Festival Dispatch

What Were the 10 Buzziest Movies from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival?

Published on January 28, 2023

Three. Frustrating. Years. That’s how long it’s been since the Sundance Film Festival last held an in-person edition in Park City, Utah. (Put it this way: The opening night selection was the Taylor Swift documentary, Miss Americana, which chronicled the making of her 2018 album of Reputation. So, like, ancient history.) Blame the pandemic, of course. Because of safety fears, attendees couldn’t be in the room for the premiere of the eventual Oscar Best Picture winner, Coda, or cheer along for Questlove and the first screening of his own future Oscar pic, Summer of Soul. No sightings of a random Real Housewives star on the bustling Main Street. No napping during 8:30 AM screenings. No huffing and puffing walking in the snow in the frigid weather at high altitudes. No nothing.

All the more reason why the 2023 Sundance Film Festival felt extra-special. At long last, we could enjoy the cinema experience as it was originally intended — ahem, with actual people in theaters! After all, past winners such as Juno, Get Out, Whiplash, Boyhood, Eighth Grade and Promising Young Woman just don’t feel the same from a couch in a temperature-controlled room. (Though, honestly, there’s still zero upside of hoofing it from screening to screening in three-degree weather.) So what was on the lineup this year? An intriguing mix of titillating dramas, rousing crowd-pleasers and fascinating celebrity documentaries. Marvel villain Jonathan Majors turned his body into a toxic mass of muscle, while Phoebe Dynevor proved she’s no Bridgerton one-smash-wonder. And Brooke Shields and Michael J. Fox proved why they’re enduring icons. Here’s a wrap of ten of the buzziest offerings.


Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields

What does Brooke Shields mean to you? Some people may recall her as a teen model for Calvin Klein when she provocatively purred “You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins?” and starred in 80s flicks like Blue Lagoon. Others may associate her with that memorable guest-shot as Joey’s crazed stalker on Friends. Or, perhaps, she stands out for her courageous admission about post-partum depression and subsequent 2005 public feud with Tom Cruise. (Google “Matt Lauer and Tom Cruise” to jog that memory.) The star reflects on all the above and so much more — she also had a strange friendship with Michael Jackson — in this two-part documentary. Sure, Shields may have been exploited from an early age because of her beauty, but she proves why she has the smarts and guts to persevere and tell her remarkable story. (Hulu, TBA)


Past Lives

Critics and audiences were positively swooning over this tender romance, which spans 24 years and two continents. Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae-Sung (Teo Yoo) are childhood sweethearts in South Korea who reconnect as adults — first over long-distance Skype when both are single, then a decade later in person in downtown New York City. However, this is no only-in-the-movies fairy tale: Nora is now married to a fellow writer (a highly compelling John Magaro) and knows that, despite their palpable chemistry and long history, she just can’t chuck her reality to fulfill her fantasy. This realization only makes the pair’s wide-ranging conversations and interactions more bittersweet, notably during a silent, lingering shot when the two just stare and smile at each other. Film Twitter compared writer-director Celine Song’s debut to Richard Linklater’s generation-defining Before trilogy. Fairly accurate, though the love triangle (more like a love-V?) aspect gives it a different shape. (In theaters, TBA)


Fair Play

Here’s a knockout thriller — sold to Netflix for a whopping $20 million — in which a loving, hot-for-each-other couple must put their relationship to the test against the backdrop of modern office and sexual politics. Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are newly engaged but must keep their romance hush-hush at work, where they hustle as high-stakes Wall Street financial analysts and intra-office coupling is forbidden. Once she gets the coveted promotion, their dynamic changes in a way that feels painfully familiar and astoundingly credible. The tension ramps up ever-so-slowly — he silently seethes watching the bosses ask their new manager to drinks — and culminates in a series of gripping and ultra-heart-racing sequences. Dynevor and Ehrenreich are smoldering together, by the way, and play fairly fab drunks. Ps. Somebody please change that way-too-generic title! (Netflix, TBA)


Still: A Michael J. Fox Story

In a span of five years back in the 1980s, Michael J. Fox went from cute Canadian unknown to arguably the most popular star in all the world. (Simultaneously starring in the top-rated sitcom Family Ties and mega-successful Back to the Future will do that.) But the five-foot-four actor truly stands taller than his peers because he’s turned his early Parkinson’s disease diagnosis into a one-man crusade. This unflinching and inspiring documentary chronicles it all, spanning from his Hollywood glory days to his family life with actress Tracy Pollan and their four kids to his advocacy work finding a cure for his illness. And though Fox tumbles to the sidewalk while walking on the New York City street in one scene, he maintains his good humor and insists, “I don’t want pity.”  (Apple TV+, TBA)


