The Best Movies Of Sundance Film Festival History Part 2: 2000-2017

Yesterday I posted part one of my two-part look at the best movies of Sundance Film Festival history. Today I return with the second installment, which takes a look at the best movies from the last 16 years of the festival as Park City became not only the mecca of American independent film but the launching pad for hundred million dollar award contenders.

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

Please see the ground rules and clarifications from my previous installment.

The Virgin SuicidesThe Virgin Suicides

2000 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Sofia Coppola

Budget: $6.1 million

Box Office: $10.4 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 76%

Other films at Sundance that year: Dark DaysChuck and Buck, Girl Fight, You Can Count On MeAmerican Psycho

Sofia Coppola's feature directing debut is probably best known for transforming childhood star Kirsten Dunst into a leading lady. The film was praised for its cinematography and its amazing original score composed by Air, which was accompanied by a soundtrack of songs by 1970s-era performers.


2001 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Christopher Nolan

Won: Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award

Budget: $7 million

Box Office: $39.7 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 92%

Other films at Sundance that year: Donnie DarkoHedwig and the Angry Inch, Dogtown and Z-Boys, Todd Field's In the Bedroom

I don't think we need to provide any explanation for Memento being named the best film of the 2001 Sundance Film Festival — it was the launching pad for Christopher Nolan. (And he has had some career since, eh?). Famously, Nolan's debut, the 1998 British neo-noir drama thriller Following was not only turned down by Sundance but turned down by Slamdance — which was started to give filmmakers an alternative to Sundance. But Slamdance gave the film a second look when the filmmakers resubmitted it the following year and ran it in the 1999 festival.

Y Tu Mama TambienY Tu Mama Tambien

2002 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By:


Budget: $ million

Box Office: $ million

Rotten Tomatoes:

Other films at Sundance that year: Real Women Have Curves, Love Liza, Secretary, Bloody SundayBetter Luck TomorrowNarcOne Hour PhotoThe Kid Stays in the Picture

While this wasn't the first film from Alfonso Cuarón, it was the film that brought him into the world spotlight. The road trip love story is also responsible for launching the careers of Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.

28 Days Later28 Days Later

2003 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Danny Boyle

Budget: $8 million

Box Office: $82.7 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 87%

Other films at Sundance that year: American Splendor, Capturing the Friedmans, All the Real Girls, The Station Agent, Thirteen, Whale Rider, In America, Bus 174, Bend It Like Beckham

28 Days Later was the first film to bring low-fi digital filmmaking to the mainstream. Boyle employed mini-DV equipment to accomplish scenes (like the one pictured above) that may not have been possible with larger 35mm film gear. The film reinvigorated the zombie film genre, which has blown up. 28 Days Later also contributed significantly to the post-apocalyptic boom of the 2000's.Super Size MeSuper Size Me

2004 Sundance Film Festival

Directed By: Morgan Spurlock

Won: Directing Award Documentary

Budget: $65,000

Box Office: $29.5 million

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

Other films at Sundance that year: Napoleon DynamiteSAWGarden StatePrimerDiG!Maria Full of Grace, Born Into Brothels, Saved

This was my first year attending the Sundance Film Festival, and it might be the best year I've ever attended. While the low budget sci-fi time travel film Primer is probably my favorite of the 2004 class, I had to pick Super Size Me as the best of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary film had a big impact on McDonalds and the fast food industry, was an audience favorite and launched the filmmaking career of Morgan Spurlock, who has now become a brand in the world of accessible mainstream documentary films about serious issues.

I do want to also spotlight the other films of the class of 2004:

  • Saw premiered at the 2004 festival, which not only spawned six sequels but was responsible for the Hollywood trend of a branded horror movie sequel every Halloween and is blamed for starting the torture porn boom of the horror film genre.
  • Napoleon Dynamite was a juggernaut, causing a big dent in the popular culture of its time. The years after the film's release it was nearly impossible to go through a day without hearing or seeing a Napoleon Dynamite reference, either in the form of merchandising, quotes or internet memes.
  • Zack Braff's directorial debut Garden State struck a very personal cord with a certain generation.
  • BrickBrick

    2005 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: Rian Johnson

    Won: Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision

    Budget: $475,000

    Box Office: $3.9 million

    Rotten Tomatoes: 80%

    Other films at Sundance that year: The Squid and the WhaleMe and You and Everyone We KnowOldboyKung Fu HustleMarch of the Penguins

    Brick launched the filmmaking career of Rian Johnson who is now directing the 8th installment of the Star Wars franchise. The neo-noir thriller was a throwback to the hardboiled detective story, but set in a high school in a modern suburb.An Inconvenient TruthAn Inconvenient Truth

    2006 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: Davis Guggenheim

    Budget: $1 million

    Box Office: $49.7 million

    Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

    Other films at Sundance that year: Half NelsonQuinceañeraLittle Miss SunshineThank You for SmokingThis Film Is Not Yet RatedWho Killed the Electric CarThe Foot Fist Way

    This was again one of the harder years to pick a best of the fest. First up you have the audience favorite Little Miss Sunshine went on to become a mega indie hit. Secondly you have Thank You For Smoking, the incredible feature debut of director Jason Reitman. But in the end, I had to go with Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary that made a major impact on our cultural and political landscape for the years that have followed.  The Academy Award-winning doc was based on former United States Vice President Al Gore's slideshow presentation about the looming danger of global warming.

    Rocket ScienceRocket Science

    2007 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: Jeffrey Blitz

    Won: Dramatic Grand Jury Prize

    Budget: $ 4.5 million

    Box Office: $755,774

    Rotten Tomatoes: 84%

    Other films at Sundance that year: Son of RambowMy Kid Could Paint ThatOnceThe Signal

    Rocket Science wasn't a huge hit like 2007 Sundance favorite Once, but I feel like its the best film of that year's festival. The indie dramedy told the story of Reece Thompson as a stuttering boy who joins his high school debate team while "looking for answers to life's big questions." The biggest thing to come out of Rocket Science is without question Anna Kendrick. Sure, Kendrick had previously been in other films (Camp played Sundance a few years prior) but this is the film that got Kendrick noticed. Director Jason Reitman have credited Rocket Science for their discovery of the actress before casting her in Up in the Air, for which she scored an Academy Award nomination.Man On WireMan On Wire

    2008 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: James Marsh

    Won: World Cinema Audience Award Documentary and the World Cinema Jury Prize Documentary

    Budget: $1.9 million

    Box Office: $5.2 million

    Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

    Other films at Sundance that year: Time CrimesAmerican TeenThe Wackness, The EscapistBe Kind Rewind

    While my favorite film of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival has to be Jonathan Levine's audience award-winning film The Wackness, I think I have to give best film of the fest to Man On Wire. James Marsh's documentary film chronicled Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in New York City. Not only did the film get two awards at the festival, but it went on to win won the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The documentary is currently being adapted into a narrative feature by director Robert Zemeckis. On top of all that acclaim, I think Man on Wire is important because it kickstarted a new wave of documentary features that interweave highly cinematic narrative re-enactments in with the tradition documentary interviews and slips.

    (500) Days of Summer(500) Days of Summer

    2009 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: Marc Webb

    Budget: $7.5 million

    Box Office: $60.7 million

    Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

    Other films at Sundance that year: MoonMary and MaxThe CoveAn EducationWorld's Greatest Dad, Mystery TeamPrecious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

    This was another great year for the Sundance Film Festival. I wish I could have chosen Mary and Max, as its a great film that I feel so many people have not yet seen. But (500) Days of Summer not only launched the movie directing career of Marc Webb (who went on to direct the second round of Spider-Man movies for Sony) but also the film that revitalized the career of childhood star Joseph Gordon Levitt and cemented Zooey Deschanel as a quirky romantic lead.

