January 7, 2009 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Guides | January 7, 2009 |


Our biggest complaint with the slow death of print criticism (which otherwise could not happen fast enough) is that it does cut out the major outlet of exposure for small, independent films. Although fully half of the remaining print critics are nothing but blurb whores, there are still a few left who give smaller films a chance by giving serious film watchers a reason to see them. A lot of these movies go to Sundance or SXSW, generate a lot of buzz within a very small community, and then are dumped into movie theaters without an ounce of marketing. They don’t stand a chance. Movie reviews provide marketing these films can’t otherwise afford, and as mainstream print criticism dies, so does independent cinema (it doesn’t help, either, that most of these films will never make it to your local theaters, unless you live in a major metropolitan area).

The following are ten great films that not only haven’t been seen much this year, but that don’t really even have enough money to buy a full page ad in Variety and kiss enough asses to get some major award consideration, either. And thus, most of these films will sit, unwatched on DVD, collecting dust at a Netflix warehouse. We hope you’ll given them a second chance. After all, Sam Rockwell has gotta eat, you know.

edge_of_heaven.jpgThe Edge of Heaven: Anyone who has visited or lived in Germany will be aware of the tensions existing between natives and the Turkish population, the country’s largest ethnic minority. Beyond the myriad socio-cultural schisms which can be found among any immigrant minority, director Fatih Akin believes the heart of this conflict, and perhaps all conflict, is one of dislocation, both in the literal search for Heimat and the personal search for a genuine selfhood. Physical and spiritual aloofness form key motifs in The Edge of Heaven, the second film in Turko-German Akin’s ongoing trilogy. This is a finely crafted film, perhaps a bit too deliberately controlled, yet galvanized with anger and hope and endless suggestion. Akin displays incredible respect for his audience and his subject, allowing the key plot strands to come tantalizingly close, but never directly weave, and then leaving the story open-ended in an incredibly satisfying manner. He never answers whether or not his characters’ searches can or will be fulfilled, but he shows us that fulfillment is forever possible. — Phillip Stephens

voyage-du-ballon-rouge-1.jpgFlight of the Red Balloon: Flight of the Red Balloon is the first new movie I’ve reviewed in which I wouldn’t change a gorram thing. It’s as perfect as an egg and as self-contained as an ecosystem. It has fathoms of feeling but no sentiment, no pre-digested platitudes (however much its title may suggest otherwise). It’s dangerously absorbing. It takes risks in its crafting that pay off, particularly with its static long takes and its meandering camera, which pushes across skies and walls and city streets like a bulldozer shoving aside debris to clear a path towards wisdom. These favorite techniques of director Hou Hsiao-Hsien serve the story well, which was partly inspired by a classic film short called The Red Balloon, directed by Albert Lamorisse in 1956. Flight of the Red Balloon builds on Lamorisse’s image of a balloon trailing a lonely Parisian boy. But Hou’s balloon is more thematic frame than focus, and his film intentionally strays in tone from the tone of its inspiration (one is fantasy, the other is starkly realistic). While it might not seem to be at first glance, this movie is structurally as tight as a drum, with action, theme, soundtrack, setting and cinematography reinforcing and renewing one another. That structural tightness seems to be at odds with the movie’s wandering, contemplative style, but that’s Hou’s gift as a director — an ability to braid two seemingly disparate cinematic forms into one yarn. Flight of the Red Balloon is designed to drug us. It wants to mesmerize us with the potential of art and everyday life, using gentle images and ambient sounds. — Ranylt Richildis

FROZEN%20RIVER_1.jpgFrozen River: Frozen River is this year’s Little Engine That Could, a moving character study by writer/director Courtney Hunt about an impoverished woman caring for two sons in the pre-Christmas winter of upstate New York. Frozen River earns its cinematic stripes as a straight drama, but writer/director Hunt goes deep under the ice in capturing the subtle cruelties imposed on down-and-out women and children whose dire poverty prevents them from catching the very break that might lead to opportunity. In an era when just about every major film studio has its own “independent” film division — irony generally being lost on Hollywood suits — Frozen River is the type of truly independent project that takes the quotation marks off the word. Despite its frayed, grey shoestring of a budget and spare production values, it went into a stacked 2008 Sundance field and emerged with the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic films, besting a slew of strong contenders. — Ted Boynton

happy-go-lucky-2.jpgHappy-Go-Lucky: Mike Leigh paces Happy-Go-Lucky with leisurely, unhurried episodes. He and his actors’ famous use of improv help hew close to moments of real human serendipity, of life caught unawares. This is a director who has mastered his game over the course of decades, and he doesn’t hurry the film’s emotions or tones. Leigh hints that his main character, Poppy, is struggling against Modernity’s oldest crisis, a Dostoyevskyian alienation born of urban rot, but this is essentially a character study and a critique of modern happiness, and a powerful one at that. Maybe Poppy’s outlook is a foolish one, blinded as it is to trenchant realities, but by film’s end her vision is no longer a dishonest one. Poppy remains an improbably good, happy person, not in spite of the unhappy world around her, but because of it. She listens to a vagrant’s ramblings; she listens to her abused, innocent student; she listens to Scott’s wrathful sorrow; she listens to her whingy, neurotic sister. All of these people, whether directly or indirectly, insist that she “take life seriously,” and yet are the unhappiest of all. And Poppy listens, trying to understand just what they’re missing, and what she has. How do you tell a person that, simply, life is sweet? — Phillip Stephens

bruges1.jpgIn Bruges: I didn’t think it was possible this late in the game for someone to inject fresh blood into the weird little subgenre that is Dark Comedies About Hitmen In Quirky Locales, but writer-director Martin McDonagh does a good job with In Bruges, his first feature film. It’s not that there are no good ideas left; it’s just that the entire psychic ground feels plowed under by Tarantino, Ritchie, and a dozen other followers who think everything will be all right if they can just throw in some guns and non sequiturs and odd townsfolk and hope it all turns out for the best. However, though McDonagh’s film is enjoyable, interesting, and extremely dark, it works primarily because of the firm grasp on character and action he’s built up through a lifetime of writing award-winning and pretty unsettling plays like The Pillowman. In Bruges has all the action and flow of a dynamic film, but the pain, drama, humor, and sharp characterizations could only come from someone who’s spent a lifetime writing stories that rely solely on dialogue for emotional content. The whole thing is grim, weird, witty, and not quite like anything you’d expect it to be. — Daniel Carlson

070308-kabluey.jpgKabluey: Kabluey is not astounding or groundbreaking, but it’s a neat semi-superhero movie (for the geeks), quirky (for the closeted and uncloseted Juno lovers), and underexposed (for the pretentious). Kabluey really is a dark comedy about alienation. It’s a simple movie on one level — slacker finds purpose — but beneath that, it’s an absurdist nod to the world we live in, trapped in front of a computer or flung into suburbia, waiting for a bit of human interaction to save us from the thoughts inside our heads. It’s an offbeat, visually transfixing version of Alice in Chain’s “Man in a Box” put through the indie whimsical mill. And it’s the kind of amazing movie that deserves to be seen. — Dustin Rowles

lettherightoneinpic.jpgLet the Right One In: It’s difficult to convey the experience of watching Let the Right One In with words. It doesn’t traffic in many words itself, for one thing, and those it does use are all Swedish. It would be easier to give a sense of the movie’s tone and impact, which has stayed with me for 72 hours and promises to linger for a while longer, by sitting down to perform a haunting piece for cello, or by standing alone with you, silently, during a snowstorm near an abandoned warehouse. Let the Right One In is creepier, and more visually beautiful, than anything else you’re likely to see this year. Or next. Directed by Tomas Alfredson and adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel, it could be — and has been — called a horror movie, but it’s also an exceedingly unusual love story. — John Williams

manOnWire.jpgMan on Wire: The Twin Towers, when they stood, seemed to embody the quintessentially modern gesture, an immense imposition of vertical order and rationality over the anarchic horizontal bustle of Manhattan. It’s hard not to read too much into the culture which could produce such an unsubtle, but architecturally stunning, gesture — such a feat of either capitalist pride or arrogance, depending on one’s point of view. But what then are we to make of Philippe Petit, who, on August 7th, 1974, snuck atop the Towers and walked a high-wire over 1,350 ft. in the sky? Petit’s act both transcends and makes a hash of the Towers’ engineering marvel and whatever ethos was behind it, seemingly to remind us that no matter how daunting our creations, they will always be surpassed by the atomized human spectacle. Other than the pants-wetting spectacle that is Petit traipsing through the heavens, it’s the personality of the man that gives the film this kind of glowing effervescence. After he finally steps off the wire and is arrested by gaping port authority officers, Petit is continuously hammered by questions, of the American analytic why? — to which there’s no real answer. And in the spectacular reverie and media-frenzy which naturally followed Petit’s skywalk, Man on Wire takes an unexpected somber tone as its hero engages in a humorous fling (literal jouissance!) and then confronts the friendships and romantic relationships built around the stunt coming to an end. This human drama completes the film’s arc of triumph in an impressively mature manner. — Phillip Stephens

kate_beckinsale1.jpgSnow Angels: At 32, David Gordon Green is five years younger than Paul Thomas Anderson and six years younger than Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. The fact is worth noting, not because Green has calcified an aesthetic and turned himself into a mini-industry like the other three, but because he hasn’t. He still has the room (and time) to become the best director of his generation. Snow Angels is not the movie that gets him there, but it features all the qualities that make him a candidate for the position. As in his debut, George Washington, and All the Real Girls, the director lovingly establishes a sense of place. He’s sharply attuned to the visual cues of a geography’s character, here captured in a snowblower on a church lawn, the bleachers at a high school football game, and birds flying low over a lake’s icy surface. Green’s not interested in matching track suits or frogs raining down from the sky. He may be drawn to the darker corners of this world, but it’s this world. We’re lucky to see it through his eyes. — John Williams


ben_kingsley9.jpgThe Wackness: The Wackness is a spectacularly smart film from writer-director Jonathan Levine. Not only is this one of the finest acted films I’ve seen in a long time, but it doesn’t take an easy path in the telling. In fact, it’s a pretty unpleasant tale told with a spirit of honesty and sense of humor that Levine’s more experienced contemporaries cannot come close to approximating. In this film, life isn’t fair, we don’t get what we want, and things can end happily without a pink bow and a funky dance number. At its simplest, it is a coming-of-age story, not just about a young man in the summer after his high school graduation but of a grown man in the middle of the collapsing life he shoddily constructed for himself. The movie is gloomy and sad, with a washed out, somber tone to every image and frames that are slightly out of focus on the edges. It doesn’t end happy. It ends the way it needs to, which still manages to elicit a grin. The Wackness is a complicated love story with complex relationships, and a stellar cast with a fresh set of beats. It’s like firing up a mix tape you made for an ex-girlfriend: It’ll bring back all the heartache and love and sweetness of those moments you used to spend wasting your lives together. — Brian Prisco

(Publisher’s Note: But for the fact that it’s being watched by millions on MSNBC, Dear Zachary would’ve also made the list).

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Guides | January 7, 2009 | Comments ()




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