Unless you’re living in the trendiest of the New York’s trendy boroughs and inundated with arthouse culture, it’s hard to catch worthy independent films during their sometimes painfully-limited runs in theaters. It might seem easier to simply rely upon big popcorn movies to keep you entertained — but this list will make it easier to sift through all those independent titles and get to a meatier movie-going experience. Here are 10 great movies from this year that you probably have yet to hear about.
1. Love and Mercy
This biopic of brain-addled former Beach Boy Brian Wilson separates itself from other trite musician biopics with a few key choices. The movie is split into two halves, one showing a young Wilson (played by Paul Dano) at the outset of his mental illness and at the height of his powers, making the acclaimed album Pet Sounds, the other showing an aged version (John Cusack) struggling under the thumb of abusive quack psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Both halves are great for their focus on atmosphere — the ’60s era is far more fun, in part due to how skillfully the filmmakers recreate the electric studio scenes, but Cusack’s half is more deeply-felt — adding up to one incredibly satisfying experience.
Tangerine‘s big gimmick is that it was shot on an iPhone, simply roaming the scummiest streets of West Hollywood. You don’t really need to know that to enjoy this film. Just know that this is a film about characters you never see in films, in a place you never see in films. It concerns a transgender prostitute skulking around the city in search of the pimp boyfriend who cheated on her during a brief stint in jail. From there, it becomes a both a colorful, if gritty, romp, and a heartfelt portrait of people who live on the fringes of society.
This film concerns a variety of characters living in the titular West African city whose lives are affected by the 2012 occupation of Islamic extremists. Timbuktu lovingly chronicles the lives of the multicultural citizens living in such a place before pulling the rug from under them, tragically depicting the way the region’s recent history has contributed to the downfall of the unique little world that is (or was) Timbuktu.
4. Cartel Land
Arguably the year’s best documentary, Cartel Land follows vigilantes on two sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, working to stop the vicious cartels. The Mexican half of the equation is unquestionably the more interesting of the two, as one flawed individual’s organization for change and extra-judicial justice becomes co-opted by both the government and the cartels they set out to fight in the first place. Compounded with thrilling, near-death scenes in the very heart of all this darkness, the film holds the weight of a crime epic like The Wire played out in real life.
5. What We Do in the Shadows
One half of New Zealand comedy folk duo Flight of the Conchords (Jemaine Clement) teams up with another Kiwi buddy (Taika Waititi) to bring us this hilarious mockumentary about the mundane lives of modern-day vampires. There isn’t much to the film’s barely-there story, but the film is an uproarious demystifying of vampire lore focused on a few lovable bloodsucking losers. The concept allows for bit after bit, and virtually all of them land. One has them drawing each other, since they can’t rely on mirrors. Another shows the pitfalls of striking an artery during one’s bloodsucking. The list goes on.
6. Turbo Kid
Turbo Kid is for people who love watching ’80s movies, and it’s a pitch-perfect tribute to the thrilling and stylish teen-centric fantasy and sci-fi films of that silly, yet endearing, decade. Following a teenager who flees from an evil-dictator in the post apocalyptic future of 1997, the film has plenty of carefully-observed style — but more importantly, it has heart, to make the whole affair more than an exercise in hipster irony. It’s a love letter to a specific genre of film, but it’s an original and endlessly entertaining one.
7. It Follows
It Follows is one of the greatest horror films to come out in a long time, a fiercely original tale of teenage terror that owes as much to nightmares as it does to John Carpenter. A group of teenagers, who are actually interesting, well-drawn characters for a change, discover a sexually transmitted curse that follows its victims slowly but relentlessly in various human forms until the person is either killed or passes on the curse. It’s a metaphorically rich premise, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is this: It Follows is scary as hell.
An intimate sci-fi thriller, Ex-Machina creates a compelling landscape of betrayal and conflicted desires using only three characters trapped in a confined space. The most important character is the Ava (Alicia Vikander), a female artificial intelligence who warns new friend Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) that his host and her inventor (Oscar Isaac) is not to be trusted. The story is simple yet endlessly complex in its implications, stylish but pared-down, expressionistic, but also eerily plausible.
9. The Tribe
A description of The Tribe is likely to turn off most viewers right away — the movie is told entirely through sign language, with no subtitles. It sounds like a purposely alienating gimmick, but director Miroslav Slaboshpitsky uses such vivid visual storytelling and strong character work that you needn’t know sign language to understand the film’s goings-on. It’s a brutal film about the realities of bullying at an especially harsh boarding school, but more than that, it’s a strange and fascinating work of art.
Essentially a classic teenage sex romp, Dope twists its straightforward storyline by setting it in the ghetto of Inglewood, wherein death by drive-by is just as much a concern as going to prom. Following a group of ’90s hip-hop nerds accidentally involved in a drug deal gone bad, Dope manages to fit in some clever, layered social commentary about racial politics in America while still grounding its film in the hilariously stilted realities of adolescence.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf