Last year I was able to view a handful of Sundance films towards the end of the festival, mainly award winners that were made available to the public virtually on the last two days of the festival. All in all, I watched roughly 13 films in total. This year, I was able to start viewing virtually much earlier, and while I was still averaging 5-8 films a day over 5 or 6 days, I managed to watched 30 Sundance 2023 films. That is a lot of movie watching, and I’m pretty sure my brain is just a mush of blended images. But after a very long night of well earned sleep, I can look back and say it was all worth it! I saw some truly terrific films, and though I missed quite a few on my most anticipated list, I was able to catch a majority of them and create a solid best of the fest list.
There were a lot films I wanted to see that weren’t made available online or were sold out virtually almost immediately, long before they were available for single ticket viewings. These films include the highly praised “Fair Play,” “Sometimes I think about Dying,” “Past Lives,” “Flora and Son,” “Fairy Land,” “You Hurt My Feelings,” “Eileen,” and “Rye Lane.” With well over 100 films offered, even catching as many as you possible can doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Nevertheless, I think I have quite the collection of screenings under my belt, so let’s take a look at my 10 favorite Sundance films of 2023.
1 10. “Going Varsity in Mariachi “
I was not expecting to enjoy this film as much as I did. “Going Varsity in Mariachi” tells the story of a high school mariachi band as they enter popular competitions in Texas. The film opened my eyes to a whole new world of high school competitions, and beautifully displays the complexities of a music genre I knew very little about. Gripping, heartfelt and hopeful, “Going Varsity in Mariachi” is a heartwarming film that will find you rooting for these kids and educate you on the inner workings of Mariachi, and the incredibly hard work it takes to perfect the music and performance. Anyone who has every been involved in high school arts competitions can relate to this story, and it was truly one of the most heartwarming watches of the festival.
2 9. “Kim’s Video “
I really don’t know how to describe “Kim’s Video.” It’s a love letter to physical media, a history of film, an investigative story about Italian corruption, and even a heist film in there somewhere. This is probably one of the strangest documentaries I watched all week, but I haven’t been able to get it off my mind. “Kim’s Video” is so hard to properly describe but I can’t recommend it enough. It is a film for cinephiles by cinephiles, and truly digs into why we love movies and how influential they are in people’s lives. It is also longingly nostalgic, capturing the magic of walking into a video store and finding undiscovered movies you didn’t know existed. I loved this one, and I hope “Kim’s Video” gets picked up because more people need to watch this movie.
3 8. “Scrapper “
A small, taut film about dealing with grief and reconnecting with lost family, “Scrapper” is a touching little film that packs a big punch. I had no desire to watch this one, but decided to check it out after it garnered a Festival award. I’m so glad I did, because “Scrapper” is just delightful. Quietly funny and beautifully acted, the film is powered by strong performances from its leads who elevate the film to be more meaningful and affecting than one would expect. Harris Dickinson continues to add more and more varied performances to his ever increasing filmography, and “Scrapper” is a way to showcase his more subtle, quiet performances. “Scrapper” is a definitely a festival film, wearing its small contained story and independent framework on its sleeve, but it is so fun and engaging it leaves its mark.
4 7. “Shayda “
Another award winner, “Shayda” is another powerful film that sports an incredible lead performance from Zar Amir Ebrahimi. She won an award for “Holy Spider” at Cannes last year (an incredible film by the way), and once again delivers a tour de force performance that is vulnerable and earnest. “Shayda” tells the story of an Iranian mother who has fled her abusive husband with her daughter. Living in a shelter for women in Australia, she struggles to rebuild her life and move on, that is until the court grants her abuser visitation rights. “Shadya” is a powerful story about abuse and the fight for survival, with Ebrahimi being a captivating presence throughout. This one really caught me off guard with how well it was crafted, and though the film deals with some really dark subject matter, it never feels exploitative and even has some hope in there.
5 6. “Talk To Me”
I was a little disappointed with the midnighter offerings this year at Sundance. The pickings were slim and not nearly as intriguing as they were last year with things like “Fresh,” “Speak No Evil” and “You Won’t Be Alone.” That is until I fired up “Talk To Me,” easily one of the best horror films to come out of Sundance this year. People are going to be talking about “Talk to Me,” the Australian horror film from the Phillipou brothers. It absolutely slaps, packed with haunting imagery and some genuinely tense horror imagery. I watched this one alone in my room with the lights off around midnight, and I felt I needed to watch a Disney movie afterwards. “Talk To Me” is here to stay, and when it comes out later this year you’re definitely going to want to check this one out.
