Go backBack to selection

23 Films We’re Anticipating at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Photo: Jaclyn Martinez, courtesy Sundance)

The Sundance Film Festival is always the American independent scene’s bellwether. The festival’s curatorial decisions vault a select group of films — this year, 99 features out of 4,061 submitted — to the top tier of pictures receiving attention from distributors, critics, curators from other festivals and, through copious media coverage, audiences. And while longtime festival veterans — I’ve been attending since 1993 — are accustomed to the usual first-half rhythms (“the festival seems slow”; “the documentaries are stronger”; “did you hear Company X bought film Y for $Z million dollars!”), Sundance’s return to in-person combined with its first true hybrid edition amidst pandemic-accelerated business disruption is bringing more drama and uncertainty than ever. Will everyone converging again after three years in Park City’s sub-freezing temperatures, its cold mountain air filtering through our COVID-battled lungs, jumpstart careers, excite critics, reward investors and provide the face-to-face meetings necessary for the continual renewal our business needs? Or will this be a year in which pandemic-accelerated viewing changes and releasing patterns will reveal themselves to be the new normal?

If Sundance’s executives and programmers, including incoming Festival Director Eugene Hernandez, who has been striking a welcoming tone on his socials, are sweating any of this, they’re not showing it. The lineup has something of a “classic Sundance” vibe with its mixture of character-based first features, a few big premieres, a cross-section of docs, many in time-tested sub-genres, and what I’m sure will be discoveries in its increasingly strong World Cinema sections. To be missed are new media projects in the New Frontier section, which programmer Shari Frilot announced will pause this year for reflection and reinvention. (The New Frontier curatorial moniker does continue, however, with three experimental features, all of which director of editorial operations Vadim Rizov has highlighted in his picks below.)

As we do annually, we lead off our Sundance coverage with a selection of films we’re particularly excited to see, a mixture of work from filmmakers we’ve tracked, many from our 25 New Faces lists, those whose short films we may have spotted at festivals, and pictures that we simply have good feelings about. Our annual Sundance Question returns, this year asking filmmakers to describe a moment of unexpected challenge. We’ll have many interviews with directors, DPs and editors, industry reports, and lots of photos in our Instagram stories. (Be sure to follow us there if you’re not already.) So, below, find 23 picks from myself, Rizov, Web Editor Natalia Keogan, contributing editor Lauren Wissot and regular contributor Erik Luers.

Divinity. It’s clear that Eddie Alcazar’s collaboration with Flying Lotus on the 2015 short FUCKKKYOUUU serves as a direct visual predecessor for Divinity, Alcazar’s sophomore feature following 2018’s sci-fi thriller Perfect. Both FUCKKKYOUUU and Divinity are shot in sumptuous black and white and involve a life-sustaining serum injection, with the latter expanding upon themes of generational legacy, pharmaceutical dependence and apocalyptic capitalism. Executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, Divinity takes place in an alternate human reality wherein scientist Sterling Pierce effectively renders a serum that offers immortality, which he dubs “Divinity.” Pierce’s son, Jaxxon, comes to control the commercial distribution of the groundbreaking concoction, putting him on the radar of two brothers who plan on abducting him with the help of a striking femme fatale. — Natalia Keogan

The Stroll. Today, butchers in the New York’s meatpacking district are outweighed by luxury hotels, boutiques, and, on its Western end, the Whitney Museum (and just a bit further, across the highway, David Hammons’s conceptual reframing of the neighborhood’s ’70s history, Days End). But in the latter half of the 20th century, up through the ‘90s, it was a place of community and work for transgender sex workers. With The Stroll, playing in U.S. Documentary Competition, one of those workers, Kristin Lovell, collaborates with director Zachary Drucker for their U.S. Documentary Competition title, The Stroll. Lovell previously gave commentary on this period to the NYC Trans Oral History Project , and The Stroll, produced by filmmaker Matt Wolf, promises poignant visual contrasts between the streets then and now — a tale of neighborhood transformation produced by changes in policing policy, economic gentrification and the shock doctrine aftereffects of 9/11. — Scott Macaulay

Last ThingsThe most cryptic logline of this year’s Sundance belongs to the latest from veteran experimental filmmaker Deborah Stratman (The Illinois Parables)—per her website, “Evolution and extinction from the point of view of rocks and various future others.” Anthropocene, meet your new protagonists. — Vadim Rizov

