The Sundance Film Festival always gets the year off to a flying start with new movies that you can look forward to being released over the coming months. There have been plenty of talking-point films at Sundance 2023, and, as usual, a couple of megabucks deals have been done (Fair Play and Flora and Son were each picked up for $20m apiece – look out for them on Netflix and Apple TV+ respectively).
So, now that the snow has settled, Total Film picks eight favorites from the festival, including another star-affirming turn from Jonathan Majors, an intimate relationship drama, your new favorite horror film, a must-see documentary and a sports movie unlike no other. It’s been a strong year, so we’ll also throw in some honorable mentions.
Gael García Bernal gets the role of his career (and becomes an early contender for next year’s Best Actor crop) in a feelgood sports movie based on a true story. It manages to avoid all the risible tropes you’d expect though, as gay luchador Saúl (García Bernal) takes on an exótico persona, determined to break the rule that these flamboyant drag characters can’t ever win in Mexican wrestling. There’s plenty of pathos amid the air-punching moments, and documentary director Roger Ross Williams (Life Animated) confidently grapples with heavyweight themes of family, legacy and sexuality in his dramatic debut.
Lady Macbeth director William Oldroyd’s long-awaited sophomore feature debuted to critical raves. Despite drawing surface comparisons to Carol – mainly for the May-September attraction between an ingénue and a glamorous older woman, and the chilly, mid-century setting – Eileen proved to be its own unique beast. In ’60s Massachusetts, prison worker Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) becomes besotted with the new staff psychologist Dr. Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway, on magnificent form). A late-breaking gear shift changes everything, but throughout, the production design and period detail are immaculate. If you haven’t read the book it's based on (by Ottessa Moshfegh, who has co-written the screenplay with Luke Goebel), go in cold.
Netflix snapped up this cruel, smart, water-cooler thriller for $20m and it’s easy to see why. Writer-director Chloe Domont’s voice recalls the verve of Emerald Fennell as she unpicks gender politics, consent and ambition in a bad romance as a pair of competitive financial analysts (Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich) secretly date and publicly fight when a promotion comes between them. Tracking toxic workplaces and masculinity, weaponized sexuality and the corrosive nature of jealousy, Fair Play has arch fun with performance (Eddie Marsan is a standout as a vile CEO), soundtrack and cinematography. And though it’s entrenched in Wall Street-speak (that impenetrable lingo of The Big Short and Margin Call), the conversation here is about gender double standards and the blade-sharp edge of love and hate.
What do you get if you channel incel rage, ‘Stan’ fandom and steroid abuse? Jonathan Majors’ amateur bodybuilder Killian Maddox – a damaged man whose heat-seeking crusade for body perfection and fame is dangerously wrapped up in parental trauma, casual racism and social disenfranchisement. Writer/director Elijah Bynum’s ability to evoke dry-mouthed anxiety in an audience is a thing of terrible beauty, the discomfort akin to the experience of watching preceding festival hits Uncut Gems or Calm with Horses. Heartbreaking and horrifying in equal measure, Majors’ fractured, feral performance (both physically and emotionally) is one that should be in awards conversation by the end of the year.
There’s a thorny love triangle at the center of this intimate drama by Ira Sachs (Love is Strange), as capricious film-maker Tomas (Franz Rogowski) embarks on an affair with teacher Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), much to the bemusement of his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw). Sachs treats all of the characters empathetically, even as Tomas’ flighty ego runs roughshod over those closest to him. Sexually charged but delicately observed, it’s a film for grown-ups in every sense of the word; the cool Paris locations and trio of fine leads (Rogowski, in particular, is magnetic) only add to the appeal.
Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields
That child actor Brooke Shields was exploited during her career is a given, but this enlightening documentary challenges viewers in understanding exactly how, as well as highlighting audience complicity in that damage. Navigating Shields’ life in the spotlight from babyhood, this doc covers her relationships with Michael Jackson and Andre Agassi via frank confessions of her mother’s alcoholism, a sexual assault and post-natal depression. Lana Wilson’s clear-eyed examination of how society treats women taps the universal experience via her subject’s specific journey. And the message is clear when Shields discusses her own teen daughters; we must do better.
Talk to Me
The teens at the center of this Aussie frightener have clearly never seen a horror movie or read a thread on movie tropes. Otherwise they’d never be opening themselves up to spirits possessing them as a party game, pushing the ‘safe’ time a little longer for the lols… Opening with a truly shocking one-take tone-setter and ratcheting up the chills, Talk to Me taps into an exploration of the impact of trauma via unsettling visual effects and sudden, brutal violence. It also leaves an ending open for a possible franchise… no wonder A24 came calling.
You Hurt My Feelings
Nicole Holofcener and Julia Louis-Dreyfus reunite after Enough Said for another slice of recognizable mid-life angst as a writer in an ostensibly happy marriage inadvertently discovers that her husband (Tobias Menzies) secretly doesn’t like her latest tome. For his part, he’s wondering if he’s actually any good at his job as a couples therapist and her sister is irritated by the wealthy clients she interior designs for… Nagging dissatisfaction, the lies we tell through love and the bumbling along that constitutes a ‘happy’ life are explored via ugly light fittings, unwanted earrings and sock shopping. Delightfully witty.
All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt; Bad Behaviour; Cat Person; The Eternal Memory; Kokomo City; Polite Society; Rye Lane; Scrapper; Shortcomings; Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie; Sometimes I Think About Dying
For more on the latest upcoming movies, check out our guide to 2023 movie release dates.