#Sundance40th: 40 Independent Films from 40 Years of Sundance Labs

By Vanessa Zimmer

If not for the Sundance Institute, Quentin Tarantino might not be a household name. And Julia Roberts might never have jetted to leading-lady status. We’ll never know for certain, of course. But the fact is, the nonprofit Institute nurtured the film projects that launched them to widespread notice  — Tarantino as writer-director of Reservoir Dogs and Roberts courtesy of a movie eventually called Pretty Woman.

Both films benefited from filmmaking workshops at the Institute in its first decade of operation: Pretty Woman, then called Three Thousand, in 1988 and Reservoir Dogs in 1991.

Arguably more important, if not for the Institute and its mission to support independent cinema — raw, original ideas developed outside the Hollywood studio system — audiences might not now be watching difficult films about the torment of immigrants, racial prejudice and violence, the soul-wrenching search for sexual identity, the mighty corruption of the innocent, and, yes, love, hate, and the very future of humanity.

Take, for example, Sleep Dealer, a 2008 award-winning film by Alex Rivera. It is a science-fiction story about closed borders, humans whose bodies and minds are exploited through the use of advanced technology, and terrorists who seize and control precious water resources.

As Joanne McNeil wrote in a 2018 article in Filmmaker magazine, “Ever since its 2008 release, Sleep Dealer has offered an uncanny, entirely plausible near future, just a skip ahead of real world events.” 

Forewarned is forearmed, you might say. 

As the Institute celebrates its 40th birthday and commemorates the filmmaking labs it has hosted every year since 1981, we’ve compiled a chronological list of 40 thought-provoking independent projects over that time span, all of which are currently available on streaming platforms.

1. El Norte (1984)

A still from Gregory Nava's film "El Norte."

Teen siblings Enrique and Rosa flee Guatemala after their father is killed and their mother arrested by the government. They survive a perilous journey north only to find themselves struggling to survive on the streets of Los Angeles, constantly in fear of deportation and relying solely on each other as they try to build a new life. The film that Roger Ebert called a modern Grapes of Wrath was developed in a Sundance Institute Directors Lab in 1981. Gregory Nava directed and co-wrote the script with Anna Thomas, and their screenplay received a 1985 Oscar nomination. [WATCH NOW]

2. Old Enough (1984)

Two girls from two extremes of New York City — one from the poor and streetwise side, the other from a well-to-do family — form an unlikely and enlightening friendship. Writer-director Marisa Silver developed the project in a 1982 Directors Lab. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1984 Utah/U.S. Film Festival (precursor to the Sundance Film Festival). [WATCH NOW]

3. A Dry White Season (1989)

A still from "A Dry White Season."

A white schoolteacher in South Africa begins to openly question apartheid when the son of his Black longtime gardener goes missing after participating in a public demonstration. Writer-director Euzhan Palcy went undercover in Soweto to interview South Africans, both white and Black, about conditions. “When I see white people seeing the light, I cry,” Palcy said in a 2020 Vulture interview. “Oh my God. Do you know how long we’ve been fighting for that?” Palcy, one of the first Black women to direct a U.S. studio film, brought this project to the 1985 Directors Lab, and Marlon Brando received an Oscar nomination for his supporting role. [WATCH NOW]

4. Thousand Pieces of Gold (1990)

Her Chinese father sells her to an overseas trader in 1870, and her new husband, a saloon keeper in a remote Idaho mining town, renames her Polly and plans to put her to work as a prostitute. Which all sounds demeaning, cruel, and hopeless — reflecting the status of many Chinese in America long after the government outlawed slavery. But Lalu has a strong will that resists subjugation. Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto worked on the project in the 1987 Directors Lab — read more about their journey with the historical drama, recently restored and rereleased by Kino, here. [WATCH NOW

5. Pretty Woman (1990)

A still from "Pretty Woman."

