Sundance 2023: The movies everyone's talking about from the festival
Which movies are buzziest, and which are worth watching?
Critics have descended upon Park City for the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, which has returned in person after two years of virtual screenings. There's already been tons of chatter about performances by Daisy Ridley and Jonathan Majors, a shocking twist that left audiences divided, and an adaptation of an article your entire Twitter timeline was obsessed with a few years back. Could there be a future Best Picture winner like CODA in the mix? Here's your guide to the festival so far and what critics are saying about the buzziest movies:
Sometimes I Think About Dying
If sometimes you think about where Daisy Ridley has been since the Star Wars sequel trilogy ended, we have your answer. The Rey actress returns with Sometimes I Think About Dying, which played on the opening night of Sundance. She stars as a socially awkward office worker, Fran, who develops a relationship with a new hire at her company, played by Ramy's Dave Merheje — and, as the title suggests, she's depicted imagining herself dying in various ways. It's based on the short film of the same name, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award.
Sometimes I Think About Dying is a "poetic exploration" of loneliness and a "graceful treatise on how challenging — but liberating — it can be to make connections," said The Hollywood Reporter's Lovia Gyarkye, while IndieWire's Kate Erbland wrote that Ridley shows off "the kind of nuanced acting that didn't have a place" in the Star Wars movies in this "low-key charmer." Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson similarly said that Ridley succeeds in going "smaller and weirder" post-Star Wars and delivers a "magnetic turn," even if the film itself isn't quite as impressive as her performance.
But critic Tomris Laffly tweeted that the Sundance crowd "responded exuberantly" to the film at its premiere — though admittedly, Laffly added, that may be "more about the joy of being here again, after two years."
The Pod Generation
Pod save America?
Game of Thrones alum Emilia Clarke stars in this sci-fi film set in a not-too-distant future in which couples are offered "convenient (and shareable) maternity by way of detachable artificial wombs, or pods," so women no longer have to carry their children, as Sundance's plot synopsis explains. Rachel, played by Clarke, lands a spot at the so-called "Womb Center," though her husband, a botanist played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, prefers they have a child naturally. Sundance described the film, from director Sophie Barthes, as a "social satire of detachment parenting."
The "entertaining but darkly resonant" film satirizes "how the medical establishment has increasingly taken control of the process of childbirth, and of how the society as a whole is now trying to breed detachment into us from the ground up," explained Variety's Owen Gleiberman, who described it as a cross between Woody Allen's Sleeper and Rosemary's Baby. Its "sweet-natured hopefulness and charming central couple should see it win over distributors and audiences," Screen Daily's Amber Wilkinson said.
But other critics were mixed on the film, with The Playlist's Jason Bailey writing that while The Pod Generation is "full of compelling ideas," it doesn't have "much of anything to say" that "can't be inferred from its opening moments."
It's alive! Premiering at Sundance as a Midnight movie, this horror film from director Laura Moss has been described as a sort of modern take on Frankenstein. Birth/Rebirth centers on a pathologist, Rose, and a maternity nurse, Celie, the latter of whom is the mother of a six-year-old girl, Lila. After Lila's apparent death, Celie discovers "Lila is not dead at all," Deadline's Damon Wise explains, "but alive and comatose in Rose's apartment, where she is being kept alive by a serum based on miscarried human fetuses." Starting to see why this was programmed as a midnight movie?
Entertainment Weekly's Joshua Rothkopf described Birth/Rebirth as "punishing, grubby horror," which Paste's Jacob Oller praised as a "savvy, gross, black-hearted gem." Flickering Myth's Shaun Munro also said the "outstanding" central performances of Marin Ireland and Judy Reyes "take it to the next level."
World of Reel reports that one screening of the film actually had to be evacuated because some moviegoers "felt sick," supposedly due to the film's horror scenes — probably the best endorsement Moss could hope to receive. Birth/Rebirth is a Shudder original, so it's expected to hit streaming sometime in 2023, by which point we'll hopefully all be finished having nightmares about Skinamarink.
