The Sundance Film Festival has often been called one of the world’s most important documentary marketplaces, with 39 of the past 65 Best Documentary Feature contenders (60%) either beginning or continuing their road to the Oscars in Park City. Examples include “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised),” “Flee,” “Writing With Fire,” “Honeyland,” “The Edge of Democracy,” “American Factory,” “Time,” “The Mole Agent,” “Crip Camp,” “RBG,” “Of Fathers and Sons,” “Minding the Gap,” and “Hale County This Morning, This Evening.”
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Two of those–Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” and Netflix’s joint venture with Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, “American Factory”–won the award. Four of this season’s honorees —“All That Breathes,” “Fire of Love,” “Navalny,” and “A House Made of Splinters”—played the festival in 2022. Climate change, human rights violations, competitive mariachi, and manned flight to Mars are only a few of the subjects addressed by this year’s eclectic non-fiction slate. As the dust continues to settle on the recent Oscar nominations, take a look at our wildly early predictions for which Sundance ‘23 selections could factor into next year’s race, and find out which are kicking off their journeys with a prize or two already in tow.
“Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie”
Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”) returned to Sundance with Michael J. Fox’s touching first-hand account of his life and career in Hollywood. Editor Michael Harte (“Three Identical Strangers,” “Don’t F**ck with Cats”) recontextualizes scenes from “Teen Wolf” and “Back to the Future” to depict the actor’s rise to stardom and untimely Parkinson’s diagnosis at 29, as well as his marriage to Tracy Pollan and bond with “Back to the Future” co-lead Christopher Lloyd. For Desert News, Lottie Elizabeth Johnson writes, “There’s a thrilling montage that makes use of a revving DeLorean to illustrate Fox’s wildly busy schedule of traveling back and forth to simultaneously film ‘Family Ties’ and ‘Back to the Future’…scenes from ‘Family Ties’ and ‘Bright Lights, Big City,’ which both starred Fox and Pollan, help tell the pair’s love story.” Many critics have similarly praised these sequences. The documentary also details Fox’s alcoholism, subsequent recovery, and ongoing fight to stay sober. Scott Mantz tweeted a glowing review that compared “Still” to “Life Itself,” Steve James’ documentary about film critic Roger Ebert (part of Sundance’s 2014 slate). He added that the film is a “must-see…for Gen-Xers who grew up with Fox.” Apple plans to release “Still” later this year.
“Little Richard: I Am Everything”
When she began researching Richard Penniman, more commonly known as Little Richard, director Lisa Cortés (“All In: The Fight for Democracy”) discovered a life full of contradictions. But, as she herself puts it while explaining the meaning of the film’s title, “that’s where the magic comes from.” Cortés’ documentary, which Magnolia acquired from CNN Films for an undisclosed price in one of the festival’s first sales, argues the icon has been denied his rightful place among rock-and-roll’s founders. It also studies him as an LGBTQ+ pioneer whose music was ahead of its time. Owen Gleiberman of Variety writes that the film is directed with “supreme love and insight” and calls it “the enthralling documentary that Little Richard deserves.” Reviews have discussed an experimental reenactment method involving contemporary musicians that’s used to analyze the star’s performances. The Playlist’s Jason Bailey writes, “It’s a risky device, and it can get too precious—but it’s unique, a gutsy and disarming way of approaching this kind of material.” The film is edited by Nyneve Minnear, who worked on 2015 Sundance Special Jury winner “(T)error.” Magnolia plans to release “I Am Everything” in April.
“Kim’s Video,” directed and edited by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin (“Do Donkeys Act?”), has a stranger-than-fiction story pulled straight from the annals of urban lore: Yongman Kim rented obscure VHS tapes out of the back of a dry cleaning shop until declining interest in physical media forced him to sell his collection (which reached 55,000 titles) to a shady buyer in Sicily. Deadline’s Damon Wise describes “Kim’s Video” as “a glorious shaggy dog story that somehow links a New York dry cleaner, the Coen brothers’ late fees, South Korea’s CIA and the Mafia,” adding that it transforms into a “rather moving rumination on the very real social importance of film history.”
