23 Movies From Sundance You Need To Know About

We watched a lot at the annual film festival in Park City, Utah so you didn’t have to — and these are the films worth talking about. In no particular order!

1. Manchester by the Sea

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, and Gretchen Mol

Kenneth Lonergan’s beautifully rendered character drama follows Casey Affleck’s Lee, a muted, angry man living in Boston, who is clearly in some sort of exile. When Lee has to return home, to the frigid (in every sense) town of Manchester after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler, seen in flashback), he makes no pretense of how painful it is for him — and then he finds out the unwelcome news that he has been made his 16-year-old nephew’s guardian, effectively sticking him back into his past. Manchester by the Sea is about broken love, parenting, carelessness, pain, responsibility, and family. It’s one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen — I wept throughout, as did most other people in the theater — but it’s also funny, which is an emotional relief. There are no easy answers in Lonergan’s story, but the film asks whether there can be degrees of forgiveness and grace, or whether those are absolute states. The performances are superlative: Affleck is stunning; Lucas Hedges, who plays the nephew, will soon be a star because of this movie; and Michelle Williams, who is always good, has never been this good. (I yearn for Lonergan to do a companion movie from her character’s point of view.) As my colleague Alison Willmore put it, Manchester by the Sea and The Birth of a Nation are the two Sundance movies we’ll be discussing for the rest of the year. And I can’t wait for you all to see this one so we can talk about it. —Kate Aurthur

Distribution: Amazon, which is bigfooting into the film market, bought Manchester by the Sea for $10 million. Unlike Netflix, which is committed to day-and-date VOD for its films, Amazon will partner with a distributor for a more traditional theatrical release for Manchester by the Sea. Considering its Oscars prospects, let’s assume that release will be in the fall.

2. The Birth of a Nation

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Nate Parker
Written by: Nate Parker
Starring: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, and Gabrielle Union

Going to the premiere of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was like attending an explosion. Parker’s telling of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion felt like a particularly meaningful convergence amid the United States’ current crisis with racial politics — from police brutality to #OscarsSoWhite. After all, Parker, an actor, director, and writer who’s most recognizable from his lead performance in Beyond the Lights, had spent seven years trying to make this movie. Its Sundance debut was a moment of triumph for him — one he shared with the entire cast, the movie’s producers, and seemingly everyone else who had worked on it. Luckily for everyone there — and for future audiences — The Birth of a Nation is riveting, and yes, it is an achievement, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the festival. The story builds to the rebellion, which, when it comes, is an adept sequence of action set pieces propelled by sweet revenge. That’s not all there is to The Birth of a Nation, though; Nat’s slow radicalization takes up most of the story, which is where Parker-the-actor shines. The Birth of a Nation does have its weak spots, and they are glaring — its female characters are poorly drawn, and its magical realist element tries to serve as both exposition and catharsis, but instead looks cheap and feels cheesy. Read Willmore’s review for her full take on the film. —K.A.

Distribution: Oh my, yes. Fox Searchlight bought The Birth of a Nation for $17.5 million, a Sundance record.

3. Sing Street

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: John Carney
Written by: John Carney
Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Aidan Gillen, and Mark McKenna

The feel-great movie of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and a delight from start to finish. Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Conor, a teenager during the Irish recession of the 1980s, whose parents send him to public school to cut back on expenses. In order to impress a girl, he starts a band, heavily influenced by a parade of ’80s groups his smart, cool, thwarted older brother (Jack Reynor, who may be the Irish Chris Pratt) tells him about. Sing Street is John Carney’s third movie musical, after Once and Begin Again, and there is no one else making movies like this out there. It’s impossible to describe in words how life-affirming, appealing, and transporting this movie is — I would sing about it, but no one wants that. Just lovely. — K.A.

Distribution: Luckily, you’ll be able to see Sing Street yourself soon enough; the Weinstein Company will release it, probably in the spring.

4. Tickled

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

New Zealand TV journalist David Farrier first stumbled upon a “competitive endurance tickling” video in 2014. At the time, he had no idea that it would ultimately send him down a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction rabbit hole involving a mysterious cyberbully with seemingly endless resources and an overwhelming need for videos of strapping, athletic men being tied down and mercilessly tickled. That sounds insane, and it is, thrillingly so. Along with his directing partner Dylan Reeve, Farrier’s pursuit of the story provokes a series of escalating legal threats that, at times, turn disturbingly personal. But they only manage to goad Farrier and Reeve to dig deeper, and what they discover is revealed in one of the strangest and most fascinating feature films to play this year at Sundance, full stop. —Adam B. Vary

Distribution: Tickled was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for theatrical distribution, and HBO for U.S. television.

