The U.S. Documentary Section of Sundance is usually the best place to get an early look at several future Oscar contenders, but I found the 2023 class to be the least dynamic in years. I should be clear: There are fantastic, necessary stories being told in these films. From explorations of fleeting celebrity to experimental art to deadly cults to totalitarian violence, there is a lot of immersive experience to be had. But I felt that many of the movies were too sluggish in terms of pacing, some almost to the point of stasis. As an artistic choice, the slow burn can be very effective. It carries risk, though, and many of this year’s docs suffered from energy readings near zero. But not all. Here are my top five.
The Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Documentary category went to “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project.” If you’ve not paid much attention to the life and work of America’s most iconoclastic activist poet, you should remedy that situation immediately. Nikki Giovanni is one of our most unapologetic thinkers and her opinions are as funny as they are sharp-edged. Directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson let Nikki tell her own story for much of the film, but the clips they chose from her 1971 conversation with James Baldwin are worth the price of admission by themselves.
Had the award been mine to give, however, I would have chosen “Beyond Utopia.” The audience at Sundance agreed. In the careful hands of director Madeleine Gavin, escapees from North Korea are featured during various parts of the perilous journey out of their oppressive homeland. From established expats to a family right in the middle of their dangerous passage, we see the cost of freedom played out in real time, thanks to some incredible hidden camera footage. Formerly secret aspects of life in North Korea are brought painfully into the light with first-rate editing and touching interview content.
I also enjoyed “Little Richard: I am Everything.” With so much archival material to work with, it could not have been easy to piece together this concise, cohesive portrait of rock and roll’s most unique founding father. Director Lisa Cortés deserves so much credit for telling Little Richard’s tale through the powerful forces—religion, sexuality, race—that shaped him with fire and fluidity. This is a loving portrait of a man who reminds us that traditional music history almost always leaves out the best parts.
Speaking of unconventional public personas, “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” was a highly illuminating study of late-20th-century stardom. Nicole Newnham, who co-directed “Crip Camp” at Sundance in 2020, returns with an intimate look at a true pioneer in the field of female intimacy. Shere Hite’s work as a researcher of sexuality in women was bestselling and divisive, earning her the scorn of powerful men from across the political/entertainment spectrum. Newnham made effective use of available video and Hite’s previously private journals to craft her arc. It all left me hungry for more information about Hite and her strange, strikingly individual life.
Last on my personal list for 2023 was “AUM: The Cult at the End of the World.” Documentaries about cults are plenty. It’s a rich field, with a lot of competition, so director Ben Braun’s compelling glimpse into the dark world of Shoko Ahasara and his Aum Shinrikyo followers was a real surprise. We all know about the 1995 Tokyo subway attacks, but there is so much more to this group’s troubling history. Kudos to Braun for making this old news new again.
The documentary field was perhaps a little weak, top to bottom, compared to the last couple of years. But the level of the best entries was as high as ever. We’ll be talking about a couple of them during next year’s award season, I’m sure.