The movies are ideally suited to do fantastical things. While advanced special effects have somehow made things seem generally less magical, a successful spectacle — from The Wizard of Oz to The Lord of the Rings — is still the most unique treat the cinema offers. And as easy as it is to spew invective at the dumbest, most bloated Hollywood fare, every year the independent theaters host their share of flat, uninspired work that aspires to be the filmed equivalent of literature but ends up boring you out of your mind. So it’s all the more gratifying when you see a fictional story that gets things right — that understands people in a way that, if it doesn’t feel like a documentary, at least feels like life you recognize.
I recently saw Diggers, a perfectly likable movie about four young clam diggers on the southern shore of Long Island in the 1970s who are threatened by the arrival of a big corporation. One of the things that drew me to it was a review in the New York Times that said the movie felt “like life.” And at its best, it did. It got me thinking about my favorite movies that could be described that way, and the result is the highly subjective, vaguely defined list below (mostly in no particular order).
Junebug — Cultures rarely clash the way they so often do in the movies, when a slick lawyer has to deliver a calf or a redneck has to figure out how to order off a French menu. They more often clash the way they do in Junebug, when Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz), a Chicago art dealer, visits the North Carolina family of her husband, George (Alessandro Nivola). The characters here all have good intentions, and for the most part they’re not caricatures. They just lead lives full of very different assumptions. This leads to personal conflicts and stony silences that feel genuine. Director Phil Morrison also has a deft touch with set pieces, like the one in which Madeleine watches George earnestly deliver a hymn at a church social. It’s a beautifully rendered moment of revelation for Madeleine, and for the audience as well.
Swingers and Sideways — The male friendships at the center of these odd-couple comedies — Mike and Trent in Swingers; Miles and Jack in Sideways — feel more authentic than any others I can remember. This is partly because each movie takes great pains to establish specific, believable details. The moments in Swingers when the guys play Sega hockey and enthusiastically talk trash might as well have been documentary footage from any of countless dorm rooms at the time (including mine). The scenes in which Trent tries to rally Mike out of his post-break-up stupor are equally recognizable, even if it’s less fun to acknowledge it.
The guys in Sideways might be older, but their bonding rituals remain youthful (road trip), occasionally juvenile (accusations of homosexuality). I read more than one criticism that questioned the likelihood of such different men being such good friends, but Miles and Jack are the ideal complementary pair, the former’s constant introspection and subsequent self-loathing perfectly counterbalanced by the latter’s self-ignorance and recklessness. Both movies have many strengths, not all of them strictly realistic, but they’re anchored by relationships that most men can recognize as true.
All the Real Girls — With the word real right there in the title, I didn’t have much choice with this one. Writer-director David Gordon Green’s second effort focuses on the relationship between Paul (Paul Schneider) and Noel (Zooey Deschanel). He’s the local lothario and she’s a virgin in a depressed North Carolina mill town. Their love intensifies without sex, and eventually they face a significant hurdle. After that moment, the movie loses a bit of momentum, but it’s stunningly shot throughout — Green has a well-deserved reputation for capturing languorous days in unlucky places. It’s true that his characters sometimes seem a bit too lacking in self-awareness — I believe one imdb commenter indelicately described his movies as “Hallmark cards for retards” — but there’s a sense that you’re watching their lives unfold in something like real time, and that’s enough of an accomplishment to keep you watching even during the flat spots.
Before Sunrise — In my early 20s, I watched Before Sunrise with a girlfriend. I had seen it in college and greatly enjoyed it. She was watching it for the first time. As the end credits rolled, she turned to me and asked, “Why did you like that?”
It was a funny (and telling) moment, but over time I’ve come closer to understanding her dubious reaction. It’s possible that if I hadn’t first seen it at such a young and sentimental age, I would have been more annoyed by the pseudo-profound ramblings of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who fall in love over the course of one night in Vienna. Still, those ramblings are kind of the point, and their lack of polish is what makes the movie feel so realistic. Jesse isn’t a young Woody Allen artfully spinning his neuroses into potent one-liners; he’s just an overly romantic American with a very small window in which to seem philosophical and sophisticated enough for a stunning French woman. Such moments will lead to rambling.