“The Disappearance of Shere Hite”
Many know the names of William Masters, Virginia Johnson and Alfred Kinsey, but Shere Hite’s has yet to attain the same significance. Like “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” “The Disappearance of Shere Hite” seeks to renew interest in a 20th century figure whose cultural contributions haven’t been properly appraised. Directed by Nicole Newnham (the Oscar-nominated “Crip Camp,” co-directed by James LeBrecht) and narrated by Dakota Johnson, the movie investigates the sociologist’s rise to prominence, the 1976 publication of her groundbreaking findings on female sexuality, “The Hite Report,” and her subsequent fall from grace. For The Hollywood Reporter, Leslie Felperin writes, “As with ‘Crip Camp,’ her feature on the rise of the disability-rights movement as seen through the eyes of alumni of one specific summer camp for disabled kids, Newnham finds in Hite’s personal story a microcosm of the rise of second – and third-wave feminism in the mid-20th century.” Nick Schager of The Daily Beast writes, “‘The Disappearance of Shere Hite’ assumes a rather standard non-fiction form. Still, its alternately sharp and dreamy pacing captures the duality of Hite, who could be both formidably forceful and entrancingly ethereal.” The film is edited by Eileen Meyer, who previously collaborated with Newnham on “Crip Camp.” She also cut Morgan Neville’s Anthony Bourdain doc, “Roadrunner.”
“20 Days in Mariupol”
It’s a bit surreal to consider that 2023 Best Documentary Feature nominee “Navalny” was premiering at Sundance this time a year ago, a month before Russia escalated its invasion of Ukraine. “20 Days in Mariupol” is a video diary of the destructive events that have since transpired and dominated international news. AP war correspondent Mstyslav Chernov shot nearly 30 hours of footage in Mariupol, including the March 9th bombing of a maternity hospital, but spotty internet allowed him to only export a fraction of it to news outlets. Editor Michelle Mizner (“Life in Baghdad,” “Inside Yemen”) has cut the remainder into an action thriller that Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter calls “grueling but necessary viewing.” “20 Days in Mariupol” won the World Cinema Documentary Audience prize, which went to the Oscar-shortlisted “The Territory” in 2022.
Another documentary premiering this year that addresses the conflict in Eastern Europe is Roman Liubyi’s (“War Note”) “Iron Butterflies,” which traces efforts by Dutch authorities to investigate the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine. The subject was dramatized in “Klondike,” a Sundance ‘22 premiere and Ukraine’s submission for Best International Feature at the 95th Academy Awards (it wasn’t shortlisted). “Iron Butterflies,” its title inspired by the peculiarly shaped shrapnel found inside the bodies of MH17’s pilots, contains experimental digressions that mix animation and interpretive dance with sobering real-life footage of the event. For Flickering Myth, Shaun Munro writes, “This chilling, shrewdly edited polemic offers an aggressive indictment of both the state-sponsored terrorist act itself and Russia’s subsequent response.”
The International Chopin Piano Competition–a 21-day event held in Warsaw every five years–has launched the careers of Maurizio Pollini, Martha Argerich, Krystian Zimerman and Yundi Li. Jakub Piątek’s (“Prime Time”) documentary follows six contestants as they prepare to compete against the world’s top young performers of classical music. Collider’s Therese Lacson writes, “Piątek is good at tunneling into the minds of these contestants. By the end of the documentary, we know all the subjects. We feel for them, we celebrate their wins, and are devastated by their losses.” Comparing it to recent Sundance documentaries about teen competitions like “Science Fair” and “Try Harder,” RogerEbert.com’s Nick Allen says “Pianoforte” has a “distinct bittersweetness that makes it more introspective, if not quietly haunting.”
