The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

The Future

The idea that things in the world are not quite right seems to be pervasive these days. Economic recessions and global crises will do that, but something much deeper appears to be at work. Jeff Nichols’s new film Take Shelter takes most people’s anxieties about health insurance, job loss, and climate change and turns them into a powerful apocalyptic drama about an Ohio construction worker named Curtis, who’s either clairvoyant or going bonkers. Nichols explained the genesis of the film in an interview in indieWIRE: “Bush was in the White House, the economy was collapsing, there were wars everywhere, towns were getting destroyed by storms. It was just like, what’s going on? It felt like the world at large was losing its grasp of keeping everything together. That was just in the air.” Take Shelter, which features a heart-wrenching performance by Michael Shannon, is a conventional genre film in many respects. Miranda July’s The Future deals with similar subject matter – those same anxieties about the future we all carry around with us while we navigate our daily lives. July’s enchanting new film presents the unconventional version, but it’s equally dark and disturbing.

As should come as no surprise to Miranda July fans, The Future is weird in highly imaginative ways. For one thing, it begins with a voice-over narration by a cat named Paw Paw, whose raspy voice is unmistakably July’s. “Have you ever been outside . . . never been inside . . . Then you know about the darkness that is inappropriate to talk about,” the cat tells us knowingly. Paw Paw, whose life outside has been a nightmare, is about to be put to sleep, but gets a reprieve when his rescuers, a couple named Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), agree to adopt him. In their mid-thirties, these two people live inside, but rarely go outside. When we first meet them, they lie on the sofa with their Apple laptops, too lethargic even to move. Like Dasha Shishkin’s painting Glory of Choice (which was part of her May show at Zach Feuer Gallery in Chelsea), the outside world is full of threats. Jason is a computer tech specialist, who works from home. Sophie teaches dance (which might more accurately be described as “hopping”) to young kids.

When Jason and Sophie, in an intimate moment, suggest, “I think we’re ready,” we think they’re referring to sex or trying to get pregnant, but they’re actually discussing adopting Paw Paw, who, due to renal failure, has only six months to live. The two of them reason that it’s not too big a commitment – they’ll be able to go on with their normal lives afterward. At the animal shelter, Jason views a drawing of a young girl holding a cat. The subject, Gabriella (Isabella Acres), is disappointed that her dad’s drawing hasn’t sold in the fundraiser, and asks him bluntly: “Do you want to buy it?” Jason buys the drawing, but Gabby has included her separated parents’ phone numbers on the back should he want to return it. Paw Paw is excited that the nice couple has returned and, after they pet him, he accidentally purrs. In cat terms, he understands the implications – he now belongs to them – admitting a feeling that would be “unwise to feel outside.” But, due to his injuries, Paw Paw must stay at the shelter for the next month.

Sophie and Jason end up adrift as a result of the unexpected delay in adoption. As they ponder their lives, the fact that they are five years from being forty creates a panic, because, after fifty, they consider the remaining years to be nothing more than “loose change.” As they discuss their aspirations, they feel an acute lack of achievement. Jason laments the fact he’s not richer or smarter or a world leader, while Sophie wishes she followed the news more closely. Sadly, they conclude: “It’s too late for us.” Facing an early mid-life crisis, they two try to re-prioritize their lives by imagining that they have only a month to live. They immediately quit their jobs. Despite an aversion to the outdoors, Jason canvases for the environmental group “Tree by Tree,” while Sophie decides to do a YouTube dance piece every day for 30 days. She also takes the drastic step of cutting their connection to the Internet, which they hope will make them more alert to what’s happening in the world. Sophie, however, soon becomes frustrated and restless. She obsessively calls Marshall (David Warshofsky), who made the drawing of Gabby and the cat, and the two begin an affair.

