Clockwise from top left: ‘Daughters of the Dust,’ ‘Stranger than Paradise,’ ‘River’s Edge,’ ‘Parting Glances,’ ‘Real Women Have Curves,’ ‘Boy,’ ‘But I’m a Cheerleader,’ and ‘Crip Camp.’
By Virginia Yapp
THE SUNDANCE INSTITUTE IS NOW ON LETTERBOXD! Follow us on the social media platform for more Festival-related watchlists and exclusive content.
For those of us who really, really love movies, there’s nothing quite
like the experience of watching a film flicker to life on a big screen
in the company of a captive (and captivated) audience. However, these
are strange times, and as we adjust to the reality that it may be a
while before we’re able to file into theaters once again, we’ve been
finding new ways to commune with our fellow cinephiles.
We’ve been encouraging you to join us on Sundance Co//ab
(where we’ve got free master classes, webinars, and an online community
you can learn from wherever you are), interviewing artists, and beefing
up the “now playing” section of Sundance.org (on that note, make sure
to check out a big batch of
streaming picks from our Sundance Film Festival programmers).
Our latest watchlist is 40 years in the making: We dug into our archives and scoured streaming services to offer up a streaming feature film pick for every edition of the Sundance Film Festival, starting in 1985. (That’s the year Sundance Institute, founded in 1981, assumed
operations of the Utah/U.S. Film Festival. Check the Festival timeline
The films we’ve selected represent the continuing story of the Festival as well as the wide range of trailblazing artists we support here at the Institute. Keep reading for streaming picks, words from
programmers past and present, and a bit of Festival history along the way.
1985: STRANGER THAN PARADISE
From left: ‘Stranger than Paradise’ actors John Lurie, Eszter Balint, and Richard Edson
Jim Jarmusch’s breakthrough feature about a cynical New Yorker who gets an unexpected visit from his Hungarian cousin premiered in Park City in 1985 and won a Special Jury Prize. Shot in black and white, Stranger Than Paradise stood out from the get-go for its style, structure, and deadpan humor. It’s since made such an impact in the world of independent film that we brought it back to the Festival in 2005 for a 20th-anniversary screening.
1986: PARTING GLANCES
Bill Sherwood’s landmark LGBTQ+ film paints a portrait of a
relationship between two men in Manhattan at the height of the AIDS
epidemic. Shot on a budget of around $300,000, the project was lauded for
bucking established conventions when it came to portraying gay
characters onscreen. “[Gay characters in Hollywood films] always take an
hour to touch, and when they do, the entire audience screams,” Sherwood
The San Francisco Chronicle around the time the film premiered in
Park City at the 1986 Festival.
1987: RIVER’S EDGE
Keanu Reeves stars in Tim Hunter’s 1987 Sundance Film Festival drama ‘River’s Edge.’
The Festival has screened a wide range of rich coming-of-age
stories over the years, and perhaps one of the best known is
’s 1987 drama
River’s Edge. Set in Northern California and written
by screenwriter Neal Jimenez, the film stars Crispin Glover, Keanu
Reeves, and Ione Skye as a group of high schoolers whose world is
upended when one of their friends commits a horrific crime.
Before he brought his debut feature, Tapeheads, to the Egyptian
Theatre at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival,
Bill Fishman was known for directing music videos by artists like The Ramones and Suicidal Tendencies. Who better, then, to helm an offbeat comedy about two childhood friends who start their own music video production company? The film was produced by none other than Michael Nesmith of The Monkees, and if you look closely, you’ll spot cameos from Jello Biafra, Stiv Bators, Weird Al, Doug E. Fresh … the
list goes on. Long live the Swanky Modes!
1989: MIKEY AND NICKY
John Cassavetes and Peter Falk star in Elaine May’s ‘Mikey and Nicky.’
No, we’re not cheating: Elaine May’s 1976 film about a pair of desperate gangsters screened at the 1989 Festival as part of a John Cassavetes
retrospective. Here’s some history
from the ’89 Festival guide: “May’s script and direction seem so deeply
influenced by Cassavetes that viewers may be forgiven for forgetting
that this is not Cassavetes’s own film. However, reviewers who were put
off by its intensity can’t be forgiven for spreading the unfounded rumor
that the film was largely improvised. Peter Falk reacted with a rare
flash of anger to this idea, saying, ‘They think you can improvise work
like that?! What are they, crazy?!’”
Whit Stillman was 38 years old when he brought his debut feature—Metropolitan—to the 1990 Festival. Made on a shoestring budget, the project was filmed in New York City and follows the adventures of the self-proclaimed Sally Fowler Rat Pack, a group of well-to-do young Manhattanites. The film was later nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
1991: DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST
Julie Dash’s ‘Daughters of the Dust’ had its world premiere at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival.
