The Best Films We Saw This Year

The post Sundance 2023 Review Roundup: The Best Films We Saw This Year appeared first on Consequence.

This article is part of our coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Every year, the Sundance Film Festival presents a dazzling crop of great indie films, with attendees always excited for the chance to discover this year’s CODA or Clerks. And thanks to its hybrid approach in 2023, Consequence was able to take in a large portion of this year’s festival offerings virtually, including many of the buzziest titles that we expect to hear more about over the next year, as they play for non-festival audiences.

While the festival has now come to a close, some of the titles we got to see this year include a multi-part look back at Willie Nelson’s career, a dark tale of romance in the business world, and sweet stories of familial love. From the beautiful tourist towns of Greece to the wilds of theater camp, from fictional islands to the lucha libre scene at the U.S./Mexico border, Sundance offered us a fascinating window into the world — as it always does.

Liz Shannon Miller
Senior Entertainment Editor


Sundance 2023 Film Reviews

Cassandro (Prime Video)

Director: Roger Ross Williams
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Roberta Colindrez, Perla De La Rosa, Joaquín Cosío, Raúl Castillo, El Hijo del Santo, Bad Bunny
Release Plans: To be released by Prime Video

Directed by Oscar-winning helmer Roger Ross Williams, Cassandro is based on the true story of the titular wrestler (real name Saul Almendariz), who broke down barriers for LGBTQ+ wrestlers with his personal take on the role of the exotico.

The reason to watch this, aside from its in-depth look at the world of independent lucha libre, is star Gael García Bernal, who throws himself into this role and the ring, performing a truly impressive series of stunts while celebrating Cassandro’s achievements. (Okay, Bad Bunny also has a notable supporting role, but not as a wrestler, if you were hoping to get a sneak preview of whatever skills he’s developing for El Muerto.) It’s a knockout performance and a great underdog story, one which could attract awards attention later this year. — L.S.M.

Grade: B+

Cat Person

Cat Person Review Nicholas Braun

Cat Person (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Director: Susanna Fogel
Cast: Emilia Jones, Nicholas Braun, Geraldine Viswanathan, Hope Davis, Fred Melamed, Isabella Rossellini
Release Plans: TBA

Read our full review here

In 2017, Kristen Roupenian regaled The New Yorker readers with a startling, elliptical short story called “Cat Person,” about a bad date gone worse between a college sophomore named Margot and a thirtysomething loser named Robert, a tale of mixed messages and scrambled signals and questionable lines around consent.

The voyeuristic appeal of Roupenian’s story lies in its ambiguity: Is Robert a licentious creep? Or just a guy who doesn’t know how to act around a woman? Or does it even matter? And that’s the starting point for Susanna Fogel (director of The Spy Who Dumped Me and co-writer of Booksmart)’s adaptation of the story, which uses expressive cinematic grammar to express Margot (CODA‘s Emilia Jones)’s caginess towards Robert (Succession‘s Nicholas Braun, apparently cornering the market on skinny dorks in adaptations of viral Internet stories). And it works, at least for a while — until the real short story stops and it’s time to get rid of the ambiguity.

Cat Person The Movie feels like the natural extension of post-#MeToo politicking about consent in modern dating, with a healthy dash of the post-Promising Young Woman wave of feminist indies that came after it: Well-intentioned, to be sure, and keenly aware of the difficulties women face in a world of male entitlement and social media signal-crossing — but thunderously literal and patronizing to boot, especially in its unnecessary ending. — Clint Worthington

Grade: B-


Sundance 2023 Film Reviews

Drift (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Director: Anthony Chen
Cast: Cynthia Erivo, Alia Shawkat, Ibrahima Ba, Honor Swinton Byrne, Zainab Jah, Suzy Bemba, Vincent Vermignon
Release Plans: TBA

Based on the novel A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik, this quiet tale of the aftermath of trauma contains a jaw-droppingly good performance from Cynthia Erivo as Jacqueline, a refugee living rough on the Grecian coast in the aftermath of an unspeakable atrocity. The film is relatively sparing in how it depicts said atrocity, but the horror of it still comes through, while never distracting from the delicate bond that emerges between Jacqueline and Callie (Alia Shawkat), another ex-pat working as a tour guide through the ruins. — L.S.M.

