Here are the top 5 films of the year according to 11 indie filmmakers, and the NFS staff.
We picked a handful of filmmakers (most of whom we've interviewed this year) to spill the beans on their favorite films of the year. The selection of films reflects diverse tastes and should offer some nice lesser-known recommendations for the Holiday season.
Note: Many of these films are unreleased or have been found at festivals this year. Due to the way everyone does their listing differently, there may be some inconsistencies in the films/years. Many of these films haven't been released theatrically yet, but will be soon, so put them on your radar!
Alexander Nanau (Toto and His Sisters)
- Cartel Land (dir. Matthew Heineman) — For its complex characters and for sure for the guts to go in there and tell the story in a very courageous way
- 71 (dir. Yann Demange) — Even if already launched in 2014 it is hard to forget and somehow also a film of 2015. Great storytelling, great directing!
- Mommy (dir. Xavier Dolan) — For its frankness, its great characters and its cinematic power
- Above and Below (dir. Nicolas Steiner) — Incredibly cinematic and powerful debut doc
- The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) — A modern Godard. It felt like a mixture of Weekend and Alphaville
Alison Bagnall (Funny Bunny)
(These films are listed in the order that I saw them. I don't actually believe in comparing films and rating them)
- Heaven Knows What (dir. Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie) — Did not want to see a movie about homeless heroin addicts, but it was the Safdies...Walked out punch-drunk with the biggest art hit I'd had in a few years. I've heard it said that it takes a director 3 movies to really get good and they've exploded into full blossom with this one.
- Sweaty Betty (dir. Zachary Reed & Joseph Frank) — Turns out this film is a 'hybrid' (mixture of doc and narrative). I thought it was a straight doc the actors were so convincing. They were playing themselves but the director created scenarios for them to behave in. 'They' are two teenage single dads. Their dreams and their energy are so big but the obstacles feel so much bigger it broke my heart. The director said that he made this film despite not knowing how a film is made. I hope he never learns.
- God Bless the Child (dir. Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck & Robert Machoian) — Purest and surest brushstrokes I've seen by an artist (in this case two artists) in a film in a long time. Handmade and homemade it's pure art and pure emotion and innocence. Stick with its slow magic, the payoff is sweet and good and devastatingly human.
- Frame by Frame (dir. Alexandria Bombach & Mo Scarpelli) — Both an art film and a doc, about a handful of dedicated Afghani photographers. The name Afghanistan conjures images of war and robed fighters, stricken children. The place is so much more. The filmmakers explore this land with their cameras as one might inspect a giant rough diamond. This is the Afghanistan we never see, so beautiful, exceptional. Heartbreaking but also hopeful.
- Brand: A Second Coming (dir. Ondi Timoner) — Russell Brand gets dismissed by most as a narcissist and a clown. In Brand the Messiah, I was hypnotized by the guy's charisma and brilliant humor, but also impressed by the power of his mind. He has no filter and speaks the truth fearlessly with utter clarity; a sharp quick intelligence and a tongue to match it. His search for truth and meaning is poignant because the things he is saying are so true but no one seems to want to hear them from a jester. Jesters have traditionally been the wisemen in the room and Brand is no exception. Ondi Timoner matches Brand in talent and fearlessness and has crafted a complex and totally captivating (and funny!) portrait.
Bob Byington (7 Chinese Brothers)
- Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve) — The bigger movies that worked for me, and I didn't see very many, were Steve Jobs and Sicario, again, employing basic less is more type strategies.
- Steve Jobs (dir. Danny Boyle) — Again, employing basic less is more type strategies.
- The Mend (dir. John Magary) — The Mend I guess came out in 2014 but no one saw it then and it's only now starting to get circulating for reals.
- Mississippi Grind (dir. Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden)— The two most under seen movies on this list are the Mend and Mississippi Grind, and both are really just testaments to how grateful the viewer is to have good actors do simple things on screen.
- Creep (dir. Patrick Brice) — I'd have Creep round this list out, tho' made for no money, very accomplished, and seen plenty on Netflix by plenty of admirers, I got to see it at the CineFamily with a crowd, and it played nicely...
