30 Must See Films of Sundance 2016

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Sundance 2016 on Film School Rejects

The 2016 edition of the Sundance Film Festival is upon us. In just about a week, the industry and film press around the country will flock to the mountainous Park City, UT to either introduce their films or to discover new names and movies before everyone else.

Will this year’s line up launch the next Beasts of the Southern Wild, Boyhood or The Diary of a Teenage Girl? How about the next Brooklyn or Tangerine? It’s tough to tell with Sundance, which is truly a festival where the buzz builds on the ground; usually with titles no one saw coming early on. But it is still possible to look at its rich line up any year –this year, with works from Anne Fontaine, Kelly Reichardt, Asif Kapadia, Kenneth Lonergan and several other filmmakers/storytellers we can’t wait to get acquainted with- and get reasonably excited. So we vetted this year’s line up carefully and extracted 30 titles we’re looking forward to seeing the most across different sections of the festival. Of course, personal priorities and tastes play a big role while making lists of this sort; but we tried to be inclusive of several sections across the 2016 slate as much as possible.

Without further ado, here are our 30 most anticipated titles of Sundance 2016! Safe travels to all heading there next week. Have a great festival!

Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen in ‘Captain Fantastic’

31 (Rob Zombie) – MIDNIGHT

Carnies and “psychobilly fascists” collide in the latest film from Zombie that once again promises pain, blood, and poor choices. It’s odd for me to have one of his films on a list of the most anticipated as I strongly disliked his four first films, but it only takes one – and 2012’s The Lords of Salem was it. That last feature showed more wit and restraint than his previous work as well as a hint of character. Granted, the logline for 31 suggests it’s closer to the grueling, grim, and ultimately dull likes of House of 1000 Corpses, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed all the same. – Rob Hunter

AGNUS DEI (Anne Fontaine) – PREMIERES

Anne Fontaine (Adore, Coco Before Chanel) graces this year’s Premieres section with a thrilling drama set in Warsaw at the end of WWII. As a young French Red Cross doctor discovers that a holy sister is about to deliver a baby, the film exposes deeply buried secrets at the intersection of religion and modernism. Inspired by true events, Agnus Dei sounds instantly gripping and risk-ridden, ripe with potential for fierce discussions around faith and resulting traditions that extend to contemporary times. — Tomris Laffly

ALI & NINO (Asif Kapadia) – PREMIERES

With two excellent documentary features under his belt –2012’s Senna and 2015’s gut-wrenching, deservingly acclaimed Amy– Asif Kapadia is undoubtedly a name to watch with his latest film Ali & Nino. Blending a documentarian style with fictional story telling and following the love story between a Muslim boy and Christian girl right at the start of WWI, Ali & Nino is billed as a politically charged love story. And even on paper, the timeliness of its themes around cultural clashes and basic freedoms is impossible to ignore. — Tomris Laffly

THE BLACKOUT EXPERIMENTS (Rich Fox) – MIDNIGHT

Part narrative, part faux-documentary, this feature explores a recent trend in “extreme” haunted houses and promises to be as close as I’ll ever come to the real thing. To be clear, I’m not worried about being scared, but I have a thing about agreeing to let strangers restrain, touch, and torment me without the option to fight back. But I digress. The film is an unknown talent-wise, but a premise that sees Fox finding survivors of various experiences and exploring what they gained and lost is extremely appealing. – Rob Hunter

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC (Matt Ross) – PREMIERES

Ben (Viggo Mortensen) calls the rugged Pacific Northwest home, and it’s there, removed as much as possible from society, that he raises his multiple children to respect nature, themselves, and hard work. The family’s situation changes though when they’re forced to integrate alongside everyone else, and suddenly the challenges they prepared for seem far less pressing. The premise teases the likes of The Mosquito Coast, and that’s never a bad thing. Add in the always fantastic Mortensen and the director of the sexy, raw, and intimate 28 Hotel Rooms, and you have a film guaranteed to explore humanity’s strengths and flaws in engaging ways. – Rob Hunter

Michelle Williams in Certain Women

Michelle Williams in ‘Certain Women’

CARNAGE PARK (Mickey Keating) – MIDNIGHT

Two crooks take a hostage and go on the run, but the night holds far more frightening elements than simple robbers. The trio run afoul of a a truly malevolent and psychotic man who proceeds to torment them at every turn. Keating has been quickly making a name for himself in the wold of indie terror with the likes of Pod and Darling – both 2015 releases – but I have yet to catch any of his films. I’m hoping to change that with his latest, and as a sucker for tales about bad guys coming face to face with even worse guys I’m expecting good things here. – Rob Hunter

