Jan 12, 2023
By Kaveh Jalinous
As film festivals continue to adapt to the changes in the film and societal landscape, the Sundance Film Festival (January 19-29, 2023), now in its 39th edition, continues to remain one of the best. This year, for the first time since 2020, filmmakers, critics and fans alike can head to the snowy oasis of Park City, Utah to witness the spirit and the camaraderie of the festival in person. But, as the festival retains its commitment to making film festivals more accessible for all, viewers across the United States can also tune into the festival online, viewing a majority of the lineup’s titles, including buzzy world premieres, from the comfort of their own homes.
The effects of last year’s festival are still being felt today, with many hits from 2022’s edition still hitting theaters (such as Oliver Hermanus’ Living or Jesse Eisenberg’s When You Finish Saving the World), doing big numbers on streaming services (John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal, for example) or making waves in this year’s awards races (take, Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love). Regardless, based on this year’s festival slate, it seems that the programmers have struck gold again, crafting a lineup that promises to encapsulate a perfect balance of different genres, themes and cultures.
Trying to navigate a lineup as complex as Sundance’s can be difficult, which is why we’ve gone through the liberty of selecting 10 films that you won’t want to miss this year, as chosen by UTR’s film critic Kaveh Jalinous.
Who: Jonathan Majors, the upcoming “big villain” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
What: “Killian Maddox lives with his ailing veteran grandfather, obsessively working out between court-mandated therapy appointments and part-time shifts at a grocery store where he harbors a crush on a friendly cashier. Though Killian’s struggles to read social cues and maintain control of his volatile temper amplify his sense of disconnection amid a hostile world, nothing deters him from his fiercely protected dream of bodybuilding superstardom, not even the doctors who warn that he’s causing permanent damage to his body with his quest.”
Why: Johnathan Majors has been on an acting hot streak since his debut in 2017, building his career on a healthy balance of blockbuster films and independent gems. While most audiences will see him next in March’s Creed III, where he will be fighting opposite Michael Jordan, Magazine Dreams seems like the perfect complement to that film, promising to capture a different, more emotionally driven, side of bodybuilding culture in the process.
Who: Harris Dickinson, the breakout star of 2022’s Palme d’Or Winner, Triangle of Sadness, and last year’s dreadful adaptation of Where the Crawdads Sing.
What: “Following her mother’s death, a resourceful 12-year-old girl, Georgie, continues to live alone in their London-outskirts flat. She makes money stealing bikes with her friend, Ali, and keeps the social workers off her back by pretending to live with an uncle. It works like a charm until Jason shows up. Apparently, he’s her father — so long estranged that she doesn’t recognize him. Sizing him up as a rubbish dad (absent, messy, can’t cook), Georgie wonders why he’s suddenly taking an interest; especially when she’s doing just fine on her own, thank you very much”
Why: 2022 was the year of Harris Dickinson, as the young British actor was easily one of the best parts (and in some cases, the only good part) of all the films he starred in. Scrapper looks to continue that trend with a heartwarming, yet emotionally grandiose, premise that looks to capture and mix a child’s coming-of-age tale with a story about a father trying to reconcile his past mistakes. There’s an inherent risk that comes with balancing two fragile narratives like these, which will make the film even more powerful if it does it successfully.
Who: Director Brandon Cronenberg, David Cronenberg’s son and the director of Sundance 2020 hit Possessor; The Northman star Alexander Skarsgård; Mia Goth, the star/producer of last year’s horror hits X and Pearl.
What: “James and Em Foster take off to an all-inclusive beach getaway in the fictional state of Li Tolqa to help jump-start his writer’s block. Their lazy days are spent relegated to their pricey resort, isolated from the surrounding land. Gabby introduces herself and her partner, Al, as she’s a fan of James’ last novel, and they would like to spend some time together with the Fosters. The couples plan a secret day trip outside the compound that ends in a fatal accident with James to blame. For a hefty price, there are loopholes to aid foreign travelers convicted of crimes there, which is how James is first introduced to a perverse subculture of hedonistic tourism.”
Why: Possessor was a shocking, visually disturbing directorial debut, and based on Infinity Pool’s initial ‘NC-17’ rating (the film has since been reduced to an ‘R’ rating after the director’s re-edits), it seems that Cronenberg’s sophomore effort will follow this trend. The film’s trailer promises nothing short of madness, gore and a true “see it with a crowd” experience. While the film will only play in-person at this year’s festival, general audiences won’t have to wait too long, as the film releases in theaters on January 27th.
Who: The iconic Anne Hathaway; Last Night in Soho and Leave No Trace star Thomasin McKenzie; director William Oldroyd (who helmed 2016’s Lady Macbeth); author Ottessa Moshfegh (who co-wrote the adapted screenplay of her novel).
What: “In frigid 1960s Boston, Eileen shuffles between her father’s dingy, emotionally haunted home and the prison where she works alongside colleagues who have ostracized her. When an intoxicating woman joins the prison staff, Eileen is taken. Just when the possibility of a salvational friendship (or maybe more) takes hold and forms a singular glimmer in Eileen’s darkness, her newfound confidant entangles her in a shocking crime that alters all.”
Why: Eileen boasts all the traits of a buzzy festival premiere: an up-and-coming director, a star-studded cast and an adaptation of a novel from an extremely popular author. Above that, the film boasts a fascinating plot that appears to be genre-bending–bouncing between drama and thriller–and filled with twists and turns from start to finish. It’s also great to see Hathaway’s name on the roster again, since the iconic actress hasn’t been in many films lately (in the past two years, she has only starred in James Gray’s underrated Armageddon Time and Doug Liman’s disgraceful Locked Down).
