Sundance 2023 Awards

Teyana Taylor and Aaron Kingsley in A. V. Rockwell’s A Thousand and One (2023)

Throughout the eleven days of the first in-person Sundance Film Festival in three years, several critics mentioned in their dispatches and podcasts that they’d forgotten just how cold Park City, Utah, could get in mid-January. Some celebrated a return to normalcy, while at the same time noting that the definition of “normal” has shifted since 2020.

The Los Angeles Times’s Mark Olsen could still sense “the muscle memory of where the various venues are and how to get there, hopping on and off shuttle buses, navigating hazards of snow and ice, waiting in lines, and settling into a theater seat in a cocoon of layers and coats. That all seemed normal enough. But layered over it was a feeling of anxiety, wondering if this was actually all a good idea, to be crammed together in tight indoor spaces with others.”

Also lingering in the back of many minds was the overall uncertainty in the industry. “Who are these movies for and how will anyone see them is a looming question that one has to ask at pretty much the end of every screening,” writes Olsen. The festival, which wrapped over the weekend, is now sending over a hundred features out into the world, and around two dozen of them will at least have the extra boost of an award (or two) from one of independent cinema’s preeminent showcases.

U.S. Dramatic

Over the past decade, A. V. Rockwell has been making award-winning short films, and on Friday, U.S. Dramatic Competition jurors Jeremy O. Harris, Eliza Hittman, and Marlee Matlin presented their Grand Jury Prize to Rockwell’s first feature, A Thousand and One. “Rockwell uses the full range of cinematic expressivity to turn a small, often tragic story of raw deals and rash decisions into an admiring portrait of survivorship, determination, and resourcefulness,” writes Jessica Kiang in Variety.

Singer and choreographer Teyana Taylor plays Inez, a woman released from Rikers Island in 1993. She essentially kidnaps her son from his foster home—he’s ready and willing to go—and A Thousand and One sticks with the two of them as they struggle through nearly two decades of changes in Harlem. “With emotional delicacy and a lightly expressionistic visual style, Rockwell brings both Inez and New York to life, skillfully setting one woman’s hardscrabble personal story against a larger political backdrop,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “Rockwell is the real deal; keep an eye on her.”

Sing J. Lee won the Directing Award for The Accidental Getaway Driver, a film that had a good number of reviewers name-checking Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004). Based on Paul Kix’s 2017 true-crime article in GQ, the story begins with the kidnapping of an elderly Vietnamese cab driver by three escaped prisoners. Deadline’s Todd McCarthy finds that The Accidental Getaway Driver “benefits considerably from being set in the rarely, if ever, filmed Little Saigon section of Orange County south of Los Angeles; a highly unlikely cast dominated by an octogenarian not looking for trouble; and, crucially, a noirish nocturnal milieu that injects the action with dread, even with a final stretch doesn’t really pay off with the kind of tension you expect from a crime drama.”

Writer, director, and producer Maryam Keshavarz won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and the Audience Award for The Persian Version. “A multi-generational family tale that spans roughly sixty years, two continents, and assorted cultures from traditional Muslim families to queer New Yorkers,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s Leslie Felperin, “this lively, likable, if somewhat on-the-nose work grabs viewer attention with fourth-wall-breaking monologues, jocular explanatory graphics, and tightly choreographed dance numbers to vintage American and Iranian pop songs.”

Three Special Jury Awards were presented, one for Acting to Lio Mehiel for his performance as Feña, a trans man navigating one long stressful day in Vuk Lungulov-Klotz’s directorial debut, Mutt; another to the ensemble cast of Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman’s Theater Camp, a mockumentary that IndieWire’s Kate Erbland finds “charming and hilarious”; and another for Creative Vision to the team behind Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams, which the Los Angeles Times’s Justin Chang calls “a brutal study of physical extremity and psychological meltdown built around an entirely astonishing lead performance from Jonathan Majors.”

U.S. Documentary

The Grand Jury Prize presented by W. Kamau Bell, Ramona Diaz, and Carla Gutierrez went to Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson for Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project. A portrait of the seventy-nine-year-old poet who, in the 1960s and ’70s, became one of the leading voices of the Black Arts Movement, Going to Mars, “like its subject, doesn’t shy from experimentation,” notes Michael Frank at the Film Stage. “It mimics her health conditions—her seizures, her loss of memory—through the use of speedy archival cuts, images, and videos flicked on the screen in rapid succession.” The poems read by executive producer Taraji P. Henson “nearly always contain repetition, a sense of Giovanni’s own stream of consciousness, the shifting aspects of her brilliant mind. In such moments—often after the poet herself has opted not to answer a personal question—Going to Mars soars.”