Believe it or not, this popular Hollywood movie had its roots in the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs in 1988, where J.F. Lawton workshopped his project, then known as Three Thousand — after the $3,000 offered to the sex worker Vivian (Julia Roberts) by a business executive (Richard Gere) to pretend to be his girlfriend for a week. The original story was much darker than the one that finally made it to the big screen: Vivian was a crack addict who returned to the street at the end. [WATCH NOW]

6. Dogfight (1991)

On the eve of the day in 1963 that they are to leave for Vietnam, Eddie and his military friends participate in a bar event called a “dogfight,” a degrading tradition in which the guys compete to bring the ugliest date. But Eddie (River Phoenix) starts to fall for his girl. Bob Comfort brought the project to the 1987 Screenwriters and Directors Labs, and Nancy Savoca ultimately directed the project — released in 1991 — for Warner Brothers. [WATCH NOW]

7. Johnny Suede (1991)

Johnny Suede (Brad Pitt) wants to be a musician like his idol Ricky Nelson. He has the hairstyle and the cool, so when some snazzy black suede shoes fall into his lap, he takes that as a sign. Trouble is, he may be overestimating his own talent and maturity to achieve his dream. Writer-director Tom DiCillo workshopped this film in the 1990 Directors Lab; it later played the 1992 Festival as part of the Dramatic Competition. [WATCH NOW]

8. Crush (1992)

Emotional manipulation is the theme in this study of the relationships among a novelist father, his teenage daughter, and two women who enter their lives after a car crash. One woman, a femme-fatale type, was the driver of the car; the other, the passenger, is left in a coma. The seriously injured woman was en route to an interview with the novelist. Canadian director and co-writer Alison MacLean brought the project to the Sundance labs in 1991; the film later played the 1993 Festival. [WATCH NOW]

9. Reservoir Dogs (1992)

A still from Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs."

A brash young filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino introduced his penchant for graphic violence and dark humor, arguably changing the face of cinema, with his debut feature film. He workshopped it at a Sundance lab in 1991; it eventually played the 1992 Fest — and returned for a screening on its 25th anniversary. Insisting that his next film, his 10th, will be his last, Tarantino said this summer that he considered a remake of Reservoir Dogs as his final film, perhaps with an all-Black cast, but decided against it. He still might turn it into a stage play, however, he told IndieWire. [WATCH NOW]

10. Corrina, Corrina (1994)

Writer-director Jessie Nelson brought Corrina, Corrina to the 1990 Directors Lab. The project tells the story of a white widower (Ray Liotta) who hires a Black nanny/housekeeper (Whoopi Goldberg) to care for his troubled young daughter. Set in the 1950s, the film is about healing, but it also brings into play issues of racial prejudice. [WATCH NOW]

11. Walking and Talking (1996)

Best buds Amelia and Laura maneuver through life, romance, and friendship in this low-key film filled with comfortable, witty, and tender dialogue by writer-director Nicole Holofcener. “Her take on female friendships, idle banter, and telecommunications in the Big City is true,” wrote programmer Andrea Alsberg. “But what makes this film unique is her creation of characters who are so likeable and human that you really want to spend a few hours with them and are sorry to have to leave them at the film’s end.” Catherine Keener and Anne Heche star. The film, developed in 1992 writing and directing labs, was screened at the Festival again on its 10-year anniversary, in 2006. [WATCH NOW]

12. Manny & Lo (1996)

Sisters Amanda, 11, and Laurel, 16, break out of their separate foster homes and go on the run. When Laurel discovers she is pregnant, the two kidnap a shop clerk to help them with the delivery. “Lisa Krueger has crafted a tale with incredible insight into the raw need for family,” wrote then-programmer John Cooper (who later became director of the Sundance Film Festival). “On one level, Manny and Lo is the story of three misfits, but on another, it raises the intriguing question of what constitutes ‘family.’” Krueger worked on the film in the 1994 Directors Lab, and Scarlett Johansson played the youngest sister in the finished film. [WATCH NOW]

13. Cop Land (1997)

A still from James Mangold's "Cop Land."

An aging small-town New Jersey sheriff (Sylvester Stallone) who wants nothing more than to become a New York City police officer takes on a corrupt force. Among a cast that included Harvey Keitel and Robert DeNiro, Stallone drew acclaim for his performance. James Mangold developed the project in 1994 Screenwriters and Directors Labs at the Sundance Institute. [WATCH NOW]

14. Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)

A desperate father (Alan Arkin) shepherds his family from apartment to apartment in the darkness of night, one step ahead of the landlord. Meanwhile, growing up in a family of males, Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) is struggling with teenhood in the 1970s. Enter troubled cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei) and a monetary allowance from Rita’s father — and things can only get worse. Tamara Jenkins workshopped her debut feature at 1995 Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs. [WATCH NOW]

15. The Wood (1999)

It’s six hours to the nuptials, and the groom (Taye Diggs) has gone missing. As his two best friends (Omar Epps and Richard T. Jones) go looking for him, the tale turns into a coming-of-age story of these three young Black men growing up in Inglewood, California. Rick Famuyiwa brought the project through the 1997 Screenwriters and Directors Labs, and he later returned to Sundance with Dope, which played the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. [WATCH NOW]

