Here Are Our Editors’ Picks From the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
The Sundance Film Festival officially concluded in January, but some of our editors’ favorite films are just coming out for the general public – like “Landscape With Invisible Hand,” which just dropped on Aug. 18. Every year, the highly anticipated film affair gathers critics, storytellers, and movie enthusiasts alike to observe the latest groundbreaking work from today’s most promising filmmakers and actors. POPSUGAR had front-row seats to all the best films.
Sundance’s 2023 slate included a whopping total of 99 feature films, which spanned everything from heart-wrenching dramas and eye-opening documentaries to stunning directorial and feature debuts. Before their wider releases, POPSUGAR previewed a medley of standout movies like “Magazine Dreams,” “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,” “Polite Society,” “Rye Lane,” and “Shortcomings.” So if you want to know what you should keep an eye out for, read ahead for all of our recommendations.
- “Elijah Bynum’s ‘Magazine Dreams’ will lure you in with Jonathan Majors’s massive muscles, but you’ll want to stay to see the actor’s hypnotizing performance. The brutal drama follows the story of antihero Killian Maddox (Majors), a tormented, fitness-obsessed bodybuilder grappling with childhood trauma, an explosive temper, and major insecurities as he yearns to one day see himself on magazine covers – just like his idol Brad Vanderhorn (played by Michael O’Hearn). As much as his physical transformation is evident, Majors’s acting chops are sharper than ever as he perfectly channels the persona of a man pushing his body (and mind) to the limit before ultimately spiraling out of control. The hard-to-watch scenes of ‘Magazine Dreams’ will twist your stomach in knots and nearly send you over the edge, but they prove just how captivating Majors is on the big screen.” – Njera Perkins, associate editor, celebrity and entertainment
- “Without a doubt, one of the best films to hit Sundance this year. Jonathan Majors shines in his role as Killian Maddox, a socially awkward bodybuilder yearning for connection, whether it be through landing a date with the co-worker he’s long had a crush on, gaining the approval of the bodybuilder competition judges who think his deltoids are too small, or the acknowledgment of his bodybuilding idol, Brad Vanderhorn. While Killian swears off junk food (it’ll kill you, he says), he pumps himself with steroids and cocaine, all in his quest to meet impossible bodybuilding standards. And yet, the “perfect” body is always just out of reach. Ultimately, Killian’s drive to be the best bodybuilder pushes those he yearns to connect with away as he hurtles right past rock bottom to dark places that are truly hard to watch. However, Majors’s layered performance won’t allow you to look away, or to ever stop rooting for him. While you may think you know where ‘Magazine Dreams’ is going, the conclusion will likely surprise you, and by the time the credits roll, it’ll be hard to imagine a world where Majors isn’t nominated for an Oscar for his performance.” – Noelle Devoe, senior editor, TV and movies
“‘Cat Person’ is a cringe, yet relatable and cautious tale about the horrors of modern dating, digging into the absolute worst-case scenario that occurs in the case of rejection. The ‘genre-bending thriller,’ based on The New Yorker’s 2017 viral fictional story written by Kristen Roupenian, follows college sophomore Margot (Emilia Jones), who goes out on a date with an older guy named Robert (Nicholas Braun) and finds herself in a bind when she discovers he’s not quite the person he appears to be via texts. Things then get complicated when Margot eventually tells Robert she’s no longer interested in him. What ensues after is an incredibly wild chain of events that lend necessary commentary about dating fears, women vs. men’s expectations, and how uncomfortable conversations can sometimes turn dangerous.” – Njera Perkins, associate editor, celebrity and entertainment
“A coming-of-age tale and the complicated bond between a father and daughter collide in ‘Fairyland.’ Directed by Andrew Durham, the 1970s-set film based on Alysia Abbott’s 2013 memoir follows Nessa Doughterty’s Alysia and her father, Steve (Scoot McNairy), to San Francisco after her mother dies in a car crash. While Steve tries to find himself in San Francisco’s gay scene amid the AIDS epidemic, Alysia wrestles with having too much independence and a distant parent. The heart of ‘Fairyland’ focuses on this single father-lost daughter narrative while also speaking truth to the AIDS crisis and its impact on the community that helped raise Alysia.” – Njera Perkins, associate editor, celebrity and entertainment
“If guts, gore, and vacation horror are your kind of thing, then ‘Infinity Pool’ is the trippy thrill for you. The NC-17 sci-fi satire introduces a married couple, James (Alexander Skarsgård) and Em (Cleopatra Coleman), whose perfect luxury beach vacation turns into a bloody nightmare when they meet another pair – Gabi (Mia Goth) and Alban (Jalil Lespert) – at their all-inclusive resort. After a drunk-driving accident lands James in jail where the penalty is death, he’s faced with two choices: be killed or pay a hefty price to watch a clone of himself be executed. The mortality cheat code then leads James and some new rich friends to a rampage of debauchery at their resort – which could involve anything from drug-fueled orgies to gruesome, consequence-free violence. Beware of this graphic flick, and be sure to watch it on an empty stomach.” – Njera Perkins, associate editor, celebrity and entertainment
"A Thousand and One"
