25 Movies That Defined The Sundance Film Festival

25 Movies That Defined The Sundance Film Festival
25 Movies That Defined The Sundance Film Festival

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. In
fact, like some of the films it has championed over the years, the main gripe with Sundance these days is that it has become a victim of its own success,
selling out its original independent aims to become a media and celebrity-driven extravaganza, which has been co-opted as little more than a testing ground
for studios on the prowl for a cheap acquisition. It once was David, the complainers claim, but now it’s become Goliath.

But maybe that is a rather unfair assessment of a festival that continues to do great work in terms of championing new filmmakers and
delivering to them a conduit to get their films seen by a larger number of people (if queuing up behind Ashton Kutcher on the odd red
carpet is the price to pay for increased exposure, we can’t see too many struggling independent filmmakers complaining). Through the years, the festival has
had an enormous impact on the independent filmmaking landscape, launching the careers of some of the very directors, actors, screenwriters and producers
without whom we can’t imagine what the film industry, let alone this blog, might look like. 

And even as it has showcased these talents,
Sundance has been symbiotically affected by many of them too, basking in the halo effect of its association with some of the most respected film
professionals working today, even as the image of the ideal “Sundance Film” has changed over the years. So what we have here is not a list of the biggest
films the festival has ever produced, nor even the best, but simply an eclectic selection of 25 films that we judge to be quintessentially “Sundance,” in
that their fortunes were materially altered by their exposure at the festival, and they, in their turn, further defined our idea of what the Sundance Film
Festival is all about.

Hoop Dreams” 
What It’s About: A documentary directed by Steve James following two black Chicagoan teenagers, William Gates and Arthur Agee, from underprivileged backgrounds as they experience financial, social, familial, educational and personal setbacks pursuing their dreams of a pro basketball career. 
Year It Played Sundance: 1994, alongside “Clerks” and “Spanking the Monkey” (both on this list), “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Fresh”. 
How Was It Received At The Time? Winning the Audience Award at Sundance was just the beginning of the film’s success. It sparked a three-way bidding war, with Fine Line Pictures winning out, due to a fairly unprecedented (for a documentary) deal for the filmmakers which they in turn shared with their young stars and their families (once that money was no longer in danger of revoking their amateur status or scholarships). (More here in The Dissolve’s excellent oral history.) 
How Big Did It Get? “Hoop Dreams” took $7.8m at the box office, making it one of the highest-grossing docs ever at that point. Its huge popularity also led to a change in the voting process in the documentary category for the Academy Awards when neither it nor the following Sundance’s breakout doc “Crumb” were nominated, despite huge acclaim. In subsequent years its stature has only increased to the point that it topped the 2007 International Documentary Association’s poll of the 25 all-time greatest docs (interestingly, the Documentary Oscar winner from that year didn’t even place). 
Is It Worth The Hype? The film is as immersive now as it ever was, and if it doesn’t feel quite like the lightning bolt it may once have been, that’s probably because its influence on subsequent documentary filmmakers has made itself felt so strongly. It is also a sobering watch today—20 years on and the problems and injustices faced by William and Arthur are still depressingly prevalent. For his part, James is back at Sundance this year with “Life Itself,” his documentary about one of “Hoop Dreams”‘ earliest and most vocal supporters, Roger Ebert.

The Unbelievable Truth” 
What It’s About: Writer/director Hal Hartley’s feature debut, the film follows newly released convict (Robert John Burke) as he returns to his hometown and becomes romantically involved with a young, apocalyptically-obsessed aspiring model (Adrienne Shelley) even as rumors of his murderous past threaten his ascetic existence. 
Year It Played Sundance: 1990, along with “Roger and Me” and “Metropolitan” (both on this list), “Longtime Companion” and Jane Campion’s “Sweetie”.
How Was It Received At The Time? By the standards of the rest of this list, “The Unbelievable Truth” had a pretty low-key reception, though largely a positive one where it was seen/reviewed. But that would become par for the course for Hartley, whose whole career seems to exist on a track that runs parallel to, and some way off from, that of the rest of the independent filmmaking community. 
How Big Did It Get? The film made a decent profit, but never blew up or made a breakout of its director the way some others we mention here did (funny to imagine a world in which Hal Hartley and, say, Quentin Tarantino swap places). However it did do two main things: it established Hartley’s very specific talents in regards to dialogue (especially his trademark circular conversations) and a certain self-awareness that skewered the potential pretension of his stories. It also got him invited back to the festival the following year, with a more polished take on similar themes (also starring Shelley) in “Trust.” That film won him a screenwriting award and confirmed the promise of ‘Truth’ but retrospectively we can look on Sundance’s championing of his debut as the driver behind a consistent if reliably under-the-radar career. In fact, we’d maintain that Hartley’s is exactly the sort of career that a festival like Sundance is really designed to nurture: not as a springboard to something bigger, but as a needed conduit to allow his small films to find the small audiences they need in order for the next film to become a viable proposition. Less of a rockstar than Jarmusch, Hartley is no less independently-spirited, and for all we sometimes bemoan Sundance’s more recent evolution into the massive juggernaut it is today, we have to give it props for supporting filmmakers like Hartley (who has had five films in total play there). 
Is It Worth The Hype? What little hype it’s ever had…yes, it’s still an offbeat, funny, and oddly touching film that has such finely tuned, deadpan dialogue that it feels fresh and inventive, even if some of the trappings have dated. And it establishes Hartley’s voice perfectly, a voice of which we are very fond (check out our retrospective if you don’t believe us).

El Mariachi

What It’s About:
As a result of an unfortunate case of mistaken identity, a musician and a ruthless criminal drug lord cross paths, leading to a wild and ridiculous chase through the streets of Mexico.

