The Sundance Film Festival has become a starting ground for some of the best films of the year. Some of these films are awarded with the top prize for a dramatic film, The Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic. There have been some really successful and critically lauded films that have won this award.
However, not every winner has been a masterpiece and not every great Sundance film has won this award. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Christopher Nolan’s Memento are just two examples of that. However, four of the past six years, excluding 2015, the winner of this award has gone on to be nominated for best picture. There has been 32 winners of this award, here are the best 11.
1. Blood Simple (1985)
Written, directed, edited, and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, Blood Simple is the neo-noir classic that introduced the world to this dazzling duo. It is also the feature film debut of Frances McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife, who would later win an Oscar for the Coen film Fargo.
Blood Simple tells the story of a jealous saloon owner who hires a cheap divorce detective to kill his younger wife and her bartender lover. The detective has other ideas. The film was a modest box office success but it was a huge critical success.
First premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 1984, the film received a boost went it was the second winner ever of the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic. The film really came into the public’s consciousness with the continued success of the Coens and the Director’s cut of the film which was released in 2001.
It was this version that ranked 98th of the American Film Institute’s 100 Thrills list and Bravo’s Scariest Movie Moments. It is darkly funny and fiendishly plotted, which gave a twist to the crime picture. This style would set the tone for everything that was released by the pair since then. Blood Simple was the first great winner of the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, and it is still one of the best to win the award.
2. Winter’s Bone (2010)
Before she was the biggest movie star in the world, Jennifer Lawrence was a young upstart in this independent drama, which is an adaptation of the Daniel Woodrell’s novel of the same name. Lawrence is a teenage girl in the Ozarks who battle through poverty and the underworld of illegal methamphetamine labs. The film introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence through her Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, one of four for the film.
The film received plenty of acclaim, mainly for the astonishing central turn of Lawrence and the against-type performance of John Hawkes as the terrifying Uncle Teardrop. At the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, Winter’s Bone won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. The film was placed on several top 10 lists for the year with seven 1st place finishes.
One of the more successful films to win the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, the film spent 45 weeks in theaters and made $13 million against a $2 million budget and was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2010. Winter’s Bone gave up the chills, and a quiet, yet thrilling atmosphere, it also brought to us an actress of a generation.
3. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
This independent coming-of-age comedy, a topic that would become a frequent one at the Sundance Film Festival, Welcome to the Dollhouse may be the best of them. It follows the nerdy 11-year-old Dawn Wiener (Heather Matazarro) as she navigates a dysfunctional family and junior high.
The film dives deeper into taboo subjects that other coming-of-age films steer away from and there is a deeply painful authenticity about the film that would define director Todd Solondz. Welcome to the Dollhouse launched the careers of Heather Matazarro who would go on to star in The Princess Diary movies and Scream 3, and director Todd Solondz who would direct the controversial but acclaimed Happiness.
The film was a surprise success, considering the film’s independent release and low budget. Critics praised the film’s portrayal of a pre-teen outcast, showing her flaws and cruelness. Welcome to the Dollhouse won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival and was a favorite of Roger Ebert, who named it the fifth on his best films of 1996. Currently, the film continues to be praised for the character and portrayal of teen life through Dawn Wiener.
4. You Can Count on Me (2000)
Set in the fictional Catskills mountain communities of Auburn and Scottsville, New York, You Can Count on Me, is a film that is modest in ambition, but perfect in execution. It tells the tale of Sammy (Laura Linney), a single mother who has complicated relationships with her friends and family, including Mark Ruffalo in a star making role.
Produced by Martin Scorsese and written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan (This is Our Youth) in his directorial debut. The film and the performances of Linney and Ruffalo received rave reviews with award nominations and wins as well.
You Can Count on Me tied with Girlfight for the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, where it also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. It was the wryly funny and distinctly human screenplay is what keeps the film from seeking into its familiar premise.
The screenplay and the direction perfectly set out a mood and tone that transcends the familiarity the premise might have. The human and melancholic screenplay is delivered perfectly by its cast, Linney who was Oscar nominated and Ruffalo, who should have been.The rich, human story and excellent acting make You Can Count on Me one of the best Grand Jury Prize winners ever.
5. Poison (1991)
One of the most original films to win the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, Poison, with its gay themes, basically launched the New Queer Cinema movement.
Winning just the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, the film received a limited theatrical release in the United States. The story is broken down into three interwoven stories, Hero, Horror and Homo. These stories are inspired by the novel of Jean Genet. The film received generally positive review and currently has a 76% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Todd Haynes, the director of Poison, had already dazzled with the short of Karen Carpenter mixed with Barbie, Superstar, he launched his feature film career with Poison.
The film, especially its wildly different and rule-breaking content and style, was hugely controversial at the time. It received a NC-17 rating, which is a tough sell to movie theaters. It was formal introduction to the restlessness and curiosity of Haynes, who go on to direct successful and critically acclaimed films like Far From Heaven and the recent Carol.