Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

Fact: In one week, the Sundance Three reviewed 35 films and one Sting show


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    sundance film Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best“Drop the mind.”Last year’s installment of the Sundance Film Festival was warm and sunny. This year? Not so much. There was snow (lots of it), there was black ice (lots of it), and there was Sting (lots of him). But the weather didn’t matter much considering we spent most of our waking hours stowed away inside theaters all across Park City, Utah. Or holed up in our condo typing thousands of words on the dozens of films we digested. It’s fun being a film critic.

    For our sophomore year of Sundance coverage, the Sundance Three — Justin Gerber, Dominick Suzanne-Mayer, and myself — managed to review nearly 35 films from January 21st to the 29th. There was the good (Manchester by the Sea, The Lure), the bad (Carnage Park, Yoga Hosers), and the ugly (31, Antibirth). Once again, there were even a few Oscar contenders in the batch, specifically one extraordinary debut that secured one extraordinary deal.

    While this year lacked an oomph in certain fields — the documentary features, namely — the great outlasted the abysmal, making Robert Redford’s annual tradition a customary treat for cinephiles everywhere. As Justin Gerber proclaimed last year, “We came. We saw. We reviewed a lot of movies.” Because it’s been a week, as they say, we’ve ranked them all in order from worst to best for your leisure. Aren’t we nice?


    Next stop: Austin, Texas. Oooh, somebody stop me!

    –Michael Roffman



    Grade: F

    Hardly has a film felt so transparent in its creative bankruptcy. There isn’t a single second of originality to the whole production, from robbing Carpenter’s score for The Fog all the way to the surprise ending ripped straight out of The Purge. Once the credits roll, the only reassuring notion is knowing that Rob Zombie can’t possibly make another movie like this, that he has to try something else, that he has to find a new way to scare his audiences. Sure, it’s an ugly place to be in, but it’s no more despicable than the mess that’s 31. You’d be better off thumbing through r/wtf. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]



    Grade: D

    There are at least six different movies in Antibirth, and none of them work in tandem. Director, writer, and AnCo buddy Danny Perez tries too many things all at once without any of the finesse to make this either gel or implode in a brilliant mess. Instead, it’s just a mess, one that sputters in all sorts of oddball, incoherent directions that are mostly frustrating and dull. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    Carnage Park


    Grade: D

    Carnage Park is an exploitation movie down to its very bones, from the lurid real-life trappings to the excessive, lingering violence throughout, but writer-director Mickey Keating never really finds a handle on which sort of throwback film he wants to make. He solves this riddle by making quite a few of them, none of which seem to fit anything that comes before or after, until the film descends into a murky fugue that destroys most of that aforementioned early goodwill. The most interesting of its modes is the one that sees Wyatt square off against Vivian (Ashley Bell), who finds herself in the middle of Wyatt’s living hell after being taken hostage during a bank heist gone terribly awry. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Yoga Hosers

    yoga hosers Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best


    Grade: D+

    While Yoga Hosers continues Kevin Smith’s quest to push himself into increasingly strange and uncomfortable directions as a filmmaker, it’s either too derivative or too malformed to work the vast majority of the time. Characters are introduced with Technicolor cutaways to a faux-Instagram page, canted angles appear and disappear again, and at one point Smith even introduces a black-and-white flashback to provide some context regarding the Nazi imagery that the film crassly invokes for shock value without really having even the slightest idea what to do with it. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    The Fundamentals of Caring

    fundamentals of caring e1454133254112 Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: C-

    By the time the film gets around to slipping a lesson or two about DMD into the dialogue, The Fundamentals of Caring reveals itself as a message movie in the business of warming hearts at the expense of any kind of more honest or meaningful storytelling. It’s true that few movies are this aw-shucks nice these days, and for a short while The Fundamentals of Caring finds ways of retaining that kindness without lapsing into platitudes. But by the time it’s over, the film instead offers a reminder of why most movies, about this topic or otherwise, aren’t so aggressively nice. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    The Free World

    the free world Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: C

    The Free World works when dealing with the themes found within its title. When we have our freedoms taken away, how difficult is it to get them back? Is it wholly possible? Somewhere along the way, Lew decided such a story wasn’t compelling enough. Mohammad’s boss tells him at one point, “You bury the past, or it’ll bury you.” Jason Lew surrenders to the past, and while it doesn’t completely bury The Free World, it drops a good amount of dirt on it. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]


