Welcome to the inarguable Shelf Help column. Weekly, your friendly Shelfers will take on one question, and then toss it out to our readers to see what your answer would be.
This week: What is your favourite Sundance film?
If you love this year’s Oscar nominee American Factory, then American Dream is a must-see. American Dream, like American Factory, is a laudably immersive portrait of a workers’ strike. Barbara Kopple’s film takes audiences to the front lines of a strike at Homel Foods in Austin, Minnesota. Her camera captures the meatpackers as they brave the deep cold to fight a wage cut following a profitable year for the company. The film captures perspectives of employees across the corporate ladder with laudable access. Kopple’s film witnesses the working class struggle and widening class divisions of Reagan era America. Again embedding herself within the homes and lives of the subjects whose story she presented, Kopple asks how the democratic spirit of organized labour could withstand the nation’s pursuit of unfettered capitalism.
American Dream is an essential Sundance story not simply for its brilliance but for the tale of its road to success. Kopple saved the film from freezing on the picket lines when the budget rain dry and credit lines were maxed out. In a total Hail Mary, Kopple pleaded her case to Bruce Springsteen and appealed to his working class spirit. The Boss came through with a $25,000 grant that helped see the production to completion. The risk paid off as American Dream emerged from Sundance with a whopping three awards: the Grand Jury Prize, Audience Award, and Filmmakers’ Trophy. It also scored Kopple her second Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature after 1976’s Harlan County, USA and further cemented her status as one of the leading documentary filmmakers. – Pat Mullen
Now a cult classic, Heathers came out of nowhere, premiering at the 1989 festival. Clever and cutthroat, the highly-quotable flick about mean girls was the antithesis of the John Hughes’ feel-good Brat Pack contingent of the era. Bold, brash, and never politically correct, Winona Ryder delivers one of her best performances opposite a swoon-worthy Christian Slater. More than 30 years after its debut, its fashions may have faded (Hey! Scrunchies and shoulder pads are making a comeback), but it’s still just as relevant and shocking as ever. This is how teen films should be done. – Rachel West
Just Another Girl
One of my favourite Sundance films is Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. Winner of the Special Jury Recognition award in 1993, the film captures the indie spirit and sense of discover that is synonymous with the festival. Leslie Harris’ powerful coming-of-age tale film follows 17-year-old high school student Chantel (Ariyan A Johnson) who is determined not to conform to societal views of what it means to be black girl in the inner city. She aspires to go to college to become a doctor so that she can leave her poor Brooklyn neighbourhood.
What makes Harris’s film so enthralling and heartbreaking is Chantel herself. She is a smart young woman who is not afraid to speak her mind. Chantel thinks she has the world figured out but has so much to learn. As Harris peels back the layers, it becomes clear that escaping one’s environment is easier said than done. Chantel’s may be working towards her dreams, but she is not prepared for the academic and romantic curveballs life throws at her. Equally amusing and touching, Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. is the type of gem cinephiles flock to Sundance for. – Courtney Small
Call Me By Your Name
The best films are the ones that stick with you for the long haul. These “stick with you” movies stand out because they offer windows into unexplored worlds, wrestle with challenging themes, and flat out entertain.
But sometimes a movie sticks with you because it hits close to home. And Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name rekindles old feelings of first love that feel so specific, it’s as if this story is about me.
And that hyper-specificity is peculiar thing. I’ve never summered in Italy or fallen head over heels for an older man (or any man for that matter). But CMBYN paints such an intimate portrait of the insecurities and vulnerabilities that come with first love, that the movie’s themes feel universal.
There are many reasons CMBYN stands out to me from several decades’ worth of Sundance films. There is recency bias, sure, but this movie is still a gem. Who can forget the Armie Hammer dance sequence that sparked a thousand memes? There is also Timothée Chalamet announcing himself as the new DiCaprio. And of course, near the end of the film there is that wistful Michael Stuhlbarg moment that sums up Elio’s journey. *Sigh…*
With its sensual score and sun-drenched cinematography, watching CMBYN feels like closing your eyes and floating through a long-forgotten memory. The result is a bittersweet tale of love and longing that warms the heart even as it slowly tears it apart. – Victor Stiff
The Sundance Film Festival has always been a place for up-and-coming directors and exciting new films to make a big splash. Well, back in 1985 those emerging filmmakers were a couple of guys named Joel and Ethan from Minnesota and the film in question was Blood Simple. The Coen Brothers’ jet black Texas-set neo noir premiered at Sundance that year and it served as both an exemplar of what late twentieth century American indie cinema could be and a calling card that presaged the Coens’ four decades of incredible, unforgettable work (okay, so maybe not The Ladykillers).
Starring a then-unknown Frances McDormand in the first of many professional collaborations with her husband and brother in law and an uncharacteristically terrifying turn from character actor M. Emmet Walsh, Blood Simple is simply one of the best American crime movies ever made. The fact that Sundance recognized this fact at the time and awarded the film their Grand Jury Prize tells you all you need to know about the fest. They’re more than just tastemakers, they’ve helped define the modern cinematic canon and we’re all the better for it. – Will Perkins
What is the definitive Sundance film? For features I often point to Little Miss Sunshine as it has many of the key ingredients – indie cred, a TV actor making a play at theatrical success, a legendary actor in a quirky role, a dance sequence, and the regular mix of highs and lows that are most easily articulated in the catch-all phrase “dramedy”.
For me above all Sundance has been the home to some of the most stellar documentaries of the last decades, with the onslaught of truly mega films often finding their start here in Park City. It’s difficult to pick just one from the dozens I could list (I could name a half dozen from 2019 alone), but I’ve got a very soft spot for Jesse Moss’ remarkable film about fracking, friendship and the emotionally consequences of being charitable to others while hiding from oneself. The synopsis for Overnighters was also classic Sundance – reading it almost made me want to avoid the screening, as it sounded dull and unoriginal – yet I was transported by this film’s journey, touched by its subject matter and swayed by its sophisticated storytelling and remarkable, tenacious commitment and patience to follow the narrative where it lead. A list of the greatest docs from Sundance is a good start at listing the greatest docs of all time, and there is no higher compliment that can be paid to this remarkable fest. – Jason Gorber