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The Best Sundance Films of All Time — IndieWire Critics Survey

From "Daughters of the Dust" to "The Babadook," Sundance has launched some of the best and most important movies of the last 35 years.

Timothée Chalamet stars as Elio in Call Me By Your Name

“Call Me by Your Name”

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: With the 2018 Sundance Film Festival gearing up later this week, what is the best movie to ever have its world premiere at the fest?

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

“The Babadook”

Entertainment One

Best movie ever? That’s hard for me to quantify, but I’ll always remember the long, quiet walk I took at 3am, down icy streets, no one in sight, after I’d just been blown away by “The Babadook.” That was one terrifying night. I’d felt like I’d just seen greatness. Jennifer Kent’s movie would colonize my head, later, my nightmares. These days, it means so many different things to so many different people. But then, it was brand new: the beginning of Sundance’s horror renaissance that would later include “The Witch,” “The Eyes of My Mother” and “Get Out.”

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Freelance for Harper’s Bazaar, Vice, Birth.Movies.Death

"Fruitvale Station"

“Fruitvale Station”

This is a tough one because Sundance has introduced us to many great films. But when I think about a movie in recent years that nearly shattered me, it is “Fruitvale Station.” It came out in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, amid a particular peak in racial tension, and humanized a conversation that many of us were already having about violence against black bodies across the country. Michael B. Jordan’s tragic yet remarkably understated portrayal of 22-year-old Oscar Grant in the final days of his life is only heightened by Ryan Coogler’s direction and Melonie Diaz’s devastating performance. Nearly five years later, “Fruitvale” still sticks with me and reminds us that behind each harrowing headline is a victim whose story was cut short.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

“Daughters of the Dust”

Instantly, obviously: Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” one of the few movies of the last thirty years that matches its dramatic originality (and, for that matter, its historical revelations) with invention at the level of the image itself. What’s more, it’s Dash’s first feature; if the industry had any sense of shame, it would do something promptly to make up for having left it as her only theatrical feature to date—all the more so in the light of some of the mediocrities that have been celebrated at Sundance since then and that have propelled their makers into busy careers.

Kate Erbland, IndieWire, @katerbland

Winter's Bone

“Winter’s Bone”

This is a fraught question, and nearly impossible to answer. It doesn’t seem right to name “Call Me by Your Name” for this one — even though it was my favorite film of last year, and even nearly a year since first seeing it during its very last Sundance press screening in a cramped, cold, delightfully run-of-the-mill theater, I still think of it with nothing but love and admiration — because it doesn’t quite smack of the “Sundance-i-ness” I feel this question is tipping towards. So the answer is Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone,” at least to me, because that’s one Sundance film and experience I still haven’t forgotten almost a decade removed from it. It’s thoroughly, deeply absorbing, plain-spoken and not at all precious or overbearing about its material or setting or story, and it announced the arrival of Jennifer Lawrence with the kind of thrillingly raw performance most performers dream of ever having the chance to experience. It was also the first film I ever saw at Eccles, and the whole place buzzed with the kind of anticipation that can only happen right before hundreds of people get exposed to a great piece of art for the first time, together, in the dark.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today

Hoop Dreams

“Hoop Dreams”

Fine Line Features

Ever since the Sundance Institute took over the U.S. Film Festival in 1985, the organization has proven a worthy supporter of filmmaking of all kinds. True, the selections may strike one as a little less “indie” now than they were in the beginning, but that is the price of success, and all things considered, the folks at Sundance still seem committed to promoting new, as well as established, directors. Unfortunately, much of its history – from the early 1990s to 2017 – has been dominated by a certain someone with the initials H.W. (a good book on this history is Peter Biskind’s “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film”). That doesn’t mean, however, that we should discount the quality of the movies, nor their impact on the culture. Let not the messenger, in this case, taint the message, if good message it is.

