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.

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