These past few years have been challenging for Park City, the small ski destination, population 8,457, that plays host to the Sundance Film Festival each year. First, the January 2020 iteration of the festival was written up in The Hollywood Reporter as the “first petri dish” of COVID-19 in America, as more and more attendees suspected after the fact that what they thought was Festival Flu might have been something more consequential. Then, the resorts had to temporarily shut down, the festival had to cancel its in-person events two years in a row, and worst of all, Jen Shah moved to town (and later, out of it). But, like a Real Housewife of Salt Lake City on a bunny slope adjusting their form from french fries to pizza … things are finally turning around.
Sundance is fully back in Park City for the first time in three years, and the programming slate is full of fittingly buzzy fare. There’s Nicholas Braun in the film adaptation of Cat Person, maybe the most intriguing viral short story since Bartleby the freaking Scrivener. There are documentaries about an eclectic range of big names like Michael J. Fox, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Judy Blume. There are new films from respected filmmakers like Nicole Holofcenter and Brandon Cronenberg. There’s Eileen, a film which will answer the terrifying question: What if Ottessa Moshfegh and Anne Hathaway combined their powers? Here is a list of the movies we are excited to see, either from home (the festival is still partially virtual) or the warm interior of a Utahan theater.
Landscape With Invisible Hand
Cory Finley made a splash at Sundance 2017 with his debut Thoroughbreds, a black comedy starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke as a pair of disaffected high schoolers and then went on to direct Hugh Jackman in a career-best performance in Bad Education in 2019. The bar for his third film has been set high, but the premise of Landscape With Invisible Hand is plenty intriguing. Asante Blackk and Kylie Rogers play teenagers living in a near future in which the Earth has been colonized by an advanced alien species who’ve automated everything, putting most of the planet out of work. In need of money, the kids livestream their budding romance to the extraterrestrials, who apparently enjoy forming parasocial relationships as much as any human. Tiffany Haddish, William Jackson Harper, and Michael Gandolfini are also in the cast.
Greta Lee is a scene-stealer who’s been on the cusp of stardom forever, so here’s hoping this romantic drama from playwright turned debut writer-director Celine Song leads Lee to more of the plum leading role she deserves. Lee and Teo Yoo play childhood sweethearts who are pulled apart when Lee’s family emigrates from Seoul to Canada. Over a decade later, the two reconnect online, and a dozen years after that, the pair finally meet up for a few days in New York, leading to a plaintive love story of sorts that spans half their lives and, if the title is any indication, leads them both to wonder about might-have-beens.
Nida Manzoor’s Muslim punk-rock comedy We Are Lady Parts is raucous, surprising, and delightful, and her first film sounds equally ready to bust genres. Priya Kansara stars as a student and aspiring stunt performer who becomes convinced she needs to save her big sister from her own hastily announced wedding plans. Polite Society is reportedly a combination heist film, martial-arts extravaganza, and diasporic social satire, which sounds like an amazing combination.
A Still Small Voice
Luke Lorentzen’s last documentary, 2019’s Midnight Family, fell somewhere between a gritty thriller and a domestic drama, following a family operating a private ambulance service that raced through the streets of Mexico City to intercept emergency calls and transport people to hospitals — for a fee. His new doc deals with a different angle on health care by centering on a hospital chaplain in training who starts her yearlong residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York in 2020 as the pandemic overwhelms the city.
One of Sundance ’23’s buzziest acquisitions titles — if not also, perhaps, one of its Sundanceiest — this psycho-romantic potboiler from Susanna Fogel was adapted from Kristen Roupenian’s New Yorker short story of the same name, among the magazine’s most widely read articles to date, which seemed to saturate a certain quadrant of chattering-class culture upon its 2017 publication. CODA star Emilia Jones portrays Margot, a college student working at an “artsy” movie theater who senses romantic potential in the mysterious, 30-something cinéaste Robert (Succession’s erstwhile Cousin Greg, Nicholas Braun). But as their attraction ebbs and flows, flirtation gives way to existential dread, exposing harsh realities about gender divides, sexual degradation and power dynamics in modern dating.
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields
Rocketing from obscurity at age 12 as the object of fetishization in director Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby, Brooke Shields became the early ’80s face of teensploitation, starring in Endless Love and Blue Lagoon. Documentarian Lana Wilson (responsible for the 2020 Taylor Swift doc Miss Americana and the Emmy-winning After Tiller) chronicles Shields’s career odyssey: growing up in public “defined by a sexuality that she could neither claim nor comprehend” while throwing into stark relief Hollywood’s toxic culture of misogyny.
