1. Short Term 12
Writer-director Destin Cretton’s drama, which swept the awards at South by Southwest, features Brie Larson — the “Geekiest It Girl Ever” — as Grace, a counselor at a group home for wayward kids. The stress of her job is only compounded by her secret pregnancy, and the troubled past that still haunts her. The film features solid supporting work from John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, and Keith Stanfield, but this is truly Larson’s showcase; in fact, she just won a Gotham Award for Best Actress for the gutsy performance.
2. 20 Feet from Stardom
You rarely notice the backup singers in songs or pay attention to them onstage, but not only are they absolutely vital, they also have experiences and life stories that are far more interesting than those of the stars they support. This documentary, which goes behind the scenes with several backup singers, includes interviews with legends like Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger.
3. The Sapphires
This Australian comedy, which is very loosely based on a true story, centers on four Aboriginal singers who form a vocal group and are nudged toward soul music by a messy talent scout (Chris O’Dowd) who spots them at a singing competition. They go on tour in Vietnam, sing for troops as the war escalates, and things get very real, but the film never looses its spirit or comedic edge.
A delightfully twisted tale, executive produced by Edgar Wright, about a pair of British tourists who spend their holiday driving across the English countryside. The twist? They brutally murder a whole slew of people people who annoy them.
5. Afternoon Delight
Finally, a breakout role for comedy stalwart Kathryn Hahn! This dramedy features Hahn stuck in a very boring life, trudging through a sexless marriage (to Josh Radnor) and forced to deal with the petty women of her community. When a stripper (played by another breakout star, Juno Temple) becomes her baby’s nanny, things really start to change. For more, check out this conversation with Hahn and writer-director Jill Soloway, and this interview with Temple.
This Chilean movie, which earned a 2013 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, is based on a true story and features Gael García Bernal as an ad exec who finds himself at the center of a new kind of campaign: one to unseat dictator Augusto Pinochet.
7. The We and the I
This fictional film is one of two movies from French director Michel Gondry this year (read an interview with him about his other one here). The We and the I stars real Bronx school kids, with whom Gondry worked for three years.
This Norwegian Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film in 2013 tells the true story — with beautiful cinematography — of Thor Heyerdahl, an explorer from Norway who sailed on a raft from South America to Polynesia in order to prove that natives from the former continent could have been the first people to settle the latter.
9. John Dies at the End
A stoner’s dream of a movie, based on the web series turned novel that was a cult hit last decade, this batshit horror-comedy is full of college burnouts, a drug called Soy Sauce, Paul Giamatti, and plenty of monsters.
This drama, co-produced by German and Australian financiers, traces the odyssey of the abandoned children of Nazi parents across Deutschland as they seek out their grandmother’s shelter — and meet a young Jewish man who will change their perceptions and challenge their pasts.
11. Upstream Color
This challenging (OK, occasionally confusing) and beautiful film by auteur Shane Carruth is tangentially about cults, memory loss, and love. But it’s mostly an experience, with gorgeous cinematography and acting by Carruth and Amy Seimetz.
12. Sun Don’t Shine
Seimetz is the director on this drama about a criminal couple (Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucker Audley) on the lam. They’re doomed, which is what makes the film so beautiful. Read more from Seimetz here.
13. Gimme the Loot
Gimme the Loot is a fun, scrappy film about two friends from the Bronx who spend one summer day trying to put together the cash for supplies needed to graffiti the Mets’ ballpark. It’s a great modern look at class in the city.
14. The Iceman
Set over several decades, the film stars Michael Shannon as Richard Klukinski, a real-life contract killer for the mob who claims to have bagged upward of 100 targets. Supporting work from an unrecognizable Chris Evans makes this fun in its own wry way too — kind of like its star.
15. Supporting Characters
This small NYC indie film by director Dan Schecter — which catapulted him to the Toronto Film Festival-closing, Jennifer Aniston-starring Life of Crime — stars Girls actor Alex Karpovsky and College Humor alum Tarik Lowe as film editors whose love lives are in shambles. Melonie Diaz, who also stars in Fruitvale Station, stands out in this comedy too. Plus, Lena Dunham has a short cameo.
