Today sees the kick-off of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, and despite the increasingly corporate nature of the festival, and sometimes questionable selections (how many mediocre star-driven dramedies do we need?), it’s still one of the most important dates in the cinephile calendar, one that discovers countless talents both in front of and behind camera and that so often sets the tone for the moviegoing year to come (and beyond: Best Picture nominees “Boyhood” and “Whiplash” both premiered at the festival in 2014).
The film’s top award for fiction features, the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, isn’t as prestigious as the Palme d’Or, but it’s still important and increasingly so in the last few years. But for every Oscar-nominee that’s gone from Park City to the big stage, there’s a Grand Jury Prize winner that left Utah and was almost never heard of again.
So to mark the start of the festival, we’ve delved back and watched every one of the films that’s taken the top award in the last 31 years (including a number of years where the award was shared), and ranked them from worst to best (and yes, it says “Best to Worst,” but the opposite just reads weird in a headline: it’s not the end of the world, y’all!). Take a look at our verdicts below and let us know your own favorites in the comments, plus stay tuned over the next couple of weeks for our own extensive Sundance coverage to find out who’ll be winning the award in 2015.
35. “Waiting On The Moon” (1987)
Admittedly, 1987 wasn’t the most jam-packed line-up in the history of the festival, but even so, with films like “Hoosiers” and “River’s Edge” as competition, it’s pretty odd that the jury went for the staggeringly dull “Waiting On The Moon” as their top pick that year. Detailing the relationship between Gertrude Stein (Linda Bassett) and Alice B. Toklas (Linda Hunt), it’s almost entirely free of drama or understanding of Stein and Toklas’ work, with director Jill Godlimow seemingly more interested in the picturesque scenery than anything else. Character actor great Bruce McGill livens things up as Ernest Hemingway briefly, but otherwise this feels like a snoozefest of a TV movie, which isn’t entirely surprising, as it was made for PBS’ “American Playhouse” series.
34. “The Trouble With Dick” (1987)
Almost entirely forgotten even by the standards of some of the early Grand Jury Prize winners, there’s probably a reason for “The Trouble With Dick” having fallen between the cracks of Sundance history beyond its lack of distribution (the company that bought the film went under before they could put it out). Following a struggling sci-fi writer who starts to lose his grip on reality after having affairs with both his landlady and her daughter, it’s got some ambition to it (interspersing low-budget science-fiction sequences with the main narrative), but comes across as a slightly amateurish sex farce most of the time. Unavailable for years, you can check the whole thing out on Vimeo, should you so desire…
33. “Precious: Based On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire” (2009)
Sod’s law that one of the most successful films to win the top prize at Sundance (it received six Oscar nominations, winning two, and with a haul of $45 million is the top-grossing Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner) is also one of the worst. Lee Daniels’ adaptation of Sapphire’s (fictional) misery memoir has moments of power, thanks mostly to mighty performances from Gabourey Sidibe and the Oscar-winning Mo’nique, but Daniels’ crass, over-the-top tastelessness and throw-everything-at-the-wall over-stylization makes the whole a pretty painful experience .
32. “Smooth Talk” (1986)
Providing a breakthrough role for Laura Dern (who’d appear in “Mask” a few months later and “Blue Velvet” the following year), “Smooth Talk” unfortunately hasn’t aged well. Though it’s based on a Joyce Carol Oates short story, the film about a precocious teenage girl (Dern) keen to explore her sexuality who’s wooed by a dangerous stranger (Treat Williams) is reminiscent more of a Lifetime movie than something more challenging, veering too close to histrionics and melodrama in places. Director Joyce Chopra does at least pull back to something more restrained in the closing stages, but it’s still worth noting more for Dern’s excellent performance than for anything else.
