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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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"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"
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

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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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