Funny Ha Ha — Andrew Bujalski is not original, but given that his strongest influences — Cassavetes, some of Woody Allen — haven’t been hip for a while, it would be easy to mistake him for that. Unlike Richard Linklater, who in movies like Slacker and Dazed and Confused captured an entertaining but stagy, kitschy kind of reality, Bujalski aims for something more documentary-like. In his debut, Funny Ha Ha, he meanders along with a group of recent college graduates in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) drinks too much, has no idea how to start a career, and halfheartedly searches in vain for Mr. Right. It’s all standard generational stuff, and adjusting to the level of verisimilitude — the mumbled, ineloquent phrases, and the lack of anything resembling dramatic structure — takes some time.
Unlike Bujalski’s follow-up, Mutual Appreciation, though, Funny Ha Ha doesn’t feel like someone trying to worship an aesthetic. It just feels like someone picked up a camera and started following a few people around. It’s a method of filmmaking that might drive you crazy, but if you’re living on the same planet as me, you can’t deny that it feels real.
Killer of Sheep — In 1977, Charles Burnett submitted Killer of Sheep as his MFA thesis at UCLA. Like many people, I hadn’t seen it (or heard of it, frankly) until this year, when it was restored and released widely for the first time. It’s been a cult favorite among critics and film historians for those 30 years, and it’s easy to see why. Filmed in Watts on a shoestring budget, it unobtrusively captures quiet, desperate lives on crisp black and white stock. The most desperate (and quietest) is Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), whose work at a slaughterhouse leaves him increasingly distant and stunned at home. Watching the movie’s early, aimless scenes of Stan’s young children playing with others in abandoned lots, it was easy to see Killer of Sheep’s visual and tonal influence on David Gordon Green’s George Washington, and it’s likely that many others were inspired by exposure to Burnett’s debut, which has the “hey, maybe I could do that” quality of all great DIY work. Of course, most people couldn’t do it, because it’s not just about amateur acting and stripped-down plot (utter lack of plot, to be honest). The details are most important, like the slow, silent dance shared by Stan and his wife to “This Bitter Earth” by Dinah Washington. It’s in such moments that Killer of Sheep earns its reputation as an independent masterpiece.
Walking and Talking — Nicole Holofcener’s movies all strive to feel like real life. But where the recent Friends with Money seemed a bit like a smart TV dramedy, and Lovely and Amazing before that had a few helpings of self-conscious indie quirkiness sprinkled throughout, Walking and Talking, her debut, mostly just feels like spending time around your own funny, wistful peers. The story centers on Amelia (Catherine Keener) and Laura (Anne Heche), two childhood friends now in their 30s and having very different experiences with love. Laura is about to get married, an event she knows will strain her bond with Amelia, who remains unlucky with men. (Why the pretty, charming Keener has played so many women still available in that stage of life is a great mystery.) Some have called it a precursor of sorts to “Sex and the City,” but with Liev Schreiber, Todd Field, and Kevin Corrigan also featured, Walking and Talking is less about one gender than the way both men and women move (or don’t move) into adulthood.
You Can Count On Me — The king of the category. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s script is a remarkably unadorned, penetrating view of familial love. It doesn’t hurt that Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney turn in brilliant, natural performances as Terry and Sammy, a brother and sister reunited in upstate New York after a long time apart. When they were children, their parents died in a car accident, a shadow that, like almost everything in the movie, smartly informs things without being made overly explicit.
In superficial ways, the pair couldn’t be more different. Sammy is a single mother defined by her responsibilities. She’s not one-dimensional — we’re eventually shown her deep desire for some spontaneity — but she’s not going to go off the rails. Terry lives off the rails, a gentle but troubled soul who can’t seem to grow up in any of the constructive ways. He shows up in Sammy’s town, where the two were born, after leaving behind a pregnant, troubled girlfriend. At first, he just wants money from his sister, but he ends up sticking around and developing an alternately helpful and hazardous relationship with his young nephew, Rudy (Rory Culkin).
You Can Count On Me develops the relationship between its leads slowly and carefully, allowing long, believable conversations to make us feel close to them without pulling too many sentimental strings along the way. This method allows the viewer to make an emotional investment in the characters that’s beyond what he or she might fully realize as the movie unfolds. In the final scene, when the siblings, on the verge of parting again, have a tender conversation in which they refer to the film’s title without actually saying it, the scene is as beautiful, heartbreaking, and genuine as any you’re likely to see.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.
Guides | June 1, 2007 | Comments ()