My Favorite Films from Sundance 2023
Plus: Netflix is going to try to make your mom pay for a separate account.
Sundance is one of my favorite film events and this year, I was thrilled to be able to watch some movies from the 2023 festival remotely. Below, I’ve named just a few of my favorite movies out of those I was able to see. As with many Sundance successes, I suspect you’ll be hearing about them throughout 2023.
Before we get to the movies though, I did want to make one comment about the Sundance online ticketing experience this year: It was terrible. Last year (2022), Sundance went digital first and the result was a beautiful streamlined ticketing and viewing experience. This year, with in-person events back in the mix, it felt like the online experience took a back seat. Buying tickets was a massive chore, the primary problem being that it was possible to add tickets to your cart that were already sold out, making the whole process highly manual and time-consuming. This is a shame and I hope they are able to allocate more resources to the online experience next year for the many of us who are unable to attend in person.
Here are the films I liked in alphabetical order.
Beyond Utopia (dir. Madeline Gavin): This documentary follows the stories of several defectors trying to escape North Korea. It also widens its aperture to occasionally provide glimpses of how oppressive and surreal modern life is in North Korea. It reminds us how odd and upsetting it is that there’s a country full of brainwashed people who are essentially living in a nation-state cult, and that there’s not much that other world leaders are particularly willing or able to do about it.
What’s amazing about Beyond Utopia is the footage that the filmmakers were able to obtain. The film opens by stating that there are no re-enactments and that of the film’s footage is either shot by the participants, the filmmakers, or people in the underground network trying to get defectors to safety. The results are astonishing, providing an unprecedented look at the lengths people will go to on a seemingly impossible quest.
There’s a moment in this movie where a whole Korean family of five (three generations worth) has journeyed to the China/Korea border. They are barely surviving in the middle of the woods, but they have so much farther to travel. A trusted voice on the phone tells them that they still need to make the journey through Vietnam and Laos before reaching Thailand, when they will finally be safe.
The land is treacherous. There are police on the lookout for defectors like them and the police are everywhere. If the family is caught, in a best case scenario, they will likely be ransomed. In a worst case scenario they will be tortured and killed.
After the call is over, with a massive dangerous journey still ahead of them, the 80-year-old grandmother of the family starts just giving thanks. She says she’s never felt more grateful in 80 years that she’s able to make this trek. She seemed so genuinely happy for even just a chance at a better life.
That’s going to stick with me for a very long time.
When can you see it: Beyond Utopia is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
The Eternal Memory (dir. Maite Alberdi): This documentary chronicles the later years of Augusto and Paulina, a Chilean couple who have been together and in love for decades. After Augusto is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Paulina struggles to maintain his mind.
The Eternal Memory begins as a fairly conventional documentary about this couple’s life but then COVID hits, and the filmmakers seemingly provide Paulina the equipment to film inside her own home. While Paulina’s footage isn’t technically very good — many shots are out of focus and exposed poorly — she is able to capture details that simply wouldn’t be possible if a crew was in the house with them.
The result is one of the most intimate portraits of dealing with Alzheimer’s I’ve ever witnessed. I understood the symptoms of Alzheimer’s before and also learned that it’s very difficult for caretakers to manage. In pop culture, Alzheimer’s is most commonly associated with forgetfulness (see: The Notebook). But what is less often depicted is everything else that comes with the mind’s slow deterioration: the belligerence, the confusion, the despair. There are many episodes we see where Augusto is shouting at no one and no matter what Paulina says, he cannot be talked down. Despite this, Paulina’s love, compassion, and patience remain a throughline.
Movies like The Eternal Memory invite us to contemplate our own mortality and what the end of our lives might look like. They also make you understand what “in sickness and in health” really means.
When can you see it: MTV Documentary Films picked up U.S. distribution rights to The Eternal Memory. It doesn’t have a release date yet but I assume it will be available either theatrically or via VOD sometime in the next year or two.
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Other People’s Children (dir. Rebecca Zlotowski): In Other People’s Children, Virginie Elfira plays a teacher who’s just trying to find love and happiness. After she falls in love with a musician, things get complicated when she’s introduced to his daughter.
Other People’s Children tackles how difficult it can be to try to integrate into a family unit that already exists. There are memories and customs and assumptions that are completely unfamiliar to you and most of the time there’s no tutorial or guidance; you’re just expected to jump in and make the best of it.
What I loved about this movie is how it is able to capture that feeling stuck in between worlds. You know your desired endstate. You think you understand how to get it. But sometimes circumstances conspire to make it difficult or impossible. How do you deal with that gulf? These are the questions that this movie asks that I found beautiful and compelling.
Elfira is luminous. There’s nothing she can’t do with a glance, a quiver of her lip, a disappointed look. I had last seen her in the amazing Benedetta and after seeing her in this movie, I’m convinced she can do anything.
When can you see it: Music Box Films picked up US distribution rights to Other People’s Children. It doesn’t have a release date yet but I assume it will be available either theatrically or via VOD sometime in the next year or two.
People Really Don’t Want To Pay for Separate Netflix Accounts
On Tuesday (Jan 31), Netflix revealed details of how it would start enforcing its “no password sharing” policy. The Streamable had a good write-up of it, but here were the salient points:
A user must be in your household to use your Netflix account.
A user is required to authenticate any logged in devices by joining your home wi-fi network at least once every 31 days. If a user does not authenticate, they will be blocked from using Netflix.
If you travel or go on vacation, you can get a temporary code that will allow you to use Netflix for seven consecutive days.
If you are currently sharing a password, Netflix will allow you to migrate your profile off someone else’s account.
I made a Tiktok summarizing these details that’s currently going viral. I was pretty even-handed in my assessment but it’s safe to say that the overwhelmingly vast majority of people were violently negative about the proposed changes; 99% of the comments I received were from people either trashing Netflix as a service or proclaiming that they would simply cancel their account.
But there’s a new wrinkle to the story: It appears this morning, Netflix backtracked on the plan already. Instead, Netflix is now saying that if you try to use a device not associated with the account holder’s home network, Netflix will send a code to the account holder and ask the new user to “verify the device” by entering in that code within 15 minutes. It also ominously hints that “device verification may be required periodically.” It’s a far lower bar than “connecting to the home wi-fi network” but now I’m a bit worried how effective it will be (plus it still seems equally likely to annoy people who were already on the fence about keeping their subscriptions). It’s also unclear if this plan will change yet again in the future.
Whatever happens next, the halcyon days of the below tweet seem pretty far away.
Stuff I’ve Made
Over on Decoding Reality, Justin and Daejah discussed this week’s episode of The Bachelor. I’m so thrilled to be producing Decoding Reality as part of the Decoding TV network and I love the conversations Justin and Daejah are having.