The Accidental Getaway Driver. “Hong Kong by blood, Manchester by birth” is how director Sing J. Lee’s personal website describes the multi-talented visual artist, currently at Sundance with his feature debut, The Accidental Getaway Driver, a selection of this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition. Having already amassed an impressive CV that includes high profile music videos and commercials with A-list talent in front of the camera (even if you’re unfamiliar with the name, you’ve definitely seen some of Lee’s work on some screen somewhere), Lee now pivots to narrative filmmaking, albeit via a story that’s inspired by real life events. With a tense structure that echoes Michael Mann’s Collateral, the film depicts an elderly SoCal Vietnamese driver (the 83-years-young Hiep Tran Nghia) who, on an evening that appears to be routine, picks up three men who turn out to be escaped convicts from an Orange County jail. Subsequently thrust into a dangerous evening of hostage-taking and cat and mouse, the driver’s stakes are dramatically heightened as the evening progresses. Lee is clearly a talent to keep an eye on. — Erik Luers

Sometimes I Think About Dying. With her 2016 debut, In the Radiant City, writer/director Rachel Lambert made, I wrote, “the kind of laconic, unexpectedly emotional regional drama associated with filmmakers like Victor Nunez.” In Sometimes I Think About Dying, she tackles another set of issues, namely depression and suicidal ideation — the degrees to which will depend on the distance between this feature and the works it is based on. They are the warmly funny 2019 short film of the same name, directed by Stephanie Able Horowitz (a co-writer on this feature), starring Katy Wright Mead (another co-writer) and the source material for that film, Armento’s play Killers. (Armento is this new film’s third credited writer). I found the ’19 short quite lovely, so I’m interested in seeing how this bigger-budget version, starring and produced by Daisy Ridley, expands upon the drama. — SM

Gush25 New Face of Film Fox Maxy has become a staple of the experimental short film circuit over the last few years. Now the Native filmmaker makes her keenly awaited feature debut, which promises to offer more of her signature mixture of righteous politics, internet deep-dives and vibey hangouts scored to excellent tracks. — VR

A Thousand and One. At the end of my 2019 profile of filmmaker A.V. Rockwell for our 25 New Faces, the Queens, New York-born talent teased with the simplest of descriptions (a film that “follows a young woman and her son as they try to rebuild their relationship in a city that’s changing around them”) what would become her debut picture. That film, A Thousand and One, is world premiering in Sundance’s Dramatic Competition before a March release from Focus Features. And the advance materials reveal one new crucial element of the story, which is that this drama dealing with themes of gentrification involves a young mother kidnapping her child from the city’s foster care system. — SM

Cassandro. The Mexico-set drama Cassandro is prolific documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams’s first scripted feature, and for that reason alone it’s worth our attention. The biopic’s titular protagonist is Cassandro — i.e. gay champion lightweight wrestler Saúl Armendáriz, himself the subject of Marie Losier’s 2018 documentary, Cassandro, the Exotico! Here, playing Cassandro, Gael Garcia-Bernal heads up a cast that includes Bad Bunny and Raul Castillo. Producers are Todd Black, Williams’s frequent doc producer Julie Goldman, former Amazon exec Ted Hope, and Gerardo Gatica González, and the script is credited to Williams and, with his first screenplay credit, editor David Teague, who previously worked with Williams on the documentary Life, Animated. — SM

The Starling Girl. Another entry in this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competiton, The Starling Girl marks the debut feature from screenwriter-director Laurel Parmet. A graduate of NYU’s MFA film program, Parmet has seen several of her shorts have healthy festival runs, including Spring, a film that, out of SXSW in 2017, I wrotepays full attention to the the complexities of the female gaze.” Along with the following year’s Kira Burning, Parmet’s shorts announced a filmmaker more than capable of balancing complex, mature subject matter with strong performances from a young female cast. The Starling Girl continues with and expands upon that career trajectory, telling the story of a 17-year-old young woman, Jem (Eliza Scanlen of 2019 features Babyteeth and Little Women), of a Christian fundamentalist community in rural Kentucky. Caught between the church’s expectations of and for her, Jem falls under the watchful eye of an older youth pastor (Lewis Pullman, to be seen later this year in the big-sceen Warner Bros. remake of Salem’s Lot), her personal growth throughout the film making for a very worthy addition to Parmet’s growing study of female desire and sexual empowerment. —EL

Is There Anybody Out There? Born with short femurs and no hip joints – and no problem with having such a unique form – British actor and filmmaker Ella Glendining decided a few years back to embark on a quest to locate others that shared her own rare disability to learn how they navigate this ableist world. But then life itself intervened – an unexpected pregnancy, a pandemic lockdown – forcing the nimble filmmaker (and first-time mom) to switch angles and turn the camera on herself. The result is a fascinating mashup of personal videos, online conversations, and eventually in-person meetups with newfound friends on this side of the pond. — Lauren Wissot