The Future is based on oppositions: inside/outside and tame/wild, in which Sophie becomes equated with Paw Paw. When she comes home, she tells Jason, “I’m wild,” which mirrors Paw Paw’s confession that he is theirs by day, but wild and alone at night. As Sophie tries to confess her affair to Jason, he frantically tries to stop time, a long scene in which he talks to the moon. The moon speaks in the voice of an elderly man named Joe (Joe Putterlik), who earlier sold him a reconditioned hair dryer. Yet Jason’s stopping of time winds up having disastrous consequences.

Like July’s previous feature Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), The Future presents a world where human beings are subject to irrational forces beyond their control. In fact, Jason’s efforts to stop time in order to spare himself the pain of losing Sophie only make matters worse. In July’s world, children, like Gabby, have the power to manipulate adults (she orders Sophie to act naturally and wave to her father), and time is anything but linear. There are other quirks: a cat narrates the story from beyond the grave, an old man writes dirty limericks to his wife, Gabby buries herself neck-deep in the ground at night, two pregnant women’s children keep aging until they replace their parents who have died, the moon talks, and a yellow shirt becomes animate and grows to the point where July climbs into it to perform a strange womb-like dance. And what other feature would overtly reference Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963)?

As he’s canvassing for his environmental cause, Jason addresses the sad state of the world. He tells a stranger: “It’s probably too late.” He compares the situation to a cartoon where a building gets hit with a wrecking ball. “We’re in that moment,” he contends, when the wrecking ball has already hit and everything is about to fall down. The Future captures the texture of what it feels like to be alive at a time when we all sense that the world might be on the verge of collapse, and how that affects us on an emotional level. Jason’s personal loss at Sophie’s betrayal is made all the more poignant by the sad fate of Paw Paw and his naïve but profound narration – his enduring love for these two messed up humans, until the moment when he confronts the void. “It’s just light,” he says, “and it goes on and on and on.”

Posted 30 October, 2011

Bad Fever

Dustin Guy Defa’s debut feature Bad Fever, set in the director’s home town of Salt Lake City, presents a fascinating study of contrasting characters: Eddie, a lonely misfit living under the thumb of his mother, and Irene (Eléanore Hendricks), a harsh street hustler, with whom he gets involved.

Eddie is a wannabe stand-up comic, who’s not the least bit funny. It’s a role perfectly suited to Harmony Korine, but Defa cast mumblecore director Kentucker Audley in the part. The choice proves oddly intriguing because Audley, who directed and acted in Team Picture (2007) and Open Five (2010), has been a strident advocate of naturalistic acting based on a performer’s own life. For him to play such a stylized role is clearly out of character. The irony turns out to be the fact that Audley is often improvising, whereas Hendricks appears to be working closer to the page. Both are credited with providing “additional material” to the film’s script.

Bad Fever begins with a closeup of Irene making a phone call. When there’s no answer, she strolls over and stands in front of a convenience store. As someone approaches, she asks the person to buy her a pack of cigarettes. Irene seems desperate, as she circles around nervously. She opens the door and yells, “Marlboro Lights!” Eddie, a young man with long hair and a blue cap pulled down, as if he’s trying to appear invisible, exits and hands her the pack. He gets in his car and drives off, as she lights a cigarette in the background.

They come together roughly ten minutes later when Eddie picks up Irene while driving through the city one night. She tells him, “Maybe you can buy me something to eat or something like that.” She asks Eddie, “Are you hungry? Do you want to get something to eat with me? You want to share a plate of food with me? You want to get a milkshake together? Do you want to get two straws in a milkshake?” Even poor Eddie surmises that Irene is coming on to him.

At a restaurant, Eddie asks Irene, “Do you have a boyfriend?” The awkwardness of their conversation is a bit unnerving – like watching a spider spin a web to ensnare a naive and unsuspecting victim. That becomes clear later when Irene begins to film herself in the back seat of Eddie’s car with an antiquated video camera. When he inquires what she’s doing, she mentions making videotapes for a guy in Idaho Falls she met on the Internet. We begin to wonder, but Irene assures Eddie, “I don’t do anything sexual, all right?” But when Eddie watches her VHS tape at home later on, the sexual connotations of her eating a bowl of cereal are unmistakable.

