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By Mark Bell | January 19, 2007

Every year someone leaves the Sundance Film Festival saying “this was the best year ever.” Wait two minutes, and someone else will follow-up with “this was the worst year ever.” Every year, best and worst. In order to assist in debate, Film Threat’s Mark Bell counters with the Top Ten Sundance Film Festivals, taking into account future careers, influence on the film world and overall quality of films, both mainstream and independent…

10. 1987 Sundance Film Festival
“Hoosiers” and “The River’s Edge” are cinema classics, and they both played Sundance in 1987. Two years before indie film was born of Steven Soderbergh, the bar was being set.

9. 2006 Sundance Film Festival
The 2006 festival rocked the crossover independent films, specifically the breakout “Little Miss Sunshine.” Other notable films included “Brick,” “Half Nelson” and the documentary powerhouse double-shot of “An Inconvenient Truth” and “God Grew Tired of Us.”

8. 1993 Sundance Film Festival
The current patron saint of no-budget, no-crew, DIY-filmmaking, Robert Rodriguez, found himself at the 1993 fest with his feature debut “El Mariachi.” All of a sudden, 10-minute film school seemed like more than enough of an education, and a million filmmakers dove into the fray.

7. 1990 Sundance Film Festival
The year most well-known for launching political provocateur (and eventual caricature of himself) Michael Moore with his documentary coup-de-grace “Roger and Me.” The film didn’t capture the top prize, but went on to be one of the more profitable indie documentaries in history, and began the “documentary by surprise attack starring the director” emulated by so many supposedly “objective” filmmakers.

6. 1985 Sundance Film Festival The festival didn’t lack for filmmaking talent in the mid-80’s, though we tend to focus on the 90’s. The Coen Brothers brought Grand Jury Prize winning “Blood Simple,” and Jarmusch made one of many trips to the festival with “Stranger than Paradise.” Maybe not a year for the filmmakers that would move box office mountains, but if a financial value could be placed on influence on future filmmakers, this year would score high.

5. 1999 Sundance Film Festival
The indie sensation that delivered a box office that was only dwarfed by the eventual backlash against the film, “The Blair Witch Project” found itself rocking the mainstage. If you were in Park City that year, you were wondering along with everyone else if the film was real, whether you’re willing to admit it or not. Many filmmakers also got a drunken glance into their filmmaking future with the documentary “American Movie,” which proved that just because you have a dream and passion, doesn’t mean you can make a movie.

4. 1989 Sundance Film Festival
Festival selection ”sex, lies and videotape” often gets credit for igniting the independent film scene as we came to know it in the early to mid 90’s, but the film that I keep returning to whenever I think of the 1989 fest is “Heathers.” Winona Ryder before she was so famous she had to steal clothes, and Christian Slater before… well, what DID happen to that guy? Save “Bobby,” he fell off the face of the filmmaking world. Bonus points for this year’s decision to show a 15-film John Cassavetes showcase.

3. 2004 Sundance Film Festival
If you had to choose a year that was the most mainstream-friendly, the 2004 festival provided the necessary crossover films. “Super Size Me” taught us that fast food was bad for us, “Garden State” showed us that Zach Braff sure can brood and “Napoleon Dynamite” brought moon-boots and “Vote for Pedro” shirts into the fashion-world. And yet, an almost incomprehensible “Primer” won the Grand Jury Prize, reminding filmmakers that making something for nothing doesn’t always equate to crap.

2. 1994 Sundance Film Festival
Both a blessing and a curse, the 1994 Sundance found Ben Stiller hitting his onscreen stride (whatever that means) with his feature debut “Reality Bites,” Kevin Smith re-defining foul-mouthed comedy with “Clerks” and the beginning of Hugh Grant’s stammering British love interest schtick in “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” On sheer future box office earnings, the talent that came through the 1994 festival was extremely influential.

1. 1992 Sundance Film Festival
The year independent film hit its festival peak! The 1992 festival included the beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s influential career with “Reservoir Dogs,” Jim Jarmusch shared his “Night on Earth,” Alison Anders unveiled “Gas Food Lodging” and Errol Morris gave us his Documentarty Grand Jury Prize-winning “A Brief History of Time.” By the time this festival hit, filmmakers were making a shrine to Sundance as the end-all road to independent filmmaking greatness.

In the end, with the 2007 Sundance Film Festival upon us, the list is open to active revision and argument. The one consistent aspect of the festival seems to have been its polarizing quality of programming, and there’s no doubt that will continue as long as indie films are shown in the mountains of Park City, UT.

– Mark Bell, E-i-C, Making Lists and Dodging Debate…

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