In the grand scheme of things, the plight of the movie-mad critic let loose at a film festival probably rests at the bottom of the list of dire things in this world, but allow me to whine for a moment. You will never see everything you want to see in a festival - and isn’t that true in real life? -. Film festivals can get the worse out of you. Anxiety sets in as you scan the program. You want to see everything but there is not enough time, or tickets, or hours in the day if you are doing it virtually. The 2023 Sundance Film Festival programmed 111 feature-length movies, about 74 of which were available online for virtual coverage. This year, I saw 32 titles in 8 days. I do not include a Midnight selection that put me to sleep like a log - granted, that was the day of 5 movies, so no shade to Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls. Maybe I’ll see you for real down the line! -. By now, I set my limit of four movies per day, with breaks in the middle for eating, writing, or taking a power nap.
Just as you can’t see everything, you can’t possibly guess what the jury and the audience will consider worthy of awards, 41 to be precise. Luckily, the Festival programs extra screenings on the final weekend. That allowed me to catch some of them. To close down our official coverage of this year’s Festival, here’s the last Virtual Dispatch with flash reactions on some winners. Fear not, we will track Sundance movies and their filmmakers as they hit release day throughout the year.
A THOUSAND AND ONE
The U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize is a straightforward, true-to-life drama about a woman’s desperate attempts to build a family for herself. Inez (Teyana Taylor) is a young black woman in early 90's New York. Fresh out of jail for a petty drug-selling charge, he makes amends with little Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) and rescues him from a foster home. She even gives him a conflicted but good father figure in boyfriend Lucky (William Catlett). But Inez fails to follow the rule of law when it comes to assembling her family and setting up herself and those she loves for a lot of grief. Taylor gives a star-making performance, and director A.V. Rockwell creates a true-to life capsule of early-21 Century urban New York in the throes of gentrification.
Winner of the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award: Creative Vision. Alana Alaoui’s low-key apocalyptic drama portrays an alien invasion through the eyes of a sheltered, pampered pregnant young woman (Oümaima Barid) who married into a fabulously privileged family. When disaster strikes, she is fortuitously left alone in their mansion. To save herself from impending doom, she will have to venture out of her gilded cage and into the real world, made even harsher by impending doom. Animals seem in tune with the invaders, who mostly remain off-camera. A strikingly spiritual work, which would make a killer double-feature with Sorcery (Christopher Murray, 2023).
A STILL SMALL VOICE
Luke Lorentzen won the U.S. Documentary Directing Award for this intimate look at a chaplain residency program in New York’s Mount Sinai hospital. The main subject is Margaret, a young Jewish woman in a testy relationship with her supervisor, Reverend John. We follow her as she visits patients to offer emotional and spiritual support. John leads group meetings and goes to virtual therapy. The ever-present face masks bring pandemic stress to the forefront. As Mati and John fall out, we measure the difficulty of communication and the human cost of doing good. I am always amazed at how willing people can be to expose themselves, and their vulnerabilities, to filmmakers. Such is the case with A Still Small Voice.
The Audience Award for U.S. Documentary deservedly went to this hard-hitting portrait of defectors from North Korea on their dangerous trek to freedom. The principal plot strand follows a family of five that includes an 82 years old grandmother, betting their lives on crossing the border and three countries hostile to their plight. Cellphone cameras allow for harrowing images of their flight for freedom. Eye-opening context comes from never-before-seen coverage of daily life in this so-called paradise, smuggled out of the country.
Lio Mehiel won an acting U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for their role as Feña, a young trans man juggling emotionally charged encounters with three different people during one eventful weekend: teenage half-sister Zoe (MiMi Rider) escapes from school in quiet rebellion against their mother; former boyfriend John (Cole Doman), a straight white man, bumps into Feña for the first time since transitioning; and more significantly, father Pablo (Alejandro Goic) is flying in from Chile to New York. Writer and director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz creates a vivid portrait of the life of young adults in New York and hints at two different transitioning processes between genders and cultures.
I had big expectations for this documentary dedicated to exploring the pervasiveness of cameras in our daily life. Alas, directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck only offer dish-deep insights in their collage of facts and clips from film, TV, and social media. It is flashy and mildly entertaining, which might be the reason behind the inexplicable it getting a World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Vision. As a thank-you, the Festival got the filmmakers to mimic executive producer Ruben Östlund’s annoying screaming pose during a photocall, you know, the one he makes whenever he gets a prize. If you want a better film about the subject, reach out to last year’s Sundance selection All Light, Everywhere (Theo Anthony, 2021).
