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2023 Sundance Film Festival Movies You Will Want To See

The 2023 Sundance Film festival returned in person with an exciting slate of independent, international, and documentary films. After the pandemic forced the festival to be held online for the past two years, filmmakers, talent, press, and film buffs alike were all eager to head to snowy Park City, Utah, in hopes of catching this year's breakout discoveries.

The last two virtual festivals yielded few notable successes, save for the 2022 Academy Award best picture winner "CODA" and best documentary feature winner "Summer of Soul" — both of which were given their overdue Sundance moments with special screenings at the Eccles Theater. This year's festival boasted an impressive roster of offerings, from buzzy, controversial thrillers "Fair Play" and "Magazine Dreams," to the celebrity biography documentaries "Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie" and "Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields." Several films arrived at the festival with distribution already secured, while others were purchased by distributors intending to release them theatrically or via streaming later this year.

Here are 12 of the biggest hits from the 2023 Sundance Film Festivals you will want to see.

Fair Play

The biggest hit of the festival was first-time writer/director Chloe Domont's "Fair Play." Variety reported that Netflix emerged the victor in a contested bidding war for the tense thriller, dropping a staggering $20 million for global rights to its distribution. The film was also ranked number one in the best Film, direction, and screenwriting categories on IndieWire's annual list polling critics' favorite films of the festival.

Set in the brutal, high-stakes world of a New York City hedge fund, "Fair Play" centers on recently engaged couple Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), who also happen to be co-workers. They conceal their intense, sexually-charged relationship from their colleagues at the firm, as it is a violation of company policy. But when Emily is surprised with a huge promotion that Luke expected to receive himself, all hell breaks loose. The shift in status puts the once seemingly perfect couple at odds in a searing interrogation of gender roles, power, and wealth. "Fair Play" is riddled with mind games, pitch-black comedy, and several scenes that are bound to generate plenty of controversy think-pieces upon release.

Flora and Son

The other huge sale of the festival was Apple TV+'s purchase of John Carney's  "Flora and Son" for $20 million (via Variety). This marked the third festival in a row where Apple TV+ dropped big bucks for rights to a crowd-pleasing, potential crossover hit feature, following their $25 million purchase of "CODA" in 2021 and the $15 million they doled out for last year's U.S. Dramatic Competition Audience Award winner "Cha Cha Real Smooth" (via IndieWire). The streamer is likely hoping that Carney's musical drama imitates the surprise awards success of the former rather than the latter, which failed to gain much traction beyond its initial Sundance success.

Luckily for Apple TV+, Carney has a larger fan base than "Cha Cha Real Smooth" director Cooper Raiff, having acquired a passionate following after the release of his emotional romantic musical dramas, Oscar-winner "Once" and fan favorite "Sing Street." "Flora and Son" stars Eve Hewson in the titular role as a single mother who raises her troubled son Max (Orén Kinlan) in Dublin and develops feelings for her virtual guitar teacher Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

A Thousand and One

Writer/director A.V. Rockwell's debut feature "A Thousand and One" follows financially strapped single mother Inez de la Paz (Teyana Taylor) who, recently released from prison, decides to abduct her six-year-old son Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) from New York City's labyrinth foster care system. Taylor delivers one of the festival's strongest, most talked-about performances as Inez as she struggles to find housing and work to support herself and Terry in rapidly gentrifying, turn-of-the-21st-century Harlem. In her review for Variety, Jessica Kiang says, "Inez is a gift of a role for a performer of Taylor's commitment, and she tears into it, giving what deserves to be her breakthrough performance."

Although  "A Thousand and One" arrived at Sundance with distribution via Focus Features, the challenging, time-sweeping drama seemed to fly under the radar until it won Sundance's coveted U.S. Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic Competition. The win bodes well for the film's chances at success, as the honor was previously bestowed on later Oscar-winning films including "Whiplash," "Minari," and "CODA." Luckily, viewers will not have to wait long to see what all the fuss is about, as Focus will release the film in theaters on March 31st.

Past Lives

Once again, the folks at A24 have something very special on their hands. After a wildly successful 2022 with critics and awards darlings "Everything Everywhere All at Once" and "Aftersun," the revered indie distributor has what some are already anointing as one of 2023's best films. Written and directed by New York City playwright Celine Song in her feature debut, the poignant romance "Past Lives" earned the strongest reviews of the festival.

In the tradition of Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy, the semi-autobiographical story unfolds in three time periods as it chronicles the complex dynamic between Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), from their years as childhood sweethearts in Korea to the present day. Nora's family immigrates to Canada and she eventually moves to New York to study playwriting, while Hae Sung remains in Korea where he fulfills his military service requirement. The estranged pair reconnect over social media and begin a Skype-based relationship that veers on codependency.

