Certain Women Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Variety film critics Justin Chang, Peter Debruge, Guy Lodge, Geoff Berkshire and Dennis Harvey weighed in with their choices for the 21 best films that world-premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The full list follows (in alphabetical order):

1. “Agnus Dei.” Set in a Polish convent ravaged by Russian soldiers at the end of WWII, Anne Fontaine’s finest film in years explores every aspect of an unthinkable situation with tact, intelligence and fine-grained character detail. Beautifully acted by a strong female ensemble, especially the great Agata Kulesza (“Ida”), the film achieves a grace that transcends even its cloistered surroundings. (Justin Chang)

2. “Audrie & Daisy.” Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s documentary was among the festival’s most potent social-issue indictments, delving into two recent high-profile cases underline the high risk of sexual assault among American teens, as well as the “slut-shaming” culture that often exacerbates the trauma such crimes create. (Dennis Harvey)

3. “The Birth of a Nation.” If D.W. Griffith’s racist epic of the same name was indeed like “writing history with lightning,” as Woodrow Wilson reportedly felt, then this century-later telling of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion is the thunderclap that was inevitably bound to follow. Though made outside the studio system, Nate Parker’s powerful tale of those who stood up to oppression packs incredible mainstream appeal, while disproving the axiom that only history’s victors get to tell their stories. (Peter Debruge)

4. “Certain Women.” After throwing her admirers a curveball with the cool genre stylings of “Night Moves,” Kelly Reichardt returns to her forte of tender, finely etched humanism with this adaptation of three short stories — each revolving around women in an emotional quandary — by Montana-based writer Maile Meloy. Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart and Michelle Williams each bring characteristic intelligence and integrity to the project, while Native American actress Lily Gladstone is a heart-rending revelation. (Guy Lodge)

5. “Christine.” For all those who believe there’s something broken in the way America reports the news, Antonio Campos’ unsettling period piece captures the moment when things took a turn for the worse, by focusing on the small-town Florida TV reporter (hauntingly portrayed by Rebecca Hall) who snapped under the pressure to deliver more sensational content. Campos attempts to treat what happened to Christine Chubbuck as she would have herself, focusing on the human side of her story. (P.D.)

6. “Dark Night.” The most oblique of the festival’s many reflections on gun violence in America, Tim Sutton’s genuinely unsettling experiment — beautifully lensed by d.p. Helene Louvart — transforms the emptiness and alienation of suburban youth culture into a sort of collective dream-space, where the mundane takes on an ever-present undercurrent of dread. (J.C.)

7. “The Eyes of My Mother.” Borderline Films, also the outfit behind aforementioned fest standout “Christine,” continues to be a source of the most unnerving, formally refined visions in American independent cinema. Exquisitely composed in stark black-and-white, Nicolas Pesce’s genuinely skin-prickling quasi-horror film reps a new perspective entirely on making a murderer — but the less you know about it going in, the better. (G.L.)

8. “Gleason.” Documentaries rarely get more raw and real than Clay Tweel’s chronicle of charismatic former NFL star Steve Gleason’s battle with ALS. More than a typical disease doc, the film utilizes four years of intimate footage, much of it filmed by Gleason himself, to craft a fascinating portrait of a family and a moving story of fathers and sons. (Geoff Berkshire)

9. “The Intervention.” Actress Clea DuVall’s debut feature as writer-director is a modest but deftly handled ensemble comedy about three couples who gather to meddle in the problems of a fourth — but find their own hidden issues exposed instead. (D.H.)

10. “Kate Plays Christine.” A rich companion piece to the excellent “Christine,” as well as his earlier documentary “Actress,” Robert Greene’s latest docu-fiction hybrid refracts the sad story of Christine Chubbuck — and Kate Lyn Sheil’s meticulous preparations for the role — into an elegant and endlessly fascinating hall of representational mirrors. (J.C.)

11. “Little Men.” The latest from Sundance veteran Ira Sachs inverts his most recent gem, “Love Is Strange,” to focus on the youngest characters rather than the oldest, and proves every bit as rich and tenderly observed. With fresh-faced newcomers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, Sachs captures the time of life when a young person’s perspective on everything — parents, friends, dreams of the future — changes. (G.B.)