The next day, Irene takes Eddie to an abandoned schoolhouse. As the camera is running, she asks seductively, “Do you like me?” After a pregnant pause, he answers, “Yeah, I think I do.” She asks him to take off his jacket. He wants her to turn off the video camera, but she insists, “No, that should stay on.” She takes his hand and begins to suck on his index finger. Irene orders him to lie down and take off his clothes. She becomes more abusive and barks, “Are you fucking deaf and dumb? Take off your fucking shirt!” She pulls off his pants and tells him, “Take off your underwear, you stupid bitch!” When he freaks out, she calls him a “pussy.” In leaving, Eddie apologizes, but insists that videotaping him sexually isn’t terribly romantic.

Even though Eddie is flustered by what’s happened, he’s smitten with Irene. He decides she’s someone he’d like his mother to meet, along with his imaginary comedy club fans. Eddie puts on a sports coat and tracks her down. Back at the abandoned school, Irene spray paints “dick” under a lewd drawing she makes of one. She then begins to direct Eddie in a home video and quickly turns into a dominatrix by making him pretend to have sex with a pink mop. Dressed in Eddie’s clothes, she then forces him to participate in a mind-boggling gender reversal that is so humiliating it’s truly painful to watch – not unlike what occurs to another social outcast, Keith Sontag (Dore Mann), in Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland (2008). This unlikely romance follows its inevitable trajectory, which is to suggest that more humiliation awaits poor Eddie.

Defa, who’s been making film since he was a kid, has an incredibly strong visual sense that feels effortless. There are some wonderfully subtle shots, such as when golden light reflects intermittently off the back of Eddie’s head as the camera follows behind him. Shots of railroad yards and deserted city streets at night suggest the desolation of an alien planet, which is reinforced by the sound of howling wind. The pacing of the film, which Defa attributes to his editor, David Lowery, who reshaped the structure of the film, is pitch-perfect. Yet, because Bad Fever is essentially a character study, the film succeeds largely due to the riveting performances of Audley and Hendricks (along with Annette Wright as Eddie’s mom and Allison Baar as Yoko in small roles).

Having seen Audley in his own films, what he’s doing performance-wise in Bad Fever feels incredibly risky, especially his use of idiosyncratic speech patterns and willingness to engage in embarrassingly unfunny comic skits. Hendricks, who appeared as the lead in Josh Safdie’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008) and in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Daddy Longlegs (2010), proves terrific once again – a master at rolling her eyes. She manages to convey the pathology of Irene’s character through very small gestures, such as the way she holds and then carries a gray and white cat. Irene has adopted a hard edge as a means of survival – a defense mechanism that Eddie sadly lacks. But, even more importantly, Irene appears well-versed in feminist film theory. She clearly grasps the gendered dynamic of cameras and power, especially how to undercut the visual pleasure of the male gaze.

Bad Fever premiered at SXSW in March. The film is playing as part of a series, “Inside Jokes,” programmed by Mike King, at the UW Cinematheque. Defa’s film will have its Madison premiere on Thursday, July 28 at 7 PM. Local fans of indie cinema should not miss the opportunity to see it. The Brooklyn-based filmmaker will be in attendance.

Posted 9 July, 2011

Putty Hill

After financing fell through on a scripted feature about teenage metal heads in Baltimore, entitled Metal Gods, Matthew Porterfield put together a five-page treatment based on people and locations he discovered while developing it. Shot guerrilla-style in 12 days, the result turned out to be Putty Hill. Porterfield’s semi-improvised second feature mixes a simple fictional premise – the overdose of a twenty-four-year-old drug addict named Cory – with documentary elements, such as direct interviews. Porterfield uses Cory’s death to explore reactions of relatives and friends within a working class neighborhood of Putty Hill on the outskirts of Baltimore. In the process, he captures a sense of dysfunction and alienation that rivals that found in Chris Fuller’s dark vision of his home town of St. Petersburg Florida, Loren Cass (2009), or Harmony Korine’s celebration of white trash culture, Gummo (1997).

