Sundance classics you must see before you die ...


Since then, the roster of filmmakers and films discovered at the Sundance Film Festival confirms its ongoing importance as the premiere location for independent film in America.

Here's a chronological list of some of the best things I've seen that came out of Sundance, along with a few observations on each by me or my students. For more reviews of "Indie Classics" and "Indie Icons," take a look at our website.


1987 - Ross McElwee's intensely personal and idiosyncratic search for Southern love in Sherman's March begins when his girlfriend breaks up with him just after he has gotten a grant to document the infamous general's destructive rampage through the Southern states.

1989 - Then, of course, there's Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies videotape, that put Sundance on the map for making a lot of money on a very little investment. What is easy to forget in the face of its indie-Blockbuster status is that it is a brilliant little film and a compelling story, that ranks easily with the very best cinematic meditations on modern love, sex, personal identity and truth. This one's playing again in a retrospective at Sundance this year, and the director will be present to introduce and answer questions.

1990 - Legendary African American filmmaker Charles Burnett really should have become known to the world when he completed his powerful UCLA thesis film, Killer of Sheep in 1977 (re-released to outstanding critical acclaim only last year). But it was not until To Sleep With Anger received a Special Jury award at Sundance and a subsequent Independent Spirit Award that he began to be recognized for his powerful gifts as an intimate humanist and realist filmmaker. The same year saw Whit Stillman's dissection of the lifestyles of the falling upper class in Metropolitan; and Roger and Me, Michael Moore's quixotic hero on the track of the greedy corporate villians; and Hal Hartley's impressive feature debut film, The Unbelievable Truth, about a convict who returns home only to find that his crimes have become wildly exaggerated by his former friends and neighbors.


1991 - Todd Haynes followed up his experimental Barbiefied Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story with the controversial Poison, which tells three interweaving stories about the difficulties of self-definition and paved the way for the so-called "New Queer Cinema" movement; Richard Linklater broke completely with conventional narrative, allowing his camera to follow the intersecting paths of Austin's aimless twenty-somethings in Slacker.

Anastassia Anastassia Smorodinskaya wrote of Slacker: "The experience of watching “Slacker” can be analogous to a conversation with your most eccentric, free spirited hippy friend, who at first can seem quite innovative and thought provoking in their unorthodox world views, but after a while becomes rather transparent, boring and repetitive."

1992 - Quentin Tarantino exploded on the scene with his unexpected combination of violence and volubility in Reservoir Dogs.

1993 - Robert Rodriguez, now bosom buddy and fellow grindhouse fanatic, sold blood to raise the 7 grand required to make his ultra-low-budget neo-Western, El Mariachi.

1994 - Peter Green turns in an astonishing performance as a schizophrenic on a mission to take back his daughter in Lodge Kerrigan's kinetic and disturbing Clean, Shaven; and Kevin Smith (aka Silent Bob) introduced the world to his brand of slacker dark comedy in Clerks.

1995 - Richard Linklater shows that he knows how to tell a more conventional, and incredibly moving, story in the race-against-time romance Before Sunrise; Terry Zwigoff's inventive documentary Crumb introduced the world to the unexpectedly popular but shy and unassuming creator of audaciously explicit and exploitatively sexual cult cartoon imagery.

Aprille Brooker wrote of Crumb: "The strangeness, awkwardness, and graphic sexual obsession collectively work together to create the character of Robert Crumb. It's from the people of his past and the people around him that make it easier to understand the man and the mind behind the drawings."

Tom McGrath wrote: "Richard Linklater does a remarkable job in creating a love story that doesn’t need to advertise itself with Before Sunrise.... this film seems to glow almost as much as the eyes of Jesse and Celine as they look longingly at each other in the last scene."

1996 - Welcome to the Dollhouse is Todd Solondz's bitter and hilarious examination of the horrors of seventh grade.

1998 - Vincent Gallo stars and directs in the visually sumptuous Buffalo '66, a quirky and unpredictable romance about an ex-con who kidnaps a woman in order to convince his parents he has been happily married and running a successful business; Visually inventive and wildly intellectual, Pi introduced audiences to the incredible talent and imagination of Darren Aronofsky; Smoke Signals is Chris Eyre's rich and amusing portrait of contemporary life on the reservation.

Anastassia Smorodinskaya wrote of Buffalo '66: "I liked how Gallo didn’t shy away from a happy ending as some indie films due for the sake of being “edgy”. Altogether I was very pleased with how the movie managed to be kind without being sentimental, and powerful without being tragic."

