Feb 06, 2023
By Kaveh Jalinous
It’s the first Monday after the Sundance Film Festival, and all around the country, festival goers, critics and filmmakers alike are experiencing a “film festival hangover.” The main thoughts: reflections on the festival’s films, especially those that exceeded expectations and those that fell woefully short. The main activity: publishing film reviews, whether that means a one-sentence, humor-filled quip on Letterboxd or a five-paragraph analysis. The main takeaway: this year’s festival was one to remember.
This year’s stakes were grander for Sundance. Firstly, the festival returned to being an in-person event after three years. For 10 days, the snowy oasis of Park City transformed into a haven for film lovers, filled with packed movie houses, grand red carpets and a plethora of film stars. At the same time, the festival hosted an online section, which allowed viewers from across the country to access a wide variety of titles (specifically, those from the dramatic and documentary competitions) from the comfort of their homes.
As for this year’s lineup, Sundance delivered the typical film festival package: a few great films, many decent ones and some disappointments. Incredible performances were a common trend, though. Even if a specific film wasn’t working, there always seemed to be at least one performance that made it worth watching. There was also a healthy mix of films meant for different purposes–some that will likely go on to be serious awards contenders and some that won’t make impressions quite as large.
While reviews for many of this year’s films are available on our dedicated page for cinema reviews, here are some additional films worth checking out, as selected by Kaveh Jalinous, UTR’s critic who covered the festival.
If you’re intrigued by the concept of a mash-up between Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, you’re probably going to love Raine Allen-Miller’s Rye Lane. The 83-minute film boasts a simple, ingenious plot: two strangers, both triggered by recent bad breakups, spend a day together discussing their past relationships and hopes for the future. The film’s bright, pastel-filled color palette brings life and heart to the London backdrops, which, in turn, further elevates the no-frills story. The best part of the film is the chemistry between actors David Josson and Vivian Oparah, which makes their characters’ connection feel genuine and beautiful.
Don’t let the title fool you–Theater Camp is not just for theater kids. Molly Gordon’s and Nick Lieberman’s film does take place at a theater camp in upstate New York, a place filled with an eccentric cast of characters to say the least. But the film is a genuinely hilarious mockumentary that knows exactly what it’s doing: poking fun at and honoring the magic of theater simultaneously. That’s what makes it fun to watch. It’s the type of film that can make you laugh even when no one’s around, using quippy dialogue, well-thought-out characters and a genuine sense of heart to achieve this. By the time the film reaches its bittersweet grand finale, it’s difficult not to be momentarily swayed by the magic of the stage.
One of the most discussed films of the festival (and recently bought by Netflix for a hefty 20-million-dollar price tag), Chloe Domont’s Fair Play is an intense thriller set in the finance world. The logline is straightforward: an engaged couple, who work together at a hedge fund, encounter turbulence after one of them gets a coveted promotion. The story is relatively thin to stretch across a two-hour runtime, which ultimately causes the film to feel a bit redundant and overdone at points. But the film’s intense nature and incredible performances from Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor are enough to keep you glued to the screen.
A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One–this year’s Grand Jury prize-winner in the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition–is a multi-faceted look at a relationship between a mother and her son, gentrification and growing up in 1990s New York, among many other things. The film follows the upbringing of a young boy, from childhood to young adulthood, who was kidnapped at a young age by his mother. The screenplay fits in some wild, completely unexpected twists, but the film works because of its central performances, particularly that of Teyana Taylor. The hip-hop singer/actress shines, harnessing a variety of emotions to make the narrative’s beats resonate.
Beyond Utopia received the audience award in the World Cinema Documentary competition, and that award is well-deserved, to say the least. The film, which uses authentic footage to show North Korean defectors fleeing their country and their long journey to freedom, is one of the most intense, heartbreaking documentaries in recent years. It’s also a testament to the bravery of all those involved–the migrants, Pastor Seungeun Kim (who has helped over 1,000 people escape the country) and the filmmakers. The film isn’t always focused, as choosing to focus on two different stories makes it feel uneven at certain moments. But overall, Beyond Utopia is a staggering achievement in non-fiction filmmaking.