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Best and Worst of 2016 Sundance Film Festival: ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ ‘Swiss Army Man’ and More!

You loved Brooklyn, right? It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. What about Boyhood and Whiplash? Same. And Fruitvale Station, Precious, Little Miss Sunshine, Hustle & Flow, 20 Feet From Stardom … you get the picture. No matter how cold it gets in the mountains of Park City, Utah — temperatures at night hover at a balmy 10 degrees — real cinematic heat is generated inside the movie theaters. (Well, kind of. The biggest theater in town is actually an auditorium at the local high school. Go Pirates!)

The buzz for the 2016 edition was more like a low hum until day five, when a certain historical drama premiered to rapturous applause, which led to a record-breaking bidding war among the studios. On the other side of spectrum, a film is already in line to sweep the Razzies. Here’s the rundown of those entries, along with everything in between. 

Related: PHOTOS: Sundance Film Festival 2016: Parties and Premieres!

Birth of A Nation

The Birth of a Nation

Let the 2017 Oscar chatter begin. Star Nate Parker writes, produces and directs a vital American history chapter that’s more relevant than ever. It’s the biography of slave Nat Turner, who, in 1831, led a violent revolt in the South. Parker, best known for Beyond the Lights, conveys anger and understanding even when he doesn’t say a word. Is it worth a $17.5 million price tag? Perhaps not. But the incendiary drama earned two standing ovations at its premiere for good reason.

Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic

Deep in the Pacific Northwest woods, bohemian Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife lovingly raise their six kids in an insulated, noncommercial environment. (Short version: All books, all the time.) After she dies, his unorthodox parenting style comes under fire. It’s a joy to spend time with this endearing — and, yes, fantastic — family.

Manchester by the Sea

At first, it’s unclear why a stoic janitor (Casey Affleck) is so reticent to hang around his Boston hometown and care for his teen nephew after his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies. Then the devastating flashbacks unfold. Affleck is quietly wonderful in a meaty role originally intended for Matt Damon (he’s a coproducer). Beautifully written and sharply observed, this gem is impossible to shake.


Rebecca Hall has finally found her breakout role. The willowy British actress astounds as Christine Chubbuck, a deeply ambitious and depressed Florida TV anchor in the 1970s. Thanks to the film’s subversive sense of humor, it’s easy to chuckle at Christine’s Type-A-to-a-fault personality. But here’s the sobering fact: This haunting character study is based on a true story.

The Hollars

The Hollars

In his second directorial effort, John Krasinski puts his own spin on Garden State (minus the Shins music). He’s a stressed-out and adrift father-to-be who travels home after Mom is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Of course he soon finds his center. His eclectic cast, which includes Anna Kendrick, Charlie Day and Josh Groban, elevates the standard quirky indie script.

Certain Women

The drama itself is understated to a fault: In three separate melancholy passages, a woman tries to overcome an emotional challenge in the bleak Montana mountains. The film’s stillness is a combination of spellbinding and excruciating. But dependable leads Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Kristen Stewart add much-needed heart.


There’s the fraternity brother, the blood brother and the Jonas brother. How’s that for an intriguing hook? At the Phi Sigma Mu fraternity, a popular member (Nick Jonas) is conflicted as his good-natured younger sibling (Ben Schnetzer) endures hell-week torture. And in case you’re wondering, some of the hazing involves a goat. Oy.

O.J.: Made in America

Just when you think you know everything about the man at the center of the Trial of the Century, along comes this ridiculously riveting documentary. Using rarely seen home videos (ahhh, Kris Jenner had big ’80s hair in the ’80s!) and new exclusive interviews, this epic illustrates how O.J. Simpson went from football star to acquitted murderer. The five-part series will air in June on ESPN.

Sing Street

Once and Begin Again writer John Carney has a knack for showing how a song can save your life. His latest winning opus is set in 1985 Ireland, where a gawky teen (newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) starts a band to win over a girl. Round of applause for the perfect nostalgia-evoking usage of Duran Duran and The Cure hits — and the sweet homage to Back to the Future.

Swiss Army Man

Swiss Army Man

Also known as the dreadful flick in which Paul Dano rides dead Daniel Radcliffe like a Jet Ski using his farts as power. Think weirdo Cast Away meets Weekend at Bernie’s, as a suicidal man hallucinates a friendship with a corpse on a deserted island. The countless poop and erection conversations are so off-putting and juvenile, scores of disgusted moviegoers walked out during the premiere. It’s not experimental. It’s not avant-garde. It’s just junk.

The Fundamentals of Caring

Hey, look, it’s a comedy! Paul Rudd plays a grieving caregiver who takes his smart-ass, M.S.-stricken teen patient (Craig Roberts) on a road trip. Along the way, they befriend a spunky runaway (Selena Gomez). Though you know exactly where this journey is heading, the vibe is more shaggy than sappy. And Rudd, as always, maximizes his charm and makes it work. We’ll take it.

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