The 2023 Sundance Film Festival recently took place in Park City, Utah for the first since 2020, as well as online like it has for the past two years. I had the honor of attending the festival in person this year and it was great to be back in the mountains of Park City for the iconic film festival that focuses on independent film and giving voice to a new generation of filmmakers and artists.
This year’s festival saw A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One take home the Grand Jury Prize for best U.S. Dramatic Film, an honor that has gone to past Sundance films like Winter’s Bone, Whiplash, and last year’s Best Picture winner CODA. Other Grand Jury Prize winners included Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovani Project (U.S. Documentary), Scrapper (World Dramatic), and The Eternal Memory (World Documentary). The festival also featured films from Randall Park, Brandon Cronenberg, Nicole Holofcener, and John Carney as well as a slew of directorial debuts from new and exciting voices.
While I didn’t get to see every movie playing at this year’s festival, I was still able to see 30 feature films and a handful of short films while I was there. Here are the best movies (in alphabetical order) I saw during my time at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Divinity is as twisted and wild as any movie I saw at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. This is a sci-fi fantasy about a serum that makes you immortal and the kidnapping of the serum’s creator. Director Eddie Alcazar’s experimental, inventive film has sprinkles of David Cronenberg’s body horror and David Lynch’s experimental horror while also featuring stunning visual effects and a stop-motion finale that had my jaw on the floor. There aren’t many films as bold as Divinity, and you won’t see many films like it.
Chloe Dumont’s blistering directorial debut is a harsh look at gender and work politics. Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich star as a couple of power brokers whose relationship and work life slowly crumble after one of them gets a major promotion. Dumont’s intelligent, slick screenplay tackles tough subjects and is brought to life by stellar performances from Dynevor and Ehrenreich. Fair Play had my palms sweating and my heart racing the entire runtime.
Flora and Son
Flora and Son is the return of writer/director John Carney since 2016’s Sing Street and despite the several-year hiatus, Carney hasn’t missed a beat or changed his directorial style. This is a heart-warming, sweet, funny musical dramedy about a single mom (Eve Hewson) who tries to find a connection with her troublesome son by learning how to play guitar. Hewson gives one of the breakout performances of the festival and has wonderful chemistry with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Eve’s guitar teacher. The story is sweet, the songs are catchy, and the movie’s charm will melt your heart.
Magazine Dreams is a film that looks at an aspiring bodybuilder (Jonathan Majors) and his struggles with a human connection. Director Elijah Bynum’s sophomore directorial effort is a tough, relentless, engrossing watch about mental illness, toxic masculinity, and finding your reason to live when all seems lost. Majors gives an astonishing performance, both on a physical and emotional level, and solidifies his status as the most exciting actor working today. I haven’t stopped thinking about Magazine Dreams since I saw it. It’s a brutal film that will leave a mark and take a while to go away.
I have been attending the Sundance Film Festival for over a decade and Mami Wata is easily one of the best-looking movies I have ever seen at the festival. Director C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi took seven years to create this film and the wait was worth it. Mami Wata is a West African folklore about a village trying to defend themselves against an uprising after villagers stop believing in the village’s god-like creature, a Mermaid-diety named Mami Wata. The black and white cinematography is truly stunning, and the film is rooted in West African culture, with gorgeous costumes, make-up, and production design.
Pianoforte is a documentary about the Chopin Piano Competition, the legendary piano contest held in Warsaw, Poland every year, and the young pianists participating. Director Jakub Piatek made a musical documentary that felt like a sports documentary, highlighting the mental and physical toll this contest takes on these young pianists. Piatek introduces us to a handful of contestants and shows how each of them prepares for and handles the contest. Some are practicing and thinking about every move they make constantly. Others will play their set and then go out for drinks with their friends. Pianoforte is a fascinating and entertaining look at this competition as well as and dissection about the pursuit of perfection.
Pipes played in the festival as one of the films in the Midnight Shorts Program and it was easily my favorite of the program. Pipes finds Bob, a plumber, going to fix a broken pipe. When he arrives at his destination, he is surprised to find out that he is repairing a pipe at a gay fetish club. This animated short is a brisk four minutes long, but the animation is fun and unique, and the story unfolds in creative and amusing ways.
This year’s Sundance winner of the Grand Jury Prize for best World Dramatic film was Charlotte Regan’s lively Scrapper. The film looks at Georgie (Lola Campbell) a dreamy, precocious 12-year-old who lives alone in her London flat following the death of her mother. Georgie seems to be getting by just fine until her estranged father (Harris Dickinson) returns to her life. A story like this could have gone down several dark paths, but Regan smartly makes this an endearing coming-of-age story about the father-daughter relationship. Campbell and Dickinson are sensational, with Campbell giving one of the great child performances I’ve seen in years. Scrapper is a real winner.