The 12 Best Movies We Saw at Sundance 2016

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Follow all of our Sundance 2016 coverage.

Sundance 2016 came to an end this past weekend, and once again we had a terrific time in Park City watching the films, trudging through snow, and seeing friends new and old. As is always the case the schedule offered a mix of the truly brilliant (Manchester By the Sea) and the, uh, less brilliant (Outlaws and Angels) with most of the films falling somewhere in between.

Even with a few of us in attendance there were films we missed so consider this list to be of some of the best that we saw there over the past week. Keep reading to see which movies Tomris Laffly, Eric Snider, Christopher Campbell, and I think were some of the best at Sundance 2016.

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Cameraperson

Sundance: Cameraperson

One of the most clever films of the festival, this feature helmed by documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson is a memoir made up of her past and present work. She compiled footage that she shot for other projects (including some in this year’s Sundance program) in a way that provides for a fascinating self-portrait that barely features her on camera. It’s also a film that reveals a lot about how documentaries are made and what’s going on off screen at pivotal points during observational shots and interviews. – Christopher Campbell

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Christine

Sundance 2016: Christine

Based on the true story of a Florida TV news reporter who suffered a breakdown on the air, this sensitive drama has Rebecca Hall giving the performance of her career. It’s a high mark for director Antonio Campos, too, as he creates sympathy and tension even when we know how it’s going to end. – Eric Snider

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The Eyes of My Mother

Sundance: The Eyes of the Mother

A moody and atmospheric horror shot in gorgeous black and white, The Eyes of My Mother is perhaps the most twisted genre film we got to see in Sundance. Part a revenge story and part In Cold Blood in an alternate universe, Pesce’s debut as a writer/director follows a young, lonely woman submitting to her darkest impulses after witnessing a tragedy at a very young age. To say more would diminish its unexpected anxiety inductions; just know there isn’t much relief to be found in Pesce’s startling and eerie film. Like the best examples of horror, he knows exactly how to capture your fears and insecurities, and what to do with them. Don’t assume jump scares from this one. Its effects aren’t trivial or short lived, but are instead sinister and long-lasting. – Tomris Laffly

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Frank & Lola

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Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots star as a couple who share a funny, sexy romance before secrets and lies threaten to tear them apart, and if the idea of Shannon as a romantic leading man doesn’t excite you then I don’t know what else to say. The movie is too short and feels rushed and incomplete because of it, but like love itself there’s still something powerful in its raw, messy, and electric execution. – Rob Hunter

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The Greasy Strangler

Sundance: Greasy Strangler

John Waters is the obvious inspiration for this low-budget trashsploitation flick about a gross old man who moonlights as a serial killer, but there’s also DNA from Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job, Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber, and maybe some Napoleon Dynamite. It’s got something to offend everyone (including a fondness for hideous fake wangs), but if you’re on its wavelength, it’s an unforgettable comedy experience. – Eric Snider

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Kate Plays Christine

kate plays christine

Furthering his reputation as a leader in cinematic nonfiction, Robert Greene (Actress) blurs the lines of documentary form in this other take on the on-air suicide of TV newscaster Christine Chubbuck. The film follows indie actress Kate Lyn Sheil (The Comedy) in her research for the role of the reporter, and her investigation into the character’s life and motive for killing herself constitutes a more conventional interview-driven side for the doc. Kate Plays Christine is also the very film Sheil is preparing for, as it mixes in dramatic scenes depicting Chubbuck’s final days. I won’t go so far as to say it’s a totally groundbreaking work, but it is unlike anything else we’ll be seeing this year. – Christopher Campbell

Manchester By the Sea

Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck in Manchester by Sea

In his third and arguably best feature to date, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan tells a devastating, gut-wrenching story of a family, coping with and moving through various sources and degrees of grief in a picturesque New England town. As he did in the pitch-perfect You Can Count On Me and the beautifully messy Margaret, Lonergan gracefully extracts the profound pains and small triumphs of daily life in his new masterwork, with the added layer of deep personal trauma he inspects and reveals in stages through organic flashbacks that live in the film like fragments of memories. The entire cast – especially Casey Affleck playing an unfriendly janitor in the lead role – is superb in their portrayal of people forever altered by a tragedy. – Tomris Laffly

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Sand Storm

In her impressive feature debut with a solid sense of narrative suspense and visual composition, writer/director Elite Zexer tells a complex story of contemporary patriarchy set in a Bedouin village. As she examines the shattering dynamics of a family following the arrival of a second wife and a forbidden young love, Zexer’s committed leads playing a mother, daughter and father immerse us in a slow-burning tale where no one is a true villain and the women are stuck in a cycle of sacrifice. Sand Storm is one of this year’s most assured Sundance debuts, as well as the winner of the Grand Jury Prize in World Cinema Competition. – Tomris Laffly

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Swiss Army Man

Sundance 2016

Two men are trapped on a desert island, and while one is living and the other is already dead they quickly realize they’ll have to work together if they want to survive. Does that make sense? Not really, but the glorious absurdity is part of the film’s charm. Add in a highly creative and inventive visual style and a terrific performance by Paul Dano, and the result is an incredibly unusual film that finds the sweet spot between immense joy and utter depression. – Rob Hunter

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Tickled

This is the kind of documentary audiences love to discover at Sundance. Weird, funny, mysterious and controversial, it tracks an investigation into the back story of a competitive tickling enterprise, and like other quirky nonfiction detective films such as Catfish and Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, the further it digs the more surprising and strange it gets. It’s also the kind doc that makes you want to attend the festival, where you can gasp through it with an audience and during the Q&A when it’s revealed that one of its “villains” has been lurking in the crowd. – Christopher Campbell

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Under the Shadow

Sundance: Under the Shadow

Babak Anvari’s feature debut is the first great horror film of 2016, and that should be enough to have genre fans seeking it out this year. Comparisons to The Babadook are inevitable, but it’s for reasons well beyond the presence of a trouble-making child. The film finds much of its terror in the very real world, and while the supernatural sequences are terrifically chilling the story would still be something of a nightmare even without them. – Rob Hunter

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Wiener Dog

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For a while, this caustic anthology of dachshund-related stories seems like Todd Solondz’s most mainstream comedy yet. Then, of course, he reminds you he’s Todd Solondz with a gut-punch ending. But in the meantime, it’s a funny and oddly affecting rumination on mortality. – Eric Snider

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