Every festival is accompanied by the rush to proclaim new and important trendsetters. Most of them fade from memory soon enough, but a handful of movies enter the cultural consciousness, and for better or worse go on to reshape the film landscape.
10. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1996)
Bryan Singer's convoluted neo-noir certainly didn't invent narrative gamesmanship, but with its big gotcha ending, it made twisty puzzle movies (PI, THE SIXTH SENSE, MEMENTO) fashionable for the next few years.
9. WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE (1995)
This depiction of junior high as hell on earth introduced viewers to the pitiless universe of Todd Solondz, where some see candor and others cruelty. Thanks to Solondz and fellow mid-'90s festival alumni Neil LaBute and Terry Zwigoff, psychological violence soon became as popular as physical violence among American indies.
8. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003)
Andrew Jarecki's riveting portrait of a Long Island family with dark secrets and a penchant for self-documentation must have tipped off countless filmmakers to the potential of home movies (their own and others') as source material.
7. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH (2006)
The rare eco-activist doc to reach a wide audience (and presumably make a real-world difference), Davis Guggenheim and Al Gore's documentary lecture also paved the way for a continuing wave of celebrity-endorsed and -narrated eco-activist docs.
6. SHERMAN'S MARCH (1986, shown in 1987)
Ross McElwee's journey through Civil War history and his own romantic past is expansive and digressive (it's subtitled A MEDITATION TO THE POSSIBILITY OF ROMANTIC LOVE IN THE SOUTH DURING AN ERA OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROLIFERATION). An instant benchmark for the tricky form of the autobiographical documentary, it has rarely been equaled, though many have tried.
5. CLERKS (1994)
The myth of the credit-card indie is a powerful one. Before CLERKS there was Richard Linklater's SLACKER, made on a comparable shoestring, and after it, there was TARNATION, cobbled together on iMovie for $200. But it was Kevin Smith's potty-mouthed gabfest, with its crude, no-frills aesthetic, that did the most to promote the idea that anyone could make a movie.
4. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's landmark stunt is a scary and suggestive experiment in first-person verité and offscreen space. It took a while to incubate, but the shaky-camcorder perspective has become as ubiquitous as video cameras in recent years, in movies like CLOVERFIELD, RES, REDACTED, and DIARY OF THE DEAD.
3. RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)
Not least because the hallmarks of a Quentin Tarantino film are so readily identifiable stylized ultra-violence, retro soundtrack, characters who love pop-culture references and the sound of their own voices this iconic debut spawned a litter of copycat productions, almost all of which matched QT's self-regard but not his talent.
2. STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984, shown in 1985)
Jim Jarmusch's breakthrough film had already won a prize at Cannes and played the New York Film Festival by the time it got to Park City, and the movie itself is too eccentric to have inspired many outright imitators. But its quirky characters, ironic tone, and self-conscious hipness add up to a working definition of indie as we know it.
1. SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (1989)
Steven Soderbergh's debut looms over Sundance as The Film That Changed Everything. Not so much cinematically as an expression of numb Reagan/Bush-period alienation, it always seemed to mark the end of an era more than than the start of a new one. But it did inaugurate the Sundance boom, creating a casino mentality around festival acquisitions a business model that finally crumbled along with the rest of the economy and that we may never see again.