Playing host to almost 100 films by filmmakers all around the world, this year’s Sundance Film Festival marked the first time the celebration returned in person to Park City since the pandemic took hold of the world in 2020.
Over the past week and a half, I’ve watched close to thirty films. Some have been incredible, others were merely okay, and some were, alas, truly awful. Still, throughout, I was impressed by the festival’s continued commitment to showcasing and celebrating independent film.
As always, the festival premiered a number of debut features, while also spotlighting many standout documentaries. There were great performances (though the uneven Magazine Dreams left much to be desired, the fiercely feral Jonathan Majors could easily find himself in next year’s Oscar conversation for his terrifying depiction of an amateur bodybuilder on the brink) and some gag-worthy surprises. Brandon Croenenberg screened the real, NC-17 version of his impressive Infinity Pool while Doug Liman crept in with the last-minute addition of his secret Brett Kavanaugh documentary, Justice. And who could forget Cat Person, the truly unexplainable adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker-breaking short story? Would I recommend it to anyone? Ehhh, I’d rather not. Do I think it’ll get people talking upon release? Absolutely.
While covering the festival virtually meant forgoing several in-person-only premieres (like the buzzy Celine Song debut Past Lives), I was still delighted to find many films that felt like true revelations — and even a few I can imagine becoming some of my favorites of the year. Below, find the twelve films (in alphabetical order) from Sundance 2023 that I can’t stop thinking about.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (directed by Raven Jackson)
At its core, film is merely a constellation of images, arranged precisely together to tell a story. The mesmerizing All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt understands this on an intimate level, and as a result, Raven Jackson’s experimental debut pulsates with vibrant life despite its perceived quietude. Flipping between timelines, the film centers on a Mississippi girl named Mack, who we watch grow up in fits and spurts, checking in on her during random but undoubtedly pivotal moments. Through Jackson’s imaginative eye, otherwise mundane events — a first kiss, a funeral, a lesson in skinning a fish — become glorious cinematic statements. Her evocative imagery conjures a mood, an atmosphere, communicating more than her film’s sparse dialogue ever could. It’s a beautifully expressive portrait of Black life and an even grander one of the rural South. That Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins shepherded its creation comes as very little surprise.
birth/rebirth (directed by Laura Moss)
When revisiting a familiar narrative to tell a “new” story, one must first find a refreshing, novel approach to the material. Recent horror reboots, like last year’s unforgivable Firestarter and the only slightly better Hellraiser, failed to understand this. Maybe they would have fared better after taking some notes from Laura Moss, whose birth/rebirth breathes new life into the well-worn Frankenstein story by grounding it in a twisted tale of maternal loss. Following Celie, a maternity nurse who just lost her daughter, and Rose, a socially-awkward morgue technician with a secret hobby of trying to revive the dead, the slyly creepy (and surprisingly funny) film starts as a relatable chronicle of a mother’s love before slowly warping into an offsetting morality play about where we draw lines between right and wrong. Anchored by brilliant performances from Scrubs veteran Judy Reyes as Celie and Marin Ireland as Rose (with a surprise knockout by A.J. Lister as daughter Lila), Moss’ debut is a reimagining more than worthy of its source.
Cassandro (directed by Roger Ross Williams)
In 2010, Roger Ross Williams made history as the first African-American to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Short. A celebrated documentarian known for the Emmy-winning The Apollo and the outstanding Netflix series High on the Hog, Williams made his jump to narrative features this year with Casssandro, a biopic about the real-life gay amateur wrestler who rose to international prominence through his creation of the titular flamboyant “exotico” character. A pointed examination of the thin line between homophobia and homoeroticism in sports that, amongst other things, features Bad Bunny making out with lead Gael García Bernal, Cassandro is a riveting story about the world of wrestling that delivers an encouraging message: sometimes, being true to ourselves is the most powerful tool we have in our arsenal. Also, it’s the latest film to feature Looking’s always great Raúl Castillo as the hunky object of a gay man’s affections. Move over, Darren Criss — there’s a new gay-for-pay star on the rise!
