We are a rather fortunate bunch. Our grandparents only had two chances to see a film: either when it came out in theatres or if it popped up on television, which is what made the annual television screenings of The Wizard of Oz such a big deal. It was not until VHS revolutionized the industry and films could be watched whenever we desired. Combine this with the communication powers of the internet and a film that never got past screenings in New York can suddenly make a ton of cash and notoriety.
With such fortunes, I find it our job as film enthusiasts to promote our favorite smaller films as a counter-weight to the advertising juggernauts that rumble across our cultural plains.
After my previous blog entry on blockbusters I figured the natural companion would be a list of ten great independent films that may have missed your radar.
This is not a definitive list by any means. These are merely some of the best independent films that I have seen over the last decade. I would love responses with your own list as I’m always wanting to add to my own.
I was hooked from the beginning to Terry Gilliam’s crazy tale about a little girl’s adventures with his bold, balls of brass introduction of awesomeness to the film.
Most of Gilliam’s work is polarizing and this is definitely another of those. One would immediately use words like “creepy” and “messed up” to describe the film. However, this comes from the film’s ability to walk in both the worlds of adults and children.
While watching the film you’re childlike, until the adult bursts into your brain carrying the fear of a danger that never comes. Gilliam plays our adult brains like fools, shooing us away while saying, “Go away mom, we’re just playing!” It’s what really makes the film.
The Machinist (2004)
It’s hard to talk about The Machinist without mentioning that it stars Christian Bale and he lost 62 pounds for the film, stopping at 120 pounds even though he wanted to drop to 100 (he then gained all the original weight back, plus 40 more for Batman Begins).
That type of dedication helps the film, as Bale’s emaciated zombie-body blends with the film’s moody atmosphere about a guy who says he hasn’t slept in a year. Better call Guinness about that.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Before Forest Whitaker gained notoriety for Last King of Scotland, one of his best performances came from a little known film by Jim Jarmusch.
Ghost Dog is a hitman for the mob who uses the Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai as his handbook, but things go awry when the mob turns on Ghost Dog when he leaves a witness after a job.
This is a very simple, quiet film, paced by readings of the Hagakure and the RZA soundtrack. The themes of tradition being overlapped by new upstarts and duty to others make this a wonderful little film that doesn’t sacrifice itself on the altar of “CRAZY ACTION will make them buy tickets, right?”
*See also Leon: The Professional
Waking Life (2001)
There’s a lot to be said for Waking Life, but it really does speak for itself. Following Richard Linklater’s stories of conversations (see Before Sunrise), this film is all talk, with the main character becoming engrossed with on philosophical conversation after another. Combine the mental head trip with the crazy rotoscoping visuals and you’ve got a lot to think about for the day.
On a personal note, I found that watching it all the way through can make you miss things in the latter half simply because you’re overworked. After you’ve seen it once, re-watch it from the middle and get your enlightenment on.
*See also A Scanner Darkly
Mister Brooks (2007)
Since Kevin Costner practically did two apocalyptic films back to back (and both tanked), we haven’t seen a lot of him except for the random throw away comedy. His turn in Mr. Brooks as a serial killer tortured by his addiction brings him back into our favor.
Also re-surfacing is Demi Moore as the detective on his tail, reminding us why she was heralded as such an asset to presentations of women in cinema (that is until she did Striptease).
And finally, William Hurt, who continues to randomly pop up in great supporting roles (see A History of Violence) appears as the little devil on Brooks’ shoulder.
Combine all three of these great veteran actors and this film comes to life like Robin Williams in the 1970s (yes, that was a drug reference). Costner does the role justice and offers meditation on all types of addiction. Though everything is a little more interesting when people are being killed.
Every year Hollywood churns out another crop of comedies, some trying to cash in on high school experiences, never reaching the level of John Hughes intelligence and wit – that is until Brick.
