It’s baaaack. On Thursday, Park City, Utah, will welcome back movie lovers from all over the world as the 2023 Sundance Film Festival kicks off for its first in-person edition in two years.
The world’s best-known festival for independent and emerging filmmakers went virtual in 2021 and 2022 amid the coronavirus pandemic. And while recent spikes in COVID-19 cases at major events like the Golden Globes remain a concern, Sundance is forging ahead with a lineup that’s predominately focused on IRL premieres and events, although online ticket packages for select virtual screenings are available as well. (Visit the official Sundance site for more information.)
Along with movies and moviegoers, movie stars are also returning to Park City. The 2023 festival is serving as the launching pad for biographical documentaries about popular actors including Michael J. TBEN and Brooke Shields; new movies from fan favorites like Daisy Ridley and Julia Louis-Dreyfus; and early contenders for the 2024 Oscars, from Jennifer Connelly to Jonathan Majors. Here’s our guide to the Sundance movies you’ll be hearing about for the rest of the year.
Celebrities get real in buzzy new bio-docs
From ’80s superstars to Sundance darlings: Brooke Shields and Michael J. TBEN pull up in Park City with new documentaries that chronicle their successful careers and personal adversities. Lana Wilson’s Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields profiles the model and actress’s entrance into the industry at age 12, and addresses the rampant sexualization and intense public scrutiny that followed Shields as she grew into an adult on camera. Davis Guggenheim’s Still: A Michael J. TBEN Movie features the Back to the Future star ruminating on his own years as a young actor, before depicting how a Parkinson’s diagnosis changed his life forever. Other celebrities receiving the bio-doc treatment include beloved author Judy Blume in Judy Blume Forever, which reveals the origins behind classic YA novels like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Tiger Eyes; Stephen Curry: Undefeated provides an all-access pass to the basketball icon as he leads the Golden State Warriors to NBA glory in the 2021 season; and Kim’s Video tracks down New York City-specific celebrity, Yongman Kim, who owned and operated the legendary VHS emporium until it closed its doors and sold its one-of-a-kind collection to a small town in Italy.
Hot-button issue docs abound as usual
It wouldn’t be Sundance without a slew of timely documentaries that tap into buzzed-about current events. Among the most high profile in 2023: Tracy Droz Tragos — a 2014 Sundance winner for Rich Hill — follows a grassroots organization distributing abortion pills in Plan C (think The Janes, but now); Madeleine Gavin’s Beyond Utopia incorporates hidden camera footage to portray the plight of oppressed people from North Korea; Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker look at transgender sex workers in Manhattan’s meatpacking district in The Stroll; Laura Gabbert traces famed food writer Ruth Reichl’s efforts to support independent farmers and ranchers in Food and Country; and Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto examine the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo in AUM: The Cult at the End of the World.
Let’s get musical
It’s not quite Broadway, but the hills in and around Park City will be alive with the sound of music throughout the festival. Sixteen years after his breakout musical Once premiered at Sundance, writer/director John Carney is back with Flora and Son, about a young mother — played by actress and daughter of real-life rocker Eve Hewson — who picks up guitar lessons from Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s troubadour in an effort to bond with her troubled kid. Red Hot Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis channels his actor bandmate Flea (most recently seen in Babylon) with a supporting role in Justin Chon’s Jamojaya, about an up-and-coming Indonesian rapper recording his first big album for the U.S. market. And the charming rom-com Rye Lane has a killer soundtrack to accompany its story of an odd couple meet-cute that turns into a day-long trip through London. On the nonfiction side, the festival-opening doc Little Richard: I Am Everything offers fresh insight into the life and career of the gender and sexuality-defying rocker; It’s Only Life After All looks back on the groundbreaking four-decade career of folk rock superstars, the Indigo Girls; Willie Nelson & Family is a five-episode series about the country music icon and unrepentant stoner; and Squaring the Circle reveals the story behind the duo responsible for such classic album covers as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
Will early Oscar contenders emerge?