    Exit Through the Gift ShopExit Through the Gift Shop2010 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: Banksy

    Budget: unknown

    Box Office: $5.3 million

    Rotten Tomatoes: 96%

    Other films at Sundance that year: Animal KingdomWinter's BoneBlue Valentine, Catfish, The Company Men

    Exit Through The Gift Shop is one of my favorite documentaries of all time. A surprise film at the 2010 Sundance film festival, Exit is a provocative and subversive look at the creation and value of art and a marathon race through the world of street art. As wish Catfish, another "documentary" at that year's fest, Exit left many people questioning the authenticity of the characters and story. The mystery behind the creation of the documentary and the filmmaker, anonymous street artist Banksy, just adds to the spectacle.Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's JourneyBeing Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

    2011 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: Constance Marks

    Won: Special Jury Prize Documentary

    Budget: unknown

    Box Office: $304,000

    Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

    Other films at Sundance that year: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Win WinSound of My VoiceLike Crazy

    Being Elmo is one of the best documentaries about the craft, obsession and art of puppetry. The film was one of the audience favorites at the 2011 festival, but allegations that puppeteer Kevin Clash had improper sexual conduct with minors has tainted the film.Beasts of the Southern WildBeasts of the Southern Wild

    2012 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: Benh Zeitlin

    Won: Grand Jury Prize Dramatic, Excellence in Cinematography Award Dramatic

    Budget: $1.8 million

    Box Office: $21.9 million

    Rotten Tomatoes: 86%

    Other films at Sundance that year: The Raid: RedemptionSafety Not GuaranteedThe Queen of Versailles, Smashed, Searching For Sugarman

    Beasts of the Southern Wild was the big phenomenon of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. It won both the grand jury prize in the dramatic competition but also an award for excellence in cinematography. The film went on to get four Academy Award nominations at the 85th Academy Awards, in the categories Best Picture, Best Director (Benh Zeitlin), Best Adapted Screenplay (Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin), and Best Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis). Director Benh Zeitlin has yet to produce a follow-up, so its hard to say this film launched his career as we don't know what will become of the filmmaker — but the film shows high promise.before midnightBefore Midnight

    2013 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: Richard Linklater

    Budget: $3 million

    Box Office: $20.7 million

    Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

    Other films at Sundance that year: The Spectacular NowThe Kings of Summer (originally titled Toy's House), BlackfishDon Jon's Addiction, Mud

    Before Midnight is the latest evolution of Richard Linklater's Before... series, this time taking us from the one day meet-up to the next step in the relationship of Jesse and Celine. /Film's Germain Lussier wrote the following in his 2013 Sundance review:

    Over the course of the film the emotions and stakes of this conversation continue to rise, which makes Before Midnight feel more weighty than the previous entries. Everything that's said somehow feels so significant now that the courting is over. These are simply two adults working out their issues. Add a slight tension on top of that and you've got something special. One moment you're contemplating art or masculinity, the next their relationship is on the brink. That's derived from three things: the writing and the two lead performances. Everything in the movie feels incredibly rich, real and unscripted when it's actually anything but (the director and two stars co-wrote). Also, this being their third time around, Delpy and Hawke are so beyond comfortable together you'd swear they're actually a couple. Linklater's camera is simply there to capture their electric chemistry, giving the film a consistant vibrancy.


    2014 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: Richard Linklater

    Budget: $4 million

    Box Office: $43.5 million

    Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

    Other films at Sundance that year: Whiplash, Life Itself, The Raid 2, The Babadook

    Boyhood is not only my favorite film of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, but my favorite film of that year. I wrote the following in my review at the 2014 festival:

    Richard Linklater has truly created something special with his new film Boyhood –  a remarkable, beautiful, cinematic achievement, like nothing you have ever seen before. Filmed over short periods from 2002 to 2013, the film chronicles a family over the course of 12 years, with the actors reprising their roles through the progression of time. ... Boyhood is a small epic.