"Past Lives" is a soulful meditation on love, the past, and the aching sensation of wondering what could have been. Ahead of its theatrical release later this year, "Past Lives" is set to make its international premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Theater Camp

One of the biggest breakouts from the U.S. Dramatic Competition section was "Theater Camp," the directorial debut from Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman. When Joan (Amy Sedaris), the founder of a shabby upstate New York theater camp, suddenly slips into a coma, her hapless, self-proclaimed entrepreneur son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) reluctantly takes the wheel. Troy is forced to keep the camp running while collaborating with the eccentric acting teacher Amos (Ben Platt) and music teacher Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) as they mount an ambitious original musical called "Joan Still" in honor of comatose Joan.

"Theater Camp" features hilarious supporting performances from Patti Harrison, Ayo Edebiri, and the young campers, all of whom shared in the film's Special Jury Award win for Best Ensemble Cast. The aptly campy mockumentary was sold to Searchlight Pictures for $8 million (via Deadline) and will have a theatrical release late this year. Depending on its release strategy, "Theater Camp" could follow in the footsteps of previous Sundance indie comedy triumphs "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Little Miss Sunshine," potentially becoming a crossover box office success.

Talk To Me

In recent years, Sundance has become a haven for horror. The festival's Midnight section features its genre-labeling defiant, boundary-crossing programming, including modern cult classics like Ari Aster's "Hereditary" and Jennifer Kent's "The Babadook" — both their feature debuts. The 2023 Midnight docket featured plenty of scares, from Brandon Cronenberg's eat-the-rich gross-out flick "Infinity Pool" to Laura Moss's disturbing Frankenstein child drama "birth/rebirth." But the category's highlight turned out to be Australian YouTube sensations Danny and Michael Philippou's "Talk To Me," which was reportedly sold to A24 in the high seven-figure range (via Variety).

The horror/thriller tracks the misadventures of a group of teenagers who discover an embalmed hand that has the supernatural capacity to conjure spirits and interact with other dimensions — as if Thing from "The Adams Family" operated as a Ouija board. "Talk to Me" could be another friend group horror success for A24 following last year's "Bodies, Bodies, Bodies," but critics warn that the Philippou brothers' film is far more gruesome. In his IndieWire review, Robert Daniels calls the film "a bundle of taut nerves stretched to their vomit-inducing breaking point." 

A Little Prayer

More so than any of its film festival peers, Sundance is designed to generate discoveries. One the most momentous occurred at the 2005 festival when then-unknown Amy Adams delighted audiences in the Southern family drama "Junebug," directed by Phil Morrison and written by Angus MacLachlan. That year, Adams won the Special Jury Prize for Acting, and all the buzz surrounding her performance led her to earn an Academy Award nomination, catapulting her into the pantheon of our most cherished — if perpetually Oscar-snubbed — actresses.

MacLachlan returned to Sundance this year with "A Little Prayer," another Southern family drama that could repeat history and lead its star Jane Levy to the Amy Adams trajectory. David Strathairn stars as Bill, the husband of Venida (Ceilia Weston) and patriarch of their North Carolina family. Their peaceful, placid lives endure unexpected waves when their volatile daughter Patti (Anna Camp) unexpectedly moves home and Bill realizes that his troubled son David (Will Pullen) is cheating on his sweet, people-pleasing wife Tammy (Levy). Shortly after its Sundance premiere, "A Little Prayer" was sold for a number in the low seven-figure spectrum to Sony Pictures Classics (via Variety), who also distributed "Junebug." After striking awards gold with "Living," "Parallel Mothers," and "The Father," the arthouse distributor should ready campaigns for a never-better Strathairn and heartbreaking Levy.

Magazine Dreams

Writer/director Elijah Bynum's dark character study "Magazine Dreams" was one of the most hotly debated films at Sundance. Jonathan Majors stars as Killian Maddox, a socially awkward, reclusive grocery bagger with big dreams of stardom in the world of bodybuilding. Haunted by harsh criticism from an amateur bodybuilding competition judge, Killian works out obsessively and religiously, pushing his body to the brink. His ruthless determination often impedes his mental health and eventually leads him to spiral out of control.

