Over at Film School Rejects, we’ve compiled a list of the 25 best Sundance movies of all time (we being myself and the other four editors). It’s admittedly a little light on the documentary side, only two titles in the bunch. I’m not guilt-free in the matter, either, but I’ve also never pretended to be exclusively a doc fan. Still, I thought the other half of the Sundance Film Festival’s programming deserved more love, so here we are with another list that’s shorter but to the point.
The following 10 titles were decided upon by myself and Daniel Walber. It’s not necessarily democratic, as I picked five and he picked five, neither of us has seen all 10, and we also had a fight over which of Rob Epstein’s docs most deserved inclusion. We are certain there will be some issues taken with our selections. I know precisely which films you’re all going to say are missing. We thought of spotlighting some honorable mentions, but we’d rather you just chime in with your thoughts on what are the best docs that screened at Sundance.
If you’re curious what qualified, we agreed anything that played at the fest from 1985 to 2014 was eligible, save for “Sundance Collection” retrospective works, even though for the first handful of those years the event was still called the United States Film Festival or some variation. We went by Sundance’s archives and the lists of titles shown each year from the start of the Sundance Institute’s run of the fest. Unlike the FSR list, we’ve abstained from ranking, given my and Daniel’s choosing process. So, here are the best Sundance docs of all time, in alphabetical order:
Festival Year: 1991 (after premiering at the New York Film Festival in October 1990)
Awards Won: Grand Jury Prize, Filmmaker Trophy, Audience Award
Technically, Barbara Kopple’s best documentary to play at Sundance is Harlan County, U.S.A., but that 1976 release didn’t screen at the fest until 2005, as a revival showcase. American Dream, though, is nearly as great and also about a labor strike. Kopple takes us to Austin, Minnesota, during a wage dispute at the local Hormel Foods meatpacking plant, and she throws us right in there, enough to make us feel as cold as the workers picketing outside the factory in the dead of winter. Two months after its appearance in Park City, the film won Kopple her second Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. — C.C.
Festival Year: 1992 (world premiere)
Awards Won: Audience Award
Four years before their most famous Sundance film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky made their Park City debut with Brother’s Keeper. The subject is the Ward brothers, four men who live in a dilapidated farm house not too far from Syracuse, New York. One of them has been accused of the murder of another, who died under mysterious circumstances. As the investigation progresses, things only get stranger. It’s a methodical but empathetic look at the impact of the criminal justice system on American society’s fringes, with an eye on the sensationalism inherent in our news media. This always seems like a tall order, but the work of Berlinger and Sinofsky has never felt more attuned to real life on the ground than in Brother’s Keeper. — D.W.
The Celluloid Closet
Festival Year: 1996 (after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 1995)
Awards Won: Freedom of Expression Award
Based on activist and cultural critic Vito Russo’s book of the same title, The Celluloid Closet is an essential examination of American cinema’s queer images, both overt and subliminal. From Marlene Dietrich’s top hat and tails in Morocco to the gay subtext that Gore Vidal snuck into Ben-Hur under Charlton Heston’s resolutely heterosexual nose, the journey from the silent era to the 1990s is brisk but complete. Its longevity in the 20 years of queer cinema since is due to another crucial lesson: The Celluloid Closet presents a way of seeing, opening a door of inflection and image that is useful well beyond the body of films presented. — D.W.
Festival Year: 2002 (world premiere)
Awards Won: none
Bill Morrison’s masterpiece is a film that is quite literally made of found footage. Most of it is in objectively terrible shape, pock marked and faded. What remains visible, however, is a hauntingly beautiful travelogue of faraway figures and mysterious locales. Sequences that likely began as unassuming, inoffensive documents of schools and temples have become alternately revelatory and terrifying visitations on other planets. Simultaneously Morrison’s most demanding film and his most accessible, Decasia pushed the boundary of what constitutes a Sundance documentary hit. — D.W.
Festival Year: 2005 (world premiere)
Awards Won:Alfred P. Sloan Prize
Though it may not be Werner Herzog’s greatest film, or even his greatest documentary, Grizzly Man is certainly his best work of the 21st century. The dark comedy and utter tragedy of Timothy Treadwell’s pursuit of membership in the animal kingdom hasn’t lost any of its bizarre “can’t look away” appeal. More than any of his other film experiments, nonfiction or otherwise, this fable of mankind’s place in nature has hung onto its place in our collective memory. — D.W.
