The 20 Best Performances of Sundance 2016

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Photo: Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance Film Festival doesn't necessarily look like paradise — it's a little too cold and buttoned-up for that — but for an actor, it's an invigorating destination. The annual trek to Park City, Utah, is great for newcomers and veteran performers alike: It provides a place for unknown actors to be discovered and anointed, while also programming the sorts of films that allow an A-list reputation to be reinvented. This year's festival had plenty of both; here, we tip a cap to the 20 famous names and new faces who delivered the best performances of Sundance 2016.

Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation
You’ve already heard plenty about what a splash Parker’s directorial debut made at this year’s Sundance, bringing audiences to their feet, scoring a record $17.5 million distribution deal, and winning a whole bunch of major awards. But possibly the film’s greatest weapon — and a point even many of its detractors will concede – is Parker’s own performance as Nat Turner, the Virginia slave and rebel struggling to reconcile the liberating and powerful words of his beloved Bible with the subjugation and terror he and his fellow slaves face in captivity. It’s a furious performance, but also a troubled one: When Nat bellows Scripture at the other slaves, there’s both anguish and liberation in his voice. He’s being used as a pawn by the slave owners (who exploit religion to keep their slaves in check), but he’s slowly, angrily, painfully trying to find his own path. A safe bet: You’ll be hearing more about this performance later this year.

Rebecca Hall, Christine
When watching Antonio Campos’s grim, empathetic portrayal of suicidal TV anchor Christine Chubbuck, it’s difficult not to recall Nicole Kidman’s career-best performance in Gus Van Sant's 1995 feature To Die For: Both young women would do — and did — anything to achieve success as on-air TV personalities. While Kidman’s villainous performance (based loosely on the real life of journalist Pamela Smart) relies on camp and comedy, Hall creates one of the darkest, most complex female protagonists in film history by never revealing, until her bloody end, the depth and complexity of her mental anguish.

Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, Southside With You
Sawyers, who plays a young Barack Obama in director Richard Tanne’s ode to the president and First Lady’s first date in 1991, told Vulture he’d been working on his POTUS impression for years. But what we see in this sweet portrayal of two Chicago lawyers falling for each other isn’t just another sketch-comedy take on Obama's signature suaveness and staccato cadence, and thank God for that; rather, it’s a humanizing (read: lots of cigarettes) and often funny portrayal of a multicultural optimist from Hawaii clumsily finding his way in the world. For Sumpter’s part, Michelle Robinson comes to life as her own woman, tucked in and driven by a family-first commitment to her Chicago-native parents and a reasonable but not debilitating skepticism about this young man, who ultimately felt sure about at least one thing in his life.

Joe Seo, Spa Night
This understated story about a Koreatown teenager could be deemed a coming-of-age tale if Spa Night protagonist David (played by Seo) didn’t so defiantly refuse to grow up. His parents want him to study and go to college, but David digs in his heels and refuses to commit either way, and he’s similarly equivocal about his nascent sexuality: While he’s begun to obsess over his body and furtively checks out other men, actually making good on those desires spans the slow-burn length of Andrew Ahn’s promising debut, anchored by Seo’s sexy, stuck-in-his-head performance.

Melanie Lynskey, The Intervention
Writer-director Clea Duvall assembled a cast of comic ringers, including Natasha Lyonne and Ben Schwartz, for this story of a group of judgmental friends who gather for a weekend they won’t soon forget. But it’s Melanie Lynskey, as the wobbly ringleader of the bunch, who proves to be the comedic standout: You can never tell which direction her punchlines will come from, and the Sundance jury responded in kind with a surprise trophy for her performance.

Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
This new film by director Kelly Reichardt is split into three sections, each anchored by a familiar indie face: Laura Dern’s first up, then Reichardt muse Michelle Williams, and finally Kristen Stewart as a small-town law teacher in over her head. But Stewart, while graceful in her portion, is not the true lead of it: That role instead falls to Lily Gladstone as a ranch hand of few words who develops a crush on Stewart that neither woman can name, and that Gladstone herself might not even understand. She’s a knockout.

Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, Little Men
Ira Sachs’s latest intimate study of NYC life concerns two families — one markedly better off than the other — whose young sons care not a whit of the issues of gentrification, class, or income that envelop their parents. All that matters to the boys is that in each other they’ve found someone who understands them, and Sachs cast the roles perfectly, with the composed Theo Taplitz steadying the delightfully outgoing Michael Barbieri. To see both boys palling around Park City, arms around each other, was to be reminded that good casting is all about chemistry.

Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea
It was Matt Damon, originally slated to star in Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful drama of all-consuming grief and emotional stasis, who suggested that Casey Affleck was the ideal actor for the lead. He was right. As a Boston handyman whose life of quiet desperation is interrupted by his brother’s death and the torrent of memories it provokes, the younger Affleck brother makes for a uniquely melancholy hero for this uniquely melancholy film. Maybe that haunted, wounded quality is one reason why Casey has never quite turned into a bona fide movie star despite several high-profile lead roles, not to mention an Oscar nomination, over the years. And it’s hard not to feel that here, finally, is the role that will one day define his career. As for Michelle Williams, who plays his ex-wife, she’s actually not in the film that much. But she’s a lightning bolt in every scene she is in — in particular one gasping, emotionally naked moment near the end that might rank as the high point of her career.

