Sundance 2023 Recap
Plus ranking all the films I saw at the festival
The 39th edition of the Sundance Film Festival is in the books! The festival officially wrapped up on Sunday night after debuting north of 100 films over the course of the past week. Before we jump into my thoughts on the films I saw, wanted to start by sharing a my biggest takeaways from the festival:
Independent studio, A24, continues to prove that they are going to dominate the film industry for years to come. In the midst of a season where A24 has the best picture frontrunner (Everything, Everywhere, All at Once), one of the most talked about performances of last year (Brendan Fraser in The Whale), one of the best directorial debuts of last year (Aftersun), and one of the most talked about animated films last year (Marcel the Shell with Shoes On), you wouldn’t think that there would be anything else to add to that list. Well Sundance proved that wrong because A24’s, Past Lives, was easily the most talked about and well received film at the festival. The film, directed by Celine Song, follows two adults reconnecting decades after a childhood romance. The film has debuted at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and many are anticipating that a theatrical release will be coming in the near future. A24 has been the best in the business over the past couple of years and it looks like that trend will continue in 2023.
One of the best things about film festivals is also one of the worst things - you are among the first people to see a film. When a film works, it is a truly special experience to be among the first people to take in a piece of art. When a film doesn’t work, the experience can be equally strange since you probably wouldn’t even be watching the film if others had already made it known that it wasn’t all that great. This high risk/high reward nature of festivals makes them a thrilling game of Russian roulette for film lovers. The 2023 festival was no exception, there was lots to love and lots to…. well, not.
Your brain can only take in so many films each day and there were far too many highly praised films that I was unable to get to. Early on, I decided to cap myself at three films maximum each day. While three may seem like a lot to some, I felt very weak compared to the dozens of people that were watching 9 or 10 films each day of the festival. Quality over quantity for me, as I would prefer to be able to recount the specifics of each film I saw and actually analyze them rather than just check the box of watching something.
Virtual Festivals should become more widely accepted. I know the in person festival experience will likely never go away, but I think it is becoming increasingly obvious that virtual festivals can be just as effective. It allows for more publicity and more individuals to interact with the films screened at the festival without having to be physically present in Park City. Not dealing with the logistics and cost of flights, hotels, ground transportation, and running across the city made it a no brainer for me to participate in a festival that I otherwise would have had to pass on.
Despite possible economic slowdown on the horizon, studios are still buying loads of content. As I noted in my Sundance Preview, festivals, specifically Sundance, have become a hotbed recently for streamers to snatch up quality content for a fair price. This makes sense - we are one year removed from a Sundance film winning best picture at the Oscars and right now another is up for best adapted screenplay at the Oscars. Some would have thought that with Wall Street starting to get spooked by streaming losses and macroeconomic uncertainty that these companies would be feeling more conservative when it comes to acquiring content - apparently not. Below are the largest acquisitions up to this point:
Flora and Son was bought by Apple TV+ for $20 million
A Little Prayer was bought by Sony Pictures Classic
Theatre Camp was bought by Searchlight Studios for around $10 million
Fair Play was bought by Netflix for $20 million
In addition to those listed above, about eight other acquisitions from the festival have already happened while many more are expected in the weeks to come.
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What I watched at Sundance 2023
King Coal (directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon)
What it is about - “Central Appalachia is a place of mountains and myth. Director Elaine McMillion Sheldon knows this well, calling those mountains home. Coal has had a profound influence on this community’s identity, but Sheldon dares to consider what future stories might look like out of the shadow of coal, now that relationships to coal are changing. She takes us on an alluring cinematic journey through the past, present, and future of Appalachia.
My thoughts - As someone who grew up in West Virginia and is the grandson of a coal miner, I found it haunting how accurately Elaine Mcmillion Sheldon portrayed the tension of the Appalachian region. Instead of honing in on the political state of coal, King Coal, rightly focuses on the people of the region. Coal brought everyone together, but what becomes of the people when coal is no more? The film asks more questions than gives answers about what the path forward may be for these people, but it is in those questions and in the stories that you find a compassion for what this region has experienced and is experiencing. Read my full review of King Coal here.
Rating - 3.5/5
Theatre Camp (directed by Molly Gordon & Nick Lieberman)
What it is about - “As summer rolls around again, kids are gathering from all over to attend AdirondACTS, a scrappy theater camp in upstate New York that’s a haven for budding performers. After its indomitable founder Joan (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma, her clueless “crypto-bro” son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) is tasked with keeping the thespian paradise running. With financial ruin looming, Troy must join forces with Amos (Ben Platt), Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon), and their band of eccentric teachers to come up with a solution before the curtain rises on opening night.”
My thoughts - What a lively, joyous celebration of theatre geeks & their craft. Not a film for everyone as it is VERY over the top & niche. Many will love the film for that & many will hate it for that. However, theatre kids will no doubt have this on repeat for years to come.