5. Captain Fantastic

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Matt Ross
Written by: Matt Ross
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Kathryn Hahn, George MacKay, Samantha Isler, Annalise Basso, Nicholas Hamilton, Shree Crooks, and Charlie Shotwell

A bunch of semi-feral children raised in the beautiful, wooded expanses of the Pacific Northwest, with hot, tan Viggo Mortensen as their dad? Sure, we’ll go with that. Captain Fantastic, written and directed by Matt Ross — best known for his turns, as an actor, in Big Love and Silicon Valley — is at once a celebration and an interrogation of the philosophy that children might be best reared far from the pressures and distractions of contemporary society. Mortensen is his usual “still waters run deep” self, playing the role of wilderness philosopher as if it were the natural culmination of his life’s work. As Ross said in the Q&A after the film, he’d periodically suggest something for Mortensen to read, only to discover that he’d read it years ago. All six of the children are various shades of excellent, and save a few too-precious narrative turns, Captain Fantastic is a true pleasure and an intriguing thought experiment. And it’s guaranteed to make anyone who’s lived in the Pacific Northwest miss it, and its hippie ethos and soaring pines, fiercely. —Anne Helen Petersen

Distribution: Bleecker Street will release Captain Fantastic on July 8.

6. Kate Plays Christine

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Robert Greene

At this year’s festival, there were two movies about Christine Chubbuck, the Sarasota news reporter who committed suicide on air in 1974. But only Kate Plays Christine really digs into the idea of why anyone would want to watch a film about someone who’s famous for killing herself in the first place. This hybrid doc centers on actor Kate Lyn Sheil as she heads to Florida and prepares to play the role of Chubbuck, researching her life, looking into whether footage of the infamous moment still exists, and trying to understand who this woman was and why she chose to end her life the way she did. It’s an absorbing peek into the acting process at its most thorough and rigorous, but it’s also an exploration of our collective fascination with watching moments of horror. Kate Plays Christine, which won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Writing, raises some incendiary points for our era of beheading videos and smartphone images of shootings being readily available on social media. —Alison Willmore

Distribution: Kate Plays Christine doesn’t have U.S. distribution yet.

7. Southside With You

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Richard Tanne
Written by: Richard Tanne
Starring: Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, and Vanessa Bell Calloway

There’s never been anything quite like Southside With You. It is, on one level, an endearingly small indie romance that’s set over the course of a single day and night in 1989 and follows a young law student’s (Parker Sawyers) dogged romantic pursuit of a young Chicago lawyer (Tika Sumpter) who technically serves as his supervisor. Under the relaxed rhythms and crisp dialogue of first-time writer-director Richard Tanne, they take in some art, talk about their lives, debate the nature of social justice, and slowly begin to fall in love. They, of course, are Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson, which makes Southside With You the first indie romance that is also a stirring (if speculative) biographical origin story of a sitting president and first lady. Sawyers gives an especially uncanny performance as the young Obama, capturing the familiar idiosyncrasies of the president we know while also giving us a window into the man we don’t. —A.B.V.

Distribution: Southside With You will be distributed by Miramax and Roadside Attractions.

8. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Taika Waititi
Written by: Taika Waititi, from a novel by Barry Crump
Starring: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rhy Darby, and Rachel House

Like Moonrise Kingdom crossed with First Blood, the new film from Taika Waititi follows an adorable juvenile delinquent (breakout Julian Dennison) and a grumpy tough guy (Sam Neill) who end up the accidental targets of a nationwide manhunt when a trip to the wilderness goes wrong. Added bonus: The wilderness in this case is the splendid New Zealand bush, playing itself for once instead of a fantasy landscape, and home to all sorts of colorful characters. Waititi, who directed What We Do in the Shadows, knows how to make a crowd-pleaser, and this one’s a bright, funny adventure movie with a grounded cultural specificity and a warm, wonderfully bickery relationship between the two main characters. —A.W.

Distribution: The Orchard picked up Hunt for the Wilderpeople and will release it in around 100 markets.

