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The Top Ten Indie/Foreign Movies of 2016

By Pajiba Staff | Lists | December 28, 2016 |

By Pajiba Staff | Lists | December 28, 2016 |

If you’re wondering why your favorite isn’t on this list, that could be because it made it into our general top ten. Or maybe it didn’t quiiite get there, but it’s DQ’ed from this list on account of being a major studio release: Sorry La La Land, The Nice Guys, Hidden Figures, and Fences. But the lists, they keep on a’coming—check out our choices for the year’s best comfort movies and bad performances in good movies later on this week. For now, here are our choices for the top ten indie/foreign releases of the year.

1. Green Room
A band of winningly bedraggled punk rockers (including Anton Yelchin and Alia Shawkat) arrives in a small-town, desperate to be booked for a gig — any gig — so as to make a bit of money. To their horror and (it soon becomes clear) to their terrible misfortune, they find themselves booked to perform at a venue that plays host to a hardcore neo-nazi audience. After riling the crowd by cheerfully thrashing through some anti-fascist tunes, the band retreat to the green room backstage to pick up their winnings and get the hell out, but there they become witnesses to a terrible murder. As they threaten to call the cops, the tension grows until the band have barricaded themselves into the room, while the head honcho of the neo-nazis (Patrick Stewart) is brought in to try and wipe them out. The stand-off escalates from there, unleashing a cataclysm of gore along the way.

En route, director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) and his cast have a ball, mining the story for some big laughs, can’t-look-away-fast-enough violence and merrily gratuitous gore. The plot swings about wildly like an angry drunkard, with inventive new developments carrying the spectator through to the end with bravura style. — Caspar Salmon

2. Swiss Army Man
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. Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe create a complicated and compelling bond that is radiant and rousing. — Kristy Puchko

3. The Edge of Seventeen
[Writer/director Kelly] Fremon Craig has crafted a completely authentic, three-dimensional teenage character. With her cynicism and disdain for other people, Nadine’s [Hailee Steinfeld] like Daria Lite, if more prone to fits of drama. She’s narcissistic and a little mean. I may have rolled my eyes at Nadine proclaiming “I am an old soul. I like old music and old movies and even old people!,” except that shit is exactly the sort of thing I would have said when I was her age… I can’t speak as to how much other people will relate to Nadine—maybe I’m viewing my particular experiences and emotional foibles of youth as more universal than they really are. Maybe, if you see The Edge of Seventeen, you’ll see it as a standard teen movie that’s funny, yeah, but the protagonist is kind of hard to root for because she’s such a self-involved dick with a massive case of #firstworldproblems. I don’t know. But I do know that I really wish The Edge of Seventeen had been around when I was seventeen.—Rebecca Pahle

4. Always Shine
There are plenty of horror movies about women in danger. But few capture the unique danger of being a woman as distinctly and sharply as Sophia Takal’s Always Shine. Centering on the tale of two actresses whose girls-only weekend away turns grim, her buzzed about thriller explores the patriarchal trap that pits women against each other. And it does so in a suspenseful and surreal way that’s sure to make your heart race.—Kristy Puchko

5. 20th Century Women
I found myself thinking a lot about the election while watching Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women. On the surface, the two have nothing to do with each other. 20th Century Women takes place in California in 1979, when Trump was only an eight-year-old shithead instead of a 70-year-old shithead. The days are sunny and Jimmy Carter is President. And speaking of shitheads: There are none in this movie. It’s not bombastic, it’s not loud. It’s a sweet, somewhat meandering look at a found family living in a ramshackle Santa Barbara house: 55-year-old matriarch and single mom Dorothea, her teenage son and his best friend, a punkish boarder, and an aging hippie handyman. Nothing Trump-y here.

Except 20th Century Women, in a very real way, is about the evolution of the American female psyche. And I watched it a few days after white women got Donald Trump into the White House.

Yeah. Oh.

There’s no indication that Trump was on Mills’ mind when he wrote 20th Century Women’s script. The film is political in a general, rather than a specific sense, sort of a simplified “This Is Your Life” of how (white) women have fit into—and pushed back against—societal expectations throughout the 20th century. Disregard the gender politics angle, and 20th Century Women is still a great film, breezy and empathetic without devolving into sentiment.—Rebecca Pahle

