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Here’s 10 Of Our Favorite Sundance Jury Prize Winners, In Honor Of ‘Fruitvale Station’

Here's 10 Of Our Favorite Sundance Jury Prize Winners, In Honor Of 'Fruitvale Station'

This weekend, Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” hits US theaters almost exactly six months after it won Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.  It does so by following in the footsteps of some of the most notable American independent films of contemporary times, with filmmakers like Todd Solondz, the Coen Brothers, Kenneth Lonergan and, last year, Benh Zeitlin all getting major breaks by taking Sundance’s top prize.

READ MORE: Here’s Where to Stream 23 Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winners for Free or with Subscription

Indiewire asked our five trusty summer interns to look back at Sundance’s previous U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winners, in honor of the release of “Fruitvale” and offer up some of their favorites. Here are 10:

American Splendor” – written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

This film is based on the autobiographical comic series of the same name by written by Harvey Pekar and drawn by multiple artists. The series chronicled Pekar’s strikingly regular day to day life in Cleveland, Ohio. Paul Giamatti plays Pekar with a certain sad sack glory, and Pekar even appears as himself in a voice-over commentary, giving his two cents about how the film is portraying his life. The movie is an inventive meta adaptation, using comic book trimmings like thought bubbles to blur the lines between the art forms. But ultimately this is an antihero movie about the ordinary real life of a balding slob who just happens to be a literary genius. [Madeline Raynor]

Beasts of the Southern Wild” – directed by Benh Zeitlin, written by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar.
Part allegory, part fantasy, “Beasts of the Southern Wild” tells the story of a fictionalized Bayou town facing a potentially devastating hurricane. Hushpuppy, the adorably charming Quvenzhané Wallis, lives with her ill, hot-tempered father Wink in the “Bathtub” area of Louisiana. Hushpuppy faces a biblical sized storm, her father’s illness, evacuation to an emergency shelter, and thawed out prehistoric Aurochs who may or may not actually exist, depending on how literal one takes the film. The powerhouse performance from Wallis earned the nine year old a Best Actress Oscar nomination, making her the youngest Best Actress nominee in history, alongside nods for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay [Casey Cipriani]


The Believer” – directed by Henry Bean; written by Henry Bean and Mark Jacobson
Many may remember “The Believer” simply as the film that made Ryan Gosling a bona fide film actor (if you don’t count his small but charming part as Alan Bosley in “Remember the Titans”). Yet there’s so much more to the 2001 Sundance winner than just Baby Goose. Director Henry Bean’s feature debut tells the true story of an anti-Semitic KKK leader who was exposed as a Jew by a New York Times reporter in the 1960s. If it wasn’t based in reality, it may have been too far-fetched to believe. Dealing with issues of family, development, and loyalty, “The Believer” isn’t an easy movie to stomach. It spews vitriol out as thoughts, as beliefs of a confused, hate-filled man.  Bean’s well-paced drama is grounded by Gosling’s riveting performance. His head shaved, his mouth contorted into a near-permanent grimace, the lady killer of today is all but hidden behind a self-imposed mask of misplaced anger. His eyes dart rapidly from one subject to the next as he fires off opinions you’re not sure are even his, despite his vigor. “The Believer” earns its title — and its Grand Jury prize. [Ben Travers]


Blood Simple” – Directed by Joel Coen; Written by Joel and Ethan Coen
“Blood Simple” is the film that heralded the arrival of the Coen Brothers. Their debut effort mapped out the thematic territory they would conquer in the following decades; the film is whip-smart and brimming with fiendish complexity. In addition to its characteristically elaborate plot twists, the neo-noir features shining depictions of infidelity and corrupt sleuths. An unkempt saloon owner (Dan Hedaya) hires a private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz), one of the bartenders. In typical Coen fashion, things obviously don’t go as planned, resulting in a film that is as dark and twisted as it is breezy and fun, albeit a gory affair. “Blood Simple” wowed audiences at Sundance in 1985, winning the Grand Jury Prize. A 15th anniversary director’s cut was released in 2000, cementing the film’s undiminished staying power. [Julia Selinger]

Frozen River” – Directed and Written by Courtney Hunt
Courtney Hunt’s 2008 award-winning drama opens with a slow close-up on its protagonist’s face. Ray Eddy, played by Melissa Leo, wears a heavily creased face void of makeup. Her features are dry and wind bitten by upstate New York’s unrelenting Decembers. Much like the film’s frozen exterior, her face is gray, gritty, and hardened, yet also impassioned and powerful. It has good reason to be: Leo’s character has just found out her gambling husband has skipped town with the family savings. Like other families along the rural, freezing St. Lawrence, she is left impoverished and forced to care for two sons alone, resorting to family meals that consist of popcorn and Tang. “Frozen River,” fellow upstate denizen Hunt’s first feature film, tells the story of Ray’s relationship with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Mohawk woman who becomes Ray’s unexpected colleague. To make ends meet, the two women smuggle illegal immigrants on nighttime drives across the U.S.-Canada border. Hunt had studied the Mohawk tribe for ten years before her efforts materialized as a short that made it into the 2004 New York Film Festival. The fleshed out and starkly realistic melodrama went to Sundance in 2008 where it won the Grand Jury Prize and met a wave of acclaim, leading to numerous other awards and two major Oscar nominations. [Julia Selinger]


