The 40 Greatest Comedies to Come Out of Sundance
Unlike most 40-year-olds, Sundance is still fairly youthful. The venerable Utah festival, which gets underway today, officially launched in 1984, the annual salute to all things independent cinema changing its name from the U.S. Film and Video Festival. Its history is littered with future classics that had their premiere there, turning nascent directors like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith into overnight sensations. Nothing has changed: Sundance is still able to break the next big things.
To celebrate this milestone, I’ve put together a list of the 40 best comedies that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The process of whittling down these rankings was arduous, but it also made me realize how many major names got their start at Park City: Jordan Peele, David O. Russell, Amy Adams, to highlight just a few. At the same time, though, it was sadly apparent that not everyone who was once the toast of Sundance has maintained that creative hot streak — some seeming sure-things just haven’t panned out. But for one shining moment, all of these films (including a couple comedic documentaries) were a big deal.
As journalists, critics and filmmakers head into the snow for this year’s edition, let’s take a moment to salute the movies that made us laugh… and keep making us laugh.
Super Size Me (2004)
In the wake of Michael Moore’s first-person advocacy documentaries, Morgan Spurlock decided to treat his body like a science experiment, charting the harmful effects of eating McDonald’s three times a day for 30 days. Super Size Me won Spurlock the directing prize at Sundance, and the film established him as a funny, self-deprecating showman trying to show the world how terrible fast food is. Without question, though, Spurlock’s shtick got old fast when he repeated it in subsequent documentaries — and that’s before he outed himself as being a terrible person.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
The same year as the original Mean Girls showed the world how stressful high school is for young women, director Jared Hess’ debut did the same for awkward teen boys. Napoleon Dynamite remains the ultimate Sundance success story, a low-budget, quirky comedy that went on to be a box-office sensation. It’s also among the festival’s most divisive hits, with some viewers adoring Jon Heder’s titular outsider, while others finding the movie’s nerdy humor deeply off-putting. No matter where you land, though, Napoleon Dynamite left its mark on indie culture, creating a new way to look at oddball coming-of-age comedies.
The Brothers McMullen (1995)
Sure, it was like a Woody Allen movie, but it was a really good Woody Allen movie. Edward Burns became a Sundance darling with his debut, which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in, focusing on a group of Irish-Catholic siblings navigating the difficulties of life. The Brothers McMullen took its cues from Allen’s dialogue-driven ensemble comedies, but the movie also clearly drew inspiration from hangout movies like Diner, exploring how faith and family can be a difficult combo for some people.
Obvious Child (2014)
An abortion comedy is a risky proposition, but writer-director Gillian Robespierre threaded the needle beautifully, casting Jenny Slate as a stand-up who, after getting dumped, hooks up with a nice guy (Jake Lacy), only to later realize she’s pregnant from sleeping with him. A smart, hip rom-com, Obvious Child acknowledges the challenges of modern dating, where finding Mr. Right can be a problem when the timing isn’t so right.
500 Days of Summer (2009)
Is this Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Zooey Deschanel romantic comedy a smart reimagining of the genre tropes or a mean-spirited, self-pitying look at a dude who should shut up and get over his broken heart? That’s been the debate since 500 Days of Summer premiered at Sundance, but while some of Gordon-Levitt’s man-child character’s whining hasn’t aged well, the movie remains a funny, cutting cautionary tale about a certain kind of guy who works so hard to make his girlfriend his dream girl that he never bothers to learn who she actually is.
Party Girl (1995)
Parker Posey was nothing like Mary, the titular main character she brought to vivid life. “I couldn’t afford those clothes and live that life,” she said in 2023 about Party Girl. “But if I could, Mary is how I would have looked.” Director Daisy von Scherler Mayer gave the Queen of 1990s American Independent Cinema arguably her greatest role — Mary has sharp elbows and an irreverent spirit, eventually having to change her ways once her irresponsibility starts getting out of hand. Rereleased in theaters last year, Party Girl has been embraced by a new generation, even if the New York of the mid-1990s looks little like the one today.
Shameik Moore has proven to be an excellent Miles Morales in the recent animated Spider-Man films, but some of us knew him first as the adorkable Malcolm in Dope, an unpredictable mixture of comedy, action, drama and crime thriller. When this brainy L.A. teen accidentally finds himself at the wrong party, his life gets turned upside down, resulting in a film that mixes social commentary with big laughs. You could tell Moore was destined to be a star.
Filmmaker Gary Winick died in 2011 at the age of 49. His best-known comedy was 13 Going on 30, but his best is the one he directed right before that. Tadpole is a witty, peculiar coming-of-age romantic comedy starring Aaron Stanford as a bright, confident 15-year-old who has decided he is going to seduce his dad’s new wife (Sigourney Weaver), while fending off the affections of his stepmom’s best friend (Bebe Neuwirth). Sexy and sly, the film was a literate mixture of Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, a modest hit at the time and now ready for rediscovery.
The Forty-Year-Old Version (2020)
There’s an incorrect assumption that Sundance is only a place for exciting young talents to make their name. What about exciting fortysomething talents? Writer-director-star Radha Blank drew from her own frustrations and anxieties in this sparkling debut, which was part romantic drama and part coming-of-age-late comedy about a struggling playwright who laments that she never lived up to her potential. Swiping the title of a Judd Apatow film, The Forty-Year-Old Version wasn’t just a triumph for a clear comedic talent but also a reminder that you’re never too old to have your big break.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Going on to win two Oscars, Little Miss Sunshine created a template for a certain kind of crowd-pleasing mainstream-indie comedy. Filled with likable, acclaimed actors — including Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano and Alan Arkin — the movie explored a dysfunctional family with tenderness and laughs as they go on a fraught road trip. But the cast’s snappy chemistry and the genuineness of the emotions were hard to replicate for Sundance copycats like The Way, Way Back, which were only superficially as charming.
There’s a lot of talk these days about how sexiness has gone out of movies. Well, director Steven Shainberg’s breakthrough was certainly kinky, chronicling the unusual courtship between a lawyer and his new secretary, who discovers her boss is into BDSM. By the time of Secretary’s release, James Spader was a known quantity — he was perfect casting as an attorney who likes dominating — but newcomer Maggie Gyllenhaal was a revelation, flashing a flirty, sexy energy throughout.
The Station Agent (2003)
Spotlight filmmaker Tom McCarthy’s affectionate character study features three outsiders who find each other: hermit Finbar (Peter Dinklage), grieving artist Olivia (Patricia Clarkson) and happy-go-lucky Joe (Bobby Cannavale). The Station Agent mines laughs from how goddamn disappointing life can be, and the film provided an excellent platform for these soon-to-be acclaimed actors. With all due respect to Game of Thrones fans, this might still be Dinklage’s best performance as an angry man who risks opening his heart, with unexpected results.
Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when the world didn’t know who Kevin Smith was. Thirty years ago, he announced himself with this grungy, black-and-white comedy about some New Jersey slackers wasting their lives working at a convenience store. Here’s where we first met Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), a Gen-X Laurel and Hardy who would soon become iconic side characters in the writer-director’s movies. As pivotal as Reservoir Dogs or Sex, Lies and Videotape, Clerks helped redefine the American indie, making it safe for sarcastic, pop-culture-riffing humor.
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
“I grew up without seeing people that look like me on the screen,” director Patricia Cardoso once explained about her decision to adapt Josefina López’s play about a Latino teenager (America Ferrera) coming of age in a working-class family in Los Angeles. Real Women Have Curves broke down cultural and gender barriers and gave Ferrera her first big-screen role. (The film also provided Lupe Ontiveros and George Lopez choice roles.) It remains one of the great L.A. comedies and a celebration of the worlds Hollywood tends not to show.