16. Love and Basketball (2000)

Since they were 11 years old and new next-door neighbors in Los Angeles, it’s been all about basketball — and love. Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) meet on the neighborhood court, eventually become friends — and more. But can their relationship stand the test of the pros? Sundance programmers praised Gina Prince-Bythewood’s debut feature film, which was incubated in our 1998 labs and eventually premiered at the 2000 Festival: “Love and Basketball is cinema romance at its best, emotionally exhilarating and sexy, with absorbing characterizations and fully satisfying, perfectly executed drama.” [WATCH NOW]

17. Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her (2000)

A still from "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her."

The lives of five California women intersect in surprising and unlikely ways, in this first feature film by Rodrigo García, developed in the 1998 labs. “Gently swathed with humor and pathos, Things You Can Tell is a film of uncommon delicacy and resonance,” wrote programmer Rebecca Yeldham. “In his contemplation of solitude and the fragile cloth of interconnectedness, García has created a passionate foray into the depths of human longing and desire.” The ensemble cast includes Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, Amy Brenneman, Kathy Baker, Cameron Diaz, and Calista Flockhart. [WATCH NOW]

18. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

John Cameron Mitchell’s film adaptation of his off-Broadway musical grabbed the director and audience awards at the Festival — and a host of awards at festivals around the globe. “With a sparkling performance by Mitchell as Hansel/Hedwig, a Grammy-nominated soundtrack by Stephen Trask, and beautiful animation sequences by Emily Hubley, Hedwig and the Angry Inch seems destined to take its place beside The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a cult classic for a new generation,” predicted Sundance programmer Shari Frilot. The film was workshopped at 1999 labs. [WATCH NOW]

19. The Motel (2005)

Writer-director Michael Kang brought the darkly comic story of Ernest Chin, 13, a Chinese American boy living and working in his family’s hourly-rate motel through the 2002 labs. Kang said he wanted to explore the rites of passage for the American male, setting the tale in “the worst place” to sort out the issues of growing up. In his Meet the Artist video from the 2005 Festival, where the project had its world premiere, Kang confessed: “I guess the initial inspiration for this film came from my own terrible puberty.” [WATCH NOW]

20. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

The lives of a lonely artist and a newly single father/shoe salesman merge in this debut film by performance artist Miranda July, who also plays one of the leads. “July’s film is a poetic and penetrating observation of how people struggle to connect with one another in an isolating and contemporary world,” wrote Sundance programmer Shari Frilot. The film — a product of our 2003 labs — won a Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the Festival; July has since returned to Park City with The Future in 2011 and Kajillionaire in 2020. [WATCH NOW]

21. Sherrybaby (2006)

A still from "Sherrybaby."

Fresh out of a stretch in prison on drug charges, Sherry is determined to stay clean, find a job, and be a mother to her 5-year-old daughter. Director Laurie Collyer and actress Maggie Gyllenhaal portrayed her excruciating path and, for their work, earned recognition at festivals around the world. “Collyer’s sharply observed characters are brought to indelible life by all-around strong performances, led by Maggie Gyllenhaal’s deeply inhabited Sherry,” wrote Sundance programmer Shari Frilot of the project, which was incubated in the 2001 labs before having its world premiere at the 2006 Fest. [WATCH NOW]

22. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)

Writer-director Dito Montiel workshopped his semi-autobiographical ’80s-set coming-of-age story in the 2004 labs before the finished project played the 2006 Festival. The cast — Rosario Dawson, Robert Downey Jr., Shia LaBoeuf, Chazz Palminteri, Channing Tatum, and Dianne Wiest — captured the Special Jury Prize for Best Ensemble Performance, and Montiel won a directing prize at the Festival. [WATCH NOW]

23. Eagle vs. Shark (2007)

A still from Taika Waititi's "Eagle vs. Shark."

