50 Best Sundance Films Ever
17th Jan 2013 | 07:00
Roger And Me (1989)
The Movie: Michael Moore cuts his teeth on corporate greed with this damning portrayal of Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors, in the wake of his decision to close a number of plants in Flint, Michigan, causing widespread unemployment.
After Sundance: Moore had made a name for himself, and would proceed to take on even bigger targets with Bowling For Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.
Me And You And Everyone We Know (2005)
The Movie: A series of interconnected plots are woven together by director Miranda July for this offbeat account of a group of disparate people looking for love.
Sundance stalwart John Hawkes excels amongst a talented cast.
After Sundance: The film was well-received by critics, with Roger Ebert going on to name it as the fifth finest film of the decade.
Meanwhile, July would return to the festival in 2011 with second feature, The Future.
The Movie: Paddy Considine’s directorial debut is a troubling affair, but a worthwhile one, as Olivia Coleman’s battered wife finds dubious refuge with Peter Mullan’s violent outsider.
Stunning performances all round in this bleak but powerful drama.
After Sundance: Considine was honoured with the BAFTA for Outstanding debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer, but Williams was snubbed by the judges, causing much consternation on various social media platforms.
In fairness, it really is an extraordinary performance.
Like Crazy (2011)
The Movie: Wistful indie romance fare boasting a trio of strong performances from Anton Yelchin.
Jennifer Lawrence and breakthrough star Felicity Jones.
A bit too whimsical for some tastes, the festival loved it, awarding it the Grand Jury Prize.
After Sundance: The film performed modestly at the box office, raking in around three and a half million dollars.
However, given it was made for just $250,000, that’s not a bad return at all!
Buffalo ’66 (1998)
The Movie: Hollywood bad boy Vincent Gallo established his credentials with this messed-up love story between a misfit drifter and a girl he kidnaps in order to impress his parents.
Off the wall and oddly sweet, despite what that synopsis might suggest.
After Sundance: Ricci vowed never to work with Gallo again, but taking the combustible filmmaker’s track record out of the equation, the film still stands up as a beacon of indie filmmaking.
More so than The Brown Bunny anyway…
The Movie: A musical romance set on the streets of Dublin, Once stars a pair of real-life musicians as, er, a pair of musicians.
And surprise surprise, it works!
If it sounds too cutesy on paper, it’s a far more affecting proposition in practice.
After Sundance: Co-leads Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová won an Oscar for their song Falling Slowly, and even reprised their roles in an episode of The Simpsons.
That’s when you know you’ve crossed over!
The Movie: Shane Carruth’s ultra-low-budget sci-fi thriller, filmed for just $7,000.
Low production values didn’t damage its performance at Sundance however, with the film winning the Grand Jury Prize.
After Sundance: Praised for its relentless originality, the film has since become something of a cult classic.
If you think you’ve got it fully worked out, by all means write to us and explain!
The Movie: A moving account of the superlative career of the late racing driver Ayrton Senna, with jaw-dropping footage skilfully edited with a host of informative talking heads.
After Sundance: The film was critically hailed as a fitting tribute to the great man, winning a BAFTA for Best Documentary into the bargain.
Richly deserved in our opinion.
Capturing The Friedmans (2003)
The Movie: A profoundly unsettling documentary drawing on the home videos of the Friedman family, two members of which were facing trial for accusations of paedophilia.
Bizarre, troubling and totally compelling.
After Sundance: Having won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, the film was nominated for an Oscar, a decision that families of some of the alleged victims would go on to protest.
The film remains controversial, although that has done little to damage its appeal in the ensuing years.
The Unbelievable Truth (1989)
The Movie: Hal Hartley’s well-received debut comedy about a convict who returns home from a stint in prison to find that his crimes have been grossly exaggerated by the local population.
After Sundance: The film never made great waves at the box office, but was rapturously received by many in the industry.
Kevin Smith in particular pinpoints it as one of the films that sold him on the idea of becoming a director.
Hedwig And The Angry Inch (2001)
The Movie: An adaptation of the stage musical of the same name, this pomp-rock oddity tells the story of a fictional band fronted by a transgender singer.
It would prove to be quite the showcase for director John Cameron Mitchell, who also wrote the script and took the leading role.
After Sundance: Having won an Audience award and recognition for Best Director at Sundance, the film went on to become a cult sensation, with fans taking it to their hearts as a latter day Rocky Horror.
Before Sunrise (1995)
The Movie: Richard Linklater’s cross-cultural love story pairs Ethan Hawke with Julie Delpy for a 24-hour jaunt around Vienna.
Heartfelt, moving and cool, it’s a cut above most of the sickly pap that passes for romance in Hollywood.
After Sundance: Often mentioned in all-time lists of movie romances, Before Sunrise spawned a well-received sequel in 2004, with a third film (Before Midnight) to arrive later this year.