Eileen (directed by William Oldroyd)
Before Otessa Moshfegh was deemed the doyenne of millennial malaise with My Year of Rest and Relaxation, she was the buzzy name behind the shocking Eileen, a 1960s period piece about a young prison secretary who falls under the spell of an enchanting new therapist on staff. In William Oldroyd’s adaptation of Moshfegh’s novel, Leave No Trace’s Thomasin McKenzie stars as the titular secretary while Anne Hathaway takes on the role of the therapist, Rebecca. The pair make a fascinating duo, with McKenzie effectively embodying Eileen’s barely-concealed obsession and Hathaway perfectly encapsulating Rebecca’s big-city charisma. A sexy but dangerous slow-burn, Eileen has been aptly described as “Carol reimagined as a tense thriller,” and while the buildup of the first two acts is noticeably more engaging than the somewhat rushed conclusion, the seductive allure of Anne Hathaway, in what is possibly her most irresistible performance since Rachel Getting Married, is worth the price of admission alone.
Fair Play (directed by Chloe Domont)
Those who were introduced to Phoebe Dynevor through her portrayal of the lovestruck Daphne in Netflix’s hit Bridgerton will be pleasantly surprised to find her operating in a far more sinister level in Fair Play, the directorial debut by TV veteran Chloe Domont. An erotic thriller about a recently engaged couple, Emily (Dynevor) and Luke (Blue Jasmine’s Alden Ehrenreich), who work at the same hedge fund, the nimbly tense drama hinges on a promotion: though Luke believes it’ll go to him, it’s actually Emily who lands it. The new arrangement — where Emily is effectively now Luke’s boss — sets off a battle of the sexes, tapping into a timely discussion about gendered power dynamics. Domont has directed shows like Billions and Ballers, so it’s no surprise that her depiction of the finance world is sordidly cutthroat, but here, the world is merely deployed as a backdrop for the far more intriguing tale of jealous greed and premarital discord.
Fancy Dance (directed by Erica Tremblay)
Indigenous representation on screen has been improving in recent years, with series like Reservation Dogs and Dark Winds drawing in huge audiences, critical acclaim, and industry awards. One can easily predict the same for the phenomenal Fancy Dance, which was co-written and directed by Erica Tremblay, a contributor to both shows. Exploring grief, displacement, and the systematic mistreatment of the Indigenous community, Fancy Dance is both a heartbreaking tale about the unique beats of reservation life and a classic “missing woman inspires accidental detective” story. The latter aspect makes for propulsive storytelling, leading to a final scene that feels both somber and celebratory. But ultimately, it’s the transportive central performance by Lily Gladstone (who’s already set for a massive year as one of the leads in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon), as a hardened grifter tasked with raising her precocious niece when her sister suddenly disappears, that gives the film its bite.
Passages (directed by Ira Sachs)
It’s a simple concept, really: Married man meets girl. Married man strikes up a passionate affair with girl. Married man’s husband is not pleased and, in retaliation, strikes up a passionate affair of his own with another man. Original married man gets jealous, and so on and so forth. In Ira Sachs’ ninth film, Transit breakout Franz Rogowski and Paddington’s own Ben Whishaw star as a married couple in crisis. A thorny story about love, marriage, sex, sexuality, and family-building that sees all of the above as both separate and inseparable concepts, Passages delicately explores what happens when Tomas (Rogowski) falls in love with Agathe (Blue Is the Warmest Color’s Adele Exarchopoulous), despite his 15-year union to Martin (Whishaw). The playful script doesn’t let anyone off the hook, forcing the audience to reexamine their allegiances in almost every new scene, and neither does the direction, which features some of the most intense yet intimate sex scenes I’ve seen in years. Like most Sachs films, Passages doesn’t offer neat answers; instead, it comes alive in its acceptance of the messiness of human nature.
Polite Society (directed by Nida Manzoor)
When I heard that We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor had directed a feature, I somehow didn’t know what to expect while simultaneously knowing exactly what to expect. In that brilliant Peacock sitcom about an all-Muslim women punk-rock band, Manzoor found a playful way to merge cultural specificity with often hilarious hijinks. And in Polite Society, unsurprisingly, the writer-director has done something similar but, in a medium designed for big-screen viewing, admirably more expansive. A sibling story about an aspiring teenage stuntwoman, Ria (Priya Kansara), and her art-school dropout older sister, Lena (Ritu Arya), the inventive action-comedy takes a far-fetched plot and grounds it in a familiar narrative of adolescent rebellion. When Lena agrees to marry the doctor son of a wealthy family and move to Singapore, Ria sets off to sabotage the nuptials, if it’s the last thing she does. What follows is a twist-filled, action-packed adventure that, at times, feels like a video game, and at other times, feels like a Tarantino movie — if Quentin cared about his women characters beyond the soles of their feet. While we continually await We Are Lady Parts season two, Polite Society feels like a nice tide-over gift.
