Sundance Film Festival 2023 Report
Sundance Film Festival often marks the first substantial point of festival scouting in a new year for us here at MIFF.
I’ve been attending since 2011, and I always look forward to it. Park City typically swells from 8000 to around 50,000 more during those heady days (disclaimer: pre-COVID); the town becomes overrun with film (and also skiers, but more so film), set alongside the beauty of the mountains and the machinations of the movie industry, where the lofted representatives of the LA film trade and the broader elite find themselves tripping on the snow like everybody else for once.
It really is wonderful to be in the room to experience the breakout moment of euphoria that can come with the first/early screenings of some incredible films (which, in recent years, have varied from Beasts of the Southern Wild to Manchester by the Sea to The Babadook and to some more unexpected placements for Sundance, such as Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela – our MIFF 68½ Program Spotlight Black Bear remains one of my most compelling surprises there), and to also witness celebrities shopping for chips at the local supermarket at 1am. But it can really inform where the excitement may lie for some pretty substantial titles that forge a path to MIFF later in the year.
Historically, Sundance can often offer a front-row seat to the spectator sport of the A-list festival itself. It’s an ecosystem built on buzz, braced by dollar signs, where the ebbs and flows and bubbly bits of the machinations of publicity, hype, the substance of talent and craft, and the strains of industry and acquisition can meet in the middle – sometimes to good effect, other times to confusion – and where the bidding wars of the global distributive titans, and with them the films and filmmakers that are forged in this setting, then go forward.
Sundance is a setting by and large (though not exclusively) for world premieres, and we approach it, hence, as a place for discovery. From a distance, the last few years have undoubtedly been hugely impactful on the festival, as it has on every festival, including the intention of a hybrid 2022 event last year that turned into a full digital pivot prior to launch. It was a horrific trawl through the trenches of complexity, and something we’re all too familiar with at MIFF, I can assure you.
2023 marked Sundance’s first return to Park City in an also-continuing hybrid format for the festival, and an incremental creep back up in program scale along with it – not to mention reductions in other places, such as the one-year loss of the non-film elements of the New Frontiers section, which has been, in my mind, a leader in recognising the voices of creators and bringing the artistry of VR/XR formats to wider visibility in recent years.
For us, 2020 also marked the last time we attended in person; the extreme cost spikes in travel and accommodation to Utah for the first real-world Sundance in three years has kept us squarely on this side of the world, this time around. (Anecdotally, a number of industry folks were kept similarly at a remove.) But the digital reality of the festival remained possible through its ongoing commitment to a hybrid delivery format – between cinema and home streaming – and, while those previously live moments of in-the-room discovery were not a tangible reality this year, the excitement of much of the film programming itself continued unabated.
I was able to see around half of the full feature program, and at that sort of bird’s eye, there seemed to be some clear throughlines. To me, it was a program that acknowledged and confronted the urgency and difficulty of the times we are in (Ukraine-relevant pieces like 20 Days in Mariupol or the Syria-set 5 Seasons of Revolution), but also simultaneously looked to provide a certain degree of escapism and levity in a very deliberate curatorial sense, with a number of featured comedies and flights of fantasy that seemed to often skew broader than recent years’ programming taken at totality (in films such as Raine Allen-Miller’s Rye Lane, Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s Theater Camp and Nida Manzoor’s Polite Society).
There were many odes, of varying form, to parent and child and to the connections and distortions of family, across titles as varied as the fizziness of Maryam Keshavarz’s The Persian Version or even the Frankenstein-feeling flow of Laura Moss’s horror Birth/Rebirth, featuring a brilliant turn from Judy Reyes.
Elsewhere, there were a surprising number of celeb-pitched bio docs that impressively transcended that genre’s preconceived potential for hagiography into something more illuminating. Among these were Davis Guggenheim’s Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie and particularly Lana Wilson’s Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, an epic (140-minute) consideration of the commodification and resistance of Shields across the ups and downs of her career (and another film with a mother and a daughter at its very centre), whose depths of archival storytelling can make for some surprising and uncomfortable moments of a complex life lived against the making and selling of images.
The big annual object of the Sundance bidding war this year was Chloe Domont’s Fair Play, which sold to Netflix for US$20 million. It recalls early 90s erotic thrillers in its setup of a couple – also colleagues – whose connection falls into a particularly spiky kind of disarray in the wake of a corporate promotion.
For me, a standout highlight was Ira Sachs’s Passages, starring Franz Rogowski as arguably one of the silver screen’s all-time jerks (and who, soon after, was to be an MVP at the Berlinale, between his turn in this and Giacomo Abbruzzese’s Disco Boy), which hummed with a coarseness and abrasion of its onscreen intimacies, emotional and physical, as they were turned inside out. Another was the outright deranged-ness of Brandon Cronenberg’s Infinity Pool, which digs deep through both brutality and hilarity to mesmerising effect, and which itself surely takes some kind of (Jetstar-sponsored?) prize for ‘holiday most gone wrong’ in the history of cinema.
Elsewhere, William Oldroyd’s follow-up to Lady Macbeth, the adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, captured the off-kilter with its own brand of restrained gusto, and featured two wonderful central performances from Anne Hathaway and – because I’m from NZ, I will now apply this collective term on behalf of my own nation – ‘our’ Thomasin McKenzie. Raven Jackson’s Barry Jenkins–produced All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt was delicate and ambitious in the frame it applied around its generations-spanning Mississippi story. Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams featured an extraordinary turn from Jonathan Majors that, for me, sometimes recalled some of the more combustible, and some of the more simmering, moments of Mads Matthiesen’s Teddy Bear or Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead.
Most heartening was the incredible reception of the MIFF 2023 Premiere Fund–supported film Shayda, by writer/director Noora Niasari, which was an Opening Selection at Sundance and eventual winner of the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award there. Led by Zar Amir-Ebrahimi (Best Actress at Cannes in 2022 for Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider, for which she was a MIFF festival guest last year) as the titular character, alongside her onscreen daughter Mona (an extraordinary child performance from Selina Zahednia), the film sees the pair seek to escape the controls and abuse of husband/father Hossein, who is intent on making a life in Australia while forcing them back to Iran. Also starring Leah Purcell and Osamah Sami, Shayda is deeply felt and brimming with its characters’ resolve; it is already a certain highlight of Australian cinema this year.
It was a privilege to once more scout Sundance in consideration of MIFF. While sitting on my couch in a puffer jacket in 35 degrees didn’t quite reignite the realities of the wintry climes and cinematic heights of Park City this year, there was much to otherwise excite our programmatic possibilities when looking forward from the starting line of 2023.
We look forward to bringing you highlights from Sundance, among many other international film festivals, within this year’s MIFF lineup in August.
MIFF Artistic Director