Craig Robinson, Morris From America
As the single, widowed father of young Morris, making a go of it in Heidelberg, Germany, Robinson spends much of Chad Hartigan’s endearing coming-of-age film striking a middle ground between bluster and bewilderment: He’s a loving dad trying to show his son the way, while also striving to find out what’s going on in this shy young man’s life. As the film proceeds, Robinson brings in new layers to what might have become a typical befuddled-parent role. We start to see how lonely this man is, how much he still misses his wife, and how much he needs his son. It’s a quietly heartbreaking performance in this modest, winning little movie.

Royalty Hightower, The Fits
This mesmerizing, elliptical film, following an 11-year-old boxer as she joins a girls’ dance drill squad in the Cincinnati projects, is as much about movement as it is about character. At the center of it all is a firecracker of a performance by Royalty Hightower as this young girl starting to discover the mysterious world of womanhood and community. The film is low on dialogue and standard types of incident. What it does have are bodies and faces — glances and gestures, repetitive motions, unwanted bodily actions and reactions. This young actress takes what could have felt like an opaque cinematic experiment and gives it a welcome dose of humanity. 

Dylan Gelula and Brianna Hildebrand, First Girl I Loved
As the two high-school girls — one a yearbook nerd, the other a popular jock — discovering their mutual attraction, Gelula and Hildebrand have a natural chemistry. From their very first interaction, we can sense the pull each has for the other. But this is no ordinary love story. It’s a movie in which people are often afraid, or just unable, to say what they’re feeling — for reasons both good and bad. And as the two girls deal in their own ways with the ramifications of their blossoming romance — what it means for their friends, their families, and for their conceptions of themselves — the young actresses’ performances gain complexity. Director Kerem Sanga toys with time and structure, but it’s a testament to these performers that we never lose sight of the complicated emotional stakes in their constantly shifting relationship. 

Rachel Griffiths, Mammal
Griffiths is one of the most subtle actresses working today, and her performance helps ground Rebecca Daly’s gritty drama about a Dublin woman who learns of her estranged son’s death and takes in a tough, homeless street kid almost as a way to make up for it. That’s a premise that could easily go off the rails. Mammal isn’t the kind of somber, soft movie that dances around the thorny issues at play, but rather one mired in blood, guts, anguish, violence, and sex, and it takes a couple of big, bold narrative turns. But Griffiths, with her terse, tense presence and her physicality, helps sell the melodrama.

Owen Campbell and Charlie Heaton, As You Are
Teenage angst and male sexual awakening are rarely played with this much tenderness. It's the early '90s, and Kurt Cobain is the tortured icon for a pair of lost, small-town skater boys, Campbell's Jack and Heaton's Mark — one quiet, the other one raging — who meet when their single parents start dating. The two become instant best friends and, soon, almost-brothers, a bond that begins with pot and video games and grows into delinquency small and large — playing hooky, stealing Mark's ex-Marine dad's guns — along with a friendship with a beautiful girl (Amandla Stenberg, a.k.a. Rue from The Hunger Games, all grown up) that always hovers on the edge of romance without really crossing, for reasons none of them can quite understand. Recognized with a special prize from Sundance's jury, this film never rushes its young performers as they fumble through the discovery of something so deep and foreign to themselves, and everything they've ever known, that it can only come out in fits of sweetness and violence.

Selena Gomez, The Fundamentals of Caring
As Dot — a teenage runaway who hitches a ride with Trevor (Craig Roberts), an 18-year-old boy confined to a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy, and Ben (Paul Rudd), his depressed home health aide whose job it is to wipe his ass — Gomez is so grounded and real you forget that her massive following is probably the reason this tiny movie got financing. She's merely a guest in this unusual comedy, but from the moment she bluntly asks Trevor what's wrong with him and if it hurts, she infuses the entire movie with a no-bullshit honesty that propels the rest of the action along. Gomez has a gift for allowing the audience to see other people through her eyes, and to Dot, Trevor isn't his disability; this is just a girl who's had to grow up too fast trying to meet in the middle with a boy who's never known self-sufficiency, for one of the most innocent and believable love stories of the fest.

Molly Shannon, Other People
Breathing new life into the Cancer Drama is as tall an order as breathing new into the Big-City Guy Returns to His Lame Hometown Drama, but writer-director Chris Kelly somehow did both in the fest’s opening-night film. He also had the brilliant guts to cast Molly Shannon as the sick mother in his real-life-inspired dramedy, which makes long-overdue use of the actress’s dramatic chops.
Shannon perfectly channels the pain and intermittent absurdity of impending death, and the way it destroys the ones soon to be left behind. Her hyperexpressive comedy face — the one we fell in love with on Saturday Night Live — is allowed here to frown, sob, grimace in pain, and then be totally expressionless. It’s a performance that’s so great, it’s ultimately difficult to watch, because we see ourselves and our own fear of dying in every moment she’s on-screen.