31. “Public Access” (1993)
Technically adept for such a low-budget film but notable more for the promise it held than for satisfying in and of itself, “Public Access” is today remembered only as the debut of “The Usual Suspects” and “X-Men” director Bryan Singer. “The Visit” by way of Hitchcock, the film tells the story of an enigmatic drifter (Ron Marquette) who turns a small town upside down with a local cable show. It’s admirably ambitious but doesn’t have the narrative know-how to make anything of its premise. That said, Singer does show the handle on tension and atmosphere that would serve him well with follow-up “The Usual Suspects.”
30. “Personal Velocity” (2002)
The second feature from writer-director Rebecca Miller (who went on to make “The Ballad Of Jack and Rose” and “The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee”), “Personal Velocity” is admirable for giving showcases to three ever-underrated actresses, in Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, and Fairuza Balk, but not for much else. A triptych narrative focusing on Sedgwick’s housewife who escapes an abusive marriage to hook up with a teenager, Fairuza Balk’s pregnant runaway, and Parker Posey’s book editor flirting with infidelity, it’s mostly overwritten and pat in its psychology (though the middle segment, Posey’s, is the best), and shot in ugly post-Dogme digital.
29. “Heat And Sunlight” (1988)
Something of an overlooked figure in the history of American independent cinema, director Rob Nilsson (who’d won the Camera d’Or at Cannes for “Northern Lights” in 1979) both helmed and starred in this improvised feature about a war photographer wallowing in the memories of a failed relationship, and his memories of the conflict in Biafra in the 1970s. Nilsson’s something of a disciple of Cassavetes, and it shows here, but for all the admirably dark and deep character study the film shows, it’s indulgent and unruly in a way that the “Shadows” director rarely was. Not uninteresting, but not hugely satisfying either.
28. “True Love” (1989)
If “True Love” is remembered at all, it’s as the film that beat “Sex, Lies, & Videotape” (which went on to win the Palme D’Or, and become perhaps the most important film in Sundance’s history) to the Grand Jury Prize. It’s still a puzzling decision, but that doesn’t mean that “True Love” is a bad movie. Nancy Savoca’s film, a Cassavetes-influenced rom-com, is a perfectly decent look at the impending marriage of Annabella Sciorra and Ron Eldard (both very good), that doesn’t go into new territory even remotely, but handles the ground it covers pretty well, even if the film dissipates from the memory almost as soon as the credits roll.
27. “Padre Nuestro” (aka “Sangre de mi Sangre”) (2007)
A prime example of a film in which so much is right — the performances, the gritty backdrop of New York City’s underclass, the surprisingly emotive interpersonal relationships — but it’s all built on such shaky foundations that it feels like a doomed enterprise. The contrived, credulity-snapping script, which involves an opportunist illegal immigrant exploiting a naive illegal immigrant and switching identities with him by means of a purloined letter, proved that writer/director Christopher Zalla’s talents lie much more in the directing than the writing realm, and it’s hardly surprising that so compromised a film, for all its individual merits, is one of the less well-remembered of the recent Sundance winners.
26. “The Brothers McMullen” (1995)
Its reputation has been sullied somewhat by the diminishing returns of its writer-director’s subsequent, similar-but-not-as-good films, but Edward Burns’ debut, “The Brothers McMullen,” is, in and of itself, a decent, if decidedly modest film. Centering on the love lives of a trio of Irish Catholic brothers who end up living together back in the family home after the death of their father, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but stands out thanks to a seriousness of purpose when it comes to sexual and romantic morality, making the film a little less bro-tastic than it might otherwise threaten to be.
25. “Like Crazy” (2011)
Providing break-out roles for Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin (along with a puzzlingly brief part for Jennifer Lawrence — bet you forgot she was in this, right?), Drake Doremus’ film about the Transatlantic romance between two college kids separated by visa issues, has the immediacy and atmosphere of a break-up record, evoking pangs in anyone that has loved and lost. It’s better at mood than at actual content — the partly-improvised feel is aimless and banal more often than not — but manages to salvage something raw even after the more eye-roll-inducing moments.
