While tired sequels, reboots, and remakes have dominated the conversation this year when it comes to movies, it’s been an otherwise remarkable year for cinema if you’re willing to work for it and wait for those heralded indies to come to the out-of-the-way theaters with herbal popcorn or find them on iTunes. The marketing budget for all seven of these films combined was probably dwarfed by the marketing budget of Suicide Squad alone, but they’re exceptional films, each of which will live by word of mouth alone.
Here are our mouths delivering those words. Watch these seven films. You will not be disappointed.
Green Room — You know that feeling when someone grabs you by the shirt, right at your breastbone, and twists. They’ve made a handle. They’ve got you. You feel unnerved by the lack of control you now possess. Now, imagine them twisting the shirt tighter and tighter. Its creases catch your skin and pinch. Your chest tightens. Your breath halts in fear. You are helpless in your fate. This is the sensation of watching Green Room.. Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Callum Turner and Joe Coel star as a punk rock band taken captive by skinheads after stumbling upon a murder scene. Locked in a ratty green room with the corpse and a sobbing defector (Imogen Poots), they begin to realize there’s no easy way out. Outside the titular space, the punk club’s owner (Patrick Stewart fearsome and bearded) and his right-hand man create a labyrinth of mayhem and murder that leads to a sickening and satisfying finale. — Kristy Puchko
Don’t Think Twice — When do you give up on a dream? Or what do you do when you realize your supposed dream is not what you actually want? These are questions that many thirty-somethings grapple with, and these are the questions that Mike Birbiglia explores in Don’t Think Twice. It’s a hard movie to watch at times, with these moments that feel so real and true that you squirm, feeling like you should not be watching something so intimately uncomfortable. But Birbiglia’s script smartly does not wallow in these moments of discomfort, balancing them out with uproariously funny scenes. Both poignant and hilarious, Don’t Think Twice is similar to a Judd Apatow film in that way, except that both the emotional and comedic beats feel more realistic than even the best Apatow moments. In fact, the reason the comedy and the pathos hit so hard is because Birbiglia has managed to make a film that honestly captures the truth of a thing. — Seth Frelich
Hell or High Water — Penned by Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan, the film focuses on the bank-robbing Howard brothers of West Texas. The elder, Tanner (Ben Foster) is a brash ex-con, who is loyal, reckless and violent. The younger, Toby (Chris Pine) is soft-spoken, smart, and determined that their string of morning heists won’t hurt anyone but the bank, the film’s true baddie. See, this is a contemporary Western. While there is an eccentric lawman (Jeff Bridges) dedicated to bringing these marauding bandits to justice, both he and the Howards are on the same losing side. Methodically paced, Hell or High Water envelops audiences in the desperation of its setting, and the attitude of its people, who have authentic grit thanks to the casting of supporting players with character to their faces, and curves (some sensual, some sagged) to their bodies. Mackenzie masterfully embeds us into the lives of his anti-heroes, while weaving a story of moral complexity and chilling compromise. It’s so rich in detail and atmosphere, you’ll marvel that an English auteur spun such a stirring story about good ol’ boys in the new Old West. — Kristy Puchko
Swiss Army Man — Paul Dano stars as Hank, a desperately lonely man, stranded on a desert island. Poor Hank is on the brink of suicide when he sees Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), a blue-skinned corpse in a business suit, washed up by the tide. Much like the volleyball Wilson became a crucial companion to Tom Hank’s hero in Castaway, Manny—farting, rotting “pile of shit” that he is—is transformed by Hank’s need for a friend. And Manny is a wonderful friend. When Hank needs water, Manny sprays it from his mouth. When Hank needs a shave, Manny volunteers his teeth as a makeshift razor. When Hank needs a compass, Manny’s boner proves pivotal. And when Hank needs a confidante, Manny begins to speak. On a surface level, Swiss Army Man is an intoxicatingly ludicrous and hilarious comedy, stuffed with pop culture references, scatological gags, and some surprisingly wry observational humor about society and stigma. But beneath this goofy exterior is an inspiring and heartwarming story about human connection and the power of friendship. Dano and Radcliffe create a complicated and compelling bond that is radiant and rousing. — Kristy Puchko
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping — Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never documentary by way of Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap mockumentary. It is a sharp, often hysterical send-up of vapid popstars complete with infectious earworms, insane lyrics, and beats you can donkey-roll to. It’s essentially a series of Digital Shorts loosely held together by a formulaic structure — boy band strikes it big, boy-band lead singer goes out on his own, lead singer enters manufactured relationship, singer is corrupted by fame, and eventually finds his way back to his boy-band roots — but the thinly plotted film is littered with comedic landmines that often go off without warning.
Sing Street — Set in 1985 Dublin, Sing Street plays like Once meets Billy Elliot. Flush-faced newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo stars as Connor, an aspiring musician whose teen years get exponentially tougher when his middle class family’s financial troubles force him to transfer to a scruffy Catholic all-boys school. In a fateful first day, he manages to get on the wrong side of both the school’s sneering principal and its sexually frustrated bully. But Connor finds a ray of hope when he catches the eye of a chic girl named Raphina (Lucy Boyton, a revelation). Sing Street is a bittersweet celebration of youth and that sweet spot where life’s possibilities seems infinite and terrifying all at once. Carney builds his story from a familiar foundation, then uses the imagination of its heroes to grow into fantasy sequences, musical numbers, and a rousing finale that will make you want to stand up and cheer. — Kristy Puchko
Weiner — Weiner is one of the best films of the year, a riveting, awkward, uncomfortable and illuminating documentary about Anthony Weiner’s campaign for New York City mayor in 2013. Anyone who follows news or politics already knows the broad strokes, but the documentary gives us an intimate front-row seat to the lives of those affected by Anthony Weiner’s narcissistic, inexplicable indiscretions, and viewers will wish that their seat was further toward the back, because it’s next to impossible to watch good people suffer so much humiliation. — Dustin Rowles