CERTAIN WOMEN (Kelly Reichardt) – PREMIERES

Ensemble dramas about the intersecting lives of strangers are something of an art-form that many filmmakers attempt but so few succeed at, but I’m thinking Reichardt will land with the latter. Her films explore women as – get this – human beings who aren’t defined by their gender. Longtime collaborator Michelle Williams joins Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern in what promises to be a beautifully-acted look at some of life’s meaningful moments. – Rob Hunter

CHRISTINE (Antonio Campos) – U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

As his directorial follow-up to the critically acclaimed titles Simon Killer and Afterschool, Antonio Campos’ newest intrigues with a period journalism story set in the 70s, featuring an attractive cast with the likes of Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, and Tracy Letts. Said to be inspired by the real-life story of a 1970s Florida anchorwoman (also an inspiration behind the 1976 film Network), Christine signals a taste of signature sensibilities of the Campos universe, where a sense of unsettling anxiety meets unique humor. — Tomris Laffly

COMPLETE UNKNOWN (Joshua Marston) – PREMIERES

A man (Michael Shannon) out celebrating with his wife meets a stranger (Rachel Weisz) he swears he knows, and when she takes off into the night he can’t help but follow. A setup like this can go any number of ways from thriller to madcap comedy to an evening of dangerous romance, and with Shannon and Weisz front and center I’m game for any one of those paths. Hell, I’d down with a mix of all three. He continues to be one of our most interesting actors, and it’s exciting to see him tackle a romantic encounter with the equally talented and intriguing Weisz. – Rob Hunter

EQUITY (Meera Menon) – U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Billed as the first female-driven Wall Street movie, Equity stands out in the Sundance Dramatic Competition line up with an all-female team including director Meera Menon, Broad Street Pictures producers Alysia Reiner and Sarah Megan Thomas, as well as screenwriter Amy Fox. With male-driven films like Margin Call and The Wolf of Wall Street still fresh in memories, and Adam McKay’s The Big Short making the awards rounds, Equity promises to offer a new perspective into the world of finance and (as a bonus), stars “Breaking Bad”’s Anna Gunn as an investment banker in the post financial crisis world. — Tomris Laffly

Paul Rudd in The Fundamentals of Caring

Paul Rudd in ‘The Fundamentals of Caring’

THE FITS (Anna Rose Holmer) – NEXT

Sundance’s NEXT section is usually where one discovers bold, risk-taking visions of brand new names; and Anna Rose Holmer promises to be one of them in this year’s line up. With The Fits –which already played at Venice Film Festival to high praises- she tells the meditative and haunting coming of age story of an 11 year old tomboy, who joins a dance team after being mesmerized by their practice routines for some time. But when a number of the team members start having seizure-like episodes, her place in their world takes a mysterious turn. The Fits is surely a movie to keep an eye out for in Sundance, both for its filmmaker and young, debuting actress Royalty Hightower in the role of young Toni. — Tomris Laffly

THE FUNDAMENTALS OF CARING (Rob Burnett) – PREMIERES

Ben (Paul Rudd) is suffering, but in an effort to earn some much-needed cash he puts himself in the role of caregiver to others in more dramatic pain. He’s paired with a young man (Craig Roberts) with muscular dystrophy, and together they set off on a road trip promising conflict, laughter, and a host of strangers. Rudd has gone the buddy-dramedy route before with the recent Prince Avalanche, but the wild card here is writer/director Burnett whose career behind the scenes of Late Night with David Letterman honed his wit but left little room for character and drama. The Sundance guide says the film deftly avoids cliches and nostalgia plot holes, and if that holds true while also delivering heartfelt laughs this could very well be a winner. – Rob Hunter

HALAL LOVE (Assad Fouladkar) – WORLD DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Writer/Director’s Assad Fouladkar’s satirical comedy set in the Muslim world delves into relationships and family dynamics set against the complicated backdrop of religious loyalties. Its subject matter might look like light fare as compared to other titles in the World Dramatic Competition, but I’m always on board with a kindhearted yet poignant story, putting a humanizing face to the Muslim world that American Cinema doesn’t often show us in an uneventful, relatable context. — Tomris Laffly

HOLY HELL (Will Allen) – U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

A man lived for two decades as a member of a cult, and while that itself isn’t all that unusual he also happened to document his time there on video. We follow his love and immersion in the shadow of the cult’s divine leader through his eventual awakening to the truth of the lie he’s been living and then watch as he visits other ex-members as well. I rarely make time for documentaries at film festivals – I know, I’m terrible – but the focus of this one appeals to me immensely. Willingly giving yourself over as subservient to someone else is a foreign concept to me, but it’s also a fascinating one. – Rob Hunter

HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE (Taika Waititi) – PREMIERES

Ricky is a little punk raised on modern conveniences in an urban environment, but his life is upended when he’s sent to a new foster family in rural New Zealand. It’s a rough transition, but the ride gets even bumpier when RIcky and his new uncle are forced on the run into the country’s legendary bush. Sandwiched between the uproarious delight of What We Do In the Shadows and the epic third Thor film, director Waititi delivers something intimate, humorous, and – unlike those other two films – human, in its tale of what it means to be family. – Rob Hunter

Little Men

‘Little Men’

JACQUELINE (ARGENTINE) (Bernardo Britto) – NEXT

A documentary filmmaker (Wyatt Cenac) sets out to interview a reclusive young woman who claims to hold knowledge of a deadly conspiracy, but he and his team discover something is intriguingly amiss soon after they arrive in Argentina. Genre fans hoping for something along the lines of Ti West’s The Sacrament should temper those expectations as Britto’s feature debut appears to lean more comedic than thrilling. That’s an equally appealing possibility though, and with last year’s What We Do In the Shadows breathing new life into the mockumentary genre are hopes are high for more awkward interactions “caught” on camera. – Rob Hunter

KATE PLAYS CHRISTINE (Robert Greene) – U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

The sought-after non-fiction director Robert Greene’s evocative documentary Actress captivated me on many emotional levels back in 2014. So it’s only natural that his next, Kate Plays Christine, makes my list of the most-anticipated titles this year. Residing in the universe of the same true life events that inspired Antonio Campos’ Christine (with a complete coincidence, also in this year’s line up), Greene follows present-day actress Kate Lyn Sheil, who has been cast in a “stylized cheap ’70s soap opera” version of the Christine Chubbuck story, the news anchor that committed suicide on air in 1974. Greene’s documentary promises to focus on artistic process through a detective-like investigation and character portrayal, while asking tough questions that challenge the past. — Tomris Laffly

LITTLE MEN (Ira Sachs) – PREMIERES

A critical glimpse into the troubles of gentrification, Ira Sachs’ Brooklyn set Little Men stands out among this year’s premieres as the filmmaker’s follow up to his 2014 gem Love is Strange. Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle and Paulina Garcia star against the debuting young actor Theo Taplitz, who plays a sensitive teenager chasing his dreams of becoming an artist, but is halted in his quest by a housing dispute. Also a plot element of Love is Strange, urban real estate nightmares seem to once again be at the heart of a compassionate Ira Sachs drama. — Tomris Laffly

LOVESONG (So Yong Kim) – U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Sundance alumna So Yong Kim (For Ellen, In Between Days) will be back in Park City with a domestic story on love, marriage and friendship. Offering a quiet and minimalist look into the world of two women (played by Riley Keough and Jena Malone) –longtime friends with a mutual intimacy that takes different, unspoken turns through time- Lovesong is noticeably female-focused, and features a notable supporting cast with names like Brooklyn Decker, Amy Seimetz and Rosanna Arquette. — Tomris Laffly

THE LURE (Agnieszka Smoczynska) – WORLD DRAMATIC COMPETITION

A band of free-wheeling musicians crosses paths with a pair of sisters – who also happen to be mermaid-like sirens – and they collectively decide to continue on to their next musical gig. By the sounds of what happens next I’d assume that one of the sisters is a fan of Ron Howard’s Splash while the other is more of a The Witch Who Came From the Sea kind of girl. As a fan of both I’m all in for this Polish mash-up of “burlesque and the grotesque.” – Rob Hunter

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in Manchester by Sea

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in ‘Manchester by Sea’

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (Kenneth Lonergan) – PREMIERES

The writer/director of You Can Count on Me –one of the best films of the last two decades – has a new film in Sundance. Rejoice! Lonergan’s star-studded cast includes Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler, and tells the story of a loner who has to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies unexpectedly. The description carries undertones of You Can Count On Me and defines the film as a “depiction of human brokenness” with subtle yet transformative moments between characters. Sign me up. — Tomris Laffly

MORRIS FROM AMERICA (Chad Hartigan) – U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

After his acclaimed 2013 Sundance feature This is Martin Bonner which -carried notes of Mike Leigh’s realism in telling the story of an aging man-, writer/director Chad Hartigan returns to Sundance with a competition title. The stylish-looking Morris from America is the coming-of-age tale (a favorite Sundance genre) of a 13-year old African-American boy as he grapples with adolescence in a new city. All eyes will surely be on Markees Christmas as he makes his feature debut with Hartigan’s newest. — Tomris Laffly