Grade: A-

Fair Play

Sundance 2023 Film Reviews

Fair Play (Netflix)

Director: Chloe Domont
Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Phoebe Dynevor, Sebastian de Souza, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer
Release Plans: Netflix has acquired the distribution rights, release date TBA

The War of the Roses meets The Wolf of Wall Street might be the simplistic way to describe Chloe Domont’s anti-romantic drama, which does an impressive job of teetering on the razor’s edge of madness. Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton) and Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) star as two aspiring titans of Wall Street keeping their engagement secret from their bosses, but when she gets promoted over him, the effect on their relationship is seismic.

The film drags to some degree in the middle, but that’s because Domont isn’t afraid to wallow in the messiness of watching this relationship fall apart almost in real time. This is also the sort of movie that makes the viewer very, very grateful to see in the credits that an intimacy coordinator was involved, especially as things get darker towards the end. — L.S.M.

Grade: B


Sundance 2023 Film Reviews

Fairyland (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Director: Andrew Durham
Cast: Emilia Jones, Scoot McNairy, Geena Davis, Cody Fern, Adam Lambert, Maria Bakalova
Release Plans: TBA

In 1974, after five-year-old Alysia (Nessa Dougherty)’s mother dies in a car accident, her father Steve (Scoot McNairy) moves the pair of them to San Francisco, where he’s able to explore both his sexuality as well as his writing while his daughter grows up. The result is a lovely story of an unconventional father-daughter relationship, one which isn’t afraid to dwell in darker moments while still celebrating the beauty of Steve and older Alysia (Emilia Jones)’s bond.

There’s a lot to champion here, from the richly felt period details, McNairy and Jones’ performances, and a soundtrack packed with unexpected deep cuts from the ’70s and ’80s. But writer/director Andrew Durham deserves the most recognition for his ability to master the passing of time in this film; stretching over a period of at least 15 years, every scene feels specific and necessary to moving the story forward, with remarkable efficiency that doesn’t undercut its power. And in a narrative filled with numerous opportunities for scenes you’ve seen before, Durham ducks all the cliches to stay focused on what’s most important: a father, a daughter, and the words they shared between them. — L.S.M.

Grade: A-

Infinity Pool

Infinity Pool Review Alexander Skarsgard

Infinity Pool (NEON)

Director: Brandon Cronenberg
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Mia Goth, Cleopatra Coleman
Release Plans: Now in theaters

Read our full review here

Brandon Cronenberg‘s third film doubles down on the hedonistic, transgressive work he parlayed in 2020’s Possessor — it’s as bone-deep crazy as it is occasionally uneven. But that lopsided nature just works in the younger filmmaker’s favor, creating something as bonkers to watch as it is confounding to think about. Pure shock cinema can often feel like empty artistic masturbation, and it’s tempting to accuse Cronenberg of doing so with his works, especially given the wild swings and orgiastic setpieces of Infinity Pool. — C.W.

Grade: A-


Jamojaya Rich Brian Sundance Review

Jamojaya (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Director: Justin Chon
Cast: Brian Imanuel, Yayu A.W. Unru, Kate Lyn Sheil, Henry Ian Cusick, Anthony Kiedis
Release Plans: TBA

Read our full review here

Indonesian rapper James (viral star Brian “Rich Brian” Imanuel, in his screen debut) is about to hit it big. So big, in fact, that he announces on Indonesian TV that his next career move is to travel to Hawaii to record his first real album.

At the heart of the story is the titular Indonesian myth of Prince Jamojaya, who transforms into a banyan tree and leaves his brother struggling to find him, much less understand him in his new form. It’s a deliciously elemental core on which to hang the narrative, born out by Chon in animated sequences and purposeful usage of Hawaii’s bucolic beaches and towering mountains.

Problem is, all of this enticing craft — the handheld camerawork, the beautifully claustrophobic scenes of Joyo and James trapped in small dressing rooms, bustling strip clubs, the sickly neon confines of a party bus Joyo volunteers to drive — is in service to the kind of story that, save for its Indonesian cultural specificities, we’ve seen quite a few times before. And the intangibility of Jamojaya‘s storytelling is both a blessing and a curse: it keeps things streamlined, but also prevents us from really being able to dig into just what makes James and Joyo tick. — C.W.

