January 17, 2019

The 10 Most Impactful Sundance Award Winners of the Past 25 Years

A lot can happen in two decades+.

With the 2019 Sundance Film Festival almost literally around the corner, we here at No Film School have been growing a little nostalgic. 

The prominence and early visibility of the festival has helped filmmakers included in the competitive sections—i.e. competing for prizes amongst their peers—stand out in ways that would go on to launch their careers into the stratosphere.

While thousands of careers have been helped as a result of having work featured in the festival (and in the annual programs run by the invaluable Sundance Institute), we've decided to take a look at 10 that immediately stood out over the past 25 years. 

We could have done this list 20 different times and had no film repeated; that's just how long-lasting and strong the legacy of the Sundance Film Festival is. Nonetheless, here's what we decided upon this morning. 

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival kicks off next Thursday, January 24th, 2019.

In the Company of Men: Filmmakers Trophy Dramatic Prize (1997)

The movie that launched the film career of playwright Neil LaBute and lead actor Aaron Eckhart. Although LaBute's provocative, occasionally controversial writing has fallen out of favor in recent years, it remains a frighteningly riveting portrait of chauvinism and man's icky, deplorable fascination with dominating the opposite sex. 

ThirteenDirecting Award Dramatic (2003)

The film that introduced the world to Evan Rachel Wood and its co-writer Nikki Reed, Thirteen was a powerful, often disturbing portrait of a young woman falling in with the wrong crowd and growing up much too quickly. Director Catherine Hardwicke would eventually become a household name for directing the first film in the uber-popular Twilight series, in which Reed would co-star. 

Whale Rider: World Cinema Audience Award (2003)

New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro's moving portrait of a young woman, played by newcomer Keisha Castle-Hughes (who went on to become, at the time, the youngest person nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards) served as a launching pad for its star, who most recently co-starred in Season Five of Game of Thrones

Primer: Grandy Jury Prize Dramatic and Alfred P. Sloan Award (2004)

Dense and complicated, low-budget and high concept, Shane Carruth's debut feature befuddled audiences upon its premiere, but it has since become somewhat of an independent cult classic. Although Carruth has only released one more film (Upstream Color) since 2004, Primer remains a complicated puzzle to crack and one of Sundance's most daring award winners. 

Super Size Me: Directing Award - Documentary (2004)

Morgan Spurlock's nonfiction career behind and in-front-of the camera kicked into high gear with this ultimate endurance test, featuring the filmmaker eating nothing but McDonalds' foods for 30 days. To say that's unhealthy would be an understatement. Although the filmmaker's career has sullied due to improper personal choices, it was this film, nominated for an Academy Award, that made him an almost-household name. 

Hustle & Flow: Audience Award Dramatic and Excellence in Cinematography Award Dramatic (2005)

The second feature from filmmaker Craig Brewer, the musically-inclined, good-natured Hustle & Flow launched both Brewer's career and the career of his leading man, Terrence Howard, who would go on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance. About the Oscars that year: the film would grow most memorable for the acceptance speech of Three 6 Mafia, the hip hop group who would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song for It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp, as featured prominently in the movie. 

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire: Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and Audience Award: Dramatic (2009)

Before the hit FOX series Empire and feature films The Butler and The Paperboy, director Lee Daniels made the brutally tough, bleakly optimistic look at a teenage girl (newcomer Gabourey Sidibe) raised in an abusive household by her fear-inducing mother (Monique, giving an Academy Award-winning performance). The film's rawness shocked audiences at Sundance and it grew to become a domestic box office hit, also netting screenwriting Geoffrey Fletcher an Oscar for adapting the poetic source material. 

Winter's Bone: Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic (2010)

Now one of Hollywood's mega-stars, Jennifer Lawrence truly came into her own with her performance in Debra Granik's soulful and moody thriller, Winter's Bone. In addition to introducing us to the talented ingénue, the film also served as a launching pad of sorts for its leading man, John Hawkes. Both went on to receive Academy Award nominations for their work, and Granik returned to the festival just last year for her critically acclaimed Leave No Trace.

Dear White People: Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Talent: Dramatic (2014)

A hit when it debuted at the festival, Justin Simien's Dear White People humored audiences and enraged right-wing media dwellers on the internet (based on the film's blunt title alone). After a successful festival and theatrical run (heralding Tessa Thompson as a unique talent), the film property went in a unique direction, transforming into a hit series for Netflix three years later. Currently shooting its third season, Simien deserves a lot of credit for staying true (and through) to his vision. 

Whiplash: Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic (2014)

In 2013, a 28-year-old director by the name of Damien Chazelle, with one feature (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) already to his name, won an award at Sundance for his short film Whiplash. A year later, Chazelle returned to the festival with a feature-length version that shocked audiences and skyrocketed the young filmmaker's career. The film went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and Chazelle would follow up this feat with winning the Best Director Academy Award two years later for La La Land, becoming the youngest director to ever receive the prize. 

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.      

Your Comment