A Look at the Groundbreaking Comedies That Came Out of Sundance
Sundance season is upon us. The film festival — the largest independent one in the U.S. — has given big breaks to Quentin Tarantino, the 1990s “comedy landmark” House Party and Aubrey Plaza’s Ingrid Goes West. Not to mention, it’s the birthplace of Kevin Smith's View Askew-niverse that started with Clerks in 1994 and will probably end with Clerks 37 somewhere around 2069.
On the comedy front, the festival has seen its fair share of hits and misses, but it’s also been the place where groundbreaking films first made their premieres, got picked up and changed filmmaking forever...
The dark comedy featuring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater is the late 1980s version of Mean Girls, only with more hairspray and homicidal teenagers. Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s dark satire, Dr. Strangelove, the cult classic premiered at Sundance in January 1989. Daniel Waters wrote the screenplay while working at a video store, but little did he know it would go on to outlive those by becoming a hit musical and a disappointing TV series.
‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ (1994)
The British rom-com was Richard Curtis’ first screenplay, which catapulted him into becoming one of England’s most successful comedy writers with movies like Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and everyone’s favorite “Used to Like This” movie, Love Actually. Made in just six weeks with a tight $4 million budget, Four Weddings and a Funeral was nominated for Oscars, won some Golden Globes and set Hugh Grant on the path to his greatest role: Paddington’s nemesis. It also might be the comedy that features the most F-bombs in its opening scene ever.
‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ (1999)
Considered one of the best LGBTQ+ movies in cinematic history, But I’m a Cheerleader came about when director Jamie Babbit — who went on to direct episodes for Russian Doll, Gilmore Girls, Malcolm in the Middle and even Silicon Valley — made three short films for Sundance. Once there, she pitched this satire about gay conversion therapy to financiers, and the rest is queer-teen angst history. With a killer cast of Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall, Michelle Williams, Melanie Lynskey and RuPaul in sportswear, the comedy about a cheerleader who gets confronted over her sexuality has become a classic, leading to a Director’s Cut dropping in 2020.
‘Wet Hot American Summer’ (2001)
In hindsight, it’s mind-blowing how this widely panned bomb ended up spawning a franchise including more movies, TV shows, a documentary, a tabletop role-playing game, a book, a graphic novel and a live radio play about summer camp counselors with tiny pants and unfortunate haircuts.
‘Kung Fu Hustle’ (2004)
Roger Ebert’s description, which made it on the U.S. promotional poster, sums it up best: “Jackie Chan and Buster Keaton meet Quentin Tarantino and Bugs Bunny.” It’s the movie that bends genres like it bends the laws of physics, while also bringing Hong Kong martial arts stars out of retirement. A perfect action-comedy.
‘Napoleon Dynamite’ (2004)
Jared Hess’ first feature film debut paved the way for the modern era of indie movies (and quirky teen comedies) with a movie so divisive that it proved impossible for Netflix's algorithm to predict whether viewers would like it or not. The film made $44 million in less than a year, which is incredible considering that it cost around $400K to make. Thanks to Napoleon Dynamite, we also got another similar Sundance darling two years later — Little Miss Sunshine.
‘In Bruges’ (2008)
Martin McDonagh’s feature film debut not only shined Brendan Gleeson’s talents in a whole new light but also helped revive Colin Farrell’s career (he even won a Golden Globe for Best Actor here). Unfortunately, it took almost a decade and a half before the trio finally reunited for the Oscar-nominated The Banshees of Inisherin.
‘What We Do in the Shadows’ (2014)
Yes, the hysterical New Zealand mockumentary about the everyday lives of vampires living together in Wellington premiered at Sundance back in 2014. (Man, we’re getting old. Unlike vampires.) The movie kicked off a franchise and led to Taika Waititi directing Marvel movies, and it all started with a vamp film that was made via a Kickstarter campaign.
This black comedy crime movie is also known as “That Movie Based on a Tweet.” In 2015, a Twitter thread by Aziah “Zola” King went viral, describing (and embellishing) an insane Floridian odyssey she took with a new friend she’d just met while stripping. The story was so bananas that it just had to be brought to the big screen — making it the first-ever movie based on a viral Tweet. If that’s not groundbreaking, we don’t know what is.