Grade: B-

Magazine Dreams

Magazine Dreams (Sundance) Jonathan Majors Sundance 2023

Magazine Dreams (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Director: Elijah Bynum
Cast: Jonathan Majors, Haley Bennett, Taylour Paige, Mike O’Hearn, Harrison Page, Harriet Sansom Harris
Release Plans: TBA

Read our full review here

Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) wants one thing, and one thing only: To be remembered. Following in the footsteps of his idols (including one he writes to regularly, played by four-time Mr. Universe Michael O’Hearn), he’s committed himself to bodybuilding, shoving down 6,000 calories of chicken breast and pumping iron morning, noon, and night.

At times, Magazine Dreams feels as juiced and overstuffed as its protagonist, packed to the gills with Things to Say about bodybuilding, masculinity, loneliness, and Blackness in America, and not quite having the road to deal with all of these issues in enough detail. But for all its unrelenting grimness, it’s impossible to look away from Majors’ incredible, titanic performance — every downcast glance, every nervous grin through blood-soaked teeth, every rabid bark of his frustrated outbursts is completely and totally gripping. — C.W.

Grade: B+

The Pod Generation

Sundance 2023 Film Reviews

The Pod Generation (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Director: Sophie Barthes
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rosalie Craig, Vinette Robinson, Jean-Marc Barr
Release Plans: TBA

There have been plenty of “oh boy, will the technology of the not-too-distant future make us less human?” narratives over the past several years (well, to be technical about it, that’s the fundamental core of most sci-fi going back decades). But director Sophie Barthes finds an extremely intimate angle on exploring the specific question of how pregnancy and birth might change if science offered a solution to old-fashioned conception and gestation, with a sharp eye towards the gender politics involved.

The resulting film is lacking in subtlety at times, but the world-building offered up some fascinating details, especially in a time when we’re seeing real-life human professions be reconsidered as potential tasks for artificial intelligence. But perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is its central couple, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Emilia Clarke: Though there have been far worse age gaps in film history — Ejiofor is 45 years old and Clarke is 36 — the pair never really gel as two married people in love, which might be intended as a commentary on the society in which they live, but also leaves the viewer struggling to root for them. — L.S.M.

Grade: B-

Polite Society

Sundance 2023 Film Reviews

Polite Society (Focus Features)

Director: Nida Manzoor
Cast: Priya Kansara, Ritu Arya, Nimra Bucha, Akshay Khanna, Seraphina Beh, Ella Bruccoleri
Release Plans: Premiering in American theaters on April 28th, 2023

Nida Manzoor is quickly emerging as an unforgettable talent, thanks to her delightful punk rock comedy series We Are Lady Parts (streaming on Peacock, if you haven’t seen it) and now Polite Society. Ritu Arya and Priya Kansara star as sisters torn apart by one’s upcoming marriage to a great-seeming guy who may or may not have nefarious intentions.

The hijinks involved there would already be fun on its own, but then Manzoor goes ahead and invokes the spirit of Bruce Lee, infusing Muslim traditions with a whole bunch of kung fu. The world-building might not be 100% there, but it’s a true crowd-pleaser that’s paced within an inch of its life. — L.S.M.

Grade: B+


shortcomings review randall park

Shortcomings (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Director: Randall Park
Cast: Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola, Ally Maki, Debby Ryan, Tavi Gevinson, Sonoya Mizuno.
Release Plans: TBA

Read our full review here

In Randall Park’s directorial debut, the bold choice is made to give us an almost completely unlikeable main character. Justin H. Min, best known for his role on Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy and Sundance 2022 player After Yang, tackles the thorny role head-on in Shortcomings, making a strong case for future leading man opportunities in the process. His character, Ben, runs a local arthouse movie theater in the Bay Area, coping with the fact that he failed to chase his own filmmaking dreams by cutting down people who are giving it their best shot.

Shortcomings might have felt like more standard Sundance fare — an inoffensive slice-of-life portrait with an imperfect lead — were it not for its self-awareness and vibrant characters. While worth watching for Justin H. Min’s performance alone, Shortcomings will leave the viewer excited to see what Randall Park might do next as a director. — M.S.

Grade: B+

Sometimes I Think About Dying

Sometimes I Think About Dying Review

Sometimes I Think About Dying (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Director: Rachel Lambert
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Dave Merheje, Parvesh Cheena, Marcia DeBonis, Meg Stalter, Brittany O’Grady
Release Plans: TBA

Read our full review here

Fran (Daisy Ridley) isn’t a happy person — but that might just be because she doesn’t know what happiness is. As a lonely office drone with a less-than-glamorous view of the Oregon coastline outside her cubicle, Fran keeps to herself while her office-mates do their best to bring fun into their workplace — but when a new co-worker named Robert (Dave Merheje) joins the team, his friendly nature manages to nudge Fran out of her shell just enough to maybe live a little louder.

