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Top Five Indie Films of 2010

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2010′s Top 5 Indie Films

What is an independent film these days? In some ways it feels like a label. Like “organic,” slapped on products at your local grocery store. Is “independent” just the “zero trans fat” of the film industry? How can we trust the term when Warner Bros., arguably one of the biggest studios in Hollywood, has a branch called “Warner Independent?” Isn’t that like saying “Exxon-Mobil Green Car?”

For this list, let’s define “independent” as this: a filmmaker has an idea. Maybe he or she has a day job, or maybe they’ve managed to make a living out of visual storytelling, but they don’t work for a major studio or contract with a major studio. He or she gets an idea, and they write the script, and then they go out and raise the money. They have a friend collaborate with them as a producer, and they may also produce the film themselves. They knock on doors. They beg their great uncles. They sell their living room furniture.

At some point, due to the positive response to the film, whether it first become available online through on-demand technology, or maybe it appears at film festivals around the country, a bigger gun comes on board and helps release and distribute the film properly.

Let’s get to it.

5.  I’m Still Here

I'm still hereMy girlfriend and I are often commenting on what we call “The Virtual Generation.”  Only in our thirties, we’re already looking over our shoulders at the “youngsters” coming up, curious about how different they might be.

The independent, offbeat film I’m Still Here is part of a phenomenon. While the film’s director, Casey Affleck, and star, Joaquin Phoenix, are closer to our age and generation than any “virtual” one, the film’s manner is certainly ethereal, and that’s the point.

Dressing itself as a documentary, I’m Still Here follows the life of Joaquin Phoenix, a highly notable and respected actor who has appeared in films since Space Camp and mavericked his way through bigger fare (Gladiator) esoteric independents (It’s All About Love) and gritty, indie classics (The Yards and We Own the Night). Always a bit of an outsider in Hollywood, notorious for his emotionally committed, method-style of acting, Phoenix decides the limelight of acting and the craft itself is no longer truth for him. He wants to write and perform rap music instead. In the film, those around him alternately consider it professional suicide, or nurture him out of loyalty.

Prone to tantrums, intense introspection and a boyish naïveté, Phoenix plays himself in this multi-layered reality. Is it true? As we watch Affleck’s camera track the process of a man turning away from acting and to music, we certainly do wonder. We see footage ostensibly of Joaquin’s childhood; we begin to feel this sense of a man who has not quite found his place, and has been driven by a hidden agenda he has only now uncovered and molted. We see him on stage before hundreds of people, belting his raps out for the crowd. We see him on television talk shows, hidden behind big sunglasses and buried inside his wild nest of a beard. We follow him as he traipses through the film, dressed like a hobo, chain smoking cigarettes. Is it live, or is it Memorex? If it is real, then, while perhaps more compelling, the story is in keeping with those of actors-turned-clothing-designers, Harvard graduates, or gone off to live in an ashram. But if it isn’t real, if the whole thing is a hoax, or simply put, a “movie,” than what does that say? That reality is such a fragile thing, a prism of perception, that with one twist we can recreate it? That it’s “virtual reality?” You’ll have to watch the film to find out.

4. Exit through the Gift Shop

exit-through-the-gift-shopExit through the Gift Shop is a film by Banksy. Who is Banksy? I’d heard of him, but only in the background static of my life, so maybe you have, maybe you haven’t. Banksy began as a street artist in England. He started out his “career” doing what many street artists do – tagging buildings, bridges and other opportune places with his spray cans and paint. Banksy, though, wanted more. He developed a stencil-method that allowed him to tag more intricate pieces on his targets, things like rats with umbrellas and angelic figures swooping. These images have been compelling enough to elevate Banksy to a kind of underground hero, a bonafide artist who, while still keeping his identity a secret, has become something of a celebrity not only in England, but the world over, curating gallery shows, facilitating other artists’ exhibits and now, making films.

