Our Favorite Movies From Sundance 2016

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  • David Gordon Green
    American film director and writer

Sure, there are plenty of high-profile films from award-winning filmmakers at the Sundance Film Festival, but of the great joys of the indie mecca is the opportunity for discovery. Every year, little films from semi-anonymous directors capture the imaginations of audiences and journalists piled into retrofitted theaters in Park City, Utah. Quite often, those films score distribution deals and delight broader audiences nationwide. This year’s festival was no exception, and here are some of the films that impressed our staffers. (Read our complete Sundance coverage here.)

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The Birth of a Nation

Writer-director Nate Parker’s antebellum slavery drama earned standing ovations — and set a new sales record to boot. With a title aimed squarely at D.W. Griffith’s racist, 1915 celebration of white supremacy, Nation is a raw, visceral depiction of the life of Nat Turner (Parker), the charismatic, God-fearing preacher and slave who led a brief, but earth-quaking revolt in Virginia in 1831. The slave-holding power tried to erase Turner’s legacy, but Nation goes a long way in preserving it, with an epic and tragic retelling that feels much-delayed, yet right on time. —Kerrie Mitchell

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Goat

Call it the anti-Animal House. While Greek life has often been a source of comedy onscreen, this brutal, searing drama directed by Andrew Neel and co-written by David Gordon Green shows the dark underbelly of pledging a fraternity. Nick Jonas proves he’s got serious chops as one of the main bros, and James Franco steals the movie in an uproarious three-minute cameo as one of the frat’s developmentally arrested alums. —Kevin Polowy

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Holy Hell

Access is the name of the game for documentaries, which makes this movie about a long-running cult a real winner. Directed by Will Allen, who spent 20 years under the thumb of a vain whack job and spiritual phony named Michel, the film is packed with footage he shot as the group’s official filmmaker. It makes for a riveting watch, as audiences can chart the Buddahfield’s transformation from yuppie utopia to abusive, corrupt quasi-religious group. —Jordan Zakarin

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The Land

The basic premise is remarkably similar to one of Sundance 2015’s breakout hits, Dope: A group of hip-hop-loving teens happen upon a large stash of drugs that they must quickly sling. But Steven Caple Jr.’s excellent Cleveland-set debut has a slicker style and different energy, taking some much darker turns that left Sundance audiences reeling. —K.P.

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Lovesong

A beautifully-lived-in arthouse drama that’s also a delicate, ambiguous love story, Lovesong stars Riley Keough and Jena Malone as old friends whose relationship deepens in ways neither can quite deal with. When responsible young mother Sarah (Mad Max: Fury Road’s Keough) finds herself adrift with a fraying marriage, she skips town for the weekend with her 3-year-old daughter and wild-child college friend Mindy (The Hunger Games’ Malone). The two have some fun times and boozy bonding until they’re both shocked to find themselves — falling in love? falling in lust? Director So Yong Kim keeps it deliberately vague, but the intensity the two actresses skillfully conjure is enough to send Mindy fleeing. Flash-forward three years later, and Sarah and her daughter are headed to Mindy’s wedding in Tennessee, where the two friends grapple with their undeniable connection. —K.M.

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Jacqueline Argentine

This small-scale satire from director Bernardo Britto is deceptively deep. The film stars former Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac as a flailing experimental filmmaker. He’s contacted by an expat French intelligence agent named Jacqueline (Camille Rutherford) who claims to have a big, government-shaking piece of intel. He goes down to Argentina to visit the cheap resort where she’s hiding out, and along with two interns, begins making a documentary about his effort to extract the supposedly juicy state secret.

Instead of Snowden-esque dedication to the public welfare, Jacqueline is mysterious and unpredictable, preferring to go on day trips to gun ranges than drop the promised bombshell. Over time, the film becomes an examination of desperate souls and the importance we assign our own work, even when, realistically, it’s impossible to make anything even vaguely original anymore. While that sounds like a downer, Jacqueline Argentine is filled with laughs (many of them uncomfortable) and moments of clarity for a patient viewer. —J.Z.

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Manchester by the Sea

Filmmaker and playwright Kenneth Lonergan made a triumphant return to the festival that launched his big-screen career. Lonergan won a Grand Jury Award and Screenwriting Award at Sundance in 2000 for his indie gem You Can Count on Me, and he’s got a very solid chance of repeating those feats for this heart-wrenching (and yet surprisingly funny) family drama.

Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a devastated man still stuck in the throes of grief over an unspeakable tragedy, who is called back to his hometown after the death of his sick older brother (Kyle Chandler). Lee suddenly finds himself the guardian of a mouthy-but-lovable teenager (Lucas Hedges) and back in the middle of a nightmare that he can’t escape. It makes for an incredible character study, as well as veritable feast of Boston accents. —J.Z.

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Morris From America

It’d hard to be more of a fish out of water than 13-year-old Morris (Markees Christmas) is in writer-director Chad Hartigan’s life-affirming comedy. A young black American kid who suddenly finds himself in the very white, very small German city of Heidelberg, he’s a less-than-enthusiastic travel companion to his soccer coach dad (Craig Robinson). In a foreign land, the pains of young adulthood are even more pronounced; everyone at 13 feels different, but in Morris’ case, it’s really the truth. A friendly German teacher and a free spirited 15-year-old help him get through a difficult summer, but not without teaching him some difficult lessons along the way. A24 bought the film soon after its debut, guaranteeing that audiences will get to come along on the adventure. —J.Z.

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Other People

Sundance is built on dramedies about adults going back home to their dysfunctional families far outside the big city, but this one is a cut above the usual fare. The debut feature of Chris Kelly (a writer on Broad City) is a remarkably personal account of a gay comedy writer named David (Jesse Plemons) who returns home to help his family as his mother (Molly Shannon) suffers from a rare cancer. Every character is incredibly specific and empathetic — even his father (Bradley Whitford), who has refused to acknowledge David’s sexuality for the last decade. Shannon offers a career-best performance in the film, which opened the festival. —J.Z.

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Southside With You

A movie about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date in 1989 might sound like a political drama in the making. But writer-director Richard Tanne’s debut feature turned out to be a gentle, meandering romance in the free spirit of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Tika Sumpter plays Michelle Robinson, an accomplished young lawyer who has no interest in dating her new suitor, a persistent summer associate named Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers). What gradually unfolds is Barack’s day-long attempt to change her mind, as the two talk about everything under the hot Chicago sun. —K.M.

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Swiss Army Man

Easily the most divisive film at the festival, and we here at Yahoo Movies fall firmly in the camp of those delighted by what has become colloquially known as the Daniel Radcliffe Farting-Corpse Movie. There’s a lot more to directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s debut feature than that though, and the film really rewards patience.

It’s really the ultimate bromance: Paul Dano stars as a desperate and lonely man stuck on a desert island, who is about to hang himself when Radcliffe’s gassy body washes up on the shore. Their bond is honestly a beautiful one, which gives meaning to the endlessly creative in-camera visual effects and unexpected twists written into the unbelievable story. It may not be for everyone, but those with an open mind will find themselves very deeply touched. —J.Z.

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Tickled

From description of this documentary — New Zealand reporter stumbles upon mysterious competitive tickling contest — we expected something quirky and whimsical. Not at all. David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s provocative doc introduces a real-life Tickle Monster who makes a cruel sport out of manipulating young men into tickling fetish videos and subsequently ruining their lives when they attempt to break free of them. A must-see-to-believe. K.P.

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‘Under the Gun’

Documentarian Stephanie Soechtig follows up her 2014 Sundance debut, Fed Up, with this broad and measured look at America’s gun-violence epidemic. (Gun is executive produced and narrated by Yahoo global news anchor Katie Couric). It’s effectively unnerving, infuriating, and heartbreaking, and the best film on firearms we’ve seen since the 2002’s Oscar-winning doc Bowling for Columbine. —K.P.

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Weiner

Disgraced former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner ran for mayor of New York in the summer of 2013, and despite all odds, he was actually winning before his past came back to screw him. This doc, which will hit theaters in May before airing on Showtime this fall, is actually more of an examination of a vulture-like media obsessed with porn over policy. Directed by a team that includes one of Weiner’s former chiefs of staff, the film boasts incredible access to the candidate, who, despite his very misguided online dalliances, sometimes comes off as the most rational one in the room (outside of his wife, Huma Abedin, of course). A must-watch for any political junkie and really anyone who wants to see how our sensationalized sausage gets made. —J.Z.

(All photos courtesy of the Sundance Institute)