9. Jim: The James Foley Story

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Brian Oakes
Written by: Chirs Chuang, Heather MacDonald, and Brian Oakes

There were several documentaries at Sundance this year that expertly wrenched tears, including Life, Animated (about Owen Suskind, who uses Disney animated films as therapy for his autism), Gleason (about former NFL player Steve Gleason’s battle with ALS), and Newtown (about what you obviously think it’s about). Jim: The James Foley Story was also incredibly effective in reducing the audience into a chorus of quiet sobs — so much so, that it won the Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary competition. First-time director Brian Oakes was a friend of the late freelance photojournalist and his family, and his interviews with them are at times overwhelmingly emotional. But by walking us through what drove Foley to risk his life covering the civil war in Libya (where he was held captive in 2011 for 44 days), and then Syria (where he was captured in 2012, which ultimately lead to his beheading by ISIS forces in 2014), Oakes transforms his intimate story of one man into an epic and sobering story of our current precarious moment in history. In case you were concerned, by the way, the film opens with a title card promising that it does not include the footage of Foley’s death. It doesn’t need to — the cumulative power of his life is more than enough. —A.B.V.

Distribution: Jim: The James Foley Story will premiere on HBO on Feb. 6.

10. The Free World

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Jason Lew
Written by: Jason Lew
Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Elisabeth Moss, and Octavia Spencer

Before Sundance, press for The Free World promised that it was Sundance’s answer to Netflix’s Making a Murderer: a story of an exonerated man (Mohammed, played by Boyd Holbrook) and his struggles afterward. But that’s the plot of The Free World in only its most oblique form. In truth, the film most resembles Sundance Channel’s Rectify in its nuanced and often wondrous attention to the detail of a man’s life after incarceration — and the deep and desperate violence, birthed out of necessity, that develops while he is imprisoned. As Doris, a battered wife who crosses paths with Mohammed, Elisabeth Moss brings the same fierce vulnerability that she brought to Top of the Lake, and Holbrook is a revelation. Both have the gravity, chemistry, and charisma of stars very much on the verge. Writer-director Jason Lew has given the film a meditative pulse, amplified by the rhythms of Mohammed’s ablutions and prayer as a convert to Islam. In a less subtle film, that conversion would be Mohammed’s primary characteristic; in The Free World, it’s one of many traits that make him impossible to forget. The film is a critique of the justice system, but never in a way that’s didactic or cloying: As Moss explained in an interview after the premiere, “audiences are smarter than most people believe,” and this film presumes as much — never telling, just showing. The Free World contains moments of deep beauty and grace, with performances that will linger with you for days. —A.H.P.

Distribution: The Free World does not have U.S. distribution yet.

11. Little Men

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Ira Sachs
Written by: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias
Starring: Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle, Paulina Garcia, Theo Taplitz, and Michael Barbieri

Ira Sachs is so good at stories about a certain slice of New York — ones about creative class types facing the fact that they’re maybe not as bohemian as they’d like to believe when harsh realities come calling. The family in Little Men — actor Brian (Greg Kinnear), psychotherapist Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), and their 13-year-old son Jake (Theo Taplitz) — are guiltily faced with being a force of gentrification when they inherit a Brooklyn house that belonged to Brian’s father, and learn the shop downstairs, owned by Leonor (Paulina Garcia), has been paying below market rent for years. But what makes the escalating drama bittersweet is that Jake and Leonor’s son Tony (Michael Barbieri) become instant friends, an innocent relationship tested on all sides by class, race, economics, familial resentment, and nascent sexuality. —A.W.

Distribution: Little Men doesn’t have U.S. distribution yet.

12. Love & Friendship

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Whit Stillman
Written by: Whit Stillman
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett, and Stephen Fry

Whit Stillman, one of the only contemporary filmmakers who makes comedies of manners, adapting Jane Austen is a dream come true for fans of both the director and the novelist. And that’s probably a considerable subset of people, given that Stillman’s drawing room conversations have always been so inspired by Austen’s. Love & Friendship is Stillman’s winking take on Lady Susan, Austen’s epistolary novella — and it is exactly what I hoped it would be. Kate Beckinsale is the viperous title character, a recent widow who seeks to bend the 19th-century marriage economy to her will; Chloë Sevigny plays Susan’s best friend and sounding board; and Xavier Samuel is the much younger, handsome object of Susan’s attentions. But it is Tom Bennett who steals the movie as a rich moron Susan has decided must marry her daughter — he is screamingly hilarious, making every joke play out as long as possible. And Beckinsale and Sevigny, veterans of Stillman’s work from The Last Days of Disco, are, of course, terrific together, playing amoral, scheming assholes who are the ones you’d want to sit next to at any party. —K.A.

