To celebrate its 40th anniversary this year, the Sundance Film Festival leaned into nostalgia. Throughout the week in chilly (though luckily not blizzardy) Park City, Utah, theaters displayed slideshows of archived photos, programmers scheduled screenings of old festival favorites, and well-established directors returned to Main Street to reflect on the legacy of independent filmmaking. Sundance isn’t what it used to be, but as celebrities returned to red carpets and young filmmakers basked in the sound of rousing post-screening applause, there was still just as much to be excited about for the future — and more specifically in the coming year.
Between hustling through the snow to various theaters (where there were more exclusive in-person screenings this year) and then shoveling more offerings onto my online plate, I consumed about 30 movies over the festival’s 10 days. It’s too early to tell if any of them will follow the blueprint of Coda or Past Lives and ride their success into the Oscars, but there were plenty of powerful documentaries, tear-jerking dramas and insightful comedies filled with outstanding performances and bold new voices eager to make their mark in the industry.
As many search for distribution or wait to land a release date on the calendar, here are my 15 favorites, in alphabetical order, to watch out for.
A Different Man (Aaron Schimburg)
Aaron Schimburg’s surrealist tale of a lonely man with a disfigured face could be called a Charlie Kaufman-esque descent into a David Lynch-directed episode of The Twilight Zone. That’s a positive characteristic. In this Lower East Side fable, Edward (Sebastian Stan) is tired of living with neurofibromatosis, signs up for an experimental drug test, quickly strips away his boiled mug and takes on a new identity. But when another man (Adam Pearson) with a similar facial disfigurement enters his life and begins to take everything he wanted (his girl, his off-Broadway acting gig, his confidence), Edward is forced to reconsider everything about his life. One of the most unique and resonant movies of this year’s festival, A Different Man forces you to confront issues of representation and authorship in absurdist, disturbing ways.
A Real Pain (Jesse Eisenberg)
Returning to Sundance as a writer-director after 2022’s When You Finish Saving the World, Jesse Eisenberg stars in this road-trip buddy dramedy as David, traveling to Poland with his cousin Benji (Kieran Culkin) to visit their grandmother’s home a couple months after her death. The pair join a Jewish heritage tour group, but it doesn’t take long for their individual personalities to clash as they rehash their fractured relationship and attempt to make sense of the overwhelming horrors that two generations before them had to endure. Similar to his anxious, glib and cringey Roman Roy, Culkin’s Benji has no filter, which both triggers and enlightens the group as they traipse around Warsaw and various Holocaust monuments. “I love him. I hate him. I want to be him. I want to kill him,” David says to everyone one night about Benji. It encapsulates the jumbled feelings of an all-encompassing trip like this, and the various ways we process grief.
Between the Temples (Nathaniel Silver)
A play on Harold and Maude with the squirmy antics of a middle-aged Jason Schwartzman, Between the Temples revels in the feeling of stress. When his old music teacher (Carol Kane) asks him for a six-decade-late bat mitzvah, Ben (Schwartzman), a suicidal Jewish cantor in a crisis of faith, quickly regains purpose and starts to fall for his former mentor. This complicates things with his two mothers (Caroline Aaron and Dolly De Leon), looking to set him up with their rabbi’s daughter (Madeline Weinstein). Shot in claustrophobic close-up by Sean Price Williams, Nathaniel Silver’s cringey, creatively edited comedy never stops pushing you into uncomfortable corners. That’s no clearer than at a third-act family dinner where Ben puts all his cards on the table. You’ll want a heavy pour of Manischewitz with this one.
Daughters (Natalie Ray and Angela Patton)
Winner of the festival’s documentary audience award, Natalie Ray and Angela Patton’s deeply moving film about a father-daughter dance for D.C.-based Black girls and their incarcerated fathers is a sure bet to make you misty-eyed. Chronicling the 12-week “Date with Dad” program, Daughters highlights the injustices of the prison system through the lens of four young girls restricted from a meaningful connection with their fathers. Instead of ending with the program’s emotional, dressed-up and dance-y culmination, Ray and Patton keep their camera rolling years later, examining the ripple effects that absent — and sometimes reunited — male figures have on the family unit. This is a movie about the importance of human touch, and a wrecking ball’s inevitable pendulum swing when that rehabilitation and connection is denied for too long.
