The big Hollywood studios are increasingly focusing on just a few areas of filmmaking: 1) superhero “universes” and other tentpoles based on anything from toys to the Bible, 2) comedies based around the kind of humor enjoyed by 12-year-old boys, and 3) the diminished but still standard staple of star-driven action or drama vehicles. That leaves a lot of ground that the studios are not covering, which is where the independent film scene comes in.
The indie scene is still where you can unique, provocative, disturbing and sophisticated material (both homemade and imported) that might not play well on multiplex screens for tired shoppers looking for a laugh. But for cinephiles who want more than capes or toilet humor, independent films are where it’s at. We’ve compiled a list below of 25 independent movies that we saw in 2014 that were all very good and often outstanding, proving that film can mean so much more than just merchandising and box office.
Two quick disclaimers: first, there are probably a number of titles missing from this list that we have simply not seen yet, and second, some of these movies are distributed through the “indie” arms of major studios, like the always tasteful Sony Pictures Classics. But in terms of budget, content and philosophy, these are still “indie” films in the truest sense. Have a look:
25. Force Majeure (directed by Ruben Ostlund)
What happens when everything you believed about a person is turned upside-down in an instant? A Swedish family on vacation at a ski resort must ponder this very question when one of them behaves unexpectedly — and shockingly — during an emergency. Understated yet caustic, Force Majeure doesn’t quite stick the landing but still provides an incisive look at family dynamics in the face of a crisis.
24. Life Itself (directed by Steve James)
A warm, poignant look at the life and career of Roger Ebert, who became not just arguably the best known film critic in the world but a trenchant and sharp cultural commentator, as well as a dedicated humanist to the end. The movie is a joy for film fans certainly, but also for anyone interested in a life well lived, flaws and all.
23. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (directed by Ana Lily Amirpour)
The idea of an Iranian vampire noir directed by a woman sounds so unrealistic on the surface that you have to say it again to convince yourself it exists. But one look at the film and you’ll need no convincing that Amirpour is a genuine talent, with an eye not just for horror but for moments of real emotional weight. The film feels like a breakthrough in more ways than one.
22. Citizenfour (directed by Laura Poitras)
Constructed like a thriller, Citizenfour tracks the evolution of the U.S. and the world into a surveillance state through the eyes of Edward Snowden, who history will probably view as a patriot if anyone survives to write that history. A movie so timely that its themes are not just still relevant, but continuing to unfold before our eyes.
21. Cold in July (directed by Jim Mickle)
Low-budget horror director Jim Mickle (We Are What We Are) moves into noir territory with this adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s crime thriller. The story is atmospheric, seedy and tense, with constant twists, a fresh feel and terrific work from cast members Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard and especially Don Johnson.
20. Only Lovers Left Alive (directed by Jim Jarmusch)
It was so nice, after years of Twilight and Twilight-like dreck, to finally see a film about vampires that captured the essential alienness of their existence. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are perfect as the vampire couple whose centuries of existence may be coming to a close in a modern world where even uncontaminated blood is hard to find. A dark romance with its own languid pace and mood, Only Lovers Left Alive is Jarmusch’s best work in years.
19. Jodorowsky’s Dune (directed by Frank Pavich)
This documentary chronicling the legacy of eccentric cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unproduced adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi novel Dune — an adaptation that could have been either a consciousness-raising cinematic masterwork or a disaster of epic proportions — is a fantastic and inspiring exploration of art, creativity, filmmaking and the film business. Best of all is Jodorowsky himself, still full of piss and vinegar at the age of 85 and quite willing to fail spectacularly rather than do nothing at all.
18. The Guest (directed by Adam Wingard)
The director and his regular screenwriter Simon Barrett, who teamed on the fun but overrated You’re Next, hit a home run with this homage to sci-fi action films of the 1980s. Dan Stevens is terrific as David, the soldier who comes to visit the family of his dead buddy and is invited to stay — until his true nature comes to the surface. Barrett’s script is smart and tense, with great characters, and Wingard makes the low-budget esthetic work in his favor. They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
17. A Field in England (directed by Benjamin Wheatley)
One of the U.K.’s most talented and provocative filmmakers makes another sharp turn with his fourth film, a black-and-white waking nightmare set in a sinister field during the English Civil War. Part historical drama, part British pastoral horror, part experimental filmmaking, A Field in England is uncategorizable and also unforgettable, with several sequences that haunt you for days afterwards. Can’t wait to see what Wheatley has done with his upcoming adaptation of High Rise.
16. Under the Skin (directed by Jonathan Glazer)
A loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s strange novel about an alien seductress who preys on the unwary men she picks up, the movie dispenses with much of the book’s back story and focuses mainly on seeing our world through the eyes of its emotionless main character (Scarlett Johansson). The result is a disturbing, hallucinatory exercise in tone that remains compelling even as it tries one’s patience. Johansson’s usual flat delivery is perfect here.
15. The Raid: Berandal (directed by Gareth Evans)
Evans delivered a stunning slice of action cinema with 2011’s original The Raid, and upped the stakes with this epic sequel. It burns through its 150-minute running time with relentless energy, and this time Evans delivers a grander, more operatic story to go with the truly jaw-dropping violence and fighting. If you think you’ve seen everything in action, you have yet to see this.
14. Frank (directed by Lenny Abrahamson)
Quirky, unusual and thoughtful, Frank features a brilliant performance from Michael Fassbender in the title role — a songwriter and musician who spends all his time with his head encased in a large papier-mâché mask. Frank explores the thin line between genius and insanity with warmth, humor and sensitivity, with rich performances not just from Fassbender but the whole cast.
