As the 2017 Sundance Film Festival opens this month in Park City, Utah, we look back at five maverick-minded must-watch indie films.
Established in 1978, the Sundance Film Festival has become the apex of American independent cinema. This institution recognizes the radical, artistic and often quirky facets of indie culture, offering emergent filmmakers a creative and free-expressive medium outside the mainstream Hollywood parameters. Beyond the commercialization of major production companies, this niche market focuses on communicating the visceral, sometimes dysfunctional themes of our broader existence.
Here are our top five most unconventional films to debut at Sundance.
Swiss Army Man
This surrealist comedy-drama premiered at Sundance in 2016, earning the coveted US Dramatic Directing Award and generating instant hype from both critics and viewers alike. Based on the paradoxical premise of a suicidal man reawakening a corpse to life’s meaning and purpose, this film is among the most enigmatic narratives Sundance has ever showcased. Although punctuated with absurd comedic elements (think: incessant flatulence, repurposed limbs and bizarre survival techniques), at its crux Swiss Army Man probes the enduring existential motifs of human connection, renewed perception and self-actualization.
500 Days of Summer
This offbeat critique of the romantic comedy genre premiered at Sundance in 2009, becoming a worldwide sensation despite its marginal production budget and limited-release media circuit. Depicted through a nonlinear narrative to echo the narrator’s disjointed musings, this film is unabashed in its rejection of that “soulmate” archetype glamorized by the studio system. Instead, 500 Days of Summer portrays two quasi-hipsters grappling with the imminent disintegration of romance. Their separation even makes the argument that chemistry alone cannot sustain a relationship: the basic antithesis of Hollywood idealism.
This film-noir-esque thriller with a derisively humorous edge premiered at Sundance in 2008, attracting a cult fandom based on its poignant exchange of tragedy and hilarity. Centered on a novice hit man’s shooting-gone-wrong, the genuine camaraderie along with incisive dialogue and farcical misadventures sharply contrast with the more exaggerated, melodramatic tropes of a box-office crime caper. As the guilt-wracked protagonist contends with residual bitterness, anguish, cynicism and remorse, In Bruges underscores the postmodern theme of ethical ambiguity when embroiled in unprecedented conditions.
This unnerving yet ingenious psychological whodunit premiered at Sundance in 2001, garnering the US Screenwriting Award for its creators, Christopher Nolan (Inception) and Jonathan Nolan (Westworld). Pieced together in a reverse chronological sequence, the film juxtaposes black-and-white Polaroid images with vibrant flashback scenes to mirror the central character’s post-traumatic amnesia. Consumed by information he cannot recall and vengeance he cannot satiate, this antihero is wedged between repressed memories, lucid fragments and vacant spaces through which Memento debunks a progressive, although indeterminate, collapse into madness.
This satirical and sardonic horror film premiered at Sundance in 2000, polarizing audiences who either commended its interpretation of human depravity or questioned its irreverent absurdism. The ironic fusion of a protagonist who simultaneously embodies both “Wall Street tycoon” and “homicidal maniac” echoes the narcissism, desensitization and materialism of urban yuppie culture. Through a perverse, often laughable approach, American Psycho dissects how the fixation with professional, financial or societal eminence can debase one’s integrity, producing a generation of cutthroat egotists in a world without catharsis.
What are your favorite indie films?