The Sundance Film Festival has always been a great way to start the year for film buffs. And — after two years of being a completely virtual event due to the pandemic — in 2023, the festival has returned with a new hybrid format. That means there’s still an online portion, but the in-person part is back, with attendees descending on Park City, Utah, to catch movies in theaters. In the past few years, notable films like Hereditary and After Yang have made a splash at the festival, and in 2023, there will be premieres like The Pod Generation, Infinity Pool, and Cat Person (based on the New Yorker short story) to keep an eye on.
The Verge will be watching as many Sundance movies as humanly possible and bringing you the latest and most interesting developments right here.
As always, Sundance is a great preview for the year ahead, a chance to get a glimpse at some of the indie films that will be hitting theaters and streaming services over the coming months. This year, the festival returned to an in-person format after a few years online, and the lineup was pretty solid. It was a particularly good year for horror, with stories about evil fairies, depraved vacations, cursed hands, and a reimagining of Frankenstein. We also got some interesting new science fiction — including a movie that Hideo Kojima will almost definitely love — and plenty more.Read Article >
Here are a handful of our favorites to keep an eye on.
Out of all the films that debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, none were quite as visually striking as Nigerian writer / director C.J. Obasi’s Mami Wata, a monochromatic modern-day myth about a small village during a time of upheaval. One doesn’t need to be familiar with Mami Wata’s eponymous embodiment of the divine feminine to appreciate its story about multiple generations of women doing everything in their power to keep their people safe. But as you let Mami Wata wash over you, the film paints a picture of people fighting to understand their beliefs in forces larger than themselves. And in each of those people, you can see shades of Mami Wata.Read Article >
Set in a small village called Iyi, Mami Wata tells the tale of three women whose lives have been shaped by their people’s devotion to a powerful goddess of water, wealth, and health. Through her priestess Mama Efe (Rita Edochie), Mami Wata is said to dole out protection, advice, and good fortune to the faithful who are willing to honor the deity’s traditions that have been passed down through their culture for generations.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a group of high school kids gets their hands on a cursed occult object, and after some fun and games, they end up being terrorized by a presence from the other side. It’s not the most original premise. But in Talk To Me — the directorial debut from brothers Danny and Michael Philippou, best known for their YouTube channel — it takes on a new urgency and ferocity with a story that races to its bloody, brutal conclusion without letting up.Read Article >
The occult object in question is an embalmed hand that supposedly has the power to let people see, and be possessed by, the spirits of dead folk. The process is straightforward: you grab the hand, say “talk to me” to summon a random specter, and then say “I let you in” to invite them to inhabit your body. It’s creepy stuff, and easy to repeat, making it the ideal thing for viral video fame. Suddenly, high school kids in Australia are watching videos of what appear to be possessions, sometimes ending in a splash of blood. Of course, it’s just a hoax, right?
When Jonathan Majors takes to the bodybuilding competition stage in writer / director Elijah Bynum’s arresting new drama Magazine Dreams, it’s impossible not to feel as if the movie’s in direct conversation with the way that its lead star’s fame has become wrapped up in the public’s fascination with his body. Magazine Dreams’ deep dive into the life of an obsessive, aspiring pro lifter longing for a shot at fitness fame is one of the most difficult pieces of cinema to debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. But as it’s breaking your heart and making you sweat, Magazine Dreams is also laying bare many painful truths about what it means to be trapped in a world where objectification and dehumanization are the prices you have to pay for a shot at stardom.Read Article >
Magazine Dreams tells the story of Killian Maddox (Majors), a painfully shy grocery store clerk who lives in a small home on the outskirts of Los Angeles with his elderly grandfather William (Harrison Page) and spends his days fantasizing about what it would be like to grace the cover of periodicals like Men’s Fitness. When he isn’t pushing his body up to and past its breaking point in the gym, Killian’s inhaling thousands of calories to keep himself going or recording videos of himself posing in his garage before nervously uploading them to his YouTube page in hopes that people will notice him.
