PARK CITY, Utah — Every January, just when we’re all tired of joking about the same 10 Oscar movies, the Sundance Film Festival comes like a bucket of ice water on its head.
The bustling independent festival, in the pretty but expensive ski town of Park City, Utah, wakes us up and sets the tone for the film year, providing a glimpse into what’s going through the minds of innovative filmmakers.
Returning in person for the first time since 2020, the 45-year-old festival caused scandal (Sundance was rocked by belated demands that all films be subtitled), shock (Alexander Skarsgård wrestled naked with his clone) and celebrities even donning parkas despite being warmly led from the St. Regis straight to the red carpet.
But what struck me most was that after a series of unbearably dark lineups, the beaming optimism that made «CODA» the Best Picture Oscar of 2022 abounded in this list of 99 feature films. A festival of well-being, for sure.
Here are the top five movies from Sundance 2023.
Sundance’s best film this year, and the one with a strong chance of becoming one of those Oscar nominees we’re still talking about in 12 months, is writer-director Celine Song’s sublime «Past Lives.» Set over 24 years, the film from scorching studio A24 tells the story of two childhood sweethearts in Seoul, South Korea, who are separated when little Nora’s family moves to Toronto. Fast forward 12 years later and Nora (Greta Lee) is a writer in New York, reconnecting with former flame Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) over Skype. I know the setup of “Past Lives” sounds simple, but the Song writing and realistic performances from Lee and Yoo will blow your mind.
Sultry and mysterious Anne Hathaway in a 1960s Boston prison? Safe! “Eileen” is a thriller about a shy 24-year-old secretary, played by Thomasin McKenzie, whose miserable existence is turned upside down when a party life administrator (Hathaway) comes to work at the penitentiary where she works. It’s far from a ride, but the film sizzles with uncertainty. We’re downright nervous trying to figure out exactly where William Oldroyd’s film, based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, is heading. As the tense story unfolds, you’ll be panting so hard that your upstairs neighbor will knock on the floor.
Go to college in Mariachi
My favorite documentaries teach me something I didn’t know before and are driven by the same fire and memorable characters as any great drama or comedy. The excellent «Boys State» at Sundance in 2020 was one such film. My “more you know” in this heartwarming doc is that Texas has a mariachi competition circuit of 100 high school teams – who knew? – and our adorable cast includes Mariachi Oro from Edinburgh North HS, led by the brilliant Professor Abel Acuña.
Eugenio Derbez, the actor who played the music teacher in «CODA,» once again hands out inspiring lessons in «Radical.» Here, he arrives at a struggling school in Mexico and confuses his colleagues and the children with his untraditional methods: no lesson plans, no tests, lots of listening. Yes, it sounds a lot like ‘Dead Poets Society’ or ‘To Sir, With Love’, but being based on a true story and taking place south of the border raises the stakes and brings the tears down.
You hurt my feelings
In a repeat of the post-«Seinfeld» era, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has struggled to find the right movie role since HBO’s «Veep» ended. «Downhill» is down, and its MCU part is payday. But she’s comedically perfect herself in «You Hurt My Feelings» as a mid-level author who learns her husband secretly hates his latest book. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s highly watched comedy is about the lies, big and small, we tell our loved ones to get through another day.
And the worst: Cat Person
My claws were out for this obnoxious adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s 2017 New Yorker viral short story, starring Emilia Jones («CODA») and Nicholas Braun («Succession»). What in the magazine was a sharp orator on the horrors of modern dating has been turned into a real campy horror movie with a new ending that suggests. Title recognition means you’ll probably see it, but I wish the terrible reviews would nip it in the bud.