Only Banksy never set out to make a film. A guy named Terry did, a seller of vintage clothing from Los Angeles, a man who, after buying a camera, became obsessed with it and started to video nearly every hour of every day of his life. A man who, once turned on to the street art scene, went after capturing the rogue artists in his community with equal zeal. As Terry follows his passion, he inevitably hears about Banksy, and travels to England to meet and film him (still concealing Banksy’s identity, of course) and make his film.

Thing is, Terry isn’t making a film. Not in the classic sense anyway; he has no plan to edit his hundreds of hours of footage into anything cogent, or viewable. So Banksy decides to do it. Seeing Terry as a more interesting character than he sees himself, Banksy turns the camera on the Frenchman and starts to document as Terry’s passion for videotaping morphs into an obsession to become a street artist himself. What catalyzes this change in Terry’s focus? Why, Banksy himself. Terry, Banksy observes, is a creature of whim, and a highly suggestible man. So Banksy tells Terry, “Go home and practice your own street art,” and that’s exactly what Terry does.

Terry comes up with a name for himself. He starts to do piece after piece with characteristic aplomb. He racks them up by the hundreds. He uses every style he’s seen before, with heavy influences of Andy Warhol and, you guessed it, Banksy. In this hodge-podge, highly unoriginal way, Terry goes about putting together his own show. The results are astounding. But to learn them, you have to watch this captivating documentary.

3.  Winter’s Bone

Winters BoneWinter’s Bone is probably the most publicized of these five films. That’s because, for one, it’s a fantastic film, for another, it was shown at last year’s Sundance and Lake Placid Film Forum, going on to be nominated for 4 Oscars, including Best Actress.

The nominated 20 year-old Jennifer Lawrence stars as “Ree,” a 17 year-old girl left holding her family together by a thread when her wayward father is reported to have jumped bail and fled the region. While her almost catatonically depressed mother remains useless, the The Man comes-a-callin’, looking to collect the house; to pull the very rug out from underneath the struggling family’s feet.

Writer-Director Debra Granick has told a story a weather-beaten as the setting it depicts.  Bleak and gritty and perpetually overcast, Ree wanders the landscape and navigates the vicious world of its inhabitants in search of her father. One of the best pieces of the film, for this viewer, is the performance of the father’s brother, “Teardrop,” played expertly by John Hawkes (also nominated). Hawkes is one of those actors who’s very manner conveys how he got into the film business and won the opportunity to play such a visceral role – the hard way. Since appearing as squirrely crew member in ­A Perfect Storm, and a motel manager (also squirrely) in Identity, Hawkes has winnowed his way through an eclectic series of film and TV roles to wind up here, in this bitter gem of a film. Winter’s Bone boasts smart, sharp writing, a sterling cast, and a compelling tale, sleek and simple. The girl has motivation, she has a noble objective, and now she has to try and survive her many obstacles if she is to save her beloved younger siblings from likely damnation.

2. Monsters

Monsters film 2010On the first day of classes at the New York Film Academy, they taught us know-it-all hotshots how to load film into an Arriflex 16 mm camera, point, and shoot it. To edit, we would sit in a darkened room with huge flatbed Steenbecks, machines that spooled the film, literally cutting where you wanted to cut, and splicing using adhesive tape.

At that time, in the late 90’s, you could digitize your film and use this new-fangled thing called “non-linear editing” with an AVID machine. The process of digitizing the film could take hours. At a hundred bucks an hour to rent the AVID time, you can see how the cost starts to add up. Say nothing of film stock, processing, camera rentals, props, set design, and art department. To think of making a film meant to think about raising money, to think about getting your hands on equipment, and on booking editing time. This is not always the case anymore.

Today’s average household laptop is a faster computer than the ones used to make Jurassic Park in 1993. Decent edit software with all the bells and whistles can be purchased for as low as fifty dollars – even for high definition video. A person can grab a Canon 5D for $3,500, or pick one up on eBay for half of that. So, a basic laptop, some decent software, and a middling camera can all be got for as low as $2,500. This, essentially, is what has become the democratization of filmmaking through technology.