“The Longest Goodbye”
Rather than address the technical challenges of reaching Mars, Ido Mizrahy (“Gored”) squarely focuses on the role human behavior plays in extended space travel. The subject is explored through the work of NASA psychologist Al Holland, who, per Sundance’s description of the film, “studies the effects of prolonged separation of individuals from Earth” and “ways to provide support and coping mechanisms to the red planet-bound explorers.” While Holland’s team posits AI, virtual reality, and hibernation as possible solutions, the experiences of two NASA engineers—Cady Coleman and Kayla Barron—poignantly illustrate the personal cost of long-distance parenting. Mike DeAngelo of The Playlist calls “The Longest Goodbye” “equal parts family drama and tense thriller rolled up into a documentary about the rapidly approaching upcoming mission to Mars.” Nick Allen writes that the movie “has a rare human lens into an astronaut’s mental work, including candid footage of people up on the ISS wrestling with emotions that don’t make headlines.”
“Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project”
A very different kind of documentary about our aspiration to land humans on the Red Planet than “The Longest Goodbye,” “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project” is foremost a journey into the mind of its eponymous poet. Directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson (who won a special jury award in 2013 for “American Promise”) have, according to reviews, created a one-of-a-kind impressionistic biodocumentary–one that, by framing the subject of space travel through an Afrofuturistic lens, asks sociopolitical questions that are sometimes ignored in technocratic discourse. The Hollywood Reporter’s Lovia Gyarkye writes, “Anchored by the vivacious personality of its subject, [‘Going to Mars’] blends its experimental inspirations (Raoul Peck’s ‘I Am Not Your Negro’) with the duty of a compositionally legible portrait (Timothy Greenfield Sanders’ ‘Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am’).” For Black Girl Nerds, Jeanine T. Abraham writes, “The film captures Nikki Giovanni’s directness, courage, mind numbing talent and insecurities that make you want to lean in and learn more about one of the most fascinating artists of our time.” “Going to Mars” won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, which went to “The Exiles” in 2022.
“The Eternal Memory”
Maite Alberdi’s “The Mole Agent” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and proceeded to score an Oscar nomination. Her latest, “The Eternal Memory,” was acquired by MTV Documentary Films the same day it won the World Cinema Grand Jury prize (awarded to Oscar-nominee “All That Breathes” in 2022). With the help of editor Carolina Siraqyan (who helped her complete “The Mole Agent”), Alberdi blends a history of Chile under Augusto Pinochet with the intimate, insulated story of a marriage burdened by Alzheimer’s disease. Though a tough sit, “The Eternal Memory” received some of the best reviews of any title premiering at this year’s Sundance. The Playlist’s Rodrigo Perez raves, “As past and present intermingle, crossfade, and coexist, Alberdi’s poignant doc blossoms into something profoundly moving, melancholy, generous, and empathetic in its own right.” Discussing the thematic reverberation between its personal and political narratives, Screen Daily’s Jonathan Holland writes that the movie “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 Eternal Memory” is produced by Pablo Larraín (director of “Jackie” and “Spencer”) and will likely receive an awards push from MTV next fall.
“Going Varsity in Mariachi”
The third-ever recipient of the Jonathan Oppenheim Award, a prize introduced in 2021 to recognize outstanding achievements in documentary editing (2022’s went to “Fire of Love”), “Going Varsity in Mariachi” is another Sundance selection this year to take us behind the scenes of competitive music–Texas high school mariachi competitions. While this film’s story is local, the stakes are just as high for the people we meet in this film as they are for the International Chopin Piano Competition’s contestants followed by “Pianoforte.” Jason Gorber of POV Magazine calls “Going Varsity in Mariachi” a “well-crafted and intimate look at a particular subculture that’s far more subtle and impactful than the glitzy exterior may appear.” Similarly, AV Club’s Manuel Betancourt writes, “This South Texas-set doc wears its heart on its beautifully pressed sleeves.” The film’s Sundance prize is the first major award received by editor Daniela I. Quiroz (“Vice News,” “Latino Vote: Dispatches from the Battleground”).
