Best of the Fest – 10 Favorites from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
by Alex Billington
February 3, 2023
The 2023 Sundance Film Festival wrapped up last week after returning to a 10-day in-person event in Utah running alongside an online counterpart. Now it’s time to present our annual Best of the Fest list. I was able to catch a total of 50 films this year (my full list on Letterboxd), half of them at screenings in Park City, the other half virtual screenings. This is my 17th year in a row covering Sundance, and this fest still has a special place in my heart. It was so nice to be back again. I am presenting one big list of my 10 favorite films – a mix of a few documentaries and narrative features. All 10 of these below are worth watching, and I highly recommend seeing them on the big screen whenever they show up at your local theater. I also wrote another editorial about how much Sundance 2023 focused on discoveries & first-time filmmakers, returning to their roots as a launching ground for so many wonderfully talented storytellers. Below are my favorites, the films that connected with me and have remained on my mind all the way through the 10 days of the fest.
It’s always my priority during Sundance to watch as many films as I can, mainly just to see them. Even if I don’t love every film I watch, I’m just happy to see what they’re all about and learn about what makes them so unique. This festival always programs some of the most innovative and authentic films you’ll watch all year. Some of the others that I missed and still need to catch up with: The Starling Girl, Fancy Dance, Fremont, The Persian Version, Rotting in the Sun, Run Rabbit Run, Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls, and Sorcery. I also encourage all movie lovers to make time for documentaries – don’t ignore them, they’re all too often lost in the mix. They deserve to be seen, too! There’s at least three important ones from this year that I recommend: The Disappearance of Shere Hite (read my review), Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, and Deep Rising (read my review) – in addition to the two others I talk about below. I’m always grateful to the Sundance Film Festival for letting me attend the festival with a press badge and grab tickets to the public screenings, it’s an invigorating experience that brings me joy year after year after year.
While I saw many films that I enjoyed (my full list of 50 here), there were a few more I missed even though I heard good things about them. But these are my favorite films from this year’s fest from those that I did see.
Alex’s Top 10 Favorite ~Sundance 2023~ Films:
The Deepest Breath
Directed by Laura McGann
An unforgettable screening experience at Sundance; I was wiping away tears at the end, along with everyone else. The Deepest Breath is a doc film about the extremely dangerous, extraordinary sport of free diving – holding your breath for extended periods of time while diving underwater. Everyone at this was collectively holding their breath while watching everyone in the film holding their breath in these intense free diving competitions. I love this film and I think it’s one of the most exhilarating and emotional extreme sports docs all year, instantly joining the ranks of Free Solo and 14 Peaks and all the others. The story follows two iconic free divers – Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan. I wish many others could have the same big screen experience watching this with a mesmerized audience as I did at Sundance, but it will be out on Netflix so most will probably just watch at home on their own TVs. The score by composer Nainita Desai makes this film the emotionally gratifying experience that it is, and the storytelling kept my focus from start to finish.
Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie
Directed by Davis Guggenheim
Oh wow. Easily one of the best actor biopic docs since the Val Kilmer doc Val a few years back. It’s not about every moment in his life (though it’s exciting to see all the key moments play out), but that’s not the point, it’s concise and gives us just the right emotional shot in just around 90 minutes. Michael J. Fox bears all and let’s us into his life and struggles being an actor / husband / father living with Parkinson’s disease. It’s impressively cinematic in an endearing way, combining clips from all of his film & TV work to tell his story and make us feel closer to him. In the intro, director Davis Guggenheim said he couldn’t really put into words how he feels about Michael because this film is how he feels about him. And you can certainly sense that in it, absolutely. Not easy to capture the heart and soul and optimism of someone, yet he does it with grace and love. And I feel like that’s what the beauty of this film really is – giving us a sense of who he is and his optimism and uplifting spirit – inspiring all of us to overcome, be better, and to live the best lives we can.
