Every festival is accompanied by the rush to proclaim new and important trendsetters. Some of them fade from memory, but some enter the cultural consciousness. The movies below all screened at the Sundance Film Festival—and then went on to reshape the landscape of cinema.
1. An Inconvenient Truth
The rare eco-activist doc to reach a wide audience (and presumably make a real-world difference), Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore’s documentary lecture also paved the way for a continuing wave of celebrity-endorsed and -narrated eco-activist docs.
2. Capturing the Friedmans
Andrew Jarecki’s riveting portrait of a Long Island family with dark secrets and a penchant for self-documentation tipped off countless filmmakers to the potential of home movies (their own and others’) as source material.
The myth of the credit-card indie is a powerful one. Before Clerks there was Richard Linklater’s Slacker, made on a comparable shoestring, and after it, there was Tarnation, cobbled together on iMovie for $200. But it was Kevin Smith’s potty-mouthed gabfest, with its crude, no-frills aesthetic, that did the most to promote the idea that anyone could make a movie.
4. Reservoir Dogs
Not least because the hallmarks of a Quentin Tarantino film are so readily identifiable—stylized ultra-violence, retro soundtrack, characters who love pop-culture references and the sound of their own voices—this iconic debut spawned a litter of copycat productions, almost all of which matched QT’s self-regard but not his talent.
5. Roger and Me
Roger and Me took on General Motors, American politics and made a star of Michael Moore. It also changed the way documentaries were made—and watched. Moore brought a dark humor to current events—giving birth to docutainment and setting box office records for a documentary at the time.
6. sex, lies and videotape
Steven Soderbergh’s debut looms over Sundance as The Movie That Changed Everything. Not so much cinematically—as an expression of numb Reagan/Bush-period alienation, it always seemed to mark the end of an era more than than the start of a new one. But it did inaugurate the Sundance boom, creating a casino mentality around festival acquisitions.
7. Stranger Than Paradise
Jim Jarmusch’s breakthrough film had already won a prize at Cannes and played the New York Film Festival by the time it got to Park City, and the movie itself is too eccentric to have inspired many outright imitators. But its quirky characters, ironic tone and self-conscious hipness add up to a working definition of indie as we now know it.
8. The Blair Witch Project
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s landmark stunt is a scary and suggestive experiment in first-person verite and off-screen space. It took a while to incubate, but the shaky-camcorder perspective has become as ubiquitous as video cameras in recent years, in movies like Cloverfield, Res, Redacted and Diary of the Dead.
9. The Usual Suspects
Bryan Singer’s convoluted neo-noir certainly didn’t invent narrative gamesmanship, but with its big gotcha ending, it made twisty puzzle movies (Pi, The Sixth Sense, Memento) fashionable for the next few years.
10. Welcome to the Dollhouse
This depiction of junior high as hell on earth introduced viewers to the pitiless universe of Todd Solondz, where some see candor and others cruelty. Thanks to Solondz and fellow mid-’90s festival alumni Neil LaBute and Terry Zwigoff, psychological violence soon became as popular as physical violence among American indies.
See what other impacts Sundance has had—these 10 actors stepped behind the lens to become directors.