1. Joel & Ethan Coen, Blood Simple (Sundance, 1985)
When Joel and Ethan Coen arrived at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival with their debut feature Blood Simple, they were complete unknowns. Co-writer-producer Ethan had no film credits to his name and co-writer/director Joel had only served as an assistant editor on the low-budget horror films Fear No Evil and The Evil Dead. Their debut, named after a term from the Dashiell Hammett novel Red Harvest, was a relentlessly bleak film noir about Marty, a wealthy Texas bar owner (Dan Hedaya). He discovers his unfulfilled wife Abby (Frances McDormand) is cheating on him with his bartender, Ray (John Getz), so he hires a scummy private detective (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill them. After a series of double and triple crosses — and miscommunications — everyone becomes a suspect. "Black humor, abundant originality and a brilliant visual style make Joel Coen's Blood Simple, a directorial debut of extraordinary promise," wrote critic Janet Maslin of The New York Times. The film went on to win the coveted Grand Jury Prize at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival and served as the template for the brothers' blood-splattered brand of black comedy, epitomized by 1996's Fargo. The Coens have since earned 12 Academy Award nominations, winning four—including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay for 2007's No Country For Old Men--and their latest film, the comic western True Grit, has earned a whopping 10 nods, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
2. David O. Russell, Spanking the Monkey (Sundance, 1994)
Before his gritty underdog boxing saga The Fighter head-bodied its way to seven Oscar nominations, including his first ever nod for Best Director, David O. Russell unveiled his debut feature at Sundance in 1994. The dark, witty black comedy Spanking the Monkey was Russell's twist on The Graduate, centering on Raymond (Jeremy Davies), a confused young man who's forced to bail on a summer medical internship to stay home and care for his mother (Alberta Watson) after she injures her leg. In an interesting role-reversal, Raymond must care for his mother—i.e. giving her sponge baths—and the two eventually engage in an incestuous relationship. "With its witty, non-exploitative treatment of a lurid subject, Spanking the Monkey is an unexpected crowd pleaser. It is also the sort of astonishingly fresh and self-assured work that can make a reputation," wrote The New York Times. The film won the Audience Award at Sundance and, to prove it was no fluke, Russell followed it up with the underrated 1996 comedy classic Flirting with Disaster.
3. Darren Aronofsky, Pi (Sundance, 1998)
His biggest critical and box office success to date, Black Swan, is on pace to break $100 million at the domestic box office and nabbed five Academy Award nominations, including Aronofsky's first Best Director nod. However, the filmmaker is no stranger to paranoia-heavy psychological thrillers. His 1998 feature filmmaking debut Pi follows a genius mathematician who builds a supercomputer that holds the algorithm for understanding all existence. He soon becomes the target of a group of Wall Street traders who want to manipulate the stock market, as well as a member of a Hasidic cabalistic sect who wishes to unlock the math-based mysteries of the Torah. Filmed with handheld cameras on a shoestring budget of $60,000, Pi went on to gross over $3 million at the domestic box office--a huge success at the time for a black and white film. Aronofsky garnered heaps of critical praise, including a directing award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered, and comparisons to David Cronenberg. "A triumph of low-end production design, shot in sizzling, solarized black and white, and driven by a propulsive, insinuating score, Pi is a horror movie that makes you think and an indie film that makes you squirm," wrote critic Manohla Dargis of L.A. Weekly.
Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko is a Sundance regular. Her most recent film also premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and incited a fierce bidding war—and with good reason. The Kids Are All Right garnered four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Annette Bening), and Best Original Screenplay (Cholodenko and co-writer Stuart Blumberg). But the film—about two mothers trying to hold their family together—wasn't Cholodenko's first to tackle lesbianism and career ambition. Her debut feature High Art centered on a young female intern (Radha Mitchell) at a tiny magazine company who becomes infatuated with a thrill-seeking lesbian photographer (Ally Sheedy). As they exploit each other in an effort to further their careers, they fall madly in love. The film premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, winning Cholodenko the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the praise of esteemed film critic Roger Ebert, who called High Art "masterful in the little details" in his glowing review.
5. Christopher Nolan, Following (Slamdance, 1999)
Acclaimed hit Hollywood filmmaker Christopher Nolan surprisingly has strong indie roots. Although he was snubbed by the Oscars in the Best Director category this year, his mind-bending blockbuster Inception still earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (Nolan). But the filmmaker's lower-budget debut feature Following wasn't even good enough to make Sundance—instead, it screened at Sundance's tiny Park City film festival competitor Slamdance. The black-and-white film noir tells the story of a young writer who, seeking inspiration for his new novel, follows strangers around for material and eventually falls under the wing of a sly criminal, Cobb (yes, the same name as DiCaprio's character in Inception). The film, labeled "a taut, ingenious British neo-noir" by the Los Angeles Times, won the Black & White Award at Slamdance and Nolan revisited its non-linear plot structure in his follow-up feature Memento, which premiered stateside at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.
6. Debra Granik, Down to the Bone (Sundance, 2004)
The 1998 Sundance Film Festival was a huge year for budding filmmakers, from Darren Aronofsky ( Pi) to Lisa Cholodenko ( High Art) to Blue Valentine's Derek Cianfrance ( Brother Tied). Filmmaker Debra Granik, however, was nestled in the shorts category with Snake Feed, which received an Honorable Mention award at the 1998 festival. Twelve years later, her film Winter's Bone became the surprise hit of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, eventually receiving four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (Granik and Anne Rosellini). Like Winter's Bone, which explored the underworld of meth addiction, her first feature-length film Down to the Bone tracked a mother (Vera Farmiga) stuck in a stale marriage, struggling to manage her children and her terrible drug habit. "The film is so pitch perfect and realistic, it seems you are there with these people, watching their lives unfold before you as it happens," wrote critic G. Allen Johnson of the San Francisco Chronicle. Down to the Bone premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and earned Granik the Directing Award.
7. Tom Hooper, Longford (Sundance, 2007)
Tom Hooper's film The King's Speech is the toast of this year's Academy Awards, garnering 12 nominations—the most of any film—including Best Picture, Best Director, and is nearly a lock for Best Actor nominee for Colin Firth, who plays the stuttering British monarch King George VI. Just a few years ago, however, Hooper quietly unveiled Longford, his sophomore feature film at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. The made-for-TV movie starred Jim Broadbent as Lord Longford, a stubborn, dedicated British politician whose deep religious belief that all people are good--and criminals can be rehabilitated--gets him into hot water with the public and his political adversaries. The film proved that Hooper can coax great performances out of his actors and Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips called Longford "a masterful meditation on the nature and meaning of forgiveness," praising Hooper's "sensitive direction."
8. Banksy, Exit Through the Gift Shop (Sundance, 2010)
Of the five films nominated for this year's Best Documentary Oscar, four premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival-- Gasland, Restrepo, Waste Land, and last but not least, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Even snubbed docs Waiting For Superman and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work premiered at last year's fest. But the most talked about documentary at Sundance 2010 was Exit Through the Gift Shop. Marking the filmmaking debut of acclaimed graffiti artist Banksy, Exit tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant who moves to Los Angeles and idolizes graffiti artists like his cousin Invader, Shepard Fairey, and Banksy. Thierry decides to become a marketable graffiti artist himself under the nickname Mr. Brainwash. The film was one of the most critically acclaimed of the year, with celebrated film critic Roger Ebert writing, "widespread speculation that Exit Through the Gift Shop is a hoax only adds to its fascination ."