The Best of Sundance 2016: ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ Viggo Mortensen, and More

It was a historic year at the Park City, Utah, fest, with a record $17.5 million purchase and plenty of outstanding films and performances. Here are the best of the best.

Each year, upwards of 50,000 people invade the snow-capped mountains of Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival.

Founded by the devilishly handsome actor/director Robert Redford—and named after his iconic character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—it’s the world’s premier showcase for independent cinema. Celebrated filmmakers ranging from Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, ’89) and Richard Linklater (Slacker, ’91) to Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, ’92) and Darren Aronosfky (Pi, ’98) have all debuted their first features there, while the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson premiered their short films.

The list of memorable films to unspool at Sundance is endless. The Usual Suspects. Memento. Reservoir Dogs. Man on Wire. Whiplash. Hoop Dreams. Welcome to the Dollhouse. American Psycho. Clerks. Winter’s Bone. The list goes on. Last year’s standouts included movies like Dope, The Wolfpack, The End of the Tour, Going Clear, Tangerine, and Brooklyn, and the 2016 edition boasted 120 feature films from 37 countries culled from 4,081 submissions.

It didn’t disappoint. Without further ado, The Daily Beast Senior Entertainment Editor Marlow Stern and Senior Writer Jen Yamato break down the best movies and performances of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.


Marlow’s Pick: Markees Christmas, Morris from America

From its opening moments, as Morris (Christmas) pokes fun at his father (Craig Robinson) for repping a slow-ass beat, newcomer Markees Christmas has you in the palm of his chubby, welcoming hand. He plays a 13-year-old American boy (and aspiring MC) struggling to adapt to life in EDM-heavy Heidelberg, Germany, where his father works as a soccer coach. It’s an endearing fish out of water tale, with Christmas vividly capturing first love, first heartbreak, and the emotional toll of otherness. When Morris ultimately breaks down to his father over their mutual plight, well, just get the tissues ready. Expect to hear much more from this immensely talented youngster.

Jen’s Pick: Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation

Plenty of fresh faces made their mark at Sundance 2016, but no single writer, director, star, or producer had the festival buzzing like Parker, who battled for seven years and pulled quadruple duty to bring his fiery biopic of slave preacher turned rebel Nat Turner to the big screen. Parker, 36, made his acting bones in films like The Great Debaters and Red Tails, but in The Birth of a Nation he gave himself the gift of a career-making star turn. Parker’s talents are on display in his emotional performance as Turner, whose devout faith is tested and transformed by the indignities of bondage. That Turner’s incendiary story roused a landmark $17.5 million deal out of an industry currently grappling with its own racial imbalance of power means Parker’s impact is already resonating beyond the slopes of Park City. The Birth of a Nation heralds the entrance of a bold new Hollywood player and paves the way for others to follow suit.


Marlow’s Pick: Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic

This was a tough decision to make. Much ink has rightfully been spilled over Casey Affleck’s devastating, understated turn as a man whose soul has been torn to pieces in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, but the performance that affected me the most was Mortensen’s, who gives his all as Ben, the patriarch to a brood of six kids raised in the forest on deer and Chomsky, only to be thrust back into unwelcoming society at a moment’s notice. This is the role of Mortensen’s career, capitalizing on his unique blend of rustic sexiness, gentle artsiness, and searing intellect in the service of one of cinema’s greatest dads. Oh, and you’ll get to sit back and take in the full Viggo in decidedly cozier confines than a bathhouse knife fight.

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Jen’s Pick: James Franco, GOAT

If performances should be measured in potency of pathos, there was none more effective in seconds of screen time than Academy Award nominee James Franco’s brief-but-compelling turn in the hazing drama GOAT (which he also produced). Playing a pumped-up frat alumnus with a wife and child who can’t resist the tribal call of one last party, he’s the Wooderson of Phi Sigma Mu: Older, wiser, and much, much sadder. Stars Ben Schnetzer and Nick Jonas navigate the violent-macho impulses of college-aged frat bros with sensitivity, but Franco’s cameo barrels into GOAT with a crackling, spittling force we’ve rarely seen from him. The strain of existential desperation in his eyes as he grabs young Schnetzer and maniacally bellows, “PUNCH ME IN THE FACE!” is as hauntingly human a piece of performance as any of his polymath artistic endeavors.


Marlow’s Pick: Morgan Saylor, White Girl

As Dana Brody, the perpetually angsty, finger-playing daughter of Damian Lewis’s soldier-terrorist on Homeland, Morgan Saylor was emo personified; a character as vilified as Bella Swan. But for all the crap Saylor got, she serviced the role as well as she could, and gave it exactly what it called for. Still, her turn as Leah, a privileged white college girl who falls for her kindhearted Puerto Rican drug dealer—only to be forced into the role of unlikely drug lord when he gets thrown in the slammer—is a huge step forward for Saylor. It’s equal parts daring, sexy, and thrilling, as Leah goes to further and further extremes to free her man from mandatory minimum sentencing. In the process, she shines a necessary light on white privilege, racial dynamics, the drug war, and penal prejudice.

Jen’s Pick: Kate Lyn Sheil, Kate Plays Christine

Actor Kate Lyn Sheil’s no stranger to indie cinema, but in the U.S. Documentary Competition entry Kate Plays Christine her performance flits between real life and fiction, landing instead in a disquietingly raw and provocative hybrid space. As with Sundance’s narrative title Christine, this non-fiction doc by Robert Greene searches for meaning in the obscure but sensational story of Christine Chubbuck, the Florida newswoman who killed herself on-air in 1974. Unlike the straightforward Christine, Kate Plays Christine takes an unconventional tack: Greene’s camera documents Sheil as she travels to Sarasota, Florida, and investigates Chubbuck’s legacy while attempting to get into character to play her—in a feature film that does not exist. Revealing her own artistic self-doubts while exploring the unknowable mystique that spurred the 29-year-old to broadcast her own suicide, Sheil plays actor, subject, interviewer, sympathizer, philosopher, and charlatan all at once in a turn that simultaneously trumps and complements Sundance’s other, flashier meditation on the same tragic tale.


