Sundance is back! After two years of virtual screenings, one of America’s preeminent film festivals welcomed attendees back to Park City, Utah, for the first time since early 2020. Around 100 feature films held their world premieres over the last two weeks, and in an added wrinkle, the festival retained its virtual component from the past two years. About two-thirds of the movies were available for audiences to watch in virtual screening rooms, making this year’s edition a bit of a soft reboot for Sundance. It’s the perfect opportunity to take stock of what the festival still means in the latest chapter of the streaming era.
Despite CODA just last year becoming the first Sundance movie to ever win Best Picture at the Oscars, the festival feels paradoxically more niche than at any time since before the early ’90s, when Sundance’s launching of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith brought the festival to a new level of visibility and cultural cachet.
In recent times, questions have emerged over whether Sundance can still propel movies to mainstream success, or whether the festival has mostly just become a launchpad for filmmakers essentially using Sundance to audition for their next green light (or to make a Marvel movie). There were some notable exceptions in the mid-2010s—see Call Me by Your Name, Manchester by the Sea, and The Big Sick—but even before COVID, the 2018 and 2019 editions of Sundance became mostly known for high-priced films that failed to net box office results, like Assassination Nation and Late Night. The uncertainty from those years has carried over, and there were relatively few big deals made for distribution rights this year.
That said, will any of this year’s films break out and find large audiences? Could any of them become Oscar darlings? And beyond the potential windfalls of money and statues, which ones were just actually good? As a 2023 festival virtual attendee and former publications editor at Sundance, I have some thoughts.
Movies Primed to Go Mainstream
The two biggest deals of the festival were for Fair Play and Flora and Son, which both netted $20 million from streamers (Netflix and Apple, respectively). Unfortunately, I missed Flora and Son, which wasn’t available online, but Fair Play was my favorite film at Sundance, and I wholeheartedly believe it will find both a large audience and cultural relevance. It’s the rare film that manages to substantially comment on one of the most prevailing issues of our current moment (toxic masculinity) while somehow feeling like a throwback adult drama from the ’90s intended for a mass audience.
The debut film by writer and director Chloe Domont stars Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton) and Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) as a young couple hiding their relationship from the elite Wall Street hedge fund where they both work. But when Dynevor’s character is offered the huge promotion they expected would go to Ehrenreich, seething mistrust and jealousy start to destroy their lives, both at home and at work. Dynevor and Ehrenreich are sensational in roles that demand sexuality, vulnerability, and boiling rage, and it’s particularly rewarding to see Ehrenreich resurrect his career after the Solo fallout, which likely led to his five-year absence from movies. Domont’s screenplay has that lethal, Breaking Bad–like quality where the dissolution of the relationship is perfectly paced, and then there’s that There Will Be Blood–esque ending, which leaves you gasping as the screen cuts to black.
No matter how much the financial realities of filmmaking continue to shift, I suspect there’s a rapt and hungry audience for a movie this thrilling, but it’s incumbent on Netflix to play it right and not simply leave it up to audiences to discover it on their own. That’s a big fear I also have with another of the fest’s best films, a stylish British rom-com called Rye Lane that’s slated to hit Hulu at the end of March.
There’s an undeniable Richard Linklater and Before trilogy energy to this story of two Black artists, both coming off bad breakups, who meet cute while he’s ugly crying in the bathroom of an art gallery and then spend a day walking around South London together and getting into trouble. If you can imagine a version of I May Destroy You that was purely about the chemistry and vibes between the main characters, that’s kind of what you’re in for with Raine Allen Miller’s debut feature, which fills a real need in our current dearth of good rom-coms. (And keep an eye out for one of the funniest star cameos in recent film history.)
A24 brought several films to the fest, but the one with the distributor’s best commercial prospects may be one of its first films meant for an older art-house crowd. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who previously made 2013’s lovely Enough Said) are back together for You Hurt My Feelings, the story of an acclaimed memoirist who suffers a crisis of self-doubt when she overhears her husband saying he thinks the novel she’s working on is bad. What ensues is a poignant and funny investigation into the little lies of encouragement we spout to our loved ones and the damage it can do when those built-up fibs are suddenly revealed.