Distribution: Amazon will release Love & Friendship theatrically through Roadside Attractions (and will later stream it) — probably in the spring.

13. Under the Shadow

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Babak Anvari
Written by: Babak Anvari
Starring: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi, Ray Haratian, and Arash Marandi

This Iranian horror film was touted as this year’s The Babadook. That sets the bar high, but it’s not an inaccurate comparison. Like Jennifer Kent’s movie, Under the Shadow is about a mother and child left to fend for themselves — Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter, Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), stay in their Tehran apartment while Iraj (Bobby Naderi) is sent out as part of his yearly, mandatory national service. It’s the middle of the Iran-Iraq War, and the city is being bombed. In the constant stress, Shideh starts to wonder if there are supernatural forces at work in their building as well, and if a djinn is haunting Dorsa. It’s claustrophobic and very, very creepy, and the setting and shifting political climate of the era is deftly woven into the frights — there’s even a menacing, spectral chador.

Distribution: Netflix has picked up the streaming rights for Under the Shadow and will debut the film later this year. Before then, Vertical Entertainment and XYZ Films will give the film a digital/VOD/limited theatrical release.

14. Tallulah

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Sian Heder
Written by: Sian Heder
Starring: Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Tammy Blanchard, Evan Jonigkeit, and Uzo Aduba

Ellen Page plays Lu, a slightly criminal freegan who lives out of a van with her upper-middle-class boyfriend, Nico (Evan Jonigkeit) — until he misses his old life and ditches her. Lu, now even more aimless, heads to New York City to find him, only to begin forging an unlikely relationship with Margo, his broken-hearted mother, played by Allison Janney. The bond is solidified when Lu, who, when wandering hotel hallways grabbing uneaten room service food, is mistaken for a babysitter by Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a drunken mess of a mother. Lu ends up kidnapping Carolyn’s toddler, temporarily sure she is doing the right thing, and bringing her to Margo, who thinks this is her granddaughter. If this plot sounds like a lot, it is, and eventually its need to resolve itself weighs Tallulah down a bit. But the bulk of the movie follows the simpler story of Lu and Margo trying to connect, and eventually forging an unbreakable mother-daughter relationship, despite Lu’s lies. This role is Page’s best since Juno, in which Janney played her stepmom. And in Tallulah, Janney is transcendent — her sad eyes have so much to do here. (But make no mistake, Tallulah is also quite funny.) This film is Sian Heder’s first feature, and it is assured. —K.A.

Distribution: Netflix! Date TBD.

15. First Girl I Loved

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Kerem Sanga
Written by: Kerem Sanga
Starring: Dylan Gelula, Brianna Hildebrand, Mateo Arias, Jennifer Prediger, Tim Heidecker, and Pamela Adlon

There is something so refreshingly young about First Girl I Loved, both in the way writer-director Kerem Sanga (The Young Kieslowski) embraces the extreme emotional stakes of its three teenage main characters — hip-nerd Anne (Dylan Gelula), softball star Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand), and self-regarding lothario Cliff (Mateo Arias) — and in the way Sanga approaches Anne’s struggles with her burgeoning feelings for Sasha. This isn’t a movie freighted with anguish or shame, but it also doesn’t pretend that it’s anything less than terrifying for these kids to take their first steps in coming to terms with their sexuality. —A.B.V.

Distribution: First Girl I Loved, which won the Audience Award for the Next section of the festival, does not have U.S. distribution yet.

16. The Intervention

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Clea DuVall
Written by: Clea DuVall
Starring: Melanie Lynskey, Cobie Smulders, Alia Shawkat, Clea DuVall, Natasha Lyonne, Vincent Piazza, Jason Ritter, and Ben Schwartz

There is a reason The Big Chill format so often works: It’s fun to watch people in a nice house work out their shit! With The Intervention, first-time writer-director Clea Duvall follows that simple, time-tested premise, and it is charming and watchable. Melanie Lynskey (good in everything, always, and winning a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for her performance in this film) plays Annie, a possible runaway bride who is simultaneously controlling and a total spaz, especially with her own drinking. Annie has decided that her close friends Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza) have a terrible marriage and need to divorce — and has rallied their group of friends to come to Savannah, Georgia, for a weekend during which they will tell Ruby and Peter that this is the way it must be. Everyone in the group, naturally, has their own tragicomic problems, which spin out as the weekend goes on. Pure entertainment, well-acted, familiar and cozy, and a gratifying debut for Duvall (an actor familiar to fans of pop culture for nearly 20 years). —K.A.

