The last time I went to the Sundance, Film Festival we all returned to Los Angeles and three months later there was a global pandemic. After going virtual in 2021, Park City was about to open its doors for a 2022 in-person fest but COVID’s edgier cousin Omicron flew in and said, “Not so fast…” The fest ended up going virtual with a very light peppering of in-person events.

This brings us to Sundance 2023. COVID be damned, this fest was going to happen in person whether you liked it or not — and it did. People were chomping at the bit to put on their Sorel snow boots, dust off their Uniqlo parka and head to the snowy cinematic landscape of Park City to experience this iconic indie fest.

Sundance must’ve learned from TIFF’s return (which included online ticketing fiascos that unraveled into more speed bumps) because it felt like it was business as usual for the Park City fest. For the most part, it felt like it didn’t skip a beat despite having a physical absence for two years. The feeling of altitude loopiness and windedness immediately inhabited my system. It was a familiar feeling — but in the first time in the many times I have been to Sundance, it was the first time I actually had the opportunity to engage and — dare I say enjoy the fest without any stress or pressure.

There was no studio I had to sit in for the entirety of the day and there were no anxiety-ridden deadlines for capsule reviews at the end of the night. I was there supporting GLAAD and also participating in events up and down the Main Street corridor, the epicenter of Sundance.

Anyone who was anyone had a “house” on Main Street: The Latinx House, the MACRO Lodge, the Blackhouse Foundation Lodge, Illuminative’s Indigenous House, 1497’s South Asian House, the Outfest Outpost, as well as 3AD, Gold House and TAAF‘s Sunrise Collective. There was an overflowing cornucopia of events happening on Main Street and beyond. Oh, and I forgot, there were actual films playing at the film festival.

I always wondered what percentage of people attending the fest, actually watch films. I never was able to watch many films at Sundance when I attended in years past. While at Deadline, I would be lucky to be able to have the energy to watch a film or go to an event after sitting in an interview studio for eight hours. Before that, as a freelancer, I would watch films back to back to back and wasn’t able to go to any parties or events because I’d be writing reviews the whole night.

Poor me.

I get it. It was a great problem to have, but as I was at this year’s Sundance, I realized that it’s impossible to do anything and everything while at this fest. Events overlap with screenings; screenings overlap exclusive special conversation; and those conversations overlap with parties which overlap with premiere which overlap with sleep. It’s a cinematic clusterfuck extravaganza that is a journey to navigate. A lot of people just don’t watch any films at the fest, unfortunately. This year, I wasn’t able to watch any films in person — but I was able to watch films prior to the fest and virtually when I got back to Los Angeles — a luxury that a lot of people don’t have.  One of them was Randall Parks‘s feature directorial debut Shortcomings starring Justin H. Min, Sherry Cola and Ally Maki.

As said in my Insta-review, “The film isn’t about Asian identity — it’s about just living life and trying to adapt to change when you’re too stubborn to adapt…Shortcomings” may stir up divisive conversations but at the end of the day it’s a movie that folds in real conversations about identity but doesn’t make them the epicenter of this film.”

After a party to celebrate its work in the LGBTQ community at Real Housewives of Salt Lake City cast member Meredith Marks’s boutique on Main Street, GLAAD hosted a panel for the forthcoming HBO documentaryThe Stroll. The panel titled The Stroll to Sundance: How One Documentary Came to Be and a Path to Reclaiming Transgender Narratives” featured a conversation with filmmakers Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker about the film, reclaiming trans narratives and the contributions the trans community made to the LGBTQ community as a whole that often get overlooked.

The Stroll, which has no slated release date as of the writing of this article, is incredible and nuanced look at the history of trans sex workers in New York City’s Meat Packing District from the ’70s through the early ’00s. Lovell serves as our guide in this world that teaches us a history from a proper lens. It’s eye-opening look at the often ignored history of the trans community earned it a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Clarity of Vision at the fest.

D. Smith‘s Kokomo City also puts the lens on trans sex workers — but it’s a very different film. It feels raw and leans toward what some people may consider “edgy”. With its bite-sized interviews, it feels like a series of TikTok testimonies mixed with a classic episode of HBO’s Real Sex from the mid-90s. The film’s approach definitely worked in its favor as it went on to win the Audience Award in the NEXT category and was given the NEXT Innovator Award presented by Adobe.

In addition to The Stroll and Kokomo City, Sundance was bubbling over with queerness with many nuanced LGBTQ narratives — one of theme being Erica Tremblay’s feature directorial debut Fancy Dance starring Lily Gladstone and newcomer Isabel Deroy-Olson. The lead character of Jax (Gladstone) is queer, but the story centers on her relationship with Roki (Deroy-Olson), whose mother has gone missing. With a majority queer crew behind the camera, Fancy Dance is a beautiful story about a woman being a role model for her niece when her mother goes missing. All the while, it folds in cultural Indigenous nuances that enrich the story while also bringing attention to missing Indigenous women.

