10 Movies that Premiered at Sundance 20 Years Ago

Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

Today, the Sundance Film Festival kicks off in beautiful Park City, Utah. Since 1978, the fest has been a launching point for independent filmmakers and a staple of American cinema. Many notable American directors—including Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Steven Soderbergh—have shown films at Sundance over the past 38 years, and it continues to be the home of fresh and exciting young independent voices. Here are 10 movies that premiered at Sundance in 1994.

1. Clerks // Director: Kevin Smith

Director Kevin Smith’s debut feature film Clerks was a labor of love and devotion. After selling his comic book collection, maxing out a few credit cards, and collecting insurance money for a car he lost in a flood, the then-23-year-old director made the black-and-white feature film. But Smith's dedication paid off: Clerks won the festival's Filmmakers Trophy (in a tie with Boaz Yakin’s film Fresh), and Miramax purchased the film’s distribution rights. Ultimately, the film launched Kevin Smith’s career in Hollywood and inspired many film school students to make their own low budget movies.

2. Reality Bites // Director: Ben Stiller

Reality Bites, which took a look at a group of new college graduates struggling to find meaning during an economic recession, helped to make its young cast—including Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, and Ben Stiller—household names after it premiered out of competition at Sundance in 1994. For many 20-somethings, Reality Bites was a cultural touchstone, and became one of the films that defined Generation X.

3. Spanking the Monkey // Director: David O. Russell

While director David O. Russell is receiving critical and commercial success for his latest film, American Hustle, the New York City-born director got his start with the film Spanking the Monkey at Sundance in 1994. The witty and surprisingly touching film about a mother and son developing a deep and emotional relationship won over audiences with its sharp dialogue and irreverent comedy. Monkey won the Audience Award and started Russell on a path towards making celebrated American movies. The film later won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay.

4. Fresh // Director: Boaz Yakin

Following the life of a 12-year-old boy who starts to sell drugs in a New York City housing project, Fresh virtually went unnoticed among general audiences, but received critical acclaim during its premiere at Sundance. Writer and director Boaz Yakin’s debut film earned the then-27-year-old New York City native the Filmmaker Trophy (which he shared with director Kevin Smith), while star Sean Nelson—who played the titular character—won the festival’s Special Jury Prize for Acting.

5. Four Weddings and a Funeral // Director: Mike Newell

While the light-hearted and breezy Four Weddings and a Funeral was not in competition during the Sundance Film Festival, the romantic comedy from director Mike Newell and screenwriter Richard Curtis was the fest’s opening night selection. The film went on to gross $245.7 million worldwide, and earned a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1994.

6. Mi Vida Loca // Director: Allison Anders

Allison Anders' Mi Vida Loca took a look at Los Angeles Mexican street gang culture from a young woman’s point of view. While the film is still one of the very few movies about Hispanic young women, Loca is notable for featuring real-life gang members from Los Angeles' Echo Park and depicting street life in a brutally honest and realistic way. Anders, who also served on Sundance’s dramatic jury that year, would later direct a segment of The Room and the films Grace of My Heart and Sugar Town.

7. The Hudsucker Proxy // Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Joel and Ethan Coen’s first big budget movie, The Hudsucker Proxy, was also the brothers' first and only box office bomb. Garnering a mixed critical response out of premiere screenings during Sundance, the screwball comedy grossed a disappointing $2.8 million when it was officially released in March 1994. The story about a dopy aspiring inventor, Proxy was a collaboration between the Coens and director Sam Raimi, who was a co-writer on the film, which is seen today as an underrated movie in the Coens' filmography.

8. Clean, Shaven // Director: Lodge Kerrigan

Clean, Shaven follows a man who suffers from schizophrenia trying to get his daughter back from her adoptive mother. Lodge Kerrigan’s debut film experienced a rocky two-year production that saw the first-time director persistently running out of money during shooting. Clean, Shaven failed to find a general audience upon its release, but later saw success as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection.

9. River of Grass // Director: Kelly Reichardt

Director Kelly Reichardt has built an outstanding career over the years that includes films like Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff. Her debut feature film, River of Grass, followed a young couple on the run throughout Florida after a shooting. While the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize during the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, Grass lost to Tom Noonan’s Whatever Happened Was…

10. Hoop Dreams // Director: Steve James

Director Steve James’ documentary about two inner city high school students in Chicago with aspirations for the NBA is, arguably, one of the greatest American movies of all time. The film Hoop Dreams was the end result of over five years of filming. James and his editors Frederick Marx and Bill Haugse managed to whittle down over 250 hours of footage into a very comprehensive and engaging documentary that clocked in at nearly 3 hours; Hoop Dreams won the Audience Award Documentary at Sundance in 1994.

While Hoop Dreams wasn't nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, the film was nominated for Best Editing, but lost to Forrest Gump. The film is now part of the Criterion Collection and is considered the benchmark for sports documentaries today.