Year It Played Sundance:
In 1993, “El Mariachi” did battle with “Silverlake Life,” “Ruby In Paradise” and Bryan Singer’s “ Public Access.
How Was It Received At The Time? The picture was snapped up almost immediately by Columbia Pictures even though it didn’t win an award at Sundance. Reviews were generous,
particularly from Todd McCarthy of Variety, who said the film had “a verve and cheekiness” that compared to Sergio Leone and George Miller, though perhaps a large part of the narrative was dedicated to the shoestring budget and gonzo attitude of the film’s director, just one year after newly-minted enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino had set Park City alight.
How Big Did It Get?
Columbia’s purchase of the film was essentially a show of faith in writer/director Robert Rodriguez. The film itself only made $2 million in theaters, but it led to a
remake/sequel, “Desperado,” that showed what Rodriguez could do with a beefed-up budget. It was an effective showreel that eventually
turned Rodriguez into a hot, in-demand helmer of cheap-thrill actioners with a witty sense of humor. By the time he closed the trilogy with “Once Upon A Time In Mexico,” Rodriguez had secured his place in Hollywood. “El Mariachi” is now in the National Film Registry.

Is It Worth The Hype?
Rodriguez had intentions so modest for his $7,000-budgeted actioner that he envisioned it as a direct-to-video hit at best. The film itself is not without
its charms, but that feels right: Rodriguez has made it this far based on his hustle and good humor more than his talent, as he’s basically a one-man
filmmaking machine. But “El Mariachi” is ultimately a silly trifle, a time-waster of a thriller that wears its miniscule budget on its sleeve. While it’s
less authentic and, at times, overly phony, “Desperado” is a much more enjoyable adventure.

sex, lies and videotape

What It’s About: Graham (James Spader, in an early career-defining role) is turned on only by filming the sexual confessions of others, and soon finds himself
interfering with the relationships of those around him, including Ann (Andie MacDowell), her philandering husband (Peter Gallagher) and her free-spirit sister (Laura San Giacomo). 
Year It Played Sundance: 1989, when Steven Soderbergh’s film dominated a field that included “Heathers,” “Miracle Mile” and “Let’s Get Lost.”  
How Was It Received At The Time? An Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay was one of the bigger accolades the film received as it garnered near-universal critical praise, in addition to the
Sundance hosannas and the Palme d’Or in Cannes over films like “Do The Right Thing,” “Mystery Train” and “Cinema Paradiso.” Roger Ebert’s more measured review, however, trod delicately, as he said, “I am not sure it is as good as the Cannes jury apparently
found it; it has more intelligence than heart, and is more clever than enlightening. But it is never boring, and there are moments when it reminds us of
how sexy the movies used to be, back in the days when speech was an erogenous zone.”
How Big Did It Get? Steven Soderbergh’s debut picture ended up becoming the poster child for the nineties’ independent film revolution, pulling in over $25.5m off a budget of $1.2m. In addition to kicking off the career
of Soderbergh, one of the medium’s most fascinating and versatile filmmakers, it also launched Miramax to prominence, beginning the era of
the powerful indie distributor. The picture has since been added to the National Film Registry. And it also marks a kind of “before and after” point for Sundance itself—it was this perfect storm of Weinsteins, breakout success and all-conquering festival and awards presence that make the industry at large realize there was money in them thar Utah hills, and the “modern” Sundance was born.
Is It Worth The Hype? The breakthrough first film of a great American auteur, it now feels a little chilly and distant, not necessarily like the indie
“sensation” it was in the day. But back then, this was a novelty—it made sense that some filmmakers were starting to expand the cinematic vocabulary to
observe how adults really do behave behind closed doors. Not titillating in the least, the picture remains intellectually stimulating in the best ways,
even if it has a whiff of sterility and amateurishness to it.

Stranger Than Paradise” 
What It’s About: Divided into three chapters, Jim Jarmusch’s theatrical feature debut is a surreal, minimalist ultra-deadpan comedy in which Willie (John Lurie) and Eddie (Richard Edson) leave New York to visit Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s cousin who’d shown up unexpectedly at his apartment the year before and had since moved to Cleveland. 
Year It Played Sundance: 1985, the same year as influential documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” Coens debut “Blood Simple,” “ The Killing Fields” and “The Brother from Another Planet” 
How Was It Received At The Time? ‘Paradise’ actually arrived for its U.S. bow trailing international awards: the Best Debut prize from Cannes and the Golden Leopard at Locarno, and with Sundance not yet the titan it’s been for the last two and half decades one could wonder how much the festival did for the film, and how much the film did for the festival. But Jarmusch being such a quintessential, albeit Euro-influenced, idiosyncratic, American filmmaker (the film was even subtitled “A New American Film”) and his subsequent influence over the U.S. indie scene being so great, the Sundance premiere was a hugely important moment in his career. The festival awarded it the Special Jury Prize, thereby setting its seal on one of the most seminal films in the independent American scene, and honoring early a filmmaker who, especially compared with, say, fellow class of ‘85 honorees the Coens, has remained defiantly off-grid and indie-to-the-bone ever since.
How Big Did It Get? The film made $2.5m off its $100,000 budget, but its real impact was more cultural than financial. It established a very distinctive auteurist voice in Jarmusch that brilliantly married European influences to an offbeat Americana, producing something new and desperately hip, yet not so avant-garde as to be alienating. The film is preserved by the National Registry for its cultural significance, regularly tops polls of cult films, and was and is frequently name-checked as an influence by subsequent generations of independent filmmakers. 
Is It Worth The Hype? Without a doubt. Jarmusch’s episodic, off-key film—part road movie, part odd couple/threesome buddy movie, part morose Samuel Beckett play—is still the purest distillation of his inimitable style (with “Down By Law” maybe a close second). And while Jarmusch would go on to work against bigger canvases, the sparseness of the approach here, the cool simplicity of the black-and-white photography (often of empty locales) and the 100% droll, utterly undemonstrative performances all combine to make the film unassailably timeless. It’s definitely not for everyone, which, as it’s practically become a manifesto for independence in filmmaking, is exactly as it should be.

