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If you live for the noisy blockbusters Hollywood releases every year, 2016 wasn’t a victory. Zoolander 2, Independence Day Resurgence, and even Jason Bourne disappointed audiences. However, in the independent (or indie) landscape, the cinema thrived. If you live in this layer of lower-budgeted film, you found original, thought-provoking, visually-pleasing stories like I did. In fact, there were so many winning 2016 indie films, I have conjured up several acknowledgements outside of my top 10.
To avoid bogging down this list with even more thorough explanations, I’ll list each 2016 indie films mention with an accompanying sentence. If you’re a fan of yucking it up at the theaters, the relatable coming-of-age teen comedy The Edge of Seventeen delivers huge. Also, comedian Mike Birbiglia steps behind the camera again for another honest and funny outing with Don’t Think Twice.
If you yearn for the unconventional approaches, The Lobster will quench that desire and then some. Director Ben Wheatley contributes a bizarre but compelling story about an apartment building gone to hell with High-Rise. The Eyes of My Mother will discomfort you but penetrate your every thought after you see it with its interesting serial killer origin tale. Always Shine throws plenty of psychologically thrilling elements at you to stick with you as well.
For those that have sappy hearts like me, the family dramedy Captain Fantastic and the romantic, reminiscing-on-old-love flick Blue Jay hit you deep in your feels. Winding down these 2016 indie films selections is an unflinching study of alcoholism in the gorgeous Krisha. Lastly, Goat shows an unpleasant side of college fraternity hell week that can’t go ignored. With those stellar titles out of the way, here’s my 10 favorite 2016 indie films!
10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The first movie comes from the same director as 2015’s hilarious What We Do in the Shadows. This time, writer/director Taika Waititi pursues an adventure-driven dramedy feel and sticks the landing. With Sam Neill and newcomer Julian Dennison leading the picture, nailing the tone appeared to come easy. The 2 leads have a palpable chemistry that evolves as the film proceeds. If you’re searching for laughs and heart in a film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople has an abundance of both.
9. The Invitation
The Invitation came out of nowhere, more so than any other previous or forthcoming pick. Out of these 2016 indie films, this picture is the most pulse-pounding and uncomfortable to watch. This is not due to overuse of gore, but just pure atmosphere, which director Karyn Kusama immaculately creates. More than being a horror-thriller, The Invitation serves as a study in grief and how one copes with loss, similar to Kubo & the Two Strings but much darker and with more adult-geared themes. The movie is available now to stream on Netflix, so I implore you to see what the fuss is about while it’s there.
8. Green Room
While The Invitation is uncomfortable to watch for its atmosphere, Green Room makes you squirm through its unexpected, real-feeling violence. Writer/director Jeremy Saulnier hits yet another home run here, with his first being a revenge-driven movie, Blue Ruin. Here, Saulnier manages to round out a more recognizable cast with the late Anton Yelchin and the surprisingly-creepy Patrick Stewart. The violence doesn’t exist simply to evoke unease though. Its purpose is shown through how it drastically affects our protagonists. I’m eager to dive into spoilers to further justify this film’s placement, but I’ll stop myself to recommend you catch this streaming on Amazon Prime now.
7. The Handmaiden
Director Park Chan-wook can frankly do no wrong in my eyes. He continues to live up to this with The Handmaiden, an erotic, thriller that shifts perspectives and makes you second guess what you’re watching at every possible chance. The story occurs in Japanese-controlled Korea, where a con man attempts to marry an heiress to steal her fortune. That’s the biggest oversimplification of a film that features such layered complexities, one after another. Like all of Chan-wook’s movies, this demands to be seen for one’s full appreciation. A fair warning though: at some point, this features the director’s propensity for odd, gross-out moments. Like his prior works though, those moments are absolutely earned.
