I watched and will now rank 27 independent films that came out this year. I don’t expect to match this number until retirement absent a radical career change.
What’s an “independent film”? Defining the term is difficult. Wikipedia defines it as “a professional film production resulting in a feature film that is produced mostly or completely outside of the major film studio system [or] [by the indie] subsidiaries of major film studios [e.g. Fox Searchlight].”* That definition is good enough for me and I adopt it here.
*But why does it matter that a film is “independent”? There seem to be two prime reasons: (1) independence from major film studios — and, consequently, independence from the desires of the median viewer in the demographic the studio wants to attract — permits production of a broader range of content and (2) independent films generally have significantly lower budgets and accordingly have to make tough choices that major studio filmmakers don’t face. And a third reason for ranking purposes: outside of Los Angeles and New York City, most independent films play in different venues — independent theaters and arthouses — than major studio films and only a subset of filmgoers frequent these venues with any regularity. There surely is a bigger debate to be had on whether these reasons hold water and whether there’s a better way to define an independent film —- perhaps solely according to budget —- but I’ll save that for another day.
I missed a few of this year’s highly-acclaimed indie films (e.g. Blackfish, Wadjda, All is Lost) and I left off this list any film I saw that satisfied the above definition but received a lot of play in standard theaters (e.g. Twelve Years a Slave).
The Only Films I Actively Disliked
27. The Kings of Summer
Uninteresting characters and plot make this the worst “coming of age” movie in a year replete with them.
26. What Maisie Knew
Everyone seem like a caricature in this dour film.
A very good film for Anglophiles, classical musicians, and the over-65 crowd; a decent film for the rest of us.
24. The Spectacular Now
Miles Teller (Sutter) and Shailene Woodley (Amy) have great chemistry in the second of our “coming of age” films, but I found neither character (or their transformations) particularly compelling.
23. Upstream Color
I enjoyed the beautiful cinematography; the ninety percent of the film I didn’t understand, not so much.
22. To the Wonder
I enjoyed the beautiful cinematography; the story, not so much.
21. The Angels’ Share
A pleasant film that doesn’t take many chances.
20. Blue Jasmine
I still don’t buy that Jasmine (played by the excellent Cate Blanchett) would need to take a computer class, but I love how she says “Danny.”
19. Don Jon
Excellent acting as usual by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, and Julianne Moore, but I didn’t totally buy the protagonist’s transformation.
18. Dirty Wars
An informative and important documentary with a little too much focus on Jeremy Scahill befitting the year of Edward Snowden.
17. Twenty Feet from Stardom
Superb subject for a documentary — backup singers — with some great bits, but the film left me with more questions than answers.
Very Good Films That Were Just Short of Excellent
16. Drinking Buddies
The Your Sister’s Sister — another post-mumblecore delight — of 2013.
15. The Way Way Back
In the best of this year’s “Coming of Age” films, the supporting cast (Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, and Jim Rash) shine.
Will Forte puts on a surprisingly good performance.
13. The Iceman
Perhaps the most underrated indie film of 2013, the movie paints a fascinating picture of a contract killer and family man.
12. This is Martin Bonner
Subtle, understated story and performances.
11. Stories We Tell
A very good documentary that enlivens Sarah Polley’s family history, but less about memory and its malleability than Sarah Polley wants it to be.
The Top Ten
10. Dallas Buyers Club
A film that both mimics and defies your typical feel good movie.
9. Fruitvale Station
The talk of Sundance, the most heart-wrenching film I’ve seen this year.
8. Cutie and the Boxer
Zachary Heinzerling discovered two fascinating artists and ran with them in this skillfully produced documentary.
The first film brought to theaters based on a David Sedaris story, C.O.G. features a delightfully unorthodox story arc and protagonist.
6. Computer Chess
Perhaps the driest film I’ve ever seen, this mockumentary is an eccentric delight.
5. In a World . . .
This film is consistently clever and witty, in no small part due to a supporting cast consisting of various alt-comedy all stars.
4. Before Midnight
The dialogue between Jesse and Céline once again is no letdown, and a new ingredient of tension forces novelty in a film that could have easily been more of the same.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
Although not a comedy per se, perhaps the funniest film of the year. See, for example, “Please Mr. Kennedy”; anything said or done by Lillian Gorfein.
Grounded, philosophically fascinating, and humorous; shockingly not the least bit artificial-feeling, indignant, or dystopian/utopian as many futuristic films are.
1. Frances Ha
Greta Gerwig’s Frances is a uniquely quirky mid-20s female (happily departing from the faux-quirky Zooey Deschanel mold), and in a year with several unsatisfying, incomplete stories of character development, Frances’s transformation (and lack thereof) satisfies immensely.