American Movie (1999)
Chris Smith has directed documentaries like Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond and Wham! (and executive produced Tiger King). But that was long after he first came to prominence with American Movie, an intimate portrait of Mark Borchardt, a wannabe filmmaker trying to shoot his masterpiece, Coven. But maybe Borchardt isn’t all that talented? While Smith’s documentary, which won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, pokes fun at Borchardt and his bad cinematic ideas, there’s also a lot of warmth in the picture. And deep down, there’s something universal about Borchardt’s struggles: What if, on some level, we’re all fooling ourselves about how talented/interesting we think we are?
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Your favorite comic actor of the last 30 years is probably somewhere in the cast of this film. A send-up of summer-camp comedies, Wet Hot American Summer gave Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Molly Shannon, Paul Rudd, Christopher Meloni, Michael Showalter, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, Elizabeth Banks, Joe Lo Truglio, Judah Friedlander and H. Jon Benjamin an opportunity to be ridiculously silly. Most of those names, you wouldn’t have recognized back then. Now, they’re comedy royalty.
Love Jones (1997)
Shocking as it may seem now, Love Jones was somewhat radical for its time: a thoughtful indie love story about two Black characters. Writer-director Theodore Witcher cast Larenz Tate (then best known for Menace II Society) to court Nia Long (who had done The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Friday). He’s a poet, she’s a photographer — once they hit it off, they wonder if their attraction is only sexual, or if there might be more to it. At a moment when Black American cinema was making some strides, but still often being relegated to stories about crime and poverty, Love Jones was a funny, welcome breath of fresh air.
Dear White People (2014)
Tessa Thompson had been acting for years before she was cast in Dear White People, but this pointed satire helped put her on the map. She plays Sam, who bristles at the racism at her predominantly white university, deciding she’s going to tackle it head on. Writer-director Justin Simien has had trouble topping his bristlingly funny debut — he most recently made the underwhelming Haunted Mansion — but the film is a landmark of the Black Lives Matter era, inspiring the subsequent Netflix series.
You Hurt My Feelings (2023)
Reuniting with Enough Said filmmaker Nicole Holofcener, whose superb Please Give also premiered at Sundance, Julia Louis-Dreyfus shines as an insecure author who learns that her therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) has been lying to her about her forthcoming book. (He secretly thinks it stinks.) A warm, grownup comedy about the importance of not always being honest with our loved ones, You Hurt My Feelings no doubt inspired lots of anxious conversations between couples on the way home from the theater.
Rye Lane (2023)
Neither of them were looking for love that day. In fact, they’ve both been dumped recently, so they’re pretty soured on romance. But in Rye Lane, David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah make for an engaging duo, their characters bonding while walking around London, talking about life and disappointment. Director Raine Allen-Miller’s feature debut is an easygoing charmer that finds the humor in being sick of love — while giving props to second chances and The Low End Theory.
Palm Springs (2020)
Using Groundhog Day as inspiration, director Max Barbakow and screenwriter Andy Siara dreamed up a scenario in which two wedding attendees (Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti) are trapped in a time loop, forced to hang out together for what they fear may be all eternity. Palm Springs goes a long way on the charisma of its stars — neither of them, before or since, has had a big-screen role this juicy — but it also finds inventive ways to rethink the premise of that Harold Ramis classic. Also, special shout-out to comic MVP June Squibb, who’s excellent — and may be in the time loop with them.
House Party (1990)
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a slew of rap artists making the jump to big-screen thespians, but often overlooked are the guys in Kid ‘n Play, aka Christopher Reid and Christopher Martin. They hooked up with Boomerang director Reginald Hudlin for his feature debut, telling the story of two teenage friends who throw a house party. What could possibly go wrong? Everything, of course, in hilarious fashion.
In Bruges (2008)
Before writer-director Martin McDonagh teamed up with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson for The Banshees of Inisherin, they all made a delightfully sardonic crime thriller about two hitmen on hiatus in the Belgian town of Bruges. The back-and-forth insults are even funnier here than in Banshees, but the laughs are enhanced by the shocking violence and soulful interludes. (Plus, you get Ralph Fiennes in his funniest role outside of The Grand Budapest Hotel.)
