The Ten Best Indies of 2009

By Brian Prisco | Guides | January 5, 2010 | Comments ()


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It's been a pretty great year for independent cinema. The Oscar buzz is pretty much 50 percent on the smaller movies with the lower budgets, and it's a trend I'm incredibly stoked for. As the resident indie jeebus, I review the movies that nobody ever sees. It's one of the perks of living in the whorehouse -- you actually get to see a little more than the average bear. I'm constantly at the movies, and whenever I mention what flicks I'm catching, it's accompanied by glazed-over expressions and blank stares. More often than not, it's some sort of narcissistic, masturbatory navel-gazer that thinks it's daring or original because someone filmed someone running through the woods or staring at a beverage in a shadowy smoky home and overlaid it with one of the whiter breads from our music list.

But this year had some solid, solid work, spread all the hell over a bunch of genres. Truth be told, one of the major contenders this year would probably have to be one of the truly independent pictures -- Precious. It was only after it got the double dark blessings of Oprah and Tyler Perry that it found a niche and get found out. But you know, it's gotten enough love. In fact, most of this list is going to baffle and confound -- until you see our best of 2009 list. The fact that almost half that list is limited release flicks warms my black clotted heart.

I thought this was going to be a cakewalk, but frankly, it was hard cutting the list down to just ten. While James Cameron lines his pockets with a billion dollars from folks watching Dances with Wolves as performed by cerulean cat-monkeys and Michael Bay blasts rock music over battle scenes that are shiny metal blurs and nets fourteen times the GNP of Portugal, most of the flicks listed below didn't come anywhere near $10 mil. Almost half the list didn't even chip that $1 million mark. Some of my picks didn't even make $5,000. And yet, I seriously enjoyed the hell out of these flicks, and when it comes time to pad those Netflix accounts, I hope you choose well.

As for what got left off... Well, I couldn't see everything. Trucker or World's Greatest Dad probably would earn a much coveted spot. Grace and Ink easily could have snuck their way on here in slower year. I left off Red Cliff, because that's really from 2008, otherwise that's my number two. One of my favorite films of the year, the unbelievably hideous and hilarious The Snake didn't even get distribution, despite being championed by the star of my number eight pick. And the critics must have seen a different cut of The Messenger than I did, because while I liked it, I wasn't foaming at the mouth like everyone else -- but if Woody Harrelson beats out the competition, I won't cry.

One last thing: I failed you. I saw Rudo y Cursi, which was a decent flick with some great style. It was produced by everyone who made a movie in Mexico in the last three years, and should have done better. But I never wrote a review for it. But add it to the old Netflix account and you won't be sorry.

10. The Brothers Bloom: Whatever magical ability Wes Anderson once had to mesh well-crafted, supremely acted films with heart-bump, pitter-patter, soul-tug whimsy may have left him in 2001, but the spirit of Anderson's first three films has been transplanted into the talent of Rian Johnson. In tone and aesthetic, The Brothers Bloom is the spiritual successor to The Royal Tenenbaums, but it's less wink/nudge, less precocious, less satisfied with its own sense of cleverness, and even more novelistic in its approach. It possess the same heightened sense of reality, though; the same offbeat sensibility, and the same fairy-tale quality that Tenenbaums radiated, only The Brothers Bloom is the sort of fairy tale you might hear Ricky Jay recite to distract you from a 90-minute sleight of hand trick. And it'd work, too; so engrossed would you be in the tale of The Brothers Bloom that Jay could empty your bank accounts, unload all the contents of your house, and steal your wife without your notice. -- Dustin Rowles

