We’ve shared our picks for the best best movies of the year and the best comfort movies of the year, and now it’s time to go indies. As a reminder, there’s no crossing the streams for our end-of-year lists; if an indie movie appeared on the general Best of 2015 list (and several did), it can’t do double-duty here. Hey, that gives us room to appreciate more stuff!
These movies are ranked in alphabetical order, not ten-to-one, because dammit, Godtopus says they’re all worth your time. That said, as always, not all Pajiba readers—and writers!— will agree on all of these entries. Any complaints, counterarguments or the like can be either left in the comments or mailed to TK, 9th Circle of Hell. Please include a self-addressed stamped envelope if you would like a response.
I call Executive Decision on this one, God dammit. Anomalisa comes out on December 30th, so it’s not something most people have had a chance to see, but it’s still one of the best films—indie or otherwise—of 2015. Charlie Kaufman, writer of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and writer/director of Synecdoche, New York writes and co-directs (with Duke Johnson) this stop-motion drama about… about… yeah, I don’t know. By one interpretation, it’s a social commentary horror movie about the difficulties of connecting with other people on any meaningful level. By another, it’s an extended subversion of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. You’ve never seen anything quite like Anomalisa. It’s one that sticks with you. Oh, and it’s possibly the only stop-motion movie in existence (though do correct me if I am wrong) with a cunnilingus scene.—Rebecca Pahle
Beasts of No Nation
After awing critics and audiences with the moody marvel that was True Detective season one, director Cary Joji Fukunaga dove into the ambitious adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s harrowing novel about a young boy forced into the grim life of a child soldier. It’s a topic that could easily have gone into soul-crushingly dark territory, but Fukunaga’s sharp script threads humanity and hope throughout, leading the audience as it does the film’s pint-sized protagonist played by mesmerizing newcomer Abraham Attah. His face spikes with pain and fear as his narration gives voice to this child lost in war and made plaything to a charismatic and cruel warlord. Idris Elba deftly channels his alarming charms into this vile villain, making for a purposefully jarring experience. As for Attah, his performance feels so effortless and natural, you might forget you’re watching a narrative film as opposed to a documentary. Beasts of No Nation is brutal, beautiful and streaming on Netflix. Don’t miss it.—Kristy Puchko
Dope - Dope premiered earlier this year to positive reviews, and a smattering of very smart people enthusiastically encouraging us to go out and see the kind of movie that’s rare to find in cineplexes these days: A smart, witty, coming-of-age films featuring a multiracial cast. It was a brilliant, engaging film and it taught me half of everything I know about Bitcoin. It was like the John Hughes equivalent of the sci-fi Attack the Block.—Dustin Rowles
Goodnight Mommy - A little over a month ago, we shared with you Goodnight Mommy’s trailer with the headline “WHAT. THE F*CK. IS THIS.” Now I know the answer to that question born from trauma and confusion. And it’s way more disturbing than even that terrifying teaser lets on…. Now, I consider myself to have a solid stomach for horror’s gore and violence. But Goodnight Mommy reduced me—along with a room full of supposedly jaded New York critics—into a wave of gasps and spasms of discomfort and disgust. We’re talking next-level, curl into a fetal position and hold your breath fucked up, ladies and gentleman. And the cast is pitch perfect in maneuvering through the film’s gut-churning turns.—Kristy Puchko
It Follows- There were a few, I think, but where was the avalanche of think pieces to come after the release of this film criticizing its abstinence-only message? Here’s a genuinely chilling horror film — one of the best in recent years, along with Babadook — that basically said, “If you fuck, you die” (which was kind of the same message imparted by every 1980’s slasher film). The buzz managed to push It Follows into 1200 theaters, where it collapsed in on itself at the box office, tapping out at $14 million. It’ll do well on Netflix someday, though, and will finally erase Lloyd Dobler as the worst stalker in movie history.—Dustin Rowles
Infinitely Polar Bear - In this respect, Infinitely Polar Bear reminded me of Still Alice. Where the latter film invited audiences into the experience of Alzheimer’s from the point of view of its victims and those who love them, the former does the same for bipolar disorder. And as someone who’s seen a close friend struggle with a lot of the issues presented in the film, I was awe-struck by its earnestness and authenticity.
The filmmaking is beautiful for its emotional intelligence, smooth in its pacing, warm in its humor and tone, and powerful in its performances. But never is it showy. Watching it, you feel like you’ve been entrusted with a secret, not one hidden for shame, but for love. Ultimately, it feels like an honor to watch Infinitely Polar Bear, and to be trusted with its story and message.—Kristy Puchko
Sicario - Ostensibly an “action thriller” focusing on the war on drugs, Sicario wants to do more than entertain. Like many before it, the film wants to the viewer to think about the cost of this war we’ve been waging for so long now, primarily putting the focus this time on those who fight the fight for us. And led by a gripping performance from Emily Blunt, it wholly succeeds on this front. Blunt’s performance is … well, actually, it’s blunt. It’s brutal. It’s all nerves and tension and a little sadness. And she’s counter-balanced by Benecio del Toro, who plays that loose and calm thing thing that only del Toro can do in a way that is so utterly terrifying. Sicario is not a fun film. Nor is it an “important” film, despite its lofty designs. But it is an excellent film. And whatever the word “tense” means to you, after seeing Sicario, that word will be synonymous with Denis Villeneuve’s taught film. —Seth Freilich
From The Hateful Eight to Bone Tomahawk to The Salvation to Far From Men, 2015 gave us a lot of Western, and Slow West was the best of ‘em. And not just because of Ben Mendehlson’s amazingly horrible coat, either. Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as a Scottish aristocrat who decides to follow his lady love (Caren Pistorius) out to the wilds of the American West after he accidentally gets her and her father banished. Once there, the well-meaning but clueless teen finds some assistance in the form of a mysterious wanderer named Sias (Michael Fassbender), but still… it’s not spoiler to say that things don’t exactly go as he expected. Slow West’s pace is pretty, well, slow, but stick with it until the climactic final shootout, which is simply put one of the best scenes of the year. How often do you get a Western with a gag inspired by The Naked Gun 2 1/2?—Rebecca Pahle
On its surface, this LGBT dramedy sounds like it’s bound to be chock-full of embarrassing backwards stereotypes. Set in Hollywood on Christmas Eve, it follows a pair of transgender sex workers, one who is hunting down her boyfriend/pimp over rumors he strayed while she served time, the other desperately seeking an audience for her cabaret show that night. Along the way, these broke bffs collide with eye-rolling cops, slur-spewing bro-dudes, and skeezy johns, including a cab driver with a complicated family life (to put it lightly). It sounds sordid, but writer/director Sean Baker’s approach and his electric ensemble cast offer an unapologetic frankness and surprisingly jolly humor making for an unconventional holiday movie that’s fascinating, funny and humane. Bonus: you can stream it on Netflix.—Kristy Puchko
What We Do in the Shadows - This vampire mockumentary from co-directors Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Boy) came and went back in February, but I still can’t think of the virgin sandwich line without chuckling. Happily, word from Clement is that a sequel is in the works, and it will focus on
Murray’s Anton’s werewolf pack. What are we?