The 15 Best Films at the 2023 Sundance Film FestivalFrom shocking horror to theater-kid comedy, this year’s slate of movies didn’t disappoint
Exhibiting Forgiveness (Titus Kaphar)
In Titus Kaphar’s mesmerizing and powerful debut feature, André Holland plays Tarrell, a prolific rising artist who channels his traumatic childhood into breathtaking and visionary paintings. But on a visit with his musician wife (Andra Day) and young son to see his mother (a powerful Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor), his abusive and long-absentee father La’Ron (John Earl Jelks) attempts to reconnect with him, resurfacing visceral memories that push him to the edge and make him reinterpret the new show he’s been curating. Similar to his moving portrayal in Moonlight, Holland is the movie’s sensitive center of gravity, negotiating anger, resentment and resignation as his father asks for absolution. Anchored by Kaphar’s own astounding artwork, Exhibiting Forgiveness demonstrates the reasons we hold onto pain, and how it can become debilitating the longer we let it control us.
Ghostlight (Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson)
It takes a while to fully understand the tragedy at the heart of Ghostlight. That’s by design. Directed by Kelly O’Sullivan and Alex Thompson, the drama follows Dan (a breakout Keith Kupferer), a rough-edged father who channels the grief of his son’s passing into blasts of rage at his construction job and cold encounters with his wife (Tara Mallen) and daughter (Katherine Mallen Kupferer). But after a community theater actor (Dolly De Leon) invites him to participate in their rendition of Romeo and Juliet, the new artistic outlet breaks down some of his emotional guardrails and helps him process his incomprehensible loss. Similar to the Canadian series Sling and Arrows, Ghostlight’s cathartic and clever life-imitates-art conceit is primed to induce the waterworks thanks to Kupferer’s performance, turning a hard-hat portrait of masculinity into a vulnerable Shakespearean leading man.
Good One (India Donaldson)
There might not have been a better feature debut at Sundance this year than India Donaldson’s Good One, a small and perceptive trip outdoors that leans into a mesmerizing standout performance. On a weekend camping trip with her father (James Le Gros) and his best friend (Danny McCarthy), 17-year-old Sam (Lily Collias) successfully navigates (and puts up with) the microaggressions and dad jokes of her two middle-aged, divorced travel buddies. As they set up tents and hike through the Catskills, Sam can feel the weight of being outnumbered by Y chromosomes, noticing a subtle shift in the trip’s mood that culminates in an unwelcome crossed line. It might not sound like much, but the beauty of Donaldson’s movie (which has drawn accurate comparisons as a diet version of Winter’s Bone and Leave No Trace) is how profound something so tragically ordinary can feel.
Ibelin (Benjamin Ree)
Born in Norway with a degenerative muscular disease, Mats Steen passed away at the age of 25. His family believed their son had lived a lonely and isolated life, until they began receiving reams of emails from online friends he had made during his countless hours spent playing World of Warcraft. In this innovative documentary, which won the festival’s World Cinematic Documentary award, director Benjamin Ree examines Mats’ alternate social life as the avatar Ibelin, recreating his conversations in the role-playing game using real transcripts and a team of designers to recreate its graphics. Thanks to in-person interviews with his online friends (and romantic interests), Ree paints a fuller picture of Mats and the life-changing impact he had on others that his parents and sister never could have imagined watching him alone in his wheelchair staring at a computer screen.
Look Into My Eyes (Lana Wilson)
After spending the last several years chronicling the careers and lives of Taylor Swift and Brooke Shields, director Lana Wilson pivots away from more linear biographical documentaries to highlight a small subset of New York City psychics. Acknowledging the preconceptions most people have about this specific trade, Wilson highlights seven subjects with a compassionate and almost invisible lens, documenting client sessions and learning more about the mechanics of connecting with the dead. Look Into My Eyes never tries to convince you that clairvoyance is a real superpower. Still, you can’t help but acknowledge the healing value it brings to so many people who have experienced loss and are searching for answers. Inevitably, the people who perform these seances know those feelings all too well themselves.