    joshy movie image Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best


    Grade: C

    Joshy has not one but two sex worker scenes. It’s got boys being boys on vacay. It even manages to toss in a subplot that follows a married man on the verge of cheating with another woman (Jenny Slate, who does a lot with what could have been a nothing role). Jeff Baena’s crime is that he tries to make it a dramedy at the last minute and doesn’t come close to earning it. It’s a shame, because while the comedy beats are familiar, the uber-talented cast of Joshy give them a new vibe. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    Miles Ahead

    miles ahead Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: C+

    For whatever one could say about Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s long-gestating passion project about a particularly fraught period in the late ‘70s in Miles Davis’ life, it can never be said that Cheadle hasn’t given everything he has to the film. In addition to stepping into the legendary jazz musician’s complicated shoes, Cheadle also directed the film, co-wrote it with Steven Baigelman, and even contributed to some of the film’s original musical arrangements. That’s to say nothing of him learning how to play the trumpet, in order to do proper justice to Davis’ work as authentically as possible. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Other People

    other people Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: C+

    The performances are so strong in Other People that they just about make up for the weak storytelling. Maybe “weak” isn’t the best definition for writer/director Chris Kelly’s debut feature film, but its structure definitely pales in comparison to all the effort given on screen. We get vets Paul Dooley and June Squibb alongside sketch comedy icons Matt Walsh and Kerri Kenney. Another scene brings us Retta and Lennon Parham. The movie is loaded with talent from start to finish, but the movie they’re in doesn’t have the focus they deserve. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall

    michael jacksons journey from motown to off the wall e1451489752707 Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best


    Grade: C+

    Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall is a whole lotta fluff, but tasty fluff. It’s an enjoyable watch that should satiate the fans and offer an alternative for those uninterested in poring through the Internet for clips and backstories. And at a time when we’re still mourning the loss of a similar icon — ahem, the Starman himself — there’s never been a better time to wax nostalgic and celebrate the loss of our idols. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review here.]

    Complete Unknown


    Grade: B-

    Joshua Marston’s latest, Complete Unknown, dabbles is an existential drama with big questions that hit harder on the way out of the theater than in it. The American filmmaker and screenwriter, who swept 2004’s Sundance with his critical darling Maria Full of Grace, returns to gnaw at the truths and fallacies of life. Identity comes into question and the concept of relationships are often challenged, making for a moody dissection on how we’re more or less trapped. At times, it recalls the tugging heartburn of Linklater’s Before Sunset while also the dreamy facade of Scorcese’s After Hours. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    The Intervention

    the intervention movie Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B-

    While The Intervention tastes vanilla, there’s enough flavor here to keep wanting more from Clea DuVall. Despite its flaws, the film still manages to win you over, even if it never actually surprises you, making it quite an assured debut. That’s more than one can say about other ensemble dramedies cut from the same cloth. It also goes without saying that any ensemble film is always going to be a risk, even for veteran filmmakers, and that ambition bodes well for DuVall’s future. In the end, The Intervention, oddly enough, winds up feeling exactly like those annual get-togethers: “It was nice.” [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    Kate Plays Christine

    kate plays christine

    Grade: B-

    Much of Kate Plays Christine is more of a form exercise than it is a documentary portrait, which works to both the film’s benefit and detriment. In the former category, Robert Greene shoots the film with an intimate elegance that ably parallels Sheil’s journey into character; while some images border on the staged, artifice is something of an operative point of the film, and so while it may render some sequences distracting (particularly a walk through Chubbuck’s real-life home rendered at some angles that are frankly impossible without some prior staging), it’s nevertheless an effective means of illustrating Sheil’s inner turmoil regarding the role. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    First Girl I Loved

    first girl i ever loved1 Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best


    Grade: B-

    What writer and director Kerem Sanga captures so well in First Girl I Loved is high school. What he captures even better is falling in love, or the naïve idea of what it means to be in love as a teenager. Anne’s love for Sasha (Brianna Hildebrand) is pure but burdened with what it would mean not only for her relationship with Cliff, but for her life in general. Sanga conveys this to us with such a deft touch that it’s a shame he fumbles the other issues that arise in First Girl. If the film is trying to display the trials and tribulations with coming out, then it can’t dismiss the unforgivable acts of its heroes. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    Morris From America


    Grade: B-

    Craig Robinson finds a nuanced balance between pathos and comedy, cracking wise even as he’s trying to keep a lot of ships from sinking at once for the sake of not making his son’s life any harder than it already is, or his own. In its more successful moments, Morris from America knows this lesson well: adulthood is hard from the early passage into it and onward, and all you can do is try to make it work. Usually that means figuring out what the hell that actually means to you. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]


