2023 Sundance Film Festival: Early highlights include ‘Fairyland,’ ‘Magazine Dreams,’ ‘Past Lives’ …

The first week of the Sundance Film Festival is drawing mixed-to-positive reactions, but several performers have garnered unanimous praise. Jonathan Majors made a big splash in Elijah Bynum’s “Magazine Dreams.” He stars as Killian Maddox, an obsessive bodybuilder who takes care of his Vietnam vet grandfather (Harrison Page) and pursues a relationship with a store clerk (Hayley Bennett) while trying to become a celebrity. The film, which is being compared to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” looked noteworthy heading into the festival and is reportedly just as intense as early buzz had promised. Even critics who have expressed skepticism regarding the film’s third act are in awe of Majors’ committed work.

Kate Erbland of IndieWire writes, “As mistakes and missteps and pain continues to pile on to Killian, Majors turns an already wonderfully empathetic and deeply touching performance into something much more brutal, something explosive, something truly shocking.” Tim Grierson of Screen Daily echoes her sentiments, writing, “As imposing as Killian is physically, Majors exudes a potent vulnerability that can be quite poignant— even when the character explodes in fury after over-reacting to something relatively minor.” Majors’ increasing star power—in the coming months, he’ll be seen in “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “Creed III”—and the visceral reactions being provoked by the film are sure to make it one of the festival’s most talked about titles. Majors has already been discussed as a contender for Best Actor at next year’s Academy Awards, though festival hype should always be taken with a grain of salt.

SEE Sundance and Chill: 10 festival titles you can watch at home

Gael García Bernal is receiving raves for another, though far less disturbing, drama about single-mindedly pursuing athletic fame. In “Cassandro,” Bernal plays real-life luchador Saul Armendariz. For The Hollywood ReporterDavid Rooney writes, “Gael García Bernal nails his best role in years, giving a performance steeped in cheeky humor, resilience and radical self-belief.” Collider’s Perri Nemiroff has called it her favorite film of the fest so far and praised Bernal’s “effervescent, electric” work. The film co-stars Raúl Castillo and the rapper Bad Bunny. It will be available on Amazon Prime later this year.

Also racking up positive notices is Scoot McNairy, a character actor mostly known for his work on AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” the third season of HBO’s “True Detective,” and Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico.” In “Fairyland,” he stars as an unconventional father to the main character, played as a precocious youngster by Nessa Dougherty and later by “CODA” star Emilia Jones (who is also at the festival with “Cat Person”). The movie is based on Alysia Abbott’s memoir about taking care of her dad in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis. More than one critic has called the film a tearjerker.

SEE 2023 Oscar nominations: Full list of nominees in all 23 categories

The Wrap’s Katie Walsh writes, “The emotion and intention behind the story, as well as McNairy’s career-best performance, make ‘Fairyland’ an astonishingly moving film and touching remembrance.” Dougherty and Jones have also earned praise for their sharing of the lead role. For RogerEbert.comBrian Tallerico writes, “Jones gives a really delicate performance, refusing to lean into any of the tropes of the troubled teen. She appears right when the movie could go into melodrama, and she does the opposite by grounding it.” “Fairyland” is produced by Sofia Coppola and sounds like it has shades of “Somewhere,” her 2010 father-daughter dramedy. Maria BakalovaCody FernAdam Lambert, and Geena Davis co-star.

Amid the early frenzy of Sundance premieres, attendees have found one they’re unequivocally passionate about. While many titles are getting raves for certain performances, A24’s “Past Lives,” is being called an outright masterpiece. The movie, directed by Celine Song, follows two friends (Teo Yoo and “Russian Doll’s” Greta Lee) as they drift in and out of each other’s lives across three decades. The leads and co-star John Magaro have received glowing write-ups. While the structure may sound familiar, on-the-ground reactions suggest the devil’s in the details. Delicately observant, “Past Lives” fits A24’s brand of microscopic stories of human connection told with sweeping scale (“Moonlight,” “Waves,” “Minari”).

Richard Lawson of Variety writes that the movie is “understated and yet vast in its consideration of the slow changes of life, of the past ever whispering to the present.” He adds that it’s “as auspicious a debut as one can hope to see at Sundance, the announcement of a filmmaker confident in her craft and generous with her heart.” Similarly, The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee writes, “Song has made exactly the kind of film that causes so many of us to trek through the Utah snow in hope, something that never feels anything less than true.” Tomris Laffly compares it to Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. In his A- review of the film, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich calls “Past Lives” ‘transcendant’ and predicts it will remain atop best-of-the-year lists throughout 2023. The movie’s next stop is the Berlin International Film Festival.

SEE Oscar nominations: Who’s up and who’s down in the race for Best Picture

“Eileen,” directed by William Oldroyd (“Lady Macbeth”) and starring Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie, is making waves as a potential box office hit. First reactions are calling it a cross between “Carol,” “Notes on a Scandal,” and “Mare of Easttown.” The film is based on the novel of the same name by Ottessa Moshfegh and follows an unhappy young woman (McKenzie) who befriends a new doctor (Hathaway) at the prison where she works in the winter of 1964. Things takes a dark turn when Hathaway’s character makes her an accessory to a crime. Shea Whigham, also at the festival with “Fancy Dance,” co-stars. Scott Mantz praises the performances and calls the film a “riveting” “coming-of-age noir.” Also getting mentioned is Marin Ireland, a longtime character actor who delivers a crucial third-act monologue. While the ending seems to be polarizing audiences, that could ensure it becomes a conversation-starter beyond Sundance. Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson writes, “‘Eileen’ is bound to be divisive, but I am on the yes side.” Unsurprisingly, the movie is also receiving praise for Oscar-nominated DP Ari Wegner’s cinematography.

Apple just purchased John Carney’s (“Once,” “Sing Street”) “Flora and Son” for, according to early word, $20 million, and bidding for “Fairyland” has reportedly reached seven figures. The hottest title, however, is “Fair Play,” an erotic corporate thriller that Netflix just acquired for $20 million—$5 million less than what Apple paid for “CODA” in 2021, but $10 million more than Amazon’s winning bid for “Manchester by the Sea” in 2016. According to The Hollywood Reporter, prospective buyers included Neon, Lionsgate, and Searchlight. Starring Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor, the film explores gender dynamics in corporate finance. Film critic Karina Longworth tweeted, “It does for the 2020s what ‘Fatal Attraction’ did for the late 80s,” while Scott Mantz has called it his favorite of the festival so far, tweeting “It’s a slow boil of sexual politics & role reversal that grabs you & builds to an explosive climax.”

The Midnight section’s track-record is still sterling, at least according to World of Reel’s Jordan Ruimy, who calls “Talk to Me,” a supernatural thriller from Australia that A24 purchased for a seven-figure sum, “the next great horror movie.” Ruimy compares his experience with the film to discovering David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows,” writing, “On paper, it didn’t sound like anything fresh or original, a low-concept idea, but watching the film is a whole other story.” “Talk to Me” is directed by debut filmmakers Danny and Michael Philippou, a duo known for their horror-comedy YouTube channel, @RackaRacka. It centers on a young woman (Sophie Wilde) whose attempts to communicate with her dead mother as part of a viral stunt are met with frightening consequences. Inverse’s Andy Crump calls it “a ghost story for the TikTok era.” A24 plans to give the movie a theatrical release over the summer.

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