Like Crazy” – directed by Drake Doremus, written by Drake Doremus and Ben York Jones
“Like Crazy,” is a grueling portrayal of new love being thrown into an unexpected long-distance relationship. British exchange student Anna (Felicity Jones) falls for American student Jacob (Anton Yelchin), but their young love is tested when she outstays her student visa and is deported. Separated by bureaucratic barriers and faced with pressures like the prospect of a green card marriage really makes them weigh the value of staying together. This film subjects the main couple, and the viewer, to painfully slow heartbreak. It makes you wonder — if their love hadn’t been subjected to this heavy-handed separation, would they have lasted? Is long-distance how we know love is strong, or is it a helpless predicament that no one should be subjected to? Anna and Jacob both fall into rebound relationships (with Charlie Bewley and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively) because it’s immediate and easy, but is the convenience better than the love they have to fight unreasonably hard for? The film raises a lot of unresolved questions about the dynamics of real life relationships, as well as prompting a lot of tears. Maybe don’t watch this one with your significant other. [Madeline Raynor]


Primer” – written and directed by Shane Carruth
Shane Carruth’s “Primer” seemingly came out of nowhere in 2004, as if it was beamed in from another time and place, which is very fitting considering the film’s plot. The film follows a group of engineers whose casual experiments in their garage lead them to conjuring up a box that has the ability to travel its contents back in time. What follows is an endless array of unravelling mysteries and time-blurring, as the engineers travel back in time and try to prevent the future and past versions of each other from gaining too much control. Shot for $7,000 on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas, “Primer” is as cerebral as it is crafty, with its real locations and untrained actors (most of them Carruth’s friends) giving the film a tremendous amount of realism as it stacks on the moral and time-shifting intrigue. Far from the fanciful and stylized sci-fi films of late, “Primer” seems to unfold in a world not too different from our own. Perhaps the ultimate achievement of this very accomplished film is that it really makes you believe. [Clint Holloway]

Welcome to the Dollhouse” – written and directed by Todd Solondz
Todd Solondz’s ferociously funny “Welcome to the Dollhouse” heralded the arrival of one of the most bitterly funny voices of our time. The film follows Dawn Weiner (Heather Matarazzo), an awkward and unpopular 7th-grade girl who faces relentless torment from her classmates and slight neglect from her parents, who seem to favor her younger, ballet-dancing sister Missy. When her brother’s band takes on hunky high-schooler Steve Rogers, Dawn is immediately infatuated, cluelessly trying to get his attention while also developing a secret admirer from bullying classmate Brandon. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” is able to achieve a strangely perfect balance of hard and soft, never sugar-coating the cruel teasing that Dawn is forced to endure on a daily basis while ultimately retaining a kernel of hope for our shy and bespectacled protagonist. The fact that Solondz also makes it outrageously hilarious is further testament to his accomplishment. No other filmmaker today seems to understand how closely intertwined happiness and sadness can be in life. Watching the film, you laugh out of amusement as well as a sense of relief that you’ll never have to go through the hellish torment of middle school ever again. [Clint Holloway]


Winter’s Bone“- directed by Debra Granik, Written by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini
Based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, “Winter’s Bone” is the film that put Jennifer Lawrence on the radar. Lawrence played Ree Dolly, a young woman looking after her mentally ill mother and two young siblings in the Ozarks. When her father goes missing, Ree sets out to find him before their house is repossessed. The film explores the seedy underbelly of methamphetamine manufacturing and touched on the rules of the middle-America drug trade, and themes of poverty, family and resilience. Lawrence’s performance was natural and engaging. She managed to embody Ree’s heartbreaking story without resorting to pity and earned her her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. An equally stunning performance came from John Hawkes who portrayed Ree’s uncle and meth addict Teardrop. The dark and twisted tale of meth in the country won the Grand Jury Prize for Drama at Sundance 2010. [Casey Cipriani]

You Can Count On Me” – directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan
When Kenneth Lonergan’s directorial debut won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance for Dramatic Narrative and Screenplay in 2000, no one thought it would take 11 years to see his follow-up film. Yet because of studio interference, a complicated legal battle, and artistic stubbornness, no one heard from the once-hot director until “Margaret” was unceremoniously pushed in and pulled out of theaters in 2011. It still won rave reviews and even managed to build a cult following, but the delay certainly didn’t help anyone remember the man or his first film. Let us remind you. “You Can Count On Me” tracks the difficult relationship between a troubled brother (an outstanding Mark Ruffalo) and sister (Laura Linney, who received an Oscar nomination for her role). Linney’s character, Samantha, is trying to hold her life together. As a single mother with a missing sibling — Terry, her brother, doesn’t call often and hasn’t been seen for months — she’s a bit lost, even if she feels close to having it all together. It’s a credit to Lonergan and his cast (including a young Rory Culkin and young-ish Matthew Broderick) that none of the film feels familiar or contrived. It’s a sporadically comedic, continuously touching depiction of two anything but mundane mid-life crises. Don’t forget it.  [Ben Travers]

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