The 2023 Sundance Film Festival wrapped up last week after returning to a 10-day in-person event in Utah running alongside an online counterpart. Now it's time to present our annual Best of the Fest list. I was able to catch a total of 50 films this year (my full list on Letterboxd), half of them at screenings in Park City, the other half virtual screenings. This is my 17th year in a row covering Sundance, and this fest still has a special place in my heart. It was so nice to be back again. I am presenting one big list of my 10 favorite films - a mix of a few documentaries and narrative features. All 10 of these below are worth watching, and I highly recommend seeing them on the big screen whenever they show up at your local theater. I also wrote another editorial about how much Sundance 2023 focused on discoveries & first-time filmmakers, returning to their roots as a launching ground for so many wonderfully talented storytellers. Below are my favorites, the films that connected with me and have remained on my mind all the way through the 10 days of the fest.
Why go to film festival if not to discover some of the best up-and-coming filmmakers? The 2023 Sundance Film Festival has just wrapped and after screening over 100 new films. Was it a success? Absolutely. The festival returned to an in-person event in the snowy city of Park City, Utah after two years of virtual festivals during the pandemic. Sundance is famous for being the place where directors like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez made their mark, breaking into the industry with their first indie films. In recent years they've also been responsible for launching Damien Chazelle (Whiplash in 2014), Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station in 2013), Dee Rees (Mudbound in 2017), Ari Aster (Hereditary in 2018), Lulu Wang (The Farewell in 2019), and Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You in 2018). At Sundance 2023, the festival decided to feature a selection of mostly unknown, first-time filmmakers and it paid off. This is one of their best line-ups in years, with an especially strong selection of high quality indie films from a new generation of artists.
The Sundance Film Festival has a long history of showing great mockumentaries, but this might just be the best one of they've ever premiered. Based on the roars of laughter and applause at every screening during the festival, I think most viewers will agree - it's no exaggeration to say that. Theater Camp is a hilarious new "mock doc" created by comedy filmmakers Molly Gordon & Nick Lieberman, based on Lieberman's own 2020 short film of the same name. This time they've made a fun film dedicated to and all about "theater kids". Were you a theater kid growing up? Maybe some of you still are? Theater Camp is mockumentary taking us to the summer camp known as "AdirondACTS", a scrappy theater camp in upstate New York that’s a haven for budding performers. I have no idea how this film didn't win the Audience Award at Sundance, as the reaction from the crowd at my screening seemed vastly more enthusiastic than at any of the other 30+ screenings I attended this year (except for maybe the terrific Fair Play). Everyone had a blast watching this.
This Australian indie horror film is one of the most fresh and exciting horror discoveries in a long time - put it on your watchlist right now. Don't even read this review or any others, go watch it when it opens without knowing anything more about it. Talk to Me is screening at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in the iconic Midnight section (where classics like Saw and The Blair Witch Project and The Babadook and Hereditary and Cube all premiered years ago), though it originally premiered in Australia last year. Its initial unveiling was at the 2022 Adelaide Film Festival last October - this is its first appearance since. Despite not being a world premiere this time, it unquestionably deserves to be featured in Sundance's 2023 Midnight line-up - the horror highlight of the festival. A genuinely scary, entirely thrilling, well-made film that might be the big breakout of this year, with an epic franchise setup similar to Saw. I've been telling anyone that loves horror this is the must see of the festival, and I'll continue to spread the good word now that A24 has picked it up.
Obsession can drive a man insane. No doubt about that. This riveting character study explores the intensity that comes with obsession, and how striving for perfection can ruin someone. Magazine Dreams is the second feature film written and directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Elijah Bynum, following his 2017 film Hot Summer Nights (which came out of SXSW). After screening during the first weekend at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, this has become one of the most talked about films at the entire fest. Everyone has something to say. It's being discussed so much not because it's the best film at the fest, but because it's one of those films that everyone must talk about - whether it's the lead performance from Jonathan Majors, the uncomfortable story it tells, or the brutality and intensity of what happens, or whether or not it's actually a good film, and how could it be better. All of this has been a big part of the conversations over the last week and that's always invigorating because it's better than watching a film that everyone instantly forgets about.
Another of my favorite discoveries at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival is a comedy called Shortcomings, based on the graphic novel of the same name. The film is also the feature directorial debut of actor Randall Park, best known as the guy from "Fresh Off the Boat", Always Be My Maybe, and many other supporting character roles (he's also in the MCU). It took him years to finally get this film made, working from a script by another writer, Adrian Tomine, and it's worth the wait. I loved Shortcomings. The film has some of the most "real" characters and dialogue in any of 40+ films I've seen at Sundance this year, following a guy from Berkeley questioning his romantic choices while making even more irrational choices. It's an exploration of what it's like being a young Asian-American male in American society, and it's powerfully honest. I found it incredibly bold for a filmmaker + writer to make a film about their own experiences, and make these flawed characters realistic. No one is perfect; yes everyone gets angry, that's normal. Realizing that is empowering.
I am always up for a good documentary that re-establishes the legacy of an important person who has been forgotten in time. This film is one of those extraordinarily vital documentaries that will, when given a proper release sometime in the near future, reset the legacy and re-establish Shere Hite as the feminist hero that she really, truly was. If you're like me, born in the 1980s (or anytime after), you've probably never heard of Shere Hite. She hasn't so much as "disappeared" as been forgotten, buried by criticism and fanaticism and unjust hate. I'm lucky I could watch this documentary film at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and learn all about her, I'm so glad someone decided to tell her story accurately. The Disappearance of Shere Hite is a film about Shere - who she was, what she did, her books, what happened to her after he books achieved an immense amount of fame and popularity. It's a biopic but also much more - a film about progressive ideas, sexuality, society's resistance to sexuality, and how good people can be crushed by a puritanical population.
The official awards for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, held in Park City, Utah every January, were announced this evening with a small ceremony held in person in Utah. The festival continued this week with an at-home online series of viewings in addition to all the in-person projections. It was an especially festive year, so many people were excited to be back in Park City in the snow to enjoy films, and a rather impressive selection - 111 features in total screened at Sundance 2023. I enjoyed so many of them, the quality was at its best. The main winners for 2023 including A Thousand and One (made by A.V. Rockwell) and the doc Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project winning the premium top Grand Jury Prizes. In addition, the festival favorite is Radical (read my glowing review) along with The Persian Version and Beyond Utopia as the Main Competition Audience Award winners. As always, if any of these films interest you, we hope you note them down and take the time to watch as soon as you can. All 2023 winners are listed below.
So fresh, much love, so funky, much London. Get in the groove with Rye Lane and you'll never forget Dom and Yas. One of the best original romantic comedy creations in years is the delightfully quirky, exceptionally entertaining Rye Lane, marking the feature directorial debut of filmmaker Raine Allen Miller. Rye Lane just premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and is already set for release (in theaters in the UK / on Hulu in the US) from Searchlight Pictures starting in late March this spring. It's one of the many must-see, don't-miss-it, get-your-ticket-right-now films from Sundance this year - its been a fantastic year. I've been recommending it to anyone asking (it was one of my most anticipated of the fest, too). Thankfully everyone else who has seen it so far also loves it (here's one of the best reviews). The film instantly joins the ranks of beloved Sundance romcom classics like 500 Days of Summer, Before Midnight, Palm Springs, The Big Sick.
I did not know what I was getting into with The Deepest Breath. I did not know I was about to watch one of my favorite documentaries of the year. I went on a journey with all these people and can never forget this experience. The Deepest Breath is a extraordinary and awe-inspiring work of cinematic art. I was lucky to attend the world premiere screening at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival of this A24 / Netflix co-production, directed by Irish filmmaker Laura McGann. This exceptional documentary film is this year's Fire of Love (nominated for an Oscar!) – both films follow the beautiful story of a couple, examining their lives living on the edge and doing something radical that few other people on this planet do. The Deepest Breath is about a freediving couple and the incredibly dangerous sport of freediving - the act of holding your breath for long periods of time while diving or swimming. It moved me beyond words, I was wiping away tears by the end.
Everyone remembers that one teacher they had growing up that changed their lives. There is always at least one teacher who goes above and beyond, who approaches teaching as something more than just a job, or a chance to make kids remember some facts. My favorite teacher growing up was one named Mrs. Richards. Radical is a remarkable film from Mexico made by a filmmaker named Christopher Zalla, best known for his Sundance 2007 film Padre Nuestro before (I actually watched this one at Sundance and reviewed it way back then). He returns to Sundance again 16 years later to premiere his latest film, based on a true story about a "radical" Mexican teacher in a small border town called Matamoros (see Google Maps). Going into this film, I was initially expecting a light-hearted comedy, about kids feuding with their teacher. What I was not expecting was to discover a generous, warm-hearted, emotional story about a teacher and his students working together to overcome adversity and carelessness. Education matters, but teachers matter the most.
Is this what dating is really like these days?! I can't believe it. I don't want to believe it. This cannot be real. Can it…?? I'm not one to be extra negative about a film, but I must get this off my chest. Cat Person is bad, really bad. It's one of the worst films I've seen at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, not necessarily because the filmmaking is bad, but because the entire film is misguided. I didn't think they could extend the cringe and awkwardness of the original story (from New Yorker) this much and make it even more awkward to sit through. But somehow they did… It's such an uncomfortable watch. The film only features annoying idiotic cringe for two hours with absolutely nothing interesting or worthwhile to add or explore or consider or think about. I am shocked by how much of a mess this film is. It's not really about toxic masculinity, it's actually about a young woman who keeps making unbelievably stupid choices and never learning a thing from them. Her best friend is constantly trying to keep her from making mistakes, but she never listens to her… Ever.