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Celebrate These Films With July Anniversaries: From “Pi” to “Garden State”

Black man with tear-filled eyes sitting in what appears to be a pew, a woman with long, blond hair sitting behind him

Terrence Howard earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in Hustle & Flow.

By Vanessa Zimmer

July truly is a month for independents. Pun intended.

Not only is this the birthday month of the Sundance Film Festival’s Pi, which signaled the arrival of Darren Aronofsky, who went on to direct such impactful works as Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan — it also welcomed to the world Hustle & Flow, for which Terrence Howard’s turn as a pimp-turned-rapper attracted an Oscar nomination. 

As if that isn’t enough, July is the anniversary of the release of a found-footage film that shook up the horror genre, a classic animated film for both kids and grown-ups, a dynamic satire on “curing” homosexuality, and the feature directorial debut of Zach Braff. Wow, talk about independent films that were felt across our nation — not like the neighbor’s midnight fireworks show in the driveway, but in a way that resonates for decades. 

These six Sundance Film Festival alums deserve your oohs and aahs.

The Brave Little Toaster (1987) — The Brave Little Toaster and his somewhat-dated appliance friends set off on a journey to the city to find their young master, who has apparently abandoned them in a cabin in the woods. Based on a Thomas M. Disch novella and directed by Jerry Rees, this animated film dishes out entertainment pleasing to children and adults alike, with fun, creative songs and themes that touch on loneliness and abandonment. The film earned Special Jury Recognition at the Festival.

Pi (1998) — A troubled mathematician (Sean Gullette) doggedly pursues the discovery of the formula to order and perfection in both the physical and spiritual worlds. Of course, that search attracts others who want to cash in on the find, financially and/or for religious reasons. “Without expensive special effects, Pi instead uses innovative cinematography and perfectly conceived music to construct both the paranoid world and fanatical fascination of one man’s quest for absolute knowledge,” Trevor Groth wrote in the Festival Film Guide. “[Director Darren] Aronofsky has masterfully fused mathematics and theology to create an eerie sci-fi world lying somewhere between Stanley Kubrick and Rod Serling.” Aronofsky won the Festival’s Directing Award. Available on Pluto TV.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) — Three student filmmakers venture into remote Maryland in search of the fabled Blair Witch. They disappear without a trace — until their footage is found a year later. “Brilliantly blurring the lines between fact and fiction, The Blair Witch Project redefines the horror genre with sheer cinematic ingenuity, urgency, and invention,” wrote Rebecca Yeldham in the Festival Film Guide. “Deftly building suspense through sound, visuals, and performances of unparalleled realism, The Blair Witch Project‘s violence is psychological, not physical; nary a drop of blood is spackled on screen.” Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wrote and directed. Available on HBO Max.

But I’m a Cheerleader (2000) — Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is an outstanding student and popular cheerleader. Plus, she dates the captain of the football team. But her parents start seeing “signs,” like the swimsuit photos in her locker and an aversion to kissing her boyfriend, and ship her off to lesbian rehab camp. There, an ex-gay guide (Rupaul) and the cruel camp master (Cathy Moriarty) will “cure” her. “(Director Jamie) Babbit employs a highly stylized production design that mocks the sexually engendered qualities of pink, blue, and the rainbow of colors in between,” wrote Shari Frilot in the Festival Film Guide. “Wonderful performances by Lyonne, [Clea] DuVall, and a larger-than-life Moriarty top off a smartly conceived comedy that packs a wicked punch.” Available on Peacock Premium, Hoopla, Vudu, The Roku Channel, and Kanopy.

Garden State (2004) — Zach Braff wrote, directed, and starred in Garden State. He plays Andrew Largeman, who returns to his hometown for the funeral of his mother. He also chooses the same time period to go off his heavy dosage of antidepressants. Changes are in store, including a looming confrontation with his psychologist father and a potential relationship with the troubled Sam (Natalie Portman). “Comedy is hard to pull off,” Geoffrey Gilmore wrote in the Festival Film Guide. “Only the exceptionally talented can prompt laughter while also provoking those deep feelings within us for the human frailty on the screen. Garden State is that kind of rare film.” Available for rent. 

Hustle and Flow (2005) — Terrence Howard portrays Djay, a pimp suffering a midlife crisis who sets his sights on becoming a successful rapper. Howard was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and the film itself nabbed the Audience Award and the Excellence in Cinematography Award, both in the U.S. drama category at the Festival. “With elements you don’t anticipate and characters that play against stereotype, Hustle & Flow is a masterful reframing of the world that creates hip-hop and a succinct and humanizing portrait of the wellspring of contemporary music,” Geoffrey Gilmore wrote in the Festival Film Guide. The film won an Oscar for the song “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” Available to rent.

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From the Archives: Sundance Founder Robert Redford on Why He’s Always Believed in the Power of Documentary Filmmaking

The Sundance Film Festival’s longstanding commitment to documentary has been driven by the personal connection founder and president Robert Redford feels for the form. Leading up to the premiere of Chicago 10, the second doc to ever open the Festival, we talked to Redford about the past, present, and possible future of documentaries.You made an early commitment to documentary.

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