In Heaven There Is No Beer?
Festival Year: 1985 (after opening in 1984 and then screening at the Toronto and Chicago film festivals)
Awards Won: Special Jury Recognition
The great Les Blank was already a legend when he made his first Park City appearance, which was actually in the summer of 1984 with an unfinished project called Heaven Before I Die workshopped at the Director’s Lab. Then, in January of 1985 he arrived with not one but two films. There was the 30-minute bluegrass short Sprout Wings and Fly and this mid-length doc in the feature competition. In Heaven There Is No Beer? is simply a joyous window into the world of polka enthusiasts and the festivals they attend to dance and drink for days and days. It was probably fun for movie fans to watch the doc while attending a festival devoted to their own passion. I can only hope that there was a lively polka party held somewhere on Main Street in its honor. — C.C.
Man on Wire
Festival Year: 2008 (world premiere)
Awards Won: World Cinema Jury Prize, World Cinema Audience Award
I believe the 2008 festival marked the start of a new era for the documentary program, which had already been experiencing a substantial boom of five years by that time. Man on Wire was the film that brought more attention to producers like Simon Chinn and later John Battsek (who’d been coming to Park City with projects for years but became a real name in the scene after collaborating with Chinn). That’s not the reason this film is on the list, though. James Marsh’s portrait of Philippe Petit and his notorious 1974 tightrope walk between New York’s Twin Towers is a well-planned and pristinely polished thrill ride, as well as a beautiful tribute to the fallen buildings of the World Trade Center. As I’ve written many times about Man on Wire, it’s a perfect film and seems to be what nonfiction cinema has built towards all its life, the way Petit was building towards that Twin Towers feat all his. The year following its Sundance debut, the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature — C.C.
Paris is Burning
Festival Year: 1991 (after premiering at Toronto in the fall of 1990)
Awards Won: Grand Jury Prize
Jennie Livingston’s study of New York City’s drag ball culture was an instant hit. 1991’s festival is often considered the watershed moment of New Queer Cinema, given the twinned Grand Jury victories of Paris Is Burning and Poison, the latter in the narrative category. The former has become a classic document of queer culture, preserving the legacies of such drag legends as Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey. The moments captured in the film have let this rich cultural tradition survive and, given recent pop phenomena like RuPaul’s Drag Race, they’ve begun to approach the mainstream. This year’s Sundance features a 25th anniversary screening. — D.W.
Festival Year: 1987 (after opening in 1986 and then screening at Toronto)
Awards Won: Grand Jury Prize
Ross McElwee helped to pioneer the meta first-person style that’s now overly prevalent with this film simultaneously about the making of itself and the pursuit of love in the South. As I noted in my entry on this doc for the FSR list, Sherman’s March played Sundance at a time when it didn’t need the fest, but rather the fest needed it more. The doc was already a decent theatrical hit when it arrived in Park City and being likened favorably to Woody Allen, as the festival guide stated at the time. Also as I note in the FSR entry, in spite of how many filmmakers work in personal documentary now, Sherman’s March continues to feel fresh and unparalleled in both its subjective and objective insights. — C.C.
Festival Year: 1985 (world premiere)
Awards Won: Special Jury Prize
The characters in Streetwise are almost too amazing to be believed. I don’t think you’d ever meet anyone like them in a doc made today, because few filmmakers are able to so deeply immerse themselves in a world as director Martin Bell, photographer Mary Ellen Mark and writer Cheryl McCall had, beginning earlier for a Life magazine article and gaining the trust of the entire universe of these homeless youths, and still present such an objective window into the soul of that world. The people behind and in front of the camera are clearly comfortable with one another, but you don’t get the sentimentalism seen with a lot of films where the filmmakers are too attached and concerned and feel a need to help. Part of the first true crop of Sundance docs, Streetwise went on to help start the fest’s reputation for delivering nonfiction Oscar nominees two months after its debut, but it lost the award to another title from its class, Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk. — C.C.