Over the years, the Sundance Film Festival has showcased a wealth of films that went on to widespread critical and commercial success. These success stories have bolstered Sundance’s status as one of the premiere film festivals in the United States. Though there are definitely more, here are our picks of some of the Sundance films that have left the biggest imprint.
Created by locals Jared and Jerusha Hess, “Napoleon Dynamite” became one of the most unlikely Sundance success stories. Made on a budget of only $400,000, the film went on to make nearly $45 million, launching the careers of the Hesses as well as Jon Heder, who played Napoleon. Flippin’ sweet!
'Super Size Me'
Debuting at Sundance in 2004, “Super Size Me” famously put McDonald’s on blast, as director Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s food for an entire month. Spurlock’s physical transformation, and his investigation into the fast food company’s culinary and marketing tactics, had a major impact not only the public consciousness, but on McDonald’s itself: The company has since tried to change its image and, to an extent, its menu.
'Four Weddings and a Funeral'
The 1994 romantic comedy starring Andie McDowell and Hugh Grant began cementing Sundance’s mainstream potential. Not only did it earn more nearly $250 million at the box office — becoming history’s highest grossing British film at the time — but it was nominated for Best Picture at the 1995 Academy Awards. “Four Weddings and a Funeral” also made Grant a star.
'The Blair Witch Project'
Made on a budget of $25,000, “The Blair Witch Project” took the world by storm after its 1999 Sundance debut, making $248 million worldwide. Its spooky, faux-documentary style spurned an entire sub-genre that still persists today.
Considered the most critically acclaimed documentary of all time, “Hoop Dreams” follows two young inner-city basketball players for five years, showing the myriad obstacles between them and their NBA aspirations.
'Little Miss Sunshine'
Most current indie comedies have “Little Miss Sunshine” to thank. The 2006 film set the template with its humor (quirky, warm and touching), aesthetic (slightly retro with bright colors) and casting (Steve Carrell, soon after rising to fame in “The Office”). It was Carrell’s first slightly serious acting role, paving the way for his future performances in “Dan in Real Life,” “Foxcatcher” and “The Big Short.” Less than a day after its Sundance debut, Fox Searchlight Pictures bid more than $10 million for the movie — one of the biggest deals in the festival’s history. It went on to make more than $100 million and earned four Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Alan Arkin).
'The Usual Suspects'
Later winning Oscars for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Spacey), “The Usual Suspects” is one of the best noir crime thrillers of the past few decades. Director Bryan Singer went on to direct “Apt Pupil,” “Valkyrie” and most of the “X-Men” movies.
While we’re discussing noir crime thrillers, we can’t leave out “Reservoir Dogs.” Quentin Tarantino made his directorial debut here, showing the kind of incisive dialogue, brutal violence and madcap genius that would define his oeuvre.
'When We Were Kings'
When it comes to sports documentaries — heck, even documentaries in general — it doesn’t get much better than “When We Were Kings.” The documentary chronicles the 1974 title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Held in Africa, “The Rumble in the Jungle” became a worldwide cultural extravaganza with no lack of high drama. The documentary expertly captures the frenzy and suspense.
'500 Days of Summer'
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are a match made in romantic comedy heaven, even if their characters here are purposely ill-suited for each other. Inventive direction, charming performances and a unique storytelling structure made “500 Days of Summer” an engaging, insightful portrait of unrequited love.
Not originally listed on the Sundance schedule, Jordan Peele’s racially-intense horror film “Get Out” was introduced in a surprise midnight premiere in 2017. It marked a directorial debut for Peele while delving into the darkness of racism and violence toward inter-race relationships.
Fans of the film will also be interested to know Peele’s second feature film, “Us,” is one of the most anticipated releases of 2019.
Before “Hunger Games,” “Silver Linings Playbook” or “X-Men,” Jennifer Lawrence starred in the Sundance feature film “Winter’s Bone” and quickly became the one to watch, with her part serving as a breakout role for the star.
The film was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Film and went on to be nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Lawrence in her role as Ree, a determined girl hunting down her drug-dealing father while striving to hold her family together.
Starring Guy Pearce and Carrie-Anne Moss, “Memento” focuses in on a man suffering from short-term memory loss who refuses to quit searching for his wife’s murderer.
The screenplay was written by Christopher Nolan, who also served as director and rose to critical acclaim following its success. Other Nolan films include “Dunkirk,” “The Prestige,” “Following” and “Inception.”