The Best in Independent Film (2010)
2010 has kind of been an astonishing year for films. And most of you won't know that until well into the middle of next year. The major studio tentpole films -- the huge summer releases, the bloated "comedies," the formulaic rom-coms that all your family members have been lauding while you sit in the corner silently seething -- have all been pretty much uniformly shit. (Show of hands, how many of your relatives were gushing about how much they can't wait for either Little Fockers or The Dilemma?) But the smaller films have been fucking champion.
Most of this list is going to seem incomplete, and that's because a majority of films have been included on the best documentaries and the general top ten lists. Also, because with the spotty release schedules and the vast majority of films, I'm not even sure what's actually eligible. Hell, as much as I pared down this list, it still ended up at 11. And that doesn't even include The King's Speech and many of the foreign films I was adoring. It's been a damn fine year, and I pity your Netflix queues.
12. A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop: For years, theatre directors have been co-opting the classics, most notably Shakespeare and Sophocles, and setting them in alternate realities. Macbeth becomes about mob hits, The Merchant of Venice is now the Merchant of Venus, or giving Titus Andronicus an all black cast and setting it in a backyard barbecue. Sometimes the dialogue is modernized or politicized, sometimes genders are swapped, sometimes characters are dropped entirely. Occasionally the gist of the original exists but the rest is completely overcast with unique touches. I would go so far as to deem the Coen Brothers' work, particularly the early efforts, as classics worthy of Shakespeare and Sophocles. For fuck's sake, Miller's Crossing is in iambic pentameter. So when I heard that Zhang Yimou, director of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, was remaking Blood Simple, I was taken aback, but it kind of made sense. After all, Hollywood has been repackaging Asian cinema with alarming frequency over the last decade. The Asians just had better taste. I wasn't sure what to expect, but had I swigged absinthe in between shots of Robitussin I could not have hallucinated the final result. Zhang Yimou took the dark, atmospheric, tense, hard-boiled and gritty drama that was Blood Simple and turned it into a slapstick broad-comedy set in feudal China. All the same elements are there: the cheating wife, the murder pact with the detective, the double crossing. Only it's done in bright vibrant colors like a parlour comedy gone horribly awry. Most astonishing is that for the most part it fucking works, and in some places, it actually makes more sense than the original. I still can't decide whether or not I think A Woman, A Gun, and a Noodle Shop is a good movie, because I'm still trying to pick my jaw up off the ground. -- Brian Prisco
11. Harry Brown: Because I only know the charming older version of Michael Caine, it's hard for me to remember that he actually was at one point Michael Caine, Beater of Ass. It's like Alec Guinness -- he's always going to be Obi Wan Kenobi for most people, but when you watch Bridge on the River Kwai or Kind Hearts and Cornonets, you realize just how fucking amazing of an actor he actually was. The most I'd seen Michael Caine kill up to this point was a shark and a gay playwright Superman. And I forgot how dangerous an old man can be. Daniel Barber's Harry Brown is the oldest of action flicks -- the vigilante/vengeance flick. The stuff that sends roidmonkeys from the WWE straight to DVD. It's such a simple premise: Someone you care about is beaten badly or killed, so you track down the criminals that perpetrated the crime and perpetrate a little whoopass of your own. What makes Harry Brown so effective and so powerful is its lack of frills. It's a gritty, ugly, almost documentary-feeling film. There aren't huge stunt sequences or flashy one-liners. There's no Harry Brown signal, no footage of low-income citizens giving their opinions into a news camera, no little kids dressed up in a Michael Caine mask playing in a playground. There's just one man, upset that his friend was murdered, taking out the trash. And goddamn is it fun to watch. -- Brian Prisco
10. The Freebie: The Freebie seems like a bad idea from the start -- two young hipster marrieds, together some seven plus years, decide that it's only logical that a couple as enlightened as they can go out and have one night stands and be none the worse for wear. Yet, writer/director/star Katie Aselton succeeds because she hates these stupid bastards just as much as we do. The Freebie is honest and smart and ugly, riding on the outstanding chemistry between Aselton and her co-star Dax Shepard, whose performance might have very well been the degree of difficulty that propelled this into the gold medal category. The Freebie rings painfully true, but eschews any of the slapstick or staged fights that would cripple this as a studio film. What makes the flick so endearing is that, as in real life, Aselton avoids going for the simple solutions. It's a textbook example of what every indie romance should be -- ugly, beautiful, and sincere. -- Brian Prisco
