Independent filmmaking is having a heyday right now. When the big studios seem to churn out one big-budget spectacle after another about saving the world, independent films can be the way to go when you want something different with food for thought. The definition of an independent film is fluid, I've discovered. I'm not sure I'd count films produced by smaller studios with the fingers of greater Hollywood in their pie, such as Summit or The Weinstein Company, as truly independent--that would make things like Twilight and Django Unchained independent films. On the other hand, a film's budget and/or popularity isn't what makes it independent (Cloud Atlas is apparently independent, but sure doesn't look like it). I guess it's simply the source of the funding. I just wouldn't lump the star power of Silver Linings Playbook in the same category with Primer. Or Star Wars (which was technically independent) with either.
My definition is totally subjective: smaller budgeted films that I've not seen mainstream marketing for, and don't tend to spoon-feed their audience. That includes some hits (My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Napoleon Dynamite), critical accolades (The Beasts of the Southern Wild, Lost in Translation, Little Miss Sunshine), and big name actors (Bernie, Midnight in Paris, Lars and the Real Girl, Moonrise Kingdom). But extra points to films with no big names at all attached to them. Some of those are among my favorites--, , and . Others I found interesting or sweet, like Another Earth and Take Me Home, but the former wasted too much time with shots of the main character's face trying to meaningful and a raunchy scene (too bad, because the premise is amazing), and the latter was a bit too vague with its characters. Still others I've seen are boring, vapid, or pretentious, but everything can't be a winner.
These no-name independent films would have a hard time finding audiences were it not for Netflix and other online venues. So a big thank you to Netflix for making them available! Here are some of the best independent films I watched this year, mostly on Netflix. A few of these I wished I had room for in my top 10 list.
(2013) - This film had a waiting audience--those who either loved or were completely baffled (as I was) with the 2004 time-travel film, Primer. Shane Carruth, who wrote, produced, and directed his first feature on $7,000, finally came out with another movie! Upstream Color is even weirder than Primer. A lot weirder. Kris, a young woman, is kidnapped at a club and forced to inhale a drug, containing a live roundworm, which leaves her in a hypnotic state of extreme suggestibility. The druggist coerces her into liquidating her home equity and giving it to him. When Kris wakes up, she is horrified to find live worms crawling under her skin, all her money gone, and that she was fired from her job for being absent for weeks. That's not even as weird as it gets, and if that were all that there was to the story, it would've lost me. What the film does well is show what it's like to have your life spiral out of control, lose everything, and not know why. It's presented in a visually poetic, abstract way that recalls Terence Malick. A year later Kris meets Jeff, who seems to have gone through a similar experience of losing everything he had in life. As they grow closer, Kris and Jeff begin to discover what happened to them, and how to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else. This is an incredibly ambitious film and although it isn't for everyone, it works. It's haunting. If Shane Carruth can keep this up, he's set to be one of the most moving and inventive filmmakers working today.
(2010) - Directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, this is the story of an older man, Thomas, whose son died during a storm on the Carmino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Thomas goes to France to retrieve his son's body, but ultimately decides to walk the trail in homage to his son. He falls in with three other pilgrims walking the route for a variety of reasons, and along the way he begins to better understand his son, and think about the possibilities life still offers. This is a sweet film that makes you think about how life can be re-valuated at any stage, any situation. We never stop learning and making decisions. And, of course, the photography is beautiful.
(2009) - Patricia Clarkson plays Juliette, a woman who arrives in Cairo to meet her husband, who is in the Middle East for business. When her husband is delayed, he asks his friend Tareq to look after Juliette. If what typically happens in this situation had happened, I wouldn't have liked the film. While seeing Cairo, Juliette begins to fall in love with it, and Tareq, but the characters and writing are too mature to turn this into a star-crossed love affair rather than a sensitive slice of life film in which the characters know that attraction does not equal future. The beauty of the scenery is only rivaled by Alexander Siddig's face--it's pretty stupid of any man to leave his wife with someone who looks like that. It was killing me how familiar he looked until I looked it up and saw that he was the doctor in good old Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
(2012) - The Office's Jenna Fischer plays Janice, a woman who hasn't figured out adulthood yet--she loses her job and moves in with her type-A sister after being evicted. When she gets a job at the zoo, she meets Tim (Chris Messina), a street performer whose work caused his girlfriend to leave him. What follows is a predictable little love story made charming by the actors and interesting by the fact that their hopes and dreams are fluid and underdeveloped. Not everyone is a successful professional like every other romcom character seems to be. Both Janice's frustration and her sister's overbearingbehavior are completely believable. And Topher Grace as the egotistical self-help writer that the sister sets Janice up with is a total scene stealer. The film's nice little message is that you don't have to do big things in life, and shouldn't feel like you have to. Most people just want to find something that makes them happy, and have someone to be happy with.
(2012) - If first heard of this film when a coworker mentioned it as having a prominent library setting, and it stayed on my watch list for over a year before Netflix got it. Frank is a retired cat burglar who spent a good chunk of his children's formative years in prison. He is now in denial about his increasing dementia. When his son brings him a domestic robot to help him stay independent, Frank throws a fit at first, but warms to the robot when he realizes it can help him relive his glory days as a thief. Even though such a jerk of a character is difficult to sympathize with, Frank Langella gives a great performance, and Frank's prickliness and mischievousness keep the film from getting too sappy. I didn't realize beforehand that James Marsen, Liv Tyler, and Susan Sarandon all appear in supporting roles as Frank's children and the local librarian he keeps hitting on. They are all wonderful. It's really nice to see big actors doing smaller ensemble roles. Sometimes it ends up being their best work.
(2012) - This is a great example of mainstream actors exercising their chops with something different--in this case not only Matthew McConaughey, but Reese Witherspoon. He is dirty grizzled the entire film, while she just looks trashy. Both are completely convincing as Arkansas rednecks, and sincere in their performances. A coming of age story about two teenage boys, they boat across their local lake to an island and find a fugitive hiding out there, going by the name of Mud. He is waiting there for an opportunity to reunite with his old girlfriend, Juniper, who he plans to skip town with. The film captured the lifestyle of an isolated lakeside community extremely well, and the story makes a few unexpectedly realistic turns. I especially like that the boys' heroic perception of Mud through what he tells them about himself is undone by the perspective they get from other characters. Their perceptions of the other characters undergo similar transformations. Too bad I still didn't like this film all that much. It's a little downbeat, leaving you wondering what the boys have left to believe in. Or maybe it was just because the people I watched it with aren't used to this type of film and they rubbed off on me.