PARK CITY, Utah — Every January, just when we’re all sick of yakking about the same 10 Oscar movies, the Sundance Film Festival arrives like a bucket of ice water over the head.
The buzzy indie fest, in the cute but eye-gougingly expensive ski town of Park City, Utah, wakes us up and sets the tone for the moviegoing year, providing an inkling of what’s on innovative filmmakers’ minds.
Back in-person for the first time since 2020, the 45-year-old festival had scandal (Sundance was rocked by late demands that all movies be closed captioned), shockers (Alexander Skarsgård wrestled nude with his clone) and celebs donning parkas even though they’re warmly chauffeured from the St. Regis straight to the red carpet.
But what struck me most was that, after a run of unbearably bleak lineups, the radiating optimism that made “CODA” a Best Picture Oscar winner in 2022 abounded in this 99-feature-film roster. A feel-good fest, for sure.
Here are the five best movies of Sundance 2023.
The finest film at this year’s Sundance, and one that has a strong chance of becoming one of those Oscar nominees we’re still talking about in 12 months, is writer-director Celine Song’s sublime “Past Lives.” Set over 24 years, red-hot studio A24’s film is about two childhood sweethearts in Seoul, South Korea, who are separated when little Nora’s family moves to Toronto. Fast forward 12 years later and Nora (Greta Lee) is a writer in New York, who reconnects with old flame Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) on Skype. I know the setup of “Past Lives” sounds simple, but Song’s writing and Lee and Yoo’s realistic performances will knock you over.
Anne Hathaway being sultry and mysterious in a 1960s Boston prison? Safe! “Eileen” is a thriller about a shy 24-year-old secretary, played by Thomasin McKenzie, whose miserable existence is shaken up when a life-of-the-party administrator (Hathaway) comes to work at the penitentiary where she works. It’s far from a joyride, but the movie sizzles with uncertainty. We’re downright nervous trying to figure out exactly where William Oldroyd’s film, based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, is headed. The moment the tense story comes together, you’ll gasp so loud your upstairs neighbor will bang on the floor.
Going Varsity in Mariachi
My favorite documentaries teach me something I didn’t know before, and are alive with the same fire and memorable characters as any great drama or comedy. The excellent “Boys State” at Sundance in 2020 was one such film. My “the more you know” in this heartwarming doc is that Texas has a 100-team-strong high school mariachi competition circuit — who knew? — and our lovable cast including Mariachi Oro from Edinburg North HS, led by the brilliant teacher Abel Acuña.
Eugenio Derbez, the actor who played the music teacher in “CODA,” doles out inspiring lessons once again in “Radical.” Here, he arrives at a struggling school in Mexico and confuses colleagues and kids alike with his nontraditional methods: no lesson plans, no tests, a lot of listening. Yes, it sounds a lot like “Dead Poets Society” or “To Sir, With Love,” but being based on a true story and being set south of the border raises the stakes and brings on the tears.
You Hurt My Feelings
In a repeat of the post-“Seinfeld” era, Julia Louis-Dreyfus has struggled to find the right film role since HBO’s “Veep” ended. “Downhill” went downhill, and her MCU part is a paycheck. But she’s her comedically perfect self in “You Hurt My Feelings” as a mid-level author who learns that her husband secretly hates her latest book. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s sharply observed comedy is about the lies, big and small, we tell our loved ones to get through another day.
And the worst: Cat Person
My claws were out for this heinous adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s viral 2017 New Yorker short story, starring Emilia Jones (“CODA”) and Nicholas Braun (“Succession”). What in the magazine was a pointed talker about the horrors of modern dating has been turned into an actual, campy horror movie with a new ending that begs belief. Title recognition means you’ll probably see it, but I wish the terrible reviews would catnip it in the bud.