“‘A Thousand and One’ tells the heartbreaking tale of a mother and son’s relentless fight to stick together against all odds in an ever-changing New York City. After Inez (Teyana Taylor) kidnaps her 6-year-old son, Terry, from his foster home, the pair bounce around from shelter to shelter until they settle into a small rental walkup. There, they spend their years keeping their dark secret hidden from the world until the powers that be threaten to destroy their facade. Taylor’s fierce performance in A.V. Rockwell’s writing and directing debut feature will tug on your heartstrings as she delivers a delicate ode to Black mothers and the power of family.” – Njera Perkins, associate editor, celebrity and entertainment
"Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields"
“‘Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields‘ is the iconic actor and former child model’s story told on her terms, offering a deep dive into what she experienced behind closed doors and the sexualization she was subjected to at a young age. The two-part documentary gives context to the controversies that plagued Shields and allows her to reveal some of her darkest revelations – from her mother’s alcoholism and exploitative roles she tackled as a teen to a harrowing account of her sexual assault. With insight from cultural experts and Shields’s close friends, ‘Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields’ uses the actor as a vessel to examine the entertainment industry’s toxic culture and mistreatment of young women.” – Njera Perkins, associate editor, celebrity and entertainment
“‘Shortcomings,’ directed by Randall Park, tells the story of Ben (Justin H. Min), who runs a cinema in the Bay Area. Over the course of the movie, he watches his life fall apart as his girlfriend and best friend both move across the country, and is forced to confront the root of some of his own bad behaviors. It’s a story about race, identity politics, sexuality, stereotypes, and toxicity. Ben is deeply unlikable throughout most of the movie, yet somehow he’s also very sympathetic. It’s full of heart, hilarity, and charm, and its characters are richly drawn, funny, and complex – overall, it’s an anti-rom-com that’s more than worth watching.” – Eden Gordon, assistant editor, celebrity and entertainment
“‘Polite Society,’ written and directed by ‘We Are Lady Parts’ creator Nida Manzoor follows Ria (Priya Kansara), a teen who desperately wants to grow up to be a professional stunt woman and spends days practicing her martial arts skills. When her sister drops out of art school and gets engaged, she finds herself in an action movie of her own as she tries to figure out just what’s really going on. It’s funny and over-the-top and a tribute to the power of sisterly love.” – Victoria Edel, staff writer, TV and movies
"Little Richard: I Am Everything"
“‘Little Richard I Am Everything’ is an eye-opening look at the profound and troubled life of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most innovative and undervalued architects. Through voiceovers, archived footage, and interviews with close friends, collaborators, and scholars, the documentary, directed by Lisa Cortés, peels back the layers of Little Richard’s origin story – from his humble beginnings in Macon, GA, to his conflicted life-long journey of reckoning with his identity as a Black queer individual. The film highlights his incredible trailblazing legacy, which was often subjected to the whitewashing tactics of the music industry that hardly ever gave the icon the respect he was due. While ‘Little Richard I Am Everything’ finally celebrates the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer’s contributions that shook up the entire world, it also uses his life story to start a dialogue about some of the culture’s core pillars – race, music, and queerness. ‘Little Richard I Am Everything’ does not yet have an exact release date, but according to Deadline, Magnolia Pictures – who has acquired the global rights to the documentary – plans to release it in April.” – Njera Perkins, associate editor, celebrity and entertainment
“‘Rye Lane’ is the imperfect meet-cute story that’ll make any hopeless romantic happy. Set in South London, the charming modern-day rom-com follows twenty-somethings Dom (David Jonsson) and Yas (Vivian Oparah), who serendipitously fall in love in a day’s time through a chance encounter in the bathroom. The pair, both reeling from bad breakups, help each other get over their nightmare exes while triumphantly restoring their faith in romance. The delightful film, directed by Raine Allen-Miller, highlights a new-age tale that balances witty humor and wild adventures against a vibrant London background.” – Njera Perkins, associate editor, celebrity and entertainment
“What happens when you mix hot teen romance with a classic werewolf tale? You get a steamy thriller starring Amandla Stenberg and Bobbi Salvör Menuez in a lesbian love story gone wrong. ‘My Animal,’ directed by Jacqueline Castel, follows tomboy outcast Heather, who carries the weight of the world on her shoulders on account of her oppressive family and alcoholic mother – oh, and her secret werewolf identity. She soon finds comfort in a budding bond with Jonny (Stenberg), who opens up her world and sexuality in more ways than one. The ’80s-set supernatural flick offers a new kind of queer teen romance with a plot that spins wildly out of control.” – Njera Perkins, associate editor, celebrity and entertainment
"Landscape With Invisible Hand"
“This understated sci-fi flick set in a near-distant future where aliens have colonized Earth packs so much commentary about issues affecting society today, from unchecked capitalism and the widening wealth gap to the re-writing of history by those in power and how social media can warp (or even destroy) our relationships. But even while hitting so many nuanced notes, the film ultimately tells a story of resilience: the lengths a family will go to to stay together, protect one another, and put one another first amid impossible odds.” – Noelle Devoe, senior editor, TV and movies