Fresh Off the Boat–Always Be My Maybe co-lead Randall Park makes his directorial debut with this romantic dramedy scripted by comics phenom Adrian Tomine from his acclaimed graphic novel of the same name — not a career no-brainer considering how Tomine spurned Hollywood’s adaption overtures for nearly a decade. Justin H. Min (After Yang, The Umbrella Academy) plays Ben, a tragicomic movie-theater manager and struggling filmmaker with a politically active girlfriend named Miko and a wandering eye for unavailable white women. When Miko moves away, however, Ben is suddenly free to pursue his idealized “type” — to predictably disastrous results. Less predictably, the movie attempts to sidestep cliché, addressing Asian American identity through a character who actively suppresses his “otherness.”
Little Richard: I Am Everything
In 1955, Richard “Little Richard” Penniman awopbopaloomopalopbombom-ed his way onto the pop charts — and into American musical vernacular — with his veiled paean “Tutti Frutti.” In this feature documentary, Lisa Cortés, the Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning co-director of All In: The Fight for Democracy, unpacks the singer’s seeming contradictions: as a flamboyant gay man passing as straight, an unabashed drug addict who ascended the pulpit as a preacher, as a force-of-nature firebrand and all-around dazzling showman who navigated the treacherous shoals of his race and sexuality at a time of extreme segregation to obliterate cultural boundaries.
Each of Nicole Holofcener’s seven films feels like real life, but funnier and with better lighting. Nobody writes and directs lived-in, flawed-but-lovable characters more convincingly — characters who deal with quotidian things like friendships faltering in the face of new relationships (Walking and Talking), class clashes (Friends With Money), and later-in-life love affairs (Enough Said) in ways that feel fresh and uncomfortably familiar. For her fourth Sundance premiere, Holofcener examines marriage and minor (or is it?) betrayal: Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays a New York novelist, Beth, who’s been sharing drafts of her new book with her husband, Don (Tobias Menzies). When she overhears him admitting to someone else that he doesn’t actually like the book, marital chaos ensues.
Novelist Ottessa Moshfegh, hailed as the “high priestess of filth,” is well-practiced in making her readers squirm with discomfort. Her 2015 debut novel, Eileen, is classic Moshfegh, perverse and flecked with twisted absurdity. The novel follows the titular young woman, who’s extremely disturbed and living in squalor with her alcoholic father in 1960s Boston while working at a prison for teenage boys. Eileen becomes suddenly obsessed with her new, beautiful co-worker, and the two become friends before they find themselves embroiled in a particularly fucked-up crime. What’s fascinating about the film version is that it’s relatively mainstream, starring Thomasin McKenzie as Eileen and Anne Hathaway as the incandescent Rebecca Saint John. William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth) directs from a script adapted by Moshfegh and her husband, Luke Goebel, who also co-wrote the recent Causeway.
One of the best parts of Sundance is its NEXT category, which premieres films from completely fresh talent. Kokomo City is the debut feature of D. Smith, a two-time Grammy-nominated songwriter-producer who was also the first trans woman ever cast on a primetime reality TV show (Love and Hip Hop: Atlanta). The black-and-white doc follows four Black transgender sex workers as they live their lives in New York and Georgia, reflecting on desire, taboo, gender, and sex. A publicist described it as “totally NSFW, unapologetic, and authentic,” which are the sorts of qualities we’re all starved for in Marvel-ified movie industry.
Judy Blume Forever
Though arguably every single year since 1969 has been the Year of Judy Blume for its accompanying subset of teenage girls, 2023 really is shaping up to be a particularly Judy Blume–y year. In April, nearly half a century after its release, the first on-screen adaptation of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? will hit theaters; at Sundance, a documentary about Blume’s own coming of age will premiere, likely to wrenching, nostalgic sobs. Directors Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok “trace Blume’s journey from fearful, imaginative child to storytelling pioneer who elevated the physical and emotional lives of kids and teens, to banned writer who continues to fight back against censorship today” in the doc, which also features interviews with writers and artists inspired by Blume and letters from her lifelong fans.
20 Days in Mariupol
Even by the standards of modern warfare, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been one of the most extensively filmed and documented conflicts of our time, which makes it understandable that we’re likely to get a number of important documentaries about it. This one, an on-the-ground look at 20 days in the Ukrainian city during the siege and attack in 2022, from journalist and filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov, looks to have the kind of immediacy that can often be sorely lacking in films about such subjects.
Ira Sachs is one of contemporary American independent cinema’s greatest directors, and his latest has a cast (and premise) to die for: A German filmmaker living in Paris (Franz Rogowski, one of the rising stars of international cinema) falls for a young woman (Adele Exarchopoulos), which prompts a messy break-up with his husband (Ben Whishaw) and a lot of soul-searching about relationships, family, and jealousy — especially after the husband finds a new beau of his own.