Rating - 3.5/5
Other People’s Children (directed by Rebecca Zlotowski)
What it is about - “Rachel is a happy, 40-ish-year-old schoolteacher who loves her life, her friends, her job, and even her exes. She is exploring the idea of having a child but is not desperate to have one. When Rachel meets a charming divorcé, she falls not just for him, but also for his little girl, Leila. With things progressing quickly in this new family dynamic, Rachel has to wrestle with some complicated feelings around maternal longing and the fear of missing out on what she describes as the “collective experience” of motherhood.”
My thoughts - Not afraid to admit that the 1st tears of the festival have been shed. What a magnificent, nuanced look at one woman’s journey with motherhood & children. This one packs a punch that will leave your mind stirring for days. Left quite an impression on me.
Rating - 4.5/5
Magazine Dreams (directed by Elijah Bynum)
What it is about - “Killian Maddox lives with his ailing veteran grandfather, obsessively working out between court-mandated therapy appointments and part-time shifts at a grocery store where he harbors a crush on a friendly cashier. Though Killian’s struggles to read social cues and maintain control of his volatile temper amplify his sense of disconnection amid a hostile world, nothing deters him from his fiercely protected dream of bodybuilding superstardom, not even the doctors who warn that he’s causing permanent damage to his body with his quest.”
My thoughts - The film didn’t work for me at all. With a story that on paper has much to say, it came up surprisingly short in execution. That said, Majors is on another level here. This feels like a real shifting point where we start grouping him in with the best of the best.
Rating - 2.5/5
Cat Person (directed by Susanna Fogel)
What it is about - “Margot, a college student working concessions at an art house theater, meets frequent filmgoer — and rather older local — Robert, on the job. Flirtation across the counter evolves into continuous texting. As the two inch toward romance, shifts between them, awkward moments, red flags, and discomforts pile up. Margot feels both attached and reticent, as her gnawing hesitations blossom into vivid daydreams where Robert realizes his most threatening potential. As her distrust and uncertainty mount, an evening, their relationship, and possibly their lives unravel.”
My thoughts - An attempted portrait of modern dating that overstays its welcome & goes off the deep end in the final act. The intent & meaning behind the original short story is painfully betrayed in an effort to make it cinematic & thrilling. Sometimes real life is scary enough.
Rating - 2/5
Fair Play (directed by Chloe Domont)
What it is about - “Hot off the heels of their new engagement, thriving New York couple Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) can’t get enough of each other. When a coveted promotion at a cutthroat financial firm arises, supportive exchanges between the lovers begin to sour into something more sinister. As the power dynamics irrevocably shift in their relationship, Luke and Emily must face the true price of success and the unnerving limits of ambition.”
My thoughts - From the opening scene to the closing shot, your heart will race, your skin will crawl, and your emotions will run wild. Chloe Dormont’s writing/director debut is is out of this world and Phoebe Dynevor & Alden Ehrenreich are outstanding. Bravo to all involved!
Rating - 4/5
Fantastic Machine (directed by Danielson & Van Aertryck)
What it is about - “Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck use a mind-boggling array of archival footage to collage a sociological study by tracking the transmogrification of photographic philosophy and technology over human history. Danielson and Van Aertryck intricately fashion an argument about how humans see ourselves that feels rigorous, learned, and current.”
My thoughts - What starts as an interesting premise, quickly turns into a documentary with an extreme lack of structure, cohesion, and analysis. It felt as though 80% of it was just compiled clips from the internet and film history with almost no supporting commentary.
Rating - 2/5
A Little Prayer (directed by Angus MacLachlan)
What it is about - “Tammy (Jane Levy) and husband David (Will Pullen) lead a quiet life in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, sharing a home with David’s parents, Bill (David Strathairn) and Venida (Celia Weston). David and Bill work together and have always been closely involved in each other’s lives. When Bill begins to suspect that David is straying in his marriage, he is drawn into a relationship minefield, caught between wanting to protect his amicable daughter-in-law and trying to understand his impulsive son. As Bill confronts the limits of patriarchal influence, he is also forced to reckon with disheartening behavioral patterns that may be transcending generations.”
My thoughts - For 89 minutes Angus MacLachlen transports us to a small Kentucky town where we feel every emotion with this family. We hurt for them, we smile with them, we cry with them. It doesn’t work without the knockout performances by Jane Levy & David Strathairn. They both harnesses so much tenderness & sincerity in their performances that your heart will melt.
Rating - 4/5
Ranking what I watched at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
Other People’s Children - could get a theatrical release later this year
Fair Play - should debut on Netflix later this year
A Little Prayer - should get a theatrical release later this year
King Coal - yet to be purchased
Theatre Camp - Will get a theatrical release later this year
Magazine Dreams - yet to be purchased
Cat Person - yet to be purchased
Fantastic Machine - yet to be purchased
All in all, it was another great edition of the festival. Plenty of great films, some surprises, and lots of stories to tell. There is always something captivating about the blend of emerging filmmakers with seasoned veterans, some experimenting with new stories and others redefining their niche. Even though I participated from home, Sundance still had enough magic in the air to make it the premier showcase for independent cinema that it always is. Let the countdown to Sundance 2024 begin!
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Great job, Aaron!