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Highlights from the 2023 Sundance Film Fest


Sundance, the famous film festival, closes this weekend, and for the first time in two years, many participants traveled to Park City, Utah, to take in screenings, parties and panels in person. But critic Bob Mondello is not among them. He's been enjoying the hybrid event in Argentina, and that's where he's with us from now. OK. Explain yourself, sir.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Well, I think it's the World Wide Web, right? And during the pandemic, Sundance has had an online presence. Why not watch it where it's warm? I'll miss all the standing ovations, but I had access to more than a hundred films. And that's pretty good, right?

MARTIN: All right. So tell me about some of those hundred films. Now, Sundance has a reputation for finding new talent and independent films. Did the festival kind of meet that standard this year?

MONDELLO: Oh, I think so. More than half of the feature films in the competition were directed by women. Almost half were directed by persons of color and about a quarter by directors who identify as LGBTQ+. None of that is true of Hollywood as a whole, so these genuinely are new voices.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit about your festival, some of the films that you picked, and how did you do?

MONDELLO: I started on a real high note, the music documentary "Little Richard: I Am Everything," about the architect of rock and roll, and he is just fantastic. At one point, he tells an interviewer, I'm not conceited. I'm convinced. You believe him. And I followed that with a film called "Magazine Dreams," about a bodybuilder jacked up on steroids with an amazing physical performance by Jonathan Majors from "Lovecraft Country." That was a very good first day, you know?

MARTIN: So forgive me sort of, you know, asking you about the kind of the business side of it. But, you know, filmmakers do go there to get distribution to sell their films. Have there been some big film sales this year?

MONDELLO: Yes. And they were worried about that. For the last two years, the deals haven't really been coming through because of the pandemic, but streaming services came to the rescue this year. Netflix paid $20 million for a tense hedge fund thriller called "Fair Play." It is terrific. And Apple Plus paid nearly that much for "Flora And Son," an Irish musical charmer that I haven't seen. And the seriously cute comedy "Theater Camp" - that was one of my faves - led a parade of deals for theatrical distribution for smaller amounts. So, yes, it's going pretty well.

MARTIN: So tell me, what else struck a chord with you?

MONDELLO: Well, besides "Fair Play," there's another thriller. It's called "Eileen," about two women who work at a boys' prison in 1960s New England. For about an hour, I was absolutely sure I knew where this film was going, and it took a turn and oh, my God. And then a pair of Mexican biopics - "Radical," about an inspiring sixth-grade teacher, and "Cassandro," with Gael Garcia Bernal playing a gay wrestler. And there are also some star vehicles - "You Hurt My Feelings," with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a writer who finds out her husband didn't like her book, "L'immensita," with Penelope Cruz as the radiant mom of a trans teenager. And I guess you could say that "Still," a Michael J. Fox movie, is also a star vehicle. It's a remarkably upbeat and entertaining documentary.

MARTIN: So I'm always amazed at how you can figure out what to watch, given so many choices. So I'm going to ask if there was anything that really surprised you.

MONDELLO: There's a film called "The Tuba Thieves." It is theoretically about a bunch of tubas that went missing from California high schools a decade ago. But it's really about sounds, and I started reading bits about it in the program. The filmmaker is Alison O'Daniel, who is hard of hearing, and she's captioned the sounds in the film in a way that just really grabbed me. It's like, crazily disorienting to have sound foregrounded in a visual medium like movies. But it's also intriguing and fascinating and offbeat and kind of exactly what Sundance is supposed to be about.

MARTIN: That's movie critic Bob Mondello. Bob, thank you so much.

MONDELLO: It's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.