The Tuba Thieves. The real-life news story concerning a wave of tuba thefts across Southern California schools serves as the titular inspiration for d/Deaf filmmaker Alison O’Daniels’ feature debut. Yet the film isn’t singularly concerned with the concrete details of what drove these thieves to commit their crimes of sonic passion, instead predicating its unique brand of creative nonfiction on the absence of perceptible sound—particularly as it pertains to the normally noise-polluted atmosphere of Los Angeles. Shots of urban wildlife, car-congested highways and heavy airplane traffic intersect with recreations of two historically significant musical moments: John Cage’s 1952 premiere of 4’33” and the 1979 punk show hosted by Bruce Conner at the San Francisco Dead Club. The Tuba Thieves unravels like a surreal game of telephone, leading to a narratively abstract yet tonally precise final product. — NK

All Roads Taste of Salt. The anticipated debut of Tennessee-born Raven Jackson, whose well received shorts (Nettles, A Guide to Breathing Underwater) played numerous festivals and are now streaming on Criterion, is produced by Maria Altamirano (who produced Nettles, among other works) and the hot-hand team of Adele Romanski, Barry Jenkins and Mark Ceryak, who are coming off success with another first feature, Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun. In an interview, Jackson, who has an MFA in writing from NYU, describes her interests across poetry and film: “Experiences, memories, and emotions that can’t clearly be defined as one thing or the other are deeply interesting to me and inform most of my work….” All Roads Taste of Salt captures moments from the life of a Black Mississippi woman, Mack, and, as in her shorts, the relationship of the body to nature will undoubtedly be an important theme. In the same interview, conducted while Jackson was in development, she said about her debut picture, “…my protagonist has a strong relationship with rain—it reminds her of her mother who passed away when she was young. The water cycle of rain is an image I find myself returning to often. For me, how rain changes form is reminiscent of how energy changes form. There’s something deeply resonant in writing a character that swallowed rain as a child and, as an adult, emotionally connects with her mother in the drops.” — SM

The Night Logan Woke Up. Nearly a decade after Xavier Dolan adapted playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s Tom at the Farm, Dolan returns to the fellow Canadian’s work as the source material for The Night Logan Woke Up, the filmmaker’s first episodic effort. While Bouchard co-wrote Tom at the Farm, Dolan undertook the writing and direction of this six-part limited series—which premiered in Canada in November and is slated to air on Canal+ in France this month—entirely on his own. The plot revolves around the Quebecois Larouches family, who are reuniting to grieve the loss of their matriarch. Oscillating between the present day and early ‘90s, Dolan charts the complicated past and ongoing conflict among a family harboring secrets that refuse to go to the grave. — NK

Stephen Curry: Underrated. Although weary of any documentary that focuses on a basketball superstar and is produced by said superstar’s production company (and clocking in at 110 minutes!), I’ll admit to being intrigued by the premise for Stephen Curry: Underrated, a collaboration between A24 and Curry’s Unanimous Media. Directed by Bay Area filmmaker Peter Nicks (whose previous Sundance-premiering documentaries include the Oakland-set The Force and Homeroom), this nonfiction feature chronicles the Golden State Warriors superstar point guard’s rise from a first-round draft pick to a four-time NBA champion and North California legend. Promising to give a considerable amount of attention to Curry’s three years as an undergraduate at Davidson College, Stephen Curry: Underrated will hopefully fast-forward past the more prolific career highs—some still very much in progress— that have already been extensively covered by other media outlets, providing us with something that goes beneath surface-level. Adding to the project’s authenticity, Nicks enlisted fellow Bay Area resident Ryan Coogler to serve as one of the film’s producers through their multimedia company, Proximity Media. AppleTV+ has streaming rights and will release the documentary later this year. — EL

Infinity Pool. Brandon Cronenberg’s follow-up to Possessor, which premiered at Sundance in 2020, stars Alexander Skarsgård and Cleopatra Coleman as James and Em, a wealthy couple vacationing at a seaside resort in the fictitious state of Li Tolqa. Mia Goth plays Gabby, a mysterious local who becomes the pair’s de facto tour guide, leading them outside of the manicured grounds of their hotel and into a seedy underbelly of perverse hedonism and terrifying violence. After a freak accident marks James for capital punishment under the state’s stringent judicial system, he is granted with a bizarre, life-saving alternative: For a hefty sum, he can pay to have a sentient clone created in his visage and sent to be executed in his place. — NK

Rotting in the Sun. Sebastián Silva portrays a loose and slightly unhinged version of himself in this film, which the director co-wrote with frequent collaborator Pedro Peirano (who he first worked with on The Maid in 2009). Rotting in the Sun follows Silva as he spends aimless days ingesting copious amounts of ketamine and flirting with the idea of committing a painless suicide—that is, until he meets Jordan Firstman, who he saves from drowning during an excursion to a queer nude beach. The two become unlikely collaborators on a television series that surprisingly garners network interest (Silva himself directed all but two episodes of the second season of Los Espookys before its contested cancellation by HBO). When Jordan shows up one day to meet his creative partner at his Mexico City apartment, however, he finds that Sebastián has disappeared—and he suspects that the housekeeper (The Maid’s Catalina Saavedra) may have something to do with it. — NK

