Let’s Dance Again – The 40th Sundance Film Festival Returns to Utah
by Alex Billington
January 21, 2024
As I settled into my first few screenings at Sundance, I’m overwhelmed by the emotions and memories and feelings I’ve had about this festival. I’ve been attending for 18 years – quite a long time considering I started this blog when I was only 20. It was a whole different festival back in 2007, my very first year, and much has changed since then. Sundance is celebrating its 40th Anniversary this year – much has changed since it first started as well. Sundance was founded in 1978 as the United States Film Festival (aka Utah/US Film Fest), started by Robert Redford and his company. The title was switched to Sundance in 1984, and this is the date they’ve chosen to designate this as the 40th anniversary. While the festival has been evolving and adapting and updating, there is one thing that has stayed the same after all these years – the films. I spend money year after year to fly over to Utah and attend Sundance because it’s really all about the films. Good or bad, big or small, there’s always an amazing wealth of must see films at Sundance year after year after year.
Thinking back over the past 18 years of Sundance, so much of my life is connected to this festival. The first few years I attended, I would drive from Colorado to Salt Lake City and crash on my brother’s couch. Later I was splitting condos with many blogger friends – Peter from SlashFilm, Neil from Film School Rejects, Erik from Fandango, and many others – which was a whole crazy fun era of its own. I will never forget the night I watched Call Me By Your Name at the premiere at Sundance 2017. I came out of that screening high on cinema, literally dancing through the streets to a nearby restaurant, where I then chatted with a friend for an hour about how brilliant it is. I will never forget the audience going wild at the end of the world premiere of 500 Days of Summer at Sundance 2009 many years ago. I also remember meeting and interviewing Luc Besson at my very first Sundance in 2007, which was a formative moment for me because The Fifth Element is one of my all-time favorite movies, and I took the interview (he was there for his film Angel-A) for that reason alone. Mainly to meet him & spend a bit of time chatting with him (you can still read that interview).
In celebration of its 40th Anniversary, Sundance revealed a Top 10 list of their all-time best films as chosen by a selection of 500+ filmmakers, critics (myself included), and other industry members. None of my Top 10 picks made the final list, but that’s okay! It’s still a great list of some fantastic, unforgettable Sundance premieres. While Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Myrick & Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project didn’t make the cut either, that doesn’t mean they aren’t memorable – obviously they’re iconic films from Sundance’s esteemed history. They also provided a list of over 4000 films that played at Sundance over its 40 years, and browsing through it is overwhelming seeing how much came out of this festival. Sundance is known as the launching ground for many filmmakers – it’s truly a festival of discovery, a place to showcase new work, new voices, new ideas. Even experimental concepts – not everything will work and that’s fine. The Safdie Brothers’ film Daddy Longlegs was heavily panned when it premiered at Sundance in 2010, but they went on to have an illustrious career anyway. Not even film needs to be a breakout hit to have an influence on cinema anyway.
Here’s the final list of Sundance’s Top 10 Films of All-Time according to the various people who submitted:
And here’s my own list of my favorite Sundance films that I submitted as my picks for this anniversary list:
I’m glad to be back at Sundance, and I hope the festival continues to evolve. It seems to have outgrown itself again – a number of classic venues are gone for good, and the few theaters that still remain in Park City are overcrowded, with some people even being turned away. Everyone seems to only come to Park City for the opening weekend of Sundance, and not many are left during the second half. I always stay until the end, I can’t miss all these good films! It used to be the norm for many of the film bloggers back in the day. We’d always stay all 10 days, and the “Closing Night” party used to be a special moment at the end of it all to get together and shake off the festival. Nowadays, it seems everyone can only afford the cost of attending for the first few days, but it’s also more exhausting than ever. There is always more films to see, but the schedule and the crowds make it a taxing effort to go from one-to-the-next, catching buses downtown to Main Street and back. I wish we could all stick it out until the very end, but it’s getting harder & harder to do ever year.
Nonetheless, Sundance is flying and the films are lighting up the screens. I’ve witnessed a few big standing ovations already, which is a good sign Sundance has programmed some genuinely incredible films. It’s the most riveting and exciting experience to watch films with these audiences, 1000 of us all together at Eccles, staring at one screen. Laughing, crying, cheering, clapping, gasping together as the film unfurls in front of us. Memories from many years at Sundance have been all about the people here. And I will keep saying it, year after year, that I come back to Sundance for the people and for the films. They are what bring me back. This is the film community, the Sundance community, that keeps the fest going. This is the real spirit of the festival. It’s not the parties, it’s not the celebrities, it’s this celebration of cinema, this joy of discovery, this excitement of the power of storytelling. Now for some sleep before I wake up bright & early for my next film.