Distribution: Paramount has bought The Intervention, which will be released both theatrically and on VOD.

17. Morris From America

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Chad Hartigan
Written by: Chad Hartigan
Starring: Markees Christmas, Craig Robinson, Carla Juri, and Lina Keller

The 13-year-old boy of the title (the most documented age at Sundance this year) is growing up in double alienation. Morris, played with heartbreaking charm by newcomer Markees Christmas, is an American in Germany, still learning the language from a college-age tutor named Inka (Carla Juri), and much preferring hip-hop to techno and American football to soccer. He and his single dad, Curtis (Craig Robinson, who won a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for his performance here), feel like they’re the only black people in Heidelberg. Add all the usual awkwardness of being caught between childhood and teenagerdom, with a whole new set of social rules unfolding, and the result is a modest but painfully on-point story about facing the onslaught of adolescence in a place you don’t think you belong. When Morris meets Katrin (Lina Keller), a beautiful, bored 15-year-old who’s taken by his novelty, he seems destined to get his heart broken. It’s a coming-of-age movie with an expat twist, and it has a genuine and lovely depiction of a father-son relationship right at the start of a turbulent time in a kid’s life. —A.W.

Distribution: A24 will release Morris From America — which also won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award — on DirecTV first and then in theaters.

18. Goat

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Andrew Neel
Written by: David Gordon Green, Andrew Neel, and Mike Roberts
Starring: Nick Jonas, Ben Schnetzer, Virginia Gardner, Danny Flaherty, and Austin Lyon

Goat is based on the 2005 memoir of Brad Land, who, after surviving a savage beating and robbery, pledged his brother’s fraternity, only to endure even more emotional and physical brutalization. The movie does not shy away from that, but, thankfully, it does not wallow in it either. Director Andrew Neel, whose background is largely in documentaries (Alice Neel, Darkon), shoots with a grounded immediacy that lets the empty machismo and cruelty of modern fraternities speak for itself, neither sensationalizing nor celebrating it. Ben Schnetzer (Pride) gives a rising-star performance as Land, achingly inhabiting his fragile, wounded pride, and Nick Jonas is well cast as Land’s bro-ier brother Brett. But despite what Jonas’s presence might suggest, Goat is surprisingly light on homoeroticism. And that’s even with James Franco, who produced the film, appearing in a very James Franco-y cameo as a fraternity alum who would rather rip off his shirt and chug beers than spend time with his wife and kid. —A.B.V.

Distribution: Goat has been bought by Paramount, which, as with The Intervention, will release it theatrically and on VOD.

19. How to Tell You’re a Douchebag

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Tahir Jetter
Written by: Tahir Jetter
Starring: Charles Brice, DeWanda Wise, William Jackson Harper, and Alexander C. Mulzac

Ray Livingston (Charles Brice) writes a blog called Occasionally Dating Black Women and he’s dating several women who don’t know about one another, and who struggle to get him to commit to anything beyond getting high together and having sex. Ray’s without a doubt a douchebag — his best friend Jake (William Jackson Harper) asks him if he’s ever considered that he might hate women — but he would never admit to it until he meets Rochelle (DeWanda Wise). She’s beautiful, more successful as a writer, and not afraid to call Ray on his shit. Tahir Jetter’s rom-com directorial debut is a little ragged around the edges, but its writing is sharp and biting, and it offers a portrait of hip, black Brooklyn that’s almost never put onscreen. Better still, it’s empathetic toward its main character while never letting him off the hook for his behavior, no matter how much he wants it.

Distribution: How to Tell You’re a Douchebag doesn’t have U.S. distribution yet.

20. As You Are

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Miles Joris-Peyrafitte
Written by: Miles Joris-Peyrafitte and Madison Harrison
Starring: Owen Campbell, Charlie Heaton, Amandla Stenberg, Scott Cohen, Mary Stuart Masterson, and John Scurti

It was an unusually abundant year at Sundance for LBGT movies — like So Yong Kim’s Lovesong with Riley Keough and Jena Malone; and Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women with Lily Gladstone and Kristen Stewart — in which characters wrestle with deep same-sex romantic and sexual longing, but never identify as L, G, B, or T. The most potent among them was this story of two teenagers, Jack (Owen Campbell, so vulnerable) and Mark (Charlie Heaton, so wounded and River Phoenix-y), who form a profound bond after Jack’s kindhearted mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Mark’s authoritarian father (Scott Cohen) begin to date. Co-writer and director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte set this film in 1994, but its attitude about sexuality — Jack and Mark never say the word “gay,” for starters, and their relationship with their friend Sarah (Amandla Stenberg) confuses matters further — is much more rooted in 2016. This could be because Joris-Peyrafitte, who was mentored by Kim and Reichardt, is 23, and was barely alive in 1994. But that also means pretty much everyone else with a film at Sundance this year was a slacker. —A.B.V.

