On Set: Sundance gets back to normal with another fantastic competition

KHOL film critic Jeff Counts runs down his five favorite dramatic films from this year's edition of the Sundance Film Festival.
Photo credit: Focus Features

by | Feb 4, 2023 | Culture, Film & TV

The Sundance Film Festival got back to normal this year, with a full slate of in-person screenings and other events in Park City, Utah. Thankfully, it continued to provide a remote option for viewers like myself who prefer to avoid the crowds and lines. As I did during the past two festivals, I chose to focus on the U.S. Dramatic and U.S. Documentary categories in 2023. This meant viewing 24 films in 6 days, which I was able to watch from my very own comfy chair. It’s a fabulous way to experience Sundance and I hope they let me do it this way forever.

The 12 films of the U.S. Dramatic section covered a lot of common film festival ground. Black American and Indigenous culture featured prominently, as did the immigrant experiences of Vietnamese-, Japanese-, Korean- and Iranian-Americans. There was a trans story, multiple stories about loneliness and tale of forbidden love. All in all, the festival featured a strong mix of themes and approaches. Not, perhaps, as compelling as last year’s group, but solid and fascinating. I’ve said in the past that you can often feel which film is likely to win this category before the festival even starts (remember “CODA” in 2021?). But that wasn’t true this year. I believe five of these films could have credibly claimed the top award. Here’s my list.

“A Thousand and One” took home the Grand Jury Prize and I fully support the pick. This film tells the story of Inez and Terry, a mother and son against the world. This world, in this case, is the foster care, gentrification and racial isolation of 1990s New York. There’s a troubling secret at the heart of the plot, but the relationship between Terry and Inez is propulsive and genuine, right up to and including the incredible gut-punch of the final scene. The film has the advantage of outstanding performances and directing, and enough emotional complexity to break and re-build your heart.

“The Accidental Getaway Driver” won the Directing Award and it is a tour de force of pacing and patience. Sing J. Lee tells the story of Long, an elderly ride-share driver with a complicated past and an increasingly complicated present as three escaped convicts hire him for their getaway. Eighty percent of this movie in Vietnamese but it still feels like a very American fable on the in-betweenness of immigrants, and the consequential desperation of good men gone wrong.

I also really loved “Mutt,” starring Lio Mehiel as a young trans man negotiating the personal distances, some growing and others narrowing, between himself and his family, friends and old flames. The action takes place over a course of a single hectic day and the infectious honesty of Mehiel’s award-winning performance made this one of the most human experiences of the festival.

“Magazine Dreams” stars Jonathan Majors as a socially awkward bodybuilder who longs for acceptance in his everyday life and in the highly competitive (and often dangerous) sport he is obsessed with. It’s so easy to make a “Rain Man” caricature out of shy, uncomfortable people in film, but Majors (whose career is about to go supernova as Marvel’s next big villain) never allows Killian’s anger to become one-dimensional. His pain, physical and otherwise, is raw and candid.

Finally, there was “Fancy Dance.” This exploration of what it means to be a Native woman in today’s America both on and off the reservation is equal parts touching and harrowing. It’s a murder mystery, a road movie and a unconventional family saga all wrapped up in one gritty package. This movie, I hope, is an integral part of a new indigenous content wave, and it deserves a wide release over the next year. We need a thousand more scripts like this one.

Stay tuned next week for my report on the U.S. Documentary section of Sundance. Until then…

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About Jeff Counts

Before moving to Jackson in 2019, Jeff spent five years reviewing movies as co-host of the public access television program "Big Movie Mouth-Off." When not focused on film, Jeff writes about opera and co-hosts the classical music interview podcast "Ghost Light."

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