Best of Sundance 2023

From leaping luchadors to chaotic bisexuals, past lives to eternal memories, our Sundance team selects the highlights of this year’s fest.

LIST: 20 Festiville Crew Favorites from Sundance 2023

While titles from last year’s Sundance Film Festival like Nanny and Living continue to make waves during the current awards season, the tide is carrying in a fresh set of films we’ll surely be talking about for months to come. Park City was back to business as usual, while still including an online portion that opened the festival up to film professionals and lovers of limited means and accessibility barriers.

On the ground at the in-person screenings there was an undeniable energy among folks happy to be back experiencing the high altitude thrills of an Eccles Theater audience. Our intrepid duo of Flynn Slicker and Brian Formo were there, getting the Letterboxd microphone in front of people like Will Ferrell, Anne Hathaway, Ben Whishaw and Nicole Holofcener. Our festival correspondent Annie Lyons tracked Letterboxd reactions across the fest, scoping out your thoughts on gay dads and sexy Catholicism, deceitful fairies and Desi-coded action, and the big award winners granted by Sundance’s juries and audiences.

Now that we’ve taken stock and compared our responses to those from the wider Letterboxd community, we present ten narrative features and ten documentaries that were our highlights from Sundance 2023.

Contributions from Annie Lyons, Rafa Sales Ross, Gemma Gracewood, Mitchell Beaupre, Adesola Thomas, Leo Koziol, Ella Kemp, Isaac Feldberg and Mia Vicino.


All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt

Written and directed by Raven Jackson

In the opening minutes of All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt, a young girl learns to fish alongside her father in the Mississippi countryside. “Not too quick,” he instructs. It’s advice that Raven Jackson seemed to hold close for her phenomenal feature debut, a tactile reverie through a Black woman’s memories that unfurls like a poem. The film follows Mack (played by four actresses, primarily Kaylee Nicole Johnson and Charleen McClure) from childhood into adulthood, weaving together her ties to her rural hometown and the surrounding nature. Languid, non-linear vignettes rely on impressions of touch more than dialogue, imbuing tenderness throughout even the moments of melancholy.

The sense of place is deeply felt: croaking frogs and chorusing cicadas and red ribbons and hands clasped in dance. Memories ripple into each other—the film’s meditative editing is done by frequent Apichatpong Weerasethakul collaborator Lee Chatametikool—and long takes linger in textures that will surely reward repeat viewings. Mary Larkin shares: “Every shot was so intentional and focused on small beautiful details, pulling you into the moment. I could feel what Mack was feeling as she ran her hand through the mud, dirt, and water and I could feel the warmth of the embraces.” AL


Directed by Roger Ross Williams, written by Williams and David Teague

Our first introduction to Roger Ross Williams’ Cassandro was through a still of Gael García Bernal dressed in a tight animal-print leotard, his hair bleached yellow-blonde. It is an image filled with visual loudness, a joyful moment of celebration. Alas, Cassandro, based on the life of Mexican luchador Saúl Armendáriz, is less about the loudness of tight leopards and more about the quietness of longing and existing within the confinements of hope—hoping for others to love you as you deserve to be loved, for painfully overdue embraces to quiet the loneliness.

Williams opts for a 1:33:1 aspect ratio, swiftly stepping into the archival while also drawing the viewer in, the mesh of fiction and reality happening both within and outside the frame. The camera is as enamored with Bernal as the viewer is, with Perri Nemiroff describing the actor’s performance as “effervescent”, going on to say that “Bernal is electric in the ring, oozing with sensitivity and sincerity exploring Saúl’s life beyond it. A hugely effective film about finding his truth, holding tight to it, and inspiring others in the process.” RSR


Directed by Ira Sachs, written by Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias

“At the wheel of desire, everyone is beautiful, everyone is horny and everyone is miserable,” professes Joneto in their review of Passages. And so it goes in Ira Sachs’ latest effort, a delectable detangling of the messiest ménage à trois in Paris and undoubtedly one of the fest’s most sensuous selections. The triangle in question revolves around Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a German filmmaker and an early contender for the chaotic bisexual of the year who disrupts his marriage with husband Martin (Ben Whishaw) after hooking up with a woman named Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) at a wrap party.