Reservoir Dogs

What It’s About:
A group of criminals (including Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen and Steve Buscemi) try to hide from cops after a robbery gone bloodily wrong, only to find themselves at each other’s throats in an attempt to uncover a mole.

Year It Played Sundance:
1992, when “Reservoir Dogs” inexplicably lost the Grand Jury prize to the largely forgotten “In The Soup” (which also starred Buscemi—this was a banner year for him). Other notable films
that year were “Gas, Food, Lodging,” “Johnny Suede” and “The Living End.”

How Was It Received At The Time?
Opinions were intense and sometimes divided, particularly in regards to the film’s violence. Gene Siskel felt it had “more style than substance,” while Todd
admitted it was “undeniably impressive…but impossible to love.” Hey, speak for yourself, McCarthy.
How Big Did It Get? The picture recovered from the rumored walkouts occurring at screenings nationwide to gross a decent $14 million. However it has proven to be more
successful overseas, especially in the U.K. where Empire recently named it “The Greatest Independent Film Of All Time,” and at Cannes where it was invited to screen Out of Competition, thereby inaugurating a long relationship between Tarantino and the festival. But if, stateside, its reputation was more as a watershed moment in the depiction of onscreen violence, it did collect enough eyes to allow director Quentin Tarantino to produce “Pulp Fiction,” and the rest is F-bomb laden, bloody history.
Is It Worth The Hype?
As far as debuts go, you can’t get much more intense or impressive than “Reservoir Dogs.” All the QT trademarks are in place as if he’d been making this
movie repeatedly for years in his head (which he probably had). The cast, including a never-better Steve Buscemi and an absolutely-savage-but-chillingly-subdued Michael Madsen, keeps this film whirring and, whenever the material begins to stretch, Tarantino effortlessly knits in one of his long, mundane, yet brilliant monologues. All these years later, the debut of QT remains just as much of a gas as it was back at Sundance, and a remarkably lean, precise piece of work that the director himself could revisit and take a few notes from these days. In our humble opinion.

Beasts Of The Southern Wild

What It’s About:
Residents in an area of New Orleans known as The Bathtub are forced to evacuate as floodwaters rise, leaving behind a tiny ragtag community, which includes a feckless dad and his young daughter Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who is forced to learn independence and who might just be magic. 
Year It Played Sundance:
2012, where it won the Grand Jury prize against “The Comedy,” “Keep The Lights On,” “The Sessions,” “ Smashed” and “Middle Of Nowhere.” 
How Was It Received At The Time? Director Benh Zeitlin was hailed almost immediately after the film’s premiere, and it duly went on to win the Grand Jury Prize as it became the sensation of the festival. A.O. Scott
called it “a blast of sheer, improbable joy,” and Roger Ebert hailed it as a “remarkable creation.”

How Big Did It Get? First-timer Zeitlin was feted with the Camera d’Or at Cannes and received four Academy Award
nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Director. The film grossed an impressive $21 million as well.

Is It Worth The Hype?
The critiques of this film loom larger a couple of years after it hit, with accusations of “poverty porn” and cultural misappropriation. But when you’re
watching this debut feature, it’s impossible to ignore the triumphant central performance of Quvenzhané Wallis as the heartbreaking little
girl at the center of this pastoral magic-realist melodrama. Zeitlin and Dan Romer’s rousing score boosts her journey of self-discovery in a frighteningly changeable world, and when she belts out “After you die
I’ll go to your grave and eat birthday cake all by myself!” it’s impossible not to want, like a big lumbering prehistoric creature, to follow this kid wherever she wants to go.

The Blair Witch Project

What’s It About: Three young filmmakers head out to the woods to investigate the stories of a malevolent spirit haunting Burkitsville, Maryland.

Year It Played Sundance: 1999, an otherwise-legendary year for film, but one where Sundance honored the likes of “Happy, Texas,” “Tumbleweeds,”
The Minus Man,” and “Judy Berlin.” Huh.
How Was It Received At The Time? Maybe the first big hit of the internet era, “The Blair Witch Project” benefitted from a multimedia advertising approach, spurring word-of-mouth that was equal parts misinformation and speculation in an attempt to convince filmgoers that what they were seeing was real, or at least presented in such a realistic way that you’d find yourself in some doubt. For some, it worked: Roger Ebert awarded the
film four stars. For others, not so much: the picture also earned a Razzie nomination for Worst Movie.

How Big Did It Get? One of the films that made Artisan a hot distributor before the studio folded into Lionsgate, it collected an absolutely unprecedented $248
million worldwide and was a massive hit on video and DVD. The sensation fizzled out soon after though: the actors involved couldn’t
seem to find much other work, with one of them allegedly working for a furniture-moving company years later. A hasty sequel, “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” materialized a year later, ditching the found footage angle and performing far worse than the first
picture, scuttling plans for a trilogy. Directors Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick eventually split up, both of them
making under-the-radar horror films that frequently went straight-to-DVD.
That being said, the film’s influence was considerable. Not only did movies start utilizing the internet heavily for their marketing campaigns,
particularly horror films, but the found footage “genre” took off. A decade after the film was released, one could argue that found footage horror films
made up half of the genre’s output, yielding pictures like “The Last Exorcism,” “Paranormal Activity,” “Cloverfield” and “[Rec].”