12. “Love & Friendship.” Predictably or not, Whit Stillman and Jane Austen turn out to be a match made in costume-drama heaven in this sparkling adaptation of the great author’s “Little Susan,” fronted by a wickedly poised Kate Beckinsale and stolen completely by the brilliant newcomer Tom Bennett. You’ve never seen Austen played at quite this speed, or at such a consistent level of hilarity. (J.C.)

13. “Lovesong.” So Yong Kim’s fourth and most accessible feature is an exquisitely rough-hewn almost-romance featuring two women (beautifully played by Riley Keough and Jena Malone) who can’t quite bring themselves to articulate what’s transpiring between them. Fortunately, Kim’s filmmaking has an eloquence that renders explanations superfluous. (J.C.)

14. “Manchester by the Sea.” After launching his filmmaking career at Sundance with “You Can Count on Me” back in 2000, Kenneth Lonergan returns with another slow-blooming character study, this one a nuanced portrait of a seemingly normal guy’s personal struggle to overcome his failings as a husband and father. By withholding the tragic backstory of Casey Affleck’s character (which everyone in town already knows) until relatively late, audiences see him differently than his peers do — and therein lies the film’s quiet beauty. (P.D.)

15. “Morris From America.” An enthusiastically received winner of two jury prizes in Park City — one for Craig Robinson’s warm, crinkled performance as a father gradually losing his hold on his son, and one for writer-director Chad Hartigan’s wry-but-never-cute screenplay — this sweetly ambling tale of a hip-hop-loving African-American teen finding his social footing in the improbable surrounds of Heidelberg, Germany, was one of the few uncompromised charmers in the dramatic competition. (G.L.)

16. “Operation Avalanche.” After winning Slamdance in 2013, “The Dirties” director Matt Johnson makes the giant leap to Sundance’s misfit Next category with this wild stunt, which not only resurrects the conspiracy theory that Apollo 11 never actually landed on the moon, but also submits itself as evidence that the live-broadcast event was all a CIA-orchestrated hoax. Believe it or not, Johnson actually managed to fool NASA into playing along with this wild rewrite of space-race history. (P.D.)

17. “Outlaws & Angels.” Superficially similar to “The Hateful Eight” in being a spaghetti-Western homage that takes place largely in one interior locale, JT Moller’s debut feature nonetheless serves up its own distinctive Grand Guignol brew of frontier outlawry, sexual aberration and cold-blooded revenge. (D.H.)

18. “Sing Street.” John Carney (“Once,” “Begin Again”) firmly establishes himself as the master of the modern musical with his latest intimate dazzler, maybe his best yet — an ’80s throwback rooted in authentic details but dizzy with the romance of young love and soaring original songs. Breakout leads Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton charm, and Jack Reynor steals every scene as the supportive older brother everyone wants in their life. Carney knows how to send audiences out of the theater drunk in love. (G.B.)

19. “Tallulah.” The lives of three disparate women collide in writer-director Sian Heder’s smart, funny, piercing debut feature. A staff writer on “Orange Is the New Black,” Heder brings that series’ still-too-rare interest in women’s secret lives to a story packed with twists and turns and finely nuanced performances from Ellen Page, Allison Janney and Tammy Blanchard. (G.B.)

20. “Tickled.” When New Zealanders David Farrier and Dylan Reeve began investigating a U.S. underground of tickle-fetish videos, they intended do just a humorous TV puff-piece. But the bizarre, vitriolic and litigious blowback their inquiries triggered led them down a rabbit’s hole of blackmail and intimidation that turns this surprising documentary into a real-life conspiracy thriller. (D.H.)

21. “Under the Shadow.” A well-turned basic “boo!” scare can still be a potent thing, especially when encased in a veiled political allegory like Babak Anvari’s horror meller. Its heroine is a wife and mother in war-beset 1980s Tehran whose frustrations over escalating socio-religious conservatism begin to overlap with the terror inflicted by an apparent supernatural menace. (D.H.)

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