Porterfield’s impressive first film, Hamilton (2006), about an unwed teenage mother and the baby’s father set in Baltimore, screened at a number of film festivals and independent showcases, including the Wisconsin Film Festival (which is where I saw it), before seeming to fade away. Putty Hill shares the same formal rigor of Hamilton. It consists of a series of loosely connected scenes that occur the day prior to Cory’s funeral, as well as one shot in his pad afterward. The film is less a portrait of Cory (whose photo we finally glimpse at the wake) than of the people who knew him and the places he inhabited. Only gradually does his younger cousin, Jenny (Sky Ferreira, the film’s only professional actress), emerge as the central character of this group portrait.

Although she wasn’t really close to Cory, Jenny returns from Santa Monica, California for the funeral. Earlier, her father Spike (Charles Sauers), a local tattoo artist, discusses his nephew’s death and his own troubled past with a client. In a long interview in which she rides in a taxi cab, Jenny, like Clarissa from River’s Edge (1987), worries about not being able to cry at the funeral, but reveals sad details about her conflicted relationship with her dad. Later that night, she breaks down after watching him apply a tattoo in subdued light as he and three black men do drugs. As she weeps uncontrollably on the porch, he claims not to understand her behavior.

In a sense, Spike’s bewilderment epitomizes the detachment that these characters seem to experience in the face of everyday life. None of them can really fathom Cory’s death. They know it’s a tragedy, but are incapable of mustering any semblance of emotional loss. As human beings, they’ve become deadened by alcohol and drugs, or distracted by paintball skirmishes, tattoos, BMX bikes and skateboard parks. All of them seem to live with their mothers – their fathers are conspicuously absent from their lives. After Cody and his brother, Dustin, return from paint balling, their mom sits at the kitchen table with Cody’s black girlfriend and baby. She strums a guitar and sings a song for him (about “looking for your brain”), but Cody stirs his coffee loudly and rudely leaves to go to the bathroom. And the assembled group at Cory’s funeral gathering can’t even let his mother, Cathy, deliver her eulogy without creating loud distractions that nearly drown out her words.

The pre-funeral party turns into a bizarre event. It’s held in a karaoke bar, where folks drink pitchers of beer. Someone does an off-key version of “Amazing Grace” (a last-minute replacement for the Rolling Stones’ song “Wild Horses” that created copyright problems), but it soon lapses into empty testimonials and spirited dancing that might seem more suited to a wedding. Cory’s grandmother, Virginia, who resides in a retirement home and smokes cigarettes, refuses to attend. She prefers denial to having to grapple with her feelings. If some of this at times contains an undercurrent of humor, it’s because Porterfield so clearly understands and appreciates the nuances of this subculture and has been able to nail the milieu so accurately.

Porterfield’s poetic sensibility is reflected in the film’s stunning shot compositions. His scenes unfold at a languid pace, but each is a feast for the eye, as well as the ear. Jeremy Saulnier, who, like Porterfield, attended NYU film school, has to be one of the most gifted indie cinematographers. In Putty Hill, he uses a dark muted palette and as little light as possible, so that you can’t help but be reminded of the work of Gordon Willis. One of the strongest scenes in the film is one of Spike giving a tattoo by flashlight. And the final one where Cory’s sister, Zoe, and a friend visit his deserted housde contains so little light we can’t really make out their identities for certain. The scene, however, provides a fitting bookend to the film’s opening shots of Cory’s place, in which light creates reflections on the wall.