Though not a “comedy”, this neo-noir set in the world of high school is funny, serious, endearing and overall fantastic. The film keeps the interest via the writing, which is dripping with cool and firing off like a tommy gun. When’s the last time writing kept you engaged with a film? It’s also hard to believe that the star of the show was that long haired kid on 30 Rock From the Sun.
The Fountain (2006)
This is probably one of the most polarizing films in the last ten years, one upped only recently by Synecdoche, New York. I would wager that this distinction is what either draws or pushes away prospective viewers. However, I would encourage everyone to try it.
Even if the quiet (and confusing) commentary on death and acceptance may not be your cup of tea, the amazing visuals (no CGI here folks) and haunting score by Clint Mansell will make you feel something. Each will walk away feeling differently.
*See also Sunshine and Pi
The Descent (2005)
At this point I think a lot of my friends see me as a prophet for this film. I happened to catch it on late night cable, was blown away, and continue giving people my copy to watch.
The film focuses on a group of girls who go spelunking, only to wind up lost and trapped with some vicious inhabitants.
Now from this synopsis you’re automatically thinking, “Oh yeah, dumb girls find themselves in peril and scream throughout rest of film. End.” Amazingly, that’s incorrect! The creatures don’t monopolize the film’s creepies, but the ways in which the characters react and change to the situation provide the real goods.
This is one of the few horror films in which women are portrayed strong, smart, and by people with acting chops, not just good looks. Also, be sure to watch the international version, as the ending is different for the US (surprise, surprise).
*See also Aliens for strong female characters
Children of Men (2006)
True, this film had a rather large budget for me to title it as an “indie.” However, it never got a great showing around town and most have still not heard of it.
Set in a future in which women can no longer give birth, the world is crumbling as the populations grows older and extinction seems closer. When a young girl is discovered pregnant it becomes the task of Theo to escort her to the Human Project, which urban legend has it, is a group of scientists who have been trying to cure the infertility problem.
I saw this on the big screen three times and it’s no wonder: Alfonso Cuaron’s limited use of CGI, immersive sets, and mesmerizing long takes make you feel the world in your bones. The film’s apocalyptic landscapes put the recent Hollywood attempts to shame (I Am Legend, Terminator Salvation) both visually and narratively.
This may just be the best dystopian film ever made (if anything compares, please tell me) and I consider this my absolute favorite film, right next to Fight Club. If you’ve seen Blade Runner and enjoyed The Road, you’re sure to love this film.
*See also Blade Runner, 28 Days Later, and Blindness
Half Nelson (2006)
When I think of indie films that beat the shit out of any summer blockbuster with a 200 million dollar production budget, I think of Half Nelson – because all the CGI in the world can’t get me as glued to the screen as damn fine acting with a well written script.
Sure, a lot of people know Ryan Gosling for The Notebook, but fans also remember him in The Believer (playing a Jewish Nazi….yeah, that’s not hard on the parents) and The United States of Leland. Gosling as drug addicted high school teacher, Ryan Dunn, spins between being the cool teacher you knew in high school, to being kind of a dick or just pitiful. Kind of like all of us when you think about it.
The film could just be another cautionary tales about drugs, but it lets Requiem for a Dream keep that position and focuses on the relationship between Dunn and Drey, who is also struggling to keep away from drug dealing after her brother’s sent up to jail for such a crime.
I will pretty much swear by this: there is not ONE thing wrong with this film. Camera work is personal, the music counts where it needs to, and the film’s ability to highlight the type of love and help these characters require remind us of our own frailties. You HAVE to see this movie.
A History of Violence/Eastern Promises
Both made by David Cronenberg and starring Viggo Mortensen. Fantastic stories about relationships and the damages of violence.
Don’t bother with Public Enemies, just re-watch Mann’s best since Heat
Gone Baby Gone
Casey Affleck as a legit badass.
The United States of Leland
Another Gosling film with a ton of other great actors. If you liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you may like this coming of age film.