Sundance London Film Festival 2023: Ones to Watch

words Christina Brennan

Including Andrew Durham’s mesmerising Fairyland, Ira Sach’s turbulent Past Lives, and a documentary that mixes that combines art, album covers, and Pink Floyd.

In typical British fashion, the London weather was stiflingly warm and rainy at the 10th edition of Sundance London. This is no issue when you spend most of the festival’s three-day run, between 6-9 July, on the snug sofas at the back of Picturehouse Central in the West End and off Leicester Square.

As a UK off-shoot of Utah’s iconic film festival, the Sundance London team still deserve kudos for combining back-to-back screenings with a lively schedule of Q&As with stars and directors of the newest independent films, comedy-dramas and documentaries (with time for snacks from the retro Pick n Mix stall). With a full house across Picturehouse Central’s four-floor venue, the festival seems to have certainly shaken off the dulling after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

From a glance at social media, it was no surprise which film won the festival’s Audience Award — Celine Song’s Past Lives was a run-away winner that led to Picturehouse Central hosting a repeat screening following the close of the festival — but I have my own list of the best films to watch out for about the 2023 Sundance London.

With all listed films anticipating UK release dates, I’m featuring my top five from Sundance London that you can expect to catch at select independent cinemas.

Talk to Me (Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou, 2023)

talk to me indie film

Sundance 2023’s most gory and splatter-filled film. A24, the company behind Midsommar and Hereditary, released this Australian horror by Danny Philippou and Michael Philippou that will grip horror fans. Influenced by the pandemic-era horrors dwelling on disturbing effects of social media, Talk to Me follows 17-year-old Mia (Sophie Wilde) and friends arriving at a far-from-conventional teenage party. They are joining a séance with a group of Australian teenagers who have learnt that they can conjure undead spirits using an embalmed hand. This head-spinning experience would gain any teenager street-cred on social media. At first, the warped teenage games are tongue-in-cheek. But as the séance continues, darkness creeps in, and the stakes become higher and gorier. Talk to Me is one for seasoned horror fans – a high-octane horror combining special effects with compelling central performances. If you’re a film fan looking for blood and gore, catch this one from 28 July 2023.

Fairyland (Andrew Durham, 2023)

fairyland sundance indie movie

Andrew Durham’s debut film is a poignant, multi-generational family story bathed in Californian sunshine and set in 1970s and 1980s San Francisco. Adapting from Alysia Abbott’s memoir of the same name, with the sub-title Memoirs of My Father, Durham presents a chronological account of Alysia’s life with her father, who, after the death of Alysia’s mother, decides to live as an out gay man, making a living from poetry writing whilst raising his daughter. Despite the chronology, any viewer will feel like they’re watching a kaleidoscope of vivid scenes pulled out of Alysia’s adolescence and early adulthood. Early scenes capture hopeful days of LGBTQ+ liberation, as seen through Alysia’s eyes in a San Francisco house-share, which turns into a meditation on how the need to create art can either complement or exist at odds with family and community-building.

Scoot McNairy, as Steve, and Emilia Jones, as a teenage and early adult, Alysia, handle these multiple tensions beautifully, with both actors depicting the typical angst between father and daughter, which evolves into a fierce loyalty when the HIV/AIDS crisis darkens the lives. Despite abrupt transitions structuring different phases of the film, Fairyland viewers won’t be able to turn away from Durham’s mesmerising debut film. (Release date TBA).

Your Hurt My Feelings (Nicole Holofcener, 2023)

you hurt my feelings sundance

On the topic of art, there’s a fine line between artistic expression and personal ego, as any honest writer (or performer and artist) will tell you. Nicole Holofcener’s New York-set film skilfully offers an unexpected take on this theme in this artfully close-to-the-bone comedy-drama that slyly punctures the ego of certain types of creative. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tobias Menzies star as an upper-class New York couple whose personal and professional insecurities intersect in unforeseen and often absurd ways. Dreyfus is Beth, a writer who hosts classes at the New School, New York, whose marriage to Don, a therapist who manages the neuroses of equally upper-class people who can afford therapy. The couple manages to muddle along with their own neuroses in New York luxury (and Holofcener offers many tongue-in-cheek nudges at her characters).

Yet when Beth overhears Don telling his brother-in-law that he isn’t too enamoured with Beth’s new novel, her whole world is turned upside down.

You Hurt My Feelings is an absurdist picture of artists and creators. Part of what Your Hurt My Feelings mocks is how creative ambition is often combined with a lack of self-awareness. She pokes fun at the idea that art ought to be at the centre of our universe, making us lose sight of other ties, communities and responsibilities. The satirical edge is subtle, but it’s there. For a film that will make you cringe at relatability (despite the plush surroundings), stream this one from 8 August 2023.

Passages (Ira Sachs, 2023)

passages sundance film

Ira Sachs’ Paris-set romantic drama is the anthesis of twee Emily in Paris-style TV and film. Passages makes terrific lovers and fighters out of Franz Rogowski and the understated Ben Whishaw. Tomas, a German film director, and Martin are a married couple whose lives are upturned when Tomas finds a new lover Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos). Explicit sex, as Tomas hops between his two increasingly enraged lovers, is interwoven with scenes depicting the intimate unearthing of pain and grievances that bring home to the reality of infidelity. Betrayal and confronting its repercussions is a theme that echoes across multiple films in Sundance London, and Passages is no exception here. While Tomas’ narcissism becomes increasingly destructive, the pain of the other two players in this love triangle become more pronounced and poignant. The emotional tone may be a little erratic, but solid performances from these actors uphold this film and transform it into a meditation on the profound damage of sexual betrayal. Catch this at select cinemas from 1 September 2023.

Squaring The Circle (Anton Corbijn, 2023)

Squaring The Circle film festival

This slick documentary about designers Aubrey “Po” Powell and Storm Thorgerson will have you dusting off the vinyl records and looking through the plastic sleeves. Responsible for iconic album covers from artists including Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, Squaring the Circle combines biographical insights with a behind-the-scenes look at the stories and dramas behind these album covers. Corbijn’s documentary makes for a strangely personal watch. Interspersed with interviews with household names, including Paul McCartney and Noel Gallagher, the most poignantly memorable aspects of the documentary are interviews with Powell. There’s a melancholy in Powell’s reflections on Thogerson, who died in 2013, and how they collaborated to develop some of the most recognisable album covers, including Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. Powell’s insights into their personalities and artistic visions are the most fascinating part of the documentary, providing insight into art, music and creative collaboration.

In cinema from 14 July 2023.




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