December 22, 2016
YEAR-IN-REVIEW

No Film School's Top 10 Indie Films of the Year

The official list of 2016 favorites by No Film School writers and editors—a diverse group who really, really loves movies.

It’s safe to say that the No Film School team thinks about movies a lot. When we are not making them, we are watching them. When we are done watching them, we write about them. All year long, we are attending festivals, testing gear, and interviewing other filmmakers who we admire, but there’s one thing that we don’t usually do: film criticism. Our job is generally to learn and share how the movies were made, regardless of how they turned out. No matter how bad the film, we can always learn something from its production. 

That’s why we’re especially excited to reveal the movies that we loved this year. And they all happen to have pretty interesting production stories, too. It was an exciting year for indies, and our list represents everything from Oscar-hopefuls to Cannes-winners to little-known outliers to farting corpses. Enjoy!

Don't Think Twice

Director: Mike Birbiglia

'Don't Think Twice'
'Don't Think Twice'

Stage-based improv comedy is notoriously complicated to capture on film, and Don't Think Twice, a film directed by Mike Birbiglia and produced by podcasting giant Ira Glass, does a really beautiful job of handling it. About a New York improv theater troupe navigating fame, disappointment, love, and death, the film shows the thrill of creating in realtime and the frustrations of trying to hold on to the magic of that moment and repeat it, bottle it, or turn it into something else. The movie also explores the compromises of adulthood. It's fun, funny, and never pretentious or condescending to its characters. I almost never enjoy movies about "how hard it is to make art," but this one is so well observed— so humanthat it totally works, even when it shouldn't. Charles Haine

Certain Women

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Michelle Williams in Certain WomenCredit: Film Science

Certain Women, a triptych of melancholy stories about modern femininity, may be what finally cements the breathtaking work of director Kelly Reichardt on the cultural map. Her previous work (especially her ennui-laden western Meek's Cutoff and Bressonian eco-thriller Night Moves) all revel in the same uncomfortable humanity that Certain Women makes a banquet of. No film better captures the quiet agony of living with one's worst self. It's absolutely heartbreaking. (And Lily Gladstone is remarkable.) Scout Tafoya    

Embrace of the Serpent

Director: Ciro Guerra

Embrace The Serpent

For the most transcendent cinematic experience of the year, look no further than Embrace of the Serpent. At once an indictment of colonialism, hallucinogenic Amazonian adventure, and twisty character study, the Oscar-nominated Colombian film transports us into another world—specifically, that of Karamakate, a shaman from an isolated tribe who leads white men through the jungle. Shot on film in stunning black and white, every aspect of the film works to help us enter Karamakate’s perspective, even the timeline: like his tribe’s concept of time, the current moment takes no precedence over memories as the narrative vacillates between past and present. We experience Karamakate's astounding reverence for the natural world, his generosity and devotion to human life, and his non-materialistic value system, and we are invited to wonder: Is this indigenous culture more evolved than our own? That's great cinema: a portal into another world, from which you emerge with empathy. —Emily Buder

Cameraperson    

Director: Kirsten Johnson    

CamerapersonCredit: Kirsten Johnson

Cameraperson is a once-in-a-lifetime film. Few cinematographers have captured humanity on every continent in the world, in all of its beautiful, horrible manifestations. Kirsten Johnson—who directed this film after decades of shooting for the likes of Laura Poitras and Michael Moore—is one of them. Equal parts brave adventurer and dancer with a camera, Johnson creates a behind-the-scenes vision from three decades of important global events. The film is not a revue, but a masterpiece. For those of us clawing with our viewfinders at the bigger picture in this damned life, Cameraperson is required viewing. Oakley Anderson-Moore    

Moonlight    

Director: Barry Jenkins    

MoonlightCredit: Barry Jenkins

So much has stuck with me in the weeks since seeing Moonlight, the much-lauded film about a black boy coming to terms with his sexuality in a crime-riddled Miami neighborhood: the quiet, assured storytelling; the parallel structure of the three chapters with repeated motifs; the continuity of performances shared across three actors portraying the same young man; the closing image, so full of tenderness, sadness, comfort, relief, love, and heartbreak. But more than anything, I can’t stop thinking about Moonlight because, on paper, I have absolutely nothing in common with the character of Chiron. I have no shared experiences with this boy-become-man, and yet somehow I could see pieces of my own emotional journey up on the screen. Christopher Boone

Honest, raw, and beautiful, Moonlight is a poem that captures what it's like to feel isolated in your own body. Because director Barry Jenkins was brave enough to tell a story most would never dare to tell, this is easily one of the most important films of 2016. V. Renée