    Production still from set of CHRISTINE, 2015

    Grade: B-

    What Christine gets right above all else is that it comes at depression from a different angle. Director Antonio Campos (Afterschool) evades drone and downpours in favor of ‘70s soft rock and bright skies. It’s ultimately a tale of two halves, although Rebecca Hall remains pitch-perfect throughout. Her portrayal of Christine Chubbuck may or may not be a perfect representation of the late reporter, but her depiction of a depressed individual is spot-on. She never plays Christine as a caricature. She plays her with mood swings — the way the disease works. A subplot and a longer-than-necessary runtime threaten to undercut Hall’s performance, but in the end the movie succeeds as a solid investigation into the day-to-day life of one suffering from the depression. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    The Lovers and the Despot

     Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best


    Grade: B

    At times, The Lovers and the Despot verges on the surreal; were a mockumentary made of this same topic, it would seem reasonably plausible as an impossible tale of conspiracy. But it all happened. While Sang-ok passed away in 2006, Eun-hee remains to tell their story, and the clear immediacy of the incident, even decades later, is evident in her testimony. What happened to them in North Korea, and what they came to know about the way in which the country works and is maintained, is truly unbelievable despite the total veracity of it all. And as both an utterly mad true story and as a document of the boundless reach of the cinema across borders and cultures and even ideologies, The Lovers and the Despot is wild, valuable viewing for all. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]


    weiner dog movie image e1453523762558 Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B

    “Everything has a beginning, and everything has an end.” This is one of many sobering life lessons we learn over time, but one we traditionally never grasp until it’s too late. It’s also the crux of Todd Solondz’s latest cutthroat comedy, Wiener-Dog, a varied collection of quirky stories that meditate on the breathless march towards our respective graves. The 56-year-old cult filmmaker, who smashed independent cinema to pieces over 20 years ago with 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, offers a sardonic twist on mortality through the sordid adventures of an adorable dachshund. For 90 minutes, the titular pooch takes us to four very depressing corners of America that surprise us with their unlikely humor. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    Dark Night

    dark night film Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B

    Let’s just address the Elephant in the room: Dark Night bears more than a passing resemblance to Gus Van Sant’s Palme D’Or-winning visual poem about the moments leading up to the Columbine shootings, right down to its similar final frame. And yet, there is a political undercurrent to Tim Sutton’s film that Van Sant mostly eschewed in favor of a more humanistic approach. Though that same humanism is applicable here as well, Sutton rather pointedly includes a number of small indications that Dark Night aims to comment on the culture that engenders the acts of violence around which the film is brutally, inevitably based as the acts themselves. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    The Greasy Strangler

    greasy strangler Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best


    Grade: B

    Stocked with full-frontal nudity, outlandish violence, outrageous sex, and eccentric characters from start to finish, The Greasy Strangler is a movie that has to be experienced to be believed. It goes on a little too long and isn’t as effective in the very end as it is at the start (blame desensitization). However, in a current climate where most movies are beset by moping twentysomethings who can’t get it together or teenagers rallying together to save the world, it’s refreshing to follow a greasy strangler and his weirdo son in a weirdo world where nothing makes sense from minute to minute. Original thought is in short supply these days. The Greasy Strangler is not. Whether too much freedom is a good thing, well, I’ll leave that up to you bullshit artists! [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    Southside with You

    southside with you2 e1454056991230 Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B

    There’s an understood ambivalence towards Richard Tanne’s indie feature, Southside with You. The 80 minute sliver of historical fiction follows our current POTUS and his First Lady on their inaugural date throughout Chicago’s South Side. Don’t roll your eyes just yet! What could have easily turned lame and maudlin actually winds up being charming and prescient. Tanne borrows from Richard Linklater’s notebook and applies hisBefore magic, eschewing any of the expected prestige — although, there is some — in lieu of surprising naturalism. Walking with Barack (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle (Tika Sumpter), you tend to forget who they are at times, which is quite a powerful feat on behalf of the filmmaker. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]


    indignation2 Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B

    James Schmaus, in his directorial debut, frames Indignation’s vision of America as a place where the only options were assimilation, quiet repression, or an early death perceived by many as just. It’s a rather blunt-faced way of approaching the era, but it’s nevertheless passionate in its fervor, and it’s that passion that elevates Indignation above its occasional histrionics to moments of truly inspired drama. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Certain Women