At the 1991 Festival, Julie Dash’s acclaimed film about Gullah women living on the Sea Islands in the early 1900s won the
Excellence in Cinematography Award. “I wanted to tell a story that was
authentic to African American culture—authentic to the point where it
was not like something you could turn on the television and see,”
Dash told us back in 2012 when Sundance Collection presented a restored version of the project. WATCH NOW.
1992: GAS FOOD LODGING
As programmer Geoff Gilmore noted at the time, the term “women’s film” has frequently been used by critics to diminish and pigeonhole rich, complex stories like Gas Food Lodging, filmmaker Allison Anders’s sophomore feature set in small-town New Mexico. While
it’s loosely based on Richard Peck’s 1972 novel
Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt, Anders made the story her own, injecting plenty of personal touches into the tale of a single mother (Brooke Adams) who works as a waitress while raising two headstrong teenage daughters (Fairuza Balk and Ione Skye).
1993: FEAR OF A BLACK HAT
Rusty Cundieff’s wickedly funny mockumentary on the hip-hop world
follows a sociologist (played by none other than Kasi Lemmons, director
of films like
The Caveman’s Valentine) as she interviews
members of a fictional group called N.W.H.—featuring Ice Cold, Tasty
Taste, and Tone Def—for her grad-school thesis. The project, nicknamed
“Spinal Rap,” was part of the
Festival’s second-ever Midnight lineup.
1994: RIVER OF GRASS
Larry Fessenden and Lisa Bowman star in Kelly Reichardt’s debut feature, ‘River of Grass.’
Kelly Reichardt has brought several features to the Festival over the years, starting with her 1994 debut,
River of Grass, a
film she and her team have described as “a road movie without the road,
a love story without the love, a crime story without the crime.” “The
place is as important as any character in the film,” said the
then–29-year-old filmmaker, talking about her decision to shoot the film
about a couple on the lam from the law in the state she was born and
1995: DOUBLE HAPPINESS
Mina Shum was only 28 when she began working on
Double Happiness, a semi-autobiographical story about a young Chinese
Canadian woman (Sandra Oh) who finds herself frustrated by the stereotypical roles she’s offered as an aspiring
actress. “It isn’t that she can’t stand her family
and she’s got to run away from them,” Shum explained of her character’s internal conflict back in 1995. “It’s that
she wants to find double happiness and negotiate those two lives.
That’s where the pain comes from.”
1996: WALKING AND TALKING
Catherine Keener and Anne Heche in 1996’s ‘Walking and Talking.’
Nicole Holofcener brought her debut feature, Walking and Talking,
through Sundance Institute’s Screenwriters and Directors Labs in 1992. “Her take
on female friendships, idle banter, and telecommunications in the Big
City is true,” wrote former Festival 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 film’s end.”
1997: MARY JANE’S NOT A VIRGIN ANYMORE
“Scrappy, raw, and quaintly unpretentious, Mary Jane’s Not a
surveys the punk universe of a small midwestern town with
none of the usual shock-value expectations,” wrote former Festival
programmer Rebecca Yeldham when
Sarah Jacobson’s lovingly made lo-fi
feature premiered in Park City in 1997. Long available solely via VHS
rips circulating around the internet, the film finally got
a proper DVD release last year thanks to the folks at AGFA. WATCH NOW.
At the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, a 26-year-old director named
Jennifer Leitzes brought her debut feature, a farcical crime caper
Montana, to Park City. With an ace cast that includes Kyra
Sedgwick, Stanley Tucci, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, it’s not surprising
the film generated major buzz at the Festival in ’98.
1999: SLC PUNK!
Jason Segel and Matthew Lillard star in the Utah-set film ‘SLC Punk!’
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include Beehive State filmmaker James
’s semi-autobiographical cult classic SLC Punk! on our list.
Set in Salt Lake City in the ’80s, the film made the perfect
opening-night selection at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, thanks to promising performances by
up-and-coming actors like Matthew Lillard and Jason Segel.
2000: BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER
Clea DuVal and Natasha Lyonne in the cult comedy ‘But I’m a Cheerleader.’
“Jamie Babbit’s debut feature is a raucous satire that turns up
the volume on the absurdity of ‘curing’ homosexuality,” wrote programmer
Shari Frilot when
But I’m a Cheerleader screened at the 2000 Festival
as part of our Midnight lineup. The campy comedy about a
cheerleader (Natasha Lyonne) who’s sent to a conversion camp by her
parents has since become a cult classic (not to mention a formative film
for many of us LGBTQ+ millennials and Gen X’ers).
