Yes, we know: It’s a little premature to assemble a list of the best movies of the year when there’s so much left of it. We have yet to see a lot of exciting new work from major auteurs like Christopher Nolan (“Dunkirk”), Alexander Payne (“Downsizing”), and Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”), not to mention heavy-hitting studio-produced spectacles like “Blade Runner 2049” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” But those last two wouldn’t even qualify for this list of the best independent films of the year, anyway, and they’ll have plenty of time to hog the spotlight.
Fortunately, we’ve found plenty of movies from around the world to celebrate, and while they haven’t all been box office sensations, they provide overwhelming evidence that the art form is thriving well into the second decade of the new millennium, and shows no signs of slowing down.
It’s worth acknowledging that, by excluding studio productions, we’re setting aside a lot of quality movies in an exceptional year for Hollywood. “Logan,” “Wonder Woman,” “Baby Driver” and “War of the Planet of the Apes” are all promising evidence that creativity can still thrive within the confines of the commercial system. But again, you’ve probably heard about those movies already, and know where to find them.
For now, we’d like to celebrate Independence Day with these 17 independent titles that have been released in some fashion over the past seven months. Some have performed well across the country and may continue to stay in the conversation through awards season; others have been woefully under-appreciated. Needless to say, we suggest you see them all.
17. “Staying Vertical”
It’s never entirely clear when “Staying Vertical,” French director Alain Guiraudie’s followup to “Stranger By the Lake,” shifts into allegory. It might be the moment when filmmaker Leo (Damien Bonnard) finds himself homeless, wandering city streets while carrying his infant child, and gets stripped naked by a pack of homeless people. Or it could happen earlier, when Leo wanders through a swamp, hiding from his agent, who demands an overdue script. Or it could be the prolonged shot of gay sex set to classic rock, in which Leo literally fucks a guy to death. But the craziest thing about “Staying Vertical” is that these scenes adhere to a certain internal logic.
The film never quite flies off the rails so much as it careens from side to side on the same beguiling path, with the most remarkable outcome being that the enigmatic pieces fit together. Above all else, the movie follows a dreamlike path as it portrays the travails of a man grappling to find stability in life; lost in his confusion, we become partners in this quest, as its hypnotic story becomes universal. —Eric Kohn
16. “Donald Cried”
Even if you can go home again, it isn’t always a good idea. Kris Avedisian wrote, directed and played the title character in his feature debut, a melancholy spin on the buddy comedy in which the buddies are estranged and the comedy is pitch black. Donald himself is the kind of dude you feel bad for not wanting to be around: a nice-enough guy who never fully grew up, requires energy to hang out with and would probably take a bullet for you. On the page and on the screen, Avedisian nails the characterization. This is the kind of thoughtful, low-key drama the indie world needs more of, as well as a sign of great things to come from Avedisian. —Michael Nordine
15. “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
What the fuck is wrong with people? That question, which feels more pressing by the day, is at the ruefully dark heart of Macon Blair’s “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.” a hysterical and hyper-violent morality play for our fucked-up times. Starring the brilliant Melanie Lynskey as a fed-up nursing assistant and a wonderfully deranged Elijah Wood as the rat-tailed weirdo who inspires her to fight back against the status quo, Blair’s first feature makes for one hell of a directorial debut.
Equal parts “Blue Ruin” and “Raising Arizona,” the movie takes the visually terse mode of vigilantism that Blair has perfected with long-time collaborator Jeremy Saulnier and lowers the stakes just enough so that the same notes can be played for occasional belly laughs. Every good film of 2017 is destined to be thought of as a reflection of Trump’s America, or a lens through which to see it, but “I don’t feel at home in this world.” is the only one so far that nails the frustration of actually living in it. —David Ehrlich
Anne Marie Fox
14. “The Zookeeper’s Wife”
Niki Caro’s fact-based historical drama is a heartbreaker of the highest order, anchored by an understated performance by Jessica Chastain and a series of wrenching dramatic twists that will wring tears out of even the hardest of hearts. Based on Diane Ackerman’s novel of the same name, Chastain stars in the film as real-life WWII heroine Antonina Zabinski, who risked everything to hide hundreds of Jewish citizens in her family’s zoo during the war. Caro’s film doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the tough stuff, including a first act air raid that devastates the animal residents of the Zabinskis’ zoo and a chilling turn from Daniel Bruhl that pushes Antonina to terrifying ends, but the payoff is rich and the film is a compelling entry into Holocaust cinema. —Kate Erbland
13. “Before I Fall”
Based on author Lauren Oliver’s novel of the same, “Before I Fall” could be described as “‘Groundhog Day’ for teenagers,” a repeating-day drama that centers on popular high school senior Samantha Kingston (breakout star Zoey Deutch, who adds both spike and charm to the role), who finds herself trapped in a terrifying time loop that sees her dying early in the morning on February 13, only to wake back up again on February 12.
Forced to relive the last day of her life over and over again, Sam cycles through all the stages of grief, before realizing what she needs to do in order to break the spell (spoiler alert: it’s not easy). It’s a big concept, but director Ry Russo-Young brings her whipsmart indie sensibility to the drama, and the result is a fantasy film grounded in reality. Deutch turns in yet another stellar performance, adding layer upon layer to Sam as the days tick by. “Before I Fall” may sound like it’s just for the younger set, but there are real truths here – and real filmmaking ability. —KE
12. “The Ornithologist”
Locarno Film Festival
Mind-blowing in the best possible way, “The Ornithologist” may not work for everyone, but those willing to embrace its puzzling ingredients will find a rewarding solution: further confirmation of a genuine film artist. The fifth narrative feature of Portugal’s João Pedro Rodrigues continues the soul-searching outlook and inventive storytelling of “The Last Time I Saw Macao” and “To Die Like a Man,” but reaches for even more ambitious territory with equally confounding and enlightening results.
A favorite in certain diehard cinephile sects, Rodrigues deserves to find some new fans with this remarkable oddity. The movie depicts the Homeric voyage of a modern-day ornithologist named Fernando (Paul Hamy) who inexplicably transforms into a revered Catholic saint after getting lost in the woods. The details of his journey are difficult to describe and even stranger to experience, but this is a beautiful, haunting movie that will keep viewers talking as they search for meaning in its enigmatic depths. —EK
11. “I Am Michael”
There are two ways of seeing “I Am Michael,” the provocative first feature from director Justin Kelly: It’s either a tragic portrait of former gay rights activist Michael Glatze, who renounced his homosexuality in 2007 and eventually denounced it as a sin, or it’s a stirring look at a conflicted man coping with his crisis of faith. That tantalizing open-ended perspective is key to the movie’s subtle effect. Anchored by a remarkably convincing performance by James Franco in the lead role, “I Am Michael” manages to explore Glatze’s story without condemning him, even as it foregrounds the troubling nature of his path.
It’s a fascinating example of ambiguous storytelling that somehow takes two sides at once. (This may explain why it took so long for the 2015 film to find distribution.) “I Am Michael” leaves us with the disturbing suggestion that no matter Glatze’s true feelings, he’s trapped by the courage of his convictions. —EK
Peripatetic filmmaker Laura Poitras never imagined that “Risk,” her follow-up to the demanding Oscar-winning Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour,” would present another set of daunting challenges. This time over six years she got up close and personal with controversial WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who assumes disguises, burns papers, and winds up hiding at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he’s interviewed, hilariously, by Lady Gaga. If Poitras was glamorizing him, it doesn’t last long.
After the debut of 25 minutes at the New York Film Festival in 2015, Poitras and her editors structured the movie around a long central interview in which Assange reveals his shifting philosophy, which played at Cannes in Directors Fortnight 2016. It didn’t take long for that version to go back to the editing room as well as Poitras kept catching up to constantly evolving news, including Assange’s role in the election of Donald Trump, dumping hacked documents from the Democratic National Committee, likely acting at behest of Russia. It was well worth the wait and should be a top documentary contender at the Oscars. —Anne Thompson
9. “The Beguiled”
Ruthlessly shorn from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name (and not remade from the Don Siegel adaptation that first brought its story to the screen), “The Beguiled” is a lurid, sweltering, and sensationally fun potboiler that doesn’t find Sofia Coppola leaving her comfort zone so much as redecorating it with a fresh layer of soft-core scuzz. Set at an all-female Virginia seminary circa 1864, the story begins with the youngest of the students coming across a wounded Union soldier (Colin Farrell). Taking him back to the house for safekeeping and leaving him to the mercy of the seminary’s severe headmistress (Nicole Kidman), the girl turns her home into a hothouse of repressed desire.
Anne Hathaway is some kind of monster in Nacho Vigalondo’s kinda-kaiju movie, which begins as a rom-com before revealing its darker shades. From Seoul to a nameless American suburb, the writer/director’s follow-up to “Extraterrestrial” offers a new take on the getting-your-shit-together drama, one in which making bad decisions on a drunken night is tantamount to destroying several city blocks and killing a few hundred people (happens to the best of us). It takes a high body count to reach the other side, but Hathaway, the monster and us are all better off by the time we do. —MN
7. “A Quiet Passion”
On the one hand, it’s hard to believe that no one had ever made a movie about Emily Dickinson before. On the other hand, you try making an exciting biopic about a reclusive virgin who spent most of her life holed up in her family’s Amherst home (where she suffered from agonizing bouts of Bright’s disease and refused to greet anyone who came calling for her). For the great Terence Davies, however, the things that made Emily Dickinson so off-putting to other filmmakers are the things that made her utterly irresistible.
Where other people may have seen a story without any conflict, the “Distant Voices, Still Lives” filmmaker recognized Dickinson’s experience for all of its pleasure and all of its pain, for all of its outsized smallness, for all of its solitude and sensitivities. He recognized himself in her, and in doing so also recognized that her life would make the stuff of great cinema, because his life always had. As a result, “A Quiet Passion” might just be the most autobiographical film that Davies has ever made. And yet, despite its confessional nature, Cynthia Nixon’s bracing, humane, profoundly unguarded lead performance makes the movie feel like it’s coming to life before your eyes, telling Dickinson’s story as though it could never belong to anyone else but her. —DE
6. “Personal Shopper”
You really shouldn’t need to know anything about “Personal Shopper” beyond the fact that Kristen Stewart sends text messages to what may or may not be a ghost. If you do, then rest assured that Olivier Assayas’ second collaboration with K-Stew delights in both haute couture and ghost-hunting, at times leaning into its own silliness rather than running scared from it. “Personal Shopper” also asks a question we must all face eventually, extra space before the question mark and all: “R u alive or dead ?” –MN
First-time documentarian Ceyda Torun knows cinematic talent when she sees it, which is why her debut feature, “Kedi,” is all about cats, a bevy of breakout stars who practically leap from the big screen and right into the audience’s lap. The filmmaker’s Oscilloscope-distributed offering focuses on the unique feline population of her hometown of Istanbul, an ancient but enduring city that boasts scores of friendly street cats.
Torun’s feature is concerned with both the charismatic cats – a pack of kittens who sneak around an apartment building, a restaurant regular who fancies expensive meats, a sneaky dude who loves randomly appearing in apartments – and the regular old humans who love them. “Kedi” brings warm-hearted life to the unique bond the cats have with various people who make it their business to keep them happy, resulting in a feel-good watch that’s as satisfying for animal lovers as it is the casual feline fan. —KE
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