Is It Worth The Hype? A found footage snob would consider that the method of storytelling wasn’t new, with stuff like “Cannibal Holocaust” and “Man Bites Dog” from years earlier. Still,
it’s hard to deny the visceral force of the film today. Watching it in the dark, maybe with a glass of wine, you can still forget that this was the start of a
Sundance sensation, and get the sense that you are watching something forbidden, not meant to be seen. The hate is understandable: found footage is a ridiculous
genre, one where movies only happen because we’re to assume someone concerned with self-preservation wouldn’t just put down the camera. But among the
genre’s scariest entries, this one still rises above.

Blood Simple

What’s It About:
A man (Dan Hedaya) who suspects his wife (Frances McDormand) of infidelity hires a shady P.I. (M. Emmet Walsh) to murder her and her lover (John Getz) only to find that the killer has his own twisty motives.

Year It Played Sundance: The Coen brothers had some hearty company in 1985, where “Blood Simple” played alongside “Stranger Than Paradise” (elsewhere on this list) and “The Brother From Another Planet.”

How Was It Received At The Time? “Blood Simple” was the deserved Grand Prize winner at Sundance, and the film earned the Coens worldwide attention, grossing a little under $4 million—at
the time strong numbers for an independent release. In his four-star review, Roger Ebert praised its economy, saying it is a film in which “everything that happens seems necessary.”
How Big Did It Get? Though not as oft-quoted or deeply beloved as some of the Coens’ other films, “Blood Simple” is considered a touchstone of eighties independent cinema. It was also
the debut of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who went on to essay the “Men In Black” films. The young lady in the lead is Frances McDormand in her first role: she later won an Oscar for a Coen Brothers film, “Fargo.” In the late nineties, the
Coens supervised a “Director’s Cut” that shortened the film by three minutes, allowing the picture’s reputation to grow. It’s also, as far as we know, the sole Coens film to spawn a Chinese-language remake (albeit a loose one): acclaimed filmmaker Zhang Yimou later tackled the material in his sumptuous comedy, “A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop.”

Is It Worth The Hype? “Blood Simple” is something of a Rosetta Stone for the Coens’ filmography. Sparse, funny, and archly ironic, the picture encapsulates the duo’s subtle,
consistent ode to hardboiled noir as well as existential comedy, and remains a picture of infinite pleasures through and through.


What’s It About: In Darren Aronofsky‘s feature directorial debut, a math savant (Sean Gullette) becomes dangerously obsessed with the power of a 216-digit number, and his knowledge of how to use it draws the attention of insidious, sinister outside forces.

Year It Played Sundance: “Pi” shared space at Sundance with Grand Prize winner “Slam” as well as “Buffalo ’66,” “Smoke Signals,” “High Art” and “Hav Plenty.”

How Was It Received At The Time? “Pi” was a surprising $1 million purchase by Artisan. Most critics were impressed but guarded, and certainly circumspect when it came to the film’s box office potential: Owen Gleiberman claimed it looked “like the ultimate
college masterpiece,” while Richard Corliss preferred to discuss director Aronofsky himself, claiming he was a “genuine
experimenter.” Ultimately the film pulled in a little more than $3 million at the worldwide box office.

How Big Did It Get? “Pi” marked the beginning of an auspicious big-screen career for Aronofsky, who unveils the megabudget “Noah” in the spring. The movie
itself has a considerable reputation in indie circles, but it’s not considered an essential watch, particularly considering the rough edges of Aronofsky’s
craft had been, in many ways, sanded down by the time of the Oscar-acclaimed “Black Swan.

Is It Worth The Hype? “Pi” is ultimately a minor affair, a ludicrous no-budget tripfest that carries a propulsive rhythm (no doubt thanks to a colorful soundtrack) and an
action movie verve, but ultimately it’s fairly incomprehensible. You can see exactly why Aronofsky was in demand after watching the film, but you can also see why a movie like “Pi” offers very little
for the audience to absorb. Often, it feels lifted by youthful creative energy alone, never coalescing into the enigmatic mind-bender it thinks it is.

The Usual Suspects

What’s It About: A ship fire and a mass murder leave behind one witness, fast-talking career criminal Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), who knows the truth about the discovered corpses and is gradually coerced into sharing the story of his accomplices (including Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollack and Stephen Baldwin) with the dogged detective (Chazz Palminteri) on the case.

Year It Played Sundance: “The Usual Suspects” was part of a crowded 1995 Sundance slate, one that also included “Living In Oblivion,” “New Jersey Drive,” “Nadja” and Grand Prize winner (!) “The Brothers McMullen.”

How Was It Received At The Time? Bryan Singer’s second feature (his first, “Public Access,” was a previous Grand Prize winner at Sundance) played at
both Sundance and Cannes before gaining a mainstream release by Regency Pictures. Roger Ebert was a famous detractor, placing the picture
on his “Most Hated” list, but critical reception was otherwise strong.

How Big Did It Get? The picture was a surprise summer indie hit, grossing $23 million and launching Singer onto the studio A-List, where he’s spent his career thus far
making superhero epics like “X-Men” and “Superman Returns.” The picture netted an Academy Award for screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie as well as one for Best Supporting Actor Kevin Spacey, launching his career into leading-man
territory. Well before the internet age, “Who is Keyser Soze?” became something of a pop culture meme.

