Ten You Missed

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.

Tideland (2005)

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)
ghost dog
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.

Brick (2005)

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)
descent pic set
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.

5 responses to “Ten You Missed

  1. I agree with everything except The Fountain, but I think we’ve discussed that before. It is a film that splits what little of an audience it has. You love it, i detest it, such is life.

    Some further films I would have to say

    The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda
    It came out in 2000 and is sort of an avant garde documentary, pushing the boundary of what documentaries can be, she is both observer and subject in her study of Parisians and other French people who are forced to dig through trash to get food.

    F for Fake (1974) by Orson Welles
    Granted this isnt in the last decade, but it is also a boundary pushing documentary that almost no one has seen. It was Welles’ last film and it studies the nature of art and forgery, and their troubled relationship, while also suggesting that much of the film is fictional. It is both hoax and not, con game and not, documentary and not.

    Love Me IF You Dare (2003)
    Much in the same vein as Amelie, and decried by critics as being derivative, it is a very fun, very original, and very French romantic comedy. It revolves around the story of two friends from childhood who play a game of dares that escalates as they grow up.

    Adaptation. (2002) by Spike Jonze
    Spiritual precursor to Synecdoche, New York (which I know you dont like) that muses on the artistic and creative process. Charlie Kaufman is writing a film and has writers block, the film he is writing is Adaptation.

    The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) Coens
    Under the wire, last great film by the Coen Brothers before their 6 year drought. It tied with Mulholland Dr. for Best Director at Cannes. It is a near perfect noir suffused thoroughly with their sharp satiric wit.

    Chungking Express (1994) Wong Kar Wai
    I loved this film so much that the day after I saw it for the first time I rewatched it. There are only a handful of films that I have done that to. It is a two-pronged love story about two cops, recently jilted, who deal with their purloined emotions. I cant really explain the film much more than that, its incredibly beautiful though.

    Far from Heaven (2004) Todd haynes
    Restructured Melodrama based on te work of Douglas Sirk and Rainer Fassbinder, it deals with tensions, racial and otherwise, in a small town in the 1950’s.

    And Id also have to throw in Slacker, Linklater’s precursor to Dazed and Confused. It has over 100 main characters, none of whom have actual names (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, etc.), who go about their lives over the course of one day. Its about the disaffected youth that were the 90’s equivalent of the Baby Boom, Gen X. They are agressive nonparticipants, whose seeming laziness is more like a form of rebellion than lethargy, a trend that would be picked up 6 years later in the Big Lebowski and 8 years later when Judd Apatows career kicked off.

    Great Post!!! Made me think about a bunch of stuff!

  2. Remington,

    A varied and interesting list; I enjoyed reading your comments.

    I find “The Machinist” to be peculiar for me because, even though I’d agree that it’s well directed, acted, and shot, I mostly hated it. Every once in awhile I find myself disliking a movie that I can’t criticize other than to note that I didn’t enjoy the story and couldn’t connect with the characters – this is one of those few films.

    I suppose that, given the choice between not liking a movie because it’s objectively shitty, and not liking it because of me and whatever odd preferences I have for cinematic narrative, I’d rather the latter.

    I loved that you included “Waking Life” in this post. I agree that it can be quite overwhelming, and would say from my experience that subsequent viewings are rewarding. I’d also add that, at least for me, there’s a scene or two that I now tend to skip outright, and I find that it improves the film for me.

    I’m more interested in “Mr. Brooks” now. I’m one of the crazy folks who enjoyed “Waterworld,” but I recently tried “The Postman” and was absolutely dismayed by how horrifically terrible it is. I loved when Kostner played the crazy badguy in “3000 Miles to Graceland,” so I bet I’ll enjoy him as an insane horror killer.

    Regarding “The Fountain” (and “Sunshine”)… I’d have to force myself to watch it again to confirm this, but I’m of the opinion that tighter editing would’ve noticeably improved the film. In any case, I particularly enjoyed all of the visuals during the space scenes, and found the ending moving if for nothing else than the spectacle and beauty of it. Unlike “Sunshine,” I was not enraged by this movie. Yes, enraged. I was fantastically disappointed by “Sunshine.” I’m convinced that Danny Boyle tends to be a bad director who simply gets lucky on occasion.

    I join you in giving “Children of Men” the highest marks. I was flabbergasted by several scenes, both because they were sustained so well and also because they were so flat-out incredible.

    And yes, you are indeed correct, Casey Afleck kicks a ton of ass.

    Finally, a loud YES to your praise for “The Descent.” This movie puts a decade (if not two) of movie horror to absolute shame. In my mind, it is for modern horror what “Serenity” is for modern sci-fi. The only negative thing I can think to say about “The Descent” is that it’s soooo good, it just makes “Doomsday” all that more brutally disappointing. C’mon, Neil Marshall, you have shown us you can do better. Quick fucking around.

    = Derek =

    • As far as both Sunshine and The Fountain are concerned, I think it really comes down to if you saw it in cinemas or not. Both of those films are so engrossing via sound and visuals (more sound on Sunshine than the other) that it becomes as important as the story or dialogue.

      When I saw Sunshine I felt the power of the freakin’ sun. It was booming through the speakers at a terrifying pitch and I could see how scary it was. So I think that fear, that awe helps you connect with the characters who are on an insane mission.

      The same for The Founain, truly a film whose poetics really come out through the set design and Clint Mansell’s score. Without those, there wouldn’t be much of interest.

      On The Machinist, I think bale’s transformation is what drives the film. You can tell how messed up he is internally by his Holocaust look.

      The Descent: I agree with your statement on his follow up: I was so excited about Doomsday and left very sad (and he actually wrote both of those films….)

  3. Rem,

    Well, as somebody who normally watches DVD movies on a “home theater” that arguably has a better sound system than some theaters, I know what you mean, but can’t say that my having missed “The Fountain” and “Sunshine” in the theater detracted sufficiently from my experience.

    My problem was, the awe of the visuals and sound design simply wasn’t kept up with by the characters’ childish behavior and the scientifically ignorant plot development (in Sunshine, obviously – these criticisms have nothing to do with The Fountain).

    I agree with you in this case, and really just in general, that great cinema has to do with that wonderful conflation of great story/dialog with engrossing sound and incredible visuals. It’s just that, especially with “Sunshine” (and to a somewhat lesser extent with “The Fountain”), the plot and characters and script are so absurdly poor in comparison with the sound and visuals, that the movie as a whole is all but completely ruined by the fracture.

    Make sense?

    = Derek =
    P.S. Sorry for going with quote marks rather than correct italicization — I’m not familiar with WordPress’ html/bbcode functionality.

  4. I hadn’t yet commented on this, so here we go:

    The United States of Leland – awesome movie.

    And you are right, I did miss the majority of these films. I actually rented Mr. Brooks right before I “quit” Blockbuster, and kept putting off watching it. I believe I have it burnt somewhere, but it’s definitely not on my to-do list atm lol. I did, however, see Children of Men and the Descent, both very good films.

    Keep up the good work, and congrats on your mention on The Week. ❤

    Oh, btw, check out my semi-new blog: http://confessionsmommymakeup.blogspot.com/

    I will be using the blog to do reviews on Baby Products, Makeup products, Misc. and Movies, as well as abolishing the stereotype that all Down Syndrome kids are the same. Please bookmark it and tell me what you think 🙂

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