Beyond the docs Descendant and Fire of Love, it doesn’t look like Sundance 2022 produced all that many award darlings. But we’re still less than a year removed from CODA — a product of the festival’s 2021 edition — becoming the first Sundance premiere to take home the Best Picture Oscar. Even before CODA‘s triumph, Park City served as a launching pad for future nominees, and among the most hyped contenders heading to this year’s festival are Harriet nominee Cynthia Erivo, whom Variety reports “is said to be nothing short of spectacular” as a Liberian refugee looking for a new home in Drift. Also in the mix: Ant-Man and Creed III breakout star, Jonathan Majors, playing a volatile bodybuilder in Magazine Dreams; Jennifer Connelly keeps her Top Gun: Maverick momentum going with Alice Englert’s Bad Behaviour playing a former child star turned cult follower; and CODA star Emilia Jones returns to Sundance with two new debuts, the viral New Yorker-story-turned-dramatic thriller Cat Person and the San Fran-set ’70s coming of ager Fairlyand.
Long time no see: Big names make some big returns
The pandemic delayed scores of productions, so it makes sense that there have been quite a few Hollywood regulars we haven’t heard from lately. Fortunately, several of are re-entering the pop culture consciousness with buzzy Sundance debuts. The drama Sometimes I Think About Dying features Daisy Ridley’s first star turn since 2021’s long-delayed Chaos Walking… so really this is her follow-up to 2019’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Speaking of Star Wars, Alden Ehrenreich is back! The Solo star headlines the finance-themed romantic drama Fair Play shortly before appearing in major 2023 releases Cocaine Bear and Oppenheimer. Not for nothing, but Ehrenreich’s Solo love interest, Emilia Clarke, is also headed to Park City with a role in the futuristic satire, The Pod Generation. Also primed to have a big year is comeback kid Michael Fassbender, the two-time Oscar nominee who hasn’t been seen on the big screen since 2019’s X-Men: Dark Phoenix. He’s an executive producer on Sundance’s coming-of-age drama Scrapper and he’ll be in Taika Waititi’s Next Goal Wins and David Fincher’s The Killer later this year.
They mostly come out at night… mostly
Last year, Sundance’s midnight slate of horror fare successfully launched such cult titles as Fresh, Hatching and Leonor Will Never Die. This year, moviegoers can expect to dive into two splashy premieres: Infinity Pool, the new film from second-generation body horror expert, Brandon Cronenberg, featuring Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgard; and Polite Society, a loving send-up of martial arts movies transposed to stately London town. Fans of international horror will be treated to some great scary movies from around the world, too. In My Mother’s Skin takes a Grimm’s fairy tale approach to the atrocities committed in World War II-era Philippines; Talk to Me is Australia’s answer to Flatliners with some gnarly gore effects tossed in; and the Canadian werewolf movie, My Animal, crackles with Ginger Snaps energy as it depicts the mutual attraction between two teenage girls (Bobbi Salvor Menuez and Amandla Sternberg) in a remote wintery town. The Frankenstein-inspired Birth/Rebirth, the possessed-child picture Run Rabbit Run and the Tim Burton-inspired Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls — the feature debut of Andrew Bowser’s YouTube character — round out the late night line-up.
There are some funny people, too
Sundance — like most serious film festivals — isn’t exactly known as a major haven for comedy. But there are some majorly funny people popping up with movies there this year. Julia Louis Dreyfus reteams with her Enough Said writer/director Nicole Holofcener as an author whose husband’s feedback is divorce-worthy in You Hurt My Feelings. Will Forte turns up as an absent alien-abducted dad in the teen-friendly comedy Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out. Oddly, Tiffany Haddish also has an alien-themed teen-led dramatic comedy, Landscape With Invisible Hand. Amy Sedaris falls into a coma, leaving her bro-y son to keep a Theater Camp afloat. Meanwhile, Fresh Off the Boat favorite, Randall Park, directs the comedic coming of ager Shortcomings, about a cinephile movie theater manager, while Sundance veteran, Maryam Keshavarz returns to the festival with The Persian Version, a culture-clash comedy about a young artist trying to reconcile her Iranian and American upbringings.
The past is present
Even as it celebrates the best and brightest on today’s indie film scene, Sundance always makes a point of honoring its long history. This year’s retrospective screenings from the archives include a 25th anniversary presentation of Slam, the great slam poetry drama starring Saul Williams that picked up the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 edition. (Williams brought his awesome Afrofuturist musical, Neptune Frost, to last year’s festival.) A digitally restored print of Gregg Araki’s cult 1995 road movie, The Doom Generation, is also being screened, along with more recent Sundance hits like last year’s Oscar winners CODA and Summer of Soul.
The 2023 Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 19-29 in Park City, Utah