My Top Picks of 2014—The Best Festival Indies of the Year (So Far)

The year is just past the halfway point so it’s certainly not time for a Best of 2014 list yet. But having already seen about 100 films at festivals in just the first six months, from January through June, I thought it might not be a bad idea to take stock of where things stand right now and post “My Top Picks of 2014 – So Far.”   

Major festivals I attended included my third trip to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in Santa Barbara, California (after a five year hiatus -- I went in 2007 and 2008), my second Palm Beach International Film Festival here in South Florida, for which I was the Operations Manager and had the privilege of helping run the festival, and my fourth trip to the Los Angeles Film Festival (after a three year hiatus -- I went in 2008, 2009, and 2010). There were smaller fests and numerous press screenings, too, and I viewed many on DVD or online which I'd missed at the festivals. I'll consider some of those, as well.

The same rules apply as with my year-end tally. My world revolves around independent films and festivals so this list includes only indies which played at festivals in 2014 which I hadn't already seen at a 2013 festival. There were several which I saw at festivals last year but watched again. Obviously I don't count those even though they may still have been among the best films I've seen in 2014. I also don't go by release date as many other journalists do, because festival films often don't come out until the following year (or later), and some don't get picked up for distribution at all (although I've been lucky there, or just have a good track record, as most of my Top Picks do get released).

This isn’t meant to be any sort of comprehensive wrapup with incisive commentary or trend analysis…I will do that in December. This is just a look back on 2014 so far and what stands out in my mind. Many of these films have already gone on to win awards and get picked up for distribution, including some that are already in theaters or On Demand and can be seen right now.

Countries of origin are listed in parentheses. Titles link to my reviews, interviews, and/or Q&A photos where available, and official festival pages for those films if not. There are a number I've seen recently for which reviews have yet to be written. Others have "capsule" reviews which I'll flesh out into longer ones later on.

 

TOP PICKS OF 2014 (SO FAR) (in alphabetical order)

15 Years + 1 Day (15 años y un día) (Spain) -- This moving coming of age story was Spain's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars. One of that country's most honored films of the year, 15 años y un día picked up seven nominations at the 2014 Goya Awards (Spain's Oscar equivalent) and six at Spain's Cinema Writers Circle Awards. It won the Golden Biznaga for Best Film and the Silver Biznaga for Best Screenplay at the Málaga Spanish Film Festival. The Spanish Actors Union honored Belén López with the award for Best Supporting Female.

Belle (UK) -- After a triumphant debut at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, Belle hit the circuit. It was the Opening Night Film at the Palm Beach International Film Festival. At the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Amma Asante won the Directors to Watch Award. At the Miami Film Festival, Belle won the SIGNIS Award "for its multi-layered depiction of the challenges to the value of human life and dignity wherever a profit-driven system makes commodification of persons acceptable. Masterly crafted, the film lifts up a variety of issues of conscience which still confront us today." Fox Searchlight released the film theatrically in May and will bring it to DVD/Blu-ray in August.

BFFs (USA) -- Director Andrew Putschoegl received a Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema nomination from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It was also selected for the Narrative Feature Competition at the Palm Beach International Film Festival in April.

Boy Meets Girl (USA) -- Robby (Michael Welch) and Ricky (Michelle Hendley) are early twenty-somethings who've been best friends since childhood. He's a man's man, with a frisky eye on every hot lady who passes by. She happens to be one herself but, being more like a sister to him, it's strictly hands off in the carnal department. There is one catch, though. Ricky was born a boy -- now a pre-op transgendered woman -- enduring all the added emotional and physical pain that a kid in that position would be expected to face in a stereotypical small town (in Kentucky, in this case). Enter young Southern belle Francesca, engaged to a Marine fighting in Afghanistan, who is oddly drawn to Ricky, and vice-versa. The ensuing interweaving of storylines, deftly balancing complex characters filled with fear and curiosity, is writer/director Schaeffer's masterstroke. -- See my complete review

Boyhood (USA) -- This is monumental achievement in filmmaking for writer/director/producer Richard Linklater. It's truly in a league of its own. This epic two and three-quarter hour movie chronicles 12 years in the life of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane), beginning at age seven, along with his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Yes, it's a concept that's been done before -- but in documentary style, not as a narrative shot in real time. Such an ambitious project hinges on the film's subject being there every year, physically and emotionally, and that one casting choice may have been Linklater's winning lottery ticket. -- See my discussion with director Richard Linklater and cast, plus Q&A pics from the screening at Arclight Hollywood

Broadway: BEYOND the Golden Age (USA) -- Prior to the "Work in Progress" screening of this sequel to Broadway: The Golden Age, PBIFF presented a Lifetime Achievement Award to the legendary Robert Morse and honored director Rick McKay with the Visionary Award. After the credits rolled, the audience was treated to a Q&A with Morse and McKay, hosted by local film historian Rob Davis (see my photos).

