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10 Movies that Premiered at Sundance 20 Years Ago

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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.

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.


No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.


Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.


The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.


Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.


David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC

At its best, San Diego Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.


In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.


Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’s Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."


John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”


The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of 2016 and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Just a few months later, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.


Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.


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