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Her favorite Sundance movie? She’ll give you 37

Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission, talks about her most memorable Sundance Film Festival films

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Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission, is photographed at the commission’s office in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.

Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission, is photographed at the commission’s office in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

In homage to the 46th edition of Utah’s own Sundance Film Festival that started this week in Park City and Salt Lake, I asked Virginia Pearce to rank her favorite Sundance movies.

She couldn’t do it.

It was like asking a grandmother to tell me which of her grandchildren was her favorite.

“You’re going to have to settle for my top 30,” she said.

Then she gave me 37.

* * *

Few people have an indie movie pedigree like Virginia Pearce.

Currently she’s director of the Utah Film Commission, the government entity responsible for inducing filmmakers to shoot their movies in the state. Before that she worked at the Sundance Institute, the nonprofit that manages the film festival and supports independent filmmakers. And before that — long before Sundance became the world’s preeminent film festival — as a teenager she faithfully stood in line every year for tickets.  

She hasn’t seen each of the thousands of films Sundance has shown since its inception in 1978, but you’d be hard-pressed to come up with one she hasn’t.

“There are so many that I love; It was hard to list just a handful,” she says.

“A lot of these might not be on the scale of ‘best movies ever made,’” she adds, “but it was the experience of seeing them in the theater, surrounded by a full theater of people just overwhelmed by the story, that makes them stand out.”

Like the night during the 1999 festival when she saw “Blair Witch Project.”

She remembers vividly “Being there in the library (a Park City Sundance venue) at midnight where people really thought it was real.”

It’s that “magic of Sundance” that makes her list uniquely personal and special — remembering where she was and how it felt when she saw the movies for the first time.

“One of the things about Sundance that’s great is it’s cold, you’re standing in line, you can’t wait to get in the theater,” she says. “Then you’re finally there, you take off your coat, you’re sitting with all these people just as eager as you are, and then the movie takes you to another world.”

“Whale Rider” did that in 2002. One minute: icy Park City sidewalks and freezing cold temperatures. Next minute: “You’re with the Maori community in New Zealand,” immersed in the life of an “incredible little girl” whose quest is to become the village leader.

Then there was “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006, the third biggest commercial box office success in Sundance history (the film earned $101 million worldwide and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture). Virginia saw it in the Eccles Center, Sundance’s largest venue. She can still hear “everyone in the theater laughing at the same time.”

A number of documentaries made her favorites list, including “Crip Camp,” the film directed by longtime Sundance regular James LeBrecht that won the Audience Award in Sundance’s virtual showing year of 2020, and “The Cove” in 2009, a film that focuses on the decaying environment of the ocean and what needs to be done to protect it. “It made people feel real intensely about what should be happening, and real action came from it,” says Virginia. “I think that is what a good documentary does: it tells a compelling story and also creates some action behind it.”

“Spider” is among her favorite Sundance short films. “I don’t want to give anything away,” she says, “But it’s a startling film.”

Among her “biggest festival surprises” is “Napoleon Dynamite,” the “Utah-ish” film written by Jared and Jerusha Hess that took Sundance by storm in 2003. “Quirky story, quirky characters, nobody had ever seen that take on a story before,” remembers Virginia of a movie that was shot in Preston, Idaho, on a $400,000 budget and went on to earn more than $45 million at the mainstream box office.

Some of Virginia’s most memorable Sundance films introduced stars to the film world before they were stars: a “very young” Laura Dern in “Citizen Ruth” (1996), Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Secretary” (2002), Amy Adams in “Junebug” (2005) — the breakout role that won her the first of her six Academy Award nominations — and Peter Dinklage in “The Station Agent” (2003). “The Station Agent” also marked the debut of Tom McCarthy, the director who went on to direct the Academy Award best picture winner “Spotlight” in 2015.

Virginia’s “least favorite” Sundance film?

Don’t ask. Doesn’t exist.

“I like movies too much,” she says, adding, “I’ve never walked out of a film.”

With that, herewith, in no particular order, the semi-definitive list of Virginia Pearce’s Favorite Sundance Movies. So far:

  • “Whale Rider.”
  • “Once.”
  • “Blair Witch Project.”
  • “Songcatcher.”
  • “Party Girl.”
  • “Nine Days.”
  • “Sex, Lies & Videotape.”
  • “Smoke Signals.”
  • “Hedwig & the Angry Inch.”
  • “Whiplash.”
  • “CODA.”
  • “Hear and Now.”
  • “Queen of Versailles.”
  • “Spider.”
  • “Bear.”
  • “Shark.”
  • “The Station Agent.”
  • “Junebug.”
  • “Rocket Science.”
  • “Thirteen.”
  • “Napoleon Dynamite.”
  • “Little Miss Sunshine.”
  • “Paradise Now.”
  • “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
  • “Secretary.”
  • “The Forty-Year-Old Version.”
  • “Me and You and Everyone We Know.”
  • “Citizen Ruth.”
  • “The Cove.”
  • “Crip Camp.”
  • “The Farewell.”
  • “Minari.”
  • “The Big Sick.”
  • “Waitress.”
  • “Sound City.”
  • “Eagle vs. Shark.”
  • “20 Feet From Stardom.”