Three of the absolute best films of Sundance 2023 came from filmmakers who seemed eager to look in the mirror. Or at least a funhouse one. Of course, none of these are direct memoirs, but they all feel inspired by the lives and concerns of the people who made them, leading to projects that resonate with the power of truth. It’s often difficult to tell exactly what will continue to resonate when it descends from the mountain air, but I’m pretty confident that all three of these will have an impact throughout 2023, maybe even more than anything else that premiered here. They’re all excellent in their own way.
What feels like the consensus choice for the best film of Sundance 2023 is Celine Song’s tender, beautiful, and profound “Past Lives.” Already picked up by A24, it’s one of the few films of this year’s festival that seems like it will still be discussed when people are considering the best of the year many months from now. It’s an understated character study that unfolds across three very distinct periods in the lives of its protagonists, and it works both as an intimate story of these specific people and a deeper commentary on connection and immigration. In other words, it has that startling balance of the specific and the universal. It never plays like a “statement” film, and yet it’s also going to be so easy for so many people who have radically changed their lives to see themselves in it. It’s about what we leave behind when we uproot our lives and start them again somewhere else. What doors do we close when we open new ones? What possibilities are lost? And Song connects these questions to a Korean concept of past lives and future ones, placing her characters in a larger context of fated encounters throughout history. It’s a minor film in its scope and structure, and yet it feels so very major.
“Past Lives” opens in 2000 in South Korea, introducing us to two 12-year-olds named Na Young (Seung-ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung-min Yim). They have that kind of pre-teen friendship that's a lot like a first love, a tender crush between kids that bonds them. They walk home together, tease each other, play in a sculpture garden, and talk about what’s to come. And then it all ends when Na Young’s parents decide to immigrate to Canada. Before they leave, they change her name to the American one of Nora. In a sense, she literally leaves “Na Young” in Korea, stuck in Hae Sung’s mind as that 12-year-old girl of memory.
Cut to New York City in 2012, when an adult Nora (Greta Lee) finds Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) on social media. The two reconnect and catch-up, but thousands of miles separate them. Still, there’s a palpable chemistry between them in these scenes. They make each other smile in a way that feels organic and true. They fall back into an online relationship as if the last 12 years had never passed, but they can’t commit romantically when it’s impossible to get the right permits to see each other for over a year. To avoid the heartache, they split again. Twelve years later, Nora is married to a nice guy named Arthur (John Magaro) when Hae Sung comes to visit.
When Nora meets Arthur at an artist’s retreat, she explains to him the Korean concept of inyeon. The concept is one of not just romantic fate in this lifetime but across the centuries. What if your partner is someone who you have encountered over and over again since the beginning of time? What if the person you brush shoulders with on a bus today is the past life of a person your future self will marry hundreds of years from now? It’s a concept at the core of the entire film, but it never makes “Past Lives” feel like a doomed romance. If Na Young and Hae Sung aren’t meant to be in this life, maybe they’re just laying the foundation for the next one.
Song directs “Past Lives” with such eloquent confidence. She often frames her characters against settings that feel bigger than them, whether it’s the sculptures in Korea when they’re young or the Statue of Liberty when Nora and Hae Sung take a ferry tour. And she very carefully cuts her film, often allowing conversations to unfold in long, single takes as if we’re eavesdropping on them. She’s also a clear talent when it comes to directing performance, drawing memorable ones from all three of her leads, especially Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, who can convey more with a long silent stare at each other than most performers would with a page of melodramatic dialogue. Some connections are stronger than words.
A very different love triangle unfolds in “Passages,” a sexy, European drama from the director of “Forty Shades of Blue,” “Love is Strange,” and “Little Men.” Of course, no one would claim that this is specifically Ira Sachs’ biographical story. Still, any time that a filmmaker centers a protagonist who is also a filmmaker then it opens the doors to questions about how much of what unfolds is self-reflective. Of course, none of the meta aspects of “Passages” will mean much to most viewers, who will just be entranced by this wicked study of a man who uses people in his life like the actors on his set, ordering them around until he gets what he needs from them.
Tomas (the stunning Franz Rogowski) is a German director working on a film in Paris, where he’s taken up residence for the shoot with his husband Martin (Ben Whishaw). After a difficult shooting day, he runs into Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos) at a club, and the two begin an impulsive affair that essentially destroys his marriage to Martin. The husbands remain relatively amicable, but things get complicated when the charm of the new and the potential of domesticity pushes Tomas back to Martin, who has been seeing someone else too. It’s a complicated mess driven by Tomas’ impulsiveness as a man who seems to view people as transitional passageways to the next exciting thing in his life.
Reflecting the almost carnal instincts of his leading man, Sachs has made a film that’s often driven by sex. He makes his characters flawed creatures who give into their passions without thinking about tomorrow. And the performers are up to the challenge, portraying these complex people in a manner that feels real and never pandering. Tomas is the kind of guy who doesn’t care if you like him, and so the film doesn’t demand that you do either. Rogowski arguably does the best work of his career, capturing the kind of fragile masculinity that often typifies creatives. Whishaw is always in the moment as a performer, and Exarchopoulos is solid if arguably a bit underwritten.
“Passages” is about a man who demands attention at all times. There’s a reason Sachs opens his film on a set with Tomas ordering people around and getting eyes from everyone in the room. How a creative like Tomas uses that ego-driven worldview to impact the lives of the people who happen to sleep with him has rarely been more interestingly dissected in a drama than Sachs does here. Whether he’s digging into issues about himself or his fellow filmmakers is an open question, but it feels like this riveting character study comes from a place of truth either way.
There’s also something wonderfully honest about Nicole Holofcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings,” the writer/director’s best film in years. The filmmaker behind “Walking and Talking” and “Enough Said” reunites with the latter’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus for a truly insightful study of the complex ebb and flow of encouragement within a relationship. How do you balance truth with support? Do you tell someone you love that their creative output isn’t that good if it might derail their work on fulfilling their dreams? Holofcener has made one of her smartest and funniest films, a movie that understands how partners and even parents can delicately manage the insecurities of the people they love.
“You Hurt My Feelings” opens in therapy, as a shrink named Don (Tobias Menzies, never better) counsels a couple played by the real-life partners David Cross and Amber Tamblyn. They always fight, and never listen, and therapy seems to be doing nothing at all. By contrast, Don seems happily partnered with Beth (Louis-Dreyfus, more vulnerable than usual), an author struggling with her latest work. One day, Beth and her sister Sara (an excellent Michaela Watkins) overhear Don talking to Sara’s insecure husband Mark (Arian Moayed) about the little encouraging lies that Don tells his wife about her writing. He’s read 20 drafts of the new book. None of them are good. To say that Beth spirals would be an understatement.
Holofcener’s script for “You Hurt My Feelings” is so sharp that it’s easy to take its subtleties for granted. It’s not by accident that everyone in this character study is having a tug-of-war with confidence. Don starts to question his therapist's abilities; Sara has a rich client who dismisses all of her design ideas; Mark struggles as a working actor. Even Don and Beth’s son (Owen Teague) can’t find his voice as a writer. How do we balance our opinions to elevate those we love without feeling truly dishonest?
On the way to my next movie, I overheard two guys discussing the little lies they tell their partners that they’d never reveal. They were nothing earth-shattering or deceptive—just eccentric quirks that are overlooked or little white lies that don’t do any damage. It’s a testament to how smart Holofcener’s film is, that it produced this conversation about how much these watchers saw themselves in her characters. We all can.