“As a musical theater person who always dreamed of going to theater camp as a kid, ‘Theater Camp’ was made for me. It was still even better than I expected. The movie is a mockumentary about a long-running, long-struggling theater camp that goes into turmoil when its leader Joan (Amy Sedaris) can’t run it one summer. Her son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) takes over, but he has no idea what he’s doing, earning the ire of all the teachers, especially Rebecca-Diane (Molly Gordon) and Amos (Ben Platt). As Troy comes up with hair-brained schemes to save the camp, they wrangle the kids to perform their musical tribute to Joan. The movie is deeply funny but also deeply moving (I did cry at the end), and while the adult cast – especially Noah Galvin as tech director Glenn – shine, the kids playing the campers really steal the show. Searchlight Pictures is giving this a theatrical release this summer, and I can’t wait to see it again.” – Victoria Edel, staff writer, TV and movies
“Though the raw documentary is shot in black-and-white, ‘Kokomo City’ paints a colorful picture of the struggles of four Black transgender sex workers in New York City and Georgia. Featuring social commentary about Black culture and society as a whole, the compelling directorial debut of D. Smith is an unfiltered look at these women’s lives that also rips into deep truths about sex, gender, and identity in America. ‘Kokomo City”s unapologetic attitude toward topics deemed too taboo for discussion is its most refreshing aspect.” – Njera Perkins, associate editor, celebrity and entertainment
"Young. Wild. Free."
“‘Young. Wild. Free.’ puts a twist on the classic coming-of-age trope with a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde story. Scraping by trying to find a way to care for his younger siblings and mother (played by Sanaa Lathan), struggling teen Brandon (Algee Smith) gets his world turned upside down when he meets the alluring Cassidy (Sierra Capri) and discovers the carefree lifestyle he’s always dreamed of. But when his newfound dangerous ways lead him to a crime of passion, Brandon fights to get his life back on track. The dramatic, Los Angeles-set film makes a subtle case for mental health while highlighting the everyday struggles of Black youth.” – Njera Perkins, associate editor, celebrity and entertainment
“Sports-themed underdog stories sometimes feel a little repetitive, but you can’t say that about ‘Cassandro,’ which stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the real luchador wrestler who changed the sport forever. Bernal’s performance is just phenomenal – funny and sharp and goofy and emotional and moving all at once. He’s joined by a great supporting cast, including ‘A League of Their Own”s Roberta Collindrez and Bad Bunny. It’s a love note to wrestling, to queer people, to adding glitter and sparkles and life into every room until you make them love you.” – Victoria Edel, staff writer, TV and movies
“‘Fremont’ tells the story of Donya (Anaita Wali Zada), a twenty-something Afghan woman who’s moved to Fremont in California and spends her days making fortune cookies in San Francisco. In Afghanistan, she was a translator for the army, ostracizing her from many members of the community and her own family. But it would be wrong to say this movie is depressing. It’s an interesting, layered slice-of-life film full of performances that feel weird and specific in interesting ways. Jeremy Allen White shows up late in the third act, and he and Zada shine together on screen. – Victoria Edel, staff writer, TV and movies
"The Disappearance of Shere Hite"
“After I watched this, I ended up bringing it up in every conversation I had for the rest of the weekend. The documentary tells the story of sex researcher Shere Hite, who helped change the way we talk about sex – and women’s relationships to it – before being destroyed by the American media for ‘man bashing.’ Her research and life are so interesting, and the way the media tore her apart is still (unfortunately) so timely.” – Victoria Edel, staff writer, TV and movies
"The Starling Girl"
“Eliza Scanlen stars as Jem, a 17-year-old girl raised in a restrictive religious community. She’s a model Christian – she’s kind, she’s a good big sister, she does liturgical dance. But when she finds herself attracted to young (and married) pastor Owen (Lewis Pullman), her life spins out of control. Scanlen is great as Jem, and Pullman walks the line between perfect dream boy and skeevy creep very, very well.” – Victoria Edel, staff writer, TV and movies
“Co-director Kristen Lovell does a stunning job of bringing the history of New York’s Meatpacking District to life in this incredibly important and riveting documentary. ‘The Stroll’ focuses on the trans women of color who found community and survival as sex workers on the same street the film is named after, where they did most of their business. It does an extraordinary job of covering the joys and terrors and nuances of their lived experiences. It also paints a portrait of New York’s transformation over the years, emphasizing the way police and violence were used to transform and gentrify lower Manhattan, disrupting the nascent communities and refuges that formed there in the process. The best part of this documentary is that it features so many real stories from the women who it focuses on, and it gives airtime to both the grit and the beauty of their lives. Everyone should watch it.” – Eden Gordon, assistant editor, celebrity and entertainment