2001: HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
It’s hard to believe nearly 20 years have passed since John Cameron Mitchell brought Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an adaptation of the hit off-Broadway play, to Park City. That year, Mitchell—who had brought the project through the 1999 Screenwriters and Directors Labs—took home the Audience Award: Dramatic as well as the Directing Award: Dramatic.
2002: Y TU MAMÁ TAMBIÉN
From left: Actors Gael García Bernal, Maribel Verdú, and Diego Luna
Award-winning Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón arrived in Park City in 2002 with Y Tu Mamá También, a road film he co-wrote with his brother Carlos that stars Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. The film screened at the Festival as a special presentation; at the time, it had already become one of the highest-grossing films in Mexican
2003: REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES
After bringing a short, Cartas al Niño Dios, to the Festival in the early ’90s,
Patricia Cardoso returned in 2003 with her feature Real Women Have Curves. The coming-of-age project starring America Ferrera won the Audience Award: Dramatic and a Special Jury Prize for Acting at the Festival, and it made history late last year when it became the first film by a Latina director to be added to the National Film Registry. WATCH NOW.
Angela Robinson’s 2004 feature ‘D.E.B.S.’ was based on a short Robinson brought to the 2003 Festival.
“Action chick flicks such as Charlie’s Angels are infamous for
lesbian innuendo, but
D.E.B.S. delivers full throttle on this
tantalizing promise,” wrote Frilot (now chief curator
of New Frontier) when the project premiered at the Festival in 2004. The
project was the debut feature of
Angela Robinson, who was
expanding on her short of the same title that played the
Festival a year earlier.
2005: KUNG FU HUSTLE
Stephen Chow wrote, directed, and starred in Kung Fu Hustle, a
singular martial-arts-filled action-comedy that had its U.S. premiere at the 2005 Festival. Take it from Frilot: “With sweeping visual scope, Chow seamlessly integrates a
perfectly timed comedic narrative with homages to old western
showdowns, Roadrunner-style chase scenes, grand tuxedoed dance numbers,
Matrix-style digital effects and action sequences.” WATCH NOW.
2006: LEONARD COHEN: I’M YOUR MAN
Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen reinvented
himself with his eighth studio album, 1988’s
I’m Your Man; two decades later,
Lian Lunson made a concert film of Cohen performing the album at the Sydney Opera House. “Woven throughout are evocative
performances of Cohen’s repertoire by illustrious crooning admirers,
including Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, and the McGarrigle
Sisters; the film’s surprise musical finale is well worth waiting for,”
wrote former Festival programmer Caroline Libresco.
2007: STRANGE CULTURE
Back in 2007, Lynn Hershman Leeson brought Strange Culture to
Park City for its world premiere. Her multilayered documentary—which
features Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan in scenes that dramatically
reenact real-life events—examines the case of artist and professor Steve
Kurtz, who was detained in 2004 on charges of bioterrorism after his
wife died of natural causes and medics reported their suspicions about
Kurtz’s art supplies to authorities.
2008: SUNSHINE CLEANING
Amy Adams and Emily Blunt star in the 2002 Sundance Film Festival selection ‘Sunshine Cleaning.’
After bringing her debut feature, Rain, to the 2002 Festival, New
Christine Jeffs returned with Sunshine Cleaning, a comedy-drama about two sisters who decide to found a rather unusual family business: cleaning up crime scenes. “This is a classic American tale, both in the sisters’ quest for social mobility and their relentless pursuit of individual dreams,” wrote Geoff Gilmore, then Festival director, in our 2008 program. “Sunshine Cleaning is delightful independent filmmaking that depicts the desires of ordinary people in an extraordinary way.” WATCH NOW.
After spending three incredibly solitary years on the moon,
astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is starting to mentally unravel.
That’s the premise of director
Duncan Jones’s 2009 Sundance sci-fi selection,
Moon, a film that programmer John Nein described as “a refreshingly
philosophical and ultimately touching indie inflection on a genre that
too often loses sight of character and story amid the wizardry of its
Sundance Institute alum Taika Waititi directed (and appears in) ‘Boy.’
New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi has ties to Sundance Institute that
go way back. His feature
Boy came through our Screenwriters Lab in 2005 and was complete in time for the 2010 Festival (Waititi was busy making his 2007 comedy Eagle vs Shark, another Festival selection, in the interim). The film—based on Waititi’s Oscar-winning Sundance short Two Cars One Night—centers around two imaginative young boys who are surprised by the return of their long-gone father, who’s not exactly who they imagined him to be. WATCH NOW.