9. Down Terrace: Directed by Ben Wheatley, Down Terrace is about a small-time family of crooks headed by Bill (Robert Hill) and his son Karl (Robert's real-life son Robin Hill, who also wrote the screenplay). They're recently returned from jail, where they narrowly avoided serious time and are trying to get the family affairs back in order. There's a leak somewhere in their organization, and they need to figure it out. Among their list of friends and suspects are mother Maggie (Julia Deakin), and comrades Garvey (Tony Way), Pringle (Michael Smiley), and Karl's newly pregnant girlfriend Valda (Kerry Peacock). The film revolves around the dueling dynamics of the family itself - Karl has lost his taste for the business, his parents hate his girlfriend, and his father is a constant source of berating and scornfulness. Coupled with their efforts to find the mole, the two stories intertwine rather laboriously -- it's sort of a small-time "Sopranos" that never quite reaches the same heights. -- TK
8. Buried: There are inevitably two critical questions to be asked about Rodrigo Cortes' Buried: 1) Can a film whose entire set consists of the interior of a wooden box possibly sustain itself? And 2) Does Ryan Reynolds have the acting chops to effectively carry such a film, when he is literally the only actor you will see for the entire 90 minutes? Of all the gimmicks that I've encountered in my movie-watching history, this is one of the most intriguing. The trailers for Buried were varied in quality, designed to try to draw people into seeing it by either not showing much, or through simple misdirection. Now that I've finally seen the finished product, I can say that Buried is an overall success, not to mention one of the most intense viewing experiences I've ever sat through. -- TK
7. Mother: Korean film-making has been a hotbed for interesting horror films, but none had the instantaneous impact of Joon-ho Bong's The Host. Making Cloverfield look like a Mystery Science Theater punching bag waiting to happen, the director settled in to make a disturbing murder mystery in the vein of Hitchcock with Mother (Madeo). The titular character sets out to prove the innocence of her only son, the mentally simple Yoon Do-joon, after the authorities have locked him away after coercing a confession out of him. Do-joon's mother wanders the countryside, seeking answers wherever she can find them, begging on her hands and knees, sacrificing any length to free her darling boy. The complexity of the story is phenomenal -- even elements that seem cookie-cutter are given extra depth and luridness. Instead of relying on some sort of clever twist or flaring showdown, the film quietly plods along to its conclusion. That might be my only complaint; the film feels overlong with its meandering telling. Otherwise, it's a terrific detective story told with an added element of unnerving creepiness. -- Brian Prisco
6. Animal Kingdom: Imagine running from a burning building in the middle of the night. You burst through some bushes and suddenly find yourself in the middle of the lion's den at the zoo. Around you, some of the lions nap lazily on the rocks, while others sit and stare with that wide-eyed ferocity of the large cats. You freeze as questions gnaw the inside of your skull like these very beasts soon may be. Run? Stay still? When were they last fed? Do they give them flanks of raw steak or is it some sort of nutrient rich slurry? Are they domesticated or do they see humans as snacky cakes? The whole situation might very well be less harrowing if only one of the lions would instantly pounce and tear you asunder. But no, they sit, coiled, staring, perhaps 10 minutes, perhaps 10 years pass, and you are still frozen on the spot where you landed. These creatures aren't going to rush it; they can kill you when they need to, outrun you should you flee. Somehow David Michod manages to capture this murderously, leisure tension in the outstanding Aussie ensemble drama Animal Kingdom. Patience is a virtue, so if you can't appreciate taut drama that spools out sparingly, enjoy Transformers 3: Electric Black Stereotypaloos. If you're willing to savor your cinema, the carefully-constructed plot ponderously offers up some seemingly innocuous moments of pure cellulite cruelty fraught with tension. It's not the kind of film that repeatedly goes off like a string of Chinese firecrackers every 10 seconds, but rather offers up astonishingly crisp subtext that will have you chomping through your knuckles. -- Brian Prisco
5. Please Give: I tend to avoid filmmakers like Nicole Holofcener because their films look so smarmy and pretentious. You can practically smell the stink of privilege and arrogance wafting off them. Like people who use both hands to grab your knee and gush about this art installation they just saw or quote articles they just read on Slate as if they've possessed the information for years. People who scoff at SUVs and explain how green they are because they switched to an organic shampoo. The smug fucks who harp on our government's failures to aid third world countries and then transport half their remaining plate of organic butternut squash ravioli home in a styrofoam container to throw it out there instead. But this is where I did Nicole Holofcener a grievous disservice, as she clearly hates them just as much as I do. Please Give is nothing more than a ribald rip on the cultured class without ever seeming preachy or heavy handed. If anything, Holofcener might have given her film a little too much free reign, as it sort of drifts listlessly along a flimsy plot like the amusement park ride where a car follows a fixed track. Still with unexpectedly strong performances, an effervescent wit, and a scathing indictment of the "haves," Holofcener proves that not all coffeehouse artistry has to be frothy and bitter. -- Brian Prisco