Pleasure abounds, but so too does jealousy and anguish as Tomas, a man used to arranging his actors just so, tries to have his cake and enjoy every last lick of frosting, boundaries be damned. The leading trio all deliver standout performances, but the project hinges on Rogowski’s magnetism. Tomas might be a narcissist in a teddy bear coat, but Rogowski makes it understandable how Agathe and Martin get caught in his orbit. Josh declares, “It must also be said, the costume designer brought an attitude of ‘OUI, PLUS!’, Adèle Exarchopoulos is the only grown-up in the room, and Ben Whishaw f—ks.” AL

Past Lives

Written and directed by Celine Song

The hottest ticket at this year’s Sundance was Past Lives, the feature debut of writer and director Celine Song. Only screening in-person in Park City, the rapturous response to its premiere echoed throughout the internet, with folks like Audiblesuitcase calling the Eccles Theater showing “history in the making”. “There was not a single dry eye in the house,” says Mikayla, a sentiment that holds true in reviews from Celestine, Nick, Matthew and plenty more.

Greta Lee and Yoo Teo star as Nora and Hae Sung, two childhood friends who were torn apart when Nora’s family emigrated from South Korea. Twenty years later, they reunite for one week together, a premise that has already been earning comparisons to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. Keep an eye out for when A24 releases this later in the year, certainly primed for Oscar season, as Jason Bailey recalls a legend to hint at the power this one has in store: “You know that thing Ebert said about how the movies that make you cry hardest aren’t the ones where sad things happen, but where people are good? Anyway.” MB


Written and directed by Noora Niasari

Noora Nisari’s Australia-set debut Shayda, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award, is a moving exploration of an Iranian woman’s journey to repossess her personal agency as Nowruz (Persian New Year) approaches. After fleeing and filing for divorce from her volcanic husband Hossein, Shayda and her six-year-old daughter, Mona, begin to live in a women’s shelter. While Hossein attempts to blemish Shayda’s reputation in their shared community and take Mona back to Iran, Shayda strives to build a life for herself and her daughter on her own terms.

Nisari affectingly explores Shayda’s humanity beyond the erosion of the abusive marriage at the heart of the film. We witness her shelter friendships and squabbles alike, her love of dance, and her attempts to offer Mona language for their state of transience and fear. Zar Amir Ebrahimi portrays Shayda with a palpable sensitivity and conviction, another cap in her feather after the Iranian-French actor won last year’s Cannes Best Actress award for her performance in Ali Abassi’s Holy Spider. On Ebrahimi’s performance, Amreen praises her “expressive eyes, constantly a sea of emotions.” AT


Written and directed by Marija Kavtaradzė

Filmmaker Marija Kavtaradzė won Sundance’s Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic selection for this sensitive tale of a relationship blossoming between dancer Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) and sign language interpreter Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas). Complication emerges early on when Dovydas discloses that he is asexual, opening up the door for Slow to tackle a dynamic and perspective that we’ve rarely seen depicted in film. Asexuality is something that’s only starting to get broader recognition, and a film like this can go a long way in bringing understanding to an experience that has often been ignored, stigmatized and invalidated.

