Sundance Film Festival names top 10 films from its 40-year Utah history

Jan 16, 2024, 9:01 AM | Updated: Jan 18, 2024, 4:58 pm

"Whiplash" a Sundance Film Festival feature. (Courtesy Sundance Institute)...

"Whiplash" a Sundance Film Festival feature. (Courtesy Sundance Institute)

(Courtesy Sundance Institute)

NOTE: The 2024 Sundance Film Festival takes place Jan. 18–28, in person in Park City and Salt Lake City, with a selection of titles available online nationwide from Jan. 25–28. Tickets are on sale now at festival.sundance.org. The 2024 film program is available at festival.sundance.org/program/films/.

The festival has a “how to fest” guide.

PARK CITY — A lot has happened in 40 years.

As the Sundance Film Festival starts screenings this week, it’s taking a look at some of the films that made it the leading independent film festival in the U.S. and one of the key film festivals in the world, as it turns 40. It’s a Utah-rooted festival that brings the eyes of the world to The Beehive State and sometimes sends films away from mountain screenings to a global audience.

Commemorating its decades of film and influence, the fest surveyed more than 500 film community members — filmmakers, critics and industry members — to create a collective top 10 list for the last 40 years. KSL TV was invited to participate.

It’s quite a list and just as notable as what’s on it are films that didn’t make the short list of 10 from the thousands of choices. The collective top 10 is below, followed by a notable 10 Sundance films that didn’t make the list but were significant.


10. Blood Simple (1985), — The debut feature film of Joel and Ethan Coen and won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic.

9. Y tu mamá también (2002), Alfonso Cuarón — Helped bring emerging Mexican cinema into spotlight.

8. Boyhood (2014), Richard Linklater — One of two films on the list directed by Linklater.

7. Before Sunrise (1995), Richard Linklater — The second of two films on the list directed by Linklater.

6. sex, lies and videotape (1989), Steven Soderbergh — “sex, lies and videotape” was the debut feature film of Steven Soderbergh and won the Audience Award: Dramatic. He returns to the festival in 2024, again, with haunted house film “Presence.”

5. Memento (2001), Christopher Nolan — “Memento” won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Nolan. Then the director went on to leave his mark on his trilogy in the Batman film universe and kept playing with time in films like “Dunkirk,” “Inception,” “Interstellar,” and “Tenet.” He had a pretty solid 2023 with “Oppenheimer,” He is speaking at the fest in 2024.

4. Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris — A bittersweet family roadtrip comedy that stormed from Utah screening rooms into mainstream theaters, and the box office, in 2006.

3. Get Out (2017), Jordan Peele — The debut feature film of Peele that went on to commercial success with a $176 million box office and critical acclaim.

2. Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino — the debut feature film of Tarantino.

1. Whiplash (2014), Damien Chazelle — “Whiplash” won the Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic and the Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic.

"Boyhood" from the Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy Sundance Institute) "Little MIss Sunshine" a Sundance Film Festival selection.  (Courtesy Sundance Institute) "Whiplash" a Sundance Film Festival feature. (Courtesy Sundance Institute) A still from Napoleon Dynamite by Jared Hess, an official selection of the 40th Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) Pedro Pascal appears in Freaky Tales by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck,an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) A still from Presence by Steven Soderbergh, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. A still from Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Herb Ritts / AUGUST.) A still from DEVO by Chris Smith, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun appear in Love Me by Sam Zuchero and Andy Zuchero, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Justine Yeung) A still from Skywalkers: A Love Story by Jeff Zimbalist, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) FILE - Brooke Shields poses for a portrait to promote the film "Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields" at the Latinx House during the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 21, 2023, in Park City, Utah. The docuseries premieres Monday on Hulu. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)Credit: Invision The nonprofit behind the Sundance Film Festival is receiving a $4 million donation to its indigenous Program from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. (KSL TV) Utahn Jake Van Wagoner talking about his Sundance Film Festival film on Jan. 19, 2023, the festival's opening day. (KSL TV) Associated Press video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, the director/producer/cinematographer of "20 Days in Mariupol," introduces the film at its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in Park City, Utah. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello) Egyptian Theater at Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, Jan. 19,2023. (KSL TV) Taylor Swift attends the 2020 Sundance Film Festival - "Miss Americana" Premiere at Eccles Center Theatre on January 23, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images) PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 20: A view of signage at the Egyptian theater before the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Dave Mangels/Getty Images) Actress/filmaker Amy Redford speaks onstage during An Artist at the Table Cocktail Reception and Dinner during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival at DeJoria Center on January 18, 2018 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images) PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 26:  Zac Efron and Lily Collins of 'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile' attend The IMDb Studio at Acura Festival Village on location at The 2019 Sundance Film Festival - Day 2  on January 26, 2019 in Park City, Utah.  (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)

While that’s an impressive list, it isn’t a comprehensive one for important films. The festival has screened nearly 4,000 films. Any such list is subjective it seems silly to term it anything but a personal list of 10 favorites not included in the collective 10. So, in no particular order, here is a personal list of 10 other films not voted to the list that are essential in the festival’s history, representing one writer’s opinion.

10 additional significant Sundance Film Festival features

  • Animal Kingdom — Deeply enthralling Australian cinema
  • The Blair Witch Project — One of the most financially successful independent films ever, revolutionized found footage films
  • CODA — Won the Oscar for Best Picture
  • The Cove — Won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral — Hugh Grant, Andie MacDowell
  • Hereditary — Filmed in Utah, scared audiences everywhere, perhaps Toni Collette’s career best
  • March of the Penguins — Morgan Freeman narrates, penguins star
  • Napoleon Dynamite — The Idaho story is a key feature of Utah cinema and pop culture, it’s also part of the 40th celebration with screenings in 2024.
  • Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire — Universally devastating, it also personally resonates, and for me, the closest portrayal of the kinds of things I witnessed and felt while living in New York City for two years as a religious missionary.
  • Winter’s Bone — Jennifer Lawrence comes from nowhere to devastate us all at the movies, launching her to stardom.

Some other Sundance movies of note: 500 Days of Summer, APOLLO 11, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Believer, The Big Easy, The Big Sick, Born Into Brothels, Clerks, Chasing Coral, Donnie Darko, El Mariachi, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Hoop Dreams, In the Bedroom, Man on Wire, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Pi, Saw, SLC Punk!

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Sundance Film Festival names top 10 films from its 40-year Utah history