NEWTOWN (Kim A. Snyder) – U.S. DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION

This one probably requires little justification for why I’m looking forward to it. Frequent gun violence routinely seen across the USA has perhaps never been as gut wrenching, devastating and infuriating as the mass shooting that took place in Newtown in 2012, killing 20 children and 6 educators. Kim A. Snyder’s competition film Newtown gives the viewers exclusive access into the lives of those whose loved ones were murdered. This is a timely must-see, especially in the wake of President Obama’s latest executive orders aiming to take a firm step towards decreasing the instances of gun violence. — Tomris Laffly

OPERATION AVALANCHE (Matt Johnson) – NEXT

Having won the top prize at the 2013 Slamdance with his debut The Dirties, writer/director Matt Johnson returns to Sundance with an ambitious and thrilling period film that has been grabbed by Lionsgate from its early days. Set in 1967 during the peak of the cold war, Operation Avalanche is a spy thriller that follows undercover agents chasing a mole, threatening to sabotage the Apollo Program. According to the description, the resulting truth they will discover will be nothing short of jaw dropping. This is easily one of the most intriguing titles in Sundance this year. — Tomris Laffly

OUTLAWS AND ANGELS (JT Mollner) – MIDNIGHT

A brutal gang of thieves takes refuge in a family’s home in an attempt to avoid capture by an equally ruthless bounty hunter, but their hiding place might just become their grave. This is Mollner’s feature debut, but I will always be first in line for a dark western. Adding in the element of a home invasion film ups my interest even more, and it’s always intriguing when the grown-up children of legendary actors attempt to follow in those cinematic footsteps. Here it’s Clint Eastwood’s daughter, Francesca, stepping in front of the camera, and starting with a gritty, violent western seems to be a smart choice. – Rob Hunter

Greta Gerwig in Weiner-Dog

Greta Gerwig in ‘Weiner-Dog’

SWISS ARMY MAN (Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert) – U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

We’ve seen films about people trapped on deserted islands before, but this feature debut from a pair of music video rock stars promises a far more creative take than we’re used to. Paul Dano plays the man trying to survive and return to his love (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) while Daniel Radcliffe plays the dead body that washes ashore filled with possibility. It’s an odd setup that leaves us expecting drama, emotion, and scenes of pure imagination – a combination that’s previously brought us gems like (500) Days of Summer and Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. – Rob Hunter

TRASH FIRE (Richard Bates Jr.) – MIDNIGHT

Owen and Isabel are in love. Well, they were in love at some point in the past anyway, but now she’s pregnant and they need to reconfirm that bond. Owen takes her back to his hometown to introduce her to his only living relatives, but the outcome isn’t quite what he intended. Or is it? This is only writer/director Bates’ third feature, but after Excision and Suburban Gothic he’s shown a reliably disturbed hand when it comes to mixing dark behavior and even darker humor. – Rob Hunter

WIENER-DOG (Todd Solondz) – PREMIERES

But how can I be expected to remain indifferent to a collection of stories, all of which revolve around a loving and life-changing dachshund? Especially if it’s billed as a vintage Todd Solondz; the director of noteworthy indies like Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse? It’s not exactly easy to make heads or tails of this film by just looking at the description, but I am perennially intrigued by any canine-oriented story, especially if it’s starring the likes of Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, Julie Delpy and Ellen Burstyn. — Tomris Laffly

Next: The Best Movies of Sundance 2015

WHITE GIRL (Elizabeth Wood) – U.S. DRAMATIC COMPETITION

Writer/Director Elizabeth Wood’s feature directorial debut looks to be a sharp satire of today’s self-indulgent youth, set amongst the unforgiving, yet increasingly gentrified streets of New York City. It’s an exciting premise involving sex, drugs and an accidental crime, starring Morgan Saylor as the pleasure-seeking anti heroine. Billed as a “tough and exhilarating debut”, Wood might just be this year’s Marielle Heller as a Sundance breakout. — Tomris Laffly

WILD (Nicolette Krebitz) – WORLD DRAMATIC COMPETITION

A lonely woman who lives on the edge of town discovers a wild wolf has been prowling the perimeter. Rather than be afraid, she discovers a growing interest and attraction for the beast and goes about trapping, befriending, and maybe falling in love with it. I say maybe because the lengths to which she goes aren’t quite clear from the description, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sexuality and our interactions with nature seem to be the focus here, and the two make for a potent combination, especially when paired with the already charged fairy tale-fueled relationship between girls and wolves. – Rob Hunter

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.