The Best Movies Of Sundance Film Festival History 1985-1999

The Sundance Film Festival isn't just a film festival, but a look into the future of cinema. As we travel to Park City Utah this year, I thought it would be nice to take a look back at the last 30 years of the festival. Today I begin part one of my two-day, two-part look at the best movies of Sundance Film Festival history. In part one I will focus on the first 15 years of the festival* as the small independent film festival grew into the launching pad for new filmmakers and ground zero for the independent movie boom of the 1990's.

Note: We are republishing this series, which was first seen on /Film in 2014. Header photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

Okay, so lets set some ground rules and clarifications:

*While Sundance began in Salt Lake City in August 1978 as the Utah/US Film Festival, it didn't move to its signature Park City home until 1981 (at the suggestion of director Sydney Pollack) and wasn't renamed the Sundance Film Festival until a decade later. But I've decided to keep 1985 (the year the Sundance Institute took over the festival) as the starting point and not include films from the festival's previous history. Also I'm writing this in mid-January 2015, before the start of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, so this article will only include films up through the 2014 edition of the festival.

I've decided that instead of ranking films that I will instead go through the history of Sundance year by year focusing on the best films to be released at that year's festival. I have tried to make the choices considering not only my personal favorites but also taking into account historical and cultural significance. That said, like any best of article, hard choices had to be made and since this listing is highly subjective I'm sure some of you will disagree with some of the choices.

Blood SimpleBlood Simple

1985 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: The Coen Brothers

Won: Grand Jury Award for dramatic film

Budget: $1.5 million

Box Office: $3.85 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

Other films at Sundance that year: Stranger Than Paradise

Blood Simple is notable because it was the Coen Brothers' directorial debut. Not only was it Joel and Ethan Coen's first film, but also the first major film of cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld, who later became a director in his own right, as well as the feature film debut of Academy Award winning actress Frances McDormand, who subsequently married Joel and starred in many of the brothers' future films. The official plot synopsis of the film follows:

A rich but jealous man hires a private investigator to kill his cheating wife and her new man. But, when blood is involved, nothing is simple.

Hannah and Her SistersHannah and Her Sisters

1986 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Woody Allen

Budget: $6.4 million

Box Office: $59 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

Other films at Sundance that year: The Trip to Bountiful

Hannah and Her Sisters is one of Woody Allen's most accessible films. That translated at the movie theater, as the film was for a long time Allen's biggest box office hit. It was also a critically acclaimed film, winning Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress (the first film to win both supporting actor awards since 1977, and the last until The Fighter over two decades later).HoosiersHoosiers

1987 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By:  David Anspaugh

Budget: $6 million

Box Office: $28.6 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

Other films at Sundance that year: River's Edge

Considered one of the best sports films of all time, Hoosiers is loosely based on the story of a a small-town Indiana high school basketball team (from Milan High School) that won the 1954 state championship. The film co-stars Dennis Hopper as a basketball-loving town drunk which earned him an Oscar nomination. Composer Jerry Goldsmith was also nominated for an Academy Award for his score.


1988 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: John Waters

Budget: $2 million

Box Office: $8.2 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 97%

Other films at Sundance that year: The Brave Little ToasterStand and Deliver

Hairspray tells the story of a "pleasantly plump" teenager who ends up teaching 1962 Baltimore about racial integration after landing a spot on The Corny Collins Show, a local TV dance show. Probably director John Waters' most accessible film, Hairspray was only a moderate success upon its initial theatrical release but later found an audience on home video earning it cult classic status. The film spawned a Broadway musical adaptation which won eight Tony Awards, and a 2007 New Line Cinema adaptation of the stage musical.Sex, Lies, and VideotapeSex, Lies, and Videotape

1989 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Steven Soderbergh

Won: Audience Award Dramatic

Budget: $1.2 million

Box Office: $24.7 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

Other films at Sundance that year: For All MankindHeathers

This film is considered one of the most important movies in independent film history — the unprecedented success of this low-budget movie spawned the 1990s independent film boom. Movie critic Roger Ebert dubbed Soderbergh the "poster boy of the Sundance generation". The film went on to play at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d'Or and the FIPRESCI Prize, with Spader getting the Best Actor Award. The film is also important for launching the career of Steven Soderbergh, who once volunteered at Sundance as a driver. For this film he was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay.

