Get these Sundance 2023 movies on your radar now
The thing about the Sundance Film Festival – or any film festival, for that matter – is that it can be a fool's errand to try and predict the trajectory of a movie beyond the initial wave of critics' reactions and reports of multimillion distribution deals. Sure, CODA was a hit upon its premiere at the fest in 2021, but was anyone at that time thinking it would go on to become the first Sundance movie and a movie from a streaming service to win the Best Picture Oscar? On the other hand, an untold number of films have made a splash only to be buried and forgotten upon release months later.
But one thing I love about Sundance is that if you see enough movies, there are always going to be some gems and genuine surprises to stumble upon, particularly when it comes to emerging filmmakers and performers. And then you hope that at the very least they find an enthusiastic audience beyond us fest-goers.
Sundance 2023 took place in-person in Park City, Utah for the first time since 2020. I wasn't able to head out to the mountains this year, but much of the program was also made available to press and audiences online, and I wound up screening nearly 20 movies over the past week. We're still a couple days away from the conclusion of the festival, and the awards are set to be announced Friday evening, but below are a few of my favorites from this year.
The crowd pleasers
If there's one specific formula Sundance programmers and audiences can't resist, it's the quirky coming-of-age drama/comedy/dramedy. (See Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, CODA and Cha Cha Real Smooth, each of which won an Audience Award in their respective years.) Sometimes these movies can border on cloying and twee, but two such stories I saw this year managed to mercifully resist such categorization.
The first is Polite Society, the genre-hopping feature directorial debut of Nida Manzoor, who is probably best known as the creator of the acclaimed series We Are Lady Parts. It stars Priya Kansara as Ria Khan, a plucky teen and aspiring stunt woman who takes it extremely personally when her older sister Lena (Ritu Arya) becomes engaged to a wealthy doctor. Ria, a die-hard feminist, is worried Lena has given up on her dreams of becoming an artist to go full-on Stepford Wife, so she'll do everything in her power to keep the wedding from happening, with the assist of her best friends. Lady Part's themes around sisterhood and feminine autonomy are all over this – as is the DNA of action-comedies like Kick-Ass and Everything Everywhere All at Once, and the twisty humor of Jordan Peele. The ensemble is a delight, especially Kansara and Nimra Bucha, who relishes her role as Lena's soon-to-be mother-in-law, and the script is sharp-witted and breezy. Luckily, you won't have to wait too long to check this out – it's currently scheduled for theatrical release on April 28.
The other is Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman's Theater Camp, a mockumentary about a kids camp that faces two big setbacks: The loss of its beloved founder Joan (Amy Sedaris), who slips into a coma following a seizure during a production of Bye Bye Birdie, and impending financial doom. Her kind of dense, bro-y son Troy earnestly takes over, while the counselors, including alumni and best friends Amos and Rebecca-Diane (Ben Platt and Gordon) try to keep the show going.
I'll admit that I'm especially biased on this one, having myself once been a theater kid – so I was able to overlook the bold and disappointing choice to cast the great Amy Sedaris only to relegate her to just a handful of minutes on screen. Also yes, the mockumentary format is mostly tired, Abbott Elementary aside. But many of the jokes about overenthusiastic theater geeks young and old landed for me. And the movie's final act, involving the kids' performance of a musical tribute to Joan, is both astonishingly silly and quite sweet. It sold to Searchlight Pictures at the festival, so expect to see it released in the coming months.
Men are not OK
There was no shortage of iterations on the current state of misogyny and patriarchy among this year's Sundance offerings. One of the more interesting entries is Elijah Bynum's Magazine Dreams. It was the talk of the festival, at first for not-great reasons (the jury, which included actor Marlee Matlin, walked out on the premiere because the theater's open captions technology was not working), and then because of star Jonathan Majors' towering performance as Killian, a socially awkward loner and aspiring body builder. The movie draws heavily from the likes of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle and Eminem's "Stan," and heads in directions both obvious and confounding; the ending didn't work for me, but Majors is a sight to behold, creating a challenging character who both embodies and resists the old racist trope of the "Black brute."