Is It Worth The Hype? Hell yes. You wonder exactly where Singer’s potential went, given the twisty nature of this perversely entertaining crime caper. Even when you know that a massive twist is coming, you can still appreciate how tightly the film’s narrative is woven, as a crackerjack cast spills hardboiled bons mots in one of
the best post-Tarantino crime films of the nineties.

Napoleon Dynamite

What’s It About: An eccentric outcast (Jon Heder) pools his resources to get his best friend elected class president.

Year It Played Sundance: 2004, where the Grand Prize went to “Primer” and the festival saw an influx of exciting talent in films like “Maria, Full of Grace,” “Down To The Bone,” “The Woodsman” and “Garden State” (also covered in this list).
How Was It Received At The Time? Reviews were mixed-to-positive: Michael Atkinson at The Village Voice memorably called it “a movie that, despite all indications to the contrary, is one
absolutely no one likes.” Roger Ebert also claimed the character of Napoleon was altogether unlikable, while A.O. Scott claimed director Jared Hess had “a lot of talent, and a lot to learn.” David Edelstein was one of the film’s many supporters, calling the film “a
charming ode to nerds.” The movie was enthusiastically purchased by Fox Searchlight, Paramount and MTV Films and given a strong limited summer release.
How Big Did It Get? “Napoleon Dynamite” grossed a pretty solid $46 million, but no one was prepared for the mainstream popularity the film achieved. Leading man Jon Heder became an in-demand actor for a short while, memorably trading barbs with Will Ferrell in the hit “Blades Of Glory.” Hess went on to work with Jack Black on “Nacho Libre,” also becoming an in-demand
filmmaking name. However, it’s telling about the nature of the film’s then-and-there popularity that some years later, both would be free enough to work on Fox’s short-lived “Napoleon Dynamite” animated series, which felt just
a couple of years too late.

Is It Worth The Hype? It’s ironic that people have long since stopped paying attention to Hess, given that his storytelling and visual acumen improved each time out: 2009’s “Gentlemen Broncos” is a minor triumph in deadpan inanity. But “Napoleon Dynamite” is a crude, often intentionally opaque exercise in
futility, bereft of any truly inspired comic ideas and over-reliant on Heder and company’s admittedly spot-on performances (Aaron Ruell is a
revelation as Napoleon’s brother). It’s a gag-fest, in other words, with enough jokes tied together to feasibly call it a movie. For some audience members,
that’s more than enough, but it robs it of true classic status.

Roger And Me

What’s It About: Documentarian Michael Moore struggles to get a meeting with General Motors CEO Roger Smith regarding the closing of several auto
factories in his hometown of Flint, Michigan.

Year It Played Sundance: In 1990, “Roger And Me” was the standout documentary, while other narrative features included “House Party,” “Longtime Companion,” “Metropolitan” (listed here) and “To Sleep With Anger.”

How Was It Received At The Time? The film received no awards at Sundance, though it eventually popped up at a number of festivals, earning a $3 million distribution deal from Warner
. Pauline Kael was a famous detractor, calling it “a piece of gonzo demagoguery.” Roger Ebert existed on the other end of the spectrum,
enthusiastically defending the film from attacks by discussing how Moore’s use of a flexible timeline was more about the nature of storytelling on film.

How Big Did It Get? “Roger And Me” is one of the most influential documentaries in history, singlehandedly altering the format and bringing it into the homes of people who
otherwise would have never watched a news magazine on the big screen. His use of humor also led to an evolution of the art form, as the medium now bears
witness to several different, more lighthearted approaches to even the darkest subject matter. The picture grossed $7.7 million, and has since been
preserved by the National Film Registry.

Is It Worth The Hype? By the time Moore was seen in his next film, “The Big One,” he had grown to be the insufferable lightning rod he is today, infusing his
do-gooderism with a large dose of ego, his sense of humor waning. But, once upon a time, Moore made a remarkable picture. “Roger And Me”
remains an unsettling, but wholly entertaining bit of agit-prop cinema, fueled alternately by witty liberalism and indignant social anger, all leading up
to a symbolic punchline which Moore would later revisit, to diminished returns, in other films. Later Moore pictures would be hits, but none carried the
intimacy and precise scope of his very first.

Spanking the Monkey

What It’s About: David O, Russell’s feature debut follows Ray (Jeremy Davies), a promising pre-med student, returning home to take care of his bedridden mother in his
salesman father’s absence, during which time he and his mother (Alberta Watson) embark on an incestuous affair.

Year It Played Sundance:
1994, same year as “Clerks,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Backbeat,” “Go Fish” and “Hoop Dreams.” 
How Was It Received At The Time: Russell’s first feature picked up the Audience Award at Sundance, and was largely positively reviewed, though some, like Todd McCarthy at Variety, found issue with its tonal inconsistency and immature visual
style. The performances, especially from Davies and Watson, were widely lauded and its unflinching but unsensationalist take on taboo subject matter
certainly made it stand out from the family-drama crowd.

How Big Did It Get?
The film picked up a distribution deal from Fine Line at the festival and went on to be a modest arthouse hit, and it definitely features the
kind of performance from Davies that you would have thought would lead to a higher-profile career. But of course what it really did was launch Russell as a
writer/director of note and, even this early on, showed his talent for finding moments of comedy amid dramatic circumstances (though this would probably be
his most “serious” film until “The Fighter”). It also showcased his ability in eliciting excellent performances, and just look where he is now: directing four
actors to Oscar nominations for the second year running.

Is It Worth The Hype?
Actually, yes, the film holds up very well even now, as a quietly compelling, offbeat coming-of-age story in which the incest, while of course forming the
focal point of the plot, feels like an organic extension of a peculiar family situation and the specific characters involved (Watson’s mother is an
especially ambivalent and interesting character) rather than a ploy to manufacture controversy. And depending on your point of view, that it’s not as
obviously quirky as some of Russell’s subsequent films can either be a positive or a negative, but suffice to say its sincerity is a necessary
counterbalance to its potentially splashy content.


