Throughout the year people you thought you knew showed they were still full of surprises. In 2014, when some would see cinema as a storytelling mode and cultural force as an endangered species, these are vital signs of life. Here is Mark Olsen’s top ten list of independent films:
1. “Under the Skin”: What makes a human a human? And can a creature of unknown origin learn to be one of us? Braced by a riveting performance by Scarlett Johansson, Jonathan Glazer’s film compels the viewer to experience the everyday world as a disorienting place, as if looking with alien eyes.
2. “Inherent Vice”: Smuggling in deep currents of sadness and loss under the guise of a comedic farce, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of the flaky hippies-versus-straights mystery novel by Thomas Pynchon explores what is revealed when the fog clears, as a harsh reality breaks over the horizon of a dream.
3. “Selma”: Director Ava DuVernay has created a film with the forceful power of history and the energized immediacy of right now. By showing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in one of his most decisive periods as all-too human — uncertain, vulnerable and in-process — “Selma” makes his words and actions all the more those of a hero.
4. “Listen Up Philip”: In a story of artistic ambition and how we each define success or failure on our own terms, a young novelist struggles to become the no-remorse jerk he has always envisioned. Another bold film from writer-director Alex Ross Perry, insightful and unapologetic, with a trio of astonishing, vibrant performances from Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce.
5. “Only Lovers Left Alive”: Making vampires cool again, indie icon Jim Jarmusch transforms Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston into the ultimate hip couple, sharing romantic passion and cultural enthusiasms while maintaining their individual identities. Their love and devotion span epochs and locales, always finding them the right scene at the right time, as the film examines what really matters, an essay on the eternal.
6. “We Are the Best!” Three misfit teenage girls in 1980s Sweden refuse to be told who or how to be, forming their own punk band even when everyone says they shouldn’t. Filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, adapting the autobiographical graphic novel of his wife, Coco Moodysson, crafts a movie with a spiky spirit and a warm heart, a story of optimism and friendship set to the upbeat pulse of youthful energy. No matter what anyone else says, you can make yourself heard.
7. “Snowpiercer”: In this collision of action film, sci-fi and political allegory, after an ecological disaster the entire remaining population of the planet lives on a perpetually moving train which becomes a cauldron for unrest to the precarious social order. Made by the audacious Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, working in English with a multinational cast, the film is in constant danger of going off the rails, giving this wild ride a thrilling sense of danger and life in the balance.
8. “Dear White People”: In the freshness of its point of view, the on-point subversion of its politics and the styled assurance of its filmmaking, “Dear White People” is everything you could ask for from a debut feature. Within his take-no-prisoners satire on campus race relations, writer-director Justin Simien also examines the construction of identity, pointing the specifics of his story toward something more universal.
9. “The Immigrant”: In a film that captures the swelling melodrama and outsized emotions of opera along with a stunning evocation of New York City in the early 20th century, including the use of the real Ellis Island, James Gray creates a story that nevertheless feels timeless in its telling of an innocent (Marion Cotillard) corrupted and the attempt by her tormentor (Joaquin Phoenix) at self-destructive redemption.
10. “Citizenfour”: Laura Poitras’ documentary goes behind-the-scenes of history unfolding, as her camera captures Edward Snowden just before and as his monumental information leaks are being revealed. As hold-your-breath exciting as any fictional global thriller, the film has an extraordinary air of intimacy and access, adding new contours to a story many may think they already know.