5. The Descent (2005)
One of the most terrifying films of the 21st Century, The Descent is a terrific slow burn horror thriller that combines a claustrophobic setting with brilliantly designed creatures and visual effects. Following six women who venture into a cave on a climbing vacation, the film builds up the anxiety of watching these characters become trapped before revealing its supernatural elements.
Neil Marshall is a filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from truly demented stories, and he crafts a gripping narrative about a character who survives one tragedy only to bear witness to another. The film does an excellent job at building empathy for all of the characters, making their violent deaths all the more upsetting. Relentless and uncompromisingly bleak, it’s a rare modern horror film that doesn’t rely on jump scares and wrestles with genuinely frightening themes.
4. Palo Alto (2013)
The directorial debut of Gia Coppola, Palo Alto is a refreshing take on high school existentialism that avoids cliches by actually comprehending the loneliness of the characters. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and his longtime friend Fred (Nat Wolff) meander through their last days of high school as Fred’s reckless behavior threatens to destroy their friendship, all while their friend April (Emma Roberts) begins to enter a relationship with her soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco).
While it’s easy for a film like this that deals with middle class suburbia to come off as incredibly pretentious, Palo Alto works because it acknowledges that none of these characters have any answers, and their insecurities are derived from their own uncertainty about the future. Each character is compelling in their own way; while Fred’s behavior becomes quickly grating, the film is able to explore the pressures put on the character that make him act that way. Packed with splendid visuals and a beautiful soundtrack, it’s own of the standout directorial debuts of recent memory.
3. You Can Count On Me (2000)
Kenneth Lonergan received immense praise and an Academy Award win for his brilliant film Manchester by the Sea, and fans of that film will definitely want to check out his directorial debut You Can Count On Me. The intimate character drama follows Sammy (Laura Linney), a bank employee in a small town whose life is uprooted when her troublesome brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo) returns home, becoming a mentor to her young son Rudy (Rory Culkin). Sammy attempts to intigrate Terry back into a normal life when he reveals to her that he spent time in prison.
Lonergan’s background is in theater, and in many ways You Can Count On Me feels like a play with its intimate locations, extended conversations, and minimal action. The performances are absolutely riveting; Linney is able to play Sammy as a character who is dealing with the pressures of her collapsing professional and personal life, and Ruffalo sheds his typical nice guy persona and plays a character with a more checkered past. Simultaneously affecting and uplifting in its depiction of small town life, You Can Count On Me is a forgotten gem.
2. The Messenger (2009)
One of the most sobering and unsentimental recent films about the realities of military service, The Messenger is a powerful film that explores the complicated relationship that soldiers have with their country, their service, and their brothers in arms. Ben Foster gives one of the finest performances of his career as Sergeant Will Montgomery, a veteran returning from Iraq who is assigned to serve as a casualty notification officer. Wary about this new position, Montgomery is paired with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a recovering alcoholic who teaches him the specific rules about how to interact with the family of departed soldiers.
The sequences of the two men informing families about their loved ones’ deaths are emotionally excruciating, and the film does a great job of using each interaction to build the relationship between Will and Tony. Foster and Harrelson are excellent at playing men of different backgrounds that find common ground in their struggles with the service. Avoiding military movie cliches with its sharp dialogue and brilliant structure, The Messenger deserves to be regarded as a modern classic.
1. Short Term 12 (2013)
One of the quintessential independent films of the past decade, Short Term 12 approaches the subject of troubled teenagers in a community home with grace and realism. The story centers around the supervisors of the home; Grace (Brie Larson) and her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) struggle to advise these kids as they consider having a child together, while new recruit Nate (Rami Malek) finds it difficult to communicate with these kids as they spiral out of control. In particular, Grace is dealing with her own trauma as she encounters a young girl Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), whose abusive father reminds her of her own experiences.
The real power of the film is seeing this group of kids grow and evolve; in a breakout role, Lakeith Stanfield plays Marcus, an older kid who will soon be taken out of the home that is designed for minors. Stanfield’s performance is utterly heartbreaking, as it’s clear that Marcus has grown accustomed to this environment and fears embarking into the world of adulthood. While often dealing with depressing material and featuring difficult moments to watch, Short Term 12 is also humorous, touching, and ultimately uplifting.