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Sundance returns in-person to Park City — with more submissions than ever

Updated January 19, 2023 at 12:53 PM ET

Filmmakers and film lovers are gathering in Park City, Utah, Thursday, for two weeks of premieres, screenings, panels and parties. The Sundance Film Festival is back, two years after the COVID-19 pandemic prevented it from operating as it has since 1981.

"We're just so excited to be back in person," says filmmaker Joana Vicente, the CEO of the Sundance Institute. She says being mostly online the past few years did give access to a bigger audience, but "seeing films together, having conversations, meeting the talent and doing the Q&A's and listening to new insights into into the films ... [is] just such a unique, incredible experience."

The festival opens with the world premiere of Little Richard: I am Everything. The film documents the complex rock and roll icon who dealt with the racial and sexual tensions of his era.

Director Lisa Cortés does a deep dive into American pop music in<em> Little Richard: I Am Everything.</em>
/ Sundance Institute
Sundance Institute
Director Lisa Cortés does a deep dive into American pop music in Little Richard: I Am Everything.

There are other documentaries about well-known figures: one, about actress Brooke Shields, is called Pretty Baby. Another takes a look at actor Michael J. Fox. Another, musician Willie Nelson, and still another, children's author Judy Blume.

This year, nearly half the films at the festival were made by first-time filmmakers. The programming team sifted through more than 16,000 submissions — the most Sundance has ever had. The result is a record number of works by indigenous filmmakers (including Erica Tremblay, with her film Fancy Dance), and 28 countries are represented as well.

"Artists are exploring how we're coming out of the pandemic, how we're reassessing our place in the world," says Kim Yutani, the festival's director of programming. She notes that many of the narrative films have characters who are complicated, not all of them likeable.

"We saw a lot of anti-heroes this year," she says, "a lot of people wrestling with their identities."

She points to the character Jonathan Majors plays, a body builder in the drama Magazine Dreams, and Jennifer Connelly, who plays a former child actor in Alice Englert's dark comedy Bad Behaviour.

Jennifer Connelly stars as a former child actor attending a silent retreat in the dark comedy <em>Bad Behaviour.</em>
Matt Henley / Bad Behaviour
Bad Behaviour
Jennifer Connelly stars as a former child actor attending a silent retreat in the dark comedy Bad Behaviour.

Yutani says she's also excited by the performances of Daisy Ridley, who plays a morbid introvert in a film called Sometimes I Think About Dying, and of Emilia Jones, who was a star in the 2021 Sundance hit CODA. Jones is in two films this year: Cat Person, based on Kristen Roupenian's short story in The New Yorker, and Fairyland, in which she plays the daughter of a gay man in San Francisco in the 1970s and '80s.

Opening night of the festival also includes the premiere of Radical, starring Eugenio Derbez as a sixth grade teacher in Matamoros, Mexico. Another standout comes from this side of the border, the documentary Going Varsity in Mariachi, which spotlights the competitive world of high school Mariachi bands in Texas.

<em>Going Varsity in Mariachi</em> showcases high school mariachi competitions in Texas.
/ Osmosis Films
Osmosis Films
Going Varsity in Mariachi showcases high school mariachi competitions in Texas.

And if that's not enough, Sundance is bringing several of its hits from the pandemic that went on to win Oscars: CODA and Summer of Soul will be shown on the big screen, with audiences eager to be back.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.