WILL YOU LOOK AT ME
Chinese filmmaker Shuli Huang earned the Nonfiction Short Film Jury Award with this pristine example of confessional cinema. A deceptively rough assembly of home movies shot in film stock introduces us to his family and friends. The young people live in a state of flux, inching towards adulthood, and the elders remain set in their ways. Sexual identity seeps in as Huang introduces his partner, leading to a confrontation with his mother. We only get the audio, perhaps of a desperate phone call. Few movies are able to portray the violence of family rejection in all its force, but this short film achieves it in all its gut-wrenching effects. Perhaps you would have to go to the fictional Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011) to get something equally powerful.
Check out all the winners at Sundance 2023, with links to our published reviews.
U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize: A.V. Rockwell, A THOUSAND AND ONE
U.S. Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson, GOING TO MARS: THE NIKKI GIOVANNI PROJECT
World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic: Charlotte Regan, SCRAPPER
World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, Documentary: Maite Alberti, THE ETERNAL MEMORY
Festival Favorite Award
Christopher Zalla, RADICAL
Audience Award, U.S. Documentary: Madeleine Gavin, BEYOND UTOPIA
Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic: Maryam Keshavarz, THE PERSIAN VERSION
Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic: Noora Niasari, SHAYDA
Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary: Mstyslav Chernov, 20 DAYS IN MARIUPOL
Audience Award NEXT: D. Smith, KOKOMO CITY
Jury Awards for Directing, Screenwriting, and Editing
Directing Award, U.S. Documentary: Luke Lorentz, A STILL SMALL VOICE
Directing Award, U.S. Dramatic: Sing Lee, THE ACCIDENTAL GETAWAY DRIVER
Directing Award, World Cinema Documentary: Anna Hints, SMOKE SAUNA SISTERHOOD
Directing Award, World Cinematic Dramatic: Maria Kavtaradze, SLOW
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic: Maryam Keshavarz, THE PERSIAN VERSION
Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award: U.S. Documentary: Daniela I. Quiroz, GOING VARSITY IN MARIACHI
Special Jury Awards
U.S Dramatic Special Jury Award Ensemble: THEATER CAMP
U.S Dramatic Special Jury Award: Creative Vision: Elijah Byrnum, MAGAZINE DREAMS
U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award, Acting: Lio Mehiel, MUTT
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award, Clarity of Vision: Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker, THE STROLL
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award, Freedom of Expression Rebecca Landsberry-Baker, and Joe Peeler, BAD PRESS
World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award, Creative Vision: Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck, FANTASTIC MACHINE
World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award, Verité Filmmaking: Sarvnir Kaur, AGAINST THE TIDE
World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award, Creative Vision: Sofia Aloui, ANIMALIA
World Cinema Dramatic: Special Jury Prize for Cinematography: Lilis Soares, MAMI WATA
World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award, Best Performance: Rosa Marchant, WHEN IT MELTS
Next Innovator Award: D. Smith, KOKOMO CITY
Short Film Awards
Short Film Grand Jury Prize: Kayla Abuda Galang, WHEN YOU LEFT ME ON THAT BOULEVARD
Short Film Jury Award, U.S. Fiction: Crystal Kayza, REST STOP
Short Film Jury Award, International Fiction: Sophia Mocorrea, THE KIDNAPPING OF THE BRIDE
Short Film Jury Award, Animation: Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis, THE FLYING SAILOR
Short Film Jury Award, Nonfiction: Shuli Huang, WILL YOU LOOK AT ME
Short Film Special Jury Award, International Directing: Valeria Hoffman, AlieEN0089
Short Film Special Jury Award, U.S. Directing: Jarred Carrillo, THE VACATION
Previously granted prizes
Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize: THE POD GENERATION
Sundance Institute / Amazon Studios Producers Award for Nonfiction: Jess Delaney, IT’S ONLY LIFE AFTER ALL
Sundance Institute / Amazon Studios Producers Award for Fiction: Kara Durrett, THE STARLING GIRL
Sundance Institute / Adobe Mentorship Award for Nonfiction: Mary Manhardt
Sundance Institute / Adobe Mentorship Award for Nonfiction: Troy Takaki
Sundance Institute / NHK Award: Olive Nwosu, LADY
Sundance Institute / Stars Collective Imagination Awards: Tamara Shogaolu, 40 ACRES
Navid Khonsari and Andres Perez Duarte, BLOCK PARTY BODEGA: Vanessa Keith, YEAR 2180
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