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. (The Room, anyone?)

That’s why we’re especially excited to reveal the movies that we loved this year—one in which even more new voices were heard and audiences showed a renewed hunger for indie fare with several box office successes. As the definition of “independent” continues to slip and slide, we’ve used the criteria set out by Film Independent for the Spirit Awards, which honor independent film. Our list (presented in alphabetical order) represents everything from Oscar-hopefuls to Cannes-winners to critical bombs to underseen black-and-white dramas to an amphibian love story. Enjoy!

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children

Directors: Alberto Vazquez, Pedro Rivero

[youtube year’s darkest horse for the animated feature race is perhaps better called a black sheep. Birdboy is an unsettling opioid-laced fever-dream and everything you could ever want from an adult animation. The Spanish-language film explores an island of talking animals who’ve been left destitute and addicted by a blight on their resources. The dialogue is Sartre-esque, flowing between wrenching darkness and comedic nihilism, as the critters reflect on their dystopian existence. And the hand-drawn visuals are haunting. The choice to tell this story with adorable talking teen animals points to the magic of animation. The lighthearted character design, paired with a wry sense of humor in the dialogue, serve to take the edge off of what would otherwise be an unbearably dark film. In the end, the result is a near-perfect cinematic experience for those with an open mind and a slight morbid streak. —Sophia Harvey]

Don't Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl!

Director: Felipe Bragança

[youtube most creative film I’ve seen this year is also the one with some of the worst reviews. Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl! is the magical realist tale of love between a Brazilian boy and Paraguayan girl on the backdrop of historic regional violence. The film isn’t an insular fantasy, but an audiovisual riff on post-colonial South America. As director Felipe Bragança mentioned in our interview, Brazil’s once-rich film industry became a vacuum in the 1990s, so Brazilian kids from that period grew up on American movies, à la Stallone and The Warriors. Bragança remixes those cultural imports into an extraordinary, visual epic at the nexus of disparate worlds. People say they want to see original work, yet when confronted with it, they decry it’s too long, doesn’t make sense, or is trying to do too many things at once. Well, give me daring work like this any day! —Oakley Anderson-Moore]

Faces Places (Villages Visages)

Directors: Agnès Varda, JR

[youtube a year when the world felt even more tumultuous than normal, audiences turned to the swath of excellent new political and environmental docs in droves. And yet, it’s for that same reason that the sheer joy and optimism of Faces Places has lodged itself firmly in my heart as a favorite. The charming film, which won the Golden Eye Documentary Prize at Cannes 2017, is a collaboration between legendary 89-year-old French filmmaker Agnès Varda and 33-year-old street artist JR. It follows a series of journeys that the unlikely friends make through the French countryside, meeting average Jacques and Juliettes, hearing their stories, and creating the giant wheat-pasted portraits of them that JR has become globally recognized for. While doing so, the film dallies both in whimsy and nostalgia, and poses musings relevant to any artist about inspiration, longevity, chance, and the power of curiosity. —Liz Nord]

The Florida Project

Director: Sean Baker

[youtube in October, I told Sean Baker to his face that The Florida Project was my favorite movie of the year. Two months later, not much has changed. For me, the film is as close as you can get to perfect, and it all comes down to these characters. What we get is essentially three coming of age stories. This isn’t only a story about a life-changing summer in the childhood of the young and hopeful Moonee. It’s also the story of a young woman coming to terms with the responsibilities of motherhood and a middle-aged motel worker who must accept the fact that he is no longer a father figure to his son. Each character’s journey is intricately linked to the others’ actions. Ultimately, Moonee, Bobby, and Halley represent the past, present, and future values of an American society that, much like the motel, may have a nifty-looking exterior, but behind closed doors is mired in chaos. —Jon Fusco]

Sean Baker has this unique way of exalting the dregs of society to reveal a glory that often goes unnoticed. He does that big time in this movie. —V Renée

Get Out

Director: Jordan Peele

I’m aware this psychological horror film will probably be showing up on almost every best-of list for this year, but it’s worth noting anyway because it’s so rare that a film comes along (especially from a first-time director) that manages to become such a great piece of popular cinema. Of course, the issues of race in America tackled by the film struck a chord with audiences, but plenty of films tackle real-life issues of every variety and are quickly forgotten. What sets Peele’s film apart is his preternatural skill at cinematic storytelling, as well a deep appreciation for, and knowledge of, the history of film; these two skills, plus an amazing cast, allow the director to deploy genre like a musical instrument; this is definitely a movie made by a movie fan, and it shows in every frame. —Justin Morrow 


Director: Justin Chon

[youtube a modern-day filmmaker decides to craft a movie in black-and-white, it's easy for audiences to feel that there’s a hint of pretentiousness oozing out from between the lack of colors. But in the case of Justin Chon’s directorial debut, the gray-tone aesthetic has never felt more modern. The film utilizes the LA riots as a backdrop for exploring the complex relationships that American society has pushed onto its communities of color while offering up a group of fully-realized characters who ground the story in a personal setting. Featuring a dynamite leading performance from child actor Simone Baker, beautiful cinematography, plenty of witty dialogue, and the sort of emotional story that pulls your thoughts back to the movie months after you’ve seen it, this film is undoubtedly one of 2017’s hidden gems. —Hawkins DuBois]

Lady Bird

Director: Greta Gerwig

If you had told me a year ago I would love a film in which a Dave Matthews Band song played a large emotional part, I would not have believed you. But the amazing specificity, consciousness of the pains of class struggle, and outright hilariousness of Lady Bird is such an amazing combination, it even makes me sort of get over the PTSD I have from growing up in a time when "Crash" played on the radio 40 times a day. There's so much humanity and empathy in this film. —Charles Haine

As I watched Lady Bird in the theatre, I couldn’t keep from laughing even during the most emotional scenes while the woman next to me sobbed. Greta Gerwig may be a first-time director, but she is a seasoned screenwriter, and Lady Bird walks the line between humor and heartache effortlessly. Saoirse Ronan’s fiery titular character is impossible not to love, even when she’s making terrible decisions like abandoning her best friend (or abandoning her mother’s car). What ultimately made this film my favorite of the year, though, was the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf. The film covers the spectrum of the challenging mother-daughter dynamic in all its beauty—shouting matches, tender moments, tragic honesty, deep cuts, unspoken love. As much as I loved watching this film and these characters, Gerwig knows exactly when the story is done, and doesn’t waste another frame. —Christopher Boone


Director: Dee Rees

[youtube story of acceptance and prejudice and cultural dissidence rubbing up against stark physical realities feels timely. Displacement, otherness, gender disparity, and horrifying racial violence are issues that currently resonate, and Mudbound, while not pulling punches, presents its themes in a lyrical and novel-like manner. It’s easy to sink into deep empathy with multiple characters. Set in the post-WWII south, the film follows two families—one black and one white—working the same rural farmland. From PTSD to the land to the overarching social structure violently enforced, Mudbound presents complex characters looking to make a better world for themselves and those they love. I rooted for them. I cried. I growled. Intimately shot by Rachel Morrison, the film doubles as my pick for Best Cinematography. —Lauretta Prevost]

The Shape of Water

Director: Guillermo del Toro

[youtube is the film we didn’t know we needed. A retelling of The Creature from the Black Lagoon with heart instead of kitsch, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a visual masterpiece with the weirdest logline: a mute janitor falls in love with a man-phibian government asset. Where lesser, more self-conscious filmmakers might have flinched, del Toro leans into symbolism, romanticism and unbridled creativity. Born of his own teenage fantasies, this amazingly tender indie was 25 years in the making. For a paltry $19M, it mixes superlative practical effects with emotional tension—despite two leads who can’t speak. But it's not just a romance. This is a Trump-era film, a queer film, part homage, part musical. The plot flows, the soundtrack soars; Desplat’s score is the year’s best. From the moment that water trickles down-screen in the film’s opening, The Shape of Water goes beyond great art: it’s a magical out-of-body experience.—Dylan Dempsey‪]

Strong Island

Director: Yance Ford

As much a commemoration as it is a eulogy, as confrontational as it is pleading, as systemic as it is intensely personal, Yance Ford's powerhouse documentary Strong Island yearns for answers when none will suffice. Investigating the 1992 homicide of his brother William outside an auto repair shop on Central Islip, Long Island, Ford’s film examines the unanswered questions surrounding the events leading up to and following the untimely death. A murder mystery this is not, however, and what’s refreshing about the filmmaker’s approach is his lack of interest in the main suspect (a larger question is posed as to why the 23, all-white jury let the killer walk away a free man). Ford documents the aftermath of tragedy, of a family attempting to keep on living after their backbone had been forcibly removed. Displaying a remarkably assured formal approach, Strong Island is an exacting emotional experience unlike any other I had this year.—Erik Luers 

See all of our 2017 Year-in-Review coverage.