16. Somebody Up There Likes Me
This quirk-fest, directed by indie staple Bob Byington, stars New Yorker Keith Poulson as a very nonplussed waiter turned millionaire whose life’s fortune rises and falls on the shrugs of his shoulders. Nick Offerman co-stars as his best buddy, while Jess Weixler also has a prominent role as the wife of Poulson’s character.
17. The Girl
Abbie Cornish stars in this small drama that spans the Texas–Mexican border, playing a single mother who loses control of her son while becoming the accidental guardian of a small Mexican girl after a Rio Grande crossing goes tragically awry.
18. Ginger and Rosa
This drama from Sally Potter features Elle Fanning as a girl growing up in 1960s London, as the world changes. The film is proof that she is a star in the making.
19. An Oversimplication of Her Beauty
Jay Z and The Daily Show’s Wyatt Cenac executive produced this experimental blend of narrative, animation, non-linear, and documentary bits, all working to tell the story of young love.
20. Mistaken for Strangers
This is a music doc unlike most others; really, it’s more about the filmmaker. Tom Berninger is the slacker brother of The National frontman Matt Berninger, who gave him a job as a roadie for a tour several years back. Instead of doing his menial work, Tom mostly tooled around with a mini camera. He ended up leaving the tour early, but the footage he got, and the experience he went through, make for a very compelling journey.
21. Something in the Air
French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ semi-autobiographical film is set in Paris during the turbulence of the late 1960s, when students became artistically and politically radicalized, and often clashed with the government. Told from the point of view of one high school student, the stories of several youth movements become one long, winding, occasionally romantic narrative.
22. Black Rock
Katie Aselton directed this realistic horror film (and co-wrote it with husband Mark Duplass) about three women whose camping trip on a local island is spoiled by three murderous, dishonorably discharged war veterans. Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth star alongside Aselton, who had this to say to BuzzFeed about being a female filmmaker: “I think if you have a movie to make, make it. If you happen to have a vagina, that’s OK. Still make it.”
23. Kings of Summer
Another Nick Offerman appearance on this list! Director Jordan Vogt-Robert’s feature debut was a hit at Sundance, but got lost in the summer blockbuster buzz. It’s a shame because this film about three teenage buddies who run away from home and build a house in the woods was a real treat. Here’s lots more from Vogt-Roberts.
24. The East
Inspired by Brit Marling’s summer as a freegan drifter, this political thriller — co-written by Marling and director Zal Batmanglij — is a little bit complicated, but a great look at rigid ideology in this 21st century overrun by corporate treachery. Trailer here.
25. What Richard Did
One day, this little Irish drama might be best known for introducing the world to the talents of Jack Treynor, who is a star of the next Transformers film; but this is an impressive accomplishment in its own right. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s quiet drama about a teenager’s bright future gone awry is filled with angst and difficult decisions. Trailer here.
26. The Angels’ Share
A film by working class ambassador Ken Loach, this Scottish flick is about a reckless young dude who gets hit with fatherhood and, at the same time, 300 hours of community service for his most recent crime. He’s gotta turn his life around, and ironically, it’s whiskey that just may help him do it. Trailer here.
27. Electrick Children
Electrick Children provides indie up-and-comer Julia Garner with a head-turning role as a teenager from a fundamentalist Mormon family who gets pregnant, but her parents tell her it was the fault of heathen music. Unconvinced and faced with an arranged marriage, she hits the road, looking for the truth. Trailer here.
28. Dirty Wars
Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill goes deep into the mountains of Afghanistan and other remote Middle Eastern locations as he investigates the growing covert missions being carried out by the U.S. military.
29. A Hijacking
Before Captain Phillips hit theaters this fall, this Danish hit depicted the high-stakes drama that goes down when Somali pirates hijack cargo ships. Tense, occasionally violent, and filled with quiet moments of contemplation, it’s a worthwhile watch, even if you did see (or plan on seeing) the Tom Hanks hit. Trailer here.