    certain women Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B

    Certain Women marks Kelly Reichardt’s third collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, following 2010’s Meek’s Cutoff and 2013’s Night Moves, and it’s an optimal marriage. So much of the film’s rugged naturalism stems from his ability to suck all the natural light into each shot, specifically the nighttime shooting, when the foreground’s glazed in golds and reds and whites. There’s also a comfortability to his work that affords Reichardt the extra two or three seconds per shot, which in turn helps her construct a larger world  — and boy does Reichardt do just that with Certain Women. Meloy’s tranquil collection of American snapshots comes to life with gripping realism and brutal emotionalism. It’s an ode to this country’s oft-forgotten middle, where the struggle is, indeed, very real. As such, Certain Women is not always thrilling, but it’s certainly faithful. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    Swiss Army Man

    swiss army man Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best


    Grade: B

    Swiss Army Man takes back the idea of the fart joke and everything it is capable of. If you can’t find the potential for humor in Paul Dano powering through ocean waves astride the back of Daniel Radcliffe, whose corpse uses its post-mortem flatulence as an engine, then this isn’t going to be the movie for you. There is triumph in this moment, and while it happens early on, the movie doesn’t peak here. The farts continue, but so do the committed performances and direction, even if Swiss Army Man gets lost in its own crazy plot near the end. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    Frank and Lola

    frank and lola

    Grade: B

    There’s a difference between what we know and what we think we know. When it comes to budding love, that difference can be the life or death of a relationship. In Frank and Lola, the directorial debut of Matthew Ross, that discrepancy is what drives apart our two titular leads. Part drama, part psychosexual thriller, part revenge fantasy, Michael Shannon’s latest platform balls up the dark mystery of Polanski, the vivid passion of De Palma, and the razor tension of Hitchcock for a savvy and meticulous 90 mins. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]


    goat sundance Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: B+

    The most telling moment in Andrew Neel’s Goat doesn’t arrive during a robbery or hazing incident. It arrives at the movie’s halfway point, when a pledge asks another, “If you quit, what else is there?” There is a drive in so many students pledging fraternities and sororities who don’t strive for success, but strive to not quit. Quitting is for cowards, better to deal with the devil you know, fear of the unknown, etc. The psychological ramifications are a whole other story. Neel could have solely focused on what it takes to join certain Greek organizations, but added a more intricate layer by adapting Brad Land’s memoir. Goat deals with masculinity, fraternities, and PTSD in equal doses, covering all of them with brutal precision and most importantly, success. [Read Justin Gerber’s full review.]

    The Lobster

    the lobster

    Grade: B+

    This is Yorgos Lanthimos, though, so it’s as much a dark comedy as it is a slice of existential horror. That much rings true thanks to its Hemingway-esque conclusion, which should leave you rattled, confused, and depressed. Yet that’s ultimately the power of The Lobster and quite the testament to Lanthimos’ brand of storytelling and filmmaking: he’s able to trump the outlandish premise and turn the film into accessible and timeless reverie. It’s a spark of ingenuity that doesn’t rely solely on subversions or meta humor. Just originality.[Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]

    Lo and Behold


    Leonard Kleinrock

    Grade: B+

    Lo and Behold is no Luddite’s screed. With Werner Herzog’s signature mix of dry humor, searching interviews, and clean, clear assemblage, he simply takes our world at face value and uses the Internet to investigate the imperfections of the people who created it, innovate within it, and live it. And it’s telling that the film ends not on any of its bleak predictions, but on an American colony of people with severe radiation sensitivities who can no longer live in a world packed with smartphones. Their condition is tragic, but in a glen where no phones are allowed within a 10-mile radius because of the deep-space research happening there, the afflicted have a chance to live a life that the world has largely abandoned. They know their neighbors. They play bluegrass music together sometimes. And in a world both never more connected and never more distant, they continue to live as we always have. [Read Dominick Suzanne-Mayer’s full review.]

    Green Room

    green room

    Grade: B+

    Green Room maintains its hair-trigger tension, toying with genre conventions like a cat with a mouse before eventually subverting them to the end. And even then, at the risk of lightly spoiling things, it proves playfully unpredictable to the very last frame. Perhaps the only thing more exciting than waiting to see what transpires in Green Room is waiting to see what Saulnier does next. [Read Sarah Kurchak’s original B+ review.]

    Under the Shadow

    under the shadow Ranking: Sundance 2016 Films From Worst to Best

    Grade: A-

    Great horror speaks many tongues. By that measure, Babak Anvari’s feature-length debut,Under the Shadow, is multilingual. It’s also terrifying, a spooky ghost story that singes the nerves as much as it coddles the mind. The Iranian filmmaker wisely uses the genre to work through themes of oppression, rebellion, and femininity without ever politicizing the film. This is prestige horror, the kind with tricks and treats that arrive with purpose and linger for years. [Read Michael Roffman’s full review.]


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