The whimsical family dramedy The Persian Version from director, screenwriter, and producer Maryam Keshavarz won The Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic competition as well as the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award. The Persian Version seems to be following a strong pattern of films at the fest leaning more towards “normalizing” queerness in movies and focusing on story rather than putting a heavy handed emphasis on identity.

The Persian Version is a great time and fun to watch and blends the quirkiness of a Wes Anderson film, the impact of an immigrant story and the emotional mother-daughter heft of Terms of Endearment. All great things, but at times, the film needs to figure out what road it wants to take and commit.

As much as I didn’t want to, I fell in love with  Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’Theater Camp.  I say that because it is so expected for me to love a movie like this so I wanted to go against grain — but it was inevitable. I’m gay. I have to like this film. I not only liked it, I loved it — and the fest agreed because it won a Special Jury Award in the U.S. Dramatic category for Ensemble.

Searchlight scooped up the the film which stars Gordon, Ben Platt, Noah Galvin, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, and Ayo Edebiri. The film’s title is self explanatory — it  follows the ins and outs of a theater camp after its matriarch in charge (Amy Sedaris) falls into a coma and her bro-type son (Tatro) attempts to lead the camp of overambitious, Rachel Barry-type, young thespians. It’s giving Waiting For Guffman and I don’t mind.

The queer representation continued in Daniela I. Quiroz’s documentary Going Varsity in Mariachi, which follows the world of high school mariachi in South Texas —  a high school that I am familiar with. The film was giving Friday Night Lights but instead of football it’s high school mariachi. The cute queer addition in the docu is when we are introduced to two young ladies who navigate their new relationship — in a surprisingly accepting South Texas high school.

After watching Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, of the iconic music duo Indigo Girls in the docu It’s Only Life After All, I wondered why we haven’t paid enough attention to them and their contributions to the queer community. Filmmaker Alexandria Bombach‘s docu was exactly like the Indigo Girls’ music: humble, nuanced, comforting and empowering.
The docu also scored a win with the Sundance Institute’s Amazon Studios Producers Award for Nonfiction.

Another artist with a documentary spotlighting their work was legendary poet and LGBTQ advocate and activist Nikki Giovanni. Joe Brewster and Michelle Stephenson’s well-crafted documentary Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project made me lean in as it told the story of Giovanni, her contributions, her ideals, her beautiful words, her no-nonsense advocacy, and her charismatic hope. The film walked away from the fest with the coveted Grand Jury Prize for documentary.

The fest’s opening night film Little Richard: I Am Everythingis yet another fantastic documentary at the fest that puts a long overdue spotlight on an icon. The Lisa Cortés-directed film leans into the queerness of it all and the contributions of Little Richard and other queer musician shaped music. It’s quite remarkable.

This year’s documentaries were phenomenal. In addition to all the ones already mentioned, I was surprisingly impressed with Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields which delivered some jaw-dropping bombs about the titular actress/’80s icon. If anything, it will make you cringe as to what Hollywood and men in general got away with when working with Shields.

Going back to Shortcomings,  Sherry Cola‘s character of Alice is queer and serves as a sort of moral touchstone for Justin H. Min‘s Ben. Alice has a fully realized arc and story and her queerness is folded in rather than put center stage. There is also a very standout scene between chip-on-his-shoulder Ben and a bisexual character he is dating played by Debby Ryan.

Going from blatant queerness to homoeroticism, Elijah Bynum‘s Magazine Dreams starring the incomparable Jonathan Majors brings us into the world of competitive body building. Some of my fellow journalist friends who had seen the film warned me, “It is a tough watch.” I didn’t know what they meant by this. Is it bloody? Is it cringey? Is it uncomfortable?

It’s all of the above.

By nature, oiled-up muscular men flexing in a Speedo is going to land in the general area of queerness. That said, as we follow this ambitious, roid-infused, socially inept man with anger issues, we witness a particular moment which is less about being gay and more about being accepted and finding connection. Nonetheless, Magazine Dreams is gonna make some jaws drop.

I saw Saim Sadiq’s beautifully tragic drama Joyland at TIFF, but since then, the film has been on quite a journey. Before making it’ Sundance debut, Malala Yousafzai and Riz Ahmed signed on as executive producers and it was acquired by Oscilloscope.

Along with queer-themed films, the fest proved to be diverse in it’s selection and naturally, I gravitated towards stories a wide array of stories like Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV.