4. Get Low: Some stories take their time in the telling. Aaron Schneider, a cinematographer turned director, who won an Academy Award for his short film, decided that for his feature film debut, he'd pack a Southern gothic tale with more stars than there are sky. The end result is Get Low, a powerful folktale about a lonely hermit who decides to throw himself a funeral party so he can hear all the stories people are telling about him while he's still alive. It's a pretty simple story, but it's packed with so much pure acting, it's going to suck you in and never let go. Pound for pound, I have yet this year to see performances that can match up with the sheer volume and assuredness of the four leads in this film. Like a skilled gourmet, Schneider knows that when your ingredients are of this quality, you don't need to do too much cooking to make a fine meal. And that's what Get Low feels like: a sumptuous down-home spread that will satisfy. --- Brian Prisco
3. 127 Hours: Danny Fucking Boyle. Wow. I admire the hell out of Danny Boyle, because he never makes the same kind of film twice, and yet still manages to leave an indelible mark to let you know that you are watching one of his films. It would be trite to list his canon, but sit back and roll it around in your mouth for a moment, the fact that the same man each one of these films. And now, he's moved on to doing what's basically a biopic in retelling the harrowing exploits of Aron Ralston in 127 Hours. Only to assume that Danny Boyle would dare make a bland straightforward biopic kind of disavows his fascinating ability to craft films. Because he very well might do that one day, his level of talent is that fucking insane. For a film that's primarily about a young man stuck under a boulder in the middle of the Utah desert for 5 plus days to work, you need to hit every note perfectly, and Boyle is a fucking virtuoso. His cinematography is breathtaking -- sweeping vista shots to claustrophobic Hitchcock-esque canted camera angles mesh brilliantly. He elicits a remarkable performance out of James Franco, an actor I never thought would hold my attention by himself for the length of a feature film but who makes you care for this adventuresome fool trapped by his own hubris. But Franco isn't alone, not just with a dynamic albeit brief supporting cast, but with a stunning soundtrack that's just as much a living, breathing, sneering character as everyone else. 127 Hours could have been a Boy Scout bravery story pumped full of faux pomp and heartstring plucking voiceover. Instead, Boyle manufactures a nightmarish fever dream about a boy who made a terrible mistake, and the result is fucking astounding. -- Brian Prisco
2. Marwencol: Marwencol is a strange documentary in that it unravels almost like a murder mystery. We watch a man play with dolls -- gorgeously rendered dolls in a village that people would assuredly pay money to wander through. As the different folks in Mark's life recount the savage beating, we meet their individual dolls. This introduces us to Mark, an unassuming chainsmoker who seems to have difficulty separating fantasy from reality. He knows Marwencol is just a hobby village and what he's telling are just stories, but at the same time, these are very real to him. Before the attack, Mark was a raging alcoholic who used to document his fugue states in journals filled with intricate and elaborate illustrations. All of this was washed away during the beating, as if the bullies struck the reset button on a 38-year-old man. This version of Mark is timid with sudden excitable bursts of fury, like a cowering abused animal backed into a corner. -- Brian Prisco
1. Winter's Bone: Winter's Bone is a savage journey quest, one girl's descent through the bowels of a rust-belt backwoods Hell to find her father or a corpse she can drag home. It's Alice in Wonderland if she were crawling through a river of shit. When her father, in jail for his third conviction for manufacture of crystal meth, skips out on his bail after putting the house up for collateral, his eldest daughter and caretaker of the family has to track him down. A stark and bleak drama winding through the rural poor regions of the Ozarks, Winter's Bone shows the horrid underbelly of the beastial illegal drug cookery and so-called hillbilly mafia while paying true homage to the South. These aren't some redneck hicks with a Git R' Done sticker on their pickup. These are the motherfuckers with the thousand yard stare who train their kids to blast you between the eyes with a squirrel hunting rifle and feed what's left of you to the hogs. Debra Granik, fresh from the success of Down to the Bone which brought Vera Farmiga to our attention, gives an unflinching frankness to this spectacular and haunting hymn built on the shoulders of her outstanding young lead actress. Like a chill winter wind scattering the last clinging leaves of autumn, Winter's Bone will get under your skin and deep into your bones. -- Brian Prisco