    Boyhood is insanely relatable and the timeless quality is sure to make it a film that will be revisited for decades to come — a modern classic.It FollowsIt Follows

    2015 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: David Robert Mitchell

    Budget: $2 million

    Box Office: $15 million

    Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

    Other films at Sundance that year: Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, Dope, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Brooklyn, The End of The Tour, Cop Car, It Follows, Tangerine, The Witch

    Sundance 2014 had a lot of great films but not a huge breakout movie. People thought it could be Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, but its hard to sell a movie about a girl dying of cancer. Tangerine got a lot of buzz because of how it was filmed (on iPhones), Brooklyn is getting awards buzz, while Cop Car was enough to get the director on Marvel's Spider-Man reboot. But I feel like It Follows might have the longest legacy of the batch because it was one of the most striking horror films in years. Here is an excerpt from Germain Lussier's /Film review from 2014:

    Sometimes, the scariest thing isn't what's around the corner. It's what's right in front of you. In It Follows, writer director David Robert Mitchell has created a simple, perfect, and bone-chillingly terrifying horror conceit that doesn't need blood or jump scares. It doesn't even, necessarily, need special effects. In It Follows a normal person, walking, is enough to scare the living crap out of you. ... As good as It Follows is on a surface level, it's also got social commentary good horror does so well. It's about the consequences of sex and how a wrong decision can follow you forever. ... When I judge a horror movie, the #1 criteria is how scary is the film. After that, we can look at everything else. It Follows scared me. A lot. Like, more than probably 90% of the other horror movies I've ever seen. So that seems like a fair raiting. If you like to be scared, there hasn't been a better film in years.

    Hunt for the WilderpeopleHunt for the Wilderpeople

    2016 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: Taika Waititi

    Budget: $2.5 million

    Box Office: $5.2 million

    Rotten Tomatoes: 97%

    Other films at Sundance that year: Manchester By The Sea, Sleight, Sing Street, Life Animated, Swiss Army Man, Green Room

    It was declared the best reviewed limited release of the year by Rotten Tomatoes, and while Manchester By The Sea has gotten more attention due to the award season, I believe this film will have a longer shelf life and be a film that most people cite as the breakthrough film of Taika Waititi (even though he has directed a substantial slate of great indie films prior to this one). Here is how Angie described the film in our best of Sundance 2016 round-up:

    Hunt for the Wilderpeople feels like a throwback to '80s adventure films in some ways, but it mostly just feels like a new childhood classic. It has all the makings of one: it's got wonder and adventure and loads of humor, and ultimately winds up on the side of optimism — but it also has moments of genuine tragedy and danger. It's not tough to imagine kids falling this movie today and feeling nostalgic about it 10 or 20 years down the line, the way Millennials and Gen Xers today wax rhapsodic about The Goonies. Unlike a lot of those movies, though, it's one the parents won't mind either. (Read Angie's full review here.)

    The Big Sick ReviewThe Big Sick

    2017 Sundance Film Festival

    Directed By: Michael Showalter

    Budget: $5 million

    Box Office: $55 million

    Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

    Other films at Sundance that year: Call Me By Your Name, A Ghost Story, Ingrid Goes West, Get Out, An Inconvenient Truth

    The Big Sick was one of the best-reviewed films of the year and an audience favorite, winning audience awards at festivals such as SXSW. It was the second largest acquisition of the 2017 festival, declared one of American Film Institutes 10 best films of the year and is currently in consideration for award season.

    Here is how Ethan Anderton described the film in his review from the festival:

    The Big Sick tells the story of up and coming Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani (who just so happens to be played by the Silicon Valley star of the same name, Kumail Nanjiani), living in Chicago and trying to land a gig at the Montreal Comedy Festival. After one of his sets at a local comedy club, he flirts with a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan), and what starts as a one night stand eventually turns into real romance, and we all know how that goes. But the true story of how real life comedian Kumail Nanjiani met this woman has quite the curveball, making this one of the most unique and authentic romantic comedies I've seen in years. ... I don't remember the last time a movie was able to have this much hilarity one moment and pure emotion from me, back and forth throughout the entire film.