Porterfield’s staging of scenes is extremely imaginative in terms of image and sound. In an early scene in which Spike gives the guy a tattoo, the buzz of the tattoo gun nearly drowns out their dialogue, so that Porterfield resorts to subtitles. In another early scene, four teenage girls hang out together on a couch. Two of them get up to have a cigarette.  The camera follows and frames them, but the remaining two offscreen are miked instead, causing a weird disjunction between what we’re hearing and seeing. When Zoe arrives in town for the funeral, she’s interviewed in front of a busy highway. In the night scene of the tattoo at Spike’s place, music drowns out the dialogue.

The director’s decision to use the documentary technique of interviewing the fictional characters is perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Putty Hill. Who is the person asking the questions, and what is his relation to the narrative that is unfolding? Our local critic didn’t think it worked because he felt it created emotional distance from the characters. But with non-professional actors, who are not emotive to begin with, it tends to draw out the subjects, confusing the divide between subject and role in fascinating ways. Porterfield explains the strategy: “I guess I think about it as a disembodied voice – a voice coming from the camera – asking questions in the voice of the filmmaker, maybe the voice of the camera, but also the voice of the audience; but not as a physical body needing any reason to be there.”

Putty Hill provides additional proof of how digital cinema continues to transform indie film. It allows filmmakers such as Porterfield the liberty to shoot cheaply and quickly. In moving away from the written page, he’s been able to combine improvisation and visual storytelling as a means of providing a vitality that’s so often lacking in many conventional films today.

The film, which is being distributed by Cinema Guild, opened at the Sundance Cinemas Madison on Friday, two months after premiering in New York City. It will play for a week.

Posted 16 May, 2011

Beautiful Darling

Photo by Anton Perich

Candy Darling (1944-1974) was a later Warhol superstar from the period after the Pop artist was shot by Valerie Solanas and became the producer of Paul Morrissey’s films. Born James L. Slattery, Candy appeared in Flesh (1968-69) and starred in Women in Revolt (1971), Morrissey’s satire of the women’s liberation movement – a film that parodied Solanas and the SCUM Manifesto in every way imaginable. James Rasin’s poignant documentary about the tragic life of Candy Darling, Beautiful Darling, opened in Manhattan last week. It joins the growing list of documentaries about Warhol performers and associates, such as Nico Icon, Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, and A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory. For true Warhol fans, Beautiful Darling, is not to be missed.

In Women in Revolt, Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis decide that they need to enlist real beauty to their feminist cause. They manage to rope Candy Darling into the PIG (Politically Involved Girls) movement. After she decides to become a movie star, Candy gets taken advantage of by an agent (Michael Sklar). By the end of the film, she has managed to sleep her way to the top, only to be exposed by a tabloid reporter, who brings up the dirt about her – the suicide of her parents, her incestuous relationship with her brother, and her sleeping with various directors to get parts in foreign films where she does very little. Alluding to the title of her new film, the columnist concludes, “I don’t think you’re a Blonde on a Bum Trip; I think you’re a Bum on a Blonde Trip.”

The former might better describe Candy’s actual life story. Beautiful Darling begins with Jeremiah Newton, Candy’s former roommate and the default executor of her estate, as he forges a certificate from the Garden State Crematory in North Bergen, New Jersey. After we watch her gravestone being transported, Candy appears in old footage and announces buoyantly: “Hi, I’m Candy Darling. I’m an actress here in New York. I’ve been in eight pictures – small parts in big pictures, and big parts in small pictures.” In the company of Jane Fonda, who hoped to land a part in a Warhol film, Candy, looking like some sort of fashion-crazed pirate, announces, “I call myself Candy Warhol now,” as everyone laughs uproariously.

The actress Helen Hanft describes how Candy managed to “fool” her father and uncle, who acted “very courtly” when they met her. We hear Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side,” in which she was immortalized, along with Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Joe Dallesandro, and Joe Campbell, aka the “Sugar Plum Fairy,” who appeared in My Hustler (1965). Candy shared Warhol’s love of movie stars. She sent a fan letter to Kim Novak, and was smitten by the missive she received back from the Hollywood actress. Fran Lebowitz views Candy as obsessed and living in the past, but Paul Morrissey claims that she was essentially a humorist, who was merely poking fun at stars.

