Why the 2003 Sundance Film Festival Was the Best Ever

A man and a woman stand at a podium that says: Sundance 2003"

[Above: Maggie Gyllenhaal and Steve Zahn host the 2003 Sundance Film Festival Awards] 

By Stephanie Ornelas 

We here at the Sundance Institute have been thinking about our past a lot and realized that it’s pretty darn easy to make the case for every single Sundance Film Festival earning the title of Best Ever. So, as we dig in for the upcoming 2023 Festival, we’ve decided to fight it out in a new series highlighting the tops of each iteration of our indie celebration. 

Check out our next installment here, starting with the Festival 20 years ago, when 250 films were screened in Park City, Utah, theaters. This included features, documentaries, shorts, and indie episodics. 

One thing is certain — 2003 was a big year for Sundance Institute. Festivalgoers flocked to Park City to see a stellar lineup of premieres. Unusually warm weather attracted record attendance, making it easier for more artists, actors, and audience members (especially the ones from Los Angeles, California) to head to the mountain and venture throughout mainstreet. Those who came expecting highs in the 30s and lows close to zero degrees were pleasantly surprised. 

A vibrant colored posted that shows a hand holding an egg. It reads: The 2003 Sundance Film Festival

As we gear up to return to Utah for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, we’re reliving moments from past Festivals to remind us just how special it truly is to be able to gather in person once again. Whether they’re small gems or massive milestones, these flashbacks help remind us that, while independent cinema has certainly evolved, the passion for celebrating the art hasn’t really changed — even after 20 years.    

Use this timeline to take a stroll down memory lane back to the 2003 Sundance Film Festival when Tom McCarthy nabbed three awards for The Station Agent, Lauren Lazin presented a new kind of documentary, and the altitude was just a little too much for Paul Giamatti.    

— January 17, 2003  

               People I Know premieres at Eccles Center in Park City 

In Daniel Algrant’s film, Al Pacino plays a burnt-out publicist who hopes to restore his reputation with a big benefit event. Pacino traveled to Utah for the screening on January 17, just a few years after visiting the mountain to see A Walk on the Moon, which he also stars in.  

“I was here about four years ago, so I feel like I’m on familiar ground,” says Pacino in an interview in Park City. “It’s great to be here. I like what this place does. I like what Robert Redford has done here very much and I’m very happy to be here.”  

— January 17, 2003  

               Audience members see Ed Solomon’s Levity, starring Morgan Freeman  

Three people - a man with a black coat, a woman with long blonde hair, and a tall man with sundglasses, a hat, and coat, stand in front of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival poster
Ed Solomon, Holly Hunter, and Morgan Freeman at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival

Freeman and Solomon journeyed to the 2003 Sundance Film Festival for the screening of Levity, which Freeman stars in alongside Billy Bob Thornton. And while Freeman was expecting harsher weather, Solomon hoped to use the altitude to his advantage. 

“I thought it was going to be a lot colder and it isn’t. As a matter of fact, it’s almost balmy outside,” says Freeman in an interview with YouTuber Robbie Proulx. “Now, we all may pay for that tomorrow, but right now, I’m happy.” 

As for Solomon, who directed the film, he jokes in that same interview, “Hopefully the altitude here will make everybody slightly lightheaded and therefore they’ll like the film more. That’s my goal.” 

— January 18, 2003  

               Macaulay Culkin returns to New York in Party Monster

A young man sits at his desk with his finger to his chin as he writes on a paper.It was also 20 years ago that viewers saw Macaulay Culkin in New York once again for Party Monster. Only this time, instead of playing a prankster kid left behind during the holidays, Culkin stars as infamous party promoter and convicted killer Michael Alig alongside Seth Green. The two actors journeyed to the mountain to promote the film — and definitely not to participate in the outdoor activities Park City is known for. 

“I’m not much of a skier. There’s something so wrong with going down a hill with sticks on your feet and sticks in your hands. You’re just asking for trouble,” Culkin laughs in an interview at the Festival. “So, I don’t think I’ll be doing much of that, but we’ll see.” 

Meanwhile, Green ecstatically talks about them wanting to savor every moment with the help of their disposable cameras. “Macaulay and I, we’re documenting the whole thing and we decided we’re going to photograph everything and put together our Sundance scrapbook.”    

— January 18, 2003

               A new coming-of-age classic 

It was 20 years ago today that the world was introduced to Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham. Her film became a cultural phenomenon throughout the early 2000s as it explored Indian culture, life as a young athlete, and balancing family expectations.     