1999 - Before becoming a cliché, the handheld intensity and viral marketing behind The Blair Witch Project broke new ground and astonished audiences with something they really hadn't seen before; Mark Borchardt's independent horror flick "Coven" doesn't quite manage to be scary but American Movie, Chris Smith's documentary about his heroic effort to pull it off, is both inspirational and funny, a first-rate documentary.

Lizzy Kirkham wrote about The Blair Witch Project that: "During all the terror, all the misery and all of the screams, the characters work horribly out of their way to get into trouble with the Blair Witch. They continually ran from their belongings and tent, as the ghost of the witch followed them and created indian type burial headstones for each of them around their tent. However, unlike the other horror movies which are produced currently, there was no soundtrack, no eerie music just to creep the audience further. There were only breaths, sighs, screams and shrieks, sounds to make all the creepy crawlies in your skin come alive."


2001 - Hedwig and the Angry Inch is both one of the best rock films ever made and a tragic and moving love story about a German transsexual whose botched operation inspired both the name of his band and an impossible but creative longing.

2002 - Personal Velocity was one of the first Sundance films to be shot entirely on digital video, marking a new trend, and making inventive use of the new medium. Based on director Rebbeca Miller's novel, the film consists of three portraits of women making important choices.

2003 - Capturing the Friedmans reveals just how complicated and obscure the truth can be, as director Andrew Jarecki pieces together extensive home movie footage with contemporary interviews to examine a seemingly ordinary family whose father is accused of pedophilia. Thirteen was the debut film of Catherine Hardwicke, and is a much more compelling and realistic portrait of teenaged angst than her more recent rendition of Twilight, which disappointed critics but couldn't deter the leagues of young fans from making it the blockbuster of the Fall season. (This was the first year I brought a group of students to Sundance, and I saw a lot of films but only caught these two later when they came to Tampa Bay theaters.)

2004 - Ondi Timoner directed the exceptional and invigorating rockumentary Dig!, examining the friendship and rivalry between rising indie rock bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre from 1996 onwards; Shane Carruth's inventive science fiction time travel thriller Primer was made for next to nothing, and proved that a good story and a bit of invention can still wow audiences and juries and achieve remarkable success; nobody suspected coming into the festival that it would become a runaway cult classic, but I've never heard the audiences at Sundance laughing so hard as when I saw the premiere screening of Napoleon Dynamite.

Emma Lord wrote of Tarnation that "The images are real and disturbing, taking you out of your comfort zone, but it’s a small price to pay compared to what he went through. The final result is a human survival displayed in a multitude of bright and dark colors, mood music, and switching back and forth from steady clips to jumbles of images from his recordings. You simply can’t look away."

2005 - Miranda July took the sensibility drawn from her eccentric and delicate performance art and created a very intimate and unusual love story in Me and You and Everyone We Know.

2006 - The big deal at Sundance '06 was, of course, the indie smash hit Little Miss Sunshine, a Steve Carell-starring dysfunctional family quirky road trip on the way to a child beauty pageant flick; but the real find was God Grew Tired of Us, a simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming documentary about a few of the "lost boys of Sudan" who left home for America.

2008 - Jay and Mark Duplass took the "mumblecore" do-it-yourself style of acting and cinematography and created a uniquely funny and even scary serious spoof on horror with one of last year's Sundance favorites, Baghead; but the best film to come out of last year's festival to my mind was Sugar, which gives a unique and emotionally powerful look at America's favorite pastime, following the success and struggles of a Dominican player recruited to play minor league baseball in the United States. Sugar is the only film on this list that has yet to be released (either in theaters or on video). It was, however, picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and is scheduled to be shown in theaters in Spring of 2009. Definitely not to be missed, and one to watch for during next year's awards season.

... or at least you ought to try and see when you have some free time and the inclination to stretch your cinematic imagination. On the eve of a new year of discovery and hype (Sundance starts tomorrow, January 15th), it's as good a time as any to see for yourself why indie filmmakers and distributors still pin their hopes on the festival that got its improbable start in the snowy mountains above Salt Lake City, Utah. Between Netflix and Blockbuster and your local library, you should be able to find most of these.

Sundance really hit its stride in 1985. Before that it was called the Utah/US Film Festival and hadn't yet been sponsored by Robert Redford and the Sundance Institute. In 1985 it got a new name and gave the world an introduction to two of the most prolific and exciting filmmaking teams. Jim Jarmusch brought his second feature (following the largely unheralded debut film Permanent Vacation), and introduced the world to his own peculiar take on America in Stranger than Paradise. The Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) stunned audiences with their visceral take on pulp film noir in Blood Simple. Their ability to create intensity through memorable images - a shovel dragging on the pavement, shafts of light that stab through the darkness as bullets penetrate the walls that shelter a terrified Frances McDormand - signaled the emergence of a powerful new team of storytellers.

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