Sundance established itself as the festival for bold films and out-of-nowhere new voices with the debut of sex, lies, and videotape in 1989 and it’s refreshed that reputation every few years or so, usually when it threatened to become predictable. If there once was a time when the term “Sundance movie” meant an identifiable brand of indie dramedy, that era has passed. It’s not clear what Sundance’s identity is these days, but that’s a feature, not a bug. The best approach going in is to prepare to try new things and be surprised.
Sundance 2023 remained as eclectic as it has been in recent years and thankfully didn’t include too many disappointments, but it did feature more solid, satisfying films than full-on potential future classics. Still, even the disappointments— most notably the most-anticipated film as the festival kicked off—were of the sort sure to spark conversations. Here’s a few of the films most likely to stir discussion throughout the year.
In 2017, Kristen Roupenian’s story “Cat Person” became an unexpected viral sensation, raising provocative questions about the vagueness of 21st century dating mores via the story of a college student’s relationship with an older man and its awkward aftermath. Short and sharp, it was always going to be a challenge to adapt, but the opening stretches of this film version —written by Michelle Ashford, directed by Susanna Fogel and starring CODA’s Emilia Jones and Succession’s Nicolas Braun — capture the story’s sense of peril and the ways mixed signals can double as red flags. It also features some intriguing additions, like an interrogation of Harrison Ford’s film persona, but all that falls apart in a disastrous, tacked-on final act that veers into erotic thriller territory.
Writer Chloe Domont’s feature debut is much better, though it would be just as disastrous a choice for a date night. The film plunges into the deep end of power dynamics and male privilege via the story of Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor), two employees at a powerful New York hedge fund who get engaged in the opening scene but end it in a different state, to say the least. Ehrenreich and Dynevor give the film an electric charge, first with unforced sexual chemistry then with chemistry of a different kind and Eddie Marsan delivers a standout supporting performance as a pitiless boss who only has time for excellence.
Continuing a trend, the latest from Ira Sachs (Love is Strange) portrays a different sort of difficult relationship, this one between three sometime lovers (and others in their orbit). Set in Paris, it stars Franz Rogowksi as Tomas, a difficult German film director who caps his celebration of completing his latest film by sleeping with Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a French schoolteacher. Returning home to his English husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) the next day, Tomas frames it as a one night stand, but then pursues an affair with Agathe anyway. Then things get really complicated. Sachs’ moody film is sexually frank and unabashedly complicated in portraying messy, complicated lives and the heartbreak that trails them.
Thomasin McKenzie (Last Night in Soho) stars in this adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel as Eileen, a seemingly meek employee at a juvenile prison in early-’60s. But her life takes a turn when Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), a glamorous new psychologist, joins the staff. Directed with restraint that gives way to bursts of verve by William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth), Eileen features one of the most stunning gearshift moments in recent memory, one that makes viewers realize they didn’t even understand what sort of film they’ve been watching. In a fest dominated by minor accomplishments this feels major.
Run Rabbit Run
From Australia’s Daina Reid, Run Rabbit Run is a mostly familiar ghost story made memorable by some stunning scenery and a standout performance from Sarah Snook. Between this film, Cat Person, and Arian Moaeyed supporting performance in You Hurt My Feelings, the Succession cast was well represented.
Much less familiar, and far squickier, Laura Moss’s Birth/Rebirth depicts the unlikely partnership between grieving maternity nurse (Judy Reyes) and the unpleasant pathologist (Marin Ireland) who may have created a method to resurrect the dead. It’s a film as unafraid of deep emotions as it is of gore, and both elements make it deeply unsettling in the best sense.
Little Richard: I Am Everything
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie
All sorts of celebrities received the biographical documentary treatment at this year’s Sundance, from Stephen Curry to Judy Blume. Two standouts take strikingly different approaches to their subjects. Directed by Lisa Cortes, Little Richard: I Am Everything ponders the enigma of one of the first rock and roll stars through archival footage and interviews with those who were close to him as well as Black and queer scholars pondering his place in American culture — and why he sometimes retreated from that place in the name of religion. It’s a rich and thoughtful portrait made from a distance. By contrast, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, puts its subject front and center, letting Fox tell his own story to director Davis Guggenheim. Alternately self-critical, self-deprecating, and inspiring, it follows the star from his childhood in Canada to a present defined by his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s, the effects of which neither Fox nor the film sugarcoats.