Two years after playing an inspiring teacher in CODA, Eugenio Derbez returns to Sundance to do so yet again. He stars in Radical as a teacher who decides to take a different approach to educate the poorly-performing students of an elementary school in Mexico. It's a true story based on a 2013 Wired article titled "A Radical Way of Unleashing a Generation of Geniuses" about how "students in Matamoros, Mexico weren't getting much out of school — until a radical new teaching method unlocked their potential."
Radical stands out from other similar films about inspiring teachers partially by "using improvisational techniques and a low-key, gritty visual style in which the viewer is treated almost as another student in the class," Deadline's Pete Hammond explained, calling this a "feel-good true story with real potential to make a difference." Collider's Perri Nemiroff also said she was "utterly charmed and captivated" by Derbez's performance in Radical, a film that boasts a "HUGE heart and stellar ensemble" and received a standing ovation at the festival.
But Eugenio Derbez isn't the only CODA star returning to Sundance this year.
CODA star Emilia Jones also has not one, but two films in the mix at Sundance, the first being Fairyland. It revolves around a young girl, Alysia, whose father moves them to San Francisco in the 1970s after the death of her mother, and he begins openly dating men, per Sundance. It's based on a true story, as told in Alysia Abbott's memoir of the same name, and Scoot McNairy plays the father character.
Fairyland is an "evocative and poignant look back on a father and daughter relationship about acceptance, loss and regret," tweeted Next Best Picture's Matt Neglia, who noted it received a standing ovation and that there were "lots of tears" from the audience by the end. We Live Entertainment's Scott Menzel said both Jones and McNairy are "absolutely terrific" in the "emotionally powerful" film, and The A.V. Club's Murtada Elfadl said the movie is "utterly heartbreaking" largely because of McNairy's performance. The Wrap's Katie Walsh agreed, writing that McNairy has "never been better."
Little Richard: I Am Everything
A Little Richard documentary is making a big splash at Sundance. The life and legacy of the rock and roll icon is celebrated and re-examined in this film from director Lisa Cortés, which Sundance said "explodes the whitewashed canon of American pop music." A CNN and HBO Max production, the documentary combines archival footage and interviews with iconic musicians and the singer's family.
"Cortés gives Little Richard the kind of full-throated recognition he was too often denied in his lifetime," underlining how he was a "uniquely subversive figure," wrote The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney. The Playlist's Gregory Ellwood agreed that in the "superb and moving" film, a "complicated man gets the most revealing portrait he can get and mostly in his own words," and Variety's Owen Gleiberman called this the "enthralling documentary that Little Richard deserves," explaining it "quite convincingly" makes the case that what he brought to rock and roll has been "consistently underappreciated." The film also explores the "exploitation" of the singer "by white artists and the music industry at large," notes Rolling Stone's Marlow Stern.
Little Richard: I Am Everything is set to debut in April.
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie
This is heavy. Back to the Future star Michael J. Fox is the subject of this intimate documentary exploring his life, career, and battle with Parkinson's disease.
The documentary uses footage from hours of interviews Fox conducted with the director, whose previous documentaries include An Inconvenient Truth. But critics noted it also makes interesting use of footage from the actor's movie and television projects to illustrate the stories he is telling. The Hollywood Reporter's Daniel Fienberg explained the film features a "canny blending of voiceover, staged reenactments, and clips from Fox's work and his various TV and red carpet appearances" in a way that "border[s] on experimental." For example, "as Fox recounts the story of how he got the role in Back to the Future, visually it is told incorporating footage of the star in another of his movies, Bright Lights, Big City," recounts Deadline's Pete Hammond, who said this approach is "inspired" and even award-worthy.
All in all, the "upbeat and ultra-polished" documentary "reminds what a peppy, relatable personality [Fox] was — and is — on-screen," Variety's Peter Debruge said, and critic Scott Mantz called it a "powerful and life-affirming triumph." Still: A Michael J Fox Movie will be released by Apple TV+.
2023 is set to be a major year for Jonathan Majors.
The actor is getting rave reviews at Sundance for his Travis Bickle-esque performance as a bodybuilder in Magazine Dreams, in which his character seeks to become a superstar even as his doctors "warn that he's causing permanent damage to his body with his quest," and the film explores the "toll of a toxic stew of self-imposed pressure to meet unrealistic expectations and hypermasculine role modeling," per the festival.
Magazine Dreams is "two hours of draining intensity" on par with Uncut Gems as we watch "a person self-destruct," said Collider's Ross Bonaime. Indeed, it's a "brutal study of physical extremity and psychological meltdown" centered around an "entirely astonishing" performance by Majors, said the Los Angeles Times' Justin Chang, while The Playlist's Robert Daniels wrote that the "audaciously ambitious" film is a statement on the "stationing of celebrity status with the rare instance of a Black incel."
Majors, soon set for a big February and March with roles in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and Creed III, received a standing ovation after the film's premiere. Could his first Oscar nomination be in the cards?
Daisy Ridley isn't the only Star Wars actor making a comeback at Sundance.
There's also Alden Ehrenreich, who we haven't seen much of since his role as a young Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story. But he stars opposite Phoebe Dynevor in the thriller Fair Play, in which his character's fiancée scores a big promotion at the financial firm where they work, even though he was expected to get it.
From there, the film explores the "corrupting nature of power, and how single-minded devotion to climbing the corporate ladder can rip through a relationship like a disease," Slashfilm's Ben Pearson writes, noting the film boasts a "sharp" script and "phenomenal" performances. Ehrenreich, in particular, delivers a "terrific turn" in this "grim, dynamic thriller," ensuring his character doesn't come across like an "obvious monster," Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson says. It's an "incredibly powerful and magnetic" movie, agreed Screen Rant's Mae Abdulbaki, dubbing it a "must-see," and multiple critics described Fair Play as one of the standouts of the festival.
No wonder Netflix snatched Fair Play up in a massive $20 million deal, almost as much as Apple paid for CODA in 2021.
But for some critics, the best film of Sundance wasn't even a contest: it's Celine Song's Past Lives, a romance that's drawing comparisons to Richard Linklater's Before trilogy. The film centers on Nora and Hae Sung, whose childhood romance ended when they were kids after her family moved to Canada. But they subsequently reconnect every 12 years, including when Hae Sung visits New York. It's the feature directorial debut of Song, a playwright.
From the sound of it, what a debut it is. IndieWire's David Ehrlich raved that the "delicate yet crushingly beautiful film" is "destined" to be one of the best movies of 2023. "It's a beautiful, transporting film" that explores "how ideas of romance shift with time and experience," said The Guardian's Benjamin Lee, while Deadline's Damon Wise said it's an "elegant and unexpectedly mesmerizing character piece that speaks profoundly to the concept of love in the modern age."
Past Lives is set to be released by A24, so could the studio already have another Everything Everywhere All at Once-style Oscar contender lined up for next year?
A more direct comparison to Everything Everywhere, though, may be the action comedy Polite Society. We Are Lady Parts creator Nida Manzoor makes her feature directorial debut with the film, which follows an aspiring Pakistani stuntwoman, who sets out to kidnap her sister from her wedding.
The film is "wickedly funny and endlessly exuberant," a "pulpy, irresistible heist movie replete with visual wit, impressive martial arts, gripping social horror, and undiluted female rage," wrote The Playlist's Poulomi Das. Horror Queers podcast host Trace Thurman said it's a "frenetic, funny, action-heavy feature" that "finds an emotional core in its two leads" and boasts an excellent Nimra Bucha performance.
Collider editor-in-chief Steven Weintraub also called Polite Society one of his favorite films of the festival, tweeting that it's "so much fun" and that "you want to see this one with a big crowd" when it hits theaters in April.
Theater kids everywhere, prepare to feel seen.
Dear Evan Hansen's Ben Platt stars in this mockumentary about a New York theater camp. The founder, played by Amy Sedaris, suddenly falls into a coma, leaving her son, played by Jimmy Tatro, suddenly tasked with keeping it running. "With financial ruin looming," he must join forces with a "band of eccentric teachers to come up with a solution before the curtain rises on opening night," per Sundance's description.
