Hey everyone! The 2023 Sundance Film Festival has come and gone and I decided to do things a little differently this year for my coverage. I didn’t get accepted as press for some reason but I had the locals Salt Lake pass which allows me to see anything I wanted playing in Salt Lake City. Instead of doing the daily logs I’ve done in the past I decided to enjoy the experience and stick my immediate film reactions to twitter and instagram.
It begins #sundance #rachelsundance2023 #filmcritic pic.twitter.com/iXd677iSU1
— Rachel's Reviews- Queen of Movies! (@rachel_reviews) January 19, 2023
I was also trying to think of some way my coverage could stand out and came up with bringing Marcel the Shell along with me to the festival. I’m no Jenny Slate but it was fun
In my attempt to actually enjoy the festival I also was a little pickier this year and only saw movies I had heard good buzz about and thought I had a good chance of liking and to my pleasant surprise I actually did like almost everything I saw. I don’t know if I was just so happy to be back at Sundance after 3 years but it was an entertaining slate this year.
2023 Sundance Ranking and Quick Thoughts
1. Judy Blume Forever– If you’ve followed my writing for any amount of time you know I’m a sucker for a well made documentary and this about novelist Judy Blume is no exception. I was particularly blown away by the letters she received and the correspondence she had with thousands of children over the years.
2. You Hurt My Feelings– Director Nicole Holofcener actress Julia Louise-Dreyfus reunite (I love their work in Enough Said) for this very funny comedy about marriage and the lies we tell the people we love. This is going to be released by A24 and I hope it doesn’t get dismissed as one of their artsy films because it’s quite approachable and funny. I even recommended it to my parents who hardly see any movies. Especially married couples will be able to relate to this story and its wonderful dialogue. The letter left at the end for Tobias Menzies shrink character is particularly hilarious.
3. Radical– We’ve seen this type of inspirational teacher story because but this is done so well and Eugenio Derbez is so strong it worked very well. It tells the true story of a teacher in a deeply poor failing school in Juarez, Mexico and it will bring on the tears so be ready. The kids are all great as well as strong supporting performances from the adults playing the other teachers and parents. I loved it
4. Theatre Camp– Everyone knows I’m a theater geek so this comedy about a struggling theater camp was made for me. Evidently a large percentage of it was improv and the actors like Ben Platt, Molly Gordon and Patti Harrison (who I have loved in everything I’ve seen her in) are all up for it. If you are expecting a lot of Amy Sedaris you might be disappointed but if you want some good natured laughs it’s a great choice.
5. Flora and Son– family stories and non-traditional romances were a big trend this year at Sundance and this sweet little movie from one of my favorite directors, John Carney, is one of the best. The only reason it’s not higher is Flora (Eve Hewson) is a lot to take in at the start of the movie, very rude and caustic to everyone around her, but we see her grow and change until we end up rooting for her. Jack Reynor is great as her ex-husband, Oren Kinlan is the ‘son’ of the title and is funny as an aspiring rapper, and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is charming as the LA guitar teacher Flora becomes friends with online. The music wasn’t quite as strong as Carney’s other films but still a heart-warming little movie perfect for Sundance.
6. Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out– Despite its unwieldly title this is a very endearing family comedy about a teenage boy Calvin (Jacob Buster) who is trying to find his parents after they were abducted when he was 6. Emma Tremblay plays Itsy the new girl at school and she and Calvin have a lovely friendship. Obviously the story in this film is unique but it’s also funny and some emotional moments. In some ways it reminds me of Napoleon Dynamite but not as deadpan in the humor. One of the best family films they’ve had at the festival in a long time
7. Fairyland– Another family story at the festival. This one about a father (Scoot McNairy) and daughter (Emilia Jones among others) growing up through the 80s and 90s in San Francisco. McNairy is excellent and the script covers a lot of time without it feeling maudlin or boring. Geena Davis appears as the more conservative Grandmother but I appreciate she is written with nuance and not a one-note cliché we often see. It seems like others didn’t enjoy it as much as I did but I found it quite moving.
8. The Disappearance of Shere Hite– As the title suggests I had never heard of Shere Hite before this documentary which is fascinating because she was such a prominent figure of her time with her book on female sexuality called The Hite Report. My only question is for someone who seems so shocked by the media’s depiction of her she went on a lot of salacious shows and said shocking things. I think the documentary could have dove into that more. If she wanted to be treated like an academic why is she going on Maury Povich and shows like that. Still it was an interesting watch
9. Fair Play– They are billing this corporate drama as a thriller and that’s a stretch but it is well made and acted. Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich are terrific as a toxic couple who both work at the same investment firm in New York. When Dynevor’s character gets the big promotion jealousy and envy start to ruin their relationship. This film does have shocking scenes of violence and rape but it builds tension very well and I was genuinely unsure with what was going to happen and how it would end.
10. Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)– This is a fun, light documentary about the 1970-80s company Hipgnosis which created some of the most iconic rock album covers for the likes of Paul McCartney and Pink Floyd. Nothing outstanding here but I like these kind of behind the scenes documentaries and the interviews are well done and engaging.
11. The Persian Version– Another film about family at the festival and overall it had enough heart to enjoy but it tries to tackle to much and ends up feeling messy. Director Maryam Keshvarz tells the story of her Iranian-American family particularly herself and her Mother. I think she should have focused just on the Mother but there’s enough good here to recommend.
12. Past Lives– It seems like I’m more mixed on this bittersweet romance than my friends. Greta Lee, Yoo Teo and John Magara are very strong as the leads, but I found the experience very stressful to watch because I didn’t want her to cheat on her husband who I enjoyed so much. I couldn’t help but wish the movie was telling a different story while I was watching it but that’s me putting my traditional rom-com loving self onto the movie. For what it is, it does tell a bittersweet love story well, but I just found it stressful to watch.
13. L’immensità– This film is a spotlight film from the Cannes Film Festival last year. It’s another family story at the festival and is very well made and acted by director Emanuele Crialese. He captures the feel of 1970s effectively and Penelope Cruz is fantastic as the unhappy housewife and mother who still loves her children despite being in an unhappy marriage. All 3 kids are excellent including trans child actor Luana Giuliani. It’s a bit ambling and repetitive but I still enjoyed it.
14. Blueback– You all know how much I love the ocean and this movie about a Mother/Daughter diving team in Australia has amazing underwater footage. The story is sweet and Mia Wasikowska is good as the grown-up daughter with Eric Bana having a great time as the pirate-esque fisherman friend of the family. However, it should have just been the younger girl’s story because anything involving the Mother and her stroke is very saccharine and didn’t feel accurate to what little I know about how strokes work (for example, she just starts talking in full sentences out of the blue after not being able to for months.) Still, the water imagery and main relationships worked enough for me to recommend.
15. The Longest Goodbye– In all the films I’ve seen about space travel there aren’t that many which tackle the psychological toll on the astronauts and that’s what this film tries to do. It comes from the perspective of preparing an astronaut for a trip to Mars, which if attempted would take 3 years in space. Everything is interesting in this film but it was on the dry side and was a little dull.
16. Polite Society– I will not be surprised if we hear a lot about this film going forward and its director Nida Manzoor. It has a ton of energy and its lead Priya Kansara is charming as are all the actors (another family story.) The story is a bit all over the place and couldn’t balance its competing tones but it still had enough fun for me to recommend. I appreciate they made her terrible at martial arts until the one moment where she summons all her powers to defeat the villain. I think people who loved EEAAO will like this wacky movie.
17. Fancy Dance– We have another story about family, this one a mystery and drama. Lilly Gladstone plays Jax a Native American woman who has been searching for her missing sister for years and tryign to raise her high strung niece (Isabel Deroy-Olson) at the same time. Gladstone is very good in the lead role and the ending worked for me but it did have some pacing issues that make it lower on my ranking.
18. The Amazing Maurice– this was the only animated feature film of the festival and overall I enjoyed it. The story is based on a popular Terry Pratchett novel about a cat that becomes friends with a group of talking rats and they figure out a cheap way of making money. I like the animation and the voice-work is first rate including Hugh Laurie, Emilia Clarke and Gemma Arterton. The story felt a little muddled and didn’t do much for me but it’s alright (and it’s getting a 2000 theater rollout starting this weekend!) If your kids enjoy animated films about animals they will have a good time.
19. Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields– This documentary is actually 2 episodes of a show that will be released on hulu. For the most part I found the first part to be more intriguing and compelling than the 2nd. It tells the story of actress Brooke Shields and her work in Hollywood from a very young age. She has many positive experiences but she is also exploited, sexualized as a minor and dealing with an alcoholic Mother/manager. The second part while still containing some compelling stuff felt like it dipped into an advertisement for her Beginning is Now website than a movie. Still, there are definitely enough good parts to recommend especially that first part.
20. It’s Only Life After All– Another documentary about folk rock stars: The Indigo Girls. I knew almost nothing about them before watching so learning about their journeys is fascinating. I also enjoyed seeing how their platonic friendship played out over the years. The problem was the focus on the activism (while commendable) felt repetitive and took away from time spent about the music. I’m still amazed they have never been on SNL after all these years of writing hits. They even had an Indigo Girls skit. Shame on you SNL!
21. Shortcomings– Shockingly this is the only film from the festival I will be going rotten on (a miracle for Sundance!) and it’s not a terrible film, just not for me. The problem is Justin H Min plays Ben an annoying, insufferable 20-something who thinks he knows how everyone should live their lives and what they should like particularly when it comes to movies. Nobody is good enough for this guy and the problem is the movie isn’t funny enough to pull off such an unlikable lead character. Sherry Cola is great as his best friend but she can’t save it.
So there you have it! All 21 films I saw at Sundance. What do you think about these movies? What sounds the most intriguing to you? I would love to hear in the comments section.
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