Sundance U.S. Grand Jury Winners: A Taste-based Analysis

Jules Caldeira
January 17, 2024

This week marks the beginning of the 40th Sundance Film Festival. For decades, audiences have flocked to Park City, Utah to see some of the most anticipated independent films. In honor of such a major milestone, we analyzed the past five winners of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for dramatic features in an attempt to find any correlation between them. Perhaps we can predict what film might win this year, as well.

The films used for this analysis include: Clemency (2019), Minari (2020), CODA (2021), Nanny (2022), and A Thousand and One (2023).

Over half are set in urban environments, with CODA being set in small-town New England and Minari being a more rural tale, though all take place in the United States. Most are also contemporary films, except for Minari and A Thousand and One, and all except A Thousand and One are stories of the middle class. Nearly all titles tackle intellectual themes, usually surrounding morality and ethics, and over half were tales of economic inequity or financial struggle.

Three films have women in leading roles, with only CODA focusing on the teen/high school experience. All include lovable, courageous, and sympathetic characters, with both Clemency and Minari incorporating ones that are brooding. Nearly all films follow a mother’s journey, with Minari and CODA including the father, and most focusing on stories of family life. Only CODA paints a portrait of a loving family while the others showcase family problems.

Only CODA and Minari have happy endings, while Clemency has a sad ending and Nanny and A Thousand and One have more ambivalent endings. All titles are led by a unique and defining directorial vision, typically including virtuosic acting performances, and are character-driven stories. True to the award category, these are dramatic films, though Nanny also leans toward psychological horror. These are films geared toward mainstream audiences, all with mild/limited violence and only A Thousand and One using graphic language.

What does this show us? Despite how different these films seem at face value, they actually have much more in common than one would think. For the past five years, at least, these award winners have followed interesting trends in their traits across all aspects of the film. Who will win this year? Exhibiting Forgiveness? In the Summers or Suncoast? Only time will tell, but if it’s one of these films, you heard it here first.

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