Distribution: As You Are, which won a U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award, does not have U.S. distribution yet.

21. Author: The JT LeRoy Story

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Jeff Feuerzeig

In the early to mid-2000s, JT LeRoy was a queer literary sensation, a teenage HIV-positive former street hustler heralded by celebrities like Gus Van Sant, Courtney Love, and Winona Ryder as a poet of adolescent pain and life lived on the extreme margins of society. By 2005, LeRoy’s novels Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things had been outed as the work of a thirtysomething mother named Laura Albert, who was subsequently derided and shunned as a fraud. In Feuerzeig’s captivating and troublesome documentary, Albert explains how and why she invented LeRoy, and the tale she spins here is never less than fascinating, even if her own credibility is never quite repaired. That’s in part because Feuerzeig favors a slick, cinematic subjectivity that glosses over certain key details — like why Albert recorded all her phone conversations, when those recordings took place, and whether anyone featured in them (like Van Sant and Love) knew they were being recorded. —A.B.V.

Distribution: Author: The JT LeRoy Story was picked up by Amazon, and will also get a theatrical release.

22. White Girl

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Elizabeth Wood
Written by: Elizabeth Wood
Starring: Morgan Saylor, Brian “Sene” Marc, Justin Bartha, Chris Noth, India Menuez, and Adrian Martinez

Dicks and blow and boobs and weed: That’s the most facile description of White Girl, which features a revelatory performance from Morgan Saylor (best known as Brody’s annoying daughter in Homeland) as a New School freshman who moves with her roommate to Ridgewood, Queens, for the summer so they can each have their own room. Once there, Saylor’s Leah and her best friend amplify what had, at that point, been a periodic activity: getting really, really high — facilitated, in short order, by the Puerto Rican guys on the corner who eye their apartment from the street below, including the hypnotically charismatic Blue, played by Brian “Sene” Marc, an underground rapper and first-time actor. The week that follows — based on first-time director Elizabeth Wood’s own experiences as a college student, and featuring an unexaggeratable amount of fucked-up situations, has been likened to Kids and called exploitative. But White Girl never glamorizes the situations these white girls get themselves into, or the negligence and ignorance with which they navigate the world. The film uses the freedoms of a beautiful, white, blonde girl as a commentary on white privilege; that it never slams that message over the heads of its viewers is a testament to its commitment to show, not tell. This is no after-school special, nor is it a celebration of what it means to be 19 and have the world at your fingertips. Call it a coming-of-age story, but only if “coming of age” means realizing the harsh limits of the power afforded to you by your race, gender, or sexuality. —A.H.P.

Distribution: White Girl does not have U.S. distribution yet.

23. Swiss Army Man

Courtesy Sundance Institute

Directed by: Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan
Written by: Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead

When a movie is called divisive, I usually picture an even split between yeses and noes. In the case of the annoying, puerile, and yet somehow boring Swiss Army Man, I hope that there is more of a 90-10 ratio — because if it’s 50-50 here, we should give up as a species. Paul Dano plays Hank, who is stranded on a deserted island for reasons we never learn, and is about to commit suicide when a dead body washes up onto the beach. (The body is played by Daniel Radcliffe.) It’s hard to describe the plot more without spoiling it, which I wouldn’t want to do lest you be in the 10% (and if you are, stay away from me!). Basically, a buddy comedy of a sort ensues, one like you’ve never seen before (because you are lucky). Lots of people walked out of Swiss Army Man, and while I yearned to be with them, I stayed to watch it fall apart entirely, as we learn that Hank is even creepier than he first appeared. Of course Swiss Army Man will have its fans, and it certainly is…original. But I just googled “farting corpse movie,” and got a full page of results thanks to this film, so I weep for humanity! —K.A.

Distribution: A24 has bought Swiss Army Man, which somehow won the U.S. Dramatic Jury Award for Directing!


This story has been updated to reflect the Sundance Film Festival award winners, and Tickled’s distribution.

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