Independent film is a vital part of cinema. That’s an obvious thing to say, but it feels good to remind ourselves of it when worn down by awards pushes, summer slates, and Dumpuary. Given the plethora of sequels, remakes, cinematic universes, spin-offs, legasequels and remakes of spin-offs, independent film is a place where original ideas can flourish without the weight of funding a studio slate for the next year on their shoulders. Independent cinema gives us the stories larger studios rarely touch—meaning the most creative, the most poignant, and most weird fare often won’t be found in the local AMC.
This is why A24 is such a hot commodity, so much so that it can overshadow places like Oscilloscope Laboratories, IFC, Magnet, and the like. Their quality is uncannily potent, and their year, both critical and financial, is nigh-inconceivable. Between their run and the rather lackluster slate of blockbusters 2016 delivered, it’s a perfect time to evangelize for the arthouse. Besides, independent cinema is now the training ground for these blockbusters. Knock out an indie, and one could be in charge of dino parks, a Chris in a cape, or even a Star War. Who knows, we could see Daniels go from Daniel Radcliffe’s utile corpse to Deadpool’s likely inevitable third film.
Fortunately, services like Amazon and Netflix are giving us unprecedented access to hard-to-find fare. Being an independent film fan has never been better. Here are 10 examples from this year—many easily available to you—that prove it.
FIRST GIRL I LOVED
How perfectly First Girl I Loved captures the folly and innocence of adolescent romance cannot be overstated. Particularly for members of the LGBT community, this is a must-see, because you may just see your own experiences reflected up on screen. The story of two teenage girls who fall in love and don’t have the communicative tools or social support to try and make sense of their feelings, this is as heartfelt and true as this kind of story gets. The actors are appropriately teenage-awkward without losing their grip on coherence, and the chemistry between the female leads is palpable as it is cute. However, one of the girls has a male friend who just can’t accept that their friendship isn’t something more.
The film isn’t content to be a mere shallow love story, exploring themes of sexual consent and the struggles of self-acceptance that are not only true to what any teenager faces, but also are an integral part to the queer experience in a society that assumes heterosexuality as the default. This film inspires laughter and tears, so that even as the characters hurt one another—either through retaliation or misguided intentions—it’s easy to empathize and understand that these kids haven’t learned how to effectively communicate yet and are struggling to cope with feelings that are new and strange to them. Equal parts plot-driven character exercise and nostalgia-driven mood poem, First Girl I Loved is one of the most lived-in films about the teenage experience in recent memory, and considering the relative dearth of good lesbian cinema, this is a more than worthy addition to any LGBT film collection. —Leigh Monson
I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER
If there is one thing the recent election process has made painfully clear for millions around the world it is the fact that none of us really know how everyone else sees the world. We like to believe everyone comprehends reality the same way we do, but a quick glance at the condition of our planet today makes it clear that that is rarely, if ever, the case. We are each living life through a unique set of experiences, actions, thoughts, and ideas that are entirely our own, and we all hope to find others who are experiencing existence in a similar way. When we don’t, isolation sets in, and from there paranoia is not far behind.
I Am Not A Serial Killer—adapted from Dan Wells’ 2009 novel of the same name—takes the experiences described above and bestows them upon a disillusioned teenager brought to life by soon-to-be-star Max Records (Where The Wild Things Are). His character cannot shake the feeling he is not like everyone else in his town, and when a string of grisly murders begin to take place he begins to question just what kind of evil lies within himself. The film also features a fantastic turn from Christopher Lloyd, whom I still very much hope will become my legal grandfather at some point in the future. —James Shotwell
“White privilege.” You’ve seen those words before. Hell, I feel like I’ve seen those two words more than ever over the past week. It’s a disease that so many people out there aren’t conscious of how being white immediately makes things easier for you in life, more than any other race. Writer-director Elizabeth Wood understands that and uses it as her platform to stand upon with White Girl. In an incredible turn of events, she uses that platform and turns things up to 11, plunging the viewer into a roller coaster of a story where a girl is put through a ringer of events and comes out unscathed.
