Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Top 20 Films that Lost Sundance

A lot of films are premiering at Sundance this week, but only a handful of them will walk away with awards (and even few with major awards). But if Sundance has proven one thing to be true over the years, it’s that getting into the festival is in fact the award itself. Below are my favorite films that premiered at Sundance, but lost major in-competition awards. 

Note: I only considered films that screened in-competition for Dramatic and Documentary Grand Jury Prizes at Sundance. Films that premiered at Sundance, but already had theatrical distribution in place (like, say, American Psycho) were not considered. Similarly, films that screened in World Competition categories were also not considered.

Stranger Than Paradise (1985)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to Blood Simple
Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise is a collection of extended scenes that were all captured in one shot, then simply edited together. It’s a minimalist experiment that remains an icon of American independent film.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1985)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Documentary to Seventeen
Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk is a masterful documentary, genuinely one of the finest I’ve ever seen. It lost at Sundance, but went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary. Fair trade.

sex, lies and videotape (1989)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to True Love
Steve Soderbergh’s first film remains one of his best. It premiered at the ‘dance, and eventually earned Soderbergh his only screenplay Oscar nomination.

Slacker (1991)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to Poison
Richard Linklater’s landmark film about nothing (but also, everything) was shot for just $23,000 in Austin, Texas in 1989. It rode the festival circuit all the way to Sundance, and helped establish Linklater as a premiere director of personal, different stories.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to In the Soup
No offense, but when was the last time you watched In the Soup?

El mariachi (1993)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to Ruby in Paradise and Public Access
El mariachi is the stuff that dreams are made of. Shot for just $7,000 in Mexico using an entirely unknown cast and crew, Robert Rodriguez’s film was a milestone for independent cinema. Proof that if there is a will, then there is a goddamn way.

Hoop Dreams (1994)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Documentary to Freedom on My Mind
Meant to be a 30 minute short film for PBS, Hoop Dreams turned into a three hour long masterpiece that took five years to shoot (for roughly $700,000) and over a year to edit. Today, it stands as one of the best documentaries ever made.

When We Were Kings (1996)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Documentary to Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern
Shot in 1974 but tangled in lawsuits for two decades before it screened at Sundance, this doc about The Rumble in the Jungle eventually went on to win the Oscar, rightfully so.

In the Company of Men (1997)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to Girls Like Us
One of the most unapologetically dangerous films of recent memory, Neil LaBute’s In the Company of Men never fails to shock me. It’s such an nasty film, but rarely is depravity this much fun.

In the Bedroom (2001)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to The Believer
One of my favorite films released so far this century, Todd Field’s In the Bedroom is a devastating portrayal of loss, regret, and revenge. It eventually landed five Oscar noms, but, sadly, won none.

Memento (2001)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to The Believer
Dude, it’s… Memento.

Narc (2002)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to Personal Velocity: Three Portraits
Few contemporary cop thrillers top Joe Carnahan’s Narc. The film is relentless in its style, and contains astounding performances from Jason Patric (as a good cop fighting his drug addiction) and Ray Liotta (as a brutal street thug with a badge).

Thirteen (2003)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to American Splendor
Thirteen is such a brave and honest film, thanks to the efforts of everyone involved. This one still manages to shake me up.

Down to the Bone (2004)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to Primer
Debra Granik eventually won Sundance for her incredible Winter’s Bone in 2010, but her first film was the drug addiction family drama, Down to the Bone. The movie made Vera Farmiga a breakout star, which is enough of a reason to check it out.

Maria Full of Grace (2004)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to Primer
The only downside of watching Maria Full of Grace is wishing that its director, Joshua Marston, and its Oscar-nominated lead actress, Catalina Sandino Moreno, went on to have hugely successful film careers. It hasn’t really worked out that way for either of them, but nothing takes away from the power of this film.

The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to Forty Shades of Blue
Noah Baumbach took a few years off from filmmaking while he crafted his personal family dramaedy, The Squid and the Whale. The film was a Sundance smash and made a Noah Baumbach film, a Noah Baumbach film.

Half Nelson (2006)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to Quinceañera
A tough call, but Half Nelson could very well contain Ryan Gosling’s best performance to date. The humility and shame in his character, it’s so quietly haunting.

The Cove (2009)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Documentary to We Live in Public
This documentary changed my life. I saw it at Sundance, and my life was forever altered for the better. Behold a thing of real, horrific wonder. So happy it eventually won the Oscar.

Blue Valentine (2010)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to Winter’s Bone
Derek Cianfrance’s unrelenting relationship drama has had a huge influence on my own filmmaking. I admire it because it’s so unafraid to show us real pain.

Upstream Color (2013)
Lost Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic to Fruitvale Station
It’s funny, before researching this post, I mistakenly thought Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color actually won top honors at Sundance. Fruitvale Station took that prize, but Carruth’s mind fuck masterpiece remains a vital and important film. I love falling under its spell.

Twenty More I Love
Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1993)
Clean, Shaven (1994)
Big Night (1996)
Citizen Ruth (1996)
Pi (1998)
One Hour Photo (2002)
Secretary (2002)
Love Liza (2002)
Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)
A Decade Under the Influence (2003)
The Cooler (2003)
The Station Agent (2003)
All the Real Girls (2003)
Super Size Me (2004)
We Don’t Live Here Anymore (2004)
Brick (2005)
Hustle & Flow (2005)
Sherrybaby (2006)
Snow Angels (2007)


  1. Oh, Thirteen.. I should give it a rewatch soon because I watched it countless of times when I was a teenager.. and can't believe Reservoir Dogs and Memento lost to those movies.. haven't even heard of the ones that one instead of those.

    1. Ha! The Believer is a really good film (but not In the Bedroom and Memento good), but I've never seen In the Soup. Funny how a "loser" can stand the test of time better than a winner. Thirteen is such a fearless film. I really appreciate that one.

  2. Those are some wonderful films. In The Bedroom, Thirteen, Down To The Bone, and sex, lies, and videotape are just a few examples of why I love independent cinema. In a just world, Vera Farmiga would've won the Oscar for Best Actress for Down To The Bone.

    1. So good, right? Hell man, it would've been great if Vera pulled out an Oscar nom for that film, let alone a win. Guess them nominating Catalina Sandino Moreno was their big indie shout out of the year.

  3. OMG, In the Bedroom is one of your favorite films this (or should I say, last) decade?!?!?! Same here! I feel like I'm the only person who considers that movie a MASTERPIECE, but I'm so glad that, apparently, you do too!!!

    1. In the Bedroom is brilliant -- I love it too. I also love the collection of short stories which inspired it.

    2. I love, love, love that film. Huge influence on Wait. Its stillness, its bitterness, its emotional brutality. Such a real film. Ah, I love it.

  4. So many great titles here. I haven't though about Thirteen in years. What a powerful movie that is! I was a wreck after that one. Having said that, American Splendor is a fantastic film as well. That's a good one to lose to. Obviously, time has told us different about most of these Sundance losers. Great post!

    1. Thanks man! And exactly, it's so interesting how time has proven to be better to some of these "loser" than some of the "winners." Way it goes though. Thirteen is such a powerful movie. Really devastating.

  5. I didn't like In the Company of Men at all. But, of course, you have some films on this list that I love. Adding Down to the Bone to my queue now.

    1. I get that. It's so goddamn nasty. No one in that film has a redeemable quality to them. But I just adore how unapologetic it is. I mean, I've met guys like those guys. Can you imagine? Holy hell.

    2. You pretty much summed up why I didn't like the film, but I get where you're coming from. I've never met guys like that, but I can imagine. Holy shit.

      Down to the Bone definitely caught my eye -- it's on the way from Netflix as we speak. ;-)

    3. Down to the Bone is something I think you'll appreciate. It's addiction done right. No cheap emotion in that one.

  6. Man, I've seen a lot of these films. Yet, the films that usually don't win are the ones that would go into greatness which sort of means that the Grand Jury Prize and all of that don't mean shit.

    1. Exactly. So funny how that works. Time is the true winner, you know?

  7. I've seen a lot of these, but I still have a lot to catch up on (particularly the documentaries). Still, the ones I've seen are all fantastic films. I really appreciate Sundance for its willingness to go all out for the true indie film, like Thirteen or Down to the Bone to give examples.

    What's your most anticipated film from this year's Sundance slate? A few of mine would be Brooklyn, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Z for Zacariah and The Witch.

    1. I'm definitely interested in the Sarah Silverman one, I Smile Back. So curious to see what she does with heavy drama. The Stanford Prison Experiment sounds fascinating as well. I have a few friends there now, so I'll have to get at them for recos!

  8. I've aeen post of the ones you've highlighted. The ones that actually won? Not so much. I mean what the hell is In the Soup? Goes to show that regardless of the immediate spoils going to lesser movies, greatness gets its due in the long run.

    1. Yep, exactly. It's very interesting to see how time proves to be the real winner.

  9. You're got some wonderful films on this list, Thirteen being my favorite. I can't believe Blue Valentine lost out to Winter's Bone.

    That really bums me out about Maria Full of Grace as well. When that film first came out, I thought Moreno would be on to big things.

    1. And who knows, maybe Moreno didn't become a star by choice? I'm just speculating, but, hell, the talent is definitely there. I always seek her out when she's in something new.

  10. So awesome to see Thirteen on the list, that film is so good and underrated. I wonder what will win this year - the one movie that really intrigues me is The Witch which is getting quite impressive reviews

    1. I really love Thirteen. It's pretty damn relentless. I'm very curious to see what wins out this year as well. Sounds like there's some great stuff there.

  11. Terrific work here, man. So many great films missed out. How did films like sex, lies and videotape, Hoop Dreams, Reservoir Dogs, Memento, and Half Nelson lose?!

    1. Thanks man. Ha, exactly! So crazy.

    2. It's always interesting to look back, and realize what films were considered good, over other films released the same year. Like, Do The Right Thing is a masterpiece, but lost to Driving Miss Daisy at the Academy Awards. But who the hell remembers Driving Miss Daisy? As good as The Believer is, it's Memento that people actually watched.

    3. Yep, as Alejandro González Iñárritu said during his Oscar speech, time really is the best factor in determining what is great.

  12. Great post(s). Are you planing to do a top 10-20 or ranking of the films that won Palme d'Or?

    1. Ohh good idea. Haven't seen as many as those, though. Might not be fair to do that post since I still have so many more to see, you know?

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