Swiss Army Man

Directors: Daniels    

Swiss Army ManCredit: Daniels

I love weird movies. 2016 is the first year the overlords have allowed me to attend a major film festival, and while this has been a really great opportunity to expose myself to new influences, I saw more "bad-weird" movies than I'd care to admit. I'll define "bad-weird" here as a movie that is only weird for the sake of being weird. "Good-weird," on the other hand, is when a movie has its vision down so cold that a director can screw around with audience expectations and still produce an outcome that is profoundly cathartic. Swiss Army Man is the perfect example of "good-weird." It uses insane special effects, laced with a barrage of fast-paced red herrings and non-sequiturs, to support a surprisingly emotional and relatable heart: the message comes first. The farts support it. Jon Fusco

Raving Iran

Director: Susanne Regina Meures

Raving IranCredit: Susanne Regina Meures

Life under Iran's repressive theocracy goes further than mandating conservative garb and banning alcoholelectronic music and its surrounding club culture are also forbidden. Despite this, an Iranian DJ duo named Blade & Beard thumbs their nose at the regime, attempting to release music and play all-night raves in their home country despite the threat of severe punishment (or worse). Shot utilizing concealed cameras and smartphones, Raving Iran blew me away and made me count my blessings at the same time. Tristan Kneschke

American Honey

Director: Andrea Arnold    

American HoneyCredit: Andrea Arnold

I love this free-wheeling film about teenagers selling magazines because it portrays a rarely seen side of America—​and it does so in a unique and visceral way. Almost everyone in the country knows characters like those in American Honey (played by Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf, and Riley Keough, among others) but it’s not often that anyone takes the time to understand their motives and insecurities. By casting a sympathetic eye on these young misfits-turned-petty-criminals, Arnold was able to reframe them as youth in search of a family, using charm alone to get by. American Honey is a coming-of-age tale, beautifully shot in the heartland’s most disenfranchised corners. Sophia Harvey

The Eagle Huntress

Director: Otto Bell

The Eagle HuntressCredit: Otto Bell

I already called The Eagle Huntressthe perfect documentary” on first viewing. But in a single year where I perhaps saw more movies of all types than I have in my whole life, this one still stands out. Its protagonist is a charming 13-year-old Mongolian girl who is determined to learn the dangerous art of hunting game with eagles in the frozen wilderness, despite the objections of community elders who have never allowed a female eagle hunter to join their ranks. Its dramatic, empowering storyline and epic cinematography each recall the best of narrative filmmaking; even better, what looks like a high-budget production was actually undertaken by a tiny but inventive and dedicated crew. Liz Nord

The Witch

Director: Robert Eggers

The WitchCredit: Robert Eggers

I did not see this Sundance sensation until recently, but I have to say it blew me away. Until the credits, I didn't put together that it was "that" film, because Eggers and co. are almost monastic in their adherence to basic cinematic principles of storytelling, location, and performance; the budget never feels restrictive. Every cut is deliberate, and the story, about a witch-fearing family in colonial New England, is riveting. The growing sense of dread culminates in an ending that, while fulfilling the mandates of the genre, retains enough ambiguity to render this film a thoughtful meditation on evil in the "Garden of Eden" that was North America in the 1600s. Its realistic portrayal of religious zealotry gives rise to much of the horror, which is both novel and profound for a horror film. An auspicious debut, no doubt. —​Justin Morrow


See all of our 2016 Year-in-Review coverage.

Your Comment

8 Comments

I'll be honest - perhaps NFS (and the film community as a whole) could or should re-evaluate what we consider an 'indie' film.

This list is full of major names and recognition, with large distribution bases... even if it doesn't have "SONY" or "Disney" on the trailer, doesn't make it an indie film.

Perhaps we could focus more on the NFS userbase films, giving notoriety to our own feature films. NFS users get enough info about the film world 'outside these walls'...

... what if the outside world got a taste of what we have to offer?

December 22, 2016 at 1:08PM

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Jordan Mederich
Documentarian / Filmmaker
1160

My thinking indeed parallel those of Jordan. Some of these titles really have a pretty good budget and people behind. More than the average person here or on similar forums are able to pull off.
These films and movies are nice productions, though!

December 22, 2016 at 1:58PM

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David Hallberg
Project coordinator, researcher
231

What is this, the Social Justice Warrior Top 10? Give me a break.

December 23, 2016 at 11:15AM

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agreed. I couldnt get through american honey for more than 30 minutes

December 24, 2016 at 1:02AM

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I do think it would be nice in addition, to see a list of the best films produced on shoestring budgets, but I appreciate this list because all of these films exhibit a level of quality that we should all reach for. So I'm excited to watch the films on this list that I have yet to see.

December 23, 2016 at 12:32PM, Edited December 23, 12:32PM

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John Haas
Cinematographer
675

I really love this weird Indian directing style. Great list!

December 24, 2016 at 11:20AM

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No Hell or High Water or Hunt for the Wilderpeople? Those are my two favorite films of the year, and they also happen to be incredibly accessible indies that you can introduce even non-cinephiles to.

December 25, 2016 at 6:11PM

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David West
Writer/Director/Cinematographer/Editor
957

Keen to see these ones. Just a shame I have to wait so long for the screenings in Australia.

December 27, 2016 at 5:23AM

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Gabriel Carrubba
Actor/Filmmaker
1