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Sundance Unveils an In-Person Lineup Filled With Stories of Anxiety and Urgency

Nothing has been easy for the Sundance Film Festival. It’s been thwarted by pandemic complications, management upheaval and a business that is undergoing an identity crisis. But the confab will finally return to the snowy mining town of Park City, Utah, in January for the first time in three years with a slate of films it hopes will announce to both Hollywood and the rest of the world that independent filmmaking is back.

Culled from a record 4,061 submissions, Sundance 2023, set to begin Jan. 19, will be filled with veteran filmmakers and those just starting out, subjects big and small, and a host of urgent topics. Stalwarts like Nicole Holofcener and Ira Sachs are returning to their roots with new films, while studios will unveil their fare.

A24 is premiering “All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt,” from the director Raven Jackson and producers Barry Jenkins and Adele Romanski, among others. Searchlight is screening “Rye Lane” from Raine Allen-Miller. Amazon has “Cassandro,” the documentarian Roger Ross Williams’s first foray into fiction filmmaking, and Focus Features is showing A.V. Rockwell’s “A Thousand and One” in the U.S. dramatic competition.

Brooke Shields (Disney), Judy Blume (Amazon), Michael J. Fox (Apple) Willie Nelson and Little Richard are all getting the documentary treatment, while subjects like the Ukrainian war and films both by and about Iranian women are being explored via multiple entries in multiple genres.

“A lot of the filmmakers are looking at relationships: family, work, institutions — things we often look to for stability in unstable times,” said John Nein, Sundance’s senior programmer and director of strategic initiatives. “In the program, there is a reflection of an age of anxiety in terms of the relationships we have with traditional institutions. There are all these ways of exploring just how tenuous those relationships can be.”

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  • Gotham Awards: At the first official show of the season “Everything Everywhere All at Once” won big.
  • Governors Awards: Stars like Jamie Lee Curtis and Brendan Fraser worked a room full of academy voters at the event, which is considered a barometer of film industry enthusiasm.
  • An Indie Hit’s Campaign: How do you make “Everything Everywhere All at Once” an Oscar contender? Throw a party for tastemakers.
  • Jennifer Lawrence:  The Oscar winner may win more accolades with her performance in “Causeway,” but she’s focused on living a nonstar life.

Indeed, Daisy Ridley plays a woman obsessed with her mortality in one of several films opening the festival, “Sometimes I Think About Dying”; Jonathan Majors stars as an amateur bodybuilder struggling to find human connection in “Magazine Dreams”; and Susanna Fogel directs Emilia Jones and Nicholas Braun in “Cat Person,” based on the popular New Yorker short story by Kristen Roupenian.

With anxiety comes antiheroes, who abound in films this year, the programmers say. These include Randall Park’s directorial debut, “Shortcomings,” about a cynical 20-something (Justin H. Min of “After Yang”) who traverses the country with two buddies looking for the ideal connection, and Sachs’s “Passages,” which challenges audiences with the terrible decisions made by the lead character (played by Franz Rogowski). Holofcener, who often traffics in the world of anxiety, has reteamed with Julia Louis-Dreyfus for “You Hurt My Feelings,” the story of a novelist whose long marriage is upended when she overhears her husband (Tobias Menzies) giving his honest reaction to her latest book. It also hails from A24.

Among documentaries, the filmmaker Luke Lorentzen follows an aspiring hospital chaplain on a yearlong residency in “A Still Small Voice,” which the director of programming Kim Yutani called “one of the more fascinating journeys I saw this year.”

It’s all happening at a time of transition for Sundance. The institute’s chief executive, Joana Vicente, only joined the group in September 2021, a few months before the festival was rocked for the second year in a row by Covid-19 and was forced to shift in January to a virtual format in light of the rise of the Omicron variant. Five months later, the festival director Tabitha Jackson announced her departure after just two years at the helm. She has since been replaced by the former New York Film Festival executive director Eugene Hernandez, who stepped into the role in November but will not oversee the event until 2024, the organization’s 40th anniversary.

“It was less than ideal,” Vicente said. “But I actually look at these past two years as incredibly successful festivals where we launched incredible films, some of which went on to win the Academy Awards,” she said, referring to “CODA,” the 2022 best picture winner. “We reached audiences in ways that we had not reached before, people who could not afford to come to Sundance, who thought Sundance maybe was not for them: film lovers, film students were able to connect and to discover these films.”

Sundance’s virtual platform allowed patrons from all around the country to access films that previously had been available only to those who trekked to the snowy mountain town of Park City. The 2022 festival received some 818,000 unique visitors to its online portal during its 10-day run. For 2023, of the 101 features screening at the festival, 75 percent will be made available to view remotely.

“We’re definitely prioritizing the in-person experience,” Vicente added. “But we are also continuing to build on what digital affords us in terms of reach and accessibility.”

Similar to 2022, when Sundance screened films on a pressing news topic — a documentary and a feature film on the pre-Roe underground abortion network the Jane Collective — this year, the programmers added three films made by Iranian women and two that chronicle the conflict in Ukraine, ripped-from-the-headlines subjects that are likely to prompt heady conversations.

In the U.S. dramatic competition, “The Persian Version” tells the screenwriter-director-producer Maryam Keshavarz’s story about a large Iranian American family that gathers for the patriarch’s heart transplant, only to have a family secret uncovered. “Shayda,” produced by Cate Blanchett’s company Dirty Films, is Noora Niasari’s feature debut about an Iranian mother who finds refuge in an Australian women’s shelter with her daughter when her estranged husband returns. And “Joonam,” competing in the U.S. documentary competition, tracks director Sierra Urich’s investigation into her mother and grandmother’s complicated pasts and her own fractured Iranian identity.

In the world documentary competition, Mstyslav Chernov’s “20 Days in Mariupol,” from Frontline and PBS, chronicles a team of Ukrainian journalists trapped in the besieged town and their struggle to document the atrocities. “Iron Butterflies,” from the director Roman Liubyi, investigates the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people. Three men with ties to Russian security services were convicted of murder by a Dutch court, but they are unlikely to be arrested.

“The excitement I have around this program is significant,” Yutani said. “I think the offerings take a viewer on a complete roller coaster. There are a lot of films that are going to really strike people in a personal way and touch them. I also think there are some real thrills. So I encourage people who are coming to the festival to take chances.”

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