Winner: Audience Award - Dramatic (Craig Brewer), Cinematography Award - Dramatic (Amy Vincent)
Hip-hop musicians often profit from hardened reputations, but few films examine the interplay between artistic ambition and flat out criminality as beautifully as Hustle & Flow. Terrence Howard plays a pimp who decides to take a crack at stardom, crafting a killer track in his brothel and begging his neighbors to be quiet long enough to lay it down on tape. Craig Brewer’s film is honest about his hero’s failings, and uses them to gradually expose how true artistic expression evolves from hard living. “It’s Hard Out There for a Pimp” is a great song, and deservedly won an Oscar.
John Waters had been making independent movies for decades, but even the ‘80s popularity of Hairspray probably couldn’t have prepared him for what it became. Perhaps his most accessible film (Divine eating dog poop just didn’t cross over), Hairspray later spawned a Tony Award-winning musical, and a hit movie based on the musical based on the original movie. If that made one person watch Pink Flamingos after a night out on Broadway, it was worth it.
Winner: Grand Jury Prize - Dramatic (Benh Zeitlin), Cinematography Award - Dramatic (Ben Richardson)
Winner: Filmmakers Trophy - Documentary (Errol Morris), Grand Jury Prize - Documentary (Errol Morris)
The recent release of The Theory of Everything just makes me want to go back and re-watch Errol Morris' brilliant 1991 documentary film about Stephen Hawking. Why watch actors dramatize Hawking's story when you can get it from his own lips? Or the mechanical equivalent. We talk to his friends and family, and get frank anecdotes from Hawking himself, all between clear explanation from his oblique book about the nature of the entire physical universe. Morris has always been drawn to extreme personalities, and one can't get more extreme than Hawking, one of the world's smartest men.
Winner: Grand Jury Prize - Dramatic (Lee Daniels), Special Jury Prize for Acting (Mo'Nique), Audience Award - Dramatic (Lee Daniels)
Precious has had a journey. I don’t just mean the character – an overweight teen (Gabourey Sidibe) who lives through intense variants of abuse from her mom (Mo’Nique) in Harlem – but in the way the film is perceived. At Sundance it cleaned up awards from the both the Jury and the audience. 11 months of hype later, prominent critics were vocally revolted by the stereotypes and narrative differentiation between the skin tones of the darker-skinned black characters (largely abusive, and illiterate) and the lighter-skinned black characters (who were helpful); then Precious won two Oscars. With subsequent projects, director Lee Daniels (TV’s Empire, The Paperboy) is viewed as a camp-favoring director, closer to the heart of his heroes Pedro Almodovar and John Waters.
Winner: Special Jury Prize - Originality of Vision (Miranda July)
Twee, precious, and perhaps insufferable, Miranda July's 2005 comic drama Me and You and Everyone We Know is one of the sweetest films of its decade, and easily one of the best. A man is divorcing from his wife, and wants to remain something of a hero in the eyes of his sons. A woman tries as hard as she can to be recognized by the art world. A pair of teenage girls look for a healthy way to explore their sexuality. And all of these stories are about hope, optimism, and joy. We mentally reach out into the universe, hoping for approval. Sometimes the universe approves.
While a solid debut film, no one could have predicted that director Justin Lin would go on to be in charge of four blockbuster Fast and the Furious films. Lin’s microbudget crime caper got him into the big leagues, and was also a landmark film for diversity with its Asian cast. Sung Kang also confirmed for us that Han Seoul-Oh from the Fast and Furious movies is also Han from Better Luck Tomorrow, making this film a prequel to the blockbuster franchise in retrospect.
Winner: Grand Jury Prize - Documentary (Ross McElwee)
In future film classes Ross McElwee will be heralded as the original vlogger. His Sherman's March is a video diary of McElwee attempting to make a documentary about the lasting effects of General Sherman's march of destruction that ended the Civil War, but McElwee was also dealing with a difficult breakup at the time, so he met with women he'd dated before and interviewed them about why they broke up. As McElwee becomes less and less confident that he's even making a film, he includes on-camera updates about his fear of nuclear war. March isn't campy. It's a genuine march to try to be better.
The Sundance Film Festival is famous for discovering important filmmakers, influential new voices and championing serious motion pictures that illuminate life as we know it. It also debuted Super Troopers, a comedy that’s about as meaningless and dumb as it gets. Even the film’s trailer seems amused that Sundance even bothered. The seemingly Harold Ramis-inspired story, about a group of lazy, oversexed prankster Highway Patrolmen on the verge of getting fired, is but a delivery system for one classic gag after another. Sundance is cooler than most people realize.