Rye Lane (directed by Raine Allen Miller)
On paper, there isn’t anything exactly new about Rye Lane. Raine Allen Miller’s debut feature is just the latest entry in the “one eventful day rom-com” canon, where two people have a meet-cute and spend a single day developing a life-altering connection. But with its focus on new characters (a dark-skinned Black pair), its strong sense of place (the Peckham neighborhood of London), its cheeky cinematography (a fisheye lens), and its vibrant production design (all those bright colors), Rye Lane comes alive, leaving its beloved predecessors in the dust. The film finds emotional stakes by having its leads meet after both going through devastating breakups, but Rye Lane doesn’t need to linger in the muck; after all, it’s a tale about new love, not about old pain. Clocking in at less than 90 minutes, the film goes as quickly as it comes, but thanks to the chemistry-filled performances given by Industry’s David Jonsson and Teen Spirit’s Vivian Oprah, you’ll be transported by this film long after it concludes.
Talk To Me (directed by Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou)
Sundance is known for serving as the launchpad to some of the industry’s most thought-provoking horror films (Get Out, Hereditary, and The Witch all premiered there), and when it comes to this year’s breakout, I struggle to think any title is competing with Talk to Me. Already snatched up by A24, the debut from twin director duo Danny and Michael Philippou is a bone-chilling ghost story about grief (yes, again), family trauma, and teenage recklessness. In an interesting premise, high-schoolers have stopped taking drugs at parties and graduated to conjuring spirits. By telling a porcelain hand to “talk to me,” one can temporarily let a spirit possess their body — but if they don’t kick it out in time, bad things can happen (which, of course, they eventually do.) Much like last year’s Bodies Bodies Bodies, Talk to Me thrives off a script that cleverly plays off our modern youth’s obsession with social media. But where the scares in that A24 release felt decidedly comedic, the Australian shocker Talk to Me feels genuinely terrifying, with more than enough supernatural jump-scares to unsettle even the toughest viewer.
Theater Camp (directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman)
It may be corny to say, but the best way to describe Theater Camp is as a joyous family affair. The film was directed by Booksmart breakout Molly Gordon and her frequent collaborator Nick Lieberman, and stars Gordon alongside Tony winner Ben Platt and fellow Booksmart veteran Noah Galvin. The kick? The quartet grew up doing theater together. Yes, for years. This adorable sense of decades-long camaraderie can be felt in the knee-slapping musical-comedy, which follows a group of young theater camp leaders as they try to keep the cheekily-named Camp adirondACTS afloat when its founder (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma after being kicked in the head by a boombox during a high school production of Bye Bye Birdie. A mockumentary where the straight crypto-bro (Jimmy Tatro) is often the butt of the joke, Theater Camp is definitely catering to a distinct audience with its hyper-specific humor (so many musical theater jokes). But with a winning cast and a soundtrack of standout original songs (also written by Galvin, Gordon, Lieberman, and Platt), Theater Camp is a riotous comedy everyone can enjoy.
A Thousand and One (directed by A.V. Rockwell)
A Thousand and One, a heart-wrenching, decade-spanning drama about a young mother who kidnaps her son from the foster-care system before raising him under a falsified identity, won this year’s coveted Grand Jury Prize — and once you watch, it’s impossible to argue against the decision. Tracking Inez (a triumphantly fierce Teyana Taylor) in the wake of her release from Rikers, the film follows as the aspiring hairdresser struggles to reintegrate into society as she fights to provide a stable home for her son while also strategically keeping the truth about their situation secret. Set against a backdrop of rapidly growing gentrification in Harlem, this late-90s, early-aughts period piece is both an ode to and an indictment of New York City’s false promise to be a land of opportunity for everyone. The film is sometimes guilty of slipping into melodrama, but with its raw, unflinching depiction of a struggling but strong Black woman navigating impossible circumstances, A Thousand and One rises above its shortcomings, making for a hyper-specific story that, ultimately, feels all too distinctly American.