9. Thirst: Never has the dubbing of Park Chan-wook as the "Korean David Lynch" been more apt than after viewing his latest offering, the incredibly complex and stirring Thirst. Lynch has an uncanny ability to eviscerate the mundane until the inner workings are revealed in all their horror, glory and grotesquerie. With his Vengeance Trilogy, Park does the same, only rather than cutting his protagonists open, he breaks them apart shard by uncomfortably jagged shard. He's known for his visceral and stomach churning acts of violence, but with Thirst, he creates an homage to the vampire mythos that is damn near perfect. Park remembers what most people who reinvent Dracula forget -- at the core it's a love story. It's everything Twilight wishes it were, but at such an intensity that it would make Edward Cullen super sparkly before supernova-ing out of emo existence. At heart, Thirst is a coming-of-age love story for two quarter-lifers breaking out of their arrested developments, except wrapped within and around it is a vein of pure vampire goodness. Park also presents it as a stunningly hilarious pitch-dark comedy while still managing to keep the skin-crawling horror elements he's known for, and you're left with a gleefully evil and satisfying experience. -- Brian Prisco

8. Big Fan: Big Fan, the directing debut of Robert D. Siegel (who wrote The Wrestler), is the all-too-accurate portrayal of Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt), a sad, pathetic, mentally imbalanced, unhealthily obsessed fan of the New York Giants. It's a brutal, unflinching depiction, so uncomfortable in parts that it's difficult to watch. And, for anyone going in to a Patton Oswalt film expecting a comedy, put those expectations aside. Big Fan is a dark, realistic look at the kind of guy you know exists, but would almost rather not know. And while it's a well-written, well directed, and well-acted movie, it's not one that's particularly enjoyable to watch. -- Dustin Rowles

7. The Cove: Environmentalism typically drives me insane because it feels as if a group of well-to-do white people with nothing better to do than try to focus their efforts on improving the well-being of a fucking shrub or some goddamn fuzzy hamburger in training. I understand we're strip-mining the earth, injecting everything with harmful chemicals, and turning Mother Earth into Joan Rivers in heavy sunlight, but it's always been hard for me to give a damn about spotted owls or the plight of a flower only found on the leeward face of a cliff in New Guinea. Especially when I'm slaving away at a menial job to put food on my table and keep myself of out of the hospital because I don't have health care. I care about nature. But it's never earned a high rank on the "give-a-shit-o-meter." Yet all it took was one small thing: dolphins. Louis Psihoyos's brilliant and startling documentary The Cove is like An Inconvenient Truth getting rescued by Rainbow Six. How'd you like a fucking carbon footprint upside your head? It manages to take a sledgehammer to all my cynical rambling arguments and demonstrates just what an atrocity the Japanese dolphin fishing is and why we need to stop it. -- Brian Prisco

6. Humpday: I went to view Humpday with great trepidation, fostered not by any sort of low-grade homophobia, but rather of art-house malaise. Since it comes from a Shaolin of the school of mumblecore, I feared a film that would be some sort of five-dollar Shortbus or worse, a digi-cam mashup of Brokeback Mountain and Clerks. Instead, writer-director-actress Lynn Shelton gives us a phenomenally intelligent and hilarious take on that nebulous rift between twenty-thirtysomethings who are married and family-contemplative and their single friends that stagger untethered through life. It works remarkably well because it's done up all mumblecore, giving the dialogue and circumstances a naturalistic spontaneity that any major studio would have nervously paved over with as many dick jokes and "know how I know you're gay" riffs as could fit in a five minute improv session between bong hits. Apatow's jokes are funny, but this shit feels real and thusly is really funny. -- Brian Prisco

5. Pontypool: The words indie horror often bring a shudder, and not the good naked shower massage kind, but the bad mouthful of three-days-past-the-expiration-date yogurt's not supposed to be crunchy kind. Usually, indie horror is an excuse for two or three rabid Fangoria fans to recruit college students to take off their clothes, play out their sexual deviances, and get splattered with ubergore by a) a redneck with a toolbox, b) some sort of Dunwich Horror, or c) another college student. None can hold a bayberry candle to the taught tension of Pontypool, which is something like Talk Radio meets 28 Days Later. A shock jock banished to the hinterlands of rural Canada finds himself trapped in the radio station while a mob of seemingly insane maniacs spouting gibberish lay siege to the building. With a minuscule cast, just a spectacular splash of gore, and a veritable straightjacket of tension, Bruce Macdonald creates an outstanding pseudo-zombie cocktail and an even better psychological horror that should make M. Night Shamalyan weep with shame. -- Brian Prisco

