The Best Movies Of Sundance Film Festival History

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 Suicides

The 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 Tambien

Y 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 Later

28 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 Me

Super 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.

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