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Sundance Screenings of ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ ‘Go Fish’ and ‘The Babadook’ Spotlight the Festival’s 40-Year Legacy

For four decades, Sundance has maintained a reputation as one of the most important film festivals in America for independent filmmakers from around the globe. To commemorate its 40th anniversary in 2024 and the enormity (and reciprocity) of that cultural footprint, festival leadership set a series of restoration screenings to highlight many of the most memorable films programmed throughout its history.

“When you look at the way the independent film movement has evolved and changed over the years, from the maturation of an industry and the opportunities that artists have found, to the way that an audience has been built around the work, you see a festival that has evolved alongside it,” says John Nein, senior programmer and director of strategic initiatives.

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This year’s festival takes place Jan. 18-28, in person in Park City and Salt Lake City, with a selection of titles available online nationwide from Jan. 25-28. The eight 40th celebration titles that will screen include brand-new 4K restorations of Jared Hess’ “Napoleon Dynamite” (marking its 20th anniversary), Rose Troche’s “Go Fish” (30th anniversary), Tony Bui’s “Three Seasons” (25th anniversary) and an extended version of Ondi Timoner’s “Dig!” (20th anniversary), titled “Dig! XX.” Also screening: restorations of Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala” and Rob Epstein’s “The Times of Harvey Milk,” as well as lightning-rod titles “The Babadook,” by Jennifer Kent, and Dee Rees’ “Pariah.”

From its first batch of winners, Sundance became emblematic in showcasing American independent cinema as the storytelling landscape and distribution models rapidly (and repeatedly) changed. Marisa Silver’s “Old Enough” (1984) was the festival’s first Grand Jury Prize recipient, followed by the Coen brothers with “Blood Simple” the following year, and Joyce Chopra’s “Smooth Talk” in 1986 — all announcing serious filmmaking talent. As its programming propelled independent cinema into the main- stream spotlight, festival winners such as “The Brothers McMullen” (Edward Burns, 1995) and “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (Todd Solondz, 1996), and more recent winners such as Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (2010) and Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station” (2013) helped launch major directors and actors (Jennifer Lawrence and Michael B. Jordan, respectively).

Programmers faced an unenviable task in choosing which films to celebrate, and, in settling on only eight features across its 40 years and thousands of submissions, they acknowledged they wouldn’t be able to encapsulate the full history, or legacy, of the festival. “But you can tell a story that hopefully represents the breadth, diversity, artistic resonance and cultural impact of the work,” says Nein. “As always with archive screenings, we look to highlight the importance of film preservation, and we’re screening films that we haven’t already included in previous archive programs.”

Documentary “Dig! XX” examines the collision of art and commerce through the eyes of two dueling rock bands, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre. It premieres Jan. 23, to be followed by a conversation with director Ondi Timoner, producer David Timoner and the Brian Jonestown Massacre band member Joel Gion. “Dig! XX” has been digitally enhanced, remixed and remastered and sports an additional 35 minutes, culled from 2,500 hours of footage shot over the seven years of its original production, for this 20th anniversary edit. “Having a film selected to play Sundance is the greatest honor and opportunity a filmmaker can have to share their work, and hopefully find the right distribution partners,” says Ondi Timoner. “Once our film screened, word spread quickly, and the heat around the film was palpable. After it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize, we traveled the world over with it.”

One of the festival’s biggest breakouts was Hess’ 2004 debut, “Napoleon Dynamite,” whose quirky characters and irreverent sense of humor turned it into a cultural touchstone. Though Hess has decidedly leveled up since then — he’s set to direct an adaptation of the popular video game “Minecraft” with Jason Momoa, Danielle Brooks and Jack Black starring — he continues to champion Sundance as a platform par excellence for writers and directors trying to get their work seen. “We can’t think of a film festival that does a better job of supporting the work of first-time filmmakers,” says Hess. “Its tradition of seeking out new voices makes it the most important film festival in the world.”

Meanwhile, Epstein’s “The Times of Harvey Milk,” which documented the life of openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who was murdered along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone by Dan White in 1978, remains as socially relevant as it was 40 years ago. Epstein’s film broke new ground at the time of its release by using mixed media to tell its story — a format that created unique hurdles during the restoration process. “The UCLA Film and Television Archive restoration was done with great care,” he explains. “The biggest challenge was working with the old video news reports in the film, but these are essentially artifacts within the larger story, so we left them as they are, for the most part.”

Epstein says he resisted making changes or adding updates based on events that unfolded after the film was originally finished. “I considered adding an update card at the end about Dan White’s suicide after he was released from prison,” he reveals. “But ultimately I decided to keep the film true to its own time frame.”

“Power of Story: Four Decades of Taking Chances,” a panel looking back at the symbiotic relationship between independent storytelling and the Sundance Film Festival over its four decades, is scheduled for Jan. 23 at the Egyptian Theatre. Festival veterans Miguel Arteta (“Chuck & Buck”), Richard Linklater (“Slacker”), Dawn Porter (“Gideon’s Army”) and Christine Vachon (producer of Todd Haynes’ 1991 Grand Jury winner “Poison,” Troche’s “Go Fish” and many more) will look back on their careers while discussing the importance of risk-taking and creative freedom.

Former Sundance director John Cooper will also host the 40th edition trivia night, a joyful trek down memory lane for festival attendees and followers. “This was a great way of mining the fascinating, surprising and often funny history of the festival’s first four decades,” says Nein. “It will certainly test people’s knowledge of various films, filmmakers, factoids and arcane moments of Sundance past editions.

“It’s also meant to be fun,” he adds, “so we’re inviting a group of surprise guests, including filmmakers, comedians and Sundance veterans — who will either astound us with their vast knowledge, or admirably bluff their way through.”

As the festival celebrates not only a milestone anniversary but some 17,000 submissions, a record number for a single year, Sundance’s 2024 screenings of new and classic films alike underscore its unwavering commitment to celebrating the best that independent cinema can offer. “We’ve steadfastly stuck to our mission,” Nein says.

“We’ve identified and interpreted what independence means within the changing landscape, and built a festival program that supports the work, the artists and the opportunities they have in the careers they are building or sustaining.”

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