Sundance's Greatest Hits: The Movies That Broke Through
3:21 PM PST 1/11/2013 by Seth Abramovitch, Chris Godley
Since its inception, the Sundance Film Festival has launched the careers of countless filmmakers and stars and, along the way, changed the filmmaking paradigm. In the end, however, it's about the movies -- and while hundreds debut at the festival each year, only a select few leave an indelible impression upon the cultural landscape. This partial list revisits some of the most unforgettable.
Nominated for four Oscars including best picture, director, lead actress and adapted screenplay, Benh Zeitlin's astonishing debut film was the breakout darling of Sundance 2012, winning that year's Dramatic Grand Jury Prize.
1999: The Blair Witch Project
The micro-budget indie horror film that launched the found-footage genre, The Blair Witch Project debuted at Sundance 1999, and later went on to earn just shy of $250,000,00 at the box office.
1985: Blood Simple
Winner of the 1985 Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, Blood Simple marked the debut of Joel and Ethan Coen as well as star Frances McDormand, who married Joel after working with him. It also marks the major debut of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who'd later direct the Men in Black films.
1995: The Brothers McMullen
The film that put writer/star/director Edward Burns on the map, The Brothers McMullen follows the lives of three Irish Catholic brothers from Long Island. It took the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 1995, and was the first acquisition for Fox Searchlight, grossing $10 million at the box office -- not bad considering it was made for $28,000.
Kevin Smith's breakout smash follows a day in the lives of two convenience store employees, and introduced the world to Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Smith). The black-and-white comedy tied for the Filmmakers Trophy at Sundance 1994.
1992: El Mariachi
Writer/director Robert Rodriguez's debut about a case of mistaken identity in a small, Mexican town dazzled audiences at Sundance 1993. The film was made for just $7,000 -- money raised by Rodriguez by submitting to clinical drug trials while living in Austin, Texas. Rodriguez went on to direct films like Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Sky Kids, Sin City and Machete.
1994: Four Weddings and a Funeral
The film that launched Hugh Grant into superstardom became the then-highest-grossing British film in history, taking in close to $250 million at the box office worldwide. Wrote Todd McCarthy in his review: "Frequently hilarious without being sappily sentimental or tiresomely retrograde, [the movie] holds strong appeal as a date- and couples-oriented entry."
1998: High Art
Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko paired Ally Sheedy, in a comeback performance, with Radha Mitchell in a searing indie drama about an art magazine editor and the renowned photographer who seduces her. The movie, which also stars Sundance favorite Patricia Clarkson as a heroin-addicted German actress, took the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance 1998.
1994: Hoop Dreams
A groundbreaking documentary that follows two Chicago high school students with dreams of joining the NBA -- and the talent to achieve it. Directed by Steve James, it was heralded for its realistic depiction of inner-city American life. It premiered at Sundance 1994, where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary, and went on to earn almost $12,000,000 at the box office.
1990: House Party
Not many people remember that House Party, the raucous hip-hop comedy that introduced the world to Christopher "Kid" Reid and Christopher "Play" Martin (in roles originally written for DJ Jazzy Jeff & Will "The Fresh Prince" Smith) debuted at Sundance. The movie, written and directed by Reginald Hudlin, made $26,000,000 at the box office and stars out of its two, flat-topped leads.
2005: Hustle & Flow
Craig Brewer's riveting drama about a Memphis street hustler with aspirations of a rapping career turned up the heat on star Terrence Howard's career -- and went on to win an Oscar for Three 6 Mafia and their infectious song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." The film picked up the Audience Award at Sundance 2005.
2001: In the Bedroom
Todd Field's Maine-set domestic crime drama starred acting heavyweights like Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei. The film was wildly praised by critics, and was nabbed by Miramax Films for distribution.
2006: Little Miss Sunshine
The runaway breakout hit of Sundance 2006 followed the road trip exploits of the Hoover family as they made their way to a kiddie beauty contest in Redondo Beach, California. The film was only completed four days before its scheduled premiere at Sundance 2006, and quickly became the source of a heated bidding war. Fox Searchlight won, paying $10.5 million plus 10 percent of gross revenues for distribution rights -- one of the richest deals in festival history. It was a good one: The film grossed over $100,000,000 worldwide, and won two Oscars, for original screenplay and supporting actor.
Before he became an A-list director of thinking-person's blockbusters like the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, director Christopher Nolan grabbed Hollywood's attention with the ingenious thriller Memento -- a story told in reverse about a man with a form of amnesia that prevented him from making any new memories. It landed at Sundance 2001, where American distributors expressed admiration for the film but were reluctant to buy it, claiming it was too confusing. The film ended up being distributed by its studio, Newmarket Films, and went on to earn $40 million. It won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, but ultimately lost the Grand Jury Prize to The Believer -- which introduced the world to Ryan Gosling.
A one-man sci-fi show from Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, Moon was a startlingly assured film about a man, played by Sam Rockwell, who undergoes an existential crisis while manning a mining operation on the moon.
2004: Napoleon Dynamite
Acquired by Fox Searchlight and Paramount at Sundance 2004, the cult comedy from husband-and-wife filmmakers Jared and Jerusha Hess that launched a million "Vote For Pedro" t-shirts went on to gross $46,000,000 at the box office.