What It’s About:
The feature debut of writer/director/divisively outspoken individual Kevin Smith is a black-and-white look at a day in the life of two
down-at-heel store clerks (Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson) and their circle of similarly shiftless friends.

Year It Played Sundance:
Vintage year 1994, along with “Spanking the Monkey” and “Hoop Dreams” (also on this list), “Suture” and
Fresh” among others.

How Was It Received At The Time? “Clerks”
shared the Filmmaker Trophy from Sundance with Boaz Yakin’s “Fresh,” and was famously picked up by Miramax at the festival. That, however is a story unto itself, with Harvey Weinstein reportedly having already been
invited to a private advance screening and leaving after 15 minutes, and only reluctantly being persuaded into seeing it at Sundance (more on that story
over on Spout). However, with Smith’s stellar Q&A performances and the
film playing to the Park City crowd like gangbusters, Weinstein loved his second viewing, which just goes to show the power of the festival atmosphere.

How Big Did It Get?
Boasting one of the biggest profit profiles on this list, if you compare its famously credit-card-funded shooting budget of $27,500 to its eventual take of
$3.15 million, “Clerks” proved a big hit for Miramax, but only after they hired no lesser a personage than Alan Dershowitz to petition a change
in the MPAA’s original rating: the dreaded NC-17. The studio won, the film went out uncut and rated R, and the mixed blessing of Kevin Smith’s career was
kicked into the independent film stratosphere. It currently regularly places high on lists of all-time greatest comedies.
Is It Worth The Hype?
Absolutely. It’s unpolished, to the point of amateurism in parts, particularly the acting, but the script is genius-level funny and the shooting inventive
and highly creative. Most importantly, and probably largely because of its inescapable lo-fi look and the Cinderella story behind its acquisition, it
retains the ability to inspire fledgling filmmakers to this day, and even back in 1994 was a shot across the bow of the establishment that provided one of
the first, much-needed periodic reinvigorations of the concept of “independent.”

What It’s About: A series of vignettes and conversations between the misfits and oddballs of Austin, Texas. 
Year It Played Sundance: 1991, where it was beaten to the Dramatic Jury Prize by Todd Haynes‘ “Poison.” Stephen Frears‘ “The Grifters” opened the festival, and Hal Hartley‘s “Trust,” John Sayles‘ “City Of Hope” and Anthony Minghella’s “Truly Madly Deeply” were among the other notable premieres. 
How Was It Received At The Time? The film was mostly heralded as the arrival of an exciting new voice, in the shape of director Richard Linklater. Hal Hinson in The Washington Post called it “a work of scatterbrained originality, funny, unexpected and ceaselessly engaging,” for instance. Some were a little more skeptical, with the New York Times‘ Vincent Canby writing “After a while, a certain monotony sets in,” but, for the most part, the film got the kind of stellar reviews that make a career. 
How Big Did It Get? You wouldn’t call it a smash, exactly, but Orion Classics picked up the movie and took it to a very healthy $1.2 million in the summer of 1991—many Sundance flicks these days would die for the same number. More importantly, it went on to a long life at midnight screenings and stoned VHS viewings, proved to be enormously influential and launched the career of its director, who followed it up with teen classic “Dazed & Confused” and has gone on to become a Sundance staple: “Before Midnight” was one of the big talking points last year, and his latest movie, “Boyhood,” premiered in Park City just last night, and by all accounts might be the director’s masterpiece.
Is It Worth The Hype? For the most part, yeah. The film’s loosey-goosey energy has held up better than the sophomore-year philosophizing, but even the latter works better than in the film’s many imitators—the breadth and diversity of subjects and characters is dizzying, the level of invention energizing, and, perhaps most importantly of all, it’s very funny. Linklater’s moved on to bigger and better things since, but this is the one that told us who he was.

Blue Valentine

What It’s About: Derek Cianfrance’s heartbreaking film examines, through temporally juxtaposed editing, the relationship between Cindy (Michelle Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) from their first encounter, through the blush of love, marriage and parenthood, right up to the relationship’s dissolution.

Year It Played Sundance:
2010, along with “Winter’s Bone,” “Animal Kingdom,” “A Prophet,” “The Killer Inside Me,”
How Was It Received At The Time? The response was overwhelmingly positive, especially to the partly improvised performances of the two leads and to Cianfrance’s clever editing and lovely
photography. The Weinstein Company picked it up and, as with “Clerks,” fought the initial NC-17 rating (because of a
cunnilingus scene FFS) down to an R.

How Big Did It Get?
It made $12 million off its $1 million budget, but its real legacy is in the careers it transformed. Whether or not there are second acts in American lives, there was
certainly one in Derek Cianfrance’s career as, following his 1998 debut, “Brother Tied” (which also premiered at Sundance), the director
disappeared from the big screen for over a decade, largely directing TV documentaries in the interim. But his return to Park City essentially relaunched
him, and made him, second time at bat, one of the most exciting “new” filmmakers to emerge that year. He seems also to have been riding a crest of
generational attention due to casting of Gosling and Williams, both of whom were poised to blow up at any moment, and giving each a brilliant showcase for
their talents—Williams would garner an Oscar nomination and Gosling would star in Cianfrance’s follow-up “The Place Beyond the Pines.”

Is It Worth The Hype? Yup, it’s a terrific, honest portrayal of the reality of a relationship in which neither party is a monster and both are at one point madly in love, but
even that proves just not enough to be sustainable. It’s what happens after the “happily ever after” part of the fairytale, after the “The End” card of the
romantic comedy, and it’s brilliantly played by Williams and Gosling.