Luke Lorentzen won the Directing Award for A Still Small Voice. “At once an eloquent reflection on mortality and a quintessential document of the emotional and spiritual burdens of great responsibility,” writes Nicolas Rapold for Sight and Sound, the film “finds the universal in the particular experience of a hospital chaplain. Undertaking a year-long residency program, Mati is tasked with accompanying patients and their families at the hardest, most vulnerable moments in their lives. She also reckons with the toll of fully investing herself in the work, and how her beliefs about humanity and God come to the fore. Her genuinely conflicted perspective and Lorentzen’s incredibly attuned, efficient filmmaking set this film apart in a crowded field of works on life and death and healthcare.”

The Audience Award went to Madeleine Gavin’s Beyond Utopia, which focuses on Pastor Seungeun Kim’s attempt to help an entire family, including small children and an elderly grandmother, flee North Korea. “It’s a feat of human ingenuity and perseverance that has to be seen to be believed,” writes Christian Zilko at IndieWire, “and even then you still might not be convinced it’s real.”

Daniela I. Quiroz won the Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award for her work on Alejandra Vasquez and Sam Osborn’s Going Varsity in Mariachi. A high school mariachi band aims to win a statewide competition in Texas, and at the Playlist, Christian Gallichio finds that this “moving portrait” gives audiences “just the right amount of saccharine.”

Paste’s Jacob Oller finds that Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler’s Bad Press, the winner of a Special Jury Award for Freedom of Expression, “clearly lays out the plights faced by an Indigenous news team and, in its hyperfocus on Mvskoke Media and the Muscogee Nation, finds hard, broad truths about both the relationship between the people and the reporters that serve them and the ease with which those being reported upon manipulate that relationship.”

A Special Jury Award for Clarity of Vision was presented to The Stroll, a portrait of transgender sex workers who lived and worked in New York’s Meatpacking District before gentrification drove them out. For the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “one of the captivating paradoxes of Kristen Lovell and Zackary Drucker’s lovingly assembled chapter of queer history is that while it never downplays the marginalization, persecution and physical danger of being a trans woman of color making a living through sex work, it gives equal time to the resilience, the sense of community, the proud sisterhood and shared survival skills that flourished on that block long before social justice activists were taking up the ‘Trans Lives Matter’ cause.”

World Cinema Dramatic

In Scrapper, music video director Charlotte Regan’s first feature and the winner of the Grand Jury Prize, newcomer Lola Campbell plays Georgie, a twelve-year-old doing just fine on her own. “Tracking the gradual but inevitable thawing of relations between Georgie and the estranged father who breezes back into her life,” writes Guy Lodge in Variety, “Regan’s debut rehashes a host of familiar elements from assorted kitchen-sink dramas and dysfunctional parent-child stories, painting them colorfully enough that audiences won’t mind the odd bit of rust.”

Jurors Shozo Ichiyama, Annemarie Jacir, and Funa Maduka gave their Directing Award to Marija Kavtaradze for her second feature, Slow, the story of a dancer and a sign language interpreter who fall in love. Matthew Joseph Jenner of the International Cinephile Society calls Slow “a beautiful and poetic romantic drama” and “a meaningful investigation of the concept of love, carefully pieced together by a director whose command of her craft results in an engaging and heartfelt investigation into the human condition.”

Iranian-Australian filmmaker Noora Niasari’s debut feature, Shayda, won the Audience Award. Zar Amir Ebrahimi (Holy Spider) plays a woman enjoying a second lease on life with her six-year-old daughter at a women’s shelter when a judge grants visitation rights to her abusive husband. “A story like this could lend itself to manipulative melodrama,” writes Screen’s Tim Grierson, “but Niasari gives the material a pared-down simplicity, resisting big emotional twists or forced dramatic stakes. The muted approach only adds to the taut mood.”