24. “Old Enough” (1984)
The very first winner of the top prize at Sundance, and a sort of model for a hundred similar coming-of-age films to follow, Marisa Silver’s “Old Enough,” about the friendship between a tough New York teen and a new arrival in the neighborhood from a wealthy family that’s tested as their sexuality develops, probably played better at the time, when the premise wasn’t quite so familiar. Still, it’s authentic and deeply felt in places, even it it’s often awkward in a way that doesn’t so much evoke puberty as it does a filmmaker still working out what they’re doing.
23. “Quinceañera” (aka “Echo Park, L.A.”) (2006)
A surprise winner of both the Jury Prize and the Audience Award in a year that had been dominated on the ground by crowdpleaser “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Half Nelson,” “Thank You For Smoking,” and “The Illusionist,” “Quinceañera,” from “Still Alice” directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, revolves around an Echo Park teenager whose preparations for her fifteenth birthday are disrupted when she discovers she’s pregnant, despite being a virgin. It’s familiar stuff carved from what had become a Sundance-friendly template, but it’s not a bad example of the genre: sweet-natured, compassionate, and well-acted by a then-unknown cast.
22. “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” (1995)
Pretty much the sole non-U.S. made winner of the Grand Jury Prize (it predates the creation of the World Cinema Jury Prize Dramatic award), “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” was a British dark comedy inspired loosely by a real case, about a suburban teenager and aspiring chemist who begins to poison those who cross him. It’s uneven and a little difficult to love, but writer-director Benjamin Ross has a confident handle on performance and period, and with lead actor Hugh O’Conor, is able to carefully walk the tightrope of making his protagonist genuinely disturbing, but maintaining empathy with him. There are some bleak laughs to be found too.
21. “Sunday” (1997)
Another of the more forgotten top-prize winners, “Sunday” is worth checking out even if it feels a bit minor compared to some of the other films on this list. Based on a short story by James Lasdun (who co-wrote the script with director Jonathan Nossiter), it’s the striking tale of an unlikely encounter between a British actress (Lisa Harrow) and a middle-aged man she believes is a film director (David Suchet, best known for playing Poirot on TV), but who may or may not be actually a homeless drifter. Sensitively and subtly written, although indulgently and slackly directed, it’s most noteworthy for the two central performances, which dominate the movie, and which suggest that Suchet and Harrow should be much better known in the U.S.
20. “Girlfight” (2000)
Screenwriters and filmmakers should be aware that sometimes you can make a well-worn tale feel fresh simply by approaching it with a different gender in the lead, and “Girlfight” is an excellent example of that. Karyn Kusama’s film hits all kinds of familiar boxing-movie tropes, but stands out from the pack because it focuses on a female lead: Michelle Rodriguez’s tempestuously-tempered teen, who finds salvation in a boxing gym. It’s still cliched stuff, but along with the more unusual gender politics, the film stands out through both Kusama’s sturdy direction, and the fiercely charismatic lead performance from “Fast & Furious” star Rodriguez, who debuted here.
19. “Slam” (1998)
As the title might suggest, how you feel about “Slam” is probably affected by your feelings about slam poetry, which Marc Levin’s film revolves around. It’s the tale of a bright young Washington D.C. man (rapper Saul Williams, who’s very good), who finds new hope through verse, and the love of a prison teacher (Sonja Sohn, of “The Wire”). It’s easy to roll your eyes at the poetry-can-stop-violence theme (and at some of Levin’s stylistic tics), but there’s also a fierce intelligence and uncompromising political edge to the film that outlasts its more cringeworthy moments.
18. “Three Seasons” (1999)
The first film in the festival’s history to win both the Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and the first American movie to film in Vietnam since the end of the war, “Three Seasons” is a beautifully shot, if somewhat sentimental look, at a nation adjusting to their changing values as Communism comes to an end, and as it tries to shake off the specter of conflict. Sort of neo-realist in approach, and focusing on a large cast of characters (with Harvey Keitel the sole major Western face), it’s somewhat superficial in terms of its actual content, but is lyrical enough that it’s a shame that director Tony Bui (just 26 when he made the film) hasn’t gone on to more substantial work.