A group of teen soccer players surround a their teammate as they help her with her saree.In an interview just two years ago with ET Canada, Chadha looks back at the meaning behind her film and explains, “people think it’s about soccer and a comedy, but at its core, it’s really about racism and what the first generation — the immigrant generation has suffered. And they try to protect their kids but the kids have to go out and find their own way.” 

— January 19, 2003  

               Tom McCarthy makes his directorial debut with The Station Agent

Three men stand next to eachother with their arms on eachothers shoulders smiling at the camera
Tom Mccarthy, Bobby Cannavale, and Peter Dinklage at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival.

This 2003 Festival screening was McCarthy’s first project as a director and over the next twenty years, he would go on to direct a slew of films — three of which premiered at later Sundance Film Festivals: The Visitor (2008 Sundance Film Festival), Win Win (2011 Sundance Film Festival), and Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (2020 Sundance Film Festival).  

In this psychological comedy, audiences saw Peter Dinklage play a man who seeks solitude in an abandoned New Jersey train station. McCarthy’s film was honored with a whopping three awards — Audience Award: Dramatic, Special Jury Prize for Acting, and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award

— January 20, 2003

               Paul Giamatti stars in American Splendor

Two men (one in black and one in green) with jackets stand side-by-side in Park City with trees in the background
Paul Giamatti and Harvey Pekar in Park City

The altitude may have been a bit much for some of these actors who were interviewed at the Festival. For example, Robert Downey Jr., who stars in the 2003 Sundance premiere The Singing Detective, said the altitude was making him feel “a little giddy.” And Paul Giamatti said, “I think the altitude is screwing with me a little. I feel vaguely high.” Giamatti stars in the 2003 Sundance Festival screening American Splendor, which was honored with a Grand Jury Prize later that week.

— January 20, 2003

               Viewers get a new zombie favorite 

Audiences were shook to the core after seeing Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later in Park City two decades ago. The popular zombie movie left Festival attendees terrified and cinephiles of horror movies obsessed. 

In an interview with PeopleTV just three years ago, Boyle looked back at when he made his film that changed the way people saw zombie movies. Revisiting one gripping scene between an infected father who tries to save his daughter, Boyle recalls using miniDVs, something creators weren’t using as much. “That was the first widely distributed film that would use that technology,” says Boyle. “It felt like the right technology to use for the story. And it’s a brilliant story by Alex Garland.” 

— January 20, 2003

               Guns N’ Roses members perform with Gina Gershon

Some festivalgoers might remember rocking out with Guns N’ Roses members Slash, Duff McKagan, and former member Matt Sorum as they delivered an epic one-off performance with actor Gina Gershon. The group performed at a party in Park City to celebrate the premiere of Alex Steyermark’s Prey for Rock & Roll, a film about a struggling rock band looking for a break, which Gershon stars in. 

— January 22, 2003

               Lauren Lazin’s Tupac: Resurrection premieres in the Special Screening section

Sundance Film Festival audiences also got to see a new kind of documentary at the 2003 Festival with Tupac: Resurrection. The film is about the life and death of beloved rapper Tupac Shakur — told through his own words. 

A Black man with a nosering looks down in a pensive way“It’s basically like he’s sitting in the theater next to you telling you his life story,” says co-producer Michael Cole in a video from the Sundance Institute’s Producers Conference in 2003 after the film’s Festival premiere. “Lauren Lazin came up with an amazing idea for how to tell this and she really pulled it off. It’s like no documentary I’ve ever seen and people really responded to it. It really is spoken in almost the homeric tradition of someone telling you a tale as opposed to the traditional talking heads documentary.”      

— January 26, 2003

               Maggie Gyllenhaal and Steve Zahn host the 2003 Sundance Film Festival Awards 

Earlier this year, Gyllenhaal received an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Lost Daughter, but twenty years ago, she hosted the 2003 Sundance Film Festival awards ceremony along with Steve Zahn. At the time, she had just starred in the 2002 Sundance Film Festival premiere Secretary.  

— January 26, 2003

               Sundance Film Festival honors Catherine Hardwicke for Thirteen 

A group of kids running on a field with the sprinklers on20 years ago, Hardwicke took home the Dramatic Directing Award for her beloved film Thirteen. In the movie, a teenage girl’s relationship with her mother is put to the test as she discovers drugs, sex, and petty crime in the company of her troubled best friend. Hardwicke went back to the Festival in 2018 to speak at the Live@Sundance event, where she reminisced about the night her film screened at the Eccles Theatre in Park City. 

“It was totally surreal. We’re editing on New Year’s Eve and Christmas Eve trying to pull it together to be here just in time. That’s all you’re thinking about. ‘I just want to finish the film and get it there [the Festival]. Then at Eccles that Friday night, you’re just dazzled. You don’t even know what hit you. There seemed to be this huge energy there.”  

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