It’s hard for me to fathom, but when Sundance opened for business Thursday, it marked my 17th straight year covering this most prestigious of independent film festivals.
I’m not sure how many total films I’ve seen at the festival over that time period, but one thing’s for certain — it’s never as many as I’d like. Schedule conflicts with films, balancing coverage with office duties, not to mention the sheer impossibility of seeing everything you might wish to are all factors that come into play when it comes to attending the festival.
Each new year brings with it a bit of nostalgia and fond memories from myriad screenings gone by. There’s all kinds of movies at Sundance, and generating considerable buzz at the festival doesn’t necessarily translate to big box office receipts for films once they head to wide release. In fact, the opposite is generally true.
So it is with my own Sundance favorites over the years. Several have gone on to make a mark — whether financially or during awards season — but many others have flown under the radar. It doesn’t really matter, because what I remember most is my reaction to seeing them first.
So, as I gear up for another full slate of films on opening weekend, here's a look back at 10 of my very favorite movies, sequenced by their premiere year, from my first 16 years at Sundance:
‘Napoleon Dynamite’ (2004)
It’s ironic that my Sundance debut coincided with one of the festival’s most well-known — yet totally quirky — movies. The movie went on to become quite the phenomenon, launching the careers of Jared and Jerusha Hess, as well as Jon Heder, not to mention spawning some Elaine Benes-worthy dance moves and a bevy of quotable lines.
I was totally enthralled with this neo-noir mystery when it premiered on a cold, dark night (Hey, it’s Park City in January, what did you expect?) at the Park City Library. The film starred a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the lead role and marked the directorial debut of Rian Johnson. Johnson went on to direct “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and the current release “Knives Out,” for which he is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
‘New York Doll’ (2005)
This movie was a revelation of sorts. I wasn’t so much a fan of the New York Dolls as a musical entity themselves as I was wrapped up in the amazing story of bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane, who against all odds became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and worked toward a first-time reunion show with his former band some 30 years later. The whole film wore its serendipity on its sleeve, as filmmaker Greg Whitely was assigned to visit Kane monthly and fellowship him in his local church congregation. Their association led to Kane first getting his bass guitar out of hock at a pawn shop and to eventually deliver a rousing reunion concert before fate intervened one final time. An amazingly simple, yet intriguing film that can’t help but tug at your heartstrings.
‘U2 3D’ (2008)
U2 was on top of the world in the mid-2000s and this 3D film captured them in all their live glory during a concert in Buenos Aires on the “Vertigo Tour” in 2006. It was the first live-action digital 3D film. Its premiere was such a marquee event, that it was held in back-to-back viewings at the Eccles Theatre — the biggest Sundance screening venue — and the band members appeared to discuss the film during Q&A segments between the pair of screenings.
‘Man on Wire’ (2008)
As is often the case, it’s the documentaries at Sundance that make the biggest post-festival splash when awards season rolls around. “Man on Wire,” a biographical doc on high-rise tightrope walker Philippe Petit, details the extraordinary background and planning that went into his 1974 wire walk between the Twin Towers in New York City. The recreation of this event, featuring new interviews with all involved and historical footage from the time, was utterly fascinating. It’s still mind boggling the delicate dance that Petit and crew were able to pull off — and this was before he even stepped on the wire between the towers. The fact that I watched it for the first time on a small TV in a solo screening cubicle in the press center didn’t diminish the film’s mental and visual impact at all. “Man on Wire” went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2009.
‘The Cove’ (2009)
This was filmmaker Louis Psihoyos’ surreptitious documentary about the wanton slaughter of dolphins in a secluded bay in Japan. The film definitely left a mental mark. It also went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2010.
‘History of the Eagles Part I’ (2013)
As a longtime fan of the Eagles, this film debut was incredible. First, the band held a press conference the afternoon of the debut, and I’ll never forget how in charge Glenn Frey seemed to be. As luck would have it, I ended up sitting two rows behind the band members during the premiere. It was fun watching their general reaction, laughter and muted whisperings to things happening onscreen. The post-show Q&A was also a hoot, with one lady in the audience sharing a rambling story about how she had never really heard of the Eagles until a friend loaned her some CDs a few weeks earlier. Run that through your mind again: There was some middle-aged woman who had never heard of the biggest-selling band in U.S. history? Drummer Don Henley got off three great cracks in a row while parrying the woman’s query. “We’re a football team from Philadelphia,” Henley said to much laughter. “We all made solo albums — you might have heard of some of them.” And, finally, dripping with sarcasm, “I’m glad you could be here tonight.”
‘Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory’ (2014)
Sometimes, you catch a great movie purely by accident. Due to a shuttle mishap, I didn’t make it in time to the movie I had tickets for, but managed to pop into the press and industry screening of “Alive Inside.” This documentary showed the incredible effect music had on Alzheimer’s patients. People that had been entirely non-responsive earlier suddenly came to life when a Walkman playing their favorite music was placed on their ears. I will definitely be leaving my family members with a detailed list of songs I want to listen to, should this day ever arrive for me. First up: “Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” by Elton John.
‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ (2015)
I never heard much of anything about this movie once it left Sundance, but it was a hit during the 2015 festival, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience award. The story, about a pair of high school students initially forced into friendship by their parents in the face of a health trial, definitely struck an emotional chord. Note to self: I’d love to see this movie a second time.
‘Blinded By the Light’ (2019)
A love letter to the music of Bruce Springsteen, but also an against-all-odds feel-good story about not only the power of music, but also the written word. This film was joyously received at its premiere last year. Know one thing going in: You do not have to be a fan of Springsteen’s music, per se, to enjoy the film. But it is the vehicle which helps drive the whole thing home.