Marlow’s Pick: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea

This poignant drama was the first huge acquisition of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, going to Amazon for $10 million. And it’s a film that you’ll be hearing more of come next awards season. In telling the story of a soul-crushed man in exile (Casey Affleck) who returns home to his seaside town to care for his nephew (Lucas Hedges) when his older brother (Kyle Chandler) passes away, Lonergan has painted an elaborate emotional tapestry of guilt, grief, and redemption. While not the flashiest directorial effort, the man behind You Can Count on Me and Margaret crafts characters of great depth whose peaks and valleys are fully absorbed by his audience, and as Affleck and Hedges navigate their complex webs of emotions, we, too, are negotiating ours. I know it’s only January, but this may very well be the year’s most devastating film, and is an absolute triumph for one of Hollywood’s most embattled filmmakers.

Jen’s Pick: Anna Rose Holmer, The Fits

I’m going to use this opportunity to highlight a spectacular debut from a new director who this week, amid Hollywood’s current women and diversity crisis, quietly proved herself a talent to watch. The Fits isn’t flashy and it features zero stars. There are barely any adults around in the pulsating coming-of-age tale of Toni, an 11-year-old African-American tomboy who finds herself pulled between the masculine world of boxing she trains in with her older brother and the mystifying and sensual pull of the all-girls drill team she spies practicing across the hall in their Cincinnati recreation center. Joining the dance team, Toni’s prepubescent powers of-expression begin to blossom in strange and alienating ways—just as an unexplainable epidemic of spastic hysteria starts claiming the other girls, one by one. Directing assured young newcomer Royalty Hightower and a cast of naturalistic youngsters in a film filled with silent observations and strong imagery, Holmer has crafted an elegantly commanding first feature about girlhood, selfhood, and much more.


Marlow’s Pick: Weiner

Sundance has always been a breeding ground for excellent documentaries, from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s proto-Making a Murderer look at the criminal justice system Brother’s Keeper to the thrilling Man on Wire to last year’s The Wolfpack. The 2016 edition was no exception, and among the documentaries I saw at this year’s fest, the standout would have to be Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s appropriately titled Weiner. The film chronicles disgraced politician Anthony Weiner’s 2013 run for Mayor of New York—you know, the one that came crashing down when the insatiable scumbag got busted again for sexting, this time under the pseudonym “Carlos Danger.” Weiner probably figured this would be his Street Fight, but instead we’re given a ringside seat to one of the most disastrous political campaigns in recent memory. It’s equal parts enlightening and infuriating—poor Huma!—featuring several wacky sequences that will floor you.

Jen’s Pick: All These Sleepless Nights

Polish director Michel Marczak shook up this year’s World Cinema Documentary Competition with a formally subversive look at the restless nights and early-morning days of art kids in Warsaw that plays like a 21st century nouvelle vague fever dream. The decidedly nontraditional doc veers in and out of a year in the life of two Polish youths as they hunt for life and girls in the clubs and empty streets, chain smoking, doing lines, and waxing philosophical through one eternal after party. Krzysztof Baginski and Michal Huszcza “play” themselves in this inventive if opaque series of random moments, which stumbles into drama when an alluring blonde enters the picture. Marczak—who made a splash with his 2013 doc Fuck for Forest, about eco-porn hipsters who bone for the world’s rainforests—finds an impressionistic narrative that accelerates in a Jules et Jim moment, set to the sounds of Drake, that ties these millennial misfits to their generational forebears.


Marlow’s Pick: (TIE) Captain Fantastic and Manchester by the Sea

There were several standout films at this year’s Sundance, but the two that resonated with me the most—and for very different reasons—were Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Ross’s film, about a hippie patriarch (Viggo Mortensen) who raises his brood of six in the forest before a tragedy forces them to re-enter society, is a heartwarming film about the bonds of family that also raises big questions about the flaws of modern-day parenting and living. And it’s carried by a powerhouse performance from Mortensen, who’s found his dream role here. Another towering turn looms over Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, and it comes courtesy of Casey Affleck, who is at his best playing a font of suffering and simmering rage. The film presents a harrowing portrait of two lost souls, young and old, trying their damnedest to overcome death and loneliness. This is Lonergan’s magnum opus.

Jen’s Pick: The Greasy Strangler

This year at Sundance it was painfully clear that normcore Park City audiences have forgotten what weird cinema truly is—if they ever even knew to begin with. That’s why the aggressively bizarre The Greasy Strangler lingered long after its midnight premiere. You think Paul Dano riding Harry Potter’s farting corpse is esoteric? Try a greased-up naked murderer scrubbing off his giant dong in a carwash after every grisly kill. That and more strangeness fills every frame of Jim Hosking’s WTF feature debut (read all about it here). Clichéd life-affirming quirkiness and B-list stars have made The Sundance Indie Genre terminally boring. Here’s the one entry that woke audiences up by waterboarding them with a metaphorical vat of maniacal, putrid grease. That The Greasy Strangler is also an exploration of emotionally arrested father-son dynamics and the gendered cycles of abuse and misandry (film festival catnip!) only underscores its subversive, slept-on power. Extra points for a compellingly crafted shot of Sundance’s first true—and truly glorious—micropenis.