Judy Blume Forever

The nostalgia love-fest continues!!! Obviously you grew up reading Judy Blume classics such as Forever, Blubber, Tiger Eyes and Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. (The latter of which is finally getting the big-screen treatment in April!). This documentary takes a deeper look at the beloved author and features testimonials from fans such as Lena Dunham, Molly Ringwald and Samantha Bee. Turns out that Blume took up writing as a young mom in the 1960s to escape suburban humdrum — and never quite understood why addressing rite-of-passage teen topics such as menstruation, sex and masturbation was (and remains) such a Big Deal. Fun highlight: Blume sifts through her fans’ passionate, from-the-heart handwritten letters. She ended up corresponding with several of them for decades, who knew. (Amazon Prime Video, TBA.)


Cat Person

The 2017 New Yorker short story went viral, and New Yorker short stories never go viral. There was just something perversely appealing and relatable about a tale in which a college student’s red-flag-dotted romance with an older guy goes awry. This adaptation, starring Emilia Jones (Coda) and Nicholas Braun (i.e., Cousin Greg from Succession), is faithful to the excellent source material early on. The pair’s cringe-inducing big sex scene is especially well-executed, as Jones, in a running dialogue with herself, wants to back out of the experience but feels obligated to stay so she doesn’t ding her new guy’s feelings. Just a warning: The third act takes a curious — and controversial — pivot to omg-he’s-a-stalker!!! horror territory. Isn’t dating itself scary enough? (TBA)


Flora and Son

If you aren’t familiar with writer-director John Carney, you should be: All his feel-gooders, from Once to Begin Again to Sing Street, illustrate how music can soothe the soul. His latest focuses on a messy single mom named Flora (Eve Hewson) in Dublin at odds with her rebellious teen son, Max. Determined to find him a hobby, she finds a beat-up guitar from the trash and puts it to her own use. Flora soon starts taking lessons from an L.A.-based online teacher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, displaying impressive musical chops) and bonds with her son over his own artistic ambitions. The work (improbably) leads to performance that had the premiere audiences clapping in unison to every note. And how about this for wink-wink casting: Flora, an apathetic music listener who shrugs that her favorite song is James Blunt’s “Your Beautiful,” is the daughter of one Bono. Sold to Apple for $20 million! (Apple TV+, TBA)


Stephen Curry: Underrated

An NBA superstar with the Golden State Warriors since 2009, Steph Curry is widely regarded as one of the best players in the league (if not one of the best to do it ever). This documentary chronicles his 2022 run to a fourth NBA title and his first NBA Finals MVP trophy. Just don’t an expect an all-encompassing fly-on-the-wall experience. The film actually devotes a big chunk of space to the early-days struggle when the Ohio native was regarded as a scrawny teen with scant professional potential. Blue-blood colleges didn’t want him. Coaches thought he’d go nowhere. But (um, spoiler), he beats the odds playing eye-popping hoops at Davidson. Curry does it again decades later as he finally earns his college degree.  (Apple TV+, TBA)


You Hurt My Feelings

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is such a talented actress that she can disappear into a movie role despite starring in some of the most legendary TV comedies of all-time. For this sparkling entry, she plays a neurotic New York City writer — as if there are any other kind — and devoted wife and mother. All is sufficiently fine in her little world until she overhears her therapist husband (The Crown’s Tobias Menzies) criticizing the quality of her unsold new novel. While small in nature, the incident opens a Pandora’s Box of confessions from the people around her. Indeed, this wonderful effort from writer-director Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) astutely examines what we choose to lie about to protect the people we love. And for all its laughs, not once does it resort to wacky sitcom-like hijinks. Can’t wait to see it again! (In theaters, TBA)


Magazine Dreams

Oh, how I wish I could tell you this was a prequel to The Devil Wears Prada. In fact, I debated whether to even include the bleak character study on the list. But there’s no denying actor Jonathan Majors is poised to have a breakout year thanks to Creed III to Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania — and this is his piece de resistance. He’s all-in emotionally and physically as an amateur bodybuilder desperate to achieve the physique (and success) of his hero on the cover of his favorite magazines. But he unravels before our eyes due to steroid-fueled anger, and on the social front, he can’t even make it through a first date with a shy supermarket clerk (Haley Bennett). All the above is relentlessly grim, making this psycho-dramatic take on toxic masculinity a difficult sit. Not that this hasn’t stopped people from talking about it, anyway. (TBA)