Donnie Darko

What It’s About:
Donnie is a bright but troubled teenager plagued with dreams and hallucinations that are in some way related to time travel, and that appear to be warning
him of an approaching tragedy he cannot clearly foresee.

Year It Played Sundance:
2001, same year as “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Memento,” “In the Bedroom” and “Dogtown and Z-Boys”.
How Was It Received At The Time? Following largely positive, occasionally rapturous reviews out of Sundance (Roger Ebert
being a notable dissenter), the film nonetheless scrambled to find distribution, eventually landing with Newmarket Films largely thanks to producer and
star Drew Barrymore’s tireless efforts to get the film a theatrical release. But then it more or less disappeared at the domestic box
office, at least partially as a result of its release just weeks after the September 11th attacks.

How Big Did It Get?
The film’s international release the following year saw it recoup its budget, but it was really on DVD that it made its money ($10 million, reportedly).
Meanwhile its status as a cult film was growing, seeing it play extended Midnight Screening runs and gain in reputation to the point that Kelly got to
release a Director’s Cut in 2004, which no longer had the studio-mandated 2-hour restriction. As a cultural artifact, the film also had a major impact,
launching Kelly to prodigy status (he was only 26 years old when he wrote and directed “Donnie Darko”), making a breakout leftfield star of Jake
Gyllenhaal, and even seeing the world lose its shit for Michael Andrews’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” which became the spookily iconic centerpiece of its popular 80s-inflected soundtrack.

Is It Worth The Hype?
The cautionary tale of “wunderkind” Richard Kelly’s subsequent career aside, the film itself remains a fantastic mindfuck, a wonderfully enigmatic
eerie-toned puzzle box featuring a role for Gyllenhaal that more or less defined his twitchy, soulful intelligence. Just avoid the director’s cut where
possible and stick with the tighter and more confident theatrical version.

Garden State

What It’s About:
Depressed and medicated twentysomething Andrew (Zach Braff, directing himself from a self-penned script) returns home to New Jersey for
his mother’s funeral, reconnects with old friend Mark (Peter Sarsgaard) and falls for self-confessed pathological liar Sam (Natalie Portman), while trying to make sense of his place in the world.

Year It Played Sundance:
2004, alongside “Primer,” “Maria Full of Grace,” “Super Size Me” and “Goodbye Lenin.”

How Was It Received At The Time? After a very positive response at Sundance and reviews that saw “Scrubs” star Braff repeatedly referred to as a “triple threat,” the film
landed a joint distribution deal between heavy hitters Fox Searchlight and Miramax.

How Big Did It Get?
The film was helped by a smart rollout strategy that kept it playing regional festivals and advance Q&A screenings prior to its wider theatrical
release, so it picked up several “breakthrough” type awards and built word-of-mouth. It ended up pulling in $35.8 million worldwide, making it hugely profitable
even after having been bought for $5 million (twice its production budget), and earned Braff a Grammy for the indie pop, Shins-heavy soundtrack.
But beyond the numbers, “Garden State” was an early example of what has come to be seen as kind of the Platonic ideal of the Sundance movie, for better or
worse: independent but with recognizable stars; helmed by a first-timer destined to be hailed as a wunderkind; dealing with the neurotic, white, middle
class American experience.

Is It Worth The Hype?
It probably deserves neither the overpraise it received at the time, nor the vitriol that Braff haters have retrospectively heaped on it. It’s overly
navel-gazey and self-involved, yes, but it does have a good few well-observed and heartfelt moments for all its moony trappings. You can check out our
review of Braff’s current Sundance film “I Wish I Was There,” which reportedly revisits similar dramedy territory, here.

Man on Wire

What It’s About:
A breathtaking documentary featuring interviews and reconstruction footage, directed by James Marsh, about Philippe Petit’s 1974 illicit
high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Year It Played Sundance:
2008, the year of “Be Kind Rewind,” “Choke,” “In Bruges,” “The Wackness” and “Towelhead” among many others.

How Was It Received At The Time? Against perhaps not the most competitive lineup Sundance has ever seen, “Man on Wire” really ruled the roost, picking up both the Audience Award and the
Grand Jury Prize for documentary, the first time a non-U.S. film managed that double. Magnolia picked it up for U.S. release.

How Big Did It Get?
The film brought in nearly $3 million domestically, which is hardly astounding, but it did go on to have a very successful DVD release. More important, though, was the
film’s critical domination of that year’s conversation—it was all over most critics’ year-end lists and went on to scoop the Academy Award for Best Documentary and the equivalent at the Independent Spirit Awards, along with the BAFTA for Best British Film. And though we set little store by RT ordinarily,
it is remarkable that its Rotten Tomatoes review score is holding at an unheard-of 100% to this day. It also launched the more prolific period of James
Marsh’s career, allowing him to work more continually across narrative (“Red Riding,” “Shadow Dancer”) and documentary (“Project Nim”) ever since.

Is It Worth The Hype?
An unreserved yes. Marsh stated he was attracted to the film because he viewed it as a heist movie, and that element of thrillerish excitement is certainly
there. However the film is also a terrifically moving look at friendship and the toll that one man’s tunnel-visioned drive and talent can take on his
relationships, as well as a portrait of a truly extraordinary, but not always likeable, man.

You Can Count On Me

What It’s About:
Not, despite its title, an ’80s rom-com starring Patrick Dempsey and/or Jon Cryer, writer-turned-director Kenneth Lonergan’s debut feature follows single mother Samantha (Laura Linney) whose life is upended when Teddy (Mark Ruffalo), the troubled brother to whom she used to be very close, drifts back into her life.