It does not take long for In My Mother’s Skin to get gross. Within its first few minutes, the horror film from writer and director Kenneth Dagatan subjects you to some truly gruesome images of flesh-eating creatures, and honestly, it never really lets up. This is a blood-soaked fairy tale, one that mashes together folklore and history in a way that’s reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s defining work, Pan’s Labyrinth — only it’s a lot scarier.Read Article >
The movie is set in the Philippines in 1945 in the waning days of World War II, with Japanese forces occupying the country. Things are bleak. Early on, you hear kids sharing horrible stories about the barbaric acts of the Japanese soldiers, and the family at the center of the story is getting by on whatever scraps of food they have left. It only gets worse from there. The story follows young Tala (Felicity Kyle Napuli) as she deals with a mounting number of problems. First, her father, who is under investigation for stealing gold from the Japanese, flees to help the Americans. Then her mother’s (Beauty Gonzalez) illness worsens to the point that she can’t leave her bed.
In writer / director Sophie Barthes’ peculiar new sci-fi satire The Pod Generation, there’s little doubt or disagreement about how overworked, hyper-surveilled, and disconnected from nature many people are. Set in a near future where things like freshly 3D-printed toast have become the norm, most everyone understands how deeply messed up it is that their child-obsessed society’s given up on any semblance of a public educational system. People who have quality healthcare through their jobs know that they’re a privileged class, and it’s no secret how that kind of stratification can be harmful. It’s just that people are far, far too enamored with and preoccupied by the beautifully designed technology that controls most aspects of their lives to care.Read Article >
While that old romantic spark doesn’t always burn as bright as it used to between rising tech exec Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and her longtime partner Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a botanist, things are mostly good, and there’s peace in their luxurious New York City home. As an enlightened man of the future, Alvy has no issues with the fact that Rachel’s salary eclipses his many times over, and Rachel is part of a generation of women who grew up knowing that they would become the primary breadwinners in their households. Men are still present in The Pod Generation’s workforce to a certain extent. But more often than not, it’s women who are making deals, calling shots, and taking home the biggest paychecks, in large part because of technological advancements like artificial, detachable wombs.
In Landscape With Invisible Hand, the alien invasion doesn’t incite violence or an all-out galactic war: it screws up the economy. The sci-fi flick from director Cory Finley, based on a novel by M. T. Anderson, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It takes place in a future where an alien race has descended on Earth, bestowing advanced technology and the riches that come with it — but only for the human elite. What follows is a somewhat messy fable about capitalism and art, one that looks at the aftermath of an invasion rather than the event itself.Read Article >
The movie takes place in the 2030s, around five years after the arrival of the Vuuv, an advanced species that aren’t physically intimidating — they look like uncooked turkeys and communicate by scraping their flippers together — but nonetheless have managed to completely shift the power balance on Earth. They do this through their advanced technology that only the very elite can afford access to (and which, frustratingly, we actually see very little of in the film). But by the time Landscape With Invisible Hand is set, they’re firmly entrenched. Rich humans live in hovering cities in the sky alongside the Vuuv, while everyone down on the surface is just trying to survive.
There are multiple moments throughout director Laura Moss’ brilliant new psychological horror drama Birth/Rebirth that are so abjectly brutal that the festival goers who reportedly fell ill while watching the movie at this year’s Sundance could almost be forgiven for their theatrics. Birth/Rebirth’s story of two unlikely kindred spirits finding one another in the midst of tragedy is both disturbing and moving as it reworks pieces of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein into a modern-day myth about motherhood and mortality.Read Article >
Between its unflinching focus on the dangers of pregnancy and its depiction of the violence hidden throughout the US healthcare system, Birth/Rebirth might leave you feeling deeply unsettled. But as macabre as the movie gets, its grimness never comes close to feeling gratuitous, which is saying something given just how increasingly dark Birth/Rebirth becomes as its story unfolds.
Jan 25Apple jumps into the Sundance frenzy.
Not be outdone by Amazon and Netflix, both of which have scooped up new films at Sundance, Apple is now getting in on the action. Deadline reports that the company has acquired the rights to the musical drama Flora and Son from director John Carney. It’s particularly notable because a previous Sundance acquisition from Apple, CODA, went on to win best picture at the 2022 Oscars.