Here are but a few of my favorite films to premiere at Sundance: “Stranger than Paradise” (Jim Jarmusch, 1985), “Sherman’s March” (Ross McElwee. 1987), “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (Mike Newell, 1994), “Living in Oblivion” (Tom DiCillo, 1995), “The Celluloid Closet” (Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman, 1996), “Memento” (Christopher Nolan, 2000), “Born into Brothels” (Zana Briski/Ross Kauffman, 2004), “Away from Her” (Sarah Polley, 2007), “The Kids Are All Right(Lisa Cholodenko, 2010), “Fruitvale Station” (Ryan Coogler, 2013), “A Girl Walks Homes Alone at Night” (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014) and “Get Out” (Jordan Peele, 2017). I wish I had room to list many more! But let me select for special praise Steve James’ remarkable 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams,” which follows two African-American high-school students in Chicago as they navigate the mostly white private-school system on basketball scholarships, hoping for a better life than what they might have if they stayed in their local public schools. Filmed over five years, with hundreds of hours of footage captured, the film is a work of infinite cinematic patience and skill, respectful towards its subject and profound in its conclusions.

Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Tracking Board

“(500) Days of Summer”

This is an easy one to answer since it just played on HBO last week and that’s Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer,” written by the guys who also adapted “The Disaster Artist.” I realize that I’ve probably seen the movie 5 times or more since seeing it at Sundance and it always delivers even when I know every single beat before it happens. I’m sure there’ve been other perfectly good movies like Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” but that movie can be a chore to watch sometimes.  So yeah, I’ll stick with “500 Days.”

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

"Call Me by Your Name"

“Call Me by Your Name”

Sony Pictures Classics

This is as borderline impossible a question as any that have ever been posed by this survey, especially when you consider the seismic cultural impact of some of the earlier Sundance films that did as much for the festival as the festival did for them (Todd Haynes’ “Poison” and Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust” come to mind). On the other hand, the last few years have marked a particularly strong period for Sundance, with major work like “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” “The Witch,” “Tangerine,” “Mudbound,” and “World of Tomorrow” all making their debuts in Park City. Some recent editions of the festival have been so strong that even knockouts like “God Help the Girl” went virtually unnoticed. If I had to pick a best, I suppose I’ll go with “Call Me by Your Name,” if only because it’s the only time I’ve ever watched something in January and known with almost complete certainty that I wouldn’t see anything better all year. That’s a strange feeling to have, and to hopelessly try to deny. Here’s hoping I’ll have it again soon.

Stephen Whitty (@StephenWhitty), Freelance

The Blair Witch Project Heather Donahue

“The Blair Witch Project”

“Best” is an awfully big word, but the Sundance screening I will never forget is “The Blair Witch Project.” I had somehow managed to know nothing about this one, and the screening was a not-very-crowded P&I show at the Yarrow that didn’t end until a while after midnight — and left me with a long, shivering walk back to  my condo, in the dark. Not an experience I could ever re-create, even if I tried — just as I think no one has quite managed to use “found footage” in quite the same way again.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic) – Nonfics, Film School Rejects

“Man on Wire”

Magnolia Pictures

The best films at Sundance are always the documentaries, in my opinion. And a number of the best docs of all time had their world premiere at the festival. Two in particular are worth noting. First is Martin Bell, Mary Ellen Mark and Cheryl McCall’s homeless youths spotlight  “Streetwise,” which tends to be labeled a 1984 title but had its official debut at Sundance (then still called the U.S. Film Festival) in 1985, where it received one of the handful of Special Jury Prizes. There’s never been another film like it, and it’s still amazing how objective and unsentimental it is considering how much its makers obviously cared for the subjects. The other is James Marsh’s “Man on Wire,” which bowed at Sundance in 2008 and won both the Jury Prize and the Audience Award for the world cinema doc program. The biographical and historical feature is a masterpiece of nonfiction storytelling, especially compelling for events set in the past, depicted with a perfect combination of anecdotal, archival and reenactment material. And it’s also a love letter to the Twin Towers in the wake of their destruction and a fascinating consideration of a time and place so different from that of the world (and particularly New York City) post-9/11. Honorable mentions: Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” (2005) and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Brother’s Keeper” (1992).

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “Call Me By Your Name” and “Paddington 2” (tie)

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