The Movie: Despite the reputation associated with the ensuing franchise, James Wan’s first Saw movie is a relentlessly inventive and pleasingly mean-spirited thriller with a killer twist at the end.
No wonder Lionsgate snapped it up at Sundance before the film had even premiered.
After Sundance: The film made over $100 million worldwide and spawned six sequels (and counting) of steadily decreasing quality.
In The Company Of Men (1997)
The Movie: Neil LaBute’s acerbic black comedy in which Aaron Eckhart and Matt Malloy play a pair of solid gold shits who take out their frustrations with the fairer sex on a deaf subordinate at work.
It proved to be an eyecatching debut from first-time filmmaker, LaBute.
After Sundance: Having won the Filmmaker’s Trophy at Sundance, LaBute would go on to win an Independent Spirit award, while Aaron Eckhart was widely acclaimed as the poisonous villain of the piece.
The Movie: Michelle Rodriguez roared into the public consciousness with this searing drama about a troubled teenager who channels her aggression into the noble art of boxing.
After Sundance: Despite a muted performance at the box-office, the film positioned Rodriguez as a fully-fledged star, with the actress going on to star in more mainstream fare in the form of The Fast And The Furious, which arrived the following year.
The Movie: As shocking as it is heartbreaking, there’s no debating that Lee Daniels’ adaptation of Sapphire’s novel is a testing watch, but if you’re ready to shed a few tears, it’s a powerful and uplifting work.
It just makes you work for it…
After Sundance: Oscar nominations promptly came rolling in, with Mo’ Nique winning Best Supporting actress for her portrayal of Precious’s monstrous mother.
Geoffrey Fletcher also scored for his adaptation of the source material.
The Station Agent (2003)
The Movie: The film that brought Game Of Thrones star Peter Dinklage to the public’s attention, The Station Agent tells the story of a man born with dwarfism who moves to New Jersey when his only friend dies.
After Sundance: The film performed respectably at the box office, but was most successful among critics, with particular praise heaped upon Dinklage’s affecting performance.
Welcome To The Dollhouse (1995)
The Movie: Todd Solondz’s debut picture, in which Heather Materazzo plays a teenager having a miserable time of it both at school and at home.
A critical crowd-pleaser, it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance ’96.
After Sundance: The film remained a critical darling and gave Solondz the platform from which to launch his next film, the equally bleak Happiness.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
The Movie: Jared Hess’s debut feature, Napoleon Dynamite is a divisive film. For every “Vote For Pedro” t-shirt sporting fanboy there are an equal number of people left cold by the film’s ultra-laconic weirdness.
Still, there was certainly no ignoring it back in 2004…
After Sundance: The film made nearly $45 million (on a budget of $400,000) and became a cult hit amongst its many devotees.
Mind you, there are still plenty who remain baffled by its success!
The Movie: Rian Johnson neatly transposes a classic film noir storyline into the unusual setting of an American high school in his directorial debut, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt starring as a teenage outsider attempting to solve the murder of his ex-girlfriend.
After Sundance: It’s not an immediately accessible film, but Brick still did reasonable business at the box office, turning a profit on its small budget.
Meanwhile, Johnson scored enough critical clout to cross over to the mainstream with The Brothers Bloom and more recently, Looper.
You Can Count On Me (2000)
The Movie: Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney dazzle as the siblings who grew up without parents in Kenneth Lonergan’s small-town drama.
Almost universally loved by critics, it tied for the Grand Jury Prize with Girlfight.
After Sundance: Linney was nominated for an Oscar, as was Lonergan for his screenplay.
Made for just $1.2 million, it took around ten times that amount at the box office.
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
The Movie: Dripping with outsider cool, Jim Jarmusch’s offbeat comedy cast a pair of musicians in the leading roles (indeed, the entire cast were non-professional), filmed in black and white and went on to take the Special Jury prize at Sundance.
After Sundance: Despite only receiving a limited release, the film was hugely influential and became a touching point for independent filmmakers of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Rewatching it today, it remains impossibly cool…
The Movie: A stark coming of age story loosely based around star Nikki Reed’s own troubled upbringing, Thirteen is a teen movie with a difference, as sex, drugs and alcohol collide head-on with typical adolescent angst.
The results are explosive.
After Sundance: Holly Hunter was rightly recognised with an Oscar nomination for her performance as the despairing mother, while she and Evan Rachel Wood were also nominated for a pair of Golden Globes.
The Movie: Maggie Gyllenhaal discovers a whole new world of sexuality when she takes a job with James Spader’s BDSM-happy employer.
Against all odds, a weirdly sweet romance blossoms amid all the kinkiness.