6 5. “Beyond Utopia”
I’ll take “How the fuck did they get all of this footage?” for $2000, Alex. Having no idea what I was getting into, the title card set me down an unexpected journey that swept me up and left indefinitely changed by its ending. “Beyond Utopia” follows a family who is trying to defect and flee from North Korea, and film has no recreations whatsoever. From the very beginning, everything you see (both in and out of North Korea) are 100% real, and I still can’t believe all of the footage they were able to capture and compile. It is such a tense, gripping, riveting story that will keep you on the edge of your seat and open your eyes to a hellish journey people take to survive and escape oppression. I can’t even describe how amazing the imagery is here, and this film will leave you different than when it found you.
7 4. “A Thousand and One”
One of the reasons I love festival screenings is because you get to discover hidden gems among a vast array of selections. And you kind of have to gamble, because so many of them are independent films with little to no chatter or even synopsis to check before you engage. I got very lucky with “A Thousand and One,” because this film absolutely rules. It is the unsung hero of Sundance, a powerful gut punching story of family that feels lived in, genuine and earnest. Teyana Taylor gives an incredibly unexpected performance, commanding the screen with every single scene. A V. Rockwell directs with such confidence and profound insight into the city of New York, and makes the city as much of a character as it is a setting. I genuinely loved “A Thousand and One,” and I really hope more people get to see this film.
8 3. “20 Days in Mariupol“
Another film that has some incredible footage, “20 Days in Mariupol” is an unforgettable, life altering experience. This is one of those strange documentaries where I don’t know that I can recommend it to everyone, but everyone should see this film. “Mariupol” covers a city in agony, capturing the devastating effects of the war in Ukraine as it begins, with Mariupol being one of the first cities to be attacked and fall to Russia in the beginning days of the invasion. I’ve seen a lot of disturbing things in my time, but nothing, absolutely NOTHING could’ve prepared me for this one. It shook me to my core with its unflinching imagery and footage, and is one of the hardest watches I’ve ever sat through. I have never wanted to turn off a film that is so vital to finish, and though it is incredibly painful, it is also painful on purpose. These things need to be seen to be believed, and has wholly reshaped my perceptions of the world. “20 Days in Mariupol” is an extremely relevant film, but comes with a warning. You will never see anything as violent or haunting or unforgettable as the things you’ll see in this film, but you should still see it for yourself to truly understand the pain it is trying to express.
9 2. “The Persian Version”
I was not expecting to put “The Persian Version” this high on my list. Even after watching it and enjoying it, I thought it would make my top 10 but not crack my top 5. But after going through all 30 films, “The Persian Version” has stuck with me in the best of ways. Packed with heart, charm, comedy, and cultural exploration, this wonderful film about family and tradition resonated with me deeply. There’s some personal experiences that go into how much I enjoyed this one, but anyone that has had any experience with growing up in two seemingly opposing cultures and countries can relate to this film. It’s so personal yet extremely universal, and that’s about as much as anyone can ask of a film. I laughed, I cried, and overall I loved “The Persian Version.”
10 1. “Theater Camp“
I have been singing the finale song for days since finishing “Theater Camp.” One of my most anticipated films of the festival and a last minute snag, this one easily checks all the boxes of what I love in films. As a theater kid growing up, “Theater Camp” nails the absurdity and island of misfit toys community as well as the delusions of grandure that come from thespian troupes. Anyone who has ever dabbled in community theater can relate to this hilarious mockumentary that is also packed with heart and charm. The performances are great, and the music is so infectious you’ll be singing the songs quite often. I can’t recommend this one enough, and I’m a sucker for a “Sing the song, save the space” narrative. “Theater Camp” is essentially the PG version “Hamlet 2” which just so happens to be one of my all time favorite comedies. The film has been picked up by Searchlight, which means it will probably end up on Hulu at some point this year. “Theater Camp” is the film I will rewatch the most, and I can’t wait for all my weird little theater friends to check this out and revel in the pure cinematic joy that the film delivers.