Roger and MeRoger and Me

1990 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Michael Moore

Budget: $140,000

Box Office: $7.7 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Other films at Sundance that year: The KillerSweetie

I can't even imagine what the evolution of documentary films might have looked like without Michael Moore. Roger and Me was his feature film directing debut, and took a look at the filmmaker's home town of Flint Michigan, which had suffered a huge economic blow thanks to General Motors CEO Roger Smith closing several auto plants  costing 30,000 people their jobs at the time. The film became the most successful documentary in American history when it was released, earning many multiples more than the previous highest grossing non-musical documentary. In 2013 the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


1991 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Richard Linklater

Budget: $23,000

Box Office: $1.2 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 85%

Other films at Sundance that year: American Dream, City of Hope

This two-day, two-part series might be called "The Best Movies Of Sundance Film Festival History" but it should be titled "How Richard Linklater Became The King of Park City." Slacker was Linklater's feature film debut, and you will see his films many times as we work our way to present day. Slacker was unlike any film most had ever seen at the time of its premiere.  Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, "Slacker is a movie with an appeal almost impossible to describe, although the method of the director, Richard Linklater, is as clear as day. He wants to show us a certain strata of campus life at the present time". Slacker was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the festival.

This is another one of the key films that is pointed to for its significant impact on the independent film movement of the 1990s. Many filmmakers were inspired by this movie, notably Kevin Smith, who you will find later in our Sundance journey. This is another film which was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant"

Reservoir DogsReservoir Dogs

1992 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Quentin Tarantino

Budget: $1.2 million

Box Office: $22 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 92%

Other films at Sundance that year: Errol Morris' A Brief History of Time, Brother's Keeper, The Waterdance

Quentin Tarantino exploded onto the scene with his feature film debut Reservoir Dogs, which made its world premiere at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival. It was the  most talked-about film of that year's festival and was quickly picked up for distribution. Well received critically now ranked in the top 100 films of all time on various lists, the film was a huge box office success for an independent film. This film, like the previous few on this list, inspired a generation of filmmakers.

Hard BoiledHard Boiled

1993 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: John Woo

Budget: $4.5 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

Other films at Sundance that year: Robert Rodriguez's debut El MariachiLike Water For Chocolate

The story follows a "tough-as-nails cop teams up with an undercover agent to shut down a sinister mobster and his crew." This 1992 Hong Kong action film didn't premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, but the Sundance screening helped John Woo to find an American audience. In fact, this was his last Hong Kong-produced film before he went to Hollywood to make American action movies. Hard Boiled was also more well-received in the US than it was in Hong Kong. Many film critics believe Hard Boiled's action scenes as some of the best ever filmed.


1994 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Kevin Smith

Won: Filmmaker Trophy Dramatic

Budget: $$27,575

Box Office: $3.15 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

Other films at Sundance that year: Hoop Dreams, David O. Russell's debut Spanking the Monkey, Ben Stiller's Reality Bites, My Crazy Life

This is the feature film debut of writer/filmmaker Kevin Smith, whose name for many years was almost synonymous with Sundance. The story of Kevin Smith's rise has been told over and over. After seeing Linklater's Slacker, Smith became inspired to make his own movie. He sold a large portion of his comic book collection and maxed out ten credit cards to fund this black and white 16mm film, which was produced for only $27,575. Smith worked in the convenience store during the day and shot the film at night when it was closed. Miramax head Harvey Weinstein quickly purchased the film at Park City, paying for a cool rock soundtrack.

I do want to spotlight that the 1994 Sundance Film Festival also saw the premiere of the amazing documentary Hoop Dreams, and David O. Russell's debut Spanking the Monkey, but I picked Clerks as I think the film had a more significant impact on independent film and pop culture.