Directed by Raine Allen Miller
The romantic comedy of the year! So fresh and exciting and new and inventive. Everyone will instantly fall in love with Yas and Dom! I want to chill with them more! I want to know how they’re doing after this story ends! Rye Lane is the feature directorial debut of filmmaker Raine Allen Miller, who utilizes funky wide angle cinematography, all the gorgeous vibrant colors of South London, and a radical one-of-a-kind score by the artist Kwes to make this film one of the most instantly lovable and empowering romcoms if the 2020s. Then there’s the two delightful lead performances by David Jonsson and Vivian Oparah as Dom and Yas, respectively, and their magical chemistry as they make their way around London, taking down bad exes and eating tasty food all along. One critic friend said this is one of his favorite romantic comedies ever, which should be more than enough praise to make sure this ends up being a big hit when it opens this year.
Directed by Chloe Domont
Might be my #1 of Sundance 2023 – also a phenomenal screening experience. This is why I go to festivals, to sit in a crowd and be amazed by cinema. The completely packed house at the Eccles Theater erupted into a standing ovation as soon as it was over, with cheers of “bravo! bravo!” and non-stop applause. Fair Play is an exceptional Wall Street thriller about a stock broker couple falling apart thanks to the misogynistic hate that bubbles up when an ambitious woman gets promoted to the coveted job that all the men want. It’s as gripping as Uncut Gems, with even better performances. A film that will get people talking, just because it’s so brash and bold and challenges the status quo. I wrote in my review: “Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor are exceptional. Especially in the second half, these two unleash the kind of performances that will be remembered forever. I’m convinced, I’ve seen enough, it’s time to step back and hand over the keys to Hollywood to Chloe Domont. It’s her world now, I’m just another analyst who wants to help her succeed.”
Directed by Celine Song
A beautiful, warm embrace of a film. Past Lives is going to be one of the most adored films of 2023, for good reason. I’m in awe that this is the first featured made by Celine Song, she carefully tells this story with humility and empathy. This film deserves all the same love and attention as The Worst Person in the World, similar in many ways about a woman trying to figure out how she feels between two men. Greta Lee is exceptional in the lead role as Nora, with two lovely supporting performances from Teo Yoo and John Magaro. It’s obviously an autobiographical, explore-her-feelings-through-cinema creation but in this case it works wonders. The emotional ending and perfect final shots in the last few scenes hit me hard. I’m really looking forward to watching this again at the upcoming Berlin Film Festival, where it’s playing in the Main Competition and has a good chance of winning the Golden Bear there. Most of all, I’m glad that so many other viewers really connected with this one, too, I’m not the only one putting it on my Best of the Fest list.
Flora and Son
Directed by John Carney
John Carney can do no wrong!! Always making the best musicals. His latest original creation, titled Flora and Son, is wonderful, just wonderful. A story about a poor young Irish mother, played by Eve Hewson, who discovers the joy of creating music and reconnects with her loved ones through this newfound passion. I did not want it to end, I could easily keep watching all these brash Irish people learning to love making music and grow up and express their true selves. It really got to me, made me feel happy and optimistic. I want to watch again now! Give it to me! The mix of dance music and acoustic guitar worked well, somehow? I don’t even know how Carney keeps making amazing original musicals over & over. Yeah the ending wraps up too quickly, and it feels like it’s just getting going right when it’s over, but I still loved sitting through this. It made me extra mushy. It’s such a nice feel-good movie and we always need more of these right now.
Directed by Roger Ross Williams
Another favorite gem of Sundance! Gorgeous filmmaking about the “Liberace of Lucha Libre”. This excellent film features one the of the best Gael García Bernal performances in a long while, his Lucha persona is a delight and the best part of the film. His emotions feel so real and come through the screen so powerfully. I’ve been a fan already since his 2016 Sundance doc Life, Animated, but director Roger Ross Williams is back with his first narrative feature and it’s even more perfect than I was hoping. I was moved to tears and all I want to do now is make sure this film gets the attention it deserves, because it really needs to find a loving audience worldwide. It doesn’t overstay its welcome, allows us to appreciate and spend time with all these character, including great supporting performances from Raúl Castillo, Bad Bunny, and Roberta Colindrez. I’m glad I watched this film late in the fest, it really is one of the highlights of Sundance 2023.