With stirring, infectious chemistry between Grinevičiūtė and Cicėnas, Slow explores the lines between sex and intimacy, emotional romance and physicality, while never shying away from the difficulties that can occur when one partner has sexual desires and the other doesn’t. Claira Curtis likens the film to the feeling of “when someone lightly traces their fingertips up and down your arm or back, absentmindedly drawing patterns on your skin. The comfort of familiarity and physicality without the pressures of something more physical. Intimacy as an embrace, as an ‘I love you, you’re safe here,’ as a promise.” MB

Sometimes I Think About Dying

Directed by Rachel Lambert, written by Stefanie Abel Horowitz, Kevin Armento and Katy Wright-Mead

Star Wars alum Daisy Ridley has found her most dynamic vehicle yet as she takes on the leading role in the melancholic Sometimes I Think About Dying. Sensitively directed by Rachel Lambert (and based on the short film of the same name) this is a quiet, gentle journey of a young woman living in remote Astoria, Oregon. Ridley’s Fran lives alone and her only social interaction is at her workplace, where a new co-worker hints at romance and some hope in bringing her out of her shell. There’s a fantastic supporting cast, particularly Marcia Debonis as a joyful co-worker who perhaps shares some of Fran’s Pacific Northwest gloominess.

One of the opening selections for this year’s Sundance, the buzz for Sometimes I Think About Dying was immediate. Zhach Zevich says the film “smartly depicts introversion as the struggle to participate, rather than an unwillingness. It’s full of evocative imagery that speaks more clearly and effectively than words tend to on this subject.” Sara Clements singles out Ridley’s performance, stating that she “delivers an impactful turn as Fran, a character you fall in love with as she slowly comes out of her shell. Very sweet with laugh-out-loud moments.” Watch this film and you’ll find a new appreciation for the simplicity of cottage cheese on toast. LK

A Thousand and One

Written and directed by A.V. Rockwell

How long can a secret hold power over its keeper? New York filmmaker and Sundance alum A.V. Rockwell poses this powerful question in her Grand Prize Jury winning debut feature, A Thousand and One. Fed up with moving between shelters and inconsistently seeing her son Terry, Inez kidnaps him from the foster care system. As Inez strives to attain financial security and safe housing for them, Rockwell takes us on a visually striking, decades spanning tour of their life in New York marked by gentrification, stop-and-frisk, and the after-effects of the crack epidemic.

A Thousand and One is a film that questions who is to be blamed when Black families are splintered through incarceration, when Black people are generationally taught how to survive and not necessarily how to love or be loved. Rockwell gradually reveals textured details about Inez’s past and upbringing which effectively complicate the secret at the heart of the film, while star Teyana Taylor fiercely embodies Inez’s ache and care for her son. As Jacob writes, “there is so much stress and depression caught behind her eyes, but it is never for a moment unclear that she works from a place of love.” AT

You Hurt My Feelings

Written and directed by Nicole Holofcener

There is glittering truth and uncomfortable relatability in Nicole Holofcener’s You Hurt My Feelings for anyone who has ever dared ask people they love for their opinion. Love is about support, but also paranoia, and Holofcener gleefully lets this play out with her trademark light touch and deceptive wisdom. “This story is genuinely helpful for reflecting on our expectations when we ask loved ones for feedback, and inversely, the role we have to nurture feelings versus deliver criticism,” writes Brother Bro of the relationship drama that finds Julia Louis-Dreyfus dejected when her husband, played by a brilliant Tobias Menzies, lets slip that he hates her new book.

Betrayal ensues, except in classic Holofcener fashion it’s less of a melodrama and more an enjoyable slow burn. There are diamonds in the details, with every quip about self-perception, lies and taking care of people’s feelings holding piercing clarity. You won’t feel it at the time, but it’s an enormous education—how to expect anything less from one of our modern screenwriting masters? EK

Rye Lane

Directed by Raine Allen-Miller, written by Nathan Bryon and Tom Melia

“Finally,” writes Rendy Jones. “A perfect Black rom-com. One of those rare movies that was specifically made for me and me alone. Is this how white people felt when they saw Love Actually for the first time?!” It’s a good question and my resident white-person answer is, no: Love Actually always had a misogynistic undercurrent that Rye Lane never would. Raine Allen-Miller’s debut is a spirited, optimistic, cheerful and inclusive middle finger to the beloved, but flawed Working Title rom-com canon, with a backyard Brixton scene involving a playlist shuffle that had me spitting out my tea.

