All the best movies we saw at Sundance Film Festival, ranked (including 'A Thousand and One')
Sundance returned in a big way, for those who traveled to Park City, Utah, or – if you're like us – avoided the snow while hanging on the couch.
After going virtual for a couple of pandemic-affected editions, Sundance Film Festival 2023 embraced both normalcy and the new with a hybrid in-person/online format. But the indie films on tap were, as usual with the fest, a pretty interesting mix, from the Jonathan Majors bodybuilding drama "Magazine Dreams" to Daisy Ridley's "Sometimes I Think About Dying" to a slate of documentaries featuring Judy Blume, Little Richard, Michael J. Fox and Brooke Shields.
Sundance highlights include award winners, high-profile documentaries and a bodybuilding drama
Here are the best movies we saw at Sundance, ranked:
Jonathan Majors headlines a great bodybuilding drama.
"A Thousand and One" and "The Persian Version" won top prizes at the fest.
The lives of Little Richard, Michael J. Fox and Judy Blume receive the documentary treatment.
Randall Park ("Young Rock," Jimmy Woo from the Marvel movies) has his directorial debut with this comedy about Ben (Justin H. Min), a Bay Area arthouse theater manager suffering from arrested development. His girlfriend (Ally Maki) moves to New York, leaving him to sulk with lesbian best friend Alice (Sherry Cola) and get his life in order. The film deftly explores identity and Asian American representation, and while Ben is an intensely insufferable jerk, Min and Cola's scenes together lift the film.
21. 'Run Rabbit Run'
In a creepy-kid horror film that takes a couple of pages from "The Babadook," Sarah Snook ("Succession") stars as a divorced Australian mother forced to confront dark secrets and repressed trauma from her family's past. She's not happy when her 7-year-old daughter (Lily LaTorre) takes in a stray bunny as a pet for her birthday, but it's just the inciting incident for a series of bizarre turns and revealed truths as the girl begins to exhibit increasingly dangerous bad behavior.
20. 'Sometimes I Think About Dying'
In a quiet coastal Oregon town, the shy Fran (Daisy Ridley) lives an isolated life, occasionally daydreams of her demise, and works diligently and silently as her officemates chatter on, until an extroverted newcomer (Dave Merheje) forces Fran out of her lonely shell. What superficially seems like a deadpan, socially awkward take on "The Office" becomes an amusing and affecting look at loneliness and the importance of human interaction, with an outstandingly droll turn from Ridley.
19. 'In My Mother's Skin'
Word to the wise: Don't let your mom ingest a flesh-eating fairy. Set in World War II-era Philippines, the gnarly thriller finds young Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) needing help when her father is accused of stealing Japanese gold and her mother (Beauty Gonzalez) has one seriously bad cough. Enter a strange forest goddess (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) with an offer that Tala should have refused and a tale that has the girl and her younger brother scrambling to avoid a possessed parent.
A parental nightmare gets Frankenstein'd in this unsettling horror film. When her 6-year-old daughter dies of a sudden bacterial infection and goes missing from the morgue, nurse Celie (Judy Reyes) finds the child has become an experiment for Rose (Marin Ireland), an emotionally cold pathologist obsessed with reanimation. The pair quickly learn bringing the dead back is easier than it sounds, and Celie goes to terrifying extremes for her little girl in a sinister story full of moral quandaries.
17. 'Infinity Pool'
Brandon Cronenberg's sci-fi horror film is trippy, bizarre, appalling and somehow also insightful about humanity. A struggling novelist (Alexander Skarsgård) at a posh all-inclusive island getaway runs into a fan (Mia Goth), a day trip with her veers tragic when the writer runs a guy over, but thanks to the laws of this fictional country, a clone of himself is executed in his place as punishment. The bad behavior gets wilder from there with a cool premise that doesn't totally fly but has plenty of gory chutzpah.