When Donnie Darko premiered at Sundance, it had the whole festival buzzing. What did it mean? When I finally saw it, I thought it made sense, but that it was clearly the vision of a deep thinker. We expected to see a bit more from writer/director Richard Kelly since, but his ambitious follow-up film Southland Tales landed Kelly in director jail. Donnie Darko has lasted though, as a director’s cut was released years later, and also straight to video sequel. Kelly assembled a breathtaking young cast who have all gone on to do great things: Jake Gyllenhaal’, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and a reinvention of Patrick Swayze.
This Film Is Not Yet Rated is not just a documentary, it’s a full frontal assault on the entertainment industry. Filmmaker Kirby Dick sets his aim squarely at the mysterious and powerful MPAA, who determine the ratings for every motion picture. When they refuse to give up their secrets, he hires private detectives to investigate who these gatekeepers of mainstream cinema are, what their agenda really is, and why films from major studios are held to consistently lower standards than their independent counterparts. What he discovers is shocking. That his revelations have had no impact on the industry is an outrage.
Winner: Grand Jury Prize - Documentary (Chris Smith)
Filmmakers would never become filmmakers without a healthy heaping of good old American can-do, and Sundance has always been (at least ideally) defined by ambition and originality over all else. Chris Smith's 1999 documentary follows an ambitious director named Mark Borschardt as he tries to gather the funds and shoot a short horror film called Coven (pronounced with a long o). Mark is a legitimate weirdo, God bless him, and he clearly has a vision. You want this small town wonk to succeed, to become the next underground horror icon. It's been years, but his first feature may finally be released in 2015. He may still make it.
Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas is one of the best films of 1984, and one of the most achingly painful and oddly romantic films of the decade. Co-written by Sam Shepard, Paris, Texas follows a mysterious man (Harry Dean Stanton) who stumbles out of the desert after four years. He and his brother (Dean Stockwell) go to L.A. to meet up with his son. Father and son then go on a quest to find the boy's pretty absentee mother (Nastassja Kinski). This film is like kitchen sink Shakespeare, a halcyon paean to reuniting families, a quiet opera of complex unspoken emotions. It's a brilliant, brilliant film.
The Blair Witch Project wasn't the only Sundance horror film whose immense buzz and popularity steered the method of mainstream horror filmmaking for the next five years. We bet you weren't even aware that Saw premiered at Sundance. But most people don't even remember that the original Saw was more of a mystery-thriller that told the story from a victim's perspective. The torture porn that the series is credited with starting came later - after there was no mystery. Just horror.
Guy Ritchie made his feature film directorial debut with this stylized British gangster film. Released in 1998, Sundance was one of the prestigious stops on its world tour. The Sundance premiere certainly lent some credibility to the U.S. release. I remember checking it out at my college town’s indie movie theater, where it probably wouldn’t have even played had it not been a Sundance hit. Richie continues to make gangster films in the same style, like Snatch and Rocknrolla, and also earned a place at the big studio table with the Sherlock Holmes films. Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones did well for themselves too. For both of them, this was their first film.
Winner: Audience Award - Dramatic (Damien Chazelle), Grand Jury Prize - Dramatic (Damien Chazelle)
Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-nominated Whiplash was born and raised at Sundance. What began as a short film about an abusive music conductor browbeating greatness into his students evolved into a feature length masterwork starring J.K. Simmons as the cruel taskmaster and Miles Teller as the glutton for punishment. The film raises difficult questions about art and artists, and comes to conclusions that are both shocking beautiful and dangerously subversive. Both versions of Whiplash were Sundance breakouts, and it’s hard to imagine either of them coming from anywhere else.
Winner: Special Jury Prize - Acting (Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley)
Young romance is difficult to do. James Ponsoldt's 2013 film The Spectacular Now gets it perfectly. This is not a halcyon, self-indulgent, “But daddy, I LOVE him!” tale of fantasy romance, nor is it a horndog's tale of getting one's jollies. This is a film about how teenagers ache for real love, and how they constantly announce their newly-formed life philosophies that they assume will be permanent, but usually only last a few years. This is a film that knows the way young people think, and presents it as simultaneously painful, pitiable, and exhilarating. Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are both excellent in it.
