7 Best Sundance Film Festival Movies Of All Time, Ranked

A Sundance Film Festival movie is generally not just any film. The festival has launched the careers of tons of directors spanning different styles and genres. We at StudyFinds read through nine expert sources to come up with the top seven best Sundance Film Festival movies of all time with the accolades to prove it.

What is the Sundance Film Festival? Founded in 1978 by iconic actor Robert Redford, the Sundance Film Festival has blossomed into the premier showcase for independent cinema in the United States. Held every January in the snow-capped mountains of Park City, Utah, this prestigious event provides a platform for emerging filmmakers and their bold, unfiltered visions. Emerging from humble beginnings as a small event, Sundance has steadily grown into a cultural behemoth, launching countless critically acclaimed independent films like “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” and “Little Miss Sunshine” onto the world stage. Today, it’s not just about film; Sundance fosters a vibrant community of artists, filmmakers, and audiences through engaging panels, workshops, and live events, solidifying its role as a beacon of innovation and creative spirit in the independent film landscape.

Commonalities in Sundance Films: 

  • Independent Spirit: These films typically come from outside the Hollywood mainstream, produced by independent filmmakers with fresh perspectives and stories to tell. They aren’t bound by the typical formulaic conventions of studio movies.
  • Bold Storytelling: Expect to encounter innovative narratives, unconventional themes, and a willingness to tackle challenging or underrepresented topics. Sundance films often push boundaries and spark conversations.
  • Raw Talent: Look for films showcasing emerging filmmakers and actors bursting with raw talent and passion. The festival serves as a launchpad for many future stars of the industry.
  • High Artistic Merit: While commercial viability isn’t the primary focus, these films often display exceptional artistic merit in areas like cinematography, editing, acting, and storytelling. They leave a lasting impression and make you think long after the credits roll.
  • Festival Buzz: Being selected for Sundance is a prestigious honor, generating significant buzz and anticipation. These films often go on to win awards, secure distribution deals, and launch successful careers for their creators.

So, if you’re looking for a cinematic experience that’s fresh, thought-provoking, and potentially groundbreaking, keep an eye out for films from the Sundance Film Festival. You might just discover your next favorite movie and be a part of the cultural buzz around independent cinema. We sifted through nine expert reviews to find seven of the best Sundance Film Festival movies that were recommended most. If you have favorite, let us know in the comments below!

➡️ How Our “Best Of The Best” Lists Are Created

StudyFinds’ “Best of the Best” articles are put together with the idea of taking the work out of common consumer research. Ever find yourself searching for a product or service on Google and reading multiple reviews to find items listed across many of them? Our Best of the Best lists are created with that process in mind, with each item ranked by how frequently it appears on expert reviews or lists. With Best of the Best, you are getting consensus picks — making them truly the best of the best!

Young shocked woman watching movie on TV and eating popcorn at night.
A woman watching a movie with popcorn (© Drazen – stock.adobe.com)

Top 7 Sundance Film Festival Movies You NEED To Watch

1. “Whiplash” (2014)

“Whiplash” (2014)
“Whiplash” (2014)

Miles Teller is a newbie drummer at a major conservatory striving to play like the stars. J.K. Simmons is his teacher, who takes drumming very seriously. No lie. USA Today describes it as music turned to art, “Music is turned into a beautifully brutal art form in director Damien Chazelle’s pre-’La La Land’ drama.”

This movie can’t help but tug on your heartstrings when a drummer’s ache for perfection is continuously knocked down by his mentor. Vogue makes us eat our words informing us that one year later, J.K. Simmons won an Oscar for his portrayal of Terence Fletcher.

Initially “Whiplash” started as a short film until production was able to afford a feature-length version thanks to investor interest. Collider tells us that Damien Chazelle rode the high of “Whiplash” and next released the enchanting musicalLa La Land,” which was so close to winning Best Picture Oscar

2. “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006)

“Little Miss Sunshine” (2006)
“Little Miss Sunshine” (2006)

Who doesn’t love a heartwarming story about a dysfunctional family? “Little Miss Sunshine” is a hilarious and heartfelt misadventure where a family piles into VW bus for a cross-country trip to get their youngest (Abigail Breslin) into a beauty pageant. USA Today points out the all-star cast — “Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette play the bickering mom and dad, Steve Carell is the suicidal gay uncle, and Alan Arkin steals the movie as the coolest grandpa ever.”

Sundance made history with one of the biggest deals in the history of the festival when Fox purchased the rights to the film. Games Radar admitted that it was a gamble that was worth it, as the film went on to gross more than $100 million worldwide, securing Oscars for Michael Arndt and Alan Arkin as well.

Remember when Abigail Breslin was everywhere? Her charm, as well as Paul Dano’s genius, was introduced in this movie. They did a pretty darn good time for what Collider informs us as co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris and screenwriter Michael Arandt first feature film.

