11 Great Indie Movies that Took The Top Prize at The Sundance Film Festival

6. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of The Southern Wild (2012)

Although this film has faced some backlash since its release and success, it remains one of the most original and impressive films to win the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic.

At the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild, not only won the Grand Jury Prize, it also won the Excellence in Cinematography award for its beautiful scenic shots of the “bathtub”. Starring first-timers Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry in superb performances, the film follows a young girl and her father and their adventures in a flooded bayou.

One of the most successful films to win the Grand Jury Prize, Beasts, was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for first-time director Benh Zeitlan and Best Actress for 9-year-old Wallis, the youngest Best Actress nominee ever. It also won the Camera-D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of 2012. We are just waiting for another film from Benh Zeitlan. Benh, we’re waiting.


7. Whiplash (2014)


Written and directed Damien Chazelle and based on his experience in the Princeton High School Studio Band, Whiplash is a film that hits hard. Starring Miles Teller and J.K Simmons as an ambitious jazz student and his abusive instructor respectively.

The film opened limited in the US and Canada in October 2014, then it was shown as the opening film at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, to great acclaim. It was there that Whiplash won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and the Top Audience Award for a dramatic picture. After being shown at Sundance, the film expanded to over 500 screens and eventually made $33.1 million against a production budget of $3.3 million.

The film and the performances of Teller and especially Simmons were praised. Whiplash has a positive rating of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and appeared on several top 10 lists for best film of 2014, earning 2 first place rankings. The film received 5 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor for J.K Simmons, Best Sound Mixing and Best Adapted Screenplay.

It won three Oscars that night, for Film Editing, Sound Mixing, and Supporting Actor. With particular praise placed on Simmons and the editing, Whiplash has been one of Sundance’s most recent success stories.


8. American Splendor (2003)

American Splendor

This biographical comedy-drama is the only comic book movie to win the top prize at Sundance. It is based on the late Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical underground graphic novel. The film was written and directed by documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who shared writing credit with Pekar and his wife, Joyce Brabner.

Starring Paul Giamatti, in a masterful performance, as Harvey Pekar, and Hope Davis as his wife, American Splendor won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival and the Best Adapted Screenplay award from the Writers Guild of America, among other accolades.

At the Cannes Film Festival, later in 2003, the film won the FIPRESCI (critics) prize, it was also nominated for the best adapted screenplay at the Academy Awards and has a 94% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

A favorite of critics guilds all over the country, American Splendor and its stars were nominated and won several critics awards and it was thought that the film was going to nominated for some major Academy Awards. That, however was not the case, but it doesn’t mean that American Splendor is not a formally bold and enlightening motion picture.


9. Fruitvale Station (2013)

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Written and directed by Ryan Coogler in his first feature-length film, Fruitvale Station, or Fruitvale as it was known when it premiered the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, follows the last day of Oscar Grant III, who was gunned down by a BART police officer in Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland, California.

Starring Michael B. Jordan as Grant, and featuring great supporting performances from Melanie Diaz and Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and the Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Backed by producer Forest Whitaker, the film also competed in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won Best New Film. After setting off a bidding war for its distribution at Sundance, The Weinstein Company won out and released the film in July 2013.

From its release, the film and its stars have received plenty of acclaim, award nominations and wins. However, unlike many Weinstein productions, Fruitvale Station was mostly forgotten by Academy Awards time, where it received no nominations. Despite that the film landed on many critics top 10 lists and Coogler’s second feature film is due this fall.


10. Precious by on the novel “Push” by Sapphire (2009)

Precious (2009)

Adapted from the novel Push by Sapphire, as the title would suggest, Precious, at the film is commonly known has been one of the most successful and well known Sundance products. Coming into the 2009 Sundance Film Festival without a distributor, the film won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, Audience Award for a dramatic film, and a Special Jury Prize for supporting actress Mo’nique.

It went on to compete in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival and earn 6 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. After the screening at Sundance, Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry provided promotional support for the film, which was released through Lionsgate Entertainment.

Precious follows an obese, illiterate 16-year-old girl Claireece Precious Jones who lives in Harlem with her dysfunctional, abusive, and unemployed mother Mary, who subjects her to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Starring Gabourey Sidibe in her acting debut as Precious and Mo’nique as her mother Mary, Precious received rave reviews for its performances and the raw and real script from Geoffrey Fletcher, won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

Mo’nique swept the major awards, winning the BAFTA, Golden Globe, Oscar, Critics Choice, and Screen Actors Guild. Precious is a powerful film, that is not only successful, but has stayed true to itself, it’s faced some backlash since its release but it remains an amazing Sundance product.


11. The Believer (2001)

The Believer (2001)

Loosely based on the true story of Daniel Burros, The Believer follows Daniel Balint, a fervent religious student of Judaism who becomes a leader in the Neo-Nazi movement. Balint, who is played brilliantly and powerfully by Ryan Gosling, is troubled and trying to decide between his beliefs and his heritage. Balint’s very foundation of his religious and cultural upbringing are shattered as his struggle continues.

The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, struggled to find distribution after the festival, eventually being shown on Showtime nearly 18 months after it won the big prize. This is not too surprising as the film is provocative and enormously powerful that confronts taboo subjects head on.

Despite the rave reviews and launching the career of now mega-star Ryan Gosling, this film now is mostly forgotten. Which is a real shame because director Henry Bean takes the viewer on a complicated journey that is both enlightening and enthralling. Its a journey that is hard to watch and yet creates an unforgettable viewing experience. Henry Bean’s film is challenging, thought provoking and intellectually rigorous and it is one that deserves an airing after not being distributed for its controversial topic.

Author Bio: Ryan Anderson is a sophomore at Miami University in Oxford Ohio, where he is studying Zoology and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies. His love of classic cinema and film history keeps his love for film strong and ever-present in his life.