The Best Movies Of Sundance Film Festival History

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 Simple

Blood 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 Sisters

Hannah 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).


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 Videotape

Sex, 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.

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