Interview with the Vampire director Neil Jordan returns to the bloodsucker genre with a very unconventional mother-daughter story. Gemma Arterton, a perpetual up-and-comer, and Saoirse Ronan, who has been a promising talent for years, star in this very un-Twilight tale. Trailer here.
31. This Is Martin Bonner
This quiet indie film from Chad Hartigan, which won raves at Sundance, tells the story of a man who uproots his life from Reno to the East Coast, where he begins working as a volunteer with newly released prisoners. Trailer here.
32. Mr. Nobody
This trippy blend of sci-fi and domestic drama originally debuted at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, where critics gave it positive reviews. Despite the acclaim and relatively well-known cast that’s led by Jared Leto, it took two years for the film to premiere in the U.S., and then two more until it was actually released to American audiences.
33. The Hunt
The second Danish drama to make this list features Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen as a man wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a child, resulting in an angry local witch hunt. It won Mikkelsen the award for Best Actor at Cannes in 2012, and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars. Trailer here.
34. Crystal Fairy
Proof that Michael Cera isn’t always adorable: This Chilean film, which Cera shot with director Sebastian Silva as they waited for the money to shoot another flick (Magic, Magic), is a weirdo trip in more ways than one. Co-starring Gaby Hoffman as a wandering hippie, it’s a little gem worth finding. Check out some interesting facts about the movie here.
35. Computer Chess
An off-kilter, fly-on-the-wall study of participants in a fictional computerized chess tournament that takes place in the early ’80s, mumblecore vet Andrew Bujalski shot this very indie flick on the old school Sony AVC 3260, aka black and white VHS tape. Trailer here.
36. Prince Avalanche
First of all, Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, who star as lost souls working on a Texas highway paving crew during one late-’80s summer, are dressed like Mario and Luigi. On purpose. So that should be incentive enough to watch this movie. But if you need more, know that this David Gordon Green-directed dramedy is a smart, talkative study of two unlikely friends forced to confront demons in the vast emptiness of nature.
37. Cutie and the Boxer
This documentary looks at two small-time New York artists, deep into their fifth decade of marriage, as they continue to plug away at their passion projects and their lives together.
38. Blue Caprice
Blue Caprice offers a stirring (and unsettling) look at the life and crimes of John Allen Muhammad, the man who rained terror down on the D.C. area in a three-week shooting spree in the fall of 2002. The film stars Isaiah Washington, the controversial former star of Grey’s Anatomy, who was fired from the nighttime medical soap after a controversy over homophobic comments he allegedly made (and then definitely did make). For more on that and the film, check out this in-depth conversation with Washington.
Adam Scott is the beleaguered son of insane divorced parents (Catherine O’Hara and Richard Jenkins!), and it’s his job to get them to peacefully coexist for the sake of his brother’s (Clark Duke) upcoming wedding. Oh, he also has to deal with his own relationship issues, and the fact that his dad’s second wife (played by a deliciously awful Amy Poehler) hates him. And, for what it’s worth, Adam Scott drew great cartoon dicks on the A.C.O.D. poster at BuzzFeed. Enjoy!
40. Future Weather
A breakout performance by actress Perla Haney-Jardine anchors this small, well-acted drama about a young girl — and passionate little environmentalist — who is forced to move in her grandmother.
41. It’s a Disaster
David Cross and Julia Stiles lead a cast of bitter friends getting together for a nice meal as the world around them crumbles. Lots of human pettiness makes for some funny, uncomfortable viewing.
42. Bad Milo
Ken Marino has a killer demon growing in his ass (too much lobster?). Gillian Jacobs is his wife. This is all you need to know.
43. The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete
This film centers on a bright young boy who’s forced to scrap for survival after his mother, played by Jennifer Hudson, grapples with her heroin addiction. An incredible performance by Skylan Brooks, and a bizarre drop-in from Anthony Mackie, make this very watchable. Plus, Alicia Keys, a believer of aliens, executive produced the film.
44. White Reindeer
Only a very jaded Santa might bring you this off-beat Christmas indie, which looks at tragedy amid the forced joy of the holidays.
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