The Black Hole of the Camera

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Best Independent Films of 2009

Most people do their “best films” lists at the end of December. That makes sense, but, in my case, it doesn’t seem to work out that way. I have too many other projects in the works, so that even maintaining the blog is a pretty challenging endeavor. But beyond that, because I’m based in Madison, Wisconsin rather than in either New York City or Los Angeles, it now takes considerable effort on my part to view the important independent feature films that surface within a given year.

Most of them aren’t playing at my local cinemas. They play at film festivals, or on VOD, or I have to wait to see them when they are finally released on DVD, or sometimes I’m lucky enough to catch them when I’m in NYC to visit museums and art galleries, where an alternate universe of film and video is also on display (such as Cyprien Gaillard’s mesmerizing Desniansky Raion, which I saw on separate occasions at the New Museum and White Columns this past year).

Three of the indie films on the list below – Goodbye Solo, Treeless Mountain, and The New Year Parade – played at the Wisconsin Film Festival last spring. Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me is scheduled to screen at this year’s upcoming festival in April. Only two of the films – Goodbye Solo and The Girlfriend Experience – had commercial runs locally. But that’s also true of many of the best international art films as well.

I’m certainly a huge fan of global cinema, and indeed found great pleasure in viewing such films as 35 Shots of Rum, Revanche, Three Monkeys, Hunger, The Headless WomanGomorrah, Tony Manero, Tokyo Sonata, Somers Town, and Police, Adjective, among others. And from the studios, I was impressed by Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Yet, due to the main focus of this blog, my list remains confined to American indie films.

If there’s one trend among the best indie films of the year, it is once again naturalism and some flexibility toward the script. The second appears to be a move toward globalism and a renewed interest in regionalism. While So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain and Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo were shot in Korea and Rwanda respectively, the other films were set in Austin (two of them), Winston-Salem, Vermont, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg, Florida. That alone seems pretty remarkable, especially when Hollywood has tried to make it appear as if Los Angeles somehow reflects everyone’s reality.

This is a rough time to be an independent filmmaker. Three films on the list – Severed Ways: the Norse Discovery of America, Munyurangabo, and Loren Cass – took a couple of years after being finished to have a theatrical release. Now that digital technology has made it so much easier and cheaper to make feature films, the biggest challenge continues to be how to connect them with an audience. Most commentators lament the lack of commercial support. The fact that the studios and their subsidiaries virtually have abandoned indie cinema may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but only provided that some new and better digital exhibition and distribution model can emerge from the ashes.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2009:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

1. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
2. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim)
3. Harmony and Me (Bob Byington)
4. Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (Tony Stone)
5. Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski)
6. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung)
7. Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)
8. The New Year Parade (Tom Quinn)
9. Loren Cass (Chris Fuller)
10. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh)

If the new list seems more obscure than last year’s, I think this partially has to do with the fact that indie films are opening in more alternative venues such as Film Forum (Treeless Mountain and Beeswax), Anthology Film Archives (Munyurangabo,) or even The Museum of Modern Art (Harmony and Me). As a result, these films haven’t received nearly the level of publicity they deserve.

Posted 8 February, 2010

Best Independent Films of 2008

A colleague recently suggested that last year hadn’t been a very good year for independent films, but I beg to disagree – 2008 was a great year for independent films. The problem is that if you live outside one of the major urban centers, most likely, you haven’t seen the best of them.

Chris Smith’s The Pool finally opened  at Sundance Cinemas  Madison yesterday and will run for a week, while Kelly Reichardt’s masterful Wendy and Lucy is scheduled to play at Sundance Cinemas March 6-12. Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely did have brief theatrical runs at the Orpheum Theatre, but were available via VOD first. Kent Mackenzie’s restored and re-released The Exiles played for one night at the UW Cinemathque, while Chop Shop and Shotgun Stories screened at the 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival. Antonio Campos’s Afterschool is scheduled to be shown at this year’s festival, but I’m not sure about the local fate of either Frownland or Ballast at this point.

The issue certainly isn’t the quality of independent films, but the difficulties indies are having in finding commercial distribution. After January’s Sundance Film Festival, Manohla Dargis of the New York Times wrote: “Films with no-name actors are a tough sell, as is anything considered too arty, brainy, bleak or dark, which is why much of the best work produced today either goes without American distribution or is released by smaller companies that don’t require huge returns.” I think that’s an accurate summation of the current state of affairs.

Whereas theatrical openings used to be a necessity in order to get a more lucrative DVD deal, that’s no longer the case. Unless the film does extremely well theatrically, smaller DVD companies are not in a position to offer very much in terms of up-front money. Why? Illegal downloads and piracy are two obvious factors. As the world economy continues to tank, there’s the notion that everything – books, music, movies – should be available for free. This makes it difficult for independent filmmakers and musicians as well as non-celebrity authors to be compensated for their labors. The business models are shifting in all these areas, so it will be interesting to see how this situation eventually will play out.

Whatever the case, on this weekend of both the Independent Spirit Awards and the Academy Awards, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2008:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

1. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
2. Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant)
3. Mister Lonely (Harmony Korine)
4. Ballast (Lance Hammer)
5. Frownland (Ronald Bronstein)
6. The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie)
7. The Pool (Chris Smith)
8. Afterschool (Antonio Campos)
9. Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols)
10. Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani)

If my list were extended to include international cinema, I definitely would have added such gems as José Luis Guerín’s structural narrative In the City of Sylvia (click here for commentary), Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life, and Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light. The first two played at the 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival, while Reygadas’s film will play at this year’s festival in early April.

Posted 21 February, 2009