2023 Sundance Film Festival concludes: Highlights and studio acquisitions include ‘Past Lives,’ ‘A Little Prayer,’ ‘Flora and Son’

One year after Sundance megahit “CODA” took home the Oscar for Best Picture, the indie festival is being represented at the 95th Academy Awards again–this time, by four nominees for Best Documentary Feature (“All That Breathes,” “Fire of Love,” “A House Made of Splinters,” and “Navalny”) and “Living,” which is contending in Best Actor (Bill Nighy) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Other recent films to have wound up at the Oscars after debuting in Park City include “Minari,” “Promising Young Woman,” “The Father,” “Get Out,” “The Big Sick,” “Manchester by the Sea,” and “Whiplash.” The event wrapped up over the weekend, with major prizes going to “The Persian Version” (the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award and U.S. Dramatic: Audience), “A Thousand And One” (U.S. Dramatic: Grand Jury), “Shayda” (World Cinema: Audience), and “Scrapper” (World Cinema: Grand Jury).

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

The 2023 slate has drawn some strong reactions, but no film has been as unreservedly praised as playwright Celine Song’s debut feature, “Past Lives.” It follows two friends across multiple decades who float in and out of each other’s orbits. We first meet Nora and Hae Sung (played as adults by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, respectively) in Korea; the tight-knit pair is being separated by the former’s move to Canada. When they reconnect over Skype 12 years later, he’s still in Korea after completing a mandatory stint in the military, and she’s a writer in New York. The third act catches up with them in their thirties for an in-person meeting and introduces Nora’s novelist husband (John Magaro).

More than proclaiming it the best movie of the festival, critics are predicting it will remain atop best-of-the-year lists throughout 2023. Some have even been bold enough to predict that “Past Lives,” which is being compared to Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, will be an awards contender next year. Are we just witnessing a case of “Sundance fever,” or is “Past Lives” the real deal? Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson calls it “a miraculous little film from A24, steady and slow and haunted, in the existential sense, by possibilities,” adding, “It’s hard to imagine ‘Past Lives’ not being one of 2023’s most talked-about films, and it richly deserves the honor.” Similarly, IndieWire’s David Ehrlich believes it is “destined” to be mentioned among the year’s finest achievements. Lee and Magaro are receiving particularly effusive write-ups for their work. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney writes, “Magaro makes the part into something profound and complex…What to say about the extraordinary depths of Lee’s performance? She makes you live inside Nora’s head for the duration, tending to let the character’s intelligence prevail over her emotions to the point where her one moment of raw release will rip you apart.” The film’s next stop is the Berlin International Film Festival.

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

While audiences are still processing the tense and strangely ethereal “Magazine Dreams,” pretty much everyone is in awe of Jonathan Majors’ lead performance as Killian Maddox, an obsessive bodybuilder with a violent streak who will remind viewers of antiheroes like Travis Bickle (“Taxi Driver”), Rupert Pupkin (“The King of Comedy”) and Lou Bloom (“Nightcrawler”). The film is also similar to Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” which premiered at Sundance in 2014 and sustained enough buzz to contend in Best Picture and win J.K. Simmons a Best Supporting Actor statuette a year later. “Magazine Dreams” is bound to be a more divisive film, but there’s no denying the magnitude of the work done by Majors, who, between “Creed III” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” is positioned for a huge year at the box office. Perhaps awards buzz is also in the rising talent’s cards.

Sony Pictures Classics has yet again demonstrated its strength this year by getting veteran British actor Bill Nighy his first Oscar nomination for the indie film “Living.” Another of the label’s recent Sundance purchases to show up at the Oscars is, of course, Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” which received six nominations and two wins (Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor Anthony Hopkins). Sony Pictures Classics is back at the festival, having just acquired the worldwide rights to Angus MacLachlan’s “A Little Prayer” for an undisclosed price that Variety and other sources are reporting is likely in the low seven-figure range. Could its star David Strathairn be the next Nighy or Hopkins and factor into next year’s race for playing a family man forced to intervene in his son’s marriage? The Wrap’s Robert Abele says, “In the right role, [Strathairn’s] almost a centralizing force of authenticity, which is certainly the case with [MacLachalan’s] wonderful, heartfelt ‘A Little Prayer.’”

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

Scoot McNairy is enjoying the best reviews of his career for playing a gay single dad opposite “CODA” star Emilia Jones in the ‘70s/80s-set “Fairyland.” Calling him one of our finest character actors, The Wrap’s Katie Walsh declares McNairy’s “never been better,” a sentiment echoed by MovieWeb’s Jericho Tadeo: “He undoubtedly turns in a career-best performance…Between the evident joy he feels in finally being able to live openly as a gay man and the darker shades of choice and consequence, McNairy is irresistible to watch.” A well-timed release by Apple or A24 could make “Fairyland” a formidable autumn title. Studios have been locked in a contest over the father-daughter memoir for days, with bids reportedly reaching seven figures. The film is produced by Sofia Coppola and co-stars Geena Davis, Adam Lambert, Cody Fern, and Maria Bakalova.

In a blockbuster deal, Apple has purchased John Carney’s “Flora and Son” for a reported $20 million. Carney’s “Once” won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Song (“Falling Slowly”). His 2014 film with Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, “Begin Again,” was nominated in the same category but lost to “Glory” from Ava DuVernay’s “Selma.” Carney’s follow-up, 2016’s “Sing Street,” got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedy/Musical. Could the streamer’s pricey acquisition reap a few nominations as well? The movie has gotten positive write-ups for its music and Eve Hewson’s breakout performance. She plays a mother who, while trying to connect with her son through music, falls in love with an internet guitar instructor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Variety’s Owen Gleiberman did not hold back while complimenting Hewson, writing that her performance made him believe the era of the movie star isn’t quite over yet: “It might be fading…until you see someone who has star quality spilling right out of her. Suddenly, her stardom seems more than a hope — it feels inevitable. That’s what I think about Eve Hewson after watching her in ‘Flora and Son.’”

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