Leah (Morgan Saylor) is a happy-go-lucky girl on the cusp of starting her sophomore year at a college in NYC. Her summer internship is kind of lame, and things take an unexpected turn when she starts to party with some unfavorable characters. Her new boyfriend, Blue (Brian ‘Sene’ Marc), has a bunch of coke that he needs to push before his supplier starts getting angry. Things become a bit more complicated when Blue gets arrested because of his color and look and Leah gets left with the package. What follows is an insane shock to the system that starts off as ephemeral and finishes on a sobering note. White Girl is available on VOD and Blu-ray as of December 2. —Sam Cohen
Demon is a tremendous film about a possession, but it’s more tragedy that horror. It doesn’t use jump scares and contortionist stunt doubles; it eats away at viewers with the slow unraveling of a human being. This Polish film is a take on the Jewish legend of the dybbuk, a “malicious possessing spirit” of a dead person. It follows a man on the eve and day of his wedding as he moves into a family home he’s renovating. Secrets are uncovered with the earth he digs up, and we only realize the consequences as he does. These familiar beats—the ominous discovery, ghostly apparitions, a decaying mental state—are presented in an unfamiliar way. The nature and maliciousness of the presence is long in question, and answers are hard to come by. Unexpected cuts and lingering takes heighten the unease. The camera slowly spins and travels the house, expressing both the hectic, dizzying morass of the wedding party and the lonely desolation of the surrounding town and streets.
Demon is patient. It teaches us that not all mysteries can be easily solved, and those who cause suffering and reap the consequences are not always the same. Often our entertainment likes to complete the circle and wrap things up in a tidy, moralistic box. Deeply rooted in Polish Jewish history as it is, Demon defies this. There is real life tragedy tied to this film, though, and it hems devastatingly close to the fiction. The young director, Marcin Wrona, committed suicide between completion and release of the film. —Tyler Hanan
There is a dizzying mystery at the center of The Fits, and with each passing scene you can feel the tension within your skeletal frame intensify. Toni is an 11-year-old tomboy who becomes infatuated with an all-girl dance troupe that practices in the same building where she learns boxing. Her interest soon turns to participation, but making it in the world of teen girls soon proves far more difficult than Toni imagined, and to make matters worse, there is a strange disease striking various young women in the troupe. Toni wonders if she might be next, and after a while you begin to wonder the same.
At its most simplistic, The Fits is a film about one young woman coming of age. To be more descriptive, it’s about learning to deal with the inherent tragedy of maturity. To grow up is to lose a part of what made you who you have been up to this point in your life, and letting go of that self is something that happens slowly at first, then suddenly all at once. Filmmaker Anna Rose Holmer has found a way to convey the pains of growing up and the feeling of isolation that can sometimes come with it in a way never before presented on the silver screen, and in doing so gave us a potential new star in actress Royalty Hightower. —James Shotwell
Buried under the avalanche of summer blockbusters and superhero fights was the release of High-Rise, Ben Wheatley’s (A Field In England, Kill List) adaptation of the J.G. Ballard novel. The movie tells the story of Laing (Tom Hiddleston) as he moves into the titular self-sufficient building, with levels separated by class. As the movie progresses and vital functions of the building begin to fail, it’s a look at just how far humans are capable of going and adapting in order to survive. The answer, according to High-Rise, is pretty dang far.
The thing that stands out most about the movie are the performances. Hiddleston proves that he can carry a movie by himself, even while he’s surrounded by other wonderful actors. Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans, and Sienna Miller all give equally fantastic performances. The movie is a bit on-the-nose with its message and rushes through a few character-building moments, but the actors more than make up for it. The movie is also beautifully shot, with loving shots of the building along with highly kinetic and affecting energy as society begins to break down in the tour. The film also captures the ‘70s vibe of the setting perfectly.
It’s not a film that made much noise this year, but High-Rise is another testament to Wheatley’s ability to create a moving, well-shot film. If you dig Wheatley’s other work, Hiddleston, the ‘70s, or a movie that will make you think, you need to give High-Rise a watch. —Gabriel Aikins
SWISS ARMY MAN
If you had told us at the beginning of the year that one of our favorite films would feature a farting corpse played by the actor formerly known as Harry Potter, we wouldn’t have believed you. In fact, we probably would have laughed and then politely asked you to leave. For that hypothetical situation, we must apologize, because despite having a premise that sounds like a joke, Swiss Army Man is really that good. This is that rare film that functions on multiple levels that seemingly clash and contradict one another, yet it is a surprisingly coherent and thought-provoking film if you happen to be on its wavelength. It is a heartfelt exploration of love and friendship in isolation, but it’s also an absurdist comedy that uses farts and other bodily functions as punchlines. It’s a character study that questions the sanity of its protagonist as he carts around a corpse in his misadventures, yet also heavily implies that the corpse truly is coming to life and learning just what it means to be a person.