1991: Paris is Burning
The Grand Jury Prize Documentary winner at Sundance 1991 from director Jennie Livingston chronicled the lives of inner-city gay men who performed at drag balls in Harlem in the late 1980s. The film introduced the world to the concept of "voguing" that Madonna would later co-opt with a hit single, "Vogue," and an iconic accompanying video from David Fincher.
Before Life of Pi, there was just Pi -- also written as π -- the debut feature from Darren Aronofsky. The film, about a socially maladjusted number theorist who suffers from paranoia, hallucinations and migraines, won the Directing Award at Sundance 1998 and launched the Black Swan helmer's career.
Todd Haynes, who'd later direct films like Velvet Goldmine, Safe and Far From Heaven, got his start with this experimental triptych rich in gay themes. The film, the Grand Jury Prize Dramatic winner at Sundance 1991, helped put Killer Films -- the studio behind Boys Don't Cry and Hedwig and the Angry Inch -- on the map.
A shocking depiction of the life of an obese, illiterate teenager living in Harlem, Lee Daniels' adaptation of the 1996 novel Push by Sapphire stunned Sundance 2009 audiences and picked up both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize Dramatic. It later won star Mo'Nique an Oscar for best actress, and another for best adapted screenplay. It also introduced the world to Gabourey Sidibe.
1992: Reservoir Dogs
The one that put filmmaking legend Quentin Tarantino on the map, the hyperviolent Reservoir Dogs electrified audiences at Sundance 1992, where it was described in the catalog as "a darkly drawn and powerfully affecting character study."
Believe it or not, the Saw franchise and its mechanical murder sequences began at Sundance, where Lionsgate snapped up distribution rights a day before the movie even premiered. The studio had direct-to-video plans for the film, but its huge response at the festival led Lionsgate to consider a theatrical release. The rest, as they say, is history -- to the tune of nearly $900,000,000 in worldwide grosses for the seven Saw films released so far.
1989: Sex, Lies and Videotape
The film many point to as having put both Sundance and independent film on the map, Steven Soderbergh's psychosexual drama won an Audience Award and later earned the director an Oscar nomination for original screenplay.
1994: Spanking the Monkey
He's an Oscar favorite with Silver Linings Playbook, but David O. Russell first captured attention with Spanking the Monkey, a dark comedy that explores the taboo subject of mother-son incest. The movie won the Audience Award and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize
2003: The Station Agent
The film that introduced the world to Game of Thrones' Emmy-winning Peter Dinklage, this quiet indie comedy explores an unlikely friendship-triangle between a train-loving dwarf, a snack truck vendor (Bobby Cannavale) and a grieving artist (Patricia Clarkson). The film was a Sundance darling, taking the Audience Award and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award plus a Special Jury Prize for Clarkson's performance.
1984: Stranger Than Paradise
Jim Jarmusch's black-and-white feature, featuring minimalist plot and dialogue, was hipster decades before hipster was a thing. It took a Special Jury Prize at Sundance 1984, and established Jarmusch's reputation as a premiere independent filmmaker.
2005: The Squid and the Whale
A domestic comedy that sealed writer/director Noah Baumbach's reputation as a gifted and deeply personal filmmaker, the film won direction and screenwriting awards at Sundance 2005, and helped launch Jesse Eisenberg's career.
1984: The Times of Harvey Milk
Rob Epstein's landmark documentary about the nation's first openly gay politician -- who was tragically gunned down along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone by fellow city supervisor Dan White in 1978 -- is considered one of the more important documentaries on U.S. civil rights. Harvey Milk's story would later be dramatized in Milk, which would win Sean Penn an Oscar for his portrayal. The documentary won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance 1984.
1995: The Usual Suspects
The ingeniously plotted crime drama, about a group of criminal misfits who meet in a police lineup, made a directing star out of Bryan Singer. It made $23,000,000 at the box office, and became an oft-quoted and imitated cult classic.
2010: Waiting for 'Superman'
Davis Guggenheim's documentary examining the failures of the American education system, the film took the Audience Award for best documentary, and later became an object of fascination for the media -- though criticisms of the film's fairness and accuracy may have ultimately cost it an Oscar nomination.
2003: Whale Rider
At 9 years of age, Quvenzhané Wallis may be the youngest best actress Oscar nominee for Beasts of the Southern Wild. But over a decade earlier, a 13-year-old named Keisha Castle-Hughes earned a nomination for playing a Maori girl who wants to become the chief of her New Zealand tribe. The moving film took the World Cinema Audience award at Sundance 2003.
2000: You Can Count on Me
Mark Ruffalo made his debut in this small, affecting and deeply funny film about a sister and brother who grow up without parents. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan took the Grand Jury Prize Dramatic (it tied with Girlfight) and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance 2000, and Paramount Classics snapped up the film for distribution.
Director Catherine Hardwicke co-wrote this movie with star Nikki Reed, who based the screenplay loosely on her life. Evan Rachel Wood stars as Tracy Freeland, a smart student growing up much too fast in a movie lauded for its realistic portrayal of millennial teenagers. Hardwicke won a directing award at Sundance, and Holly Hunter was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar playing Tracy's struggling mom.