The movie that made Richard Curtis an industry started at Sundance. After playing Sundance in January, Four Weddings and a Funeral went on to be one of the year’s biggest box office successes and a Best Picture Oscar nominee. Hugh Grant became Mr. Romantic Comedy and Curtis wrote more hits like Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary before writing and directing the ultimate rom-com Love Actually. In the decades since Four Weddings, the Working Title-produced films of Curtis would premiere in the U.K. before going worldwide, so it was a very special instance for Sundance to host the first screening.
Before he tackled all of Boyhood, Richard Linklater focused on young love with Before Sunrise, one of the great cinematic romances. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train in Vienna, and they disembark to spend one single night together, sharing themselves in a way they only could with a stranger. This is not a passionate affair, but a soulful tete-a-tete between two intelligent people who are toying uncertainly with the idea of love. Funny, sexy, utterly believable, and only the start of an ongoing journey: Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have revisited these characters every nine years, with Before Sunset and Before Midnight, and every film has so far been a classic.
Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho was, like so many of his works, an outright damnation of the vapid and aggressive wealth culture of the 1980s; people giving into anti-intellectual drug-laced murderous heartbreaking hedonism is the word of the day. Mary Harron's 2000 film version of the novel includes all of Ellis' yuppie evils, but folds them into the absurdity of manly machismo, making Patrick Bateman (an excellent Christian Bale) into a risible caricature of manhood. American Psycho is terrifying, and yet it is also bleakly funny. There are few films like it.
Winner: Special Jury Prize - Originality of Vision (Rian Johnson)
Teen angst, gangster style. Future Star Wars director Rian Johnson emerged as a dynamic cinematic voice with Brick, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a teenaged loner trying to get his ex-girlfriend out of trouble. When she goes missing, the film reveals its true intentions: to create knowing, thrilling parallels between the hard-boiled world of film noir and the soapy teen dramas of John Hughes. The joke is funny, but the slick, exciting mystery would have worked just as well without the gimmick. Brick is a powerful drama wrapped up in a clever package. Don’t confuse the two.
When you think about the hundreds of movies Sundance plays every year, as prestigious as that alone is, only a small percentage of them go on to win Oscars. Little Miss Sunshine is one of those success stories, when Alan Arkin won Best Supporting Actor in a year everyone thought it would go to Eddie Murphy for Dreamgirls (with an assist from the bad will engendered by Norbit.) Best Screenplay was all Michael Arndt. It gave Steve Carell a vehicle for a more dramatic performance, which he continued to explore this year in Foxcatcher. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Ferris broke out from music videos and music documentaries with Little Miss and continue working together today.
Not even Breathless feels as breathless as Run Lola Run, as kinetic a film as has ever been produced. Franke Potente stars as a fire-haired woman who has only 20 minutes to find 100,000 Deutschmarks before her boyfriend risks his life to rob a supermarket. So she runs, and runs, and in her desperation briefly touches the lives of everyone around her, sending them on different paths. And when she fails, she resets the whole film and tries again, and again, until she gets it right. Truly experimental, and absolutely minimal, and yet also as exciting as any $100 million blockbuster. Only at Sundance!
Winner: Documentary Directing Award (Morgan Spurlock)
Morgan Spurlock pretty much risked his life to become a filmmaker. He came up with a plan to eat nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days and see what happens. Not surprisingly, he gained weight and developed health problems. Along the way Spurlock explored the industry of fast food and our eating habits, while creating a new subset of documentaries. We’ve had Michael Moores making documentaries from their perspectives, but making oneself the entire premise, putting a big hypothesis to the test, was bold. The genius was in making it popular. We all eat fast food. That’s a lot easier to relate to than a highbrow political doc. Spurlock continues to explore big subjects in fun documentaries, and he lost his Super Size Me weight.
One of the only Sundance films to inspire a legitimate cultural phenomenon. While the popularity of Napoleon Dynamite has waned (its animated TV version certainly died), there were a few years where you couldn’t go to a mall without seeing a Vote For Pedro shirt in a Spencer’s Gifts window. It launched Jon Heder’s acting career, and he must have made a fortune playing the many Napoleon Dynamite clone characters in other big budget studio films. Jared and Jerusha Hess have worked consistently since, and it gave Tina Majorino a bridge from child roles to teenage and later adult ones. Napoleon Dynamite was flippin’ sweet.
Don Hertzfeldt's 9-minute animated short is perhaps one of the funniest things I've ever seen. It's constructed as a string of imaginary animated bumpers that Hertzfeldt was supposedly asked to draw for imaginary companies like The Family Learning Channel. The attempts are misguided at best, but as the bumpers progress, you can see the animator is clearly losing his mind, until the cartoons themselves dissipate and fly apart before our very eyes. This is absurdist satire at its finest. Rejected is a surrealist dismantling of commercial language, revealing the insanity behind what we casually consume. I live in a giant bucket. Rejected was nominated for an Academy Award.