And then there’s Cat Person, which was the most polarizing film of the festival. Emilia Jones (CODA) and Nicholas Braun (Succession) star in this adaptation of the viral New Yorker story about consent, communication, and the perils of text-dating, directed by Susanna Fogel (cowriter of Booksmart). The first two-thirds of Cat Person are an incredibly faithful adaptation of the short story, but then the film goes past the original story’s end, tacking on a new third act that promptly flies right off the rails. This added-on chapter really doesn’t work, but it’s an interesting swing that’s fun to think and talk about even if it goes off the deep end. Cat Person hasn’t been picked up for distribution yet, but there should be a real audience for it considering the New Yorker story’s popularity and Braun’s rising fame. (And don’t worry, his Cousin Greg–ness is perfectly retained in the film.)
Potential Oscar Contenders
Sundance movies have a checkered history with the Oscars, and you don’t have to look much further than the past two years to see how real that is. In 2021, CODA won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic section; Apple bought it for a Sundance-record $25 million, and it improbably melted hearts all the way to a Best Picture win—a first for both a Sundance premiere and a movie from a streaming service.
Then, last January, Emma Thompson was widely expected to be a Best Actress shoo-in for her daring performance as a widow hiring a male prostitute so that she could have her first orgasm in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. But after Searchlight declined to give it a theatrical release and unceremoniously dumped it on Hulu in the middle of summer, it quickly disappeared from Oscar contention.
The lesson? No matter how obviously something looks like a contender upon its Sundance premiere, it’s a long 14 months to get to the following year’s Oscar ceremony, and the landscape can change quite a bit. Predicting an indie movie’s awards prospects to survive that long is folly far more often than not, and for every Sundance that launches multiple major Oscar contenders—like 2017 (Get Out, Call Me by Your Name, Mudbound) or 2020 (The Father, Promising Young Woman, Minari)—there are just as many years when no Sundance movies receive any major Oscar nominations whatsoever (like 2018 and 2019).
So when we talk about what films from this year’s Sundance could make it all the way to Oscar night, 2024, the first answer that has to be seriously considered is “None of them.” But that’s no fun, so let’s get wild. (Disclaimer: I sadly missed A24’s Past Lives, which was the best-reviewed film of the fest and could be the strongest Oscar contender of the bunch.)
The only potential Best Picture nominee I saw is the aforementioned Fair Play, but it’ll have to survive what’s sure to be a brutal hot-take cycle about its approach to gender, sex, and office politics and whether its thrills were cheap or delightfully—and savagely—earned (I’m firmly in the latter camp, but consensus among major critics varied). If Fair Play really pops for critics and audiences when Netflix releases it (no date has been set), it could also contend for Chloe Domont’s writing and directing, as well as its lead performances. But those remain huge what-ifs this early in the game, and the movie could just as easily become another Sundance darling that somehow couldn’t even nab a screenplay nomination (like Eighth Grade and The Farewell, both done dirty by the Academy’s Writers Branch.)
A few other films could be in the hunt for acting nominations, but I’m in the minority that doesn’t think Magazine Dreams is one of them. Although Jonathan Majors gives a stunning, committed performance as an incel bodybuilder, the movie will likely prove too emotionally brutal for audiences and voters alike. I nearly turned it off several times, and people who don’t have professional obligations to write about the film may be far less patient with it. As last week’s egregious Oscar snub of Danielle Deadwyler for Best Actress in Till continued to prove, Oscar voters are really good at ignoring movies they think will depress them.
Instead, I’d look to three actors with slightly lower profiles but who’ve all been widely respected for a long time. That list starts with David Strathairn, who plays a father slowly realizing that his son is being unfaithful and neglectful of his wife in A Little Prayer. The climactic conversation between Strathairn and the daughter-in-law he loves dearly (wonderfully played by Jane Levy) is deeply touching, and the film was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, who are good at getting Oscar nominations for actors (as evidenced by Bill Nighy in Living, the only narrative movie from Sundance 2022 to get a major Oscar nom).
Also on that list are Gael García Bernal as a gay lucha libre wrestler in Cassandro, and Scoot McNairy as a single father dying of AIDS in Fairyland. Both give the best performances of their careers, and either could get in the conversation with a good campaign and release strategy. But Amazon, which has limited success in winning Oscars, is handling Cassandro, and Fairyland hasn’t been picked up yet, so maybe don’t hold your breath on either of those.