Comet (USA) -- A sweet little film that takes us in a wonderfully enigmatic direction which, to reassure, is obvious even before the first frame as a title card indicates we're about to slide into parallel universes. Dell and Kimberly (Justin Long and Emmy Rossum) meet cute on a line waiting to get into a meteor shower viewing in a Hollywood cemetery (why not?), followed by haunting glimpses of what may or may not be a developing relationship over the course of the next six years. It's never clear whether we're seeing different versions of the same life or abbreviated glimpses of the past as our memory selectively chooses what it wishes to recall. Either way it's tantalizing, and Long & Rossum are delightful enough that we happily go along for the cerebral ride.-- See my capsule review and stills

Confessions of a Womanizer (USA) -- The film has made over a dozen festival appearances since its PBIFF screening. At the Los Angeles Underground Film Festival, the movie won Best Narrative Feature and Miguel Ali won Best Director. It won Best Feature at the Tupelo Film Festival and Ali won Best Director at the Sunscreen Film Festival. For my comments about the film, see the video below.

Earth to Echo (USA) -- The Goonies meets Super 8 x 10. With some E.T., Gremlins, and Wall-E thrown in there as well. The kids are adorable, the story is somewhat plausible, and the effects are stunning with some jaw-dropping "oh wow" moments in the third act. Fast-paced found footage from teens' perspective, kids are loving it. For a non-studio film it's pretty impressive. Sure, it's derivative, but what's not? The negative reviews will call it a knockoff. I'd call it an homage. Nobody calls a murder mystery with adults a knockoff because it's been done before. So I don't see why kids and aliens can't be done as many times as the story, actors, and production allow for an entertaining film.

The Ever After (USA, Australia) -- I was simply blown away by The Ever After, largely due to literally stunning, jaw-dropping performances from stars/co-writers Teresa Palmer and Mark Webber (who also directed). Hyperbole fails me. It's shocking, moving, powerful...Palmer and Webber pack so much in. The movie is truly blessed by the presence of Oscar winner Melissa Leo, as well...a goddess on Earth, and playing one here. It's always a joy to see this woman work. The icing on this cinematic cake is the music of Moby and Daniel Ahearn, whose original score packs a hauntingly powerful wallop. Raw, visceral, and hard to watch at times, full of "did I just see that?" moments. Yes, you did. This is what independent film once was and can be again, pushing the envelope of audience expectations. -- See my capsule review and Q&A photos

Falcon Song (USA) -- As I mentioned above, my schedule this year (not necessarily by choice) had very few of the "sweet little American indies" I crave at festivals. Not only is this one of them, but Jason Brown's 1980s throwback is an homage to many of the movies which helped inform the style of today's independent films. The Montana-set tale, full of subtle dialogue and fleeting retro references, demands a second viewing. That alone bumps it up a notch on the scale. It had a limited theatrical release shortly after the festival. As of May 23rd it's available On Demand via most VOD outlets.

Frank (UK, Ireland) -- An absurdist comedic drama that takes viewers on a cryptic journey, figuratively and literally, across two continents in a band's search for recognition. The heart and soul of the movie is the titular musician (played by Michael Fassbender inside a fake head) who may be the most enigmatic character in recent indie film memory. The "songs" (not exactly Top 40 material) are real with live performances in lieu of dubbing, a plus. No spoilers here so I won't divulge the essential themes which are revealed slowly, but patience is required on the part of the viewer...especially as the film turns dark and heads off into a decidedly non-Hollywood studio direction which kept me on the edge of my seat. -- See my capsule review and trailer

The Girl on the Train (USA) -- Writer/director Larry Brand won Best Screenplay at the Napa Valley Film Festival.

God's Slave (Esclavo de dios) (Uruguay, Venezuela, Argentina) -- SBIFF awarded God's Slave The Nueva Vision Award for the best Spanish/Latin American film. It was selected for the Narrative Feature Competition at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize for Excellence in the Art of Filmmaking. It also won both the Audience Award and Best First Work Award at the Lleida Latin-American Film Festival. At the Huelva Latin American Film Festival, director Joel Novoa won the Prize of the City of Huelva while writers Fernando Butazzoni and Joel Novoa won the Manuel Barba Award for Best Screenplay.