17. “Fruitvale Station” (2013)
Snapped up by the Weinstein Company and touted as an awards possibility (though it was ultimately mostly passed over), Ryan Coogler’s searing account of the final hours of Oscar Grant, killed illegally by transit cops on New Year’s Eve 2009, is decidedly imperfect, tipping the scales in an attempt to make its central figure more sympathetic. But it’s elevated enormously by a star-making turn by Michael B. Jordan as Grant (and strong supporting work from Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer too), and it’s sadly only grown in power after events in Ferguson, New York, and elsewhere.
16. “Frozen River“ (2008)
Though its most lasting contribution to cinema was to land a long-deserved Oscar nod for veteran character actress Melissa Leo (she’d win for David O Russell’s “The Fighter” two years later), Courtney Hunt’s “Frozen River” deserves to be thought of as more than just a one-woman show. Set in upstate New York, it centers on two single mothers (Leo and the late Misty Upham) who team up to stave off economic hardship by smuggling illegal immigrants from the Canadian border. Hunt has some technical limitations to overcome (it’s one of the last Sundance movies shot digitally before the technology kicked up a gear, and isn’t wildly attractive as a result), but wrings every drop of tension out of her tale, and is blessed with a pair of excellent lead performances, with Leo typically and particularly excellent.
15. “American Splendor” (2003)
The only comic book movie ever to win Sundance’s top prize (it’s based on the late Harvey Pekar’s autobiographic underground graphic novel), Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s film, originally backed by HBO, is an innovative and imaginative portrait of the lovably mistanthropic cartoonist (played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti) that deals head-on with the impossibility of ever accurately portraying someone in a movie. It’s genuinely illuminating and formally bold stuff, even if Pekar’s not always a pleasant figure to spend a couple of hours with.
14. “In the Soup” (1992)
A fond, offbeat little film that has proven the high point of director Alexandre Rockwell’s career so far, this self-consciously autobiographical story feels definitively Sundance. Following an aspiring screenwriter (Steve Buscemi) who fantasizes about Jennifer Beals’ Angelica, while the terrific Seymour Cassel plays the con man promising to finance the writer’s magnum opus, Stanley Tucci and spiritual forbearer Jim Jarmusch also appear. A few years later, Buscemi would star in the similarly themed Sundance title “Living in Oblivion,” but “In the Soup” is the crookeder, more heartfelt version, though in retrospect its win over “Reservoir Dogs” (Rockwell would go on to “Four Rooms” alongside Tarantino) seems generous.
13. “Ruby In Paradise” (1993)
A leisurely, careful character study undervalued by many, given that it premiered at the time when the festival was blowing up the likes of Tarantino and Rodriguez, “Ruby In Paradise” is a sweet, low-key drama, a sort of old fashioned ‘women’s picture’ in some ways, about a young woman (played by breakout Ashley Judd) attempting to build a life for herself in Florida. Gently and confidently helmed by Victor Nunez, it’s not a film where anything particularly earth-shattering happens, but anchored by a terrific performance by Judd, is one that’s worth sitting back and soaking in.
12. “What Happened Was” (1994)
An acclaimed stage actor and character actor favorite of Michael Mann, Spike Jonze, and Charlie Kaufman, among others (he’s best known as Francis Dollarhyde from Mann’s “Manhunter”), Tom Noonan made his directorial debut with “What Happened Was,” and it’s an arresting and powerful one. Based on his stage play, it follows an uneasy, twisting first date between Noonan’s paralegal and Karen Sillas’ secretary, that, while undoubtedly a chamber piece, is also firmly cinematic. The filmmaker pays carefully attention to the details and building mood like a horror film, though it’s a much more complex beast than that. Both actors are terrific, and the film feels like it paved the way for Neil LaBute’s movies, though it’s superior to anything he’s come up with so far.