Like "Carol" painted with some noir-ish shades, the 1960s-set thriller based on the Ottessa Moshfegh book casts Thomasin McKenzie as the title character, a mousy secretary at a Boston boys prison who lives at home with an abusive dad (Shea Wigham) drinking himself to death. Eileen gets a pick-me-up at work with the arrival of sophisticated psychologist Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), but the younger woman's fragile headspace goes off the rails when Rebecca pulls her into unfortunate circumstances.
15. 'Polite Society'
Imagine a kung fu collaboration between Quentin Tarantino, Jane Austen and Edgar Wright, and that's the vibe of this energetic action comedy written and directed by Nida Manzoor (creator of the amazing "We Are Lady Parts"). A Pakistani London teen (Priya Kansara) is an aspiring martial artist with dreams of being a famous stuntwoman, but she first has to use her cool spin kicks – a work in progress – and youthful moxie to stop the sudden arranged marriage of her older sister (Ritu Arya).
14. 'Fair Play'
A psychosexual thriller with modern sensibilities, director Chloe Domont's feature debut casts Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich as Wall Street analysts and co-workers who hide their romance. After getting engaged, she gets a promotion he was hoping for and their personal and professional relationships veer off course. Who you root for changes often in this tense exploration of gender dynamics in and out of the workplace, with a scene-stealing turn from Eddie Marsan as their demanding boss.
13. 'You Hurt My Feelings'
Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener ("Can You Ever Forgive Me?"), the comedy stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a novelist who overhears her usually supportive therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) tell his brother-in-law he doesn't like her new book. Insecurities and silent treatments abound as the couple as well as their loved ones wrestle with their professional futures in a relatable tale that honestly examines the white lies we tell and the truths we don't to help each other.
In the British coming-of-age film – and winner of the Sundance world dramatic Grand Jury Prize – 12-year-old Georgie (newcomer Lola Campbell) lives alone in a flat outside London following her mother's death. Her daily existence includes stealing bikes and avoiding social workers until the father (Harris Dickinson) she never met shows up and they clash, though they're more alike than either would care to admit. Dickinson ("Triangle of Sadness") is good but Campbell is the excellent find here as a feisty tween who can only hide her emotions and grief for so long.
11. 'Judy Blume Forever'
Iconic children’s author Judy Blume is refreshingly cool and endlessly hip in this entertaining documentary, which tracks her life from adolescence to motherhood to finding success in the 1970s. Interviews with fans and celebrities, plus Blume herself, dig into the importance of her stories introducing children to sex and puberty – and the conservative feathers she ruffled. The insightful deep-drive also showcases her surprising sauciness at 84: “I was a good girl with a bad girl lurking just inside.”
10. 'The Persian Version'
Proudly pulverizing the fourth wall and boasting a 1980s pop-music influence, the uplifting dramedy – Sundance's U.S. dramatic audience award winner – centers on a young Iranian-American woman named Leila (Layla Mohammadi) who finds herself an outsider in both cultures as well as her family. Their gathering for a wedding – and her dad's heart transplant surgery – forces Leila and her estranged mother (Niousha Noor) to discover how truly alike they are.
9. 'Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie'
Director Davis Guggenheim deftly uses clips from the beloved actor's screen work alongside Fox's own insightful words to craft a humorous and moving chronicle of his life, from rocketing to superstardom as an undersized Canadian to dealing with his debilitating Parkinson's disease. Fox tells stories of filming "Family Ties" and "Back to the Future," his dive into alcoholism and the pains of his everyday life, exhibiting the same sly sense of humor and charm that made the world fall in love with him in the '80s.
8. 'Talk to Me'
Sundance is known for its stellar horror films ("Get Out," "Hereditary") and this Australian ghost story is the greatest spook show of the 2023 slate. Teenage Mia (Sophie Wilde) falls in with a crowd that uses a weird embalmed hand to bring spirits into bodies and films the encounters for online viral videos. But when Sophie bends the "rules" of the game and is haunted by a familiar face, she and her friends' lives take a ghastly turn in a thriller that that skillfully blends old-school frights with fears for the TikTok generation.