Living in Oblivion (1995)
As the independent film world began to gain prominence in the early 1990s, it was inevitable that someone in the trenches would make a jaundiced comedy about the scene. That film was Living in Oblivion, in which writer-director (and former Jim Jarmusch cinematographer) Tom DiCillo cast Steve Buscemi as a harried director trying to keep his new low-budget movie on track. Actors like Catherine Keener and Peter Dinklage got some of their first work here, and James LeGros’ pretentious star was supposedly inspired by DiCillo’s unhappy collaboration with a young Brad Pitt on his previous feature, Johnny Suede. The movie is now a time capsule for the heady, exasperating early days of the indie explosion.
The Big Sick (2017)
An undeniable crowd-pleaser, The Big Sick made comedian and Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani a bona-fide A-lister. He and his wife Emily V. Gordon went on to earn an Oscar nomination for their screenplay, which was drawn from their own early courtship — which was going great until they had a big fight and she fell into a coma. Nanjiani and Emily stand-in Zoe Kazan have delightful chemistry, and Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are terrific as Emily’s anxious parents, who have to spend time with the guy who dumped their angel. Not the best way to meet your future in-laws, to say the least.
American Splendor (2003)
Sundance has featured its fair share of misanthropic characters, but none surpasses Paul Giamatti’s Harvey Pekar, the famed underground comic and notorious crank. American Splendor pays affectionate tribute to a deeply unhappy man, breaking the fourth wall by occasionally letting grumpy Pekar comment on the action. This was where Giamatti, maximizing his slow-burn surliness, began to evolve from character actor to arthouse leading man — Sideways was just around the corner.
They Came Together (2014)
Best romantic comedy of the last 10 years? Maybe. Director and co-writer David Wain set out to make a rom-com that rifled through the genre’s most endearing/dopiest tropes, casting Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler as the prototypical unlucky-in-love New York characters who end up falling for one another. (Is she a big klutz who runs a ridiculously quirky store? You know it! Is he a nice guy who gets cheated on by his mean girlfriend? But of course!) What is most impressive about They Came Together is how the movie manages to mercilessly rip the rom-com to shreds… while also being a really good rom-com.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
Because Sundance has usually been a launching pad for American indies, it’s easy to forget that this British charmer had its debut in Park City, too. The movie that helped make Hugh Grant a star in the U.S., Four Weddings and a Funeral went on to get nominated for Best Picture, demonstrating that director Mike Newell and writer Richard Curtis had a winning formula for sweet, tart romantic comedies that mixed laughs with pathos. Outside of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally, Grant and Andie MacDowell were among moviegoers’ favorite onscreen duos of the era.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
Indie filmmaker Lisa Cholodenko had mostly focused on drama for High Art and Laurel Canyon. Then she decided to mix things up, delivering The Kids Are All Right, a very funny, wise, bittersweet comedy about a married couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) at a crossroads when one of them cheats. As progressive as Hollywood likes to pretend it is, this movie was groundbreaking for being a mainstream film with same-sex lovers who were raising kids. But Cholodenko never got on her soapbox. Instead, she did something far more subversive: She made this family look like anyone else’s, helping to explode stigmas around gay marriage.
Private Life (2018)
Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn are almost always excellent, but they’re especially wonderful together in writer-director Tamara Jenkins’ bittersweet comedy about a married couple who have seemingly exhausted every possibility to have a child — until their niece (Kayli Carter) agrees to be their egg donor. Private Life is one of the great funny/sad Sundance films, a piercing look at relationships that’s guaranteed to make you cry as well as laugh.
American Psycho (2000)
Adapting the Bret Easton Ellis novel, director and co-writer Mary Harron envisioned investment banker/serial killer Patrick Bateman as indicative of everything that’s wrong with capitalism, America, the 1980s, the patriarchy, you name it. Christian Bale took it from there, delivering a cathartically funny portrait of charming arrogance and bloodthirsty ambition. No one has ever heard “Hip to Be Square” the same way since.