Before SunriseBefore Sunrise

1995 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Richard Linklater

Budget: $2.5 million

Box Office: $5.5 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Other films at Sundance that year: Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects, Terry Zwigoff's Crumb, Edward Burnes' The Brothers McMullen

Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise told the simple story of a young American man (Ethan Hawke) and a young French woman (Julie Delpy) who meet on a train and spend the night walking around Vienna getting to know each other. The film made had its world premiere at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival where it was met with high critical praise (the film still holds a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). The film spawned two sequels, one of which you will see in part 2 of this feature tomorrow.

The Usual Suspects, which launched Bryan Singer's career, also premiered at the 1995 festival. I almost chose that film for this year as its more acclaimed by the mainstream, and well, you'll find that Linklater wins too many of the Sundance years coming up — but as much as I like The Usual Suspects, I really believe Before Sunrise is the better movie. I, at least, have watched it many more times.Welcome to the DollhouseWelcome to the Dollhouse

1996 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Todd Solondz

Won: Grand Jury Prize Dramatic

Budget: $800,000

Box Office: $4.56 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%

Other films at Sundance that year: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Alexander Payne's feature debut Citizen RuthShineBig Night

This independent coming of age comedy film launched the careers of Todd Solondz and Heather Matarazzo. The story followed Matarazzo as a "7th grader as she struggles to cope with un-attentive parents, snobbish classmates, a smart older brother, an attractive younger sister, and her own insecurities." Dollhouse was the big hit of 1996 Sundance, winning the grand jury prize in the dramatic competition. The film was critically acclaimed, landing on the top ten lists of many critics, including Roger Ebert.

Chasing AmyChasing Amy

1997 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Kevin Smith

Budget: $250,000

Box Office: $12 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

Other films at Sundance that year: Neil LaBute's In the Company of MenThe Full Monty

While it has become a cult classic, many critics believed filmmaker Kevin Smith "bellyflopped" with his sophomore feature Mallrats. Kevin Smith returned to Sundance in 1997, three years after he brought Clerks to Park City, to prove he wasn't a one hit wonder. And boy did he — Many believe that Chasing Amy is Smith's best film.  Filmed on a modest budget of $250,000, the movie grossed a total of $12,021,272 in theaters, later going on to be a huge hit on home video. Chasing Amy won two awards at the 1998 Independent Spirit Awards (Best Screenplay for Smith and Best Supporting Actor for Jason Lee).


1998 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

Won: Directing Award Dramatic

Budget: 60,000

Box Office: $ 3.2 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 87%

Other films at Sundance that year: Gods and MonstersCube, Buffalo 66

Pi was the debut of auteur filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. The surrealist psychological thriller follows a "paranoid mathematician searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature." The film was shot for only $60,000. The movie premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival where it won the directing award in the dramatic competition. Pi is also notable for launching the film scoring career of Clint Mansell. (Whose score to Requiem for a Dream has yet to be beat, if you ask me.)


1999 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Doug Liman

Budget: $6.5 million

Box Office: $28.4 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 92%

Other films at Sundance that year: American MovieRun Lola RunThe Blair Witch ProjectThree SeasonsLock, Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsSLC Punk!

This was a tough one because so many great movies premiered in Park City this year, including some of my personal favorites. (If you've never seen American Movie or Run Lola Run, correct that as quickly as possible.) But the big challenger to Go is that The Blair Witch Project also premiered at the 1999 fest. Blair Witch, while not the first found footage movie ever, popularized the genre in the mainstream and also is thought to have spawned the internet viral marketing movement within Hollywood. And Doug Liman's Go is often forgotten by many, remembered as one of the many fragmented timeline films that came after Tarantino. So why did I choose Go over Blair Witch? It is a vastly better movie. It's actually in my top ten favorite movies of all time.

While Blair Witch is an important film in cinema history, Go is a better movie in every other respect.  The film's two letter title doesn't help its legacy (for instance, try searching for a movie called "Go" on a website like Rotten Tomatoes). Despite being over 15 years old, the movie still feels fresh, which is something that can't be said for Blair Witch. It also spawned the screenwriting career of super duper screenwriter John August. (Who later made his directorial debut at Sundance with The Nines — I wish he would step behind the camera again.)

Part 2 Coming Tomorrow

Come back tomorrow as we return with the Best Movies of Sundance Film Festival History chronicling the years 2000-2017.