11. “Whiplash” (2014)
Sure, Damien Chazelle’s now multi-Oscar-nominated film (the fourth Grand Jury Prize winner in six year to be up for Best Picture) might not be an especially accurate or loving portrayal of the jazz world, but that’s not even remotely the point. You could set this in an art school or a drama school, and you’d still have a story about a poisonous but productive mentor-pupil relationship, and a parable about the costs of pursuing greatness. That said, if it wasn’t about jazz drumming, you wouldn’t have the film’s furious drive and astonishing cutting either, with Chazelle conducting proceedings with a bullishness that belies that this is only his second feature. J.K. Simmons is likely to rightly win an Oscar next month, but one also shouldn’t overlook Miles Teller, who shifts subtly across the film and is never less than utterly convincing.
10. “Beasts Of The Southern Wild” (2012)
It got hit by a major backlash over the last couple of years (watch out, “Whiplash”), but now that the air has cleared, Benh Zeitlin’s film still stands as one of the most impressive and original films on this list. A magic realist fairy tale with gritty groundings about a young girl and her father in a post-Katrina-ish flooded bayou, it’s both a tiny little father-daughter tale (anchored by superb performances by first-timers Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry), and a gorgeous epic, helmed with real imagination and beauty by the first-time director. It brushes against being twee, and a kind of poverty porn, in places, but for the most part pulls back and remains controlled. Why haven’t we got a second film from Zeitlin already, dammit?
9. “Forty Shades Of Blue” (2005)
He’s gained more attention in
recent years thanks to the excellent “Keep The Lights On” and “Love Is
Strange,” but director Ira Sachs originally broke through with “Forty
Shades Of Blue,” a rich, novelistic melodrama about the triangle between
a legendary music producer (Rip Torn), his younger Russian girlfriend
(Dina Korzun), and the producer’s son (Darren E. Burrows).
Unsentimentally and unshowily shot by Sachs, it’s intense, powerful, and
beautifully nuanced stuff, closer to melodrama than the director’s more
recent work, but never feeling anything less than drawn from human
nature, rather than plot contrivance. And Torn brilliantly reminded
everyone that before he was a comic boon to “Men In Black” and “30
Rock,” he was a great dramatic actor too.
8. “Winter’s Bone” (2010)
Before she was arguably the biggest movie star on the planet, Jennifer Lawrence was the unknown who anchored Debra Granik’s gripping neo-noir, “Winters’s Bone,” an adaptation of the book by Daniel Woodrell. Detailing young Ree’s dangerous investigation into her meth-cooking father’s disappearance, it’s a film that deserves consideration above and beyond Lawrence’s astonishing central turn: for the fierce specificity and uneasy atmosphere that Granik lends the Ozark setting, for John Hawkes’ terrifying, against-type performance as her uncle Teardrop, for the clarity and power of its storytelling. Lawrence is sure to have a long and legendary career, but we suspect she’ll only make a handful of movies better than this one.
7. “Chameleon Street” (1990)
Something of a hidden gem among the festival’s prize-winners, “Chameleon Street,” from writer-director-star Wendell B. Harris, beat out Whit Stillman and Hal Hartley to the 1990 Grand Jury Prize, at a time when all eyes were on the festival after Steven Soderbergh’s success the year before. Barely distributed at the time, it’s a playful, dryly comic tale of a real-life “Catch Me If You Can”-style conman who impersonates a doctor, a lawyer, and a journalist, with Harris using the tale to provocatively tackle issues of race. Bold, uncompromising, and formally experimental, it proved a little too close to the bone for most audiences, but it’s only getting more and more remarkable over time, and we hope to see something new from Harris sooner rather than later (he’s currently Kickstarting a new feature).
6. “The Believer” (2001)
Despite rave reviews and launching the career of future heartthrob Ryan Gosling, “The Believer” struggled to get distribution in the U.S., eventually slinking onto Showtime nearly 18 months after taking the top prize in Park City. But then it’s not entirely surprising: it’s an enormously powerful and provocative picture that confronts taboos head on, and which exposes something like the similarly-themed “American History X” as the skinhead porn it really is. The premise — a Neo-Nazi (Gosling, in a firecracker performance that might still be his best) who’s also secretly Jewish — might sound like a rejected Sacha Baron Cohen character, but Henry Bean’s film is a challenging, thought-provoking, and intellectually rigorous one that deserves a second airing after its shameful rejection by distributors back in the day.
