The Best Sundance Films to Put on Your Radar This Year

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best films at sundance film festival 2023

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

After going remote for two years for COVID precautions, the Sundance Film Festival finally made its grand return in person this month. Yes, some films were still available for online viewing, but critics, film buffs, studio execs, directors, actors, and more gathered once again in Park City, Utah, for a packed week of panels, parties, and of course, big premiere screenings. This year, the festival featured a strong lineup of over 120 independent films from worldwide talent. With stories ranging from tested family bonds to existential dread, to seeking liberation, to messy romantic relationships (and so many bodily fluids!), Sundance delivered yet another solid collection of films.

Below are a few favorites screened at the festival. Keep an eye out for these titles when they finally get their public release.

It’s medically impossible not to enjoy yourself in Nida Manzoor’s action comedy, Polite Society. The film follows Ria Khan (Priya Kansara), a London teen slash martial-art-stunt-trainee attempting to save her sister (Ritu Arya) from becoming a trophy wife to some wealthy hotshot. While the film does playfully veer into sci-fi territory, it doesn’t fail to inject all the fuzzy warmth you’d expect from a strong sisterly bond. It also includes one of the most fun and melodramatic dance numbers, which is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Kansara owns her role as Ria, and we look forward to what she does next. Polite Society will be released in theaters on April 7.

If your partner lied about liking your work, what would you do? Break up? Divorce? In You Hurt My Feelings, a writer finds out how her husband really feels about her book…and all goes downhill from there. Nicole Holofcener’s sharp pen tackles the gray area of white lies in committed relationships, even when it hurts. It even makes you wonder how much we protect other people’s feelings without their consent. The world Holofcener creates with the help of the brilliant Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies feels lived in, observed, and warm. The supporting cast is also a knockout. The film’s insight into human behavior and relationships is bound to be a conversation starter.

Teyana Taylor gives one of the best—if not the best—performance in A Thousand and One, a heartbreaking look into gentrification, tough love, generational poverty, and trauma. Taylor commands the screen as a mother who kidnaps her son from foster care and raises him through the years against the backdrop of a changing New York City. Josiah Cross, who plays her son as a teenager, is also one to watch. With her feature debut, director A.V. Rockwell seamlessly delivers a powerful gut-punching look into ’90s and ’00s Harlem that feels raw yet tender without any gimmicks. The third act completely turns the film on its head, leaving you floored. A Thousand and One won the Grand Jury Prize for the U.S. Dramatic competition—it is so rightfully deserved. This one opens in theaters on March 31.

Get your tissue box ready. Noora Niasari writes a love letter to Iranian women with Shayda—a touching tale based on the director’s personal experiences about an Iranian woman living in Australia, attempting to divorce her abusive husband while keeping her daughter safe. Although it’s Niasari’s directorial debut, there’s nothing novice to her expertly crafted storytelling. It’s heart-wrenching, riveting, and at times, even wholesome. Holy Spider’s Zar Amir Ebrahimi is a force in this one (anyone surprised?) and her connection to her on-screen daughter, played by Selina Zahednia, transcends the screen. The film won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Dramatic competition.

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt

All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt feels like a poetic experience. The outdoor soundscapes and textures teleport you to Mississippi. Raven Jackson deserves all the directing awards for her stunning debut depicting the slices of life of Black women in the South. Although the dialogue does take a backseat, the visuals say enough, moving the viewer through pain, loss, love, growth, and community. Jackson’s artistry of the mundane, accompanied by Joni Fray’s breathtaking cinematography, is worth admiring and remembering for years to come. Get ready to be spellbound by one of the most underrated films at the festival.

It’s a mistake to sleep on foreign films at Sundance; they always end up being a festival highlight. Slow—a Lithuanian drama depicting a relationship between an asexual man and a non-asexual woman—is no exception. It explores the role of intimacy in asexuality without dehumanizing its protagonists, who are at the heart of Marija Kavtaradze’s sophomore film. Slow will move and charm you, from the chemistry to the choreography and the beautiful landscapes until the very end. Of course, Kavtaradze won a directing award in the World Cinema Dramatic category.

The male ego is so fragile! Quickly snatched by Netflix for a humble $20 million bucks, Fair Play was one of the most raved-about films at the festival (for a good reason). It’s a dark and twisted (and at times, chillingly relatable) drama about a man’s spiral after his fiancee is promoted at their severely competitive hedge fund firm. Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor’s striking performances hit all the notes portraying a brutal and fraught relationship that should have ended years ago. Chloe Dumont is a hell of a director. With a third act that doesn’t skip a beat, prepare for high-stress levels. Although it’s been acquired by a streaming service, Fair Play may do wonders with a theatrical release.

Triangle of Messiness? The horniest film of the festival has to go to Passages. Love Triangles! Affairs! Jealousy! It’s everything you’d expect from a European film that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Ira Sachs returns to Sundance with 90 minutes of unhinged characters weaving through complex relationships with themselves and each other. Its intricate and earnest script, delivered by an excellent cast, looks into the domino effect of a narcissist’s indulgence. It’s a trainwreck that holds your attention until the very last scene. Passages is a successful queer film worth watching, and it’s been acquired by Mubi.

This intimate and deeply personal documentary from first-time director Milisuthando Bongela needs more buzz. Milisuthando is an archival five-part and first-person interrogation of South African apartheid and race. Bongela walks us through her upbringing in the Xhosa community in the Transkei through lyrical reflection, uncovering the role our ancestors play in shaping the future. To be invited into this piece of uncovered history is a privilege. Milisuthando is full of brilliance, thought, and heart. Bongela is one to keep on your radar.

The best way to get over someone is to get under…Anyway, Rye Lane shows that rom-coms are still very much alive. Two 20-something Londoners learn to open their hearts again after being shattered by pricks who didn’t deserve them. It has all the ingredients for a satisfying watch—infectious on-screen chemistry, a nearly perfect British cameo, and a killer score. Raine Allen-Miller’s directing is sharp, assured, and dynamic—you’d never know it’s her feature debut (!). This film proves that investing in fresh talent is always a good idea. After its public release, David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah must be booked and busy.

Celine Song hive stand up. Past Lives is the perfectly layered take on the “right person, wrong time” trope, and it floored the festival. It’s already being compared to Linklater’s Before trilogy, but this romantic drama stands on its own. Song’s directorial debut accurately depicts longing for someone you barely know across three moments in time. Greta Lee and Teo Yoo do not miss a beat in their excellent and electric performances. It aches to watch Past Lives unfold, but there’s a reason why this film received a double-standing ovation. This is easily one of A24’s biggest wins of the year so far. If there’s a film to obsessively await and underline as one to watch, it’s this one.

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