13. Snowpiercer (directed by Bong Joon-ho)
Director Bong’s sci-fi epic is both wickedly funny and genuinely thought-provoking, even as it hurtles you in front of an oncoming locomotive of sheer insanity that never lets up for two hours. Don’t look for real logic here: Snowpiercer is an allegory through and through, carried along by some of the best and weirdest genre visuals of the year and a game cast led by Chris Evans.
12. Obvious Child (directed by Gillian Robespierre)
Jenny Slate delivers a star-making turn in Robespierre’s gentle, witty and honest romantic comedy, which tackles several complex subjects — maturity, relationships and, most significantly, abortion — with a light, sensitive and candid touch. The film’s treatment of stand-up comic Donna Stern’s decision regarding her unwanted pregnancy feels truthful, as does Slate’s no-holds-barred performance.
11. Borgman (directed by Alex van Warmerdam)
A vagrant (the creepy Jan Bijvoet) literally rises out of the earth and intrudes into the lives of an upper-class Dutch family. Part horror film, part scathing satire, part surreal tone pone, Borgman is unsettling, disturbing and hilarious — often all at the same time.
10. Ida (directed by Pawel Pawlikowski)
Perhaps no other film has packed so much emotional and historical power into 80 minutes as Pawlikowski’s ethereal tale of a young woman in post-World War II Poland who learns she is Jewish and sets out to find the final resting place of her parents. Agata Trzebuchowska is mesmerizing in the title role of this haunting, beautifully shot tone poem.
9. Leviathan (directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Putin’s modern-day Russia goes on trial in this profound, powerful indictment of that vicious leader and the way he’s transformed his nation for the worse. Beautiful to look at but as bleak as any work of Russian literature, Leviathan focuses on the inhabitants of a small coastal town and the ways in which the powerful destroy the not-powerful — with everyone in danger of losing their souls. Long but never boring.
8. Locke (directed by Steven Knight)
Locke is fixed on one man — a Scottish husband, father and construction engineer — sitting in his car and talking on his phone for an hour and a half. But that man is played by Tom Hardy, whose performance is so measured, so full of nuance and depth, that you never once get impatient or want to leave the vehicle as Locke’s carefully cultivated life unravels in front of him. Locke is a formal experiment that succeeds in a big way thanks to Hardy’s mesmerizing work.
7. Blue Ruin (directed by Jeremy Saulnier)
Cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier used a Kickstarter campaign to fund his first attempt at writing and directing his own feature — and man, was that money well spent. Blue Ruin is a dark, relentlessly tense crime drama featuring an outstanding performance by Macon Blair as an emotionally damaged young man turned avenging assassin to protect his family. The movie is lean and suspenseful from start to finish, and we can’t wait to see more from Saulnier.
6. A Most Wanted Man (directed by Anton Corbijn)
A heartbreaking film, not just because it features one of the last — and best — performances by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but because this adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel remains timely and its subject infuriating, especially in light of current revelations about the War on Terror and the U.S.’s disgraceful use of torture. A Most Wanted Man is light on action but heavy on dread, sadness and slow-burning character dynamics, with the tremendous Hoffman aided by fine performances from Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright and others.
5. Calvary (directed by John Michael McDonagh)
Brendan Gleeson gives perhaps the performance of his already sterling career as a priest in a small Irish town whose faith and basic human decency are tested by mysterious threats as well as the often darkly funny problems of the members of his parish. Calvary is a compelling look at spirituality, the Church, provincialism and morality that leads to a devastating finale, all of it dominated by Gleeson’s careworn, open-book face and empathy.
4. The Babadook (directed by Jennifer Kent)
This stunning debut from first-time Australian director/writer Kent is nothing less than the finest horror film of 2014. But it’s more than that: it’s also a searing examination of grief and parenthood seen through the eyes of a widowed mother (the incredible Essie Davis) who is pushed to the edge by the challenges of raising her emotionally damaged young son alone. Is the title entity a truly supernatural being or a psychological manifestation of their tormented relationship? Like all great horror films, The Babadook keeps you uncertain — and frightened — to the very end.
3. Nightcrawler (directed by Dan Gilroy)
Longtime screenwriter Gilroy makes the jump to directing with terrific results in a movie that is part Los Angeles noir, part twisted character study and part indictment of our current media. Jake Gyllenhall is creepy as all hell as Lou Bloom, a sociopath who finds a calling as a crime scene videographer and enters a parasitic relationship with a local news producer (Rene Russo). Bloom is obsessed with success and dismissive of any sort of ethics or compassion — and we are forced to wonder how far we’ve gone down that same path.
2. Boyhood (directed by Richard Linklater)
Linklater’s ambitious project — filming the life of a boy at yearly intervals as he ages from six to 18 — is stunning in its overall success and often profoundly poignant in showing both the passage of time and the simple, mundane ups and downs of everyday life. As the boy’s parents, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette drop all artistic vanity and let themselves age onscreen alongside their fictional son, resulting in two of their most vulnerable performances.
1. Whiplash (directed by Damien Chazelle)
This ferocious, visceral movie puts you right in the middle of a war of nerves between a cocky student drummer (Miles Teller) and his monstrous instructor (J.K. Simmons), all set to the rhythm of some electrifying jazz. Teller and Simmons are incredible, and the film raises uneasy questions about just how hard raw talent can be pushed in order to make it transcendent.