5. “Poison” (1991)
Having already impressed with his undistributable Karen-Carpenter-with-Barbie-dolls curio “Superstar,” Todd Haynes launched his career properly with the dazzlingly inventive “Poison.” Essentially launching the New Queer Cinema in one fell swoop, the film’s made up of three wildly different segments: a tabloid docudrama about a boy who kills his father, a spoof psychedelic horror picture, and an adaptation of a trio of Genet stories set in a prison. Hugely controversial at the time (the NC-17-rated picture was funded through the National Endowment for the Arts), it was an early taste of Haynes’ formal restlessness and intellectual curiosity, but also of the beating heart and enormous empathy that lay underneath as well.
4. “You Can Count On Me” (2000)
Modest in ambition, but essentially perfect in execution, playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial feature debut, “You Can Count On Me,” is a finely honed, deeply humanistic drama about a pair of estranged siblings (Laura Linney and, in an electric breakthrough turn, Mark Ruffalo) who are reunited in their hometown. It’s the premise of a dozen other Sundance movies (and even a load of sitcoms), but Lonergan’s wryly funny, punch-packing script, one of the best written this millennium, trasncends any familiarity the film might otherwise contain, while as a director, he perfectly judges the tone and mood, in large part thanks to his excellent cast (Linney was Oscar-nominated, Ruffalo should have been).
3. “Primer” (2004)
A true original, Shane Carruth’s “Primer” took a micro-budget look at one of film’s most well-worn genres, the time travel picture, and blew it wide open. Talking through the plot would take all day (in short: a pair of engineers accidentally invent a time machine and end up battling for control of it), it’s a film so dense and original that it requires your absolute concentration and at least a second and third viewing, but it’s also one that gets more and more rewarding with each go around. It’s particularly notable as a movie that rewards Sundance’s true independent spirit. Even at a time when the festival was filling up with stars and celebrities, it’s a movie made for the price of a Park City hotel suite that still wowed the crowds, though it left some of them scratching their heads.
2. “Welcome To The Dollhouse” (1995)
There have been roughly 400,000 coming-of-age movies in the 30-year history of Sundance (this is obviously a rough estimate), but Todd Solondz’s “Welcome To The Dollhouse” might be the very best of them. Following nerdy 11-year-old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matazarro) as she battles her dysfunctional family, lusts after classmates, and tries to survive junior high, it steers right into taboo subjects that other movies would keep well clear of, but as with the best of Solondz’s other pictures, there’s a deep, painful authenticity to it that makes most other films in the genre look like total phonies. More influential than it’s given credit for (it directly inspired “Freaks & Geeks,” among others), it’s also funnier and warmer than it’s given credit for. Dawn’s returning in the next year or two in the unlikely guise of Greta Gerwig for “Wiener Dog,” and we couldn’t be more excited about the prospect.
1. “Blood Simple” (1985)
The festival’s first big winner might have been somewhat unremarkable, but Sundance knocked it out of the park their second time at bat, giving the Grand Jury Prize to the debut film of the directing duo who’d go on to become two of the most important filmmakers of the last few decades of American cinema, and arguably the best. Joel & Ethan Coen’s “Blood Simple” riffs on the noir of James M. Cain and others, detailing bar owner’s Dan Hedaya’s attempt to get private detective M. Emmet Walsh to kill his cheating wife (Frances McDormand). It debuts the darkly comic, fiendishly plotted voice of the Brothers Coen that gives a fresh and idiosyncratic twist to the crime picture, one that sets the tone for everything that would follow from the pair. If the only filmmakers of note that the festival had discovered were these two (the film actually debuted at TIFF the previous year, but there was undoubtedly a boost from their Grand Jury win), we’d still be grateful for Sundance’s existence .
– Oliver Lyttelton with Jessica Kiang