“Against the Tide”
A rift between two members of Bombay’s indigenous Koli community is used by director Sarvnik Kaur (“A Ballad of Maladies”) to explore broader regional issues regarding commerce and climate change. Rakesh is a poor fisherman who takes his beaten up dinghy out every morning to practice the trade passed down to him by his father. Ganesh, educated abroad, has his eyes set on a bigger, more mechanized operation. Dwindling marine populations, however, stymie both men’s efforts to make a living. Comparing “Against the Tide” to freshly minted Oscar nominee “All that Breathes”, IndieWire’s Siddhant Adlakha writes, “It’s a film concerned with conveying blockades–both logistical and emotional–more than solutions,” adding, “In moving fashion, [Kaur] captures how the effects of climate change ripple far beyond the shore, into the homes of those who depend on the sea not for their living, but for their cultural identities.” The film is edited by Atanas Georgiev and Blagoja Nedelkovski, the Oscar-nominated duo behind 2019’s “Honeyland” (a Sundance premiere that nabbed three festival prizes). “Against the Tide” won a special international jury award for achievement in verité filmmaking.
“A Still Small Voice”
“A Still Small Voice” follows a hospital chaplain who suffers a crisis of conscience while providing spiritual guidance to grieving families during the height of the pandemic. The film is directed and edited by Luke Lorentzen (“Midnight Family”), who was inspired to tackle the subject by his sister’s experiences as a hospital chaplain, and produced by Kellen Quinn, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated “Time” (part of the festival’s 2020 slate). The Hollywood Reporter’s Sheri Linden writes, “Within the discussions observed by [Lorentzen], it’s hard to find a comment that isn’t packed with complex questions and spiritual longing.” The Wrap’s Elizabeth Weitzman praises Lorentzen’s “single-camera, vérité approach,” adding that it “creates an intimate connection between audience and subjects, and the private moments in the chaplains’ break room are among the most powerful.” The filmmaker picked up the U.S. documentary section’s directing award.
“Beyond Utopia” and “20 Days in Mariupol” make for a fascinating, if brutal, double-feature. The film drops us into the perilous world of human smuggling on the Korean Peninsula. Pastor Seungeun Kim arranges defections from North Korea at great risk to himself, and the heartstopping footage captured by director Madeleine Gavin (“City of Joy”) is owed to his expertise navigating the region’s forests and mountain ranges. Embedded with families desperate to flee the northern regime, viewers are given an uncomfortably detailed look at life under totalitarianism. Daniel Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter says the movie is “packed with high-stakes tension and nail-biting set-pieces,” while Variety’s Brent Lang emphasizes just how significant a piece of documentary filmmaking “Beyond Utopia” really is, writing that it presents an “opportunity to change the conversation around the repressive regime by moving the focus from its brutal leader Kim Jong-un and onto the ordinary citizens who have been abused and neglected by the country.” The movie won the festival’s coveted U.S. Documentary Audience prize, which in 2022 went to “Navalny.”
“The Deepest Breath”
Already dubbed the “Free Solo” of diving documentaries, “The Deepest Breath” follows Alessia Zecchini as she competes to swim deeper than anyone ever has in a single breath. Director Laura McGann, whose 2016 “Revolutions” introduced viewers to the unforgiving world of women’s roller derby in Ireland, is familiar with covering extreme sports and athletic obsession. The Wrap’s Simon Abrams says it’s her “keen eye for experiential detail really puts ‘The Deepest Breath’ over the top.” The heart of the story is Alessia’s bond with her safety coordinator, Stephen Keenan, who died in 2017 while trying to rescue her during an especially challenging dive. Jake Kring-Schreifels of The Film Stage writes, “Like ‘Free Solo’ and last year’s Sundance hit ‘Fire of Love,’ ‘The Deepest Breath’ continues a recent trend of examining extreme athletes and professions that accept the occupational hazards of their unrelenting quests to chase the unfathomable.” Netflix acquired the film ahead of the festival.