Brandon Colvin (Sabbatical)
- Jauja (dir. Lisandro Alonso) — I love everything about this movie. The surreal abstraction. The stylized performances. The landscapes. The exquisitely placed music. The real star, though, is Timo Salminen's cinematography. I'm a huge fan of his work with Aki Kaurismaki, and he brings a lot of that technique to bear on JAUJA, particularly the lighting style. He tends to light as if he were lighting a classical black and white film, even when shooting in color. The result is that his color films are lit totally unlike other color films (see the hard, artificial, frontal lighting in JAUJA's exteriors). And, his eye for composition . . . simply astounding.
- Stinking Heaven (dir. Nathan Silver) — Nathan is cinema's foremost auteur of chaos. His mastery of group scenes blows my mind. He has a knack for casting, and he gets the most out of an extraordinary cast here - Deragh Campbell, Hannah Gross, Eleanore Hendricks, Keith Poulson, and Tallie Medel, to name a few. And, he just keeps getting better. This film was shot on antiquated video and the green halos and visual artifacts make the images feel ghostly and dilapidated.
- L For Leisure (dir. Whitney Horn & Lev Kalman) — It's like a lyrical, laid back Whit Stillman film, something as witty as it is sensual, as ironic as it is Romantic. There's cynicism and nostalgia and, most of all, fun. One of the most purely pleasurable experiences I've ever had in a theater. The film beautiful integrates a gorgeous, shimmering, thumping score by John Atkinson. I felt like this film just did whatever it wanted, which left me excited and inspired.
- Approaching The Elephant (dir. Amanda Rose Wilder) — This film made me feel so stressed out. It is visceral. It felt like life in a way that few films do, like being inside a swirling maelstrom. The experimental school it depicts could be a microcosm for so many things -- in that light, the film's observations take on extra profundity. A battle of inherently opposed wills. The threatening and justification of the social contact. The development of a moral sense, of ethics. The diminishment of the ego in favor of the group. There is so, so much in here. Also, it's beautiful!
- Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (dir. Spike Lee) — I'm a huge fan of the original, GANJA & HESS (1973, dir. Bill Gunn), and this reinterpretation really knocked it out of the park. Lee's film is sexier and funnier than the original, while maintaining its atmospheric qualities. It's fascinating to see Lee work with a mostly static camera, with restrained performances, with uncluttered mise-en-scene. I never expected Lee was a Jean Rollin fan, but the French director's influence is all over this film. Really surprised by this one and eager to see it again.
Charles Poekel (Christmas, Again)
- Heaven Knows What (dir. Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie) — A beautiful example that independent cinema is not only alive and well but necessary.
- Listen to Me Marlon (dir. Stevan Riley) — 103 minutes inside Marlon Brando's head -- a complex and bewildering cinematic trance.
- Forbidden Room (dir. Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson) — Pushes so many boundaries that every other film feels safe in comparison.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller) — A glorious reminder of Hollywood's potential.
- Carol (dir. Todd Haynes) — Perfect in nearly every way.
Christina Choe (Nancy)
- Embrace of the Serpent (dir. Ciro Guerra) — This movie blew me away. It’s stunningly beautiful, shot on black and white 35mm. It's kind of like if Heart of Darkness was rewritten and told from the perspective of indigenous people. The way it goes into the spiritual and emotional effects of colonialism is deep.
- Cemetery of Splendor (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul) — I’m not even sure why I loved this film. It was kinda slow and shot in mostly static wide shots, but I was riveted the entire time. It was dreamlike and surprisingly hilarious, while also hauntingly subtle and mysterious.
- Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker) — I loved the way it was shot, in true indie, gritty form. It takes you on a wild and funny ride through the underbelly of LA and features characters you rarely see on the big screen.
- 45 years (dir. Andrew Haigh) — Such a beautiful and subtle film about marriage and relationships. I could watch Charlotte Rampling watch paint dry and it would be fascinating.
- Mustang (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven) — This is the kind of film that will leave you weeping and glad to be a female filmmaker. The six sisters in this film encompass the rebellion and bravery it takes for your soul to survive oppression in a patriarchal society. It takes place in a remote Turkish village but you’ll recognize yourself, your mother or sister in this assured, emotional first feature.
Eugene Kotlyarenko (A Wonderful Cloud)
- The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer) —Somehow as devastating and powerful as the first one, and altogether quite different
- The Tribe (dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy) — Taking the aesthetics of Alan Clarke into overdrive and combining it with a gripping narrative that invites the viewers' eyes and minds to gloriously work
- Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker) — Getting into the middle of everything society likes to keep in the fringes and gloriously giving voice to personas that are ten times more interesting than most of what "Hollywood" has to offer
- The Kingsman (dir. Matthew Vaughn) — Best English language, action-thriller, class-warfare, tech nightmare, contemporary satire of the last few years. Had me cheering and intrigued the whole way through!
- Bridge of Spies (dir. Steven Spielberg) — The economy of visual storytelling is a marvel to behold. the potency of its critique regarding the fickle nature of our "civilization" is marvelous and timely. the matter-of-factness of the performances and subtle power of the filmmaking without ever being boring is a model for mainstream storytelling. Fritz Lang would've enjoyed this one.
Joey Izzo (My Daughter's Boyfriend)
- Son of Saul (dir. László Nemes) — The most captivating visual expression I’ve seen in years. Yes, it’s a holocaust movie, but that tells you nothing. Its scope is beyond history. Look down into the bowels of humanity, that’s where Saul lives.
- Krisha (dir. Trey Edward Shults)— Preserves the DIY ethos of yesteryear’s mumblecore, while soaring above its slapdash nothing aesthetics. Sure, it’s P.T.A. worship, but Krisha is up to much more than mere idolization. Its familial wisecracks and psychotic-intensities are fun for the whole family.
- Bitter Lake (dir. Adam Curtis) — Adam Curtis’s new documentary takes on the most confusing and guilt-ridden subject matters I can think of – the history of the United States’ meddling in Afghanistan. One of Curtis’s most illuminating and experimental essay-docs. A+ tune selection, as always.
- A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting Existence (dir. Roy Andersson) — The thinking man’s Wes Anderson has done it again. Pop some ludes and head out to the movies. Pigeon completes his grim trilogy of (anti-) living with shining colors of gray and ash.
- Mustang (dir. Deniz Gamze Ergüven) — It’s like if Virgin Suicides was a good movie and had deep cultural significance. An excellent debut!
Runner Ups: The Forbidden Room, Tangerine, The Lobster (p.s. I haven’t seen James White or 45 Years yet. I’m a cowardly fool, sorry)
Kaleb Wentzel-Fisher (Sankofa)
- A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (dir. Roy Andersson) — Heartbreaking and side-splitting at the same time. Roy Andersson never disappoints, a fitting end to his trilogy about the human condition.
- Experimenter (dir. Michael Almereyda) — Very cool to see a more experimental approach to a bio pic.
- Kung Fury (dir. David Sandberg) — Hilarious and ambitious. The best 30 minutes spent on YouTube.
- Path of Blood (dir. Eric Power) — A one man band of a film. A bloody samurai tale told with construction paper.
- Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland) — Great to see good hard sci-fi again. Excited to see what Garland does next.
Michael Mohan (Pink Grapefruit)
- The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt) — It's a beautiful and complex portrait of admiration and insecurity that I couldn't have more deeply related to. I didn't see a more honest film this year.
- Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter & Ronnie del Carmen) — A psychological exploration of the importance of sadness. The brilliant team at Pixar continues to challenge audiences with some of the most original stories of our time.
- Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach) — I haven't laughed this hard and this frequently at a movie since maybe Anchorman. And yet, despite these characters being larger than life, it's still felt totally real.
- Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland) — The tightest, and most elegantly directed Hitchcock-style movie in years. Even if it wasn't socially relevant to right now, just the craft of this film is awe-inspiring.
- Roar (dir. Noel Marshall) — Though technically made in 1980, this film was only released this year. I've never been more terrified in a movie, not because the story is particularly scary, but because I was so worried about the well being of the actors onscreen. A completely unique cinematic experience.)
T.J. Misny (Intimate Semaphores)
- Carol (dir. Todd Haynes) — Ed Lachman's 16mm photography in CAROL were some of the most evocative images of the year, elegantly using film grammar to convey isolation, longing and the thrill of following an unshakeable impulse.
- The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) — While this won't be released in the US until March, this film has stayed with me since its screening at New York Film Festival for its absurdly comic examination of how society and traditions shape love and relationships.
- Wild Tales (dir. Damián Szifron) — A brutal and hilarious series of vignettes fueled by rage, revenge and injustice, capped off by a dizzying finale that cathartically suggests an end to this violent cycle.
- Phoenix (dir. Christian Petzold) — The most stunning ending to a film this year and a haunting performance by Nina Hoss.
- The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer) — Director Joshua Oppenheimer referred to this as "a reverse shot to THE ACT OF KILLING". It's the bravest act of cinema this year, as we watch victims of an atrocity attempt to confront the perpetrators, ultimately seeking peace.
Honorable mention: The vine video of Guy Fieri signing Lean Cuisines and throwing them to crowd while "worth it" plays.
Best repertory experience: Apu Trilogy restoration at film forum .
NFS Staff Choices:
- Girlhood (dir. Celine Sciamma) — Released in the United States with the English title Girlhood, the French film Bande de filles is nothing short of a masterpiece. Writer-director Céline Sciamma puts the audience squarely in the shoes of her heroine Vic for the subtle as well as the dramatic; it's a quiet character study of epic proportions.
- Beasts of No Nation (dir. Cary Fukunaga) — The production of Cary Fukunaga's powerful film turned out to be only the beginning of Beasts of No Nation's audaciousness. The indie film premiered as a Netflix Original and received 3 million views in the first two weeks in North America alone, indicating a brave new world for indie films that don't hew to the traditional art house demographics (i.e. older, whiter, affluent theatergoers).
- Where to Invade Next (dir. Michael Moore) — Whether or not you agree with Michael Moore's political views, his capability for drawing attention to timely issues through the medium of feature docs is nonpareil. Having played several film festivals in the US in 2015, I'll include Where to Invade here despite its forthcoming theatrical release in early 2016.
- 99 Homes (dir. Ramin Bahrani) — This criminally underseen film features a riveting performance from Michael Shannon and should be put in a time capsule alongside Margin Call and The Big Short as the best representatives of narrative films dramatizing the housing/financial crisis. 99 Homes is Ramin Bahrani at the top of his form, and that's saying a lot.
- It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell) — David Robert Mitchell's premise for It Follows is one of the best ideas for a horror film in decades, and he follows through with pitch-perfect tone. When your distributor delays your VOD release date and instead expands to 1,200 theaters, it follows that you've got a hit on your hands.
- The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) — I had my doubts about this one because of the big Hollywood stars, but it was entirely unique, weird, and Yorgos Lanthimos.
- It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell) — Kind of not 2015 (it debuted in Cannes in 2014, but got a wide release in 2015), and kind of not scary, but it was the first horror film I've seen in a long time that was truly beautifully shot. (The other I remember was House of the Devil.) Anyway, big kudos to Mike Gioulakis.
- Queen of Earth (dir. Alex Ross Perry) — This is the film that made me realize that Elisabeth Moss is not the cute little girl from Escape to Witch Mountain anymore. It reminds me of the 70s, even though I wasn't alive in the 70s.
- Güeros (dir. Alonso Ruizpalacios) — This movie is el French New Wave de México...essentially. It showcases the angst-ridden restlessness and aimlessness of youth, all while being very aware that life is just one big fat joke...but not really.
- Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter (dir. David Zellner, Nathan Zellner) — Very eccentric. This one is a good one for people who love weird humor and movies about loving movies.
- The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent) — This is what I wish more horror films strived to do. It has a simple premise that’s executed beautifully. Probably one of the better performances by a child actor from Noah Wiseman.
- Tangerine (dir. Sean Baker) — This film moves like an unstoppable force. Not always the biggest fan of films with non-actors, but the performances are just out of this world. It was another film this year that showed real people as they are, not caricatures of what Hollywood thinks they are.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller) — Some of the best action sequences ever put to film, and there’s a section of this film that has your heart racing for about 30 minutes (not an exaggeration).
- Sicario (dir. Denis Villeneuve) — A beautifully shot film. It's rare that we get such stellar storytelling along with true three-dimensional characters that are all shades of grey. We need more films like this in our cinemas — films that treat the audience like adults who can understand complex situations if given the chance.
- Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland) — The movie is just a lot of fun, and it manages to sneak in important and interesting artificial intelligence questions. It’s visually gorgeous, and Alicia Vikander is exceptional. This movie also solidified my admiration for Oscar Isaac and anything he’s ever been in, or ever will be in.
- Creative Control (dir. Benjamin Dickinson) — An audaciously stylized black & white symphony paired with naturalistic performances, this film is a savory dish of realism and satire that gets my pick for Best Drama of the year.
- Advantageous (dir. Jennifer Phang) — In my favorite kind of thinky-futuristic tale, the director creates a mesmerizing world not too distant from our own in my pick for the year’s Best Sci-Fi.
- The Overnight (dir. Patrick Kack-Brice) — A broad comedy filmed by subtle means, my pick for Best Comedy of the year also starts with the most entertaining opening sex scene you’ve ever come across.
- Lucifer (dir. Gust Van Den Berghe) — Drawing from Renaissance-era depictions of heaven and hell in a circular frame, the director frames the film in 360 degree “Tondoscope” for philosophical purposes in this captivating piece I'll call Film with the Best Aspect Ratio.
- For Thousands of Miles (dir. Mike Ambs) — This true-story rumination on cross country-biking is cinematic, unique, and also free from the director — so it wins my pick for the year’s Best Documentary.
- The Diary of a Teenage Girl (dir. Marielle Heller)— A funny and painfully honest coming-of-age story of a 15-year-old girl in San Francisco in the 1970s who realizes she actually likes sex, but discovers her newfound sexuality with her mother's boyfriend. Fantastic performance by Bel Powley in the lead role, excellent debut feature from writer/director Marielle Heller.
- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon) — I loved how the narration of this film tipped its hat to romance in YA novels and movies, then completely skewered it. Just when you think you've figured this story out, it reveals itself to be something you never saw coming. Great writing by Jesse Andrews (adapting his own novel), and strong performances across the board.
- The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir. Kyle Patrick Alvarez) — So disturbing because it actually happened pretty much as it is portrayed in the film. Scary to think how close we all are to becoming horrific people if given the right set of circumstances, as well as how powerless we can feel if we're on the flip side of those circumstances.
- Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen) — A return to form for Pixar, taking an idea as ephemeral as emotions personified and making it such a funny, tender, and heart-rending story of the beginning of adolescence for a young girl as only Pixar can do. Made all the more poignant watching it with my daughter around her 12th birthday.
- The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott) — One of the few instances when the movie may be better than the book (and I really liked the book). Drew Goddard's screenplay tightened the book's narrative in all the right places to keep this story engaging, well-paced, and humorous despite bleak circumstances. Certainly a great performance by Matt Damon, but the entire cast was fantastic. And director Ridley Scott was definitely in his element with this story.
- The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq (dir. Guillaume Nicloux) — This fictionalized documentary about the 2011 disappearance of the controversial French author should be a total mess, and it is, but the sheer weirdness of the subject makes it a singular experience.
- Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland) — Alex Garland's directorial debut had his usual great writing combined with a talent behind the camera that made the AI trope into something new and more sinister than usual.
- Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller) — A female driven action film that is one of the smartest reboots in recent memory
- Ned Rifle (dir. Hal Hartley) — The final installment of Hal Hartley's trilogy brings the disjointed saga that began with 'Henry Fool' to a satisfying close
- 71 (dir. Yann Demange) — This film, which takes place over a single violent night in the Northern Ireland "The Troubles", has echoes of 'Full Metal Jacket' as well as the time compressed suspense of 'Children of Men,' two things that are never bad to have echoes of.
Micah Van Hove
- The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer) — One of the best films ever made. Every bit as intense as The Act of Killing, but from an entirely different vantage point and with a totally different emotional impact. Humanity's ability to suppress is put under a microscope.
- Men Go to Battle (dir. Zachary Treitz)— A beautiful portrayal of brotherhood and the economic sensibilities of love and war. A micro-budget Barry Lyndon that captures the endearing flaws of our warring nature.
- Toto and His Sisters (dir. Alexandar Nanau) — Docu-realism at its finest. This story about poverty in Romania captures the most beautiful and sad moments of coming of age.
- Entertainment (dir. Rick Alverson)— Explores the myth of the infinite potential of the American west and the inherent problems with entertainment culture. Subversive cinema that successfully uses tropes to become accessible to an audience.
- Krisha (dir. Trey Edward Shults)) — The most unique cinematic Thanksgiving experience I've ever had. A deeply felt exploration into past, present, future, alcoholism, mistakes and family, with heart wrenching performances. A must see film for every filmmaker.
It's been a really strong year in movies. How many of these have you seen? Share your favs (or most anticipated) below!