundance: 2000, which also featured “Girlfight,” “The Tao of Steve,” “Wonderland,” “Boiler Room” and “American Psycho.”
How Was It Received At The Time? Lonergan’s debut scooped both the Grand Jury Prize (shared with “Girlfight”) and the Screenwriting Prize at Sundance that year. Despite this, it failed to find a distributor at the festival, but its Sundance stamp of approval led to a string of appearances at other festivals and a plethora of awards, especially for the screenplay and for the performances from Ruffalo and Linney, and it was eventually picked up by Paramount Classics
How Big Did It Get? The film cost $1.2 million to make and made $11 million back in theatrical release, so it yielded a decent return on investment. But it made a deeper impression in the careers it impacted: both Linney and Ruffalo experienced minor mid-career breakthroughs as a result, and Lonergan, to that point better known as a playwright and screenwriter (notably on Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”; Scorsese would go on to be Lonergan’s producer and most high-profile champion), got to set up his directorial follow-up, “Margaret” on the back of its success. That film’s journey to the screen, however, would not be as straightforward, to put it mildly. 
Is It Worth The Hype? While it feels like a lot of standard Sundance family/relationship dramas get overpraised coming out of the festival and ultimately can’t quite withstand the increased scrutiny that comes as a result, “You Can Count On Me” is the exception to that rule, entirely justifying its strong buzz with its warmth, humanism and depth of insight.

Metropolitan
What It's About: A group of wealthy, upper-class New York college students return home for the winter break of their freshman year during the Debutante Ball season, where old and new relationship entanglements ensue.
Year It Played Sundance: 1990, with a lineup that also included “House Party,” “Longtime Companion,” “Cinema Paradiso” and “The Unbelievable Truth” (featured above).
How Was It Received At The Time? While some critics found the air of Stillman’s milieu just too rarefied, most received the film warmly, especially its fearless wordiness, with Roger Ebert identifying it as “dialogue...in which the characters discuss ideas and feelings instead of simply marching through plot points as most Hollywood characters do” and “a film about people covering their own insecurities with a facade of social ease.”
How Big Did It Get? Stillman’s debut followed what has now become a fairly well-trodden path for Sundance breakouts: despite not picking up a distribution deal there immediately, the film rode its crest of Sundance buzz to an Academy Award nomination (for Screenplay) and an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, before New Line picked it up the day before the director left for a triumphant run during Cannes' Directors’ fortnight. In the years since, the film’s stature has only grown as it launched Stillman’s uniquely ironic but warm, F. Scott Fitzgerald-style take on the foibles and flaws of the indolent, overeducated upper-classes.
Is It Worth The Hype? As far from his environment as we may be removed, we’re big fans of Stillman’s (retrospective here) and can always find something universal in even his more divisive films. And “Metropolitan” is still the best entry-level Stillman film, with the passing years not managing to blunt its crystal-cut dialogue at all.

"Little Miss Sunshine" 
What's It About: A dysfunctional family (headed by Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear), complete with suicidal gay uncle (Steve Carell), silent son (Paul Dano) and drug-addicted grandpa (Alan Arkin), take a road trip in a VW camper van to deliver their youngest member (Abigail Breslin) to a California beauty pageant.
Year It Played Sundance: 2006, where it was one of the most high-profile premieres. Other big movies that year included "The Illusionist," "Lucky Number Slevin," "The Science Of Sleep," "Thank You For Smoking," "Kinky Boots," "Friends With Money," "Alpha Dog" and, in the dramatic competition, "Half Nelson," "A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints," "Sherrybaby" and prize winner "Quinceanera."
How Was It Received At The Time? Word was mostly very good, especially at the festival itself, where it was a word-of-mouth hit. Roger Ebert wrote that "you just won't see a better acted, and better cast movie" and that it "harks back to the anti-establishment, countercultural comedies of the 1970s such as 'Smile' or 'Harold and Maude,' " while Manohla Dargis in the Times concluded "there's a melancholy here that clings to this family, which however triumphant and united, may well remain stuck in the national Hooversville located at the crossroads of hope and despair." But not everyone was on board: Dennis Lim wrote in the Village Voice from Park City that the film was "a concentrated hit of Sundance pain."
How Big Did It Get? Very, very big indeed. A huge audience hit at the fest, Fox Searchlight snapped it up for $10.5 million, plus 10% of the eventual gross, one of the biggest deals in festival history. And it paid off, too: the film took $60 million domestically, and a grand total of $100 million worldwide. It could also be one of the most successful Sundance movies at the Oscars, having earned four nominations including Best Picture, and, unlike fellow four-time nominee "Beasts of the Southern Wild," winning two, for supporting actor Alan Arkin and writer Michael Ardnt (who went on to pen "Toy Story 3"). It also won the top prize from the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild of America.
Is It Worth The Hype? "Little Miss Sunshine" has, over the years, become something of a figurehead for 'the Sundance movie'—quirky comedy with some sad bits, movie stars taking a pay cut, indie-rock soundtrack, bright marketing campaign, etc. Some of that is fair, but we'd argue that the film does a better job at what it sets to achieve than most of its imitators. Sure, it's kind of a watered down "Flirting With Disaster," to name but one, but Arndt's script is both funny and compassionate, taking the characters and their situations seriously, and the direction, from feature debuting duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is tonally assured. The cast is pretty uniformly great too, especially Steve Carell.

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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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