2014 has undoubtedly been an incredible year for cinema. From satirical comedies to engrossing thrillers to thematically heart-wrenching tales, independent films flourished this year and have portrayed some of the best performances and most original storylines we have seen in years.
Whether you’re looking for a laugh, a scare, or an intellectually stimulating experience, it is bound to be found in one of the 23 indie films listed below. These are the films of 2014 that simply cannot be missed.
23. Under the Skin
With her recent endeavors in sci-fi films, from Her to Lucy, Scarlett Johansson has proven herself to be a highly resilient and successful actress in the genre. Under the Skin is no exception.
In the film, Johansson embodies an alien predator who has taken the form of a human, using her sexually alluring nature to seduce men. Upon lustfully luring a man back to her apartment, Johansson unclothes herself as the man she has seduced walks towards her, slowly submerging himself into a black liquid until he is fully underneath. His body then caves in on itself and disappears, leaving only the remains of his exterior skin.
Johansson’s character does this repeatedly, though the reasons for it are never made entirely clear. Under the Skin is a hallucinatory experience with metaphorically dense roots in the power of human sexuality, lust, and sexism.
It is not a film with a linear plot or any key developmental points, but rather a film to be experienced and interpreted with a sense of mystery and dread. Under the Skin is not a crowd-pleasing film and is not meant to be pleasantly enjoyable, and by no means does it end on a satisfying note. However, it remains to be one of the most aesthetically hypnotic and exquisitely constructed pieces of art house cinema of the year.
22. The Zero Theorem
Terry Gilliam’s directorial work has always had a taste for scientific absurdities and fanatically hallucinatory ambiances, from Brazil to 12 Monkeys to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It comes as no surprise that The Zero Theorem exists in the same vein of his surrealist filmography.
Starring Christoph Waltz as a hyper-intelligent and existentially tormented man in a seemingly utopian future, The Zero Theorem tells the tale of an attempt to decipher the meaning of life, or lack thereof, in purely scientific terms. Waltz is magnificent and unnerving in his role, always referring to himself in plurals and over-analyzing everything that is told to him in his daily interaction, whether with other humans or artificially intelligent beings.
As he begins to obsessively work on the theorem of life, or “The Zero Theorem,” the lines between reality and cyber-reality begin to blur in a crazed and elusive manner, all while presenting deeply philosophical concepts such as the importance of life, love, and beauty.
The Zero Theorem, however, is never quite interested in answering these questions, but rather idealizing them in an enthrallingly bizarre manner. This is a film with remarkably absorbing ideologies that create a beautiful and ponderous journey through the human experience, making it insightfully unforgettable.
Films like Locke prove that a low budget should in no way coincide with mediocrity. Locke is a claustrophobic and intense thriller that takes place, from beginning to end, in a vehicle, with a powerful and uncompromising performance by Tom Hardy. This film is a perfect encapsulation of one’s drive for success and moral responsibility, as Hardy tries to manage the strenuous nature of his job as they are juxtaposed with the consequences of his reprehensible actions from months before.
Pieces of the story are slowly delivered through a series of phone calls as Locke attempts to balance his success in his job responsibilities as well as what he deems to be his moral obligation, and the outcome is nothing short of astoundingly moving through one of the most original forms of character development depicted on film.
Locke is an impressive and compelling film that relies more on true humanistic integrity than action-packed thrill sequences, and therein lies its success.
20. The Theory of Everything
Although having been labeled a Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything is a film that supersedes the simplistic retellings of a man’s life. It is a thoughtful, passionate, and deeply insightful look into the past of one of the most influential individuals who has ever lived, and it is told with heartwarming poignancy.
We are first introduced to the newly graduated Stephen Hawking at Cambridge University in the 1960’s, where he meets and falls in love with Jane Wilde. The two meet at a party and are immediately drawn to one another, particularly due to their contemplative and intellectual natures. They discuss everything from the concrete nature of science to the existence of God—something they stand at odds with yet something that does not impede on their affection for one another.
At age 21, Hawking is diagnosed with motor neuron disease, a disease known for its severe physical decline in terms of all motor functioning and limited life expectancy. However, this in no way hinders Hawking’s success, as he becomes one of the most acclaimed physicists of all time despite his disability worsening over time.
The Theory of Everything is truly a film about everything, from existence to science to personal battles to the entire spectrum of human emotion. It is the beautifully told biopic Stephen Hawking deserves, and it is as melancholic as it is eloquently significant.
Few films about musicians have ever been as intensely electrifying as Whiplash. It is a film about the quest for greatness and the relentlessness that true success entails. Whiplash follows Andrew Neyman, played with marvelous ferocity by Miles Teller, who dreams of becoming a jazz drummer. Andrew attends Shaffer Conservatory to achieve his goal, which is known to be one of the most prestigious music universities in the entire nation.
It is here that Andrew is pushed to his limits, both emotionally and physically, in an attempt to stretch his talent to its full potential. Andrew’s instructor, Terence Fletcher, pushes him to ferocious breaking points, creating a palpable tension that becomes psychologically tormenting as the film progresses.
Whiplash is a feverous and brutally thrilling experience, delineating the severe pressures one must endure to achieve their goals and the extremities to which they are willing to be pushed.
18. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
This Japanese action film by Shion Sono is transcendental in almost every way possible. Combining comically self-aware Japanese cinema techniques—such as quick-zooms and freeze-frames—with gallons of bloodshed and the feel of a screwball comedy, Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is one of the goriest and most hilariously outlandish films to be released in years.
We follow a group of amateur filmmakers (whose name will be left out for expletive purposes) from childhood to their young adult lives, with an ever-present dream to create the greatest action film of all time.
In an alternate storyline, we learn of a violent feud that is festering between two yakuza clans, surely to end in bloodshed. After years of dreaming of the perfect action flick, the possibility of filming this gory brawl between the gangs practically falls into the laps of these young amateur filmmakers just as they’ve given up hope.
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? is a ridiculous good time without a single dull moment, building to a maddening climactic finale with a spew of severed body parts and witty dialog. It is a bloody good time for gore enthusiasts and screwball comedy fans alike.
17. The Rover
Few films this year have been as dark and despairing as The Rover. Taking place ten years after the collapse of all society, The Rover is a tale of survival and the violent trepidation of enduring life in a desolate and violently lawless world. Anguish, death, and the loss of human morals are forces to be reckoned with at every corner, presenting an indistinguishable line between desperation and immorality.
Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson’s performances are heart-wrenchingly astounding as they struggle to keep the values of a once-esteemed society, such as honor and integrity in a world that has become all too bleak and inhumane. The Rover is both melancholic and unnervingly intense, making it a gripping yet contemplative experience.