I also really dug Chloe Domont's Fair Play, a thriller about a newly engaged heterosexual couple whose relationship is tested when one of them gets a promotion over the other at the cutthroat financial firm where they both work. Can you guess which one of them doesn't get the coveted position? Why yes, it's the man, Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), who tries really hard – at first – to be supportive of Emily (Phoebe Dynevor), his fiancée and, now, his superior. The guy who's threatened by his girlfriend's/wife's career is a tale as old as time, but Domont puts a spin on it that feels very in tune with the now and all the discourse being had about the fraught nature of girl bosses and workplace relationships. (Netflix reportedly acquired it in a $20 million deal.)
On a lighter note, the spiky rom-com Shortcomings deals with fragile masculinity from an Asian American perspective. It stars Justin H. Min as Ben, a wannabe filmmaker living in Berkeley, Calif., who's stuck in both a professional and romantic rut. When Ben's girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) leaves for New York to pursue an internship, he's forced to finally confront his many insecurities and internalized racism – Miko and his best friend, Alice, played by Sherry Cola, frequently call out his fetish for blonde white women, as well as his hypocritical disdain for Asian women who date white men. Screenwriter Adrian Tomine adapted his graphic novel of the same name, and it marks the directorial debut of Randall Park; while it hits some familiar beats, the banter is often funny and the script heads to places few rom-coms dare go.
Finding family, finding yourself
Among my absolute favorite finds this year were several movies dealing with themes of memory, generational bonds, and self-discovery.
Raven Jackson's debut All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt is a poetic, non-linear narrative that traverses several decades in the life of a Mississippi woman, from childhood through adulthood. This isn't about plot, but about the moments of mundanity made profound through the inquisitive eyes of Mack (played as a kid by Kaylee Nicole Johnson and older by Charleen McClure) and the camera's lingering gaze: fishing with dad, parents slow-dancing in the living room, listening to grandma's stories. One scene in particular stuck with me and is already in the running for best scenes of the year – a quiet, trembling embrace that carries with it the weight of years, loss and connection without a single word. (There is in fact, very little dialogue throughout the film.) In stunning imagery and tone, it feels like a direct descendant of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust, yet stands powerfully on its own as a rumination on Black womanhood and its existence within nature. And as if you need any more reason to be on the lookout for this movie, Barry Jenkins is a producer.
Milisuthando Bongela's documentary Milisuthando is similarly evocative, though Bongela embraces dialogue and a more literal approach, creating a compelling personal essay brought to life on screen. Through home movies, interviews, and tons of striking archival footage, she excavates the lingering effects of South African apartheid on herself and her friends and family. She challenges the myths that were perpetuated by those who supported the Transkei, an unrecognized state that was created in 1976 under the pretense that it would liberate the Xosha people and shield them from the harms of apartheid. And she questions what it means to have white friends in South Africa, which includes an illuminating, unflinching conversation between the filmmaker and her friend (and the movie's producer) Marion Isaacs. The country's history with race is emotionally rendered and made deeply personal in a way I haven't quite seen before.
And then there's Patricia Ortega's MAMACRUZ, a charming Spanish-language film about Cruz (Kiti Mánver), an older woman who has a late-in-life sexual awakening after discovering porn on the internet. The premise definitely leaves room for cheekiness (a scene where Cruz watches a couple have sex with chocolate is immediately followed up with the image of a churro being dipped in chocolate sauce), but the protagonist's journey is treated seriously and with warmth. Cruz makes friends with other women in a sex therapy group, and tries to spice up the intimacy with her distant, barely affectionate husband. She struggles to reconcile her desires with her devoutly religious beliefs. And she attempts to reconnect with her daughter, who is herself trying to realize a dream later in life, of becoming a professional dancer. If you enjoyed last year's Sundance hit Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (like I did), you'll definitely find pleasure in MAMACRUZ. (International rights to the movie were snagged by Spanish distributor Filmax.)
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