Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan takes a look at seven Sundance films to look out for in 2023.
I’ve been kind of on a roll when it comes to Sundance films. The first Sundance film I ever screened was CODA in 2021 (which of course went on to earn Best Picture in 2022) and then in 2022, the first film I screened was Fire of Love (which is nominated for Best Documentary Feature this year).
Only time will tell if there’s an Oscar nominee in this 2023 group of films, but as with every year, I’m always so impressed with the quality of original work coming from such very talented filmmakers.
The Pod Generation
Going by my personal Sundance tradition, if there’s an Oscar nominee to come out of the bunch this year, it should be the first film I screened—The Pod Generation from writer/director Sophie Barthes. While at times it feels like a 101-minute Black Mirror episode, the more this film goes on, the more you become attached to it, in the same way that Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s couple become attached to the pod carrying their child.
Barthes really knows how to create a mood. Adrij Parekh’s light and airy cinematography is reminiscent of Her, and Clement Price-Thomas’s production design, paired with Emmanuelle Youchnovski’s costume design, really paint a realistic idea of what life will look like at the turn of the 22nd Century. I really appreciated the thought and care that went into this story, including how even in this future where women don’t physically have to carry their child, they’re still faced with pressures from work and society to be a better mother and a better employee.
I was a huge fan of Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person” when it appeared in The New Yorker in 2017 (I recall staying up late in bed to finish it on the eve it went viral!). So of course, Susanna Fogel’s film adaptation was one of my most anticipated of the festival.
The short story for which Cat Person is based isn’t necessarily plot-heavy, which gives screenwriter Michelle Ashford a bit of a hill to climb, but she tackles the challenge with wit and captures much of the same tone as the original text (the love scene where Emilia Jones talks to herself is especially reminiscent).
However, while much of the short story deals with the tight-rope walk women tread when dating and the idea of imaginative empathy for men despite their often ill intentions, Cat Person the film goes for the more blatant stance when depicting Robert (Nicholas Braun), which makes the idea of him less threatening even when he’s literally supposed to be more so. What I loved about the short story was how it explored the idea of women being afraid to hurt a man’s feelings, that one wrong move and they could make you feel worse, both emotionally, and in more dangerous circumstances, physically. In the last 30 minutes of the film, Fogel cuts through the gray area—that it takes just one ignored text from a man to go from being a “good girl” to a “WHORE”—and pushes the story to be more black and white, which goes against the spirit of “Cat Person” the short story. However you feel about the ending, it’s sure to be a conversation starter.
The Disappearance of Shere Hite
For much of Nicole Newnham’s documentary The Disappearance of Shere Hite, you wonder when and how the disappearance occurs, since for most of the film, Hite, the author of one of the most best-selling books of all time, The Hite Report, is very much a part of the zeitgeist. She gets into a verbal altercation with Maury Povich (before he became known for his “You are the father!” paternity tests) on A Current Affair and serves as a guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show in an audience of angry men.
The “disappearance” the film refers to isn’t just how she escaped the limelight to Europe in the early ’90s following the negative response to her Women and Love book, but how she has disappeared from popular culture despite her pervasive influence. The insight she gained into women is incredible, but Hite also documented toxic masculinity before it was a talking point on Twitter. Given the rise in incel culture and angry white men, she could have called this 40 years ago. But like so many women with opinions, the media dissected them, and her, until she couldn’t take it anymore. Shere Hite is my favorite film of the festival with the most realized take on modern feminism.
If Killian Maddox isn’t Jonathan Majors’ Oscar play for 2024, it’s a role that at least puts him one step closer to that golden statuette, because I’m convinced that in the next five years, he’ll have one. In Magazine Dreams, we’re not just witnessing his best performance to date, but what could be a turning point for the actor.
Let’s be clear: Writer/director Elijah Bynum’s film is not an easy sit. I found myself incredibly restless and uncomfortable watching, similarly to when I watched Joker. It keeps you on edge. Killian Maddox is a complicated character, that some might even see as an incel, obsessed with bodybuilding. In one incredibly uncomfortable scene on a first date with Haley Bennett, he goes off on a tangent about his obsession and you can watch in real time Bennett’s face become stricken with fear. And yet while Killian could easily come across as one-dimensional, Bynum’s script paired with Majors’ performance provide an intensely complex character who’s both terrifying and heartbreaking. I also love Adam Arkapaw’s glossy cinematography that gives the film almost a magazine shine.
Judy Blume Forever
Even though her books are ideal for film adaptation, to date, only two Judy Blume books have been turned into feature-length films: Tiger Eyes (2012) and the upcoming Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. With the release of the documentary Judy Blume Forever, are we in for a Blume renaissance? If so, I’m here for it!
Judy Blume Forever, directed by Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok, is a lovely tribute to an exceptional writer. While there are the occasional talking heads in the doc, including interviews from Lena Dunham and Samantha Bee, what I appreciated most about it is that most of commentary comes from Blume herself. For decades now, we’ve lived through her unforgettable characters and now we get to hear from the woman at the center of them. And just as we grew up with her books, through her writing of them, she grew, too.
Willie Nelson & Family
We really take Willie Nelson for granted. This year, he turns 90 (90!), and he’s still performing and may be the last one of his kind. Although when talking about Willie Nelson, is there really anyone like him? This compelling five-part series traces Nelson’s career from a songwriter trying to break into Nashville’s cliquey country scene (supplying hits for Patsy Cline and Claude Gray) to the genre-defying maverick who went on to create his own niche in music. The series also delves into his four marriages, tax troubles, his penchant for weed (how you can you have a Willie Nelson doc without this?), as well as his relationships with icons like Ray Charles. Willie Nelson & Family paints a fascinating portrait of a true American cowboy.
As far as erotic thrillers go, writer/director Chloe Domont’s film stays pretty even-keeled for the first two-thirds, as we follow the strained relationship of Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich). It does everything you expect from a film like it. Boy and girl are hiding their relationship from their bosses, girl gets promotion, boy feels bad. However, come for the awkward period sex in the bathroom, stay for a stunning final act. (It’s upsetting that Bridgerton was sitting on an actress like Dynevor and didn’t do anything with her!) Fair Play is a lot like “Cat Person” the short story in the way it depicts misogyny lurking under the surface of every “nice guy,” and watching how the relationship devolves really makes you question everything you think you know about someone else. It has a mic drop of an ending that will surely have everyone talking.