Every January, the film world puts on their best ski parkas and snow boots and heads to Park City for the Sundance Film Festival. For Focus Features, Sundance has—and continues to be—a place to discover new talent, showcase new films, and reconnect with old friends. This year, Focus will be premiering two films: Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (in theaters March 13) in the Dramatic Competition and Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (in theaters April 17) as part of the Premiers slate. For both filmmakers, Sundance is like an old friend. Fennel’s first film, her short Careful How You Go, was chosen for the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Hittman’s debut feature It Felt Like Love appeared at the 2013 festival, and her sophomore film, Beach Rats, won the Directing Award in 2017.
In honor of Sundance showcasing the best in contemporary cinema, we look back at some of our favorite festival years and films.
2019 | The Mustang
Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s debut The Mustang reflects much of what makes Sundance special. In the film, an inmate in a Nevada prison (Matthias Schoenaerts) is assigned the task of training a wild horse, a job that in the end calms his own violent nature as much as tames the beast. Although Clermont-Tonnerre is French, her film connects with the same stark beauty of the American West that the festival and its host town of Park City celebrate. For Clermont-Tonnerre, the Sundance Festival and Institute became her home away from home while she worked on her feature. After programming her short Rabbit for the 2015 festival, Sundance invited Clermont-Tonnerre to develop The Mustang as part of its Directors Lab. “Sundance has been so wonderful in holding my hand through developing this project,” recalls Clermont-Tonnerre. Indeed, Sundance founder Robert Redford believed in her vision so much that he stepped up to become an executive producer of The Mustang.
2018 | Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Tully
In 2018, Focus presented two very different films at the Sundance Film Festival. A stirring reminder of the enduring power of kindness, Morgan Neville’s remembrance of Fred Rogers Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was shown as part of the Documentary Premieres section. SlashFilm recalls, “As the credits rolled here at Sundance, sniffles could be heard as many audience members wiped tears from their eyes and cheeks, yours truly included.” In addition, Focus took over the Secret Screening slot, which the year before showed Jordan Peele’s Get Out. In 2018, the surprise movie was Jason Reitman’s Tully, whose unexpected plot twist made it the perfect candidate. Teaming up again with writer Diablo Cody, Reitman creates a modern fable about a stressed-out mother (Charlize Theron) who finds unexpected help from a mysterious stranger named Tully (Mackenzie Davis).
2017 | Thoroughbreds
In 2017, Focus introduced filmmaker Cory Finley, whose “sleek and stylish visual language makes Thoroughbreds a must-see, and one of the best surprises out of Sundance,” notes Screen Crush. In turning from playwright to director, Finley added a remarkable cinematic flair to his already evident ear for dialogue and sense of character. Here, two young women—Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke—from a world of privilege find unsettling new ways to amuse themselves.
2011 | Pariah
In 2011, Entertainment Weekly’s Sundance headline read, “Pariah and a jolt of raw honesty on the first full day of the festival.” While Dee Rees’ debut feature began as a short film, Sundance Institute soon invited the young filmmaker to develop it into a feature at their Screenwriters and Directors Labs. When the film was finished, Sundance chose it to open the 2011 festival. Rees’ intimate portrait of a Brooklyn teenager coming to terms with her life, dreams, and sexuality proved a revelation in multiple ways. The film’s star Adepero Oduye was named by The Daily Beast as a Breakout Star, the director of photography Bradford Young won the Cinematography Award, and Rees’ talent was fully realized when Focus acquired Pariah for distribution.
2010 | The Kids Are All Right
In 2010, audiences crowded into the Park City Library to catch a glimpse of Lisa Cholodenko’s gay family comedy The Kids Are All Right, a film that became, as The Los Angeles Times reported, “a Sundance sensation.” Cholodenko’s tale of two moms (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) whose world is turned upside down when their children’s sperm-donor dad (Mark Ruffalo) enters the picture won over audiences for being, according to Salon, “so real, so sexy, so sad, so honest and so truly, heartbreakingly funny.” After a fierce bidding war, the filmmakers chose to go with Focus and the film went on to be a box office smash, as well as garner four Academy Award® nominations for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture.
2009 | Sin Nombre
Variety greeted Cary Fukunaga’s debut feature about immigrants traveling by train through Mexico to get to America with the headline, “A big new talent arrives on the scene with Sin Nombre.” For them, this “quintessential Sundance movie” showcased the young director’s extraordinary attention to detail and talent for storytelling. Fukunaga, who won the Sundance Dramatic Directing Award for Sin Nombre, has continued to fulfill everyone’s high hopes with Jane Eyre, True Detective, and the upcoming new James Bond film.
2008 | In Bruges and Hamlet 2
In 2008, two very different comedies lit up the Sundance Film festival with laughter. As the opening night film, Martin McDonagh’s debut feature In Bruges gave audiences a hilariously profane tale of two hit men (Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) taking some downtime in that sacred medieval city. An equally over-the-top comedy, albeit this time set in Tucson, was Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2. When an actor-turned-drama-teacher (Steve Coogan) decides to write a musical sequel to the Bard’s immortal tragedy, the resulting production goes from the insane to the sublime. Seeing the comedy at Park City, CinemaBlend recalled how the madcap plot took “the film from funny to hilarious and left me feeling great as I left the theater.”
2005 | Brick
Decades before poking fun at murder mysteries with his blockbuster Knives Out, writer/director Rian Johnson showed off his clever grasp of hard-boiled pulp with his debut feature Brick. Programmed as part of the Dramatic Competition, this film noir stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as teen gumshoe in a contemporary Southern California high school out to solve the murder of his ex-girlfriend. The film’s unique style caught the attention of Roger Ebert, who proclaimed it, “a film noir to its very bones, consistent and creepy from beginning to end.” For his unique style, the festival awarded Johnson a Special Jury Prize for the film’s “Originality of Vision.”