The three Special Jury Awards in this competition: Rosa Marchant won Best Performance for playing a troubled thirteen-year-old in Veerle Baetens’s When it Melts; Lílis Soares was recognized for her distinctive black-and-white Cinematography, a vital contribution to C. J. “Fiery” Obasi’s Mami Wata; and the jurors admired the Creative Vision of Sofia Alaoui, whose Animalia is set up as “an intimate dissection of the foibles and hypocrisies of Morocco’s moneyed classes,” as Jessica Kiang writes in Variety. “But Amine Bouhafa’s fine score, all ominous cello and somber bass, suggests that something more profound and destabilizing than the class divide is lying in wait, just beyond the hazy horizon.”

World Cinema Documentary

Paulina Urrutia, an actor and Chile’s former Culture Minister, and Augusto Gongora, a former television and radio journalist who helped bring the crimes of Augusto Pinochet to light in the 1970s and ’80s, have been together for twenty-five years. Gongora, seventeen years older than Urrutia, is now losing his memory to Alzheimer’s disease. The couple is the subject of The Eternal Memory, the winner of the Grand Jury Prize directed by Maite Alberdi (The Mole Agent).

In Screen, Jonathan Holland finds that the film “inevitably teases out the meanings that ripple out from this family tragedy into the wider tragedy of Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship and the dangers of political forgetfulness. But the connections never feel forced and are always handled with the compassion, delicacy, and psychological perspicuity that are the director’s stylistic hallmarks.”

The Audience Award went to 20 Days in Mariupol, filmmaker and journalist Mstyslav Chernov’s account of the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Much of his footage was broadcast around the world eleven months ago, but as Ty Burr points out, the film “provides a chronological throughline missing from the nightly news reports,” and “while we never see Chernov’s face, his lucid, worried voiceover provides a personal aspect to the film—he’s living what he’s documenting as much as any of the Ukrainians whose world is being pounded into blood and twisted metal.”

The Directing Award presented by jurors Karim Amer, Petra Costa, and Alexander Nanau went to Anna Hints for Smoke Sauna Sisterhood, which “grants us intimate access into a steamy, wood-paneled hut with a group of women who unburden their souls while cleansing their bodies, sharing deeply personal experiences with one another in conversation,” as Carmen Gray writes at the Film Verdict. Shot in Estonia, the film has “a visual luster, its snowy woodland shots the stuff of wintry touristic dreamland, while the cabin inside is like a chiaroscuro painting of shadows and golden light.”

Swedish directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck won a Special Jury Award for Creative Vision for Fantastic Machine, a collage-like history of the moving image. Sarvnik Kaur’s Against the Tide, focusing on two friends, both fishermen, who take different approaches to earning their living, won a Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich finds the film “as exacting in its environmentalism as it is piercing in its personal drama.”

NEXT and More

Grammy-nominated producer, singer, and songwriter D. Smith arrived at Sundance with what Jacob Oller calls “one of the most exciting nonfiction entries.” Kokomo City, the winner of the NEXT Innovator Award selected by Madeleine Olnek as well as the program’s Audience Award, is “a radical, on-the-ground pulpit from which four Black trans sex workers talk their shit. Putting transphobia within and without Black culture on blast, Kokomo City raises a curtain to reveal four stars: Daniella Carter, Dominique Silver, Liyah Mitchell and Koko Da Doll.” Smith “keeps the rollicking conversations and righteously indignant monologues barreling along in beautiful black-and-white as we laugh, cry, and commiserate with women whose experiences and insights are only outweighed by their personalities.”

Sundance attendees vote for an overall Festival Favorite Award, and this year’s winner is Radical, which Tomris Laffly, writing for Variety, calls “a heart-tugger in the mold of such old-school ‘inspiring teacher changes everything’ tales as To Sir, with Love, Dead Poets Society, and even recent Oscar-winner CODA, with which it shares star Eugenio Derbez.” Writer-director Christopher Zalla, who won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007 for Padre Nuestro, “adheres to the subgenre’s conventions and doesn’t stint on sentimentality,” writes David Rooney, “but Radical more than earns its surging emotional payoff.”

Presenting their Grand Jury Prize to Kayla Abuda Galang’s When You Left Me on That Boulevard, in which teens get high before a Thanksgiving dinner, Short Film Competition jurors Destin Daniel Cretton, Marie-Louise Khondji, and Deborah Stratman applauded this “uproarious take on extended family, irreverence, and tradition with incredible attunement to details and frame.”

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