Winner: Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award - Tom DiCillo
Tom DiCillo’s inside baseball comedy, about the making of a not particularly good-looking Sundance-esque feature, is a film by filmmakers, for filmmakers. Starring a great ensemble cast, Living in Oblivion captures the mundane, annoying struggles on a low-budget set in a fashion that feels both honest and ridiculous, so that every film student in the world can watch it and recognize a little bit of their own misadventures in their pursuit of great art. It’s required viewing for everyone who has ever been behind the camera, or ever wanted to say “Action.”
Winner: Dramatic Audience Award & Dramatic Directing Award (John Cameron Mitchell)
The directorial debut of actor John Cameron Mitchell, who played the title character and adapted his own stage musical, which continues to be performed today. Hedwig had a sex change to marry an American, only the procedure goes wrong, leaving Hedwig with a one inch mound. The music rocks and Mitchell has gone on to direct the films Shortbus and Rabbit Hole, as well as television. We’re fortunate to live in a world where “Transparent” is on the air and awareness of LGBT issues is high. Hedwig and the Angry Inch was a major piece of that social education and acceptance.
In recent years, filmmaker Michael Moore has become something of a political target from both the right (whom he openly lambasts) and the left (who disapprove of his polemical approach and sometimes-sloppy journalism). In 1989, however, Moore was a vital voice in a war against economic injustice, presented by Roger & Me, his documentary about the social decay of Flint, MI following the withdrawal of Ford's automotive factories. We had thought about the way giant corporations affected American life before, but never with such a slick, damning eye. All econ students need to see this film.
Winner: Grand Jury Prize Dramatic, Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini)
Winter’s Bone was in many ways a typical Sundance movie, a gritty low-budget drama set in a forest community with a breakthrough performance by a young up and comer. Jennifer Lawrence was doing The Bill Engvall Show before she starred in Winter’s Bone, although I had seen her in 2008’s The Poker House as well. Winter’s Bone got Lawrence her first Oscar nomination, along with a Supporting Actor nominated for established character actor John Hawkes. True story, I was offered several interviews with Lawrence during her awards campaign and at the time I could never do them. Man, am I kicking myself now. It was Granik’s second feature, and her follow-up film was the documentary Stray Dog.
Winner: Grandy Jury Prize - Documentary (Terry Zwigoff), Cinematography Award - Documentary (Maryse Alberti)
Not just one of the best Sundance films, but possibly one of the greatest biographical documentaries of all time, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb doesn't so much dissect famed underground cartoonist R. Crumb as is does present him as a hypersexual, hyperawkward, hypercynical kindred spirit. Crumb is frank about his own sexual foibles, depression, and oddball interests because he's too stilted and awkward to be any other way. And yet we can't help but admire him as a creative soul. A deeply disturbed, totally relatable creative soul.
One of the most distinctive voices in American cinema began speaking with Bottle Rocket, the first of many films in a series about dreamers who make the world not into their own image, but into their own, obsessive-compulsive idea of what it should be. Brothers Luke and Owen Wilson star as affable kids who decide to pursue the romantic life of crime, but they don’t have the grit to pull it off. Even when they commit real larceny, it’s as though they’re playing a childlike game of robbers. It's an innocent film about innocent men, trying - and failing - to prove that they're not that innocent.
Winner: Grand Jury Prize - Dramatic (Shane Carruth), Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize for Science and Technology (Shane Carruth)
Winner: Filmmakers Trophy - Dramatic (Neil LaBute)
Sundance films are not afraid to be dark, displeasing, or – in the case of Neil LaBute's 1997 debut In the Company of Men – outright confrontational. LaBute's film is about a pair of Caucasian office wonks, both unlucky in love, who decide, in a fit of cruelty, to seduce and then abandon an emotionally vulnerable woman. They want to take emotional revenge on all of womankind. There are misgivings along the way, but the soullessness of Aaron Eckhart's Chad cuts through the drama like a scythe. You cannot walk away from this film unshaken.
Winner: Audience Award - Dramatic (Robert Rodriguez)
Robert Rodriguez sold his body to science, and used the money to make El mariachi, an ambitious, action-packed drama with the soul of a struggling artist. A hapless mariachi (Carlos Gallardo), mistaken for a wanted criminal on a mission of revenge, is targeted for execution, and discovers - to his own surprise - that he is up for the challenge. Simple, exciting and human. Rodriguez would transform the can-do attitude of El mariachi into a miniature studio mentality of his own, creating endless genre films that cater to his favorite fetishes, gradually losing track of sad, struggling, spaghetti heart that made this first film such a trailblazer.
