The 20 best films of Sundance 2016

11. Goat

Scripted by David Gordon Green (Joe, Pineapple Express) and directed by occasional documentarian Andrew Neel (New World Order), this fratboy drama is less Bad Neighbours and more hard-hitting drama as 19-year-old Brad (the excellent Ben Schnetzer) pledges his brother's fraternity and endures a series of gruelling, humiliating exercises as part of the hazing process. Meanwhile, his brother (the equally excellent Nick Jonas) begins to question his frat brothers' actions, which escalate into shockingly antagonistic behaviour as the film progresses. Featuring an incendiary cameo by producer James Franco (as a one-time frat boy) and some stomach-churning scenes of human cruelty, Neel's film chips away at the concept of modern masculinity, providing plenty of food for thought. And a goat called Chewie.

10. As You Are

Films like this are the reason Sundance exists. Directed by 23-year-old Miles Joris-Peyrafitte, As You Are is a shockingly effective debut, set in the early '90s and following loner teen Jack (Owen Campbell), whose life takes a turn when he acquires a step-brother in the brooding Mark (Charlie Heaton). Despite its period setting, As You Are forgoes nostalgia in favour of drama with a kick. It's not often teenagers are portrayed so sensitively, and both Campbell and Heaton excel in scenes that develop their touching relationship. Meanwhile, Joris-Peyrafitte proves he has a firm grasp on both riveting visuals and slow-burn storytelling. He more than deserved the Special Jury Prize awarded to him at the end of the festival, and we can't wait to see what he cooks up next.

9. The Intervention

With over 70 acting credits to her name, Clea DuVall is a veteran of both the big and small screen, but The Intervention is the first time she's written and directed a movie. On the evidence of this laugh-out-loud dramedy, it's about time. DuVall stars alongside Melanie Lynskey, Alia Shawkat, Natasha Lyonne, Ben Schwartz and Jason Ritter as friends who organise a getaway in order to stage an intervention over their friend's crumbling marriage (Cobie Smulders and Vincent Piazza). Set almost entirely in one location, The Intervention has great fun unpicking every one of its central relationships before attempting to put them back together again, and Lynskey steals the show as a blabbermouth alcoholic (she rightly won the Special Jury Performance award on closing night). Paramount has already picked the film up for distribution, so expect to see it soon.

8. Southside With You

First-time filmmaker Richard Tanne imagines the first date between Barack Obama and the future First Lady Michelle Robinson, while sticking as closely as possible to the known facts. Taking place during one sultry summer day in 1989, the walking-and-talking romance has a Linklater-esque vibe, as Barack and Michelle move from an art gallery, to a community meeting, to a showing of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing. Tika Sumpter (who also produces) plays Michelle with a steely determination and fierce intelligence she's initially cool towards her (not) date as he's an intern at her law firm, and she wants nothing to undermine her career path. Of course you know how it's going to end, as Parker Sawyers' president-to-be slowly wins her over but, crucially, it feels earned. It makes a refreshing change to romcoms where relationships seem to be formed on kooky antics and coincidence; here it feels like there's a genuine connection of values, and each person seems to actually come to learn something about the other. A smart, sharp affair to remember.

7. Tallulah

Ellen Page and Allison Janney trade insults and life advice in Sian Heder's solid feature debut, which trades in sharp humour and dreamy imagery. Heder spent three seasons scripting episodes of Orange Is The New Black, and Tallulah's strength is in focussing on female relationships as homeless drifter Lu (Page) kidnaps a baby from neglectful mother Carolyn (Moneyball's Tammy Blanchard), then moves in with her ex-boyfriend's mother (Allison Janney), spinning a lie that the child is her granddaughter. Heder who was pregnant with her second child while shooting the film neatly plays up the two women's differences, and the best scenes see Page and Janney rubbing each other up the wrong way. Nicely observed and with some great performances, it's already got distribution, so you won't have to wait long to see it.