Ilo Ilo (Singapore) -- Director Anthony Chen and cast have 21 wins and 10 nominations worldwide from festivals and other industry groups. These include the Golden Camera Award from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the Asian Film Award for Best Supporting Actress to Yann Yann Yeo, and the Sutherland Trophy from the British Film Institute. In its presentation, the BFI remarked, "The startlingly assured direction and screenwriting of the winning film surprised us all. Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo also chose a domestic canvas, but the imaginative and innovative voice of this filmmaker elevated the film technically and narratively, and made us wonder at the fragile nature of family life in this modern Singapore tale."

La Jaula de Oro (The Golden Dream) (Guatemala, Spain, Mexico) -- The film has been honored with 19 wins and seven nominations. These include two prizes from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival: Un Certain Regard - A Certain Talent Prize for the ensemble and the François Chalais Award - Special Mention to director Diego Quemada-Díez. In its presentation, the festival cited the film "For the strength of the visual aspect, the violence of truth and the emotional intensity of the tragic story of the journey of three teenagers from Guatemala to the American dream." Other festivals presenting the film with major awards include Bombay, Giffoni, Havana, Lima Latin American, Mar del Plata, São Paulo, Tallinn Black Nights, Thessaloniki, and Zurich. It also received a prestigious Goya Award nomination for Best Iberoamerican Film.

Life Inside Out (USA) -- One of the most acclaimed films on the 2013-2014 festival circuit. It won the Jury Award for Best Feature here in Palm Beach. It won the Audience Award for Best Feature at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, Phoenix Film Festival, and Lighthouse International Film Festival. At the John Paul II International Film Festival, Maggie Baird and Lori Nasso won Best Screenplay and the film won the Peoples Festival Award. Life Inside Out was a Festival Award Winner at the Heartland Film Festival and was honored as Best Premiere - Narrative Feature. It also took the prize for Best Feature Film at the Black Hills Film Festival.

Man from Reno (USA, Japan) -- The magical writing team of Dave Boyle (who directed), Michael Lerman, and Joel Clark does it again. This is an epic noir slow burn of a mystery thriller that's so multi-layered, so complex, so nuanced, you'll want to see it again and again. It wasn't a mystery that it was the hit of the festival. Both screenings sold out and it won the competition, taking the Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature. -- See my Q&A photos and trailer

Mary Loss of Soul (USA) -- The Boston International Film Festival awarded it Best Picture and gave the Best Director trophy to Jennifer B. White. She was also honored by Indiefest with the Merit of Achievement for Women Filmmakers. The picture has been selected for the Independent Filmmakers Showcase at the IFS Film Festival and the Los Angeles Women's International Film Festival.

Menthol (USA) -- Besides the Santa Barbara and Palm Beach International Film Festivals, Micah Van Hove's film played the Brooklyn Film Festival and was selected for the International Competition at the Sofia International Film Festival.

Night Has Settled (USA) -- Director Steve Clark received a Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema nomination from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It also played the Palm Beach International Film Festival. At the SoHo International Film Festival, the film won both the Grand Jury Award and the Festival Prize for Best Showcase Feature Film.

Nightingale (USA) -- As Iraq war veteran Peter Snowden, David Oyelowo's stunning performance is destined for recognition. Certainly another Film Independent Spirit Award nomination (and, hopefully, a win) is in his future. -- See my video interview with director Elliott Lester

Omar (Palestinian Territories) -- At the 2014 Academy Awards, Omar received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It won Best Film at the 2013 Asia Pacific Screen Awards and was nominated for Achievement in Cinematography (Ehab Assal) and Best Performance by an Actor (Adam Bakri. Director Hany Abu-Assad won Un Certain Regard - Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The film also won or received nomination from festivals around the world, including AFI Fest, Dubai, Ghent, New York, and Palm Springs.

The Only Real Game (USA, India) -- Director/producer Mirra Bank took home the Festival Award for Best Documentary at the New York Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival. The movie won the Directors’ Choice American Spirit Award from the Sedona International Film Festival, the Accolade Award of Merit, and the Gold Award Feature Documentary at the Asian Pacific International Filmmaker Awards. The Only Real Game opened theatrically in Los Angeles in late June.

Red Passage (Hong Kong) -- PBIFF hosted the World Premiere. The film will next be seen at LA's Awareness Film Festival in September. This is the first-ever movie shot in Hong Kong which deals with the political issues surrounding Communist China and the transition from a British colonial state.