Winner: Directing Award - Dramatic (Darren Aronofsky)
The mind is a terrible thing to use in Pi, the debut film from future Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky. In his bleak, intimate sci-fi thriller, a mathematician named Max tries to use complex number theory to predict the stock market, only to - perhaps, just perhaps - discover a mathematical formula that guides the universe. The film features subplots about corporations and secret societies who want to steal Max’s discovery, but where it really excels is in its depiction of how madness can spring from pure logic. Pi was the clarion call of a filmmaker who would turn obsessions into nightmares and then into beauty, again and again and again.
Winner: Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (Christopher Nolan and Jonah Nolan)
After Memento played Sundance, the buzz about “the backwards movie” grew. It was the Nolans’ second feature (Following premiered at TIFF), and became a phenomenon in its own rite by people trying to piece together its reverse narrative. The success of Memento got Nolan studio jobs like Insomnia, which led Warner Brothers to give him a crack at Batman, creating a seminal cinematic version of the character. That success then gave Nolan the clout to create Inception, a trip inside the levels of our subconscious. If Memento was an experiment in nonlinear storytelling, it paid off and gave Nolan the confidence, and gave audiences confidence in Nolan, to explore these kinds of stories on a blockbuster scale.
I recently revisited Richard Linklater's 1991 film, and I discovered that it is now one of my favorite movies. Linklater, with little budget and a robust streak of youthful anti-establishment enthusiasm, took to the streets of Austin, TX following conversation after conversation, musing on, well, just about anything. Slacker reveals that precious time in 1990s film when dismissal and dissection and good-natured Gen-X navel-gazing was something of a national sport. Are they apathetic? Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.
It may be hard to imagine what a discovery The Blair Witch Project must have been at Sundance, where no one knew yet what it was, or even whether or not it was real. Such a discovery, such a mystery, could never be replicated for a mass audience, whose awareness of the found-footage horror film would eventually be tainted by hype, overhype, and later, from many, a casual dismissal. But this faux documentary about filmmakers lost in the woods, victims of the supernatural subject of their own documentary, rides a thin line between realism and madness. If you can put yourself back in the mindset of that first, innocent audience, unaware of what was in store for them, you can briefly replicate just how special The Blair Witch Project originally was.
Winner: Grand Jury Prize - Dramatic (Joel Coen)
The Coen Bros. are one of the most dominant forces in the world of indie film. They first appeared in 1984 with this small town neo-noir that would announce their wry style and criminal interests to the film world for the following three decades. The story of Blood Simple. is, well, simple. A rich man hires an aging PI to murder his wife and his wife's lover. In true Coen Bros. fashion, however, everything goes hideously wrong. While the film is dark and violent, Blood Simple. contains a strange edge of comedic clarity that only the Coens can do.
Winner: Filmmakers Trophy - Dramatic (Kevin Smith)
Clerks., the debut film from writer/director Kevin Smith, may be the apotheosis of Sundance. It’s a micro-budgeted film starring amateur actors, shot in black & white (because it was cheaper), about the ennui of low-paying retail jobs. It was made by a first-time filmmaker who was clearly learning the craft as he went. And its inclusion at Sundance, as well as Cannes, helped it find it a voracious audience who appreciated its celebratory depiction of no-class problems, lowbrow humor and an almost pathetic search for deeper meaning in popular culture: the only culture available to its heroes (and its target demographic). And best of all, for all its naiveté, it’s also a really great, genuinely funny film, whose sparse style perfectly mirrors the sparse lives of its hapless characters. If Kevin Smith can do this, you can too.
It was the Cannes Film Festival that launched Quentin Tarantino’s seminal, game changing film Pulp Fiction, but there would be no Pulp without his first film, Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino’s first two films ushered in a wave of what we now lovingly refer to as post-Tarantino cinema. That means everyone tried to copy his cool dialogue and time shifting narratives, and to lesser success. Tarantino is a true example of a filmmaker turning his lifelong passion for film into a unique voice, and the success of his current films shows he wasn’t just a one hit wonder. Aside from inspiring a generation to crib his style, his films changed what cinema could be in the ‘90s. Violence didn’t have to be conventional shootouts. Dialogue didn’t just have to be about the scene. Movies could shake up what you know about genre, and it all started here.