Culture / Entertainment

Sundance Returns With Major Brooke Shields and Michael J. Fox Moments, More Star Power and All the Snow

The Movie Magic Is Back to Its Imperfect But Wonderful In-Person Glory

BY // 01.21.23

PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival, granddaddy of independent cinema, has kicked off its 10-day run in this incredibly cold and snow-filled town. Last year Sundance was forced to cancel the in-person festival on short notice because of a spike in COVID cases, but quickly and successfully pivoted to a virtual format.

Let’s face it. Although watching a film in the comfort of your home is appealing, nothing compares with the magic and buzz of Park City, when all of Hollywood, New York, and tech companies involved in entertainment invade the town hoping to discover the next big hit. Not to mention seeing famous actors, producers, and directors in a relatively uncontrolled environment. I have been going to Sundance for 16 years now (11 as a reviewer) and the memories of sitting in front of a giggling Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she watched the premiere of RBG in 2018, or when my friend asked Anderson Cooper a question following the screening of the documentary Nothing Left Unsaid on his famous mother Gloria Vanderbilt are treasured and magical.

Sundance is not without its challenges. Last year’s quick pivot to a virtual format had festival organizers not refunding ticket purchases (about $75 each if purchased in advance), which understandably angered loyal moviegoers. Some have also rightly observed that an increasing number of films (20 percent this year) shown at Sundance had already been acquired by Netflix, Apple, and other streaming services, and will soon be making their debuts in living rooms. And, of course, there is the hassle factor of waiting in tents for a theater to open, getting from theatre to theater in Park City, a town that swells from 12,000 full-time residents to more than 100,000 people during Sundance, and dealing with the convoluted ticketing process.

All of this is to say that this year’s Sundance will be a pivotal year for the storied movie festival. Will people return after being able to watch movies virtually? Will there be a hidden gem such as CODA, Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet From Stardom, all of which were unknown but went on to nab Oscars?

Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival,has received record snowfall this year. Organizers are hoping for a break so showtime will replace snow time. (Courtesy the Sundance Institute)
Park City, home of the Sundance Film Festival,has received record snowfall this year. Organizers are hoping for a break so showtime will replace snow time. (Courtesy the Sundance Institute)

Confirming the importance of physical attendance, Sundance reinstated its in-person press conference, which had been discontinued in 2019 after founder Robert Redford announced he would no longer be the face of Sundance. Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente commented that even with the success of last year’s virtual format it is more important than ever to bring filmmakers together to open space for new ideas and stories

Over the 10 days in Park City, movie lovers can select from 110 feature length dramatic and documentary films and 64 short films culled from nearly 16,000 submissions. As in prior years, there are special premieres, edgy innovative storytelling and a small children’s program. The Beyond Film program brings major actors, political figures and global leaders in to discuss creativity, culture, storytelling and  issues that fuel the creative process of today’s independent artist.

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This year’s panelists include Dakota Johnson, Barry Jenkins, Jonathan Majors, Randall Park and Marlee Matlin among others. Sundance also wouldn’t be Sundance without lots of music. Folk rock duo Indigo Girls performed opening night with the premiere of their new documentary It’s Only Life After All.

Movies for Every Taste

Sundance’s 2023 slate includes a little bit of everything, although as in most years, many movies take up serious and sometimes heartbreaking subjects. There are at least two films on transgender issues, three on Iranian women, two on Ukraine and movies on relationships between couples, between mother and child, and between friends.

In the feature film category, Game of Thrones alum Emilia Clarke will be doing double duty as she appears in two movies — The Pod Generation, a sci-fi rom com which has already won a writing award, and the Amazing Maurice. Emilia Jones, the breakout star Best Picture Oscar Winner CODA, stars in two of the most eagerly anticipated flicks — Cat Person, based on a controversial and much discussed short story in The New Yorker about an older man and a college student; and Fairyland, in which Jones plays a grown-up version of a young girl raised by her gay father in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s. Produced by Sophia Coppola, this movie is already anticipated to be a standout.

Sundance Flexes Major Star Power

Other stars making the trek to Sundance to showcase movies this year include Anne Hathaway, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jennifer Connelly, Ben Whishaw, Daisy Ridley, Alexander Skarsgard, Jonathan Majors, Adam Lambert, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Phoebe Dynevor, Sarah Snook and Bella  Thorne.

My personal favorite film category is the documentaries of politicians, musicians, sports figures and those who have had impact on our world. This year it appears I have hit pay dirt with documentaries on Little Richard, Brooke Shields, Michael J. Fox, Steph Curry and Judy Blume. All those stars (except Little Richard who died in 2020) are expected to make an appearance.

And there is even more documentary star power.

Sundance film “going varsity in mariachi”
“Going Varsity in Mariachi” is a documentary that follows a South Texas high school school mariachi band (photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

Going Varsity in Mariachi follows the Edinburg North High School (from north of McAllen) mariachi band as it competes for the state championship. Film maker Alejandra Vasquez grew up in rural Texas and has won awards for her short films at SXSW. This doc’s executive producers include Houstonian Debbie McLeod, who has been highly successful serving as executive producer of award-winning films.

Willie Nelson & Family is the first and only documentary made about the iconic Texas music legend. Presented in five parts and totaling a whopping 260 minutes, its Sundance showing sold out in minutes. It chronicles the highs and lows of Nelson’s life and 70-year career through interviews with the man himself, his friends and family.

Jane Howze is managing director of The Alexander Group, a national executive search firm. She has reported on the Sundance Film Festival for 14 years. Follow her on Twitter @JaneHowze for more Sundance updates.

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