Year It Played Sundance:
2000, which also featured “Girlfight,” “The Tao of Steve,” “Wonderland,” “Boiler Room
and “American Psycho.”

How Was It Received At The Time? Lonergan’s debut scooped both the Grand Jury Prize (shared with “Girlfight”) and the Screenwriting Prize at Sundance that year. Despite this, it failed to
find a distributor at the festival, but its Sundance stamp of approval led to a string of appearances at other festivals and a plethora of awards,
especially for the screenplay and for the performances from Ruffalo and Linney, and it was eventually picked up by Paramount Classics
How Big Did It Get?
The film cost $1.2 million to make and made $11 million back in theatrical release, so it yielded a decent return on investment. But it made a deeper impression in the
careers it impacted: both Linney and Ruffalo experienced minor mid-career breakthroughs as a result, and Lonergan, to that point better known as a
playwright and screenwriter (notably on Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York”; Scorsese would go on to be Lonergan’s producer
and most high-profile champion), got to set up his directorial follow-up, “Margaret” on the back of its success. That film’s journey to the
screen, however, would not be as straightforward, to put it mildly. 
Is It Worth The Hype?
While it feels like a lot of standard Sundance family/relationship dramas get overpraised coming out of the festival and ultimately can’t quite withstand
the increased scrutiny that comes as a result, “You Can Count On Me” is the exception to that rule, entirely justifying its strong buzz with its warmth,
humanism and depth of insight.


What It’s About:
A group of wealthy, upper-class New York college students return home for the winter break of their freshman year during the Debutante Ball season, where old
and new relationship entanglements ensue.

Year It Played Sundance:
1990, with a lineup that also included “House Party,” “Longtime Companion,” “Cinema Paradiso” and “The Unbelievable Truth” (featured above).

How Was It Received At The Time? While some critics found the air of Stillman’s milieu just too rarefied, most received the film warmly, especially its fearless wordiness, with Roger Ebert identifying it as “dialogue…in which the characters discuss ideas and
feelings instead of simply marching through plot points as most Hollywood characters do” and “a film about people covering their own insecurities with a
facade of social ease.”
How Big Did It Get?
Stillman’s debut followed what has now become a fairly well-trodden path for Sundance breakouts: despite not picking up a distribution deal there
immediately, the film rode its crest of Sundance buzz to an Academy Award nomination (for Screenplay) and an Independent Spirit Award for Best First
Feature, before New Line picked it up the day before the director left for a triumphant run during Cannes Directors’ fortnight. In the
years since, the film’s stature has only grown as it launched Stillman’s uniquely ironic but warm, F. Scott Fitzgerald-style take on the foibles and flaws
of the indolent, overeducated upper-classes.

Is It Worth The Hype?
As far from his environment as we may be removed, we’re big fans of Stillman’s (retrospective here) and
can always find something universal in even his more divisive films. And “Metropolitan” is still the best entry-level Stillman film, with the passing years
not managing to blunt its crystal-cut dialogue at all.

Little Miss Sunshine 
What’s It About:
A dysfunctional family (headed by Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear), complete with suicidal gay uncle (Steve Carell), silent son (Paul Dano) and drug-addicted grandpa (Alan Arkin), take a road trip in a VW camper van to deliver their youngest member (Abigail Breslin) to a California beauty pageant.

Year It Played Sundance: 2006, where it was one of the most high-profile premieres. Other big movies that year included “The Illusionist,” “Lucky Number Slevin,” “The Science Of Sleep,” “Thank You For Smoking,” “Kinky Boots,” “Friends With Money,” “Alpha Dog” and, in the dramatic competition, “Half Nelson,” “A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints,” “Sherrybaby” and prize winner “Quinceanera.”

How Was It Received At The Time? Word was mostly very good, especially at the festival itself, where it was a word-of-mouth hit. Roger Ebert wrote that “you just won’t see a better acted, and better cast movie”
and that it “harks back to the anti-establishment, countercultural comedies of the 1970s such as ‘Smile‘ or ‘Harold and Maude,’ ” while Manohla Dargis in the Times concluded “there’s a melancholy here that clings to this family, which
however triumphant and united, may well remain stuck in the national Hooversville located at the crossroads of hope and despair.” But not everyone was on
board: Dennis Lim wrote in the Village Voice from Park City that the film was “a
concentrated hit of Sundance pain.”

How Big Did It Get? Very, very big indeed. A huge audience hit at the fest, Fox Searchlight snapped it up for $10.5 million, plus 10% of
the eventual gross, one of the biggest deals in festival history. And it paid off, too: the film took $60 million domestically, and a grand total of $100
million worldwide. It could also be one of the most successful Sundance movies at the Oscars, having earned four nominations including Best Picture, and, unlike fellow four-time nominee “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” winning two, for
supporting actor Alan Arkin and writer Michael Ardnt (who went on to pen “Toy Story 3“). It also won the top prize from the Screen Actors Guild and the Producers Guild of America.
Is It Worth The Hype? “Little Miss Sunshine” has, over the years, become something of a figurehead for ‘the Sundance movie’—quirky comedy with some sad bits, movie stars
taking a pay cut, indie-rock soundtrack, bright marketing campaign, etc. Some of that is fair, but we’d argue that the film does a better job at what it
sets to achieve than most of its imitators. Sure, it’s kind of a watered down “Flirting With Disaster,” to name but one, but Arndt’s
script is both funny and compassionate, taking the characters and their situations seriously, and the direction, from feature debuting duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is tonally assured. The cast is pretty uniformly great too, especially Steve Carell.

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.


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

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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