Sundance's Finest

Ashley Clark

This week, the 29th annual Sundance Film Festival kicks off in Park City, Utah. Founded by actor Robert Redford in 1984, it’s long been regarded as one of the most important independent film festivals out there, giving a host of filmmakers their big break. Though it’s had its ups and downs along the way, it’s had a strong recent run and with a killer programme announced for this year’s edition (including new films from the likes of Richard Linklater, Park Chanwook and Shane Carruth), currently looks to be on the crest of a wave. To celebrate this trailblazing annual jamboree, we’ve taken a look through its history books and selected ten of its greatest hits.

Blood Simple (Joel Coen, 1984) 

Winner of the Grand Jury prize for drama in 1985, the Coens’ sly, vicious noir homage marked them out as singular talents, and gave an indication as to how effective Sundance would be as an arbiter of young filmmaking talent.

sex, lies and videotape (Steven Soderbergh, 1989) 

Steven Soderbergh’s debut film - a talky, funny and sad drama - snapped up the Audience Award (dramatic) at the 1989 edition of the festival. The film effectively launched the careers of both Soderbergh and the Weinstein brothers, whose Miramax company proceeded to conquer the world of indie film. It later went on to win the prestigious Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival.

Paris Is Burning (Jennie Livingstone, 1990) 

Chronicling the ball culture of NYC and the African-American, Latino and LGBT communities in it, Jennie Livingstone’s superb documentary showed that the festival also had a keen eye for cutting-edge nonfiction. Paris Is Burning snapped up the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1991 festival.

Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino, 1991) 

QT’s controversial debut won no awards at Sundance — though it was a Grand Jury Prize nominee — but generated heated discussion; it was pretty clear that the motormouthed director’s taut thriller was the hot ticket. The rest is history.

Clerks (Kevin Smith, 1994) 

With this deadpan and sardonic - not to mention super low-budget - black and white comedy set in a New Jersey convenience store, Kevin Smith kicked off his career as he meant to go on. The film was awarded the Filmmaker’s Trophy at the 1994 festival, and Smith’s career was given a serious boost.

Welcome To The Dollhouse (Todd Solondz, 1995) 

Todd Solondz' bleakly funny debut announced him as a one-of-a-kind talent. Anchored by a splendidly brittle performance from Heather Matarazzo, this tale of awkward youth won the Grand Jury prize in 1996. Solondz would go on to make his masterpiece, the even darker Happiness, in 1998.

The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, 1999) 

This no-budget, snot n’ videocam horror debuted at the festival’s 1999 edition, and was pretty much the key catalyst for the now-ubiquitous ‘found footage’ genre. It stormed Sundance, shook up the industry, and terrified its way to monster box-office success.

Dogtown and Z-Boys (Stacy Peralta, 2001) 

This evocative documentary is one of the best feature-length skating movies ever made. Distinguished by loads of great archive footage and a gruff voiceover by Sean Penn, this cracking film ollied away with the Directing Award (documentary) in 2001. Gnarly.

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010)  

One of the big Sundance winners of recent years, Granik’s gripping thriller picked up two awards (the Grand Jury and the Waldo Salt award for Screenwriting) and launched the careers of its stars John Hawkes and Jennifer Lawrence in the process. Sadly though, Granik’s been a bit quiet since.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012) 

At this year’s Sundance, all the talk will be of finding “this year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild”. Winner of last year’s Grand Jury prize, Zeitlin’s film went on to attract overwhelming critical praise, and last week secured Oscar nominations for Best Director and the big one - Best Film. Not bad going for an indie with a budget of under $2m.

Follow Ashley on Twitter: @_Ash_Clark  

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