A couple of socially awkward, quirky outsiders negotiate romance in this film by writer-director — and Sundance regular — Taika Waititi. Waititi, whose father is of Māori descent, is a Renaissance man of sorts — actor, artist, writer, director, comedian. A bit of trivia from IMDb: He and Jemaine Clement, who plays one of the leads in this film, met at Victoria University of Wellington, and they later formed a comedy duo known as The Humourbeasts. Waititi brought Eagle vs. Shark through the 2005 labs on its way to the 2007 Festival, and has since gone on to rack up accolades on projects like Jojo Rabbit and Thor: Ragnarok. [WATCH NOW]

24. Sleep Dealer (2008)

Maybe Alex Rivera had a crystal ball when he was developing this science-fiction film in Sundance labs in 2000 and 2001. He and co-writer David Riker imagined a world where private companies hijack water supplies to sell at exorbitant prices and Mexican citizens are exploited remotely via technology. “Sleep Dealer was an early warning that the internet might appear borderless and community oriented, but as a tool, it can be harnessed for the purposes of authoritarianism, bigotry, and exploitation,” according to Joanne McNeil in a 2018 article in Filmmaker magazine. The film won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Festival. [WATCH NOW]

25. Treeless Mountain (2008)

A mother leaves her two young daughters with their cold, indifferent aunt in the rural countryside of South Korea and goes off to search for their father. She promises to return when they have filled their pink plastic piggy bank with coins. Writer-director So Yong Kim developed the film in part in Sundance Institute labs in 2006, and has since returned to Park City with 2012’s For Ellen and 2016’s Lovesong. [WATCH NOW]

26. Cold Souls (2009)

Inspired by a dream in which Woody Allen opens a box containing his soul and finds a chickpea, writer-director Sophie Barthes came up with the idea for a film about removing souls for convenience and profit. Paul Giamatti portrays a version of himself, an actor stressing out over his role in Chekhov’s Vanya, who arranges to have his soul extracted to escape the anxiety. Wrote programmer Caroline Libresco of the 2007 lab project, “(Giamatti) comes to value that happiness isn’t merely the absence of pain, but the integration of the full range of emotion into life.” [WATCH NOW]

27. Pariah (2011)

Torn between the feminine version of herself that her parents expect and the butch version she displays among her friends, Alike, 17, is trying to find her true self. “I was coming out myself at the time,” said writer-director Dee Rees, looking back at the project she brought through the Institute’s labs in 2007 and 2008. “I’m not butch and I’m not femme, so I’d go to the clubs and I’d be kind of invisible.” Rees chose a handheld vérité camera style for the story, a technique that drew an Excellence in Cinematography Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition when the project had its premiere at the 2011 Festival. [WATCH NOW]

28. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

In Sean Durkin’s 2011 Festival feature, Elizabeth Olsen mesmerizes as Martha, who escapes an abusive cult and tries to assimilate back into society. But she is haunted by her experiences and increasingly panicked by the feeling that she is being hunted. “I wanted to tell a story about an intense experience of exploring someone’s guilt and past and things that haunt them,” said Durkin of his debut feature. Durkin, who worked on the project in Sundance labs in 2010, won a Festival directing award for the film. [WATCH NOW]

29. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

A still from "Beasts of the Southern Wild."

Winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Excellence in Cinematography Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2012 Festival, Benh Zeitlin’s debut film centers on Hushpuppy, 6, and her father, Wink, as they scratch out a living in a remote Mississippi Delta community. “When Wink contracts a mysterious illness, nature flies out of whack — temperatures rise, and the ice caps melt, unleashing an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs,” wrote programmer John Nein, who summed up the engaging film succinctly: “Beasts of the Southern Wild exists entirely in its own universe: mythological, anthropological, folkloric, and apocalyptic.” The film benefited in part from 2009 Institute labs for writing, directing, and producing. [WATCH NOW]

30. Drunktown’s Finest (2014)

Set in a beautiful, hypnotizing New Mexican landscape, the Navajo Nation comes alive through the eyes of three Native characters — a father-to-be, a transgender woman who dreams of becoming a model, and a young woman adopted and raised as Christian by a white family. All three are looking for a way out. Sydney Freeland’s feature film debut was inspired by a news story that characterized her hometown of Gallup, New Mexico, as “Drunktown, USA.” She worked the film through Sundance writing, directing, and producing labs in 2010, as well as the 2009 Native Filmmakers Lab. [WATCH NOW]

31. The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)

A still from Marielle Heller's "The Diary of a Teenage Girl."

