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With well over 100 feature films in this year’s program—close to a third of which are by first-time feature directors–this year’s Sundance Film Festival promises a slate full of a great variety both international and domestic (and that’s not counting the over 60 short films). The 2023 fest takes place January 19-29, in the hybrid format the 2022 iteration was supposed to follow before Covid’s Omicron variant changed everyone’s plans. The initial screenings will take place only in person, followed by virtual events for those not making the trip to Park City, Utah. Here at Hammer to Nail, we’ve got boots on both terra firma and virtualis. What follows are choices from five of our regular contributors, each of whom has chosen four films to recommend.

Going Varsity in Mariachi

Competitions often make for compelling documentaries; think the 2002 Spellbound or the 2005 Mad Hot Ballroom. Now we can add Sam Osborn and Alejandra Vasquez’s Going Varsity in Mariachi to the list (along with Pianoforte, also among my 2023 Sundance picks). At least I hope so. The movie promises to be as captivating as its predecessors as it follows students at Edinburg North High School (in Edinburg, Texas) as they navigate the high-stakes worlds of Mariachi tournaments and adolescence. Let the trumpets play! (Christopher Llewellyn Reed)

The Tuba Thieves 

A rare hangout film from the deaf community, The Tuba Thieves immerses the audience in the silence that these characters live in every day. Their problems, though, are universal. How the theft of high school marching band instruments plays into the narrative is murky at best, but the experimental film uses subliminal messaging such as archival of a small town underneath a busy airplane route to create a sense of mystery and intrigue. (Matt Delman)

AUM: The Cult at the End of the World

This documentary premiering in the U.S. Competition enters into terrifying waters as it explores the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which unleashed sarin gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 14 people and injuring an estimated 6,000. In their directorial debut, co-directors Ben Braun and Chiaki Yanagimoto dive deep into the cult’s history, from its beginnings as a yoga school in 1984 to the chilling terrorist attack that has been seldom talked about. With all the hype surrounding the recent NXIVM docuseries The Vow, one would expect an in-depth look into radicalization through psychological and social contexts. (M.J. O’Toole)

A still from INFINITY POOL

Infinity Pool

While coming out on January 26 nationwide with a new “R” rating, I am excited to see this one a week early at Sundance because of three exact names: Brandon Cronenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, and Mia Goth. While an NC-17 cut would be great to see, the trailer of this version looks traumatic enough. While I am pretty sure my obsession with White Lotus season two can not be matched, rich people in peril while enjoying a fancy vacation are up my alley right now. (Melanie Addington)

My Animal

Werewolf stories usually play to some extent as commentaries on our more visceral instincts. Ginger Snaps is one of my favorites and Director Jacqueline Castel seems to be putting a decidedly queer spin on that tale of female sexual awakening. She also can claim collaborations with John Carpenter and David Lynch and direct some extremely disturbing music videos, like Zola Jesus’s Exhumed. (Bears Rebecca Fonté)

Mami Wata

I’ve seen this film via an advance screener, and though the narrative is at times a little hard to follow (at least in the beginning), Brazilian cinematographer Lílis Soares’ striking black-and-white images make Mami Wata pop in every frame, especially at night. Based on West African folklore, this movie is about how tradition might not be quite the anachronism that modernity would have you think it is. Director C.J. ‘Fiery’ Obasi (Ojuju) keeps us guessing until the very end about which side triumphs. (CLR)

Cat Person

Adapted from the viral New Yorker short story, Cat Person stars an impressionable Emilia Jones (CODA) and Nicholas Braun (Succession) as her problematic suitor. One could imagine it playing out as a feature-length episode of Master of None that’s more accurate to Aziz Ansari’s real dating life. Also starring Geraldine Viswanathan (The Broken Hearts Gallery), Cat Person is the type of modern romcom bound to launch a thousand think-pieces. (MD)

Magazine Dreams

This might be the year for Jonathan Majors to show us what he’s really made of. As moviegoers anticipate his roles in Creed III and as the next big MCU villain. Majors expands his range in writer-director Elijah Bynum’s Magazine Dreams as a socially inept bodybuilder with aspirations of fame at any cost. This character study gives real Nightcrawler vibes, which is coincidental given that film’s director Dan Gilroy is one of the producers. What makes this even more exciting is a cast that includes Taylour Paige (Zola), Haley Bennett (Swallow), and American Gladiators alum Mike O’Hearn. (MJ)

A still from BAD BEHAVIOUR

Bad Behaviour

Jennifer Connelly stars as the quintessential toxic white woman, creating drama while seeking enlightenment. Writer/Director Alice Englert also stars as Connelly’s daughter bringing just as much drama as her former child actor mom to the show. The film is in World Cinema dramatic competition for New Zealand and is labeled a comedy-drama. Primarily a shorts filmmaker, Englert debuts her feature directing with this film. New strong female directors are always exciting to discover. (MA)




Found in the Next section, this experimental SciFi film concerns a dystopia future where exists a groundbreaking drug —Divinity – an immortality serum. From writer/director Eddie Alcazar whose 2016 Sundance Short FUCKKKYOUUU was like a film made by the crew that went to the other side of hell in Event Horizon. Somehow this bit of madness boasts a cast that includes Stephen Dorff, Bella Thorne, and Scott Bakula. (BRF)


A charming and poignant look at the ups and downs of big-time music competitions. Here, it’s the biggest one of all, at least for pianists: the quinquennial (as in, every five years) International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland. Director Jakub Piątek (Prime Time) follows a variety of participants during the 2021 event as they laugh, cry, succeed and fail. Actually, there are no failures here, merely a talented bunch of world-class musicians giving it their all in a deeply inspirational tale. (CLR)


Cassandro is the narrative directorial debut of Academy Award-winning documentarian Roger Ross Williams, known for The Apollo, Life Animated, and God Loves Uganda. Gael García Bernal stars in this biopic as luchador Saúl Armendáriz who is tired of losing his pre-determined matches and creates a new flamboyant, effeminate wrestling character that audiences love to hate. My guess is that it will be nothing like GLOW, even if on paper it shares some of the same appeals. Produced by documentary powerhouse Motto Pictures as well as one of Hammer to Nail’s founders Ted Hope, this project has the bonafides of a potential cult hit. (MD)

Kim’s Video

Cult film enthusiasts and cinephiles with nostalgia for the old VHS days will rejoice with David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s documentary which dives into the legendary NYC video store. Kim’s Video was a haven in the East Village for lovers of ambitious, experimental films whose hall of employees includes filmmakers and former HtN contributors Alex Ross Perry and Robert Greene, as well as Joker director Todd Phillips. That is… before streaming came in and wiped it off the map. What follows is what happened after the store’s eccentric founder Yongman Kim contributed his collection of 55,000 tapes to a Sicilian village. This astonishing documentary is a detective story of sorts that tackles international relations, possible mafia ties, and the different ways movies can impact our lives. (MJ)

Judy Blume Forever 

Everything in life I ever learned was mostly from Judy Blume. First, as an adolescent girl who didn’t have the Internet yet, it was Blume that told girls like me about menstruation, God, and being different. Later, as a reporter and strong advocate for the First Amendment, Blume was a big protagonist in the anti-censorship movement. While this will likely land on Prime pretty quickly, I’m eager to see her more adventurous work on fighting censorship depicted in an entertaining way. (MA)

The Stroll

There are well-meaning allies who bend over backward to tell you how great of a film Tangerine is, a film about two transgender women of color struggling through their lives as sex workers written and directed by white, cisgender man Sean Baker. The Stroll is the history of New York City’s Meatpacking District, told by the transgender women of color who lived, worked, loved, and died there before it was gentrified into a corporate sterile façade. Co-director Kristen Lovell worked alongside these women for a decade and teams up with Transparent producer and star of last year’s Framing Agnes, Zackary Drucker. (BRF)


As a big fan of actor Randall Park, I would show up for any project with which he is involved. In this case, it’s his debut as a feature film director. Shortcomings is based on Adrian Tomine’s eponymous graphic novel and follows three Asian-American friends on a journey towards self-discovery that looks to be filled with obstacles both whimsical and dramatic. I’m down for the ride. (CLR)

A Still from PAST LIVES

Past Lives

A late entry into the festival from A24, Past Lives centers on childhood friends who reconnect two decades later and stir up the embers of romance. Stars Greta Lee (Russian Doll) and Teo Yoo (Decision to Leave) are bound together by the Korean notion of ‘In Yun’ or fate stemming from a connection in a past life. One can hope that this will be compared favorably to recent passionate love stories: Decision to Leave, Burning, and Drive My Car. (MD)

Earth Mama

One of the late additions to Sundance, this A24 drama from breakout writer-director (and former Olympian) Savannah Leaf explores the life of a young single mother (newcomer Tia Nomore) who is fighting for her children’s future while going through a labyrinth of social services and foster care in the Bay Area. Many films have given similarly compelling and insightful character studies, such as Precious and I, Daniel Blake. But this one might stand out more given the reported remarkable performance by Nomore and how Leaf will capture the troubled world her protagonist tries to break free from. This is the type of captivating drama that just might be bound to launch breakout talents on both sides of the camera into the stratosphere. (MJ)


Also deeply tied to puberty, adolescence, and motherhood as the above two films, Girl is another feature debut from a new female director, Adura Onashile of Glasgow. The story highlights generational trauma while a mother and daughter settle anew in Glasgow. Similar in feel to Petit Maman, the film looks and sounds fantastic. Girl is in the world cinema dramatic competition from the United Kingdom. (MA)

Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis)

I’m tempted to preview this film simply by describing some images. A pig floats over the chimneys of the Battersea Power Station in the sullen industrial end of London. Naked blonde children climb octagonal rocks up a hill in some sort of religious pilgrimage. A diver with arms outstretched, heading fingers-first into an empty pool. An unexceptional-looking man stares at the camera, his fingers having scratched down the surface of the image, or, two years later, the same man staring at the camera with his face melting. Two men shaking hands, one of them in flames. A streak of light hits a prism and splits into a rainbow. Each album covers a masterpiece from a design firm whose designs became as memorable as the music they attempted to capture. (BRF)

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