The 10 best films at Sundance 2023

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

After two years of the Sundance Film Festival, the premier event for independent cinema in the world, going online only, the excitement was palpable for its 2023 return to “in real life” status.

This year I didn’t see as many industry representatives walking up and down Main Street, and anecdotally many of my industry friends opted to once again experience the fest online. But for those of us who are inveterate Sundance lovers, it was once again a magical experience.

America, and the world for that matter, needs the nurturing and incubating and showcasing of independent filmmakers that the festival (and the Institute) provide, and it was heartwarming to be able to share in the magic in person once again.

Here are our favorite films from this year’s festival:

Flora and Son - Directed by John Carney

At this point, either you love John Carney movies, or you don’t. Either Once changed your life, and Sing Street thrilled your soul, and you loved the rest too, or not. As for me, I’m an unabashed apostle in the Church of Carney. So maybe I’m not the most objective reviewer for Flora and Son. But this film is wonderful. And as Flora, Eve Hewson (in the best performance of the festival) brings a very Irish edginess to the lead performance that plays so well against Carney’s trademark earnestness. While other Carney movies may have felt like a Burt Bacharach song to some viewers, this one hits more like a Tom Waits classic.

Sometimes I Think About Dying - Directed by Rachel Lambert

Rachel Lambert first burst onto the scene with In The Radiant City, a Terence Malick-Executive Produced ethereal drama with an incredibly poetic and moving lead performance by Michael Abbot Jr. Although the tone of Sometimes is very different from that film (it’s more Miranda July than Malick), once again she’s coaxed a beautiful performance from her lead. This time it’s Daisy Ridley, and watching her play the nuanced interior life of Fran is fascinating. Reminiscent of Punch Drunk Love, it’s the story of two damaged souls finding a way to connect in a world that crushes connection. It should catapult Lambert to the next level as a director, and she richly deserves it.

Credit: Dustin Lane

Credit: Dustin Lane

Shortcomings - Directed by Randall Park

Actors turned directors, especially in their first features, tend to bring out very good performances, but often don’t know quite what to do with them. Randall Park does not have that problem. Shortcomings is an incredibly assured debut featuring not only great performances but also great writing and superb editing (kudos to Park and editor Robert Nassau for the superb pacing here). The film has a lot on its mind about dating across race, and about dating in general. But it never ever feels ponderous; it’s too funny and too brisk for that. If Park keeps this up, he’ll be a director in high demand.

You Hurt My Feelings - Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Let’s just set up an NEA grant to keep Nicole Holofcener and Julia Louis-Dreyfus making films together forever. They really do bring out the best in each other. There’s plenty of humor here, but plenty of emotional content too, in the story of a novelist who inadvertently discovers that her husband hates her new novel. What’s more important in a relationship, honesty or sensitivity? If your partner doesn’t respect you as an artist, does that implicate his feelings for you as a lover? Holofcener will make you think while she’s making you laugh.

A Little Prayer - Directed by Angus MacLachlan

Angus MacLachlan didn’t direct Amy Adams’ breakout role Junebug, but he did write her a stunningly good script. The quality of his writing is evident once again in A Little Prayer, which in part explains why he was able to assemble such a great cast. It would be worth the price of admission just to watch two legends like David Strathairn and Celia Weston share a screen, but when he populates the rest of the film with superb actors like Jane Levy, Dascha Polanco, and Anna Camp, it’s almost unfair. And to use an overused word, his writing has such an authentic Southernness that his dialogue feels very lived in and well worn. He doesn’t need to turn somersaults in his plots to give stakes to the stories he tells. The characters themselves do that.

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Credit: Sundance Film Festival

Judy Blume Forever - Directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok

It’s a little amazing that no one has done a documentary before now about the Queen of Tweener fiction, Judy Blume. Not only because her books were so influential for so many, and not only because so many famous people are eager to share their memories of reading Blume’s books (there are plenty of familiar faces here). But also because Blume herself, now in her mid eighties, is such a vibrant and compelling figure, with such a fascinating life story and with so much to say, including some currently well-needed perspective on censorship. This documentary will find a very broad audience, and deserves it.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt - Directed by Raven Jackson

All Dirt Roads was perhaps the buzziest film in the lead up to Sundance, and it comes very close to living up to the hype. Raven Jackson has made a very confident and very personal film that seems to represent a pretty pure vision of exactly what she wanted to put up onscreen. It doesn’t always work, but when it does work it’s magic. And if Sundance provides a place for a young black woman to create an uneven and occasionally brilliant film – well, that would seem to be exactly what we need right now. Bravo.

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Pianoforte - Directed by Jakub Piatek

Sundance is, famously, a great fest for films that bull through boundaries and tell stories in new and pioneering ways. But it’s also great for excellent films like this one. Pianoforte doesn’t really break new ground formally or structurally – it’s basically Spellbound with pianists – but the characters are so interesting and so well sketched, the music so beautiful, and the stakes so high at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (basically the Olympics for pianists), that the film is still fascinating and exhilarating. Sometimes that’s enough.

Onyx The Fortuitous and The Amulet of Destiny - Directed by Andrew Bowser

Writer/director Andrew Bowser has been building up his protagonist Onyx The Fortuitous for ten years online, and it shows. Although Onyx himself is most assuredly not comfortable in his own skin, Bowser is comfortable there. And the horror comedy he’s created for Onyx is hilarious, awkward, wild, and unexpectedly moving. The Magicians star Olivia Taylor Dudley not only turns in a great supporting performance but also serves as a producer on the project.

Mami Wata - Directed by C.J. “Fiery” Obasi

A black and white scripted feature from an African director named Fiery? I’m in. And Mami Wata doesn’t disappoint. It’s a deeply allegorical tale about a witch doctor in a West African village which may be outgrowing its need for her. But the real star here is Lilis Soares’ incredible high contrast black and white photography, and Fiery’s own rich production design. It looks like no other film you’ve ever seen before.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout


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