7. 'Little Richard: I Am Everything'
A celebration of the rock legend's career goes hand in hand with how the music industry whitewashed Richard Penniman's considerable influence in this honest and essential documentary. Through archival footage and interviews, the film chronicles the flamboyant performer's early days as a drag act, his superstardom but also a complex life struggling with his queerness and his religion. And if you believe Elvis Presley is the King of Rock 'n' Roll, this will make you rethink who should be on that throne.
While Penelope Cruz brings a gentle touch and song-and-dance moves to this Italian family drama, it’s newcomer Luana Giuliani who really dazzles. In 1970s Rome, 13-year-old Adriana (Giuliani) starts to identify as a boy, telling mother Clara (Cruz) she feels like an alien from another galaxy. From meetings with a crush to musical fantasies, Adri tries to find herself even as the dynamic with her mom, abusive dad and siblings becomes more unstable in the touching, inclusive coming-of-age tale.
5. 'A Thousand and One'
Actress/singer Teyana Taylor proves an emotional powerhouse in A.V. Rockwell's poetic drama about motherhood and a changing New York City. Winner of the fest's U.S. dramatic Grand Jury Prize, the movie casts Taylor as an ex-con who kidnaps her son from foster care in the 1990s and they do what they can to stay together – and keep a secret that could tear them apart – as their personal lives and their increasingly gentrified city change around them.
4. 'Theater Camp'
Like "Waiting for Guffman" on an "Abbott Elementary" binge, the enjoyable mockumentary centers on the diva kids at an upstate New York theater summer camp. A "Bye Bye Birdie" accident puts the owner (Amy Sedaris) in a coma, her influencer-bro son (a hilarious Jimmy Tatro) has no idea how to run it, and two longtime teachers (Ben Platt and Molly Gordon, who also co-directs) can't get past their own egos to finish an original musical. It takes a bit but these high-maintenance theater nerds definitely grow on you.
3. 'Rye Lane'
Dom (David Jonsson) is crying over his ex in a unisex bathroom when he meets the carefree Yas (Vivian Oparah), an awkward encounter that sparks a memorable jaunt through colorful London for the two that involves a karaoke bar, a lunch comeuppance, some breaking-and-entering, spicy snacks and revealing conversations (plus one amazing cameo). Raine Allen-Miller's fantastically endearing rom-com freshens the genre while paying tribute to its past, with delightful leads we need to see more of on these shores.
The rousing true-life underdog story casts a never-better Gael García Bernal as Saúl, a gay wrestler in the Mexican luchador circuit who takes off his mask and embraces a new feminine "exótico" character. Wearing his mom's clothing, Saúl first weathers homophobic insults, but his passion and flamboyance ultimately win crowds over in a big way. Bernal shines in a heartfelt performance alongside Raúl Castillo as his secret lover and Bad Bunny in a supporting role as a promoter and confidant.
1. 'Magazine Dreams'
Is it too early to start talking 2024 best actor? Jonathan Majors is phenomenal and frightening as a troubled amateur bodybuilder whose life falls apart as he obsessively tries to craft the perfect physique in writer/director Elijah Bynum's intoxicating cautionary tale. Doing for a musclebound world what "The Wrestler" did for the squared circle, the film follows Majors' painfully awkward gym rat as he goes down a spectacularly bad path of protein shakes, steroids, rage issues, misplaced idolatry and macho posedowns.
Take a deeper dive on Sundance films:
'There's no way out': Michael J. Fox says he became an alcoholic, hid Parkinson's diagnosis
'Stay alive and get out': Brooke Shields reveals she was raped in 'Pretty Baby' documentary
How to watch must-see movies from Sundance 2023: 'Infinity Pool,' Steph Curry doc and more
'A Thousand and One,' 'The Persian Version' top Sundance Awards: Here are more movies we loved
'Judy Blume Forever': New documentary explores sexuality, banned books and controversy
Daisy Ridley on playing dead in 'I Think I'm Dying,' being an introvert: 'I'm like a grandma'
Sundance classics: The 10 greatest movies the film festival gave us, from 'Clerks' to 'CODA'
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Sundance 2023: All the best films we saw at the festival