Spanking the Monkey (1994)
Before Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, writer-director David O. Russell was a scrappy indie filmmaker whose debut was this peculiar study of Ray (Jeremy Davies), a college student forced to care for his injured mom (Alberta Watson), their extended stay together stirring up strange incestuous feelings in the young man. Spanking the Monkey is a dark, proudly prickly comedy, setting the stage for the sly sense of humor Russell would put on display in future films like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees.
Big Night (1996)
Actor friends Campbell Scott and Stanley Tucci teamed up to direct this sublime character study of two brothers (Tucci and Tony Shalhoub) who are trying to keep their authentic Italian restaurant afloat in New Jersey in the 1950s. Romance, comedy and sibling drama all intermingle in Big Night, which is as much about being true to your art as it is about the bonds of family.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Just when you thought you didn’t need one more mockumentary, along came this corker from writer-directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who imagined what life would be like in a house filled with vampires. Making fun of the horror genre while simultaneously riffing on how annoying roommates are, What We Do in the Shadows set the stage for the FX series that’s proved just as delightful.
One of the easiest ways to spot an aging Gen-Xer is to see if they respond to one of several indelible lines from this late-1980s masterwork. (In my experience, “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” usually does the trick.) A middle-finger response to the feel-good high school movies of the era, Heathers was sarcastic and snotty, casting Winona Ryder and Christian Slater as teen outcasts whose plan to get back at the popular kids turns deadly, proving that adolescence can be murder.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Writer-director Noah Baumbach crafted this personal story of a New York family in disarray after the parents (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) announce to their young sons (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline) that they’re going their separate ways. Daniels has never been nominated for an Oscar, but he deserved a nod for his superb portrayal of an insufferably pompous writer/teacher who believes his every word is fascinating. But the whole cast is great, especially a young Eisenberg, who here first cemented his mastery of playing aloof, insecure guys who think their intelligence can save them from heartbreak.
Four Lions (2010)
A daring comedy that succeeds in finding the humor in a group of inept would-be terrorists, Four Lions was shocking for its subject matter, proving the director and co-writer Chris Morris was one of the most risk-taking satirists of his generation. (Jesse Armstrong, who created Succession, was one of his co-writers.) Many viewers first met Riz Ahmed here, and the film brilliantly segued from outrageous gags to a deeply moving portrait of some truly lost souls. You wouldn’t think a suicide bomber could be funny? Think again.
Amy Adams’ first Oscar nomination was for this underappreciated gem about a Chicago man (Alessandro Nivola) who takes his new wife (Embeth Davidtz) to visit his family in small-town North Carolina, creating a culture shock for his sophisticated bride. (Adams plays the man’s naive, sunny sister-in-law, who’s wowed by their big-city ways.) Junebug is that rare thing: a funny, humane comedy about the red state/blue state divide that treats all its characters fairly, finding what’s funny about all of them. If you’ve never seen Junebug, there’s no better time than the present.
Get Out (2017)
Writer-director Jordan Peele’s feature debut was a secret screening at Sundance, quickly building buzz as a horror-comedy like no other. A box-office sensation and an Oscar-winner, Get Out is now hailed as a landmark satire, a perfect distillation of race relations in America in the post-Obama era. Peele has only taken bigger risks with his subsequent films, but he never bull’s-eyed the zeitgeist with such clarity and wit as he did here.
In the Company of Men (1997)
Playwright Neil LaBute wanted to make a movie about two obnoxious businessmen who decide to play head games with a sweet, deaf office worker. The result was the 1990s’ most piercing takedown of toxic masculinity. In the Company of Men helped launch the career of Aaron Eckhart, but he’s merely one leg of this exquisitely excruciating romantic triangle, which also stars Matt Malloy and Stacy Edwards. Decades later, the jokes still draw blood — and the portrait of terrible men, sadly, still rings true. Some people find In the Company of Men so brutal in its humor that they consider it a horror movie. They may have a point.