4. Moon: Moon may not be right up there with the best that the genre has to offer, but it's damn good. And given the usual crop of crap science fiction that's thrown at us, it's a welcome relief. No aliens, dystopic futures, or killer robots. Just a dude living on the moon. That dude would be Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), a contracted employee of a company called Lunar Industries, which has mostly solved Earth's energy crisis by figuring out how to harvest helium from sun-soaked moon rocks. Most of the process is automatic, but the company needs someone chilling out on the moon, overseeing operations and getting canisters of the wonderful He3 back to Earth. -- Seth Freilich

3. Sin Nombre: Sin Nombre feels like good Mexican food; there's not much to it but a few basic ingredients, but when properly assembled with care and a hint of authenticity, it's outstanding. Cary Fukunaga in his writer/director feature debut takes a simple and almost high school Shakespearean plot and layers it with gentle flourishes and powerful performances. His cast seems plucked from the barrio, a horde of menacing gangsters and simple day laborers. It's tense and tragic, Hitchcockian by way of Honduras, and builds to a vicious kick in the ribs finale that even if it seems obvious and fated still crushes the very breath out of you. It's a hell of a visceral flick, interspersed with gorgeous landscape camerawork that could have been painted by angels. For such an ugly story, it's told beautifully. -- Brian Prisco

2. In The Loop: I don't give a damn about politics. I manage to keep a rudimentary knowledge of the major events, but mostly, I don't know anything about the players and the policies. I'm gloriously ignorant and kind of proud of that fact. Also, I have the barest recollection of most BBC Programming, vaguely aware of the pedigree of such programs as "Peep Show" and "I'm Alan Partridge" and "Torchwood." I have never been abroad, I haven't even traveled to Canada or Mexico. I had never even heard of Armando Iannucci or his program "The Thick of It," so I wasn't aware of any of the source material for the film In the Loop, which makes me the perfect candidate for review. Because I didn't know what the fuck was going on half the time and unable to appreciate most of the jokes, I loved every goddamn minute of it. I was laughing at shit I totally did not understand. So, if you're into smart humor, British humor, or political humor, or some combination of the three, please catch In The Loop. It's rare to find an indie comedy worth touting, and this is certainly one. Also, it's an IFC Film, so the chances of it coming to a TV near you are great. Plus, you really want to hear a Scottsman shout the phrase "ram it up your shitter with a lubricated horse cock." After all, you read Pajiba. -- Brian Prisco

1. Black Dynamite: Spoof comedies stopped being funny after Mel Brooks lost his groove. Most of them are just recycled "I Love The '80s" jokes clumped together like the genital warts around ... see, I can't even finish the punchline without stooping to their fucking level. What most writers fail to realize is that to really savage something, you need to have a begrudging respect for it. Black Dynamite is the real deal. It easily could have been 80 minutes of lazy stoned frat boys checklisting afros, ho-jokes, and kung fu into a Blaxploitation Mad Lib. Instead, the filmmakers lovingly crafted an homage that hits all the bad points, like Quentin Taratino thought he was doing with Grindhouse. It's incredibly stupid and cheesy in an amazingly deft and intelligent way. Every line flub, scenery-chewing moment, shaky cut, and song parody is done in a precise and careful way. It's not just a Blunchblack of Blotre Blame pun stretched out to sell DVDs, but a serious effort, and it's gut-bustingly, ass-stompingly hilarious. Even when it reaches over the top in the mildly shaky third act, Black Dynamite stays true to its soul and devastates the competition. Forget Zombieland. Fuck The Hangover. This is the single most thigh-slapping, belly-guffawing, rip-fucking-snorting good time you will have in the theatre this year. Unless you're some kind of honky no-joke-getting retard. -- Brian Prisco



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