Runoff (USA) -- This is what the sweet little American indie should be...an authentic story with believable actors in an honest setting, with production values worthy of a bigger budget movie. I was moved to laughter and tears, delight and horror, and in the end felt like I'd witnessed a true slice of Americana rapidly disappearing to Big Agriculture...the small family farm. -- See my capsule review, Q&A photos, and trailer

Sand Castles (USA) -- With dozens of wins and nominations under its belt, Sand Castles is one of the festival circuit's most honored films this year. Awards include Best Feature Film at the Gasparilla International Film Festival, Grand Rapids Film Festival, Rainier Independent Film Festival, and River Bend Film Festival, where it also won the Audience Award. It won both Best Feature and Best Actor (Randy Spence) at the Myrtle Beach International Film Festival. Sand Castles won Best Ensemble Cast at the Milan International Film Festival and picked up two trophies at New York VisionFest, Best Actor to Jordon Hodges and Best Cinematography to Chris Faulisi. It most recently played the prestigious Dances With Films Festival in West Hollywood, California.

Siddharth (Canada, India) -- The film was nominated for three Canadian Screen Awards at the Genie Awards, including Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Rajesh Tailang, Achievement in Overall Sound, and Original Screenplay. Writer/director Richie Mehta won the SIGNIS Award - Special Mention from the Hong Kong International Film Festival.

uwantme2killhim? (UK) -- Back in 2003, 14-year-old "John" (played by Toby Regbo) and 16-year-old "Mark" (Jamie Blackley) made UK crime history (which says a lot in itself). Their horrific story, widely circulated in the British press in the mid '00s, eventually made its way into the hands of writer Judy Bachrach and a 2005 Vanity Fair magazine article. Transforming that magazine article into a movie script began shortly afterward by writer Mike Walden. Bryan Singer was brought on to direct the project. After a series of delays, he ended up producing it with Executive Producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and Andrew Douglas was brought on to direct. It debuted at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June, 2013, where stars Blackley and Regbo shared the award for Best Performance. -- See my non-spoiler capsule review, Q&A photos, and trailers

Victor Young Perez (France, Israel, Bulgaria) -- In addition to its nomination for Best International Feature here at Santa Barbara, the film received a nomination for the International Jury Award for Best Feature Film from the São Paulo International Film Festival.

The Well (USA) -- Appropriate to the title of the section it was programmed in, the Los Angeles Film Festival went deep into The Beyond with The Well, led by a tour de force performance from 17-year-old Haley Lu Richardson and a career changer for Booboo Stewart, who lost a shocking amount of weight to play the role of a young man on the verge of death from kidney disease. They killed (in many ways). As expected, indie darling Michael Welch turns in yet another head-turning performance, stealing every scene he's in and leaving an emotionally powerful impression on the audience. Chinatown meets The Road in a post-apocalyptic neo-water wars world where years of drought have turned H2O into a commodity more precious than oil. -- See my capsule review, Q&A photos, and trailer

A Year in Champagne (USA, France) -- You don't have to be a fan of the bubbly to appreciate this rare glimpse behind the scenes into the real Champagne through six houses, from small independent producers to the illustrious houses of Gosset and Bollinger. In the vineyard, 2012 threatened to be 'the year of all our fears.' But most Champagne is not just the product of a specific year and its weather. Signature house styles are creations that happen behind closed doors and in the miles of cellars beneath Champagne. Pull back the curtain and see how the people of a cold, tough land with a grim history triumph in producing the drink of joy, seduction and celebration.

The Young Kieslowski (USA) -- This is only writer/director Kerem Sanga's second feature, and what an auspicious sophomore effort it is. The lion's share of the credit has to go to the movie's two charismatic young leads, Haley Lu Richardson (who also stars in my Top Pick The Well) and Ryan Malgarini as late blooming college students discovering first love -- and how refreshing to see actors playing their ages (they were 18 and 21, respectively, during filming). The picture's level of authenticity is grounded by that fact alone, and furthered by dialogue that's shockingly real. It's not that it feels unscripted -- it really doesn't (and that's okay) -- it's that the characters say what one would expect people to say in these often extraordinary situations in the non-movie world, not a writer's artificial construct to fit the boundaries of the plot and satisfy string-pulling executives. I found myself thinking, "Wow, they really said that" in moments where I thought I heard a "movie line" coming from a mile away. I was proven wrong time and time again, and boy, did it feel refreshing. -- See my capsule review, Q&A photos, and trailer (Won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature)



Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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