Photo: Sundance Film Festival
Back in the early days of Hollywood, the film industry was very difficult to break into. Hollywood was basically an exclusive club that was near-impossible to break into without prior connection, and there wasn’t really room for smaller filmmakers in the larger studio system.
This all began to change with the rise of auteur directors in the 1960s and 1970s. Filmmakers who studied the craft at prestigious institutions began to make waves in the industry, and more creative control was afforded than ever before, as these new innovators (i.e. Stanley Kubrick, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg) began to expand the preconceived notions of the medium.
Working independently from the core studios, these directors would premiere their work at festivals and use the connections formed at the festival to finance future projects. This became even more commonplace in the 1990s and 2000s, as it became a primary method for breaking into the exclusive club that is Hollywood. One of the premier festivals, the annual Sundance Festival in Park City, UT, began in 1978, and would quickly become one of the most influential talent showcases for the film industry globally, with many now-acclaimed talents debuting at the festival. So what are the greatest films to premiere at the Festival?
Here are my choices for the Best Sundance Films of All-Time:
“Reservoir Dogs” (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino, but there is no denying the raw energy that he brings to directing. His debut feature film, the Sundance classic “Reservoir Dogs,” exemplifies this quality brilliantly. All the trademark Tarantino-isms that audiences have come to expect at this point (ie non-linear narratives, snappy dialogue rife with profanity, and buckets of blood) are present in “Reservoir Dogs,” but the film is decidedly much more tight and focused than a lot of Tarantino’s other films. The performances from Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, and Tarantino himself are excellent, and the film contains some of the most quotable lines of Tarantino’s career (the debate around the name of Mr. Brown remains hilarious to this day). But my favorite element of “Reservoir Dogs” is how contained it feels, trapping the characters in a few key locations, allowing the dialogue and acting to bring the intensity. And boy, is it intense.
“American Psycho” (Mary Harron, 2000)
Before he was Batman, there was a lot of speculation about Christian Bale’s interests as an actor. He had starred in a few great films as a child and teenager (most notably Steven Spielberg’s war drama “Empire of the Sun”), but it wasn’t entirely evident yet as to what kind of actor he would become. Then came “American Psycho.” Mary Harron’s brutal takedown of yuppie Wall Street capitalism and the toxic masculinity that so often surrounds its participants is an absolutely relentless watch, digging deeper into Patrick Bateman’s fractured mind and warped perceptions of reality. It’s shocking, yes, but it mostly strikes as equal parts darkly hilarious and incredibly relevant. The film has aged remarkably well over time and perhaps parallels the world more now than anyone would like to admit.
Related article: FACT-CHECKED Series: 32 Facts on Hollywood Legend Quentin Tarantino
“Memento” (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Another “Dark Knight” alum took off at the 2000 Festival. Christopher Nolan’s twisting psychodrama “Memento” is the film many consider the one to land him his now-trademark franchise and perhaps remains his best work to date. Nolan does an exceptional job at placing the viewer within the disorienting position of an amnesiac, telling the film both in chronological order and in reverse simultaneously, reaching a climax in what is technically the half-point of the actual narrative. It’s a mind-bending and complex piece of cinema, but the film is so structurally sound that it never becomes confusing or overbearing. It’s a landmark movie and one of the best works of the 2000s.
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“Man on Wire” (James Marsh, 2008)
James Marsh’s documentary on French performance artist Phillipe Petit’s infamous walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City is quite simply one of the most breath-taking nonfiction films of all time. Most of the film centers around Phillipe himself and the events leading up to the walk, but when the stunt itself is actually performed, the film reaches another level entirely, even if you are familiar with the historical events themselves. While the events were adapted into a solid Robert Zemeckis film titled “The Walk,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, there is just no topping this documentary. It is an absolutely stunning look at how far someone will go for their art.
“Whiplash” (Damien Chazelle, 2014)
One of the most exciting directors of the 2010s has easily been Damien Chazelle, a former jazz musician who has utilized his love and appreciation for the art form as a means to create some of the most beloved films of the decade. His debut feature, ‘Whiplash’, was based on a short he had made previously, but the film itself cranks up the intensity to an insane degree. JK Simmons gives the performance of his career as Miles Teller’s raging band teacher, a psychotic perfectionist who shows no remorse for the feelings he hurts in the classroom. It’s an exhilarating battle of wits and features one of the best endings I’ve ever seen.
Related article: Jordan Peele: 32 Facts on the Oscar-Winning Hollywood Talent
“Get Out” (Jordan Peele, 2017)
After a strong career as a comedian as part of the duo Key & Peele (along with Keegan Michael-Key), Jordan Peele transitioned into a director, setting his sights on creating socially-conscious auteur horror cinema unlike anything made until that point. His first film, “Get Out,” is a ground-breaking and critical film that exists in a complete league of its own, brimming with imagination and political commentary. But while the film obviously succeeds based on the questions it proposes about race in America, it also works as a deeply effective horror-comedy, all held together by Peele’s distinct artistic vision, and more than worthy of all the accolades and praises it has received since.
“Hereditary” (Ari Aster, 2018)
The final and most recent film on this list is also an elevated horror classic in its own right. Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” absolutely shook me to my core the first time I watched it, so much so that I saw it again that same weekend just to unpack all the dark implications the film has about mental illness, family heritage, motherhood, and the occult. The film is deeply disturbing on a visceral level, but the long takes and gorgeous cinematography accentuate the incredibly detailed puzzle-box that Aster has created, making repeat viewings immensely rewarding. Plus, Toni Collette perhaps gives one of the greatest horror performances of all-time and was absolutely robbed at the Oscars. All in all, “Hereditary” is an absolute triumph of genre cinema, and is more than worthy of Sundance’s high esteem.
By Patrick Nash
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