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12 Best Movies We Saw at Sundance 2016

From Polish mermaid musicals to NYC political-meltdown docs, these had us buzzing at the Utah film festival

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We came, we saw, we drank way too much coffee — and we watched movies, lots of them, at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Over the past nine days, Robert Redford's annual celebration of "independent" cinema offered up celebrity-studded quirkiness, social-issue documentaries, genuinely DIY visions, a psychotronic midnight-movie pleasure or two, and the sort of scrappy low-budget features that can become underdog-success stories in the span of a single screening. (Say what you will about Nate Parker's moving, messy-as-hell Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation — it's undeniably a labor of love and undeniably the sort of Sundance discovery movie that keeps folks coming back year after year.)

So, after sifting through the addled memories that accompany the experience of watching four to five films a day over a week-plus span, we're highlighting a dozen of the best movies we saw at Sundance 2016. Political docs and Polish mermaid musicals, black-and-white horror flicks and Boston-based grief dramas, fratboy nightmares and female-bonding character studies — these were the films that had us buzzing in Park City.

Eyes of my Mother; Sundance 2016

‘The Eyes of My Mother’

Picture Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic. Now imagine that, just below the frame, a young woman is sawing the elderly couple's legs off, so that they'll never, ever leave her. That's the best analogy we can come up with for writer-director Nicolas Pesce's stark black-and-white horror film, in which a backwoods farmer, his ex-surgeon immigrant wife and their daughter are terrorized by a serial killer. When the tables are turned, the little girl gets a new plaything — and as she (Kika Magalhaes) grows up, decides that she needs to keep replenishing her supply of "friends." Comparisons to Tobe Hooper's early work, particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, are apt; this is what curdled Americana looks like, one suppled on isolation, madness, and good ol' Type O. DF

The Fits; Sundance; 2016

Paul Yee

‘The Fits’

An 11-year-old girl (Royalty Hightower) has her head in the Cincinnati community center boxing gym, but her heart is with the troupe of teens who practice elaborate dance routines next door. Through sheer determination, she joins the squad  — and then a mysterious rash of epileptic-like "fits" start to occur among the group's alpha females, and the quiet prepubescent wonders if she's next. Director Anna Rose Holmer turns this coming-of-age movie into a dreamy, dread-inducing portrait of a young woman in full self-discovery mode, with woozy dollops of magical realism and next-level spiritual transcendence mixing it up with mesmerizing drill routines. And whether she's hitting the heavy bag, practicing her moves or simply silently observing everything around her, Hightower holds the screen like a pro. This kid is already a star. DF

Goat; Sundance 2016

Ethan Palmer

‘Goat’

Billy Eichner once asked if masculinity is a prison, and this Sundance surprise — adapted from Brad Land's memoir about his own experience with fraternity hazing  — responds with an answer that's loud and clear: "Yeah, bro!" In the spring before his freshman year of college, a young man (Ben Schnetzer) was brutally assaulted by two local delinquents. Emasculated by the traumatic experience, he decided to reassert his tainted gender identity by rushing his big brother's frat. Needless to say, the plan backfires. A riveting and remarkably tense look at the toxic groupthink of Greek life, Andrew Neel's intense film might too hard to handle if not for Schnetzer's clenched performance, and pop star Nick Jonas' provokingly unexpected turn as his conflicted older sibling. DE

Indignation; Sundance 2016

Indignant Productions Inc.

‘Indignation’

It's been almost 50 years since someone's made a good movie from a Philip Roth novel (that would be 1969's Goodbye, Columbus) — and thank God that didn't stop James Schamus from trying. The former Focus Features CEO imbues this period drama with the same searing classicism that defined the masterpieces he wrote and produced during his tenure as studio head (i.e. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Logan Lerman absolutely aces his part as an emotionally implosive Jewish kid who enrolls at a Catholic college in order to avoid the Korean War. Come for the nuanced study of institutional guilt, stay for Tracy Lett's show-stopping set pieces and Sarah Gadon's heartbreaking turn as one of cinema's great shiksa goddesses. DE

Kate Plays Christine; Sundance 2016

Sean Price Williams

‘Kate Plays Christine’

On a July morning in 1974, Sarasota television reporter Christine Chubbuck shot herself on live television — by the next day, it was already yesterday's news. Of the two separate Sundance movies about this semi-forgotten footnote of American media history, Robert Greene's characteristically self-reflexive portrait was by far the more compelling, as it blurs the line between fact and fiction while watching actress Kate Lyn Sheil to Florida prepare to play Chubbuck in a microbudget movie. Sinking into a hypnotic tropical haze, the film cleverly confronts the ethics and purpose of exhuming the dead on screen, dismantling biopic conventions as it condemns our bottomless hunger for images of tragedy. DE

Love & Friendship; Sundance 2016

Bernard Walsh

‘Love & Friendship’

