The Nine Best Indie Films of 2015

2015 has been a banner year for blockbusters, especially in terms of earnings. Between a Furious film, a Minions film, a Jurassic film, a Marvel film, a James Bond film, a Pixar film, and, soon, a Star Wars film, we’re looking at babillions of dollars. If you’re into gigantic pop entertainments, then 2015 has been your year.

If, however, you’re into complex, original dramas with great acting, difficult ideas, and new filmmaking tones and techniques, then 2015 has been startlingly weak. The bulk of mainstream Hollywood entertainment from this year has been, in a very general sense, rather mediocre, falling back all too frequently onto the two-fisted pop attack of nostalgia and CGI. Even when a notable director made a movie this year (Guillermo Del Toro, for instance), it was something of a disappointment. Not horrid, just not great.

Related: The 15 Greatest Movie Performances of 2015

So, as must be done in such circumstances, we must necessarily look to the world of independent film to find our treasure. And, as with most years, the smaller, more personal movies made on lower budgets and only playing in arthouses, came at us with a lot of great new stories and excellent new material. If you’re into movies, and you’re not frequenting your local art theater a few times a month, then you’re missing out on some of the best stuff. Anyone can make a film about a killer robot who wants to destroy humanity. More interesting will be the film about a killer robot who acts as a tool of vengeance against an ingrained misogyny.

Here are the best indie films of 2015.

Tangerine

Tangerine

Magnolia Pictures

Sean S. Baker famously filmed his hustler’s rhapsody on iPhones, and a lot was made of the technicals. What is just as important is that Tangerine is a raw, immediate, energetic drama. Two trans prostitutes named Sin-Dee and Alexandra charge around the grimier parts of Los Angeles seeking an unfaithful pimp/boyfriend, discussing cattiness, revenge, and donuts along the way. Apart from treating its trans characters with the utmost realism and undying respect, Tangerine is also one of the best films I’ve ever seen about Los Angeles; few other films really capture the concrete sleaze of the real Hollywood. Plus, local boy Clu Gulager makes an appearance. If that’s not L.A. I don’t know what is.

Experimenter

Experimenter The Best Indie Films of 2015

Magnolia Pictures

In the 1960s – and you may have heard of this – a researcher named Stanley Milgram tested whether or not strangers would apply electric shocks to others under the aegis of “continuing the experiment.” Milgram found that most people are blindly obedient. Michael Almereyda’s few film, about Milgram and his various experiments, ponders Milgram’s results objectively, coming to no conclusions other than our free will may not be as strong as we thought. Experimenter is also a visually complex and odd film that combines real sets with green screens to create a weird carnival out of Milgram’s life.

Dope

Dope

Open Road Films

Rick Famuyiwa, with Dope, gave us a type of character never seen in movies before. His lead trio of teens living in Inglewood, CA are ’90s-obsessed, self-proclaimed nerds. But its an appellation that delineates their awkwardness and originality rather than just their realm of interests. This is also a film that doesn’t shy away from some of the weirder and darker aspects of being a teen in the modern era.

It Follows

It Follows

RADiUS-TWC

A terrific horror movie made on a shoestring that displays more creativity and filmmaking panache than most mainstream horror jumpscare fests, It Follows is a film about sexual guilt, or perhaps just STDs. It’s essentially about a haunting that is sexually transmitted, and that manifests itself as a random assortment of humans that, expressionless, begin following you. If they catch up, you die. There is a gender and sexual politic at work in It Follows that could fill hundreds of essays, and there is ’80s retro style for days.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

A Pigeon

Magnolia Pictures

Before 2015 I was unfamiliar with Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, and I’m glad this was my introduction. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is like a slapstick Samuel Beckett epic about the absurd spirals we tend to walk in. It’s a time-hopping absurdist flick (one that doesn’t have too many pigeons in it, incidentally) that calls to mind Luis Buñuel and other cinematic tricksters.

The End of the Tour

The End of the Tour

A24

No film captures the deadly sin of envy better than The End of the Tour. A biopic of celebrated hipster author David Foster Wallace, the film follows the author’s last book-signing tour and his relationship with Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky. This is a film that is very much about Wallace’s own philosophies (he felt that light entertainments were detrimental to one’s consciousness), but also about the weird, misguided relationships we have with our idols.

What We Do in the Shadows

What We Do

Madman Entertainment

Easily one of the funniest films of the year, What We Do in the Shadows is a mockumentary about a group of vampires picked to live in a dingy New Zealand flat to find out what happens when vampires stop being polite and start getting real. There’s nothing too novel about the concept, but the cast and the writers play with the material so deftly, you can’t help but give into the excellent comedy.

Ex Machina

Ex MAchina

A24

One man has created an artificially intelligent robot, and another man has been selected to test the authenticity of that intelligence. The robot in question looks like a comely woman who, over the course of the film, begins lying and pleading for freedom. Is this a story of the way our intelligence works, or is it an accurate parable about the way misogynists think about women? Is this robot woman much more than an elaborate sex toy?

Mistress America

Fox Searchlight

Fox Searchlight

A 100% accurate depiction of what it’s like to attend college, Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America captures the experience of becoming enamored with an older, more sophisticated adult when you are just finding your own footing. And while that relationship can be rewarding, it’s also fraught with ego; such human whirlwinds are – in actuality – rarely as strong or as interesting as you think. It’s a film about growing up… once you’re 30. It’s about developing character. It’s one of the best films of the year.

Top Photo: Madman Entertainment

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, The Robot’s Voice, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.