One of Sometimes I Think About Dying‘s strongest qualities is that Fran’s emerging bond with Robert isn’t presented as a saving grace — instead, it’s just one potential opportunity to pull her out of her comfort zone. This is a film where the most dramatic moment is a simple cutting remark, a moment in which Fran deliberately says something to hurt Robert; but on this playing field, it’s as powerful and brutal as a nuclear bomb. — L.S.M.

Grade: B+

Theater Camp

theater camp review

Theater Camp (photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Director: Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman
Cast: Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Ayo Edebiri
Release Plans: Searchlight Pictures has acquired distribution rights

Read our full review here

“You need to know that only 3% of people make it. The rest end up in a mental facility — or a Go Go box in Hell’s Kitchen.” Welcome to AdirondACTS, a cozy, scrappy theater camp where such nuggets of wisdom are imparted upon young thespians. Over the course of the summer, we see the minutiae of theater camp play out in a mockumentary-style film, sharply directed by Nick Lieberman and Molly Gordon (both making their feature directorial debuts).

First framed as a documentary following AdirondACTS founder Joan (Amy Sedaris), things begin to go awry when she falls into a coma — a result of “the first Bye Bye Birdie-related injury in the history of Passaic County” — leaving former campers, best friends, and devoted instructors Amos (Ben Platt) and Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) to pick up the pieces while Joan’s chaotic son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) tries his best to keep things afloat.

This movie is for the people who have suddenly doubted their decision to sing “Defying Gravity” for their middle school audition, and the people who have obsessed over how far they are from center in a kickline. It’s for someone who has ever been devastated by an understudy assignment as much as it is for those who have been thrilled to have one speaking line, and then gone on to make the very most of it. — M.S.

Grade: A-

Willie Nelson and Family

willie nelson

Willie Nelson & Family (photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Director: Thom Zimny and Oren Moverman
Release Plans: TBA

Read our full review here

Willie Nelson is an American original. Widely regarded as one of the greatest singer-songwriters in the history of popular music, the redheaded stranger himself has lived a life that poises him as an incredible documentary subject. And the five-part series Willie Nelson & Family positions itself as the “first and only documentary” about his life, allowing him to tell his story in his own words.

Willie Nelson & Family assembles an impressive collection of folks around him to do so. This includes fellow musicians like Dolly Parton, Bill Anderson, Brenda Lee, Jeannie Seely, Kenny Chesney, Margo Price, and Wynton Marsalis, along with historian Michael Gray and writer John Spong. The documentary is rounded out by members of Willie’s family, his band referenced in the title, and various longtime team members and confidantes.

This series will be an absolute gift for people who adore Willie Nelson — folks who have listened to his music for decades and crave insight into the time in between his public-facing moments will enjoy Willie Nelson & Family most. (Maybe this demographic was even Zimny and Moverman’s intended audience.) — M.S.

Grade: B-

You Hurt My Feelings

You Hurt My Feelings Review

You Hurt My Feelings (A24)

Director: Nicole Holofcener
Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tobias Menzies, Michaela Watkins, Owen Teague, Arian Moayed, Jeannie Berlin
Release Plans: To be released by A24

Read our full review here

At first blush, Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) are the picture of a healthy, collaborative middle-aged marriage. She’s an author with one undersold (but well-reviewed) book under her belt, and he’s a therapist with a rapidly-waning interest in his prickly patients.

That is, until one day, Beth accidentally overhears Don telling his brother-in-law (Arian Moayed) that he doesn’t like the new book she’s been working on. It cuts her to the quick; it’s just a book, but it’s deeply important to her that the person she’s with approve of her work. But knowing this secret information starts to unravel her sense of self, not to mention her marriage, as she has to figure out a way to move forward with this terrible knowledge.

Director Nicole Holofcener knows the conflicts in her movies aren’t world-shattering — Beth even laments at one point that she knows the world is falling apart outside the comfy confines of their well-furnished Manhattan apartment. But what she gets more than most filmmakers is that, for the person affected, these conflicts still suck, and they still cause emotional pain. — C.W.

Grade: B+

Sundance 2023 Review Roundup: The Best Films We Saw This Year
Consequence Staff

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