As in many years, the most reliable Oscar contenders at Sundance are probably documentaries, where Sundance films have long dominated the Oscar field. Two documentaries really emerged this year as likely Oscar favorites in 2024, and both are harrowing looks at ongoing global humanitarian crises. 20 Days in Mariupol is the first major documentary to chronicle the ongoing war in Ukraine, while Beyond Utopia is an uncompromising look at the realities of people trying to defect from North Korea. Both films won the Audience Award for their respective competition categories, and although neither has secured distribution yet, you’ll surely be hearing more about them as the year goes on.
Hidden Gems That Could Catch On
Of course, the biggest joy of film festivals is discovering things you love, regardless of their chances to dominate the zeitgeist or compete for awards. When the dust settles, Sundance 2023 may be short on movies that found wide audiences or Oscar glory, but it wasn’t short on movies that are worth your time.
Kim’s Video is one part love-letter documentary about the legendary NYC mecca for cinephiles (and former employer of The Ringer’s own Chris Ryan) and one part investigation into what happened to the 55,000-title collection that was sent to Sicily after the final Kim’s Video location closed in 2014. Kim’s Video premiered in Sundance’s NEXT section, which Wesley Morris once described for Grantland as films that are “Too … something (or not something enough) for the dramatic competition,” and which has been the launching pad of modern cult classics like Tangerine and A Ghost Story. The designation fits, and if you’re a physical media treasure hunter (or if you happen to love awesome ’80s electro-pop scores that evoke the heyday of Tangerine Dream), this one’s for you.
A few broad themes emerged at this year’s fest, like the experience of people from the Asian diaspora comically navigating love and dating in the modern Western world. Shortcomings, directed by Randall Park and adapted by Adrian Tomine from his acclaimed graphic novel, follows a group of Asian American characters in the Bay Area as their love lives fall apart and one of them tries to confront (or hide from) his fetish for white women. Polite Society is about a Pakistani girl in London who loves kung fu and then has to put her fighting skills to the test to rescue her older sister from an arranged marriage to someone who may just want her for weird medical experiments. The film is by We Are Lady Parts writer-director Nida Manzoor, and it’s every bit as ridiculous and delightful as it sounds. And then The Persian Version, which won the coveted Audience Award for the U.S. Dramatic competition (previous winners include CODA, Minari, Whiplash, and Fruitvale Station), is a witty and touching look at a large family of Iranian immigrants in New Jersey, as told through the eyes of the family’s lone daughter, a lesbian filmmaker.
Another fascinating theme that emerged this year at Sundance was movies that culminated with deeply emotional conversations between parent and child. The aforementioned A Little Prayer and Fairyland both apply, as do a disarming indie about working-class Brits called Scrapper (starring Harris Dickinson of Triangle of Sadness) and this year’s Grand Jury Prize winner, A Thousand and One, which uses a beautiful Isaac Hayes–inflected score to tell its powerful story about a troubled mother in ’90s Harlem who tries to steal her child out of the foster care system.
Finally, two great documentaries presented important stories about histories that have been intentionally shoved under the rug. Little Richard: I Am Everything strongly makes the case that the most enduring and important traits of rock ’n’ roll were all innovated by a gay Black man, and it makes for fascinating counterprogramming with Elvis (and especially the endlessly GIF-ed moment of Tom Hanks staring at the radio and incredulously saying, “He’s white?”). And The Disappearance of Shere Hite asks why the famed sexologist from the ’70s and ’80s has been almost completely forgotten in our contemporary dialogue about sexuality. Shere Hite is more of a boilerplate bio-doc, but some of its historical footage truly has to be seen to be believed, including a chilling sequence in which she appears on Oprah with an all-male studio audience, who were seemingly assembled just to mansplain her into submission.
Most of these films won’t get a much-ballyhooed release or be staples on many “Best Of” lists for 2023, but they’re all highly worth your time when they eventually find their streaming home.
Daniel Joyaux is a writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Roger Ebert, Rotten Tomatoes, The Verge, and Cosmopolitan, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @thirdmanmovies and on Letterboxd at Djoyaux.