The Sundance Film Festival has always juggled multiple personalities. It is at once a gathering of cutting-edge visionaries and an anarchic hot zone prone to bigwig brawls (Harvey Weinstein and producer Jonathan Taplin over the rights to Shine) and temporary insanity ($10 million for Care of the Spitfire Grill?). People scalp tickets outside sold-out screenings ($50 for The Blair Witch Project), and egomaniacal directors sometimes show up refusing to talk about their esoteric art flicks (Vincent Gallo and Buffalo 66). And each year, Sundance inspires a variety of pilgrims, from the devoted wannabe filmmakers dressed in trench coats and backward baseball caps in homage to their god, Kevin Smith, to plain old wannabes like Paris Hilton, who swaddles up in fleece and throws herself into the melee just to get a contact high off the heady mix of desire, talent, and desperation.
There’s a reason Sundance is Mecca to so many: It has given birth to some of our most revered filmmakers, bone-shaking performances, and indelible images. The festival’s roots were planted 25 years ago, when Robert Redford, fresh off directing Ordinary People, set out to fill a widening gap between studio and art-house fare. In 1981, at his resort in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, he created the Sundance Institute, an artistic utopia for directors and screenwriters that nurtured idiosyncratic storytelling. Four years later, realizing that his growing talent pool needed a showcase, Redford took the reins of the fledgling U.S. Film Festival, and it wasn’t long before the Sundance Film Festival was born.
Hollywood is full of dreamers trying to forge some independence from the studio system, but very few endure. In a world where DreamWorks can’t go it alone, Sundance’s continuing influence is remarkable. ”The idea was to create a place for new artists and new voices to come,” said Redford on the opening afternoon of this year’s festival. ”When I first started this, people asked, ‘So you’re going to do this up in the mountains?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s right. I think it should be a little weird, a little off center.”’
Twenty-five years later, Redford’s radical experiment has forever changed the kinds of movies Hollywood makes and who gets to make them. Here are our top 10 reasons to celebrate his enduring good idea.
STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1985)
Backstory Writer-director Jim Jarmusch is the Edmund Hillary of modern independent filmmaking: He ventured into terra incognita and made this archly comic tale of disaffected road-tripping hipsters for pennies (and it shows), and it became an art-house sensation back when foreign films owned that turf.
What’s the big deal? Jarmusch’s affectless urban soul-searchers defined the aesthetic for the next wave of independent film. The ultralow production values inspired other filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith to shoot first, worry about money later.
What ever happened to… Jarmusch has carved a career on the fringes with cult hits like Down by Law and Dead Man. Last year, he came closest to dipping into the mainstream with his wistful Bill Murray vehicle Broken Flowers.