The 20 best films of Sundance 2016

Best Of The Fest

Diversity was the buzz word uttered by founder Robert Redford when the festival kicked off on 21 January, and that dedication to new and interesting voices was evident in many of the 123 feature films playing at the festival. There was a Polish mermaid musical (The Lure), plus quirky family dramas (Captain Fantastic), weirdo horror flicks (The Greasy Strangler) and, yes, Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse (Swiss Army Man).

With so many films at the festival, some were bound to disappoint. Despite winning the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize (not to mention nabbing a fest-best sale of $17.5m to Fox Searchlight), The Birth Of A Nation suffered under the hype, and many of the fest's Midnight films lacked bite. But there were still a raft of fantastic films that will be heading to cineplexes and streaming platforms soon. Here's our Top 20...

Click here for more excellent Total Film articles. Or maybe you want to take advantage of some great offers on magazine subscriptions?

20. Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle makes his debut as a director, and also co-writes and stars as Miles Davis in a live-wire biopic. Focusing more on the man than the music, Miles Ahead bobs around between different eras of Davis' life, namely his heyday as a jazz trumpeter and band leader, and his later comeback after five years in a drug-addled hiatus. Ewan McGregor's Rolling Stone journalist turns up to interview Davis, and ends up sucked into his mad world of mobsters, demo tapes and restless industry insiders. It plays more like a crime thriller than a traditional biopic in many respects, with Cheadle lending the legendary jazz man a gruff intensity that's difficult to warm to but hard to turn away from. McGregor makes a cheekily likeable foil to the musician on the brink, and Cheadle directs with so much skittish energy that any thoughts of this being a vanity project are quickly quashed.

19. Love And Friendship

While on the surface this might look like another dull Jane Austen adaptation, director Whit Stillman turns in a spry, witty film that'll appeal far beyond the author's core audience. From the outset, you know you're in for a treat; semi-ironic title cards introduce the characters with a wink. Don't worry if you have trouble keeping up with the slightly convoluted family structure, as the main person you need to keep an eye on is Kate Beckinsale's deliciously devious Lady Susan, a widow looking to scheme her way into a secure future for herself and her daughter. Manipulating anyone in her path like willing puppets, she barely has a line of dialogue that doesn't sing, and Beckinsale is clearly relishing the best role she's had in a very, very long time. You won't believe you could laugh so much at something you might've been forced to study at school.

18. Other People

Jesse Plemmons is best known for his gritty turns in Fargo and Black Mass, but he undergoes an impressive transformation in this quietly affecting dark comedy from debut director Chris Kelly. As writer David, Plemmons reveals a softer side that will surprise those more familiar with his bleaker roles, and he shares persuasive chemistry with Molly Shannon, who impresses with a vanity-free turn as his cancer-suffering mother. Though the film's plot struggling twenty-something learns something about life in the midst of a family crisis is Sundance-by-numbers, Kelly introduces sly humour (honed after two years as a writer on Saturday Night Live) and some interesting twists (David's gay) that help this dramedy feel fresh.

17. Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown To Off The Wall

Following his Bad 25 documentary, Spike Lee returns with another Michael Jackson study, charting the King of Pop's transition from child star with The Jackson 5 to solo artist launching an album that's still influential to this day. Focusing entirely on his career (this isn't the doc for you if you're looking to delve into the reclusive performer's private life), Lee rounds up an impressively diverse array of talking heads, from family members, to record executives and producers of the time, to familiar faces who have been influenced or inspired by MJ's work. Tracing a path through a fascinating but often overlooked period of Jackson's career, the doc clearly charts his path through an industry that didn't always believe he could break away from the novelty of being a child performer, and it also goes on to give an in-depth track-by-track account of the hugely significant disco album. If you can reach the credits without tapping your toes, you might want to check your pulse...

16. Joshy

Like a mumblecore Hangover (in the loosest possible sense), Joshy ostensibly follows a bunch of guys on an unconventional bachelor weekend. Where it differs from that comedy juggernaut is that the characters feel like real people, the naturalistic acting style creating a believable dynamic between the five fellas spending the weekend in a rental house. It also taps reserves of feelings that many other bromances fail to reach. Joshy (Thomas Middleditch) is the guy who's no longer getting married, but his friends all have their own issues that are subtly brought to life over the course of the stay. Don't go thinking it's a completely dour affair though. While an air of melancholy hangs overhead, there's a near non-stop stream of laugh-out-loud gags that flow like realistic banter. Jenny Slate (Obvious Child) impresses again as a woman who crashes the party, but she's not the only scene-stealing support. Joshy is decidedly low-key, and all the more affecting for it.

15. Sand Storm

A domestic drama about a Bedouin family, with daughter Layla (Lamis Ammar) at the eye of the storm, this is a deeply involving study of a way of life that'll be alien to much of the western audience. Living in the desolate, dusty region of southern Israel, Layla is eschewing tradition to study at college, where she has started a relationship with a guy her age. Most of what we see takes place at the family homestead though, as tensions flare between Layla's mother, Jalila (Ruba Blal), and father, Suliman (Hitham Omari), as the latter takes a new wife. Suliman also has ideas about his daughter's future that conflict with her own desires. However unfamiliar the cultural aspects are, it's impossible to not be drawn in emotionally, thanks largely to an extremely engaging performance from Ammar, who sketches Layla's conflicted loyalties with subtle, believable strokes.

14. The Greasy Strangler

If batty, John Waters-esque gross-out horror is your idea of a good time, The Greasy Strangler will be the best thing that's happened to you since Divine ate dog poo in the name of art. Helmed by Brit director Jim Hosking, it follows a father and son (played by Michael St. Michaels and Sky Elobar) as they fight over the latter's new girlfriend. Oh, and one of them is a deadly serial killer who's making short work of LA's residents. Debuting as part of Sundance's Midnight section, The Greasy Strangler is a gleefully bad taste insta-classic, revelling in nonsense jokes, cartoonish gore and hysteria-inducing repetition.

13. Trash Fire

Director Richard Bates Jr proposed to his girlfriend at the Sundance premiere of this scathing relationship genre-blender, which should tell you everything you need to know about his batshit sense of humour. His film part horror, part domestic potboiler contains one of the most dysfunctional relationships ever committed to celluloid; the verbal and physical sparring of Owen (Entourage's Adrian Grenier) and Isabel (Angela Trimbur, last seen in cult hit The Final Girls) is both cringe-y and gut-bustingly funny as they try to rescue their disintegrating relationship. When they decide to visit Owen's grandmother, a fresh kind of hell envelopes them. With his third film, Bates Jr is clearly coming into his own as a filmmaker. Like his debut Excision, Trash Fire throws in unexpected twists and nightmare family members, emerging as a biting, riotously funny oddity that ends in a similarly shocking bout of blood-letting.

12. Swiss Army Man

One of the fest's most divisive films (and there are a lot of those here), Swiss Army Man opened to a decidedly mixed response, but away from all the hullabaloo, it stands up as an funny, engaging, and thought-provoking dramedy, albeit one with an abundance of fart gags. Paul Dano is the suicidal Robinson Crusoe-type figure, who finds salvation in Daniel Radcliffe's perma-guffing corpse. Short film veterans Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (AKA the Daniels) picked up a deserved directing award at Sundance. Not only does SAM always look great, abounding with neat visual gags, it also touches on some pretty weighty themes through the medium of bodily functions, and actually has a sweet bromance at its core. Daniel Radcliffe delivers an impressive physical performance that's a high point of his grown-up film career to date.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Contributing Editor at Total Film and writer for SFX. Sometimes writes books about monsters. Lives for cat videos.
We recommend