A Little Prayer
The playwright and filmmaker Angus MacLachlan was briefly the toast of Sundance when Junebug (which he wrote) broke out in 2005. After that, he wrote and directed two very good, under-the-radar dramas, Goodbye to All That (2014) and Abundant Acreage Available (2017). As an artist, he has a unique feel for the way that families come together and fall apart — he gets their rhythms of speech, their unspoken resentments, not to mention their warmth. His latest is a movie about infidelity and intergenerational conflict down South, co-starring David Strathairn and Celia Weston, which sounds very much up the writer-director’s alley.
A highly committed Jonathan Majors plays a bodybuilder dreaming of stardom as he struggles with the demands of his sport and the turmoil of his emotions. Based on the description, this sounds like Pumping Iron meets Joker. Let’s not call it a potential breakout — Majors has already arrived. But despite Oscar-worthy performances in films like Devotion, Da 5 Bloods, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, he hasn’t quite gotten the awards traction he so richly deserves. Elijah Bynum’s drama could be a real showcase for one of our finest young actors.
Rotting in the Sun
Deeply fucked up, drugged up, and suicidal, impoverished artist Sebastian Silva goes to a gay beach in Mexico and winds up inadvertently saving the life of irrepressibly cheerful influencer Jordan Firstman. Afterward, both grateful and hoping to collaborate on a project with Silva, Firstman sets out to locate the director — but discovers that he’s disappeared. Firstman and Silva (who directed) play themselves — well, versions of themselves. Silva’s movies tend to be funnier and more interesting the weirder they are, and this sounds like one of his weirdest ones yet.
Stephen Curry: Underrated
Ever since The Last Dance took ahold of the culture, we’ve been inundated with basketball documentaries. This has been, by and large, a good thing. But this documentary about Steph Curry, telling his life story while following him through an eventful NBA season, looks to be different. It’s from Peter Nicks, who made the unforgettable 2017 Oakland policing documentary The Force. That raises our hope that this film will be more insightful than all the shallow profiles we’ve had over the years; Curry is not just one of the greatest basketball players of all time, but also one of the more fascinating, with a wholesome public image that has seduced sports writers and hot-take artists the world over. A film that cuts through all that could be really special.
Brandon Cronenberg has returned from whatever fucked-up ancestral well of inspiration that led to his 2020 sci-fi horror fave Possessor, and this time, he’s going White Lotus mode. Alexander Skarsgård and Cleopatra Coleman play a couple on vacation in the fictional nation (sovereign municipality? small island state?) of Li Tolqa. When they deign to leave their all-inclusive resort, Skarsgård’s character James discovers a horrible little detail that you think would have made it into the travel brochure: In Li Tolqa, the punishment for all crimes is execution … unless you’re rich, in which case you can fashion a sort of clone of yourself to die in front of you instead. In this body horror also starring Mia Goth, let Cronenberg snap you out of your “satirical movies about rich people on private islands getting their just desserts” rut of 2022 with something that will, at the very least, be entirely original.
Flora and Son
If John Carney’s gonna do anything, you know he’s gonna be writing and directing a sensitive, uplifting comedy-tinged romance about love and music, usually set in Dublin. After Once, Begin Again, and the transcendently fresh Sing Street, Carney’s bringing his latest, Flora and Son, to Sundance. The movie stars Eve Hewson as Flora, a single mother who shares a “brash rapport” with her son, Max. They find common ground over a used guitar while a romance blossoms between Flora and her American online guitar teacher, played by Sundance staple Joseph Gordon-Levitt. We’re calling the Original Song nomination now.
Australian actress Alice Englert is making her directorial debut with this dark comedy about former child-star Lucy (Jennifer Connelly), who attends a trendy silent retreat led by an enigmatic cult-of-personality type named Elon (Ben Whishaw). The film centers on Lucy’s toxic, co-dependent relationship with her daughter, and the ways she sublimates and diverts it at the retreat with a “young model-DJ-influencer.” If you don’t know Englert from starring opposite Alden Ehrenreich in would-be YA franchise Beautiful Creatures, or from last year’s Starz adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, you might know her as the daughter of director Jane Campion, which makes us think this takedown of familial relationships and celebrity in the film-TV industry will have extra bite.
Singaporean director Anthony Chen (Ilo Ilo) directs his English-language debut in this French, British, and Greek co-production about a formerly wealthy Liberian refugee (Cynthia Erivo) living in poverty on a vacation-destination Greek island. Struggling to make ends meet and battling with grief, she develops a friendship with a lonely American tour guide, played by Alia Shawkat. Zainab Jah and Honor Swinton Byrne also star.
More From This Series
- A Complete List of Films Sold at Sundance 2023 (and Their Price Tags)
- Harry Hamlin and His Stylish Jackets Are Magical on Mayfair Witches
- Sundance’s Year of Existential Crisis Yielded Back-to-Back Megadeals