Bob Colacello points to the paradox of Candy within Warhol’s more avant-garde circle, namely that she was a throwback to another era when the movie studios still existed. Gerard Malanga, however, claims that Candy was “very avant-garde in terms of who she was and how she invented herself.” Despite the juxtaposition of the two contrasting views, in a sense, Colacello and Malanga are talking about two different things. Colacello is discussing Candy as a performer, whereas Malanga is referring to Candy’s choice of sexual identity. To Glenn O’Brien, Candy, like Warhol, was her own artwork. The film cuts to footage of Candy at Warhol’s retrospective at the Whitney in 1971, where they both have great fun by putting on the press – a Warhol trademark.

Cloë Sevigny’s readings from Candy’s diaries represent some of the most compelling material in Beautiful Darling. The sense of gender difference that Candy felt early on led her to turn to the fantasy world of movies – James Slattery aspired to become a female movie star. Whereas Malanga indicates that “there was nothing fragile about Candy,” underground film star Taylor Mead describes Candy as “too gentle . . . too gentle for the bullies.” Newton met Candy when he was only 15-year-old. A devoted fan, he began his own audio diary after Candy’s death. Newton interviews a bigoted childhood friend. Once the person discovered Jimmy Slattery in drag on the Long Island train, she refused to have anything to do with him again and thought “he should be put away.” It’s a response indicative of the times.

Holly Woodlawn explains the dangers that cross dressers experienced in the 1960s before Stonewall, where men could be arrested for wearing woman’s clothes in public. Through Jackie Curtis, Candy, who went by the name “Hope” at the time, became involved in theater, which is where Warhol first saw her in Glamour, Glory and Gold. Holly describes Candy as attracting a coterie of groupies. She includes Newton among them, whereas Sam Green, who curated Warhol’s infamous early show at the ICA in Philadelphia, describes him as kind of her “younger brother” – someone who was merely star struck by her incredible beauty. Newton doesn’t deny that hanging around with Candy brought him acceptance with the hipsters at the Factory and eventually at Max’s Kansas City, where Candy, Jackie, and Holly held court in the back room.

Colacello discusses the early 1970s as a period when “a surge of Hollywood nostalgia came in.” He adds, “And Candy was right in there, somewhere between the past and the future.” John Waters comments, “She was like a real movie star from MGM . . . only in a world that was filled with LSD, and speed really.” Warhol mentions that Candy and the others weren’t really drag queens because they actually believed they were women. Jayne County insists on the fact that Candy was a transgender person. Friends seem unclear about her actual romantic relationships. Melba LaRose, Jr. mentions that Candy was in love with Gerard Malanga, who responds with surprise: “I’m flattered. I didn’t know that.”

Candy claims that she never had to pay for anything, but the truth is that Candy lived hand-to-mouth, as her diaries clearly indicate. When it’s suggested that she had to do certain things to get money, Jeremiah becomes indignant, even if his own interviews provide contrary evidence. We see rehearsal footage for Women in Revolt (so much for Morrissey’s claims about improvisation), along with the trailer, with praise of her highly theatrical performance from both John Waters and Paul Morrissey. Candy eventually appeared as Violet in Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings at the time when the playwright’s own career was in free fall.

Along with starring in Women in Revolt, this marked a highpoint in Candy’s career. Her success proved short lived. Penny Arcade explains, “And then all of a sudden, it turned out to be this ephemeral thing, and the carnival had moved on.” Shortly after this, while staying at the Diplomat Hotel, in June 1973, Candy felt abandoned and alone. She writes: “All I know is: I love, and I am not loved. I do not know happiness. I know despair, loneliness, and longing. My biggest problem is I have no man to love me. So nothing else matters or makes much of a difference.”

