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The best films of Sundance 2016

Dark Night, The Lure, Kiki and More

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Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The last screen has gone dark, the awards have been handed out, and Park City is comfortably under capacity again. But Sundance isn't over until The Verge's Sundance team have named their favorites among this year's diverse film lineup. Here they are, in no particular order.

Dark Night

Dark Night promotional still

Bryan Bishop: Films and television love to give us tidy, narrative takes on atrocities so we can come to grips, stick them in a box, and file it all away under "Can't Happen Here." They remove the fear, but Tim Sutton's surreal meditation on the dangers of gun violence goes the opposite direction. Loosely inspired by the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, Dark Night uses inhuman patience and an unflinching eye to turn even the most mundane moments into possible precursors to tragedy.

It's a frustrating film at times, so methodically paced that it practically dares the viewer to walk away, but that also feels like it's part of the point. We can go about our business, with our faces buried in our phones and escaping with games and movies, Sutton is saying — but if we want anything to change, we have to stop, pay attention, and observe what's happening around us.

The Lure

Emily Yoshida: I didn't get to see as many films this year at the festival as I would have liked, which would normally lead to me making all sorts of caveats as to what I deemed to be the "best" of the festival, but Agnieszka Smoczyńska's mermaid musical The Lure has stayed with me days after leaving Park City. One doesn't usually expect such deeply niche, oddball creations out of a festival without a particular genre focus — works of such specific visual force that they can have only come from a very personal place. Smoczyńska pokes at ideas about female subjugation and body auto-horror with the exploratory glee of a morbid middle schooler dissecting a frog, and the fact that this was in the World Drama category — not NEXT, not Midnight — feels like a major vote of confidence in this kind of stuff. That, combined with whatever gracious Polish film funding allowed this to be made with what I can only assume was carte blanche, makes me feel very lucky. How else would I have ever seen a mermaid sing a longing ballad while getting a delightfully messy lower-body transplant?

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea

Chris Plante: The past three years of my life have been a test. Cancer diagnoses, heart disease, unexpected tragedies explained in unwanted detail over late night phone calls. Every bit of bad news led to the same conclusion. Like most, I don't share my grief. I press residual unhappiness into a small box, and conceal it beneath my daily work. Then I get sent to a Sundance premiere, and openly weep into my dirty winter coat like an uncorked loon.

I believe Manchester by the Sea is a great movie, but I confess that I appreciated it mostly as a catharsis, a venting of some nasty thoughts and feelings that have rotted inside my gut for I can't say how long. Director / writer Kenneth Lonergan's story of grieving a personal loss portrays a variety of coping methods, never labeling one incorrect. The real power of Manchester by the Sea is its ever-shifting focus, veering from the two leads to the supporting characters, who are doing their best to conceal deep wounds of their own.

The Blackout Experiments

Bishop: Documentaries in the past decade have grown by leaps and bounds stylistically, but there's often nothing better than subject matter that you just find fascinating. Rich Fox's The Blackout Experiments looks at participants in the haunted house / live theater mash-up known as Blackout. They willingly subject themselves to inhumane and cruel treatment as part of the experience, but what starts as a thrill ride evolves into a sort of performance art psychotherapy that would make Tyler Durden proud.

Swiss Army Man

Swiss Army Man

Bishop: Quite simply, anything this weird and courageous deserves to be praised.

Nuts!

Plante: Documentary has become America's brain candy of choice — particularly the blood-caked corner of True Crime. I'm sure ESPN's 7.5 hour OJ: Made in America will be a cultural Thing when it premieres this summer, but I wish I could say the same for Penny Lane's Nuts!, a documentary about a Kansas doctor who claimed to cure male impotence with goat testicle transplants. Nuts! isn't as gory, provocative, or highbrow, as Made in America, but it's no less special. Lane, who directed the President Nixon home footage doc Our Nixon, and the scientifically sweet documentary short The Voyagers, is an immensely gifted storyteller that makes greater and greater films. See Nuts! as soon as you have the opportunity, and read nothing more of it until then. Don't let anyone neuter your expectations.

Kiki

Kiki

Yoshida: This documentary about the current-day NYC ballroom scene and the LGBTQ youths who live by it is a much-needed update to the beloved 1990 voguing doc Paris is Burning, set in a much more hopeful time. Director Sara Jordenö and co-creator Twiggy Pucci Garcon show us a community that isn't just a creative outlet for disenfranchised, often homeless, gay black youths, but also a vital community resource. The characters it introduces us to are politically savvy and bullish advocates for their peers, may of whom, despite a radically more accepting climate for the gay community at large — are still suffering from homelessness and disease. Garcon, Chi Chi Mizrahi, and force of nature Gia Marie Love are inspiring figures; seeing them serve couture runway realness is just the cherry on top.