What does it mean? It means the considerations for making a film today are very different on the front-end. On the back-end, though, you still want to get it seen. Well, thanks to video on demand and platforms like iTunes and Amazon, just about anything you produce is there for mass consumption with a few clicks and an upload. The only thing left is just to promote the heck out of it, and that’s what the makers of Monsters did. Shot for a mere $15,000, the film boasts gigantic aliens, planes being dragged underwater, and a post-apocalyptic Central American landscape.

How did the filmmaker, ­­­­­­Gareth Edwards, achieve all of this? With two good actors, a great soundman, and by spending hours sitting in his living room on his computer.  Seriously. The film went on to be downloaded on iTunes so often that Edwards was eventually able to convince a major distributor to pick it up for a proper theatrical run. And low and behold, you have Monsters, a sci-fi thriller shot for about the cost of a mid-sized sedan, reaping millions of dollars at the box office.

Monsters tells the story of a man and a woman who are forced to navigate the “infected zone” through Central America. Along the way, this at-odds couple grow to appreciate one another, bonding as they face escalating obstacles along their way. In its essence, the film isn’t much different than other boy-meets-girl fare, but where Monsters differs is in the knowing; it’s one of those rare cases where understanding how a film was made can enhance your appreciation for it. The effects, clever as they are for their fiscal responsibility, don’t seem the least bit gratuitous. With a good sound man on board, Edwards also knows that the audience will forgive any image so long as the audio is clear, so the thundering, chuffing sounds of the huge aliens in the jungle bring chills. In the end, when all of the efforts pay off, Edwards takes what otherwise could be criticized as just a compilation of alien creatures we’ve seen before and adds his own creative twist to it. The result is not only captivating, but endearing.

1.  Catfish

Monsters film 2010Let’s get back to that idea of “The Virtual Generation.” Catfish is a truly modern film.  Whether we have gone from post-modernism to post-post-modernism in our art and filmmaking is a topic for discussion elsewhere, but as you’ll see with this astonishing little indie flick, we certainly live in a time when many lines are blurred. In Catfish, not only are different techniques employed in the creation of the film, but these same techniques commingle with elements within the actual story.

Have I lost anyone? I may have lost myself. What I mean to say is that Catfish, a story seemingly about two people who meet on Facebook, is a story uniquely possible through the multimedia of social networking, texting, cell phones, emails, YouTube, and on-demand technology. Through these avenues, a precocious young girl from the Midwest makes a connection with a New York-based photographer, and their relationship unfolds.

The story, then, in all its many twists and turns (including one big shocking moment that will have you squirming in your seat and talking about for hours, maybe days afterward) is revealed by the filmmakers using the same elements which have made it possible in the first place. Implementing animated Google Earth images, GPS technology, and with copious shots of computer screens, extreme close-ups of texts and online chat messages with highlighted phrases, the film is itself an example of multimedia. The effect is that we encounter the story, and this Midwestern family, the way the main character does, through social media and myriad methods of communication. We watch as cursors click on the screen as if we were sitting in his seat. And when our hero and the filmmakers journey to the Midwest to actually meet the family, Google maps scroll and GPS guides us along our way.

Surrounding and pervading all of this we have a statement, whether intentional or inadvertent, about the increasingly infectious “myth of the little king” – that the same society forever telling us we can be anything we want, now, through the vast avenues of communication, dangles the very example of that success in front of us. In today’s connected world, we are now privy to every pop star and celebrity and purported success story. All we have to do is look. And we may become desperate to do anything to emulate their lifestyles, to rise above what we then come to view as the inadequacy or deficiency of our own lives. We may enact any method, even if it means concocting the most elaborate virtual reality, a reality only possible through the very multimedia that dangled the dream in front of us in the first place. Catfish had me thinking for hours, even days after watching it. Maybe it will do the same for you, too.

Happy viewing; the good thing about doing a “top five of 2010” list in April is that all of these films are available to watch on DVD and Blu-ray.

–T.J. Brearton is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

 

 

 

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