6. 13th
Fearlessly, [Ava] DuVernay digs back into a history written in blood and teargas, reaching into corners of the American experience that white America has the luxury to avert our tender eyes from. Iconic political activist Angela Davis, New Jersey senator Cory Booker, congressman Charles Rangel, political consultant Newt Gingrich, and more line up to tell the tale of black Americans from the not-so-distant days of slavery (remember there are those still living whose parents were slaves), to the heyday of Birth of a Nation, through the Civil Rights movement, The Black Panthers rise and fall (though she glosses over their more problematic exploits), through the “Southern Strategy,” Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan’s politically minded War on Drugs, and Bill Clinton’s disastrous Federal Crime Bill, to today and Black Lives Matter. Through talking heads and haunting imagery of lynched men, murdered children, and archival footage of white-on-black violence, DuVernay spells out how our current issues of mass incarceration and police brutality have been a long-time in the making.—13th

7. The Witch
A slow-burning, utterly immersive, claustrophobic, chilling little number that sets itself apart from the majority of the contemporary horror landscape by how unabashedly arthouse-y it is. The characters speak in Jacobean English, for fuck’s sake. In going super-traditional in terms of story, [Robert] Eggers has crafted a horror film that’s anything but, at least compared to the quick-n-cheap (and occasionally surprisingly good!) horror films that saturate much of the current marketplace. There is no levity in The Witch. You will not laugh. You might pee yourself a little. The jump scare, aka the favored tool of horror directors who don’t actually know what they’re doing, is used sparingly and well—most of the horror comes less from ZOMG THERE WAS A LOUD NOISE than the real-world fears of English families who packed up their belongings to move out to Bumfuck, Nowhere, aka colonial America. Like, for example: The isolation, the very real possibility of starving to death, and—for Thomasin, the family’s eldest daughter—the extremely limited options afforded to women in that time period.—Rebecca Pahle

8. Nina Forever
Come for the WTF, stay for the wicked humor and shockingly compelling romance.

At first glance, Nina Forever, the British horror-comedy that drew raves out of SXSW, might look like a tawdry excuse to display two naked, but gore-caked women rolling around in bed together. But that gruesome gimmick is just one crucial ingredient to what makes this creepy curiosity so distinctly dark and delicious. Much like the three heroes of this fucked up fairy tale, there’s much more to Nina Forever than meets the eye.—Kristy Puchko

9. The Lure and The Mermaid
This is the year that gave us not one but two weird foreign mermaid movies. Thanks, 2016. You didn’t do much right, but this was good.

The Lure mixes sultry rock, sprightly pop, pitch-black humor, moody melodrama, frank nudity, and body horror to make a fairy tale that is fresh, fearsome, and fascinating. It delights and repulses in turn, pushing its audience to consider what its fantasy reflects about our reality. There are portions where the storytelling goes soggy, and some bits of plot and dark comedy seem lost in translation. Yet The Lure is easily one of my favorite films of the year for the extraordinary risks it takes, and its sheer strangeness.

One moment it feels like you’ve wandered into a vibrant ’60s musical like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The next, we’ve tripped down a dark alley into a Cronenberg nightmare of blood, flesh and fury. Then we surface into a club, slick with slime, sex, and god knows what else, where two strange sisters spin and shriek in a glam-punk seduction that’d have made David Bowie smile. The journey will leave you dizzy, rattled, and breathless.—Kristy Puchko

At its core, The Mermaid is like a fucked-up The Little Mermaid crossed with The Host (the South Korean one, not the Stephenie Meyer one). Liu Xuan (Chao Deng) is a playboy entrepreneur whose company causes serious damage to the environment, leaving a small group of mermaids (and one mer-octopus) convinced that they have no other option but to kill him in order to reclaim their home. The most attractive among them, Shan (Yun-Lin Jhuang), poses as a human and honeypots him, though her mission hits a snag when she develops those pesky feelings things for her would-be target.

If that makes The Mermaid sound like your typical tale of star-crossed lovers… yeah, no. It’s funny, it’s frenetic, it’s filled with over-the-top violence and it’s occasionally just plain twisted, as in a memorable scene with the aforementioned mer-octopus and a hibachi grill. It features my favorite out-of-context line of the year so far: “Even if you don’t respect Batman, you should respect yourself.”—Rebecca Pahle

10. Loving
This is the kind of prestige movie Oscar dreams are made of. But what Jeff Nichols ends up doing is something remarkable, and it’s exactly what he did with Midnight Special. He takes something big, something blockbuster-worthy, and he makes the most quiet, personal, intimate movie of the year.

One of the most striking things about Loving is how quiet it is. There is little dialogue, yes, but more than that, there is a softness laid over this movie like a blanket, like thick, warm Southern air itself. There is a sadness that pervades throughout, but there is also comfort. Nothing about this movie feels the need to be in your face. Rather, it lets you in, holds you, and calls you family.—Vivian Kane

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