The 2023 Sundance Film Festival is officially complete, having previewed some of the most promising titles within the independent filmmaking community. It has also become a hotbed for acquisitions, with traditional distributors and streaming services making flashy bids for the buzziest titles. Last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner CODA premiered at Sundance. (Apple purchased the film for its streaming service, beating Netflix to become the first streamer to win Best Picture.) This awards season also includes Sundance alums, including Best Actor and Adapted Screenplay contender Living and Documentary Feature contender All That Breathes.
While we are far from discussing awards prospects for 2024, some of Sundance’s slate could make a play down the line. Some films also seem poised to dominate Twitter timelines for weeks after their release. Based on my experiences covering a section of the festival for Geek Vibes Nation, these are five titles that we could be talking quite a bit about, in some capacity, this year.
Fair Play is far and above the buzziest film to come out of this year’s festival. Netflix dropped a staggering $20 million to acquire the film, beating out Searchlight and Neon for global distribution rights. The film, the directorial debut of Chloe Domont, stars Bridgerton‘s Phoebe Dynevor and Solo: A Star Wars Story’s Alden Ehrenreich as Emily and Luke, a couple working at high-stakes hedge fund whose relationship collapses when Emily gets promoted over him. It is a shattering look at workplace gender dynamics, particularly toxic masculinity, with an intelligent, razor-sharp screenplay and tight direction. Dynevor and Ehreneich are revelatory, uncovering even more depths than their famous roles allowed. Fair Play can be brutal, and will spark many discussions about its various gray areas. Its ferocious look at the toxic relationship between ruthless ambition and workplace misogyny is worth the discomfort.
Speaking of ferocity and discomfort, no actor conveys both as well as Jonathan Majors in Magazine Dreams. Majors has a banner 2023 planned, with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Creed 3 due in the coming months. Magazine Dreams pushes the dynamic leading man into even more dangerous territory. He plays Killian Maddox, an amateur bodybuilder who’s singularly obsessed with achieving physical perfection, primarily to connect with other people. (Maddox has an undisclosed mental illness, which leaves him socially unmoored.) Writer-director Elijah Bynum puts Majors through overwhelming physical and psychological rigor, almost ripping the seams of his storytelling. However, Majors’ commitment sells every terrifying, exhausting, and heartbreaking moment. Comparisons to Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver are apt. At the very least, Magazine Dreams confirms that Jonathan Majors is one of the most fearless and exciting actors working today.
A Thousand and One
A.V. Rockwell’s first feature, A Thousand and One gives its story of a Black single mother fighting her past and Harlem’s gentrifying future to raise her son what we don’t often see from similar projects: nuance. Rockwell uses the evolving New York neighborhood as a vibrant backdrop to a stunningly rich exploration of how Black communities and families love each other, flaws and all. The film turns several stereotypes – the absentee father, the ex-convict – on their heads while grounding itself in a familiar, comforting realism. Teyana Taylor delivers a tour-de-force performance, conveying Inez’s strengths and faults with natural skill and potent screen presence. Taylor and Rockwell’s collaboration made a powerful impression on the Sundance jury: the film won the festival’s coveted U.S. Dramatic Competition prize.
You Hurt My Feelings
In another part of Manhattan, Julia Louis-Dreyfus goes into a tailspin because Tobias Menzies doesn’t like her work. The two Emmy-winning actors make a winning pair in You Hurt My Feelings, Nicole Holofcener’s fourth Sundance feature about an upper-middle-class couple coasting on their privileged mediocrity and freaking out when it’s called to attention. As aloof and narcissistic as Dreyfus’ Beth and Menzies’ Don can be, Holofcener finds moments of relatability, sweetness, and humor in their ostensibly dire crises. Dreyfus can do comedy in her sleep, but she comes to life opposite a downright revelatory Menzies, whose sharp instincts are the film’s greatest surprise. The film doesn’t strive to be more than a very specific, self-involved dramedy about people who should know better. That is a vital part of its charm. (That and, again, Dreyfus and Menzies.)
20 Days in Mariupol
One of the toughest but most essential films to premiere at Sundance, 20 Days at Mariupol follows a Ukrainian Associated Press photojournalist on his harrowing journey to document Russia’s war on Ukraine. With a startlingly clear-eyed approach, the Audience Award winner for World Cinema Documentary shatters whatever false notion anyone might’ve had about the human atrocities committed in the region. Director Mstyslav Chernov’s photos and video may be familiar. However, his unvarnished, uncut footage uncovers the horrifying truth that news reports could only voice over: destroyed homes, maimed children, and pregnant women dying in childbirth after a maternity ward bombing. Calling 20 Days in Mariupol devastating feels inadequate; “soul-crushing” also feels insufficient. And yet, as painful as it is to watch, the documentary deserves demands, our attention.