Finally, Whit Stillman makes a movie set during the age in which he should have been born: Jane Austen's 18th-century. What this breezy, brilliant adaptation of the novelist's Lady Susan lacks in Stillman's usual upper-crust anthropology it more than makes up for with sheer wit; such a proper, literate comedy of manners and mores complements his strengths to a tee. While the entire cast swings through the period trappings as if to the manor born, the real MVP here is Kate Beckinsale, who, liberated from her catsuit and vampire-killing duties, tosses off Austen's dialogue with devastating casualness and impeccable comic timing. Plus anyone who can keep it together during Tom Bennett's daffy monologues about social graces and the "12 commandments" ("There are only 10? Which two can we ignore?") should be checked for a D.O.A. sense of humor. DF

Lovesong; Sundance 2016

‘Lovesong’

Lonely and practically raising her five-year-old daughter on her own, a young mom (Riley Keough) tries to stave off depression and cabin fever. Salvation comes in the form of an old college friend (Jena Malone) who comes to visit and suggests a road trip. Then the two start to experience an intimacy they hadn't felt before; cue confusion, chain reactions and the cinema's most punch-drunk romantic ferris-wheel ride. If you're lucky enough to have caught director So Yong Kim's earlier films (In Between Days, Treeless Mountain), you know she excels in the sort of observant, muted character studies that's both a Sundance staple and subgenre. Here, she conjures up that woozier-than-usual feeling of love and left-field connections, with Keough — who, with her Fury Road appearance and the upcoming Girlfriend Experience show on Starz, is having a bit of a moment — nailing the part of lost soul. DF

The Lure; Sundance 2016

Robert Palka

‘The Lure’

We know, we know: You're sick to death of Polish horror-fantasy-musicals about lovelorn mermaids. But Agnieszka Smoczynska's fractured fairy tale is indeed a true sui generis experience, complete with cabaret set pieces, 1980s Eurosleaze, infectious pop-to-punk singalongs and several very sharp sets of teeth. Borrowing from every fish-woman-out-of-water story for its backbone — girl meets boy, girl loses tail to stay with boy, girl forgets she sometimes has to consume human flesh — the movie piles on the delirium and nostalgia for Poland's pre-Glasnost era until the whole thing threatens to sink under its own weight. Instead, just like its resident scaly sisters, the film floats right to the top. Say hello to your new favorite midnight-movie import. DF

Manchester by the Sea; Sundance 2016

Claire Folger

‘Manchester by the Sea’

The return of Kenneth Lonergan to the big screen — Margaret was five years ago, and You Can Count on Me is old enough to get a driver's license — would be a big deal even if he had not come back with a winner. But the writer-director's story of an emotionally crippled Boston handyman (Casey Affleck) mourning the loss of his brother and reluctantly looking out for his nephew (Lucas Hedges, a find) isn't just the best film at this year's Sundance — it may be the best movie you see this year, full stop. The way Lonergan and his cast play the grace notes and minor chords of this rich, rewarding familial drama without steering it into griefporn is miraculous, and Affleck's performance is a case study in communicating a shattered life without playing to the cheap seats. It's bursting-to-full with humanity, sorrow, and soul. It's also a bona fide masterpiece. DF

Morris From America

Sean McElwee

‘Morris From America’

Chad Hartigan follows up the soulful This Is Martin Bonner with a quasi-autobiographical comedy that's every bit as snappy and sincere as its namesake. Winsome newcomer Markees Christmas plays Morris, a 13-year-old black kid from New York who's trying to grow up and get by in the rustic German suburb where his dad (Craig Robinson, crushing his first major dramatic role) works as a soccer coach. A hip-hop kid in an EDM world, Morris can't help but fail to fit in, but Hartigan's elegant storytelling — capped off by a Robinson monologue for the ages — gives his young hero all the beats he needs to find his own voice. DE

Nuts!; Sundance 2016

‘Nuts’

Once upon a time in American history (1918, to be precise), a man by the name of J.R. Brinkley got the bright idea that impotence could be cured by transplanting goat testicles into human bodies. The only thing crazier than his hypothesis was that people — thousands of them — actually believed him. As illuminating as it is immensely entertaining, Penny Lane's doc uses charming hand-crafted animation to trace how Brinkley ballooned a wacko epiphany into a vast media empire built on nothing but hot air. It's a chronicle of the American dream in action, and the fact that it's all true didn't stop Lane's film from ending with the best twist of this year's fest. DE

Weiner; Sundance 2016

‘Weiner’

Hardly just an opportunistic snapshot of a celebrity's public implosion, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg's inside look at the spectacular failure of Anthony Weiner's 2013 mayoral campaign in New York is one of the best documentaries ever made about a political scandal. A passionate fighter for the middle class who nuked his career by accidentally tweeting a selfie of his bulge, the indefatigable Weiner is nothing less than a true American tragedy — but this hilarious and humbling portrait rightly sees him as so much more. At once a portrait of media sensationalism, a marriage under fire, and of a city that felt betrayed by its best hope, the movie is so unsparing that when they finally ask Weiner why he let them film him, the disgraced ex-congressman can only shrug. DE

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