Theater Camp was largely improvised, and RogerEbert.com's Nick Allen said it's a "thoroughly funny and easygoing comedy" with a "'let's put on a show' mentally." It sounds like it went over quite well with the Sundance crowd. "The standing ovations at Sundance prove its appeal to the people who know this world, because they're a part of that world," The Daily Beast's Kevin Fallon wrote. The film also features original songs that AwardsWatch's Abe Friedtanzer said "work well as functional mockeries that manage to be slightly catchy."
But at Sundance, the highlight may have been the kids from the film coming on stage for a musical performance that brought the house down. "The crowd cheered and applauded like one would for a Broadway performance," according to The Hollywood Reporter. Searchlight is circling an $8 million deal for the film with plans to give it a theatrical release, Deadline reports.
You Hurt My Feelings
After The Banshees of Inisherin, here's another film with a premise that sounds like a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode synopsis.
Oscar-nominated writer and director Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) returns to Sundance with You Hurt My Feelings, in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as a novelist who is shaken after accidentally overhearing her husband, played by Tobias Menzies, admitting he doesn't like her new book.
The film is a "mosaic of mildly absurd minutiae, mixed in with legitimate feelings," said The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney, which Variety's Owen Gleiberman notes satirizes "our fetishistically supportive and oversensitive therapeutic culture of positivity." The Playlist's Jason Bailey also called the film "smart, warm, and very, very funny."
You Hurt My Feelings is being released by A24, so the studio is certainly putting on a strong showing at this year's festival.
Flora and Son
The director of Once has done it once again.
John Carney's latest musical is Flora and Son, which is set in Dublin and follows a young mother who grows closer to her son thanks to the "uniting power of music," per Sundance's description. Eve Hewson (daughter of Bono), Oren Kinlan, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt star.
This is Carney's first film since 2016's Sing Street, but it's a "musical charmer in the mold of the filmmaker's previous hits" and features a "star-making performance" by Hewson, said The Hollywood Reporter's Borys Kit. Gold Derby's Brian Rowe also tweeted that it's a "total blast" and "another crowdpleaser" from Carney "that celebrates music and how it brings people together." The film has already been sold to Apple for a reported $20 million.
Eileen is shaping up to be one of the most polarizing movies of this year's festival. Based on the novel of the same name, the film stars Thomasin McKenzie as Eileen, who works at a prison in the 1960s and develops a relationship with a woman, played by Anne Hathaway, who joins the staff.
If you're intrigued, you may want to studiously avoid spoilers, as the film features a shocking twist that Next Best Picture's Matt Neglia dubbed "one of the sharpest turns I've ever seen" in a movie. Some in the audience were left "baffled" by it, Neglia observed, and Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson wrote that director William Oldroyd "has not done enough to earn our devotion before he pulls the rug out and flashes us a smirk."
Other critics came away impressed, though. McKenzie and Hathaway both deliver "career-best performances in an oddly touching queer almost-romance that feels like a cross between Carol and Hitchcock," said IndieWire's Ryan Lattanzio — while trying not to give away the "gasp-eliciting twist." Slashfilm's Ben Pearson also raved that the film's "dark, unexpected turn" had "me pumping my fist in the theater at its sheer audacity."
Between this and Last Night in Soho, though, it looks like films featuring Thomasin McKenzie and the 1960s are just destined to divide critics.
The claws are out for Cat Person.
One of the festival's most anticipated films was this psychological thriller based on the 2017 short story of the same name published in the New Yorker. CODA's Emilia Jones stars as a college sophomore who develops a relationship with an older man, played by Succession's Nicholas Braun.
Critics have been decidedly mixed on the film. The Wrap's Katie Walsh called it a "bold, stylish and dynamic adaptation," and IndieWire's Kate Erbland said "fans of the story will not be disappointed by the bulk" of it. But Entertainment Weekly's Leah Greenblatt said Cat Person stretches out a succinct short story into a "half-cocked, wildly improbable thriller," and First Showing's Alex Billington tweeted that the film is a "mess" and "nothing but annoying idiotic cringe for 2 hours." Vox's Alissa Wilkinson also said the biggest problem is that "there's a third act tacked on that destroys the ambiguity of the original story." Not all Sundance premieres can go pawfectly.