Paul Dano gives a heartbreaking performance as a man lost in the wilderness with a multi-purpose dead guy as his only friend, while Daniel Radcliffe gives an equally amazing turn in a role that is equal parts profound and ludicrous. Swiss Army Man is a maelstrom of themes pertaining to identity, loss, human connection, and survival in the modern world that somehow works, not in spite of its talking, farting corpse, but because of it. This is a film that too many skipped when it hit theaters this summer, so please, give this weird little movie the chance it deserves. —Leigh Monson
THE ALCHEMIST COOKBOOK
There’s been one tough little indie that has stuck with me since I saw it in May at the 2016 incarnation of the Independent Film Festival Boston, and that film is Joel Potrykus’s The Alchemist Cookbook. Part crazed trip down the path to Hell and part searing satire on capitalism, this Ty Hickson-starrer is one of the funniest and smartest films you’ll watch all year. Sean (Hickson) is hiding out in the woods, practicing alchemy to his heart’s content with his cat, Kaspar. Unfortunately, his worst nightmares become a reality when he unleashes a demon from Hell. Sean’s sanity slowly breaks down as the demon starts messing around with him, even going to the lengths of possessing Sean’s best friend.
Potrykus is the kind of guy who couldn’t give a care less about setting up a story with a beginning, middle, and end. The Alchemist Cookbook picks up right in the middle of Sean’s life and takes upon an episodic structure that seems like an inside joke to Potrykus, because he really doesn’t care about conventional narrative structuring. Imagine Sam Raimi meets Jim Jarmusch with a rap/metal soundtrack. The Alchemist Cookbook is an incredibly strong follow-up to Potrykus’s hilarious Buzzard and can be rented via Oscilloscope Laboratories now. —Sam Cohen
Tower tells the story of our nation’s first mass school shooting, which happened at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 and claimed the lives of 16 individuals. It’s a harrowing and often thrilling story told from numerous perspectives that offers a glimpse at how justice was carried out in a time before cell phones and 24/7 media coverage. The day was not saved by a single person or individual, but a community of concerned citizens coming together with law enforcement in defense of the innocent.
In truth, very little footage from the University of Texas at Austin on that day exists. The team behind Tower make up for this through the use of rotoscope technology, meaning animations laid over real actors who recreated the events of the day (think Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly). These actors also narrate the story using words taken directly from transcripts or interviews with the real people conducted by filmmaker Keith Maitland. It’s a decidedly unique approach to storytelling that we see all too often, and it goes a long way toward bringing the drama of that day to life once more. There have been a lot of great documentaries released this year, but Tower is in a league all its own. —James Shotwell
Writer-director Jeff Nichols can seemingly do no wrong. With a filmography just five features deep since his debut in 2007, Nichols’ films are mostly grounded in reality with elements of human connection, love, loss, fear, and practically every other emotion known to man used to great effect in stories that are both relatable and wildly affecting. That’s not to say, though, that Nichols doesn’t occasionally dabble in themes that might need the aid of computer-generated graphics to bring to fruition (Take Shelter as a first example).
Nichols’ first of two features in 2016, Midnight Special (succeeded by the more recently released Loving), is, at its core, a story of familial love and the lengths we go to as people to protect our loved ones. There just so happens to be a cult, police chases, and sci-fi elements at play that involve a child with special powers. Midnight Special is a love letter to the family-friendly sci-fi favorites of the ’80s best delivered by none other than Steven Spielberg. And while this beautiful gem of a film didn’t quite catch on in its release year, I have faith that it’ll find its audience in due time. Between its epic, heartwarming story and fantastic cast (Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, Sam Shepard, Bill Camp, and newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), Midnight Special is truly a film that would appeal to a massive audience, if only it’s given the chance. Please see this movie. —Brian Leak