After two weeks of snow, cinema, and screenings, the 2023 Sundance Film Festival has finally come to a close. The Park City-based festival has been delighting audiences and debuting buzzy titles since 1978, and the 2023 incarnation is no exception, featuring more than 100 feature-length films from across the globe.
With Sundance, variety is the name of the game – from slice-of-life documentaries to musical comedies to decades-spanning dramas, Sundance programming continually runs the gambit, delivering unexpected gems as well as big-name titles. This year’s selections featured entries from 23 different countries and numerous genres – and we caught over a dozen titles during our virtual viewing of the fest. Here’s a snapshot of some of our standouts – the best, the worst, and the in-betweens of the Sundance 2023 film festival.
Fair Play (dir. Chloe Domont)
Writer-director Chloe Domont (whose TV credits include Ballers, Suits, and Billions) brings her sharp pen and eye for satire to Fair Play, an intense, character-driven drama starring Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) and Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton). Set in the tense, high-stakes world of a financial firm, Fair Play follows ambitious young couple Emily (Dynevor) and Luke (Ehrenreich) as they attempt to climb the ranks among their colleagues and navigate a secret workplace relationship.
But when Emily is promoted, Luke begins to spiral, and soon their seemingly healthy, supportive relationship devolves into a vicious rivalry, putting both of their careers on the line. Produced by Rian Johnson, the film’s icy script allows Dynevor and Ehrenreich to deliver a pair of mesmerizingly catastrophic performances – resulting in an explosive, fast-paced relationship drama/thriller that casts an unflinching look at feminism on Wall Street.
Passages (dir. Ira Sachs)
One of our biggest letdowns of the festival was Ira Sachs’ Passages, a French romantic drama starring Franz Rogowski, Ben Whishaw, and Adèle Exarchopoulos. The film follows Tomas (Rogowski) a flighty, free-spirited filmmaker who strikes up an affair with a young woman named Agathe (Exarchopoulos), much to the chagrin of his husband Martin (Whishaw). As Tomas’ relationship with Agathe blossoms, Martin begins his own affair, prompting an unexpected bout of jealousy from Tomas that puts a strain on their relationship and has him questioning what he truly wants.
On paper, Passages is a recipe for success – a creative (queer-centric) premise with a trio of strong leads and an intriguing attitude towards insecurity, passion, and loyalty. But where the film struggles are in its script and pacing – though it may present some interesting ideas, it never fully explores any of them and leaves Agathe and Martin feeling underdeveloped, while Tomas is frustratingly indecisive. It may boast some memorable sex scenes and a strong cast, but when push comes to shove, Passages doesn’t deliver (or dig deep enough) on its potential.
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields (dir. Lana Wilson)
This year’s documentary program featured the stories of a number of famous faces – including Little Richard and Michael J Fox. But our favorite documentary of the fest was Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields. As its name implies, Pretty Baby provides an in-depth examination of Brooke Shields’ life, career, and public persona – from child model to controversial teen movie star to an empowered, independent actress.
Featuring interviews with Shields herself as well as relatives, childhood friends, and cultural critics/academics, Pretty Baby is effective not just as a way for Shields to finally give her perspective on her controversial filmography, but also as a thoughtful examination of the way society objectifies and sexualizes girls and young women.
Magazine Dreams (dir. Elijah Bynum)
Landing somewhere in the middle of our Sundance viewing was Elijah Bynum’s highly anticipated character drama Magazine Dreams, which stars Jonathan Majors as an aspiring bodybuilder desperate for greatness. The film is an intense, often difficult-to-watch portrait of mental health, masculinity, and self-worth in an online age – but despite the many compelling topics it touches on, the sheer intensity of the viewing experiences makes it an upsetting one.
If you can stomach two hours of pure anxiety and tension, this might be for you – the unflinching misery and hopelessness of Magazine Dreams is as oppressive as it is constant. Still, despite the smothering tone, Jonathan Majors turns in a career-best performance as Killian Maddox – bringing sympathy and dimension to what could easily have become a caricature of incel types.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (dir. Raven Jackson)
One of the most impressive debuts at Sundance was freshman feature director Raven Jackson’s sprawling drama All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, an anachronistic chronicle of the life of Mack, a young Black woman living in rural Mississippi. Jackson’s direction and eye for detail are stunning – Dirt Roads tells Mack’s story in extreme closeups, lingering landscapes, and gorgeous nature shots that create a lived-in world.
Brimming with melancholy, All Dirt Roads is both ruminative and joyful – a deeply personal narrative that follows Mack’s life in its warmest, most joyful memories as well as her lowest moments. Between Jackon’s pitch-perfect direction and a trio of strong performances from Kaylee Nicole Johnson, Charleen McClure, and Zainab Jah as Mack at different stages in her life, this is a grand slam of a debut feature and an extraordinary approach to slice-of-life dramas.
Infinity Pool (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)
Undeniably one of Sundance’s buzziest titles is Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool, yet another dizzying psychological horror film from the Possessor and Antiviral director. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth, and Cleopatra Coleman, the film follows Em and James, a young couple on vacation (Skarsgård and Coleman) who meet a beguiling, glamorous woman named Gabi (Goth) who convinces them to join her and her friends for a night of fun and debauchery.
When their wild night out ends in a fatality, Em and James are shocked to find out about local law enforcement’s unorthodox solution to punishing tourists, and soon they’re trapped in a mind-bending nightmare with Gabi at the helm. Though the practical effects and disturbing visuals are classic Cronenberg, it’s the no-holds-barred performances from Goth and Skarsgård that truly makes the film memorable – make sure to catch the unrated cut for the full, unedited experience.
My Animal (dir. Jacqueline Castel)
The last of the Midnight competition films to make our list is Jacqueline Castel’s My Animal, a teen horror romance starring Amanda Stenberg and Bobbi Salvör Menuez. The film follows Heather (Menuez) a lesbian teen and aspiring hockey player who faces near-constant bullying from the rest of her small town, including her little brothers and male players on the local hockey team. If the ostracization wasn’t enough, Heather is also hiding a dark secret – she’s a werewolf whose violent impulses are beholden to the movements of the moon.
Heather’s life is turned upside down when she falls head over heels for new-in-town figure skater Jonny (Stenberg) who has a troubled relationship with her father and boyfriend. Featuring moody, atmospheric lighting design, a synth-heavy 80s-inspired score, and a pair of impressive performances from Menuez and Stenberg, My Animal is a compelling queer thriller that will likely find a loyal audience in years to come. Though the script may at times struggle and the film itself struggles with pacing and urgency, the strength of direction (and some memorable dream sequences) secure its legacy in the canon of queer horror and queer teen romance.
You Hurt My Feelings (dir. Nicole Holofcener)
Rounding out our Sundance picks is Nicole Holofcener’s witty, introspective dramedy You Hurt My Feelings, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies. The film follows a loving couple Beth (Louis-Dreyfus) a novelist teaching at a local university, and Don (Menzies) a therapist. Though their romance is still very much alive, they both struggle with feelings of personal inadequacy at work – and when Beth accidentally overhears Don tell a mutual friend that he doesn’t actually like her new novel (he just tells her he does) it sends her on a spiral that has both spouses questioning their relationship and ability.
It should come as no surprise that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is more than capable of holding her own when it comes to comedy, but the combination of her legendary chops with Menzies’ surprising comedic sensibilities brings more than enough charm to make You Hurt my Feelings succeed. Though it may not be particularly ambitious or original, the film’s examination of self-image and lying to the people you love is clever, focused one, resulting in an instant comfort watch with an impressive cast.