Love Lies Bleeding (Rose Glass)
One of the biggest premieres in the festival’s midnight section, Rose Glass’s latest genre-blending concoction (a follow-up to her freaky debut St. Maud) promises everything in its title. Anchored by Kristen Stewart and Katy O’Brian, who quickly develop of seductive romantic chemistry, this pulpy neo-noir keeps expanding in imagination and violence, as one of the most vicious-looking broken jaws starts a cascade of bloodshed and threatens to expose more bad deeds throughout the small New Mexico town. With an eccentric hairstyle and propensity for large bugs, Ed Harris plays a paternal gun-range owner with enough secrets to make him a vicious threat to this queer relationship. Come for Stewart’s agitated, feverish performance, stay for (and get lost in) O’Brian’s unflinching gaze and bulging biceps.
My Old Ass (Megan Park)
Three weeks before she heads to college, Elliott (Maisy Stella) wants to take some mushrooms with her friends. When the effects eventually kick in, she meets her future 39-year-old self (Aubrey Plaza), who has improbably returned to her Canadian lake town to dispense some valuable advice. Mostly: spend time with your family and don’t get involved with Chad (Percy Hynes White), a summer worker helping with her dad’s cranberry farm. Easier said than done. Over this sweet, coming-of-age comedy (which features a hilarious and hallucinated gender-swapped Justin Bieber concert), writer-director Megan Park balances an earnest romance with smartly deployed sci-fi elements, leaning successfully on Stella (in a performance that feels major) to steer this little speedboat of a movie into its tear-inducing resolution. Rarely has a Gen-Z focused story gotten the characteristics, attitudes and wisdom of teenagerdom so authentically.
The Outrun (Nora Fingsheidt)
It’s a credit to both director Nora Fingsheidt and star Saoirse Ronan that The Outrun, based on the eponymous book by Amy Liptrop, isn’t another depressive and conventional tale of addiction. Shot enchantingly in and around Scotland’s northeast islands, Fingscheidt blurs the past and present into an effective portrait of protagonist Rona (Ronan), a recovering alcoholic tending her family’s farm and spending time with separated parents as she attempts to stay sober. Turning in one of the best performances of the festival, Ronan spends a lot of time on her own, delicately shifting between expressions of natural wonder and the more burdensome vulnerabilities of her condition. The movie thrives whenever it gazes upon her, blending its mythical coastal tales with her own quest for freedom.
Presence (Steven Soderbergh)
Back at Sundance 35 years after making a splash with sex, lies, and videotape, Steven Soderbergh continues to push the limitations of the art form with Presence. In his latest lean and potent genre exercise, the director tells a haunted house ghost story through the unique perspective of the (possibly benevolent) haunter, using a first-person wide lens to document a family of four — Rebecca (Lucy Liu), Chris (Chris Sullivan) and teenage children Tyler (Eddy Maday) and Chloe (Callina Liang) — coming apart at the seams. Outside of some eerie door slams and shelf collapses, it’s the introduction of Chris’s friend (West Mulholland) that escalates the chills and proves humanity can be even freakier than the supernatural.
Thelma (Josh Margolin)
Tom Cruise might be the most impressive action star right now, but June Squibb is hoping to enter the conversation. At 94 years old, she has finally landed a leading role in Josh Margolin’s Thelma playing a grandmother on the run and out for revenge. When she mistakenly thinks her grandson Danny (Fred Hechinger) has been in an accident, she sends a scammer $10,000 through the mail. The police can’t help her, so she plans to escape her grandson’s watch, borrowing an old friend’s electric scooter to get her money back. This freaks out Danny and his parents (played by a perfectly neurotic Parker Posey and Clark Gregg), who engage in a low-speed goose chase. Squibb engages in some reliably funny gags, but highlights her vulnerability as a woman trying to prove she can still be independent, even if she still has trouble typing out an email.
Will & Harper (Josh Greenbaum)
In 2022, Will Ferrell received an email from his longtime friend and Saturday Night Live writer Harper Steele explaining that at 61 years old, she would start a new life as a woman. As a way to unpack that major decision and reintroduce Steele to her old haunts for the first time since coming out, Ferrell suggested accompanying her on a road trip across the country. Arguably the biggest crowd-pleaser of the festival, Will & Harper chronicles that excursion as the pair reconnect, crack jokes and see America through a trans person’s eyes. The documentary from Josh Greenbaum is a funny, beautiful and emotional journey that acts as an apolitical baby step into learning about and empathizing with members of the trans community.
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