After Sundance: The film was lauded for its unusual treatment of its sadomasochistic themes, while Maggie Gyllenhaal won a Golden Globe for her performance and catapulted herself into the Hollywood A-list.
In The Bedroom (2001)
The Movie: Naked emotion and searing family disputes are at the fore in this unremittingly powerful drama from director Tom Field.
A gruelling watch then, but a compelling one.
After Sundance: The film was rewarded with a spread of Oscar nominations, although it didn’t win in any of the five categories it was listed in.
It also delivered at the box office, taking $43,368,779 worldwide.
Animal Kingdom (2010)
The Movie: An enthralling crime saga lifting the lid on Melbourne’s seedy underbelly, as Jacki Weaver presides over a family of ne’er-do-wells who find their loyalties divided when one of their number decides to go to the police.
After Sundance: Weaver netted herself an Oscar nomination, while Ben Mendehlson and Joel Edgerton would establish themselves as serious Hollywood stars, the former particularly impressing as the terrifying Pope.
Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)
The Movie: Last year’s breakout hit, Beasts Of The Southern Wild tells the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy, who finds herself growing up at speed when melting ice-caps flood her Bayou community.
After Sundance: The film was recently bestowed with four Oscar-nominations, including one for child star Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest ever nominee in the Best Actress category at just nine years of age.
Hustle And Flow (2005)
The Movie: Craig Brewer’s gritty drama in which Terrence Howard stars as a small-time hustler and pimp who aspires to better himself with a career as a rapper.
After Sundance: The film was a critical smash, with Terrence Howard netting himself an Oscar nomination for his powerful lead performance.
Meanwhile, Three Six Mafia went one better, winning the Oscar for original song It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp.
The Movie: Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature, a pleasingly surreal psychological thriller focusing upon a mathematician whose obsession with the theoretical principles of his disciple lead him down some very strange roads…
After Sundance: Despite a limited cinematic release, the film still made a significant profit at the box office, and announced Aronofsky as a director to watch in the future.
When We Were Kings (1996)
The Movie: An enthralling documentary examining Muhammad Ali’s famous title fight with George Foreman in 1974, an occasion better known as The Rumble In The Jungle.
Featuring a well-judged balance of talking heads and in-ring action, it’s one of the finest sporting documentaries ever made.
After Sundance: The film was rightly acclaimed as a triumph, and would go on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, where both Ali and Foreman joined the filmmakers on stage.
Super Size Me (2004)
The Movie: The film that shook the Golden Arches, Morgan Spurlock’s self-sacrificing documentary charted the results of eating an exclusively McDonalds diet.
Unsurprisingly, they weren’t pretty.
After Sundance: The film made $11 million domestically, garnered an Oscar nomination and stirred up plenty of headlines.
Perhaps more importantly, McDonalds discontinued the Super Size option just six weeks after the film’s premiere.
The Squid And The Whale (2005)
The Movie: Wes Anderson’s fingerprints are all over this quirky family drama directed by Noah Baumbach.
No wonder really, as he served as producer on his friend’s directorial debut.
After Sundance: Baumbach received an Oscar-nomination for his script, while the film also brought a young Jesse Eisenberg to the public’s attention.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
The Movie: A woozily unsettling thriller based around a sinister cult, and the attempts of a former member (Elizabeth Olsen) to escape the influence of John Hawkes’ controlling leader.
Creepy and beguiling in equal measure.
After Sundance: The film was met with widespread praise, particularly for the performances of Olsen and Hawkes, who somehow continues to fly under the radar despite an increasingly impressive body of work.
Garden State (2004)
The Movie: Zach Braff’s directorial debut, which he also wrote and starred in, was critically lauded at Sundance, with Miramax and Fox Searchlight slapping down $5 million to purchase the distribution rights at double the cost of the film’s budget.
Good business, Zach!
After Sundance: The film did reasonable business worldwide, scored a host of gushing reviews and went some way towards launching the manic pixie dream-girl trope from which Zooey Deschanel has carved a career.
Man On Wire (2008)
The Movie: The nerve-shredding and eerily beautiful account of Philippe Petit’s attempt to walk on a wire from one tower of the World Trade Center to the other.
Suitably impressed, festivalgoers awarded the film both the Jury and Audience awards in the World Cinema Documentary category
After Sundance: The awards kept coming, as the film won the prestigious double-header of both BAFTA and Oscar.
Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994)
The Movie: The film that introduced Richard Curtis’ brand of frothy romantic comedy to America, as Hugh Grant splutters his way through an unlikely relationship with glamorous American Andie McDowell.
After Sundance: The film would go on to become the highest-grossing British film of all time (for a while, anyway), and was nominated for Best Picture at that year’s Oscars. It also made Hugh Grant a massive star.