2011: GUN HILL ROAD
“Writer/director Rashaad Ernesto Green’s first feature film is a
complex family drama, told with gentle humor, sensitivity, and a deep
understanding of the environment that defines its inhabitants,” wrote
programmer Kim Yutani (currently the Festival’s director of programming) when
premiered at the 2011 Festival. Green has since returned to Park
City with 2019’s
Premature. WATCH NOW.
2012: SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN
Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary—the
opening-night selection at the 2012 Festival—will take you around the
world. It follows two ardent fans from South Africa as they attempt to
find out what happened to Sixto Rodriguez, an American
musician who had seemingly disappeared decades earlier. The
project won a World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize for
Celebration of the Artistic Spirit as well as a World Cinema Audience
2013: CUTIE AND THE BOXER
Artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara in the 2013 documentary ‘Cutie and the Boxer.’
“Zachary Heinzerling’s remarkable debut is an indelible portrait
of art, companionship, and the 40-year love story between Ushio and
Noriko Shinohara, two Japanese artists who meet and marry in New York in
the early 1970s,” wrote senior programmer John Nein when the
documentary premiered at the 2013 Festival.
2014: THE ONE I LOVE
“In acclaimed author Charlie McDowell’s highly original
directorial debut, Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass deliver delightfully
wry and engaging performances as a couple on the verge of dissolution,”
wrote Festival programmer Adam Montgomery in our 2014 Festival program.
“McDowell injects his distinct, comedic voice into this uncanny
exploration of the human relationship—with welcomingly unpredictable
2015: THE WITCH
Anya Taylor-Joy stars in Robert Eggers’s 2015 Midnight selection ‘The Witch.’
If you’re in the mood for horror, look no further than this not-so-puritanical
tale of a Puritan family who encounters something spooky in the woods
that surround their isolated farmhouse.
Robert Eggers, who won the Directing
Award: U.S. Dramatic, has said that he took a lot of inspiration from
his childhood in New Hampshire: “If you grew up in New
England, New England’s past becomes a part of your consciousness.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the twisted tale of controversial doctor and radio magnate John R. Brinkley, documentary filmmaker
(who also helmed the 2019 Festival selection Hail Satan?) can fix
that for you. The largely animated
Nuts! delves deep into Brinkley’s, uh,
creative solutions for curing male impotence in the late 1910s and
early 1920s, as well as his eventual fall from grace.
Nuts! was awarded a
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing at the 2016 Festival.
- FROM THE ARCHIVES: Why We Chose to Self-Release ‘NUTS!,’ a Film About Goat Testicles and So Much More
2017: BEACH RATS
In 2017, Eliza Hittman brought ‘Beach Rats’ to the Sundance Film Festival.
If you loved Eliza Hittman’s 2020 Festival film Never Rarely Sometimes Always, we hope you’ve seen Beach Rats. The film centers on
Frankie, a Brooklyn teenager who finds a respite from his miserable home life via flirtations (and eventually hookups) with men he meets online. Wrote senior programmer David Courier, “With a smoldering lead performance from newcomer Harris Dickinson, this exquisitely crafted, scrupulously authentic, dark, and dangerous film propels Eliza Hittman into a league with the greats.” Festival jurors agreed, awarding Hittman with the Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic.
- RELATED: We Talked to the ‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’ Producers About Shifting the Film’s Release to VOD
2018: WE THE ANIMALS
Jeremiah Zager’s stunning 2018 NEXT
selection about three troubled young brothers who are more or less left
to their own devices in their upstate New York home is an adaptation of
Justin Torres’s 2011 novel of the same name. Zagar brought the project—a
dreamlike but haunting blend of grainy 16mm and colored-pencil
animation—through our 2014 Screenwriters and Directors Labs.
2019: THE FAREWELL
Awkwafina (center) stars in Lulu Wang’s acclaimed second feature, ‘The Farewell.’
Lulu Wang wowed Festival audiences with her second feature, The
, a deeply personal cross-cultural story that went on to win
Best Feature and Best Supporting Female at
the 2020 Independent Spirit Awards. Here’s what programmer Heidi
Zwicker had to say in the Festival program: “A heartfelt
celebration of both the way we perform family and the way we live it,
The Farewell masterfully interweaves a gently humorous depiction of the
good lie in action with a thoughtful exploration of how our cultural
heritage does and does not travel with us when we leave our homes.”
2020: CRIP CAMP
Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s ‘Crip Camp’ opened the 2020 Festival.
Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s vital documentary that
chronicles the birth of the disability rights movement back in the ’70s
opened the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on an inspiring note.
At the film’s premiere, LeBrecht called the film “a hidden story and a
story that I didn’t want to be lost to history,” and clearly the film
resonated with Festivalgoers: Crip Camp took home our Audience Award:
U.S. Documentary at the awards ceremony.