It’s got a 3.9 average rating already, has Searchlight Pictures and a team of well-credentialed producers behind it, and theatrical (UK) and Hulu (US) releases lined up next month. Rye Lane doesn’t really need our help and I should be giving space here to my favorite new film in the “horny Catholic” genre (Mamacruz, you are my muse). But facts are facts: Rye Lane rules, and will singlehandedly move the rom-com artform forward several decades. Of course, the true test of a good romantic comedy is its rewatchability, and Sundance volunteer Ava Jackson can confirm Rye Lane is up to scratch: “I had to sneak in for a re-watch. Still SO good and funny. I would, of course, re-watch again. I just love, love, love these characters.” GG


Against the Tide

Directed by Sarvnik Kaur

In Bombay’s Indigenous Koli community, two best friends struggle to survive as fishermen, their cultural and financial norms imperiled by overfishing, pollution, and other environmental factors. As one of the friends holds fast to traditional fishing methods in shallow waters, the other moves forward into the deep sea with modern technology; increasingly at odds even as dwindling fish populations threaten them both, the friends soon arrive at personal and professional crossroads. Sarvnik Kaur’s intimate, immersive documentary Against the Tide—which won a prize for vérité filmmaking from Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary section—depicts the plastic-filled Indian Ocean as a site of ecological desolation, even as it illuminates a clash of industrial and communal obligations that marks its characters’ plight as an existential crisis.

Calling Against the Tide a “satisfying slice of cinema vérité,” Brian Cartwright remarks that “the Koli’s way of life is being destroyed and this tells that through the prism of friendship.” Adds Ave Maria: “There is no reliance on any of the usual voiceovers, interviews or text-on-screen for explanations. Instead, the story of these two men is allowed to unfold before us with stunning ‘still life’—like visuals and barely any sound additions, which makes everything feel authentic.” IF

Beyond Utopia

Directed by Madeleine Gavin

When Sundance first announced documentary Beyond Utopia, the logline was intentionally vague, obliquely referencing a family’s escape from an unnamed oppressive country. Now we know this was to avoid retribution, as the film tracks North Korean defectors and those who helped them make their harrowing journeys to freedom.

Hailed by many on Letterboxd (including Sara and Melanie) as one of the best of the fest, it’s currently the highest rated of Sundance’s documentary slate with a 4.2 average rating. “This isn’t just a film about the sheer paranoia, strain and agony of defecting from North Korea,” writes James. “But also about the maelstrom of emotional agony that the families of defectors experience as they can only wait and hope for their relatives to make it through, relying on the help of a network of deeply unreliable brokers and genuine heroes like Pastor Kim.”

According to Sundance’s HQ, “Festival audience members rose to their feet, cheered and shouted ‘Bravo’ as Pastor Kim, director Madeleine Gavin and several former North Koreans the network has helped came onstage.” Beyond Utopia ended up winning the fest’s coveted Audience Award, so add it to your watchlist before it wins next year’s Academy Award. MV

The Disappearance of Shere Hite

Directed by Nicole Newnham

In 1976, sex educator and feminist Shere Hite published The Hite Report, a comprehensive 638-page book detailing the results of her nationwide study of women’s sexuality. But just as swiftly as she was celebrated for unlocking the secrets to orgasmic pleasure, she was chastised, vilified and ostracized until she renounced her US citizenship and disappeared. “Through a litany of gorgeously collaged fragments of film, photos, sound bytes and letters, viewers come to know Shere Hite,” writes Madelina of the documentary The Disappearance of Shere Hite, going on to call it a “portrait of a well-intentioned and liberated woman pressed under the thumb of a patriarchal media and a deeply sexist culture.”

Narrated by the silky voice of Dakota Johnson, Nicole Newnham’s invigorating film is a must-watch if you, like Marya, lament our collective “loss of feminist knowledge”. Thankfully, its acclaimed premiere at Sundance and its 3.8 average rating on Letterboxd rating bodes well, and it seems as if the film is already introducing a new generation to Shere’s remarkable story: “I’m so glad this doc exists because it’s better late than never, of course, but what an embarrassment that she’s not a household name in the present day,” says Lisa. “Hoping this sparks a Sherenaissance.” MV

The Eternal Memory

Directed by Maite Alberdi

Two years after becoming the first Chilean female director to be nominated for an Oscar with The Mole Agent—also the first ever Chilean film to be nominated for Best Documentary—Maite Alberdi is back with another heartrending doc, The Eternal Memory. The winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, the film is a poignant portrayal of Augusto and Paulina, the former a retired journalist living with Alzheimer’s, the latter his loving wife, a lauded actress and activist.

“The juxtaposition of Augusto’s current fight with Alzheimer’s and his career as a television journalist during the Pinochet regime works beautifully,” Jeff says of Alberdi’s inspired intertwining of Augusto’s fight for preserving the memory of those lost under Pinochet’s ruthless dictatorship and the journalist’s own mental decay. “Augusto’s Alzheimer’s, meanwhile, makes him something of a perfect audience surrogate, as he takes the opportunity to re-learn and re-experience the most important times of his life,” he continues, dwelling on the film’s touching observation of the tender care the couple show for one another, their love as beautifully tangible two decades later on as it was the day they met. The result is a striking ode to love—bring tissues. RSR

Kokomo City

Directed by D. Smith

Introduced in 2010, Sundance’s NEXT section aims to “showcase innovative films that are able to transcend the confines of an independent budget.” It is no surprise, then, that the big winner of this year’s NEXT selection is D. Smith’s refreshingly insightful Kokomo City, a patchwork of testimonials by four Black trans sex workers in New York and Georgia shot in beautiful monochrome.

In a swift 70 minutes, first-time director D. Smith dissects the stigma of sex work, racism, transphobia, homophobia and more through a gorgeously shot and edited compilation of raw, intimate conversations imbued with loving empathy—plus one of the greatest final scenes of not only this year’s Sundance but perhaps of the entire year to come. Kevinyang summarizes it perfectly: “A talking heads doc featuring subjects so compelling and charismatic, and filmmaking so vibrant and energetic, that you often forget that’s the kind of doc you’re watching. It’s very short, so it doesn’t have the real estate to go much further as a project beyond simply letting these women tell their stories, but it doesn’t really need to.” RSR


Directed by Milisuthando Bongela

In Milisuthando Bongela’s personal essay documentary, Milisuthando, she reflects on her relationship to the Transkei, an 18-year-long pro-apartheid, Black separatist territory that dissolved with Mandela’s liberation and presidency. Through her use of poetic language, archival footage, and dense soundscapes, Bongela debuts a stirring film about the pockets of public memory that are left behind when history discludes particular definitions of home.

In Milisuthando, Bongela’s relatives recall Transkei songs and the feelings of possibility, ethnic solidarity and economic promise that drew them to resist apartheid in Transkei. Moreso, Bongela attempts to unravel her relationship to her Blackness—what it means to have been raised disparate from the notion that it was some intrinsic, despicable condition to then have to be reclaimed. It is the complex questions about race, memory, and whiteness that have struck audiences. AlexMichel writes, “I couldn’t stop crying. How do we act on our autonomy knowing we are products of history? How do we reckon with that generational trauma of our ancestors?” AT

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood 

Director Anna Hints

In Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, director Anna Hints meditates on the social rituals and physical spaces where a group of Estonian women find safety in their shared nakedness. Through a constellation of vulnerable conversations, we hear them discuss their perspectives on friendship, maternity, queerness and living with memories of assault. As they recall their lives, the stories and laughter of these women waft through the sauna as freely as the vapor that moves among them. Never are we called to gawk at their wet limbs, at sweat on bare backs or brimming breasts. Rather through Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, Hint expresses an interest in the body as a home for the soul—a vessel to be acknowledged and cared for by friends, by sisters, in the midst of life tumult.