Cat Person. The discourse cycle turns round and round with Cat Person, the screen adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s eponymous New Yorker short story viral sensation. The tale of an undergraduate student’s affair with an older man — all awkward details, an icky power imbalance and a staccato climax of rapid-fire texts — was in its first round a #MeToo-informed referendum on Dating Today and the literary value of young female subjectivity. (Or, succinctly, wrote Sian Cain in The Guardian, either “genius” or “misandrist drivel.”) Nearly four years later, however, Cat Person ignited another round of debate, this time when Alexis Nowicki wrote in Slate that much of Roupenian’s fictional story drew from her own relationship with an older man named Charles, a co-worker at a burger restaurant who courted her with a Real Estate-led playlist and hand-drawn map to his favorite taco place. Was it ethical for Roupenian — who had met Charles herself — to draw so many direct details for her story from Nowicki’s social media? There’s obviously a great meta-fictional version of the Cat Person saga here, but I suspect that Susanna Fogel’s A24 film, based on Michelle Ashford’s adaptation of Roupenian’s story and starring CODA’s Emilia Jones and Succession’s Nicholas Braun, will confine itself to the primary text. Nonetheless, it’s one of Sundance’s must-see films. — SM

Passages. The latest film from Ira Sachs stars Franz Rogowski and Ben Wishaw as Tomas and Martin, a married couple living in Paris whose union faces potential implosion when Tomas engages in a heterosexual affair with Agathe (Blue Is the Warmest Color’s Adèle Exarchopoulos). As a result, Martin decides to get even and begins a tryst of his own, driving Tomas to be consumed by obsession and jealousy. The complexity of the pair’s evolving dynamic brings about a difficult decision between adjusting the parameters of their relationship or simply calling it quits. — NK

Theater Camp. Has it really been 20 years since Todd Graff’s fun and occasionally unintentionally funny ode to musical theater camp, Camp, was released in theaters? Taking inspiration from Stagedoor Manor, the popular Upstate New York youth program that has trained many a’ future stars, Camp was made for a specific group of kids who were more concerned with being cast in an upcoming production of Fiddler on the Roof or Rent than worrying about getting cut from the junior varsity football team. If you found yourself included in that group of theater lovers, then you most likely saw Camp at one point in your life and will most likely seek out Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s Theater Camp, a selection of this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competion. Expanded from a short the filmmakers released in 2018, Theater Camp sounds like a cross between Camp and Christopher Guest’s 1996 mockumentary, Waiting for Guffman. What separates Theater Camp are the performers in front of the camera (the cast includes not one but two former Evan Hansens of Dear Evan Hansen fame on Broadway) and the copious amounts of “inside baseball” theater references designed to humor folks who would never consider watching baseball outside of preparing to audition for a role in Damn Yankees. No hate, I consider myself one of those people! — EL

Bad Behavior. The feature debut of actress and filmmaker Alice Englert (also the daughter of Jane Campion) is the second film in the lineup to star Ben Wishaw, who plays a guru accompanying a former child actor named Lucy (Jennifer Connelly) on a silent retreat on a remote mountainside (however, an influx of Teslas in the resort’s parking lot tease the self-indulgent, pricey nature of this supposedly “spiritual” excursion). As the film’s title suggests, poor decisions and faux pas run rampant, with Lucy spending more time digging herself into uncomfortable situations as opposed to resigning herself to genuine self-reflection. — NK

A Common Sequence. Co-directed with regular collaborator Mike Gibisser, the admirably oblique experimental filmmaker Mary Helena Clark makes her feature film debut. An intriguingly chilly trailer links the science of patent medication (the film’s title seems to refer to DNA) with enticingly austere imagery. — VR

Victim/Suspect. Nancy Schwartzman follows up her 2018 documentary Roll Red Roll, about the Steubenville High School rape case, with what sounds like a highly sobering companion film. In her latest, a Netflix Original documentary, she follows journalist Rae de Leon who investigates the cases of women who report instances of sexual assault but find themselves charged themselves with making false police reports. — SM

birth/rebirth. A femme-focused retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Laura Moss‘s feature debut centers on an aloof pathologist named Rose (Marin Ireland) who’s working on a clandestine, highly-experimental procedure that would effectively raise the dead. The normally antisocial doctor forms an unexpected friendship with maternity nurse Celie (Judy Reyes in a delightfully dank role compared to her turn as nurse Carla on Scrubs), a woman who recently suffered a traumatic loss. Together, they test the limits of their ever-shifting moral compasses, weighing whether human sacrifice is merely a necessary factor for the greater good of science—and, perhaps more palpably, their unresolved grief.  — NK

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham