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The 13 Most Criminally Overlooked Indies and Foreign Films of 2015

The 13 Most Criminally Overlooked Indies and Foreign Films of 2015

1. “Breathe” (dir. Mélanie Laurent) 

Actress-turned-director Mélanie Laurent’s second feature is “Mean Girls” for the arthouse crowd. Based on Anne-Sophie Brasme’s novel of the same name, Laurent’s film focuses on a pair of mismatched French schoolgirls who become fast friends in the kind of consuming and obsessive way that should look familiar to plenty of viewers. As her relationship with the wild Sarah (Lou de Laage) starts to erode, Charlie (Josephine Japy) begins to crumble in spectacularly unsettling ways. Laurent nails the nature of female friendships, from the passion and excitement of newfound kinship and identity to the deep sadness when things go awry. Laurent’s psychological touches push the film into some very unexpected territory. What begins as a fast friendship and intimate sisterhood slowly turns into a psychological battle for superiority, and Laurent excels at bringing the unnerving themes of jealousy and betrayal to life through a sensitive visual and audio palette. Zack Sharf

READ MORE: The 10 Best Undistributed Movies of 2015 According to Indiewire’s Film Critic

2. “About Elly” (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

The best mysteries aren’t exciting for their crime-solving prowess or plot twists. Instead, a great mystery invests in its characters; the excitement emerges from the unknowability of human nature. Though “About Elly” is the story of a missing person, the questions surrounding the disappearance, however baffling, are secondary. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi — whose masterful Academy Award-winning “A Separation” also inhabited the psychological experience of his country’s society — is interested in rippling impact of the event. The strong ensemble cast delivers all-around riveting performances as their interpersonal bonds begin to fray and eventually dismantle. Elly’s disappearance becomes a fractured mirror of Iranian culture, exposing an inherent distrust of women and other ugly truths. Emily Buder

3. “The Keeping Room” (dir. Daniel Barber)

Set in the rural South of 1865, “The Keeping Room” unfolds in the final moments of the Civil War, as northern troops progress towards victory. But those events take place well beyond the awareness of the three women at its center: Augusta (Brit Marling), her teenage sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave Mad (Muna Otaru). As all the men in their lives vanished long ago on the battlefield, the women exist in a static world, waiting for a salvation that they’ve started to realize will never come. Tensely directed by Daniel Barber (“Harry Brown”), “The Keeping Room” takes place almost entirely in the confines of a barren South Carolina farm, but it’s dense with physical activity and grander implications about gender, race and American progress. The action has the paranoid intensity of a grisly Peckinpah western, but Barber develops it through a progressive historical lens that foregrounds its originality. Zack Sharf

4. “The Salt of the Earth” (dir. Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado)

Sebastião Salgado has dedicated much of his life to the artful documentation of human suffering in an effort to, in his own words, “bear witness to the human condition.” “The Salt of the Earth” bears witness to the fruit of Salgado’s labor: stunning black-and-white images that traverse many shades of humanity, from an infernal gold mine in Brazil to the harrowing Sahel drought in which one million refugees starved to death. Salgado’s photography evokes a haunting sense of guilt: within the stunning and awe-inspiring images, the subjects, many of whom are in the throes of death and pain, plea for help with the last shred of dignity available to them. Emily Buder

5. “The Boy” (dir. Craig Macneill)

What makes a killer: nature or nurture? Both, according to this deeply disturbing portrait of a psychopathic child left to his own devices in Middle of Nowhere, America. Nine-year-old Ted wanders the decrepit grounds of his single father’s rural motel, slowly testing the boundaries of his increasingly apparent lack of empathy. Though the film is a slow burn, the mounting tension is almost unbearable. It’s not a question of if, but rather when the boy will snap — and when it happens, it’s more horrifying than you could have imagined. Emily Buder

6. “Wild Tales” (dir. Damián Szifron)

Damián Szifron’s scorching satire arrived in the U.S. this year, enacting a savage assault on contemporary Argentine society that skewers class and gender biases through a series of morbid segments alive with dark humor. Developed around six distinct stories of surrealist showdowns and revenge plots, the movie has shades of Pedro Almodovar’s stylish blend of comedy and melodrama, yet unfolds more like a Buñuel comedy on speed, veering from one gasp-inducing instance to another. Each chapter of “Wild Tales” invokes some aspect of revenge, although the only consistent element is a terrific sense of production values. While its fair number of explosions, bloody fights and stunt work might suggest otherwise, the movie has a lot on its mind, subversively exposing the backwards social constructs and bureaucratic hang-ups of contemporary Argentina. Thanks to fluid editing and camerawork, the movie’s polished quality holds its polemics together. Zack Sharf

7. “6 Years” (dir. Hannah Fidell)

In the vein of “Blue Valentine,” Hannah Fidell’s sensitive two-hander follows college-aged Dan (Ben Rosenfield) and Melanie (Taissa Farmiga) as they discover fissures in their six-year relationship, resulting in an exhausting and ultimately toxic process of denial. Rosenfield and Farmiga’s fully improvised performances are heartbreaking; in every scene, the dissolution of the relationship becomes more and more clear, but the locus of responsibility is increasingly complex. Who’s to blame when neither party is strong enough to extricate him or herself from the torrents of young love? Emily Buder

8. “Alleluia” (Fabrice Du Welz)

Inspired by the “Lonely Hearts Killers” of the 1970s, the fourth feature from Belgian writer-director Fabrice Du Welz plays like a seductively visceral nightmare. The movie follows an isolated woman, Gloria (Lola Dueñas), whose severe desire for a professional hustler (Laurent Lucas) leads her to help in his vicious acts of murder. The story may sound like an urban legend you’ve seen before, but Du Welz’s execution of the material is anything but routine. Exploring the mindset of his protagonist by visualizing her unraveling psyche in his aesthetics, Du Welz replaces cheap thrills with a more experimental and calculated sense of escalating internal torture. As a result, “Alleluia” seems more at home in the horror atmosphere of the 1970s than it does in today’s genre marketplace. It’s bona fide shocker indeed. Zack Sharf

9. “What What We Do in the Shadows” (dir. Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi)

This is the best comedy of the year, bar none. The absurd premise, “Real World” set in a vampire mansion full of roommates aged 180 to 8,000 years old, is perfectly matched to a deadpan mockumentary tone that finds the blood-sucking clan squabbling over dishes, werewolves and ladies. Clement and Waititi’s ridiculous gags and callbacks coalesce into a clever, laugh-out-loud hilarious adventure. Emily Buder

10. “Felt” (dir. Jason Banker)

“Felt,” Jason Banker’s visceral horror-thriller, finds artist Amy Everson starring in her own true story as a woman coping with a past sexual trauma by creating a grotesquely costumed alter ego that re-appropriates the male form. While embracing this side of her empowers Amy to be fearless and to protect herself, it soon takes on a life of its own and lashes out against her after she befriends a seemingly good guy. Exploring sexuality and combating rape culture, the movie results in a powerful feminist statement on the sanctity of female vulnerability and the ways in which it is preyed upon and corrupted by male aggression and superiority. Zack Sharf

11. “People Places Things” (dir. James C. Strouse)

Anchored by a stellar cast and a hilarious script, director Jim C. Strouse balances dramatic elements with quick-witted comedy in the winning “People Places Things.” The heart of the film is the performance by Jemaine Clement (“Flight of The Conchords”) as Will Henry, a depressed graphic novelist and single father trying to put his life back together after catching his wife cheating on him on his twin daughters’ birthday. Shot in intimate locations throughout New York, the film maintains a grounded, personal feel. It’s held together by beautiful artwork that serves as both a coping mechanism for Will and insight into his unspoken feelings, as he feels a wall is being built between him and his family. Ceaselessly entertaining, witty and sentimental, “People, Places, Things” speaks to many sensibilities at once. Zack Sharf

12. “Runoff” (dir. Kimberly Levin)

Perhaps the most under-seen film on this list, Kimberly Levin’s engrossing drama foregrounds the most important moral dilemma of our time. Betty, a young mother who owns and operates a farmstead, is confronted with a Faustian bargain that will see her abandon her environmental ethics in order to save her livelihood. The lead-up to the decision is realized in poignant, relatable strokes that bring the viewer into the quandary facing us all in one way or another: Do we live our lives for ourselves, or for our grandchildren and the future of the earth? As such, this first-time director’s effort deserves to be seen. Emily Buder

13. “Five Star” (dir. Keith Miller)

Keith Miller’s “Five Star” is set amid the perils of gang life in the Brooklyn housing projects, following a lifelong member of the Bloods as he takes the son of his slain mentor under his wings and verses him in the codes of the street. A setting and storyline often sensationalized on the big screen, Miller has earned widespread acclaim for bringing an unflinching realism to the proceedings, going so far as to use non-actors who are actual former gang members riffing on their own lives. The result is a film that creates an almost documentary feel to its narrative structure, blurring the line between fiction and reality for a powerful gang drama that taps into larger truths about its very real world. Zack Sharf

READ MORE: The Best 15 Movies of 2015 According to Indiewire’s Film Critic

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