Documentarian Roger Ross Williams makes his feature debut with Cassandro, which recounts the life of Saúl Armendáriz, a Texas-based luchador who helped push wrestling in a new direction in the ’80s and ’90s by turning some of its stock gay stereotypes on their heads. Williams doesn’t dwell much on lucha libre’s thrilling and sensational elements, instead making room for a thoughtful, understated performance from Gael García Bernal.
Nida Manzoor goes even bigger on the fun, innovative approaches that her feature debut We Are Lady Parts showcased with this tale of two British-Pakistani sisters whose paths in life are seemingly parting ways. Ria (Priya Kansara) dreams of being a stunt performer and makes videos to impress her hero, real-life British stunt person Eunice Huthart. Her sister Lena (Ritu Arya) is seemingly content to give up on her artistic dreams to marry into the wealthy (but possibly shady?) Shah family. Freely mixing genres and tones, it drops the two endearing characters into one unexpected situation after another, sometimes requiring them to fight their way out of them. Fans of Everything Everywhere All at Once should take note. This is the follow-up you’re looking for.
Rye Lane is another winning comedy from England, with a deep romantic streak. The film mostly unfolds over the course of a long day, the first day shared by Dom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivan Oparah). Both are nursing heartbreaks and both start to figure out that they might be good together over the course of a long conversation with some adventurous, inventively filmed sidetracks. (It plays at times like a cross between Before Sunrise and a mellower Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.) Scripted by TV veterans Tom Melia and Nathan Byron, directed by Raine Allen-Miller, and driven by a pair of charming performances, it doubles as a love letter to the diverse, vibrant neighborhoods of South London.
Director Brandon Cronenberg has a familiar last name but his third feature confirms he’d be a director worth following even without it. Continuing Possessor’s fixation on the slipperiness of indignity, Infinity Pool stars Alexander Skarsgård as a frustrated writer who accidentally strikes and kills a farmer in the Eastern European country where he’s vacationing. Fortunately, a local custom provides a loophole for the charges, though it comes with a horrible price. Mia Goth co-stars as a fellow vacationer who might be drawing him deeper into trouble and the film’s nightmarishness intensifies with each new development. It’s not for the faint of heart, but curious filmgoers with a strong stomach are likely to love it.
Alice Englert doesn’t share a last name with her director mother, Jane Campion (who cameos here). Nor does she have much of her mother’s sensibility. But her feature debut suggests she’s developing an intriguing style of her own, even if it’s not quite fully developed yet. Jennifer Connelly stars as a former child star whose frustration mounts the longer she stays at a “semi-silent” retreat hosted by self-help guru (Ben Whishaw). Englert co-stars as her daughter, a stunt woman facing a crisis of her own. The film is sometimes frustratingly diffuse, but a bounty of darkly funny moments and, especially, Connelly’s nervy performance make it worth a look.
You Hurt My Feelings
Nicole Holofcener made her name with smart, heartfelt comedies like Walking and Talking and Lovely and Amazing, which used to appear with a frequency that made them easy to take for granted. Holofcener’s been busy with other sorts of worthwhile projects in the decade since Enough Said, but it’s nice to see her returning to familiar turf with this story of a writer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who accidentally hears her husband (Tobias Menzies) offering a frank and unflattering assessment of her latest novel. It’s the Holofcner touch in full: equal parts goodhearted and incisive, and the cast, including supporting performances from Michaela Watkins, David Cross, Amber Tamblyn, and Zach Cherry, makes it float.
Don’t be surprised if this emerges as Sundance 2023 unanimous pick. This mockumentary co-directed by Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman depicts an upstate New York theater camp’s struggle to survive after its founder (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma, putting her crypto influencer son (Jimmy Tatro) in charge of operations. Gordon and Ben Platt (who co-wrote the film with Gordon, Lieberman, and co-star Noah Galvin) play counselors/lifelong best friends. (The film draws in part on their own experiences performing together since childhood.) It’s endearingly silly and concludes with a fantastic musical sequence, but its emphasis on depicting how such places can be refuges for sensitive misfits makes it soar.