10 Movies that struck gold at Sundance
Sundance is coming up in January, and we thought we’d look back on a handful of hits that hit big at Robert Redford’s film festival. Sundance is a celebration of bold indie filmmaking, rewarding stories that strike a chord with audiences. Below we’ve thrown together some of our favorites that have been given awards over the thirty-five years that the fest has been running.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Won: Special Jury Prize Documentary
This documentary from Rob Epstein (The Celluloid Closet) looked into the career of San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor, showing us his rise from small-time protester to become one of the all-time symbols of the modern LGBT+ rights movement. Equal parts tragic and enthralling, this doc features the narration of Harvey Fierstein (Independence Day) over a great mish-mash of talking heads and archive footage of folks from Harvey Milk himself to President Jimmy Carter.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Won: Directing Award, Dramatic
Noah Baumbach is making waves with The Meyerowitz Stories over on Netflix, but this 2005 film shows off his naturalistic dialog perfectly well. The film is shot through a Super 16mm and does everything it can to replicate the story of a divorce from the point of view of their two sons. The Squid and the Whale is a treat, with Jeff Daniels (Godless) and Laura Linney (Ozark) delivering simply incredible performances.
American Movie (1999)
Won: Grand Jury Prize Documentary
Probably one of the greatest documentaries of all time, this flick follows the making of auteur Mark Borchardt’s Coven. Borchardt is a complete and total outsider, a blue-collar worker who leaves his dreams of filmmaking to his weekend. This true story of a borderline alcoholic struggling with his own demons and the setbacks encountered during creating film is famous for its gritty, raw emotional core – a quality unlike any other documentary about filmmaking.
Won: Alfred P. Sloan Prize & Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic
You might need a quantum physics doctorate and at least fifteen graphs to understand this sci-fi flick but, at the time, Primer was a complete watershed of a film. Not only was it bonkers brilliant in its storytelling and internal logic, it was also made for the budget of a kettle and a piece of string. The time-travel tale struck a real chord with folks at Sundance, triumphing with not one, not three, but two of the top gongs given out.
Won: Special Jury Prize for Ensemble Cast
A seriously overlooked flick that puts Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) in the shoes of one of the most uncomfortable stories of sex addiction and Second Coming that you’ll ever see. Based on the Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, Choke swiped an award for best ensemble but, frankly, the absurdism that runs throughout the film deserves another viewing. A real lost gem of a completely weird story.
Fruitvale Station (2013)
Won: U.S. Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic
Ryan Coogler’s drama documenting the death of Oscar Grant is a politically charged, utterly tragic story to make you shake with rage. Michael B. Jordan gives a breakout performance as Grant, moving and stunning as much as showing off the actor’s complete & total charm. Before Coogler took on Creed and the upcoming Black Panther, you see in Fruitvale Station exactly why Sundance applauded so very much for his talent and work.
Won: Filmmaker’s Trophy, Dramatic
Kevin Smith’s little comedy about a day in the life of two store clerks is filled with pop culture volleys and biographical touchstones, creating a story that feels emotionally vulnerable, but somehow revolutionary. Made in the heyday of indie filming for under $27K, Sundance rewarded it as a celebration of cobbled-together artistry & ingenuity. Most of the jokes still stand up, and it’s worth seeing how this small film inspired a whole generation of indie filmmakers.
Won: Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision, Dramatic
Rian Johnson has destroyed the box office with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but his indie film roots are well worth a revisit. Brick, his first big feature, follows Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception) in his breakout performance in a film about consequences & sacrifice. There’s a neo-noir parody going on throughout, but Johnson never strays into treating his story as a joke. Rather we see a cinephile filmmaker bursting at the seams with hopes & dreams. There’s no question why Sundance lauded Brick so highly.
Run Lola Run (1998)
Won: World Cinema Audience Award
This quirky German sci-fi number is Groundhog Day meets arthouse. Franka Potente (The Bourne Identity) in the lead brings an athleticism and energy that propels you throughout its zig-zagging story that repeats itself over & over without losing any momentum. Run Lola Run only clocks in at under eighty minutes, but will leave you breathless.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Won: Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic
An utterly charming film to warm the soul, this story of a dying father, climate change destruction, and the lesson of true courage stirs your emotions before bringing you to collapse. Quvenzhané Wallis (12 Years a Slave) in the lead role is an absolute revelation, even at such a young age. If you haven’t seen this in a while, it’s worth a revisit to see how Sundance celebrates the triumph of the human spirit.