6. Under The Shadow

Every year Sundance uncovers a horror gem, with past offerings including The Babadook and upcoming scream-fest The Witch (which hits the UK in March). This year, we got Under The Shadow, a smart, slow-burn chiller with subtext to spare. Set in war-torn 1980s Tehran, it recalls classic haunted house movies and spooky J-horrors as Shideh (Narges Rashidi) attempts to raise her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) while her husband fights on the frontline. When Dorsa starts talking about a presence in the flat, Shideh's superstitious neighbour insists a djinn is stalking the building's residents. Helmed by debut director Babak Anvari, Under The Shadow cleverly escalates early domestic scenes into a helter-skelter horror ride. Angry, unnerving, playful, its horror tropes may feel familiar, but it's that rare scare flick that has something genuinely important to say.

5. Captain Fantastic

Viggo Mortensen has arguably never been better cast than he is here as rational, wood-dwelling bohemian family man Ben, who has turned his back on society to raise his six children in a Platonic paradise, away from capitalism, convenience stores and all the trappings of modern life. As his eldest son Bo (George MacKay) comes of age, Ben learns of the death of his hospitalised wife. This leads to a family road trip back into urban life, so that the children can lay their mother to rest according to her Buddhist wishes. There's plenty of culture clash comedy to be had, from Ben's freedom with nudity ("It's a penis, every man has one"), to Bo's first flirtation with a girl, to the younger children's disdain towards vulgar displays of wealth. But Captain Fantastic isn't really a comedy, and it probes big issues relating to family, child-rearing and consumerism with a deceptively light touch, and a lasting impact. It's an impressive writing/directing effort from actor Matt Ross, and one that's likely to crossover into the mainstream.

4. Christine

Not a remake of John Carpenter's '80s classic, but a mesmerising, ticking time bomb character piece centred around real-life news reporter Christine Chubbuk (Rebecca Hall). A Florida anchor woman working in the early 1970s, Christine's attempts to climb the professional ladder are repeatedly foiled by her boss, while her own brittle personality prevents her from forming a relationship with co-anchor George (Michael C. Hall). Sinking slowly into despair, Christine's caught in a downward spiral that's charted beautifully by director Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer), who fosters a claustrophobic sense of foreboding as Christine's life hurtles toward tragedy. Meanwhile, Hall is unafraid of confronting Christine's dark side, delivering not only one of the best performances of Sundance 2016, but of her career thus far.

3. Manchester By The Sea

Director Kenneth Lonergan delivers another borderline masterpiece very much in keeping with his earlier works, You Can Count On Me and Margaret. It's another family saga positioned around a tragic figure in a small town, and it takes its time moving with the ebbs and flows of real life, rather than fitting cozily into a standard three-act structure. The 2hr+ running time would feel indulgent if it weren't so compelling from start to finish. Casey Affleck gets the role of his career as Lee Chandler, a withdrawn janitor who unexpectedly has to take care of his nephew after the death of his brother. Lee's story is teased out through careful, lucid flashbacks, but don't go expecting any grand reveals: MBTS hits hardest in the small moments. Expect this to be doing the rounds next awards season; Affleck's performance might be too internal and unshowy for voters, but Michelle Williams' harrowing portrait is a timely reminder of just how damn good she is, and how much she can do, even with limited screen time.

2. Hunt For The Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi's wilderness adventure isn't an easy film to categorise. Part buddy movie, part survival story, it's not obviously a kids films, despite the youthfulness of its lead character. However, it's hard to imagine anyone - no matter which audience quadrant you fall into - not loving this hilarious and heartfelt odd-couple story. As streetwise kid Ricky, Julian Dennison was one of the true Sundance breakouts. Hugely likeable, and with brilliant comedy timing, he carries the film on his shoulders without ever breaking into a sweat. Sam Neill plays his foster parent, Hector, and the two are forced to gradually put their differences aside when they end up on the run together in the New Zealand bush. HFTW is touching without ever straying into overly sentimental territory, and the laughs come thick and fast. As funny as Waititi's cult vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows, with the potential for a much broader audience. Oh, and there's another superb scene-stealing moment from Rhys Darby.

Josh Winning

Josh Winning has worn a lot of hats over the years. Contributing Editor at Total Film, writer for SFX, and senior film writer at the Radio Times. Josh has also penned a novel about mysteries and monsters, is the co-host of a movie podcast, and has a library of pretty phenomenal stories from visiting some of the biggest TV and film sets in the world. He would also like you to know that he "lives for cat videos..." Don't we all, Josh. Don't we all.