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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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Precious

"Precious: Based On The Novel Push By Sapphire"
What's It About: In 1980s Harlem, an obese, abused teenager (Gabourey Sidibe) with two children is sent to an alternative school which offers her a rare glimmer of hope.
Year It Played Sundance: 2009, in competition, where "Sin Nombre," "Big Fan," "Adam," "An Education," "Bronson," "(500) Days Of Summer," "In The Loop," "Moon" and "The Messenger" were among a strong line-up.
How Was It Received At The Time? Probably the buzziest film of a buzzy line-up, "Precious" (which premiered under its original title " Push: Based On The Novel By Sapphire," got mostly stellar reviews at the festival. Variety said that it was "courageous and uncompromising, a shaken cocktail of debasement and elation, despair and hope," while Entertainment Weekly said it was a film "that makes you think, 'There but for the grace of god go I." Not everyone fell for it, though: Armond White, unsurprisingly, called it "the con job of the year," and The Daily Telegraph said that it was "a dispiriting mix of cliche and melodrama."
How Big Did It Get? Very big indeed. The rare film at Sundance that wins the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award and goes on to be seen by anyone and everyone, it was picked up by Lionsgate, who took it to Un Certain Regard at Cannes, brought Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey on for promotional duties, and saw it win the People's Choice Award at TIFF. Opening that November, it took nearly $50 million at the U.S. box office, and was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress.
Is It Worth The Hype? No, leavened with a bit of yes. We were a bit puzzled when we caught up with the film, because we found it to be unrelenting misery porn that might be the worst-directed movie to ever earn a Best Director Oscar nomination, with Lee Daniels' skillset proving a pretty terrible match for the material. But Daniels, as he's proven subsequently, can direct the hell out of actors, and it's for them that the film is worth seeing: relative newcomers Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'nique are electric, and even unlikely figures like Paula Patton, Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz turn in very strong performances.

Once

"Once"
What's It About: A heartbroken Irish folk singer partners with a Czech immigrant to make a record, the two falling in love in the process.
Year It Played Sundance: 2007, alongside high profile pictures like "Away From Her," "Black Snake Moan," "The Savages," "Son Of Rambow," "Year Of The Dog," "Joshua," "Teeth" and "Rocket Science."
How Was It Received At The Time? It was a huge critical smash at the time, holding to this day a 97% score on Rotten Tomatoes. The Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips called it " 'Brief Encounter' for the 21st century... the best music film of our generation," while the A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin called it "just about perfect. Imagine Belle and Sebastian remaking 'In The Mood For Love' as a heartbreaking low-fi musical." In fact, it's hard to find someone who wasn't at least partly charmed by the picture.
How Big Did It Get? The film won the World Dramatic Competition Audience Award at the festival, and Fox Searchlight picked it up a few weeks later, releasing the film later in the year. It proved only a modest success, taking in $9 million the U.S. and a little more abroad, but it's more notable for the cottage industry that sprang up around it: the Grammy-nominated soundtrack made it as high as No. 27 on the Billboard chart, and saw stars Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova tour the world afterwards (though their real-life relationship broke up not long after). Perhaps more crucially, a stage musical adaptation opened on Broadway in 2012, winning eight Tonys, and is still running today, with a U.S. tour also underway.
Is It Worth The Hype? If ever a film risked being overshadowed by the hype, it's this one. It's a sweet, slight, charming but fairly insubstantial romance with some lovely music, but to hear some of the initial reactions, you'd think it was curing cancer. With a few years' gap—even given the stage version—it probably holds up a bit better: Hansard and Irglova are immensely appealing leads, and there's a swooning and tragic romanticism to the film that leaves a lump in the throat, even if it risks being pat in places.

There are more Sundance films that are notable for one reason or another than you could possible shake a very big stick at, and so the list above is more gut instinct than science, and some of those that missed the cut for no better reason than a lack of space include: Todd Haynes ' beautiful and bizarre Queercore debut "Poison"; Vincent Gallo's charming, weird "Buffalo '66"; Todd Fields' sombre "In The Bedroom"; Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale"; Ed Burns' "The Brothers McMullen" and Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me"—all of which launched or relaunched their filmmakers onto the indie industry scene. 

We included a couple of documentaries, but could also have gone for the excellent "Crumb," "Capturing the Friedmans," Oscar winners "An Inconvenient Truth" and "The Cove," or the seminal "The Times of Harvey Milk." Money-spinners that we thought about adding in included "Four Weddings and A Funeral" and "Saw," though they feel a bit like outliers in the Sundance canon. 

And other films that just missed the cut included several that went on to Oscar glory: "Shine" (which was the first Sundance film to go on to a Best Picture Oscar nomination, one of seven it picked up), the aforementioned "In the Bedroom," and 'Four Weddings' along with "The Kids Are All Right" and recent Jennifer Lawrence-launching phenomenon "Winter's Bone" were all Best Picture nominees. Elsewhere we could easily have shouted out any of "Whale Rider," "American Splendor," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "Primer," "Me and You and Everyone We Know" and many more as similarly impressive iterations of what a Sundance movie could be, though we did try to avoid films like Christopher Nolan's "Memento," for example, that passed through Sundance but already had made waves and gained buzz at previous festivals.

Still, we're sure there are picks of yours that we've missed, so sound out below on what you consider the ultimate Sundance film. And on whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing. —Jessica Kiang, Gabe Toro, Oliver Lyttelton

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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