Directed by Christopher Zalla
One of the best films about a teacher, an inspiring story of breaking rules and going against the grain to encourage kids to grow up as free thinkers. I was not expecting to be so moved by this film, overwhelmed by the emotional impact of watching a teacher who cares fight for his students to learn. It’s such a generous, warm-hearted, beautiful story about a teacher and his students working together to overcome adversity and carelessness. Education matters, but teachers matter the most – this film proves that once again. Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez stars as Sergio, the “radical” teacher of the title, and he continues to impress with roles that are thoroughly entertaining yet still nuanced and genuine. All of the kids are fantastic, too. The whole film will leave anyone who watches it feeling encouraged by the power that great teachers can have to change the world. It may even make a few people want to be teachers and try out some innovative teaching?
A Thousand and One
Directed by A.V. Rockwell
One of the most impressive directorial debuts of Sundance 2023 – I have been telling everyone to watch this since the premiere. Mark my words, we will hearing a lot about director A.V. Rockwell from now on. I was at the world premiere screening of this film during the first weekend of the festival and it’s an outstanding slice of cinema. I was in complete awe with how she handles this Harlem story and brings it to the screen, spanning years of time while working in potent themes of gentrification and American racism. A Thousand and One tells the story of a tenacious mother named Inez, played with tremendous empathy and heart by newcomer Teyana Taylor, and her quiet son, a boy she calls Terry. They live together in an apartment in Harlem and struggle to make ends meet and live a simple life without getting caught up in all that’s going on down on the streets of NYC below. It is the quality of the filmmaking that really stands out, as well as the honest storytelling about how incredibly hard it is to stay clean and stay out of trouble. A superb discovery.
Directed by Molly Gordon & Nick Lieberman
Theater Camp rules!! I couldn’t be happier with how this nerdy film turned out!! Molly Gordon & Nick Lieberman’s Theater Camp is an instant classic. Truly. It goes right on the list of Top 10 mockumentaries, absolutely irrefutably joining the ranks along with Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, This Is Spinal Tap, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and A Mighty Wind. It’s hilarious and heartfelt and pitch perfect in every way. Not a moment I wasn’t smiling all the way through, loved every scene of it and every filmmaking choice delivers exactly what is right to make this near perfect. The build-up to the final musical number(s), the twists and turns throughout, and the performances from all of the kids and the theater camp staff, are all as brilliant as they should be. A must watch with an audience film, preferably in the theater if you can, but even with friends at home – this helps makes it an entirely enjoyable laugh-your-ass-off comedy experience.
I also recorded a podcast chat about Sundance films with Aaron Neuwirth on his Out Now Podcast – listen to that episode here. And check out my other favorite films list on my Letterboxd page. Thanks for following.
To find all of Alex’s Sundance 2023 reviews and updates: Follow @firstshowing
For other Sundance 2023 best of the fest lists mentioning more films we didn’t see or didn’t include here, check out these websites: NPR’s Get these Sundance 2023 movies on your radar now, NY Times’ Sundance Standout Movies recap from Manohla Dargis, InsideHook’s The 15 Best Films at Sundance 2023, Variety’s 17 Must-See Movies From the 2023 Festival, Indiewire’s Here Are the Sundance 2023 Films You’re Going to Want to See, The Hollywood Reporter’s 15 Best Films of Sundance 2023, Collider’s The 10 Buzziest Films To Keep On Your Radar, and CheatSheet’s 10 Best Sundance 2023 Movies to Keep an Eye Out For. Our list isn’t the only list of favorites from Sundance! There are many other great films from this year that deserve your time & attention whenever they show up in your neighborhood. Keep an eye out for all of these. I always recommend watching any film from the Sundance line-up if it sounds interesting to you, and many of these will likely show up at other festivals before playing in art house theaters. Make time for as many as you can.
You can find all our Sundance 2023 coverage and reviews in this category. This wraps up our coverage of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, our 17th year in a row at this festival. We’ll be back again next year. You can also find more thoughts on many films posted on my Letterboxd. Another vibrant year of amazing films.