Who: Director Justin Chon, known for 2021’s underrated Blue Bayou; rapper Brian ‘Rich Brian’ Immanuel in his first acting role.
What: “James, an aspiring Indonesian rapper, is at a resort in Hawai‘i to cut his debut album for a major U.S. record label. Accompanying him is his father and former manager, who is still mourning the death of James’ brother and unwilling to surrender control of his career. While James sinks deeper in debt to the label, his father insists on acting as a de facto personal assistant. Caught between the music industry’s commercial demands and a power struggle with his suffocating stage dad, James is forced to find his voice.”
Why: Chon’s Blue Bayou was a small yet tender story about love in the face of turbulence, and from its plot summary, it seems like the director’s follow-up feature is much larger in terms of plot, theme and style. We can’t wait to see how Chon makes this transition, attempting to craft a heartfelt story about a family surrounded by the repercussions of an artist’s star power and cultural influence. Plus, placing a real-life rapper in the central role looks to give the film a deeper sense of authenticity, potentially making these themes even more impactful in the process.
Who: Director Anton Corbijn, famed music-video director and the director of 2007’s Joy Division biopic, Control.
What: “Whether you’re a fan of Pink Floyd or not, chances are you know exactly what the album covers of The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here look like. But you might not be familiar with the creative duo behind those iconic images: Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell, aka the innovative design studio Hipgnosis. Hipgnosis went from making covers for their mates (the likes of David Gilmour and Syd Barrett) to establishing themselves as the driving force behind visual identities of some of the most popular artists of the 1970s (think Led Zeppelin and Paul McCartney). Their methods were unconventional, their budgets often unreasonable, but they were fearless visionaries who artfully manipulated photographic images long before computer graphics became ubiquitous.”
Why: Throughout his career, Corbijn has proved repeatedly–whether that be through his music videos, biopics or documentaries–that he understands how to work in, and how to represent, the music industry. Tackling the story and influence of Hipgnosis is one of his broadest projects yet–centering around a pivotal team that connected musicians, businesspeople and consumers all together. One thing is clear, though: if the director succeeds, this will be one of the year’s documentaries to remember.
7. Fair Play
Who: Alden Ehrenreich, the star (and best part) of Ron Howard’s critically and commercially panned Solo: A Star Wars Story); Bridgerton actress Phoebe Dynevor.
What: “Hot off the heels of their new engagement, thriving New York couple Emily and Luke can’t get enough of each other. When a coveted promotion at a cutthroat financial firm arises, supportive exchanges between the lovers begin to sour into something more sinister. As the power dynamics irrevocably shift in their relationship, Luke and Emily must face the true price of success and the unnerving limits of ambition.”
Why: We’ve missed seeing Ehrenreich on the big screen, and Fair Play seems like a promising way for the actor to show off his chops again. Boasting a simple plotline that allows for complex and intense dialogues to follow, we can’t wait to see how these two actors provide the chemistry to both make their initial relationship believable and showcase their mutual fallout.
Who: Actress Daisy Ridley, the leading star of Disney’s recent Star Wars trilogy; comedian and Ramy star Dave Merheje.
What: “Lost on the dreary Oregon coast, Fran wastes her daylight hours in the solitude of a cubicle, listening to the constant hum of officemates, occasionally daydreaming to pass the time. She is ghosting through life unable to pop her bubble of isolation. And then Robert starts up at the company. He is new to town and the dynamics of the office. He is a naturally friendly person who keeps trying to chat with Fran. Though it goes against every fiber of her being, she may have to give this guy a chance.”
Why: “Nicecore films,” films about the power of kindness when interacting with both others and ourselves, have been all the rage lately, and honestly, that might not be such a bad thing. Here, we’re most interested to see Ridley play in a rare non-blockbuster, non-Star Wars role, as well as how the film depicts the emotional changes of its main character as she opens her life to someone new.
Who: Comedian and actor Randall Park in his directorial debut; Justin H. Min, star of last year’s After Yang; comedian Sherry Cola; ex-Disney star Debby Ryan.
What: “Ben, a struggling filmmaker, lives in Berkeley, California, with his girlfriend, Miko, who works for a local Asian American film festival. When he’s not managing an art house movie theater as his day job, Ben spends his time obsessing over unavailable blond women, watching Criterion Collection DVDs, and eating in diners with his best friend, Alice, a queer grad student with a serial dating habit. When Miko moves to New York for an internship, Ben is left to his own devices and begins to explore what he thinks he might want.”
Why: Randall Park has been killing it in the comedy and acting sphere for years now, so naturally, we can’t wait to see what he has to offer with his directorial debut. Additionally, the film boasts a strong cast of actors playing eccentric, modern characters and promises a chaotic, yet welcome, plot–the two things left needed to seal our interest in this comedy.
Who: Documentarian Sierra Urich in her feature-length documentary debut.
What: “Filmmaker Sierra Urich grew up in rural Vermont, a place and an upbringing far removed from Iran, the homeland of her mother, Mitra, and grandmother, Behjat. Only knowing Iran through family stories, food, and holidays, and with the prospect of travel to the country a seemingly impossible dream, she embarks on a personal quest to make sense of her fractured Iranian identity. Navigating barriers of language and culture (not to mention the complications of geopolitical conflict and displacement), Sierra turns to Mitra and Behjat to construct a deeply moving and sometimes disarmingly funny portrait of three generations of women and their complex relationship to an Iran of the past.”
Why: Memory and identity were two very hot topics in 2022’s film offerings–as exemplified by two of last year’s most acclaimed films, Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun and the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once. Director Sierra Urich will be combining these ideas in documentary form, attempting to capture and relay her memories of growing up immersed in Iranian culture while feeling removed from it all the same.