The Ultimate Sundance Watchlist: A Film to Stream for Every Year of the Festival, Starting in 1985

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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.'

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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 (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 here.)

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.


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. WATCH NOW.


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 told The San Francisco Chronicle around the time the film premiered in Park City at the 1986 Festival. WATCH NOW.


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 Tim Hunter ’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. WATCH NOW.


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! WATCH NOW.


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?!’” WATCH NOW.


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. WATCH NOW.


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.


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). WATCH NOW..


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. WATCH NOW.


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 raised in. WATCH NOW.


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.” WATCH NOW.


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.” WATCH NOW.


“Scrappy, raw, and quaintly unpretentious, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore 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 called 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. WATCH NOW.

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 Merendino ’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. WATCH NOW.


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). WATCH NOW.


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. WATCH NOW.


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 history. WATCH NOW.


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.

2004: D.E.B.S.

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. WATCH NOW.


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, and massive Matrix-style digital effects and action sequences.” WATCH NOW.


Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen reinvented himself with his eighth studio album, 1988’s I’m Your Man; two decades later, filmmaker 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. WATCH NOW.


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. WATCH NOW.


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 Zealand writer/director 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.

2009: MOON

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 special effects.” WATCH NOW.

2010: BOY

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.


“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 Gun Hill Road premiered at the 2011 Festival. Green has since returned to Park City with 2019’s Premature. WATCH NOW.


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 Award: Documentary. WATCH NOW.


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. WATCH NOW.


“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 results.” WATCH NOW.


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." WATCH NOW.

2016: NUTS!

If you’re unfamiliar with the twisted tale of controversial doctor and radio magnate John R. Brinkley, documentary filmmaker Penny Lane (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. WATCH NOW.


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. WATCH NOW.


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. WATCH NOW.


Awkwafina (center) stars in Lulu Wang's acclaimed second feature, 'The Farewell.'

Lulu Wang wowed Festival audiences with her second feature, The Farewell , 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.” WATCH NOW.


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. WATCH NOW.


Lead photo:

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.'