Adding to the impressive roster of documentaries, the feature takes a look at the titular lesser-known artist Nam June Paik, who had a significant impact on culture. Directed and produced by Amanda Kim, the docu premiered at the fest and introduced the world to the visual artist who pushed boundaries and worked with artists like John Cage and Allen Ginsberg. Paik is mostly for his work with manipulating TV and video and Kim leverages his artistry to stitch together a fascinating profile.

A pleasant surprise was by far A.V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One starring Teyana Taylor as a mother who kidnaps her 6-year-old so Terry (Aaron Kingsley Adetola) from the foster care system so that the two of them can live a stable home life which becomes more and more difficult in the ’90s/’00s gentrification and “stop and frisk” era of New York City

Taylor delivers a raw, committed and honest performance that carries the film and could possible be a benchmark in her acting career. Rockwell has a clear vision with A Thousand and One and impressively confident execution of her feature directorial debut earned her the U.S. Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic category.

I managed to watch Brandon Cronenberg‘s Infinity Pool starring Mia Goth and Alexander Skarsgård right after it premiered at Sundance and before its theatrical release. Watching it came a time when I needed a cinematic palate cleanser due to the high volume of films I have been watching — and Infinity Pool delivered. It was a WTF palate cleanser that is too convoluted to explain but wildly enjoyable as a film. Without a doubt, the hedonistic, White Lotus fever dream of a thriller was not liked by many, but for me it’s boldness and darkly satirical take on class and privilege was too ridiculous not to appreciate.

On the horror spectrum of things, the Filipino film In My Mother’s Skin from newcomer Kenneth Dagatan. The filmmaker flawlessly combines the struggle of a family during World War II in the Philippines with the dark, grotesque beauty of Filipino folklore. Haunting as it is gorgeous, the film premiered in the Midnight section of the fest and was picked up by Amazon Studios. Dagatan can very well be the Guillermo Del Toro of Southeast Asia.

Sundance darling Justin Chon premiered his latest Jamojaya at the fest and it continues Chon’s exploration and intricacies of specific familial relationships. In Chon’s Gook, we followed two brothers while his Sundance follow-up Ms. Purple focused on a brother and a sister. His Cannes drama Blue Bayou followed a Korean adoptee and his relationship with his mother. In Jamojaya, we navigate the relationship between an Indonesian rapper (Rich Brian) and his father and former manager (Yayu A.W. Unru).

Jamojaya shows the growth of Chon as an auteur. He has an unapologetic vision and he commits to it with his own stamp. His latest is giving French cinema vibes with of Asian flair. Chon takes risks and he doesn’t give a fuck — but he is still mindful about not giving a fuck. It’s clear that he takes risks knowing very well that they might fail — but Chon just goes for it because why the fuck not?

Aesthetically, Chon evolving his vision. Narratively, the dynamic between an immigrant father and his westernized rapper son is a relationship is something we seldom see because for some of us, it doesn’t exist. Jamojaya gives a manifestation of what many of sons are feeling about their fathers but cannot resolve due to cultural reservations.

I’d see an American movie about the emotional dynamics in a relationship between an Asian father and son. It’s vulnerable, fragile, and volatile. Chon extracted an amazing performance from Rich Brian that is unexpected and holds an unbelievable amount of emotional weight.

The Accidental Getaway Driver from Sing J. Lee ended up winning a Special Jury Award for Directing in the dramatic category. The film was inspired by a true story and follows an elderly Vietnamese cab driver (Hiep Tran Nghia) who is taken hostage at gunpoint by three recently escaped Orange County convicts, one of which he befriends (Dustin Nguyen).

There’s a certain sense of quiet beauty and empathy that is felt throughout the film. Nguyen and Nghia share incredible chemistry and there are fantastic moment between the two of them — one being a sunflower seed spitting contest. However, with a title like The Accidental Getaway Driver, you would expect there to be more of a sense of urgency, but instead there were moments that just felt stagnant and too calm for story that is supposed to thrill us.

I was very surprised that I was able to watch as many films as I did — I just didn’t watch them at the actual fest. I didn’t even get to the super artsy fartsy for my taste film My Animal or the thrilling action hero pic Polite Society which I wanted to be a little more bonkers.

There were plenty of films that were on my list that I wanted to see like Celine Song‘s drama Past Lives and Cassandro starring Gael Garcia Bernal as an amateur gay wrestler. I was super duper upset that I wasn’t able to catch a screening of Judy Blume Forever and I was unable to fuel my intrigue with cults with a viewing of the docu AUM: The Cult At The End Of The World

I can confidently say that this is the first time I actually enjoyed myself at the Sundance Film Festival… I just wasn’t able to watch any films while there.