[From Jan. 19 to 29, Flixist will be bringing you live coverage, from Park City, Utah, of Sundance Film Festival 2012. Keep an eye out for news, features, videos, and reviews of some of the most anticipated films to hit the festival circuit in 2012.]
All great American films are born somewhere. It just so happens a lot of them are born at Sundance. Since actor Robert Redford helped conceive Sundance Film Festival in 1978, it has been the premier festival for young American directors to debut — not that the rest of the world hasn’t received its fair share of applause in Utah, in recent years.
In celebration of Sundance being awesome and Flixist being awesome in covering Sundance 2012, we bring you the most Sundacey Sundance films to ever Sundance their way into Sundance. These are not the best nor the most influential. They are simply the most representative of what the festival offers.
The Sundance checklist: Is it American? Is it indie as hell? Is it depressing? Is it about a family? An, unhappy family, perhaps? Is it quirky? Did it sell for millions? Is it GOOD?
For better or worse, Sundance is always packed with low-budget family dramas. Some are too sentimental, some are too saccharine, but You Can Count on Me is just right. This touching story of a aimless, wandering brother, (Mark Ruffalo) trying to find comfort by imposing on his sister’s family, surprised audiences with its heartfelt script and direction by then-playwright Kenneth Lonergan. Though many family dramas have won over Sundance audiences over the years — including but not limited to In the Bedroom, Frozen River, and Winter’s Bone — none of them are as exemplary as Lonergan’s directorial debut.
For better or worse, Sundance is a very insular community that is not always indicative of how well a movie will be received in the big wide world. Sometimes celebrated films are pushed to quasi-stardom (Kids) and sometimes they are burned to the ground (Hounddog). Harmony Korine’s writing debut would make this list if he weren’t such a filthy little indie whore bringing his film to every European festival before Sundance, so I’m raising my Todd Solondz to the sky. Who else in this industry makes comedies about underage kids masturbaiting, depressed fat chicks, molestation, and rape? At least, I think it’s a comedy? Dear God, what have I said here? [redacted.]
Let’s be honest: Sundance isn’t for the kids. If anything, it’s for disgruntled parents who hate their kids and need depressing dramas to work out their familial pains. Donnie Darko didn’t find its audience in indie cinemas, but in the homes of angst-driven teens who love cutting themselves to Tears for Fears (FACT!) It’s comic book logic and flashy direction, via pre-absolute garbage Richard Kelly, turned this misunderstood sci-fi suburban epic into a cult classic. It proved even with enough momentum a bomb at the theaters can find a good home on video.
As years have gone by, Sundance has maintained a consistent goal of having as many memorable documentary films as feature films. Sometimes these documentaries blur together, but there is always one that stands out and rises above the rest. I can’t think of another that holds as much power in its composition as the riveting Capturing the Friedmans. The non-linear storytelling, masterful editing, and unnerving material make this one of the most watchable and unsettling documentaries ever put to celluloid. Many try to match its ambition, but none can match its craft and rich material to work within.
Who knew a film about one ghetto ass witch would make so much $$$?
No money, no excuses. That’s the lesson learned from Primer, the little sci-fi mind fuck that could. With a budget that wouldn’t even cover a semester at college, Shane Carruth created one of the past decade’s most mind-bending films that continues to thrill and infuriate autistic audiences. The intricate details of its plot and logic have been analyzed within 100+ post IMDB threads and stupefyingly long essays. So, it’s your choice: Spend $7,000 on a film that will make it to Sundance or buy a lot of sandwiches. I like sandwiches but that’s just me.
Like Martin Scorsse, Sundance audiences don’t get behind just any run-of-the-mill indie comedy. When a young Texan by the name of Wes Anderson brought his short Bottle Rocket to the Sundance Shorts competition in 1993, people wanted more. So, he made more. And it was pretty damn good. It’s kind of strange to go back to a pre-gaudy color scheme Anderson, but Bottle Rocket packs all the visual vibrancy Anderson would later discover into his characters and dialog. It’s a true Sundance surprise that wins over its audience with its bookish charm and resourcefulness. Anderson didn’t need Scorsse to champion him but it sure did help.
Steven Soderbergh’s humble debut may be a bit dated now, but the ripples it sent through the film industry continue to be felt to this day. Whether it’s James Spader’s smooth, sexy voice, Peter Gallagher’s hypnotizing eyebrows, or the simple plot about promiscuous couples, Sex, Lies, and Videotape took indie cinema out of the ghetto and into the megaplex with unforeseen success. While Miramax’s sexed-up trailers made a splash in the mainstream, it’s the film’s initial reception at Sundance that set this tidal wave in motion.
You’ll see a running theme as we get to the bottom of this list: All are strong writer-directors with a unique voice. Kevin Smith has become a massive celebrity and, some would argue, megalomaniac in recent years, but it’s not hard to remember a time when he was just some film school dropout with a film for slackers by slackers. There was no market for a film like Clerks in 1994, but Sundance soon proved there was enough room and willingness to build one. Ever since, personal stories of all genres and styles have become welcome entries into the festival. With enough hype and charm, Sundance can bring success to any indie comedy (see also: Little Miss Sunshine).
Sundance is a film festival that loves a strong writer-director who not only has a strong voice on the screen but off-screen as well. No one fits the bill better than Quentin Tarantino, who blew Sundance audiences away with his directorial debut in 1992. Unlike many Sundance hits , QT would follow-up his debut with classic after classic and remained a strong presence at the festival, even when he had no new film to accompany him. When young directors come to Sundance in 2012, they aspire to have an impact as strong and a legacy as long as QT. As audiences, we love to see it happen.