A bright, lonely teenager named Minnie draws to express herself and makes regular confessions to her tape recorder as she matures during those crazy, psychedelic 1970s. One evening, she finds herself alone with her mother’s boyfriend… and her world changes. Writer-director Marielle Heller, who worked on the project in the Sundance labs in 2012, combined animation and live action to tell this story, winning the Festival’s Special Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography in the process. [WATCH NOW]

32. Swiss Army Man (2016)

When a dead body washes ashore on the deserted island that has become home to hapless Hank, hapless Hank becomes hopeful Hank. He believes the dead man provides him a path back to civilization. Co-writers and co-directors Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, who previously partnered making music videos, turn out a lively, creative debut feature, which earned them a Festival directing award in 2016. They worked on the project in 2014 Sundance labs on screenwriting, directing, producing, and music and sound design. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe star. [WATCH NOW]

33. Spa Night (2016)

A still from "Spa Night."

A young Korean American man takes a job at a spa to help his parents weather the closing of the family restaurant business. There, he begins to explore his sexuality as he discovers a world that is both frightening and exciting. Actor Joe Seo’s portrayal was so nuanced in conveying the young man’s commitment to his traditional family and his own desires that it drew a Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance. Andrew Ahn wrote and directed the film; he took the project through screenwriting and producing labs in 2013. [WATCH NOW]

34. We the Animals (2018)

Three brothers grow up in a volatile household. Two become just like their father. The youngest, a dreamer, imagines a world of his own making. Director Jeremiah Zagar, who was formerly known for his documentary films, impressed Festival juries with a dash of animation and magical realism, earning a NEXT Innovator Prize for his adaptation of Justin Torres’ novel. The film benefited in part from 2014 labs on writing, directing, and producing. [WATCH NOW]

35. Little Woods (2018)

A still from Nia DaCosta's "Little Woods."

In this modern-day western set on the border between the U.S. and Canada, two sisters stray outside the law in an attempt to ease their struggles during an economic downturn. DaCosta — who has since gone on to direct this year’s Candyman remake — developed the project in part with the aid of Sundance Institute labs and grants between 2015 and 2017. She actually met two actors who became part of the powerful Little Woods cast — Tessa Thompson and Luke Kirby — while all three were attending a Directors Lab. [WATCH NOW]

36. Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Telemarketer Cassius Green (LaKeith Stanfield) discovers a magical power of salesmanship inside himself, in this witty, fantastical film backed by a funky soundtrack and a score by Tune-Yards. “Writer-director Boots Riley pulls no punches in this immensely intelligent comedy about overcoming your perception of your own powers of persuasion,” wrote programmer Shari Frilot, of the project, which went through our labs in 2015 and 2016. “Sorry to Bother You is a sparkling debut feature that surfs a macabre universe with a disturbing likeness to our own.” [WATCH NOW]

37. The Mustang (2019)

A still from "The Mustang."

A hardened prisoner in a Nevada maximum security prison enrolls in a rehabilitation program that will teach him to train wild mustangs. As he works with an equally hardened and ornery mustang, could he also be taming the beast within himself? Matthias Schoenaerts stars; Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre directed and co-wrote the script, bringing it through our screenwriting, directing, producing, and music and sound design labs in 2015. [WATCH NOW]

38. Bull (2019)

Kris, a teen headed down the path of delinquency, and her neighbor, Abe, an aging former bull rider eking out a living as a rodeo clown, are thrown together when Kris trashes his house.  Director Annie Silverstein and co-writer Johnny McAllister developed this film in part in labs in 2016 at the Sundance Institute; the finished film eventually screened at Cannes as part of the Un Certain Regard section in 2019. [WATCH NOW]

39. Selah and the Spades (2019)

A still from "Selah and the Spades."

Selah Summers, 17, leads the dominant faction of the student body at a prestigious Pennsylvania boarding school. As tensions among the five “ruling” factions grow and feeling increasingly threatened by her new protégée, Selah struggles with losing control — and losing herself. Writer-director Tayarisha Poe, who participated in multiple labs in 2017, made her feature debut with this film. Poe revealed in a 2020 interview with the Sundance Institute that she originally cast Lovie Simone as the protege Paloma, but it quickly became clear that Simone had to be Selah. [WATCH NOW]

40. The 40-Year-Old Version (2020)

Radha Blank proves herself a triple threat, writing, directing, and starring as a once-promising-but-still-struggling playwright as she faces the big 4-0. She turns to an old passion — rapping — and finds new energy and fulfillment. But then as interest in producing her play heightens, she puts her musical project on hold to negotiate the myriad compromises demanded to put her play on the stage. Blank, who went through writing, directing, and producing labs in 2017, won the directing award in the Festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition in 2020 with this black-and-white film. [WATCH NOW]

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