The hyper-violent drama won the festival's Special Jury Award for Creative Vision but had a divisive reception among critics — some, like Tim Grierson for Screen Daily, arguing that its third act could benefit from some editing. Everyone, however, was in agreement about Majors' astonishing performance. "Magazine Dreams" premiered just days before the 95th Academy Award nominations were released, but chatter about Major's best actor Oscar chances for the 96th has already begun — and rightfully so. His turn as Killian, with its dark shades of Robert DeNiro in "Taxi Driver" and Joaquin Phoenix in "Joker," is bound to be a formidable contender in next year's awards race.

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After a string of small-scale, New York City-based indies, the perpetually underrated, deeply humanist writer/director Ira Sachs and his writing partner Mauricio Zacharias travel to France for "Passages," an erotic rumination of desire, art, and narcissism. Franz Rogowski stars as Tomas, a German-born film director living in Paris with British artist Martin (Ben Whishaw), his partner of the last fifteen years. While out at a club celebrating his birthday, Tomas fails to lure a tired Martin out onto the dance floor. Martin calls it a night, but Tomas decides to stay, striking up a connection with the radiant Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) that ends with the two in bed together. The one-night stand devolves into something much more serious as Tomas falls in love with Agathe and indulges every impulse he experiences — to the extent of full-blown sociopathy. 

Sachs is no stranger to Sundance as "Passages" marks his eighth film to screen at the festival, and so far it has earned the auteur some of the best reviews of his career. The provocative drama was sold to MUBI and will join "Past Lives" for its international premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival (via Deadline). 

The Eternal Memory

Sundance may have earned its sterling reputation for exhibiting the best in fictional work from up-and-coming filmmakers, but the festival has become a venerable showcase for documentaries, particularly in recent years. Oscar-winning documentaries including "Summer of Soul," "American Factory," and "Icarus" all debuted in Park City. Last year alone, three of the five Oscar nominees for best documentary feature — "Fire of Love," "Navalny," and "All That Breathes" — all premiered at the festival.

Hopefully, the good luck will continue with Maite Alberdi's documentary "The Eternal Memory," which took home this year's Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition. MTV Documentary Films beat out other bidders for the rights to "The Eternal Memory," purchasing the film for an estimated $3 million (via Deadline). The devastating documentary focuses on a married Chilean couple, former culture commentator Augusto and actress Paulina. Since Augusto was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease eight years prior, Paulina has become his primary caretaker. As she did in her previous Oscar-nominated documentary and Sundance premiere, "The Mole Agent," Alberdi utilizes an intimate, cinéma vérité aesthetic in her portrait of Paulina and Augusto's marriage that creates an immersive effect viewers will not soon forget.


Set during a bleak winter in 1960s Massachusetts, "Eileen" tracks its titular character (Thomasin McKenzie) as she sleepwalks through her monotonous life working as a secretary at a men's prison and caring for her abusive, alcoholic father Jim (Shea Whigham). Eileen gets a much-needed boost of self-esteem when her new co-worker, the alluring psychologist Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), takes an interest in her. As their friendship develops, Rebecca helps Eileen rediscover her agency in a world that seemed devised to keep her — and all women, for that matter — stuck in a holding pattern.

The comparisons to Todd Haynes' 1950s queer period drama "Carol" began once the first production still (seen above) from "Eileen" appeared online. An uninhibited Hathaway in her blonde wig dancing closely to more reserved McKenzie bare an uncanny resemblance to Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Although there is no shortage of sexual repression and tension in William Oldroyd's adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh's popular novel, "Eileen" is a different beast than "Carol," a much grimmer film that divided critics at Sundance. It may not work for everyone, but those who enjoy their thrillers with a trace of wicked humor and pulp will find themselves in heaven.

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Kokomo City

Sundance's NEXT section is home to its boldest and edgiest films. The programming showcases innovative projects that experiment with form and structure, and former music producer D. Smith's directorial debut "Kokomo City" exemplifies the section's spirit. As director, producer, editor, and cinematographer, D. Smith presents a commanding vision in her feature documentary following four Black transgender sex workers living in New York and Georgia. Shot in stark black and white, "Kokomo City" is an unapologetically raw, generous portrait of the contemporary trans experience while also paying homage and respect to its rich, often overshadowed history.

In their review for IndieWire, Jude Dry praises Smith's confidence as a first-time filmmaker, writing, "Make no mistake, Smith announces wordlessly from behind the camera: I have arrived to change the game." Following the first screening of "Kokomo City" at Sundance, Magnolia Pictures purchased the documentary and Smith signed with powerhouse talent agency CAA for representation (via Variety). Smith won both Sundance's NEXT Audience Award and NEXT Innovator Award, proving Dry's prophecy seems to be taking shape with no signs of stopping.