For her sincere, open filmmaking, Hints received the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award. Her capacity to capture these women in their multiplicity similarly struck Claira, who believes that the word intimate was an “accurate” but incomplete way for ascribing the film’s mixture of conversation and nature scene. “How can something be so joyous and so mournful at the same time? So open and yet so sacred? So much shared laughter, so much shared pain. Sisterhood is forever.” AT

The Stroll

Directed by Zackary Drucker and Kristen Parker Lovell

We’ve seen a rise in discussion of “ethical filmmaking” in recent years, particularly in the world of documentary. Who has a right to tell certain stories, and where are the lines that shouldn’t be crossed when you’re dealing with real human beings? It’s fitting that The Stroll won a Special Jury Award at Sundance for clarity of vision, as Zackary Drucker and Kristen Parker Lovell’s film has exactly that. Parker Lovell is front and center here, utilizing her experience as a Black trans sex worker in New York’s Meatpacking District to harbor a safe space for other sex workers to be open and honest about their experiences on the job.

“This is an excellent example of how a documentary benefits from being helmed by someone who isn’t some detached, third-party observer. Stories should be told by the people who lived them,” praises Ripley of the film’s approach, which leads to what Delgales calls “a harrowing, yet liberating and tender story about transgender sex workers living on the margins of society, as they fought to survive in an ever changing NYC landscape of targeted policing, transphobia, racism, anti-poor legislation, gentrification etc. and how these external factors challenged their ability to live and exist.” MB

Twice Colonized

Directed by Lin Alluna

When Danish director Lin Alluna met Inuit activist Aaju Peters, she decided to make Twice Colonized, a documentary about Peters and her activist life in Canada and Denmark. The title applies to Aaju literally, as she was born and raised in Inuit Greenland (a Danish colony), then moved to an Inuit community in Canada. The director is not Native, but the two producers are—Alathea Arnaquq Baril is famed for Angry Inuk (Canada) and Emile Hertling Péronard made Sumé: The Sound of a Revolution (Greenland).

Twice Colonized succeeds as both a story of activism and a character study of survival, resilience and staying true to your Native self. Peters shines as she goes through an emotional rollercoaster on two continents. Her tenacity and refusal to be colonized gives us all hope. The film was one of Dillon Gonzales’ favorites at Sundance, who states it’s “a good balance of larger social justice with personal turmoil. May make you think differently about certain environmental issues.” Scott Renshaw found it “inherently compelling… to watch someone wrestle with the events that shaped her identity, the way Peter does, and to see such a mix of strength and pain in one person.” The film looks to be going on to further success, as it is opening the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival CPH:DOX in March. LK

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie

Directed by Davis Guggenheim

Celebrity documentaries take many forms, and “innovative” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but what Davis Guggenheim has done with the story of a superstar hiding his incurable disease from his colleagues and the world is the definition of original. The talking head is front and center—Michael J. Fox is a fantastic tale-teller, whether he is narrating his own story or answering Guggenheim’s questions—and his life is lovingly and creatively illustrated with footage from his own roles blended into reenactments you’d struggle to differentiate from the real thing.

It’s playful and energetic, like Fox himself, in a construction that Scott Renshaw observes “feels like a perfect match for the way the actor approaches his own life, trials and all.” “Yes, it is sentimental, but who cares when it is played so beautifully,” writes Dan Hudson. We ask so much of people whose only job, really, is to embody the role they’ve been cast in, and I’m very here for the documentaries in which public figures deconstruct their own lives (the recent Introducing, Selma Blair is another good one, as is this year’s Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields, which interrogates America’s hypocrisy around sexuality). GG

Further Reading


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