It’s pretty easy to look at a film title like Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out — which, from now on, I’m just calling Aliens Abducted My Parents — and roll your eyes. It’s just so goofy. (And admittedly makes it really hard to write a headline for.) But it’s also incredibly fitting and does a great job of selling what this movie is all about. Director Jake Van Wagoner’s Aliens Abducted My Parents, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is a lighthearted mashup of a family-friendly caper and coming-of-age tale, one that does just enough weird sci-fi stuff to help it get away with an otherwise formulaic story.Read Article >
Ten years ago, a young Calvin (Jacob Buster) was waiting on his roof with his dad (Will Forte) trying to catch a glimpse of a comet when his life changed forever, as both of his parents mysteriously disappeared. For the next decade, stuck in the small Utah town of Pebble Falls, Calvin became obsessed with the idea that they were abducted by aliens, spending almost every second preparing himself for the comet’s return and their reunion. That involved learning everything he could about space travel, building his own cobbled-together astronomy tools, and even wearing a homemade spacesuit to class for testing. Flash forward to high school and, as you can imagine, he’s not exactly the most popular guy.
- Netflix keeps shopping at Sundance.
After picking up the rights to the horror film Run Rabbit Run, Netflix has made another acquisition at the Sundance Film Festival, snagging the psychological thriller Fair Play, helmed by writer and director Chloe Domont. Deadline reports the deal is “in the $20 million range.”
Even the worst vacation you’ve ever had — screaming kids, delayed flights, cruise ship food poisoning — has nothing on Infinity Pool, the latest from director Brandon Cronenberg (son of body horror master David Cronenberg). What starts as an escape to a picturesque resort swiftly turns into a bizarre and gruesome game of violence and brutality, with a little existential horror thrown in for good measure. Infinity Pool doesn’t fully explore the elements that kick off its high-concept premise, but it’s worth it to watch two talented actors absolutely lose their shit.Read Article >
The film takes place in the fictional country of Li Tolqa, where James (Alexander Skarsgård) and his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman) are taking an all-inclusive vacation at a peaceful resort. James is in search of inspiration: his debut book came out six years ago, promptly flopped, and he’s struggling with the follow-up, only able to survive because Em’s family owns a sprawling publishing empire. Eventually, the couple meets Gabi (Mia Goth), one of the book’s rare and elusive fans, and her partner, Alban (Jalil Lespert), and start hanging out.
- Polite Society looks like it might be Sundance’s most kick-ass debut.
Out of context, the concept of bending it like John Wick might not make all that much sense, but that’s exactly the energy all throughout a new trailer for director Nida Manzoor’s debut film Polite Society premiering at Sundance this year.
Set in London, Polite Society tells the story of a young woman who sees her sister’s sudden and inexplicable impending wedding as an opportunity to finally become an action movie stuntwoman — the kind capable of saving a loved one from a marriage they don’t really want.
- Hey so, Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out?
There might not actually be any extraterrestrials in director Jake Van Wagoner’s Aliens Abducted My Parents and Now I Feel Kinda Left Out. But a new trailer that’s dropped ahead of its Sundance debut makes the movie’s story about a space-obsessed boy convinced that his parents have been taken off-planet, and a neighbor who’s willing to hear him out seem like a heartwarming, Spielbergian sort of affair.
Jan 19Netflix is calling dibs on Daina Reid’s Run Rabbit Run.
The Australian psychological horror tells the story of a woman and her daughter struggling to hold onto one another after a mysterious and ominous rabbit turns up one set, and a series of strange happenings begin to tear the family apart.
Jan 19Let the Sundance acquisitions begin.
The Sundance Film Festival isn’t just a great place to catch the latest indie films, it’s also where companies — include the big streaming services — go shopping for new content. This year’s edition just started, and we already have one acquisition: Amazon bought the rights to Filipino horror fairy tale In My Mother’s Skin, which is due to hit Prime Video by the end of 2023.
Jan 18The 2023 Sundance Film Festival kicks off tomorrow.
And I’ll be covering it alongside my colleague Charles Pulliam-Moore, so expect plenty of reviews and thoughts over the next 10 days, as we gorge ourselves on movies. One of the premieres I’m most excited about is Birth/Rebirth, from director Laura Moss, a reimagining of Frankenstein that just got a very cool poster that has me even more intrigued.