The Movie: Richard Linklater’s unconventional drama scraps traditional narrative framing in favour of allowing his camera to follow the aimless day-to-day of his titular twentysomething protagonists.
After Sundance: The film turned out to be a hugely influential entry to the canon of independent filmmaking, with Kevin Smith pinpointing it as the film that convinced him he could make it as a filmmaker.
El Mariachi (1992)
The Movie: The forerunner to Desperado, Robert Rodriguez’s bullet-riddled “taco Western” was made on the shoestring budget to end all shoestring budgets, costing just $7,000.
Needless to say, it was money well spent.
After Sundance: Originally intended for the Mexican home video market, the film was snapped up by Columbia and made around $2 million at the box office.
A Hollywood career was made…
Winter’s Bone (2010)
The Movie: A hard-boiled Southern thriller boasting a pair of stunning performances from Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes, Debra Granik’s powerful film rightfully tasted glory at the festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize.
After Sundance: Lawrence and Hawkes were both Oscar-nominated for their performances, while the film was also up for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
It didn’t win any of them, but the film proved a star-making vehicle for bona fide A-lister Lawrence.
The Movie: Duncan Jones ploughs the same furrow of thoughtful science fiction as the likes of Solaris and 2001 with this debut feature about a lonely moon-miner steadily losing his mind.
After Sundance: The film won a pair of BAFTAS and Jones consolidated his status as a director of note with a more mainstream but equally enjoyable film in the form of Source Code.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
The Movie: Steve James’ acclaimed sports documentary, following the travails of a pair of high-school students with NBA aspirations.
The deserved winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary.
After Sundance: The film would go on to become one of the most critically lauded documentaries of all time, topping the International Documentary Association’s genre list back in 2007.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Movie: By the time it arrived at Sundance, The Blair Witch Project was already something of a sensation after an expertly conducted viral campaign which presented the film as a real documentary.
The rest is history…
After Sundance: The film became the success story of 1999, making $248 million worldwide.
Not a bad return on a budget of around $25,000!
American Splendor (2003)
The Movie: The big-screen biopic of acerbic comic-book writer Harvey Pekar, played here with aplomb by Paul Giamatti.
A huge hit at the festival, the film won the Grand Jury Prize.
After Sundance: The film was also recognized at Cannes, before garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The heartfelt portrayal of Pekar remains one of Giamatti’s most celebrated roles.
Blood Simple (1984)
The Movie: The debut offering from the Coen brothers, Blood Simple is a typically black thriller in which the hasty appointment of a hitman to take out a cheating wife and her beau takes an unforeseen turn…
After Sundance: Released to much critical acclaim, the film not only launched the career of the Coens, but also of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and star, Frances McDormand.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The Movie: An offbeat family drama in which a collection of oddball relatives are brought together by the youngest member’s desire to compete in a beauty contest on the other side of the country.
After Sundance: Fox purchased the rights to the film in one of the biggest deals made in the history of the festival.
It was a gamble that paid off, as the film went on to gross more than $100 million worldwide, bagging a pair of Oscars for Michael Arndt and Alan Arkin in the process.
Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989)
The Movie: Steven Soderbergh initially feared that his alternative romantic comedy would be “too European” for the domestic audience. He was proved wrong when the film won the Audience Prize after premiering at Sundance.
After Sundance: The film also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, made a more than respectable $25 million domestically and launched Soderbergh along a career path that would lead to Oscar glory.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Movie: Having co-won the Grand Jury Prize for Public Access back in 1992, Bryan Singer returned to Sundance with this twisty-turny crime thriller in which a group of nefarious cons band together after being landed in the same police lineup.
After Sundance: The film made a significant profit on its $6 million budget, with Chris McQuarrie winning an Oscar for his script and Kevin Spacey doing likewise for his turn as the slippery Verbal Kint.
The Movie: Kevin Smith’s superbly snarky tale of first-job tedium, shot after-hours on a shoestring in the Quick Stop convenience store where he worked.
After Sundance: Filmed for just $27, 575, Clerks went on to gross over $3 million in cinemas, becoming a cult classic and propelling Smith into Hollywood stardom in the process.
The Movie: Christopher Nolan announces himself to Hollywood with this mind-bending thriller, told in brief episodes shown in reverse-chronological order, as Guy Pearce’s brain-damaged hero attempts to piece together his memories in order to avenge an attack on his home.
After Sundance: Having been nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the film went on to receive widespread critical acclaim, including a couple of Oscar nominations for Original Screenplay and Editing.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
The Movie: Quentin Tarantino’s debut picture had already gone down a storm in the UK before it made its bow at Sundance, with American critics equally taken with its combination of pin-sharp dialogue and explosive violence.
After Sundance: The film came to be recognised as one of the finest examples of independent filmmaking, while Tarantino would go on to establish himself as one of the most important filmmakers of the decade.