More and more, Candy’s gender issues made her feel as if she were “living in a veritable prison.” There’s no question that Candy Darling was gorgeous, but beauty didn’t translate into love (especially for a transgender individual), just as her limited fame as performer didn’t translate into enough money to eat properly or pay the rent. Rasin’s documentary makes the most of its archival material, even if, structurally, Newton’s burial of Candy’s ashes in Cherry Valley, New York seems a contrivance for the sake of the film.

After Candy discovered she had a cancerous tumor, most people felt she accepted her fate as a final role to play. Lebowitz discusses Peter Hujar’s famous picture of Candy on her death bed. Candy staged the way she wanted to appear in the photo – a beautiful actress dying in her prime. Over the final photographs of Jimmy Slattery as a young boy, including a very sweet one of him wearing a woman’s wig, which reminded me of Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003), Sevigny reads from Candy’s diary: “I will not cease to be myself for foolish people. For foolish people make harsh judgments on me. You must always be yourself, no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.”

Posted 1 May, 2011

Best Independent Films of 2010

I’ve posted my “best film” list for the past three years now in February rather than December like other critics and bloggers. The reason is simple. Because I’m based in the Midwest, I always want to be sure I’ve seen all the major indie films that might be worthy of consideration. As I keep complaining, despite my best efforts, that’s not an easy task these days. So it takes me a bit longer to catch up with all the films I want to see. That said, as it turns out, I could have posted this earlier because none of the additional films I watched ended up making the list.

Some “best film” lists have strict rules. One blog limits indie films to budgets of under $1 million. The budgets on my list vary a great deal, but most of them (with the exception of Life During Wartime, Greenberg and Winter’s Bone) are pretty miniscule. On the other hand, there are many films made for a pittance that I wouldn’t consider independent – they’re really industry calling cards. I have little personal interest in such films. Another list insists that a film play at least three times. That might work in New York City, but here we’re often lucky if a film like Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica plays even once. It did in January at our Cinematheque, and I was grateful for an opportunity to see it. To my great surprise, Trash Humpers played for a week. The two other people at the screening I attended left after ten minutes. At least people had a chance to see the film, but that’s often not the case, which continues to be the major problem for alternative cinema.

I liked quite a number of international art films this year: Fish Tank, Everyone Else, Mother, White Material and The Strange Case of Angelica, among others. But again the focus of this blog is American indie cinema, not because of chauvinism, but because that happens to be my main research interest. There are plenty of other Web Sites out there that cover other types of films.

My list surprised even me this time around, which I guess is part of the fun of the exercise. For the record, I’ve seen every film at least twice. In fact, I never write about a film on the basis of a single viewing. No film seemed to benefit more from a second look than Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Trash Humpers, while a polarizing film for audiences, also resonated more on a second viewing. Less than half of the films on the list had brief commercial runs in town (Madison, Wisconsin). Three of them played at the Wisconsin Film Festival.

I saw some excellent films and videos in art galleries and museums in NYC this year. Standouts include: Ryan McNamara’s dance piece, I Thought It Was You, Tommy Hartung’s stop-motion animation The Ascent of Man, and works by Kalup Linzy, Dani Leventhal (all seen at Greater New York at PS 1). I also admired Mika Rottenberg’s Squeeze at Mary Boone in conjunction with Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery.

In any event, here is my personal list of the best indie films of 2010:

(Click on the titles below for extended commentary).

  1. Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Benny Safdie)
  2. Greenberg (Noah Baumbach)
  3. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
  4. Face (Andy Warhol)
  5. Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz)
  6. Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (Damien Chazelle)
  7. Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham)
  8. Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine)
  9. The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray)
  10. Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker)

There were many extraordinary film performances this year: Greta Gerwig (Greenberg), Zoe Kazan (The Exploding Girl) , Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), and Ronnie Bronstein (Daddy Longlegs).

For purposes of comparison, you might want to check out my lists of “Best Indie Films of 2009,” as well as the “Best Indie Films of 2008.”

Posted 23 February, 2011

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