The Best and Worst at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance film festival returned to Park City in all its sub-zero in-person grandeur after two years of COVID-enforced Couch Sundance (though many of the movies screened there remained available for virtual attendees online).

A few early weekend box office standouts naturally entered the chat. They continued to predominate the conversation among the 101 radically disparate projects screened on the ground, including high-concept comedy, DIY dramas, and various far-flung marvels of international cinema. Here are some of the festival’s most memorable high peaks, bad points, and conversation starters.

1.The Sweetest Taboos: Fair Play and Passages

Since the days of lies and tapes, at least, sex has had a part to play at Sundance. The erotic thriller Fair Play, starring Alden Ehrenreich and Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dyvenor (which has already sold to Netflix for $20 million), and Ira Sachs’ starkly realistic love triangle drama Passages, starring Ben Whishaw and Franz Ragowski, both of whom play sexually explicit characters, provided intimacy coordinators with more than enough material for their salaries this year.

2.Biggest critical swoon: Past Lives

Around A24’s Past Lives, a carefully crafted love drama about missed relationships, regrets, and acceptance, a deserving consensus blossomed on the weekend box office. Of course, such things are impossible to forecast; even Boyhood, which debuted at Sundance 2014 as a floating question mark, was unpredictable. But Past Lives has so many elements that make us visit film festivals, including the discovery of a crucial new voice (debuting filmmaker Celine Song) and a lighthearted, decade-jumping structure that festival-goers hungry for Oscar bait were able to enjoy. Heartbreak felt nice in a location like Park City, and Song’s triumph jumped into the elite company of In the Mood for Love and Linklater’s Before trilogy.

3.Women on the verge of a breakdown: Bad Behaviour and Eileen

In Alice Englert’s acid satire Bad Behaviour, a former child star (Jennifer Connelly) falls apart at the seams while on a solitary retreat. Succession actress and Red Scare podcaster Dasha Nekrasova has a delectable appearance as the model influencer monster who helps her collapse. The fiery Anne Hathaway unleashes the worst inclinations of Eileen’s titular character (Jojo Rabbit’s Thomasin McKenzie) in Andrew Oldroyd’s delightfully weird thriller. She plays the love goddess with a Ph.D. who arrives like a bombshell in outer Boston in 1964.

4.Actors did some rebooting: Magazine Dreams and Cassandra

Jonathan Majors, the gorgeous, skinny star of Lovecraft County and The Last Black Man in San Francisco, appeared at Sundance. It was like meeting a brand-new guy to see the reshaped Majors, bulked and buff in Magazine Dreams as a weight lifter on the brink of terrifying Travis Bickle territory. As a revolutionary gay luchador in Cassandra, Gael Garca Bernal overcame his shyness and delivered a strutting out-of-box performance.

5.Hurts so good: The return of Nicole Holofcener

Nobody digs deeper into the first-world struggles and transgressions of the coastal elite than Sundance mainstay Holofcner (Lovely and Amazing, Friends With Money). It may be her most profound and most emotionally satisfying work since Enough Said; nevertheless, her most recent work is about a New York writer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who unwittingly learns that her therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) is not a fan of her new novel, thrums with real-world humor and sensitivity.

6.Stories to spark joy: Rye Lane, Shortcomings, Flora and Son

Life is challenging; movies don’t have to be. While actor-turned-director Randall Park won over Park City audiences with Failings, a bright, approachable comedy that allowed both the breezy humor and the weightier self-interrogation of its primarily Asian American cast to take center stage, Raine Allen-Miller made his feature film debut with the sunny South London walk-and-talk Rye Lane. With the single-mom musical dramedy Flora and Son, starring Eve Hewson of the Bad Sisters and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, director John Carney – he of the shameless Irish charmers Once and Sing Street – hit his lovely sweet spot once again. Its $20 million sale to Apple felt like CODA all over again.

7.And the ones that got it right: Still, Pretty Baby, I Am Everything

This year’s Sundance Festival saw a resurgence of the celebrity profile, highlighted by Davis Guggenheim’s quick-footed Still, a Michael J. Fox biopic that employed forward motion as its central organizing concept. Clips brought back the lightness of a once-in-a-generation talent; even now, with Parkinson’s slowing him down, Fox still comes out as quick, hilarious, and unable to stop. Lisa Cort├ęs’ I Am Everything and Lana Wilson’s Pretty Baby delved into the darkest recesses of their subjects (Brooke Shields and Little Richard, respectively), emerging with clarity and much-needed perspective.

8.Rip it up and start again: Cat Person, Landscape With Invisible Hand

Regarding Sundance, stars and well-known source material are important factors. Unfortunately, two movies essentially wasted these benefits while losing themselves: Emilia Jones from CODA and Nicholas Braun from Succession were left stranded after Susanna Fogel’s tone-shifting adaptation of the famous New Yorker short story Cat Person abandoned sharp social insight for ridiculous, implausible thrills in the last act. In Landscape With Invisible Hand, a loopy sci-fi curiosity that struggled to capture the strange magic of M.T. Anderson’s adored 2017 YA novel of the same name, the promising young director Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds, Bad Education) appeared unsure of precisely what to do with talented team players like Tiffany Haddish and Josh Hamilton.

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