6. Southside With You
For me, Southside With You was the largest surprise of the year. A movie about Barack and Michelle’s first date didn’t sound necessary or appealing. If anything, Southside had giant potential for failure. However, thanks to the brilliant casting and compelling dialogue, we instead received one of the best romance movies in the last decade or so. I have a fondness for films that opt to tell their story in a single day, and do it well. Not only that, through its writing, we’re shown many differing yet very valid perspectives on the racial climate, the business world, and the importance of community. Even if you’re not politically aligned with the subjects of Southside, you’ll still come out enjoying it.
Goodness, Jackie is a beautiful film to behold. Every frame is meticulously crafted like a painting. All credit can be given to director Pablo Lorrain for captivating me so successfully and effortlessly. In addition to the enthralling sights, Natalie Portman puts in another award-worthy performance in her career as Jackie Kennedy Onassis as she experiences the single hardest moment of her life. Then there’s a whole underlying conversation the movie makes about politics bleeding its way into every facet of life, even something as personal as facing a devastating loss. Instead of grieving in private, every action you take is endlessly scrutinized. Considering this, Jackie is a feast for all the senses.
4. Sing Street
I admit the placement of Sing Street is based on its personal connection to my life. In high school, I studied guitar and songwriting in every free second I had. Granted, I didn’t start that venture to “get the girl” like Conor does in this film. Nevertheless, the seemingly never-ending stream of failures after taking multiple risks is a familiar feeling that resonated with me on a large scale after my first viewing.
Director John Carney, who tackled one of my favorite musicals to ever exist titled Once, concocts one of the best coming-of-age movies of the 2010s. With the relatability comes an incredibly infectious original soundtrack. “Drive It Like You Stole It” still seeps into my brain randomly, and I saw this film more than 8 months ago. Sing Street just hit Netflix’s streaming platform, so I implore you to watch this and get some unadulterated joy in your life.
3. Hell or High Water
Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan yet again knocks it out of the park with 2016’s Hell or High Water. As far as 2016 indie films go, an argument could be made for this title at #1. Not only is High Water the best written movie of 2016, it has one of the best performances of Jeff Bridges‘ entire career. Ben Foster shines and continues to show how Hollywood is simply out of excuses as to why he’s not a consistent leading man. Story-wise, you’re left with clammy hands and tense feelings up until the end credits. Even though this was a summer movie, there’s still consistent awards talk for this picture and it’s entirely justified.
Once again, we have another of these 2016 indie films that could be argued into the top position. Director Barry Jenkins carefully creates one of the most perfectly directed, affecting movies of the year in Moonlight. Mahershala Ali turns in a quiet performance that’ll evoke so many emotions from you. The emotional moments are endless though and rather subtle. However understated the film is as a whole, it doesn’t detract from its importance and its engaging themes that will connect with everyone universally. If you’re looking for an underdog to take the Best Picture award at the Oscars, Moonlight is it.
1. Manchester by the Sea
The giant gut-punch of a reveal and the breathtaking, touching performances seen in Manchester by the Sea elevate the movie into “best drama of the 2010s” status for me. Paired with writer/director Kenneth Lonergan‘s distinct vision, you have Casey Affleck offering up his career best, and Michelle Williams‘ vulnerability breaking us to tears. Although spoilers will help explain why Manchester is so highly regarded on my top 10 2016 indies films list, it’s imperative you experience this ride for yourself. With the movie occurring in Boston, the coarse language divvies out much of the humor, especially when our protagonists are placed in awkward encounters. I assure you it’s not all downtrodden misery, and it’s not just a performance-driven piece. Yes, heartache is very present, but these are characters you ultimately root for and identify with in meaningful ways.
If these heavy-lifting, fascinating, inventive dramas are indicative of anything, it’s that the state of cinema is healthy. With an eye to 2017, we have plenty of more promising blockbusters to anticipate like a new Christopher Nolan film, another Blade Runner film, and of course another Star Wars episode. It may be harder for indies to eclipse those pictures in quality or excitement levels, but like 2016, the gems will be there if you seek them out.