Sundance 2023 Delivers an Aura of Studio Excitement and Powerful Films

Ben Friedman


Another year, another Sundance Film Festival concludes, yet unlike previous years, an aura surrounded the event. A feeling of mysticism, studio excitement, and celebrity influence. All of Hollywood was paying attention to the festival, hoping beyond hope that they would be the one to land the next CODA. Less than a year ago, CODA shocked at the Academy Awards by winning the Best Picture prize. While studios have certainly found Oscar success at Sundance with films such as The Usual Suspects, Boys Don’t Cry, Little Miss Sunshine, and Whiplash all premiering at the festival, none of these films ever went on to win Best Picture.


Now following the success of CODA, the 2023 Sundance Film Festival became the topic of far greater anticipation. Given that Apple paid 25 million dollars for the rights to release CODA on its streaming service, film studios responded by bringing deep pockets to this year’s festival. Many of the festival’s popular entries such as Flora and Son and Fair Play sold as high as $20 million to Apple and Netflix, respectively. Yet, as the business aspect of Sundance rages on, the festival once again proved itself by having a plethora of wonderful films from diverse filmmakers all over the world.


Here are some of the best films I saw at Sundance 2023:



Best Documentary: 20 Days In Mariupol

While reporting on the Sri Lankan Civil War, journalist Marie Colvin wrote, “It has always seemed to me that what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is really important to tell people what really happens in wars.” In 20 Days in Mariupol, video journalist Mstyslav Chernov serves to remind viewers of the true horrors of war.

The documentary follows Ukrainian journalists left in the city of Mariupol as Russia invades. Their bravery televised to the world the horrors of Putin’s aggression. 20 Days in Mariupol follows the lives of the Mariupol citizens as they realize Russia’s army grows steadily closer.

The footage captured by Chernov and his team is often inhumane, unsettling, and horrific, yet the camera is unflinching. In capturing videos of parents sobbing as their child lays dead besides them, the bombs engulfing the city, and the terror of the Ukrainian people, the documentary is a harrowing look at Russia’s war crimes, as well as documenting the importance of a free press.



Best Performance: Jonathan Majors – Magazine Dreams

In T-Minus one month Jonathan Majors will catapult to stardom with his debut as Kang the Conqueror in the MCU, as well as costarring alongside Michael B. Jordan as the antagonist in Creed III. If performances in films like The Harder They Fall and The Last Black Man in San Francisco showcased Major’s acting chops, then his performance as bodybuilder Killian Maddox in Magazine Dreams solidifies his acting prowess.

Directed by Elijah Bynum, Magazine Dreams shares much in common with Taxi Driver -- a disgruntled, socially awkward, violent man who desires fame and love. While Bynum’s film lacks the subtlety of Martin Scorsese’s direction, Majors succeeds where the film falters.

At every turn Killian is unpredictable. Majors gives the character enough sympathy for the audience to feel empathetic but can strip it away at any given moment. The way Majors can contort his body is truly unnerving. Do not be surprised if in a year’s time you hear Jonathan Major’s named called out for an Oscars nomination.



The Funniest Movie - Theater Camp

Let’s be honest, Ben Platt (Dear Evan Hansen) starring in a comedy about musical theater camp could have been terrible. After the disastrous reception of the film adaptation Dear Evan Hansen, which saw 28-year-old Platt playing the titular teenage boy role, it felt as is Platt’s good will had run out. Yet, Theater Camp showcases the actor’s strengths and gives him a role far more suitable for his age.

Produced by Will Ferrell, the film follows a camp on the verge of bankruptcy after the founder falls into a coma forcing her frat bro son Troy (Jimmy Trato) to take her place and save the camp.

Ben Platt and Molly Gordon costar as two counselors forced to work side by side with Troy. The trio’s chemistry is delightful,  and Trato’s comedic abilities are pitch-perfect --  providing the film with its biggest laughs.

Yet the film’s strengths lie in its emotional center, largely provided by co-director, writer, and star of the film Molly Gordon. Theater Camp is a laugh-out-loud riot that pokes fun at musical theater culture, while also serving as a love letter about musical theater.



Most Underrated Movie - Mutt

While not the flashiest film out of Sundance, Mutt was by far the most human story I saw during the festival. The film follows Fena, a trans man as he comes to terms with important relationships in his life. The film, which takes place all within a 24-hour span, allows audiences a glimpse into a lifestyle they may be unfamiliar with and helps to further de stigmatize stereotypes within the trans community.

Leo Mihiel’s quiet performance is drenched in pathos allowing the film to feel deeply personal. Watching the film, I felt as if I was intruding. Mutt never concerns itself in telling Fena’s life story, opting instead to focus on the day-to-day relationships and the ever-growing importance of being seen and heard.



Best Movie – Fair Play

The buzziest film out of Sundance, Chloe Domont’s directorial debut is a psychological-erotic-thriller featuring two hot young stars giving the material their all. Fair Play follows Emily and Luke, co-workers and secret lovers whose relationship is pushed to the brink when one of them receives a promotion at a cutthroat hedge fund that the other believed they were due.

The film stars Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton) and young Han Solo star himself Alden Ehrenreich (who coincidentally has not made a film since Solo: A Star Wars Story). The two stars are an electric pairing, working in tangent to create an atmosphere where the tension feels tangible.

Ehrenreich’s portrayal of Luke brings forth the actor’s natural on-screen charisma. Yet behind Luke’s devilish good looks, confident smile, and impressive physical demeanor lies something ugly – jealousy. Juxtaposed with Emily, who is a young, attractive woman forced not only to adapt but thrive in the “bro” culture that is Wall Street, allows Domont to explore the corrupting grasp of American capitalism on Generation-Z relationships.


Author Bio:

Ben Friedman is a freelance film journalist and a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. For more of his reviews, visit, his podcast Ben and Bran See a Movie, or follow him on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube: The Beniverse


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Source:

--Travis Wise (, Creative Commons)


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