3. “Get Out” (2017)

“Get Out” (2017)
“Get Out” (2017)

If you’ve seen this film, it’s definitely not one to forget. Jordan Peele portrays an artist at the total opposite of the spectrum than his “Key and Peele” days. He brought back the socially conscious scary movie in a big way with his first directorial outing. USA Today calls it one of the best horror movies in recent memory. Daniel Kaluuya stars as a Black photographer visiting his white girlfriend’s parents, but things quickly take a turn when he starts to notice some eerie occurrences on their property.

Can you imagine this movie in theaters? After the festival, it blew up in theaters with raging success only a month later. It completely annihilated the box-office standard. Collider is impressed saying that Peele wrote a completely original script with such incredible impact. No wonder Peele won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

4. “Fruitvale Station” (2013)

“Fruitvale Station” (2013)
“Fruitvale Station” (2013)

This isn’t the first time Ryan Coogler teamed up with Michael B. Jordan. Before “Creed” and “Black Panther,” they debuted for this biopic showing the final day of the festival. Jordan plays Oscar Grant III, a young man who is killed by police officers in 2009, which is based on a true story that actually happened in Oakland. USA Today is a fan calling it a powerful and impactful work.

Winning both the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, “Fruitvale Station” was a hot commodity as far as for who would get distribution rights. Collider commends then-newcomer Ryan Coogler for handling the sensitive matter of the movie, which really cemented his place as a worthwhile director in cinema.

5. “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (1989)

“Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (1989)
“Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (1989)

Steven Soderbergh’s directorial debut prevailed at Sundance. In this movie, James Spader plays a guy who videotapes women talking about their sexual fantasies. He then involves his friends from college. According to USA Today, “the film helped kick-start an indie movie revolution that included another Sundance debut, Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ two years later.”

At only 26 years old, Steven Soderbergh became a huge name in filmmaking. How? With his premiere of “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” This movie also premiered alongside the popular  “Heathers.” Here, Soderbergh won the Audience Award, which served as a jumping off point for his now-legendary film career (Collider).

This film “laid the foundation for the hegemony of the two empires that would dominate indieland: Sundance and Miramax, writes Christine Spines of Entertainment Weekly. “Made for $1.2 million, it was the first Sundance movie picked up by Miramax to become the kind of crossover hit that would ultimately inspire the launch of indie divisions at all the major studios.”

6. “The Blair Witch Project” (1999)

"The Blair Witch Project" (1999)
“The Blair Witch Project” (1999)

This is the original culprit of the lost-footage phenomenon that came to prevalence in the 2000s. People were so curious about this film’s paranormal reality that they were racing to the theaters. USA Today accurately describes the movie as a “creep-fest about filmmakers venturing into a Maryland forest to document a local legend that freaked out a generation of horror fans with its shaky-cam antics and constant sense of dread.”

Talk about marketing. Get this, right before the Sundance premiere in 1999, a website called blairwitch.com was launched. Viewers could log on and see police reports and evidence of three students who had gone missing in the woods while trying to capture video of the Blair Witch. Collider tells us that the filmmakers at the time were completely unknown, yet they keep up the tale that this was simply a documentary gone wrong. Creepy.

This is too entertaining not to share — Actress Heather Donahue remembers reading the ad for the movie in “Backstage.” It said, “An improvised feature film, shot in a wooded location: it is going to be hell and most of you reading this probably shouldn’t come.” Good thing the actors in the film did. Games Radar spills the beans on its box office numbers: “The film became the success story of 1999, making $248 million worldwide. Not a bad return on a budget of around $25,000!”

7. “American Psycho” (2000)

"American Psycho" (2000)
“American Psycho” (2000)

If you don’t want to move Christian Bale from the pedestal you put him on as Batman, I suggest you skip this movie. What USA Today hails as his best role, he plays “Huey Lewis-loving yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman in director Mary Harron’s darkly comic, blood-drenched thriller.” But he is not the only star in the cast. Expect to see A-listers like Willem Dafoe, Justin Theroux, Jared Leto, and Reese Witherspoon.

Aside from the murdering, of course, audiences were shocked by the satire that litters this script. Fan of the movie or not, Collider says one thing everyone can agree is how amazing Bale is in this chilling film.

This is a situation where the stars aligned to make this successful film. Believe it or not, Patrick Bateman was originally supposed to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio. “But Harron wanted Christian Bale as the lead, and so Lionsgate planned to replace her with director Oliver Stone, who would not only work with DiCaprio but also take all of the dark comedy out of the script,” explains Screen Rant. That would be an entirely different movie than this legendary film that has grown to fit in a place among the classics.


Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations. This article may contain affiliate links in which we receive a commission if you make a purchase.

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