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2008 — A Good Year for Indie Film

It seems as if indie movies were made for me. I’m wired for variety. In food, friends, experiences, books, and movies, I’m drawn to diversity.

Independent film is the grab bag of moviemaking, the potpourri of cinema. (Cue the movie voice-over guy.) It’s a world in which cliche is forbidden, easy answers are rare, and truth is more credible. So as I sat down to list some of my favorite movies from 2008, it’s not surprising that most came out of the indie universe. Consider this post a mini brochure on the value of indie film, more so than a retrospective of 2008 in general. I’ve provided links for the trailers, so you can take two minutes to view a taste of those that hold some appeal.

I know some of you share my passion for indie film. But for those that may not, I hope you will consider taking a dive into the agreeable waters of this underappreciated body of work. There are a few mainstream movie references at the end of this piece and no doubt, there will be further discussion of great blockbuster films from 2008 as Oscar time nears. Meanwhile, please consider these words as an attempt to recruit you to the universe of independent film. Like indie music, the search is more difficult, but the find often gratifying as discovering a long sought collectable.

Momma’s Man – It’s about a grown man who has lost his way. When he visits his  parents in their artsy, have-to-see-to-believed loft, he insidiously decides to stay, first for a day, then much longer. As such, he’s left behind his increasingly leery wife and family in L.A. Days pass as Mikey (Matt Boren) loafs: playing guitar, scouring journals, memorabilia, and kid trinkets, tentatively visiting old friends. He squirms his way around his parents gentle questions. It becomes increasingly obvious that he’s lying. The script doesn’t provide standard paint-by-number movie clues, so we spend the entire film guessing. What’s wrong? Why? His journey is sadly compelling.

There’s a scene with one of his parents that will inspire either laughter or empathy. I know, because I shed a tear, while another audience member laughed out loud. There are some lighter moments—which provide a reprieve from the vortex of pathos—but this particular scene wasn’t one of them. This is a quiet movie, though it resonates loudly. And though we never learn the specific source of Mikey’s palpable pain, we feel it just the same. The final scene is luminous, one of the biggest, “Whoa” moments I had in a theatre in 2008.

Chop Shop – Like Momma’s Man, as an indie release, it fell below the mainstream radar. It features Alejandro, a tough street orphan, who lives and works in an auto-body repair shop on the outskirts of Queens, New York. He’s homeless, but has carved a meager “living” for himself and his sister in the shadow of Shea Stadium, which hovers high above the neighborhood as a representation of the American dream. In the confusing and complex world of adults, young Alejandro struggles to make a better life for himself and his sister, Isamar. We are surprised at the extent to which he succeeds and the glimpses of good we witness along the way.

When Did You Last See Your Father? – It stars Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent, as father and son, both dependable acting pros. The film makes no attempt to disguise the father’s imminent death; so drama comes not from that, but from the evolution of the doleful father/son relationship—shown in flashbacks—and what either character may, or may not, do about it. In short, the father is an ass. But he’s an ass which casual observers may find half charming; he’s full of bluster, bluff, and perpetually inappropriate cheer. Those who know him best see right through him. He’s the life of the party, but no party to the life of those who share his home. He’s a liar and a cheat, but superbly gifted in camouflaging those things. The relevant question of the film becomes not, when did you last see your father, but when did you last really see your father?”

Encounters at the End of the World – Werner Herzog is a grippingly quirky filmmaker who often profiles heroes with wide-eyed dreams or idiosyncratic ideas. You may know of his documentary Grizzly Man, which tells the story of a man who mistakenly thought he could live with bears and avoid being eaten. You get the idea. In Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog travels to the Antarctic community of McMurdo Station on Ross Island, the headquarters for the U.S. National Science Foundation and home to eleven hundred people during the austral summer. It’s a gathering place for people who want to step off the map and where everyone seems to be full-time travelers and part-time workers–people with an adventuresome spirit and an open mind. The beauty depicted is stunning, above and below the water. Under the ice, it’s literally another world, sometimes evoking what we might expect to see somewhere in outer space. Herzog’s soundtrack is marvelous. Gregorian chants and opera are tailor-made for such ravishing beauty. Unhappily, Herzog’s film takes an unfortunate turn when it begins to subtly promote global warming nonsense and the melting of the planet. Thankfully, because the political angle is advanced quietly, one can observe and enjoy the beauty of the film and simply ignore the cartoonish pink elephant hidden in the shadows.

Son of Rambow – It’s a sweet, funny, and somewhat poignant British film, about friendship. Even as an indie film, it’s a little bit quirky, but that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed it. That my son took me as a Father’s Day present made it even better.

The Visitor – Richard Jenkins character says, “I haven’t done any real work in a very long time. I pretend–pretend that I’m busy so that I’m working. I’m not doing anything.” And indeed he’s not. He’s stuck, a later in life version of Mikey in Momma’s Man. He’s fallen into a state of apathy after the death of his wife. The four major characters in this film are captivating and interact with delicate chemistry. While The Visitor is a dialogue driven film, the music and editing carry it during the times that characters fall silent. As we listen between the lines and spaces in this deliberately paced film, we can hear Walter Vale’s heart breaking and yearning. Jenkins, in a role that earned him an Academy Award nomination, makes a rare visit to a New York apartment he keeps, only to find it inhabited by a young couple. That’s the beginning of the film which shares the journey of a man who discovers meaning in a moving alliance of music and relationships.

Happy Go Lucky – I nearly skipped this one, but I’m glad I didn’t. It’s a joyful character study on one of the most likable movie characters of the year. For many of us, perpetually happy people are suspect. But not Poppy, the character played fetchingly by Sally Hawkins in Happy Go Lucky. In this film it becomes incrementally clear that Poppy’s unremitting good cheer is not a result of dementia, mental illness, or a Tony Robbins seminar; it’s who she is. And as we watch her interface with those she meets, we observe a depth of kindness, charm, and good humor which leads us to quickly fall in love with her. The inevitable dramatic tension comes from her driving instructor Scott, played by British comedian Eddie Marsan. The driving scenes provide laughter, and later the aforementioned tension. Scott is tightly wound, controlling, and later downright mean. As is par for the indie course, don’t expect a tidy summary. Thankfully, movies like this don’t tell us what to think; they inspire us to think.

In America (a 2003 release) – I rented this one as the result of a Rabbit Room recommendation. It’s obscure, but worth seeking out. It’s about an Irish family coming to America and the struggles they face (in NY City). Full of hope and inspiring love.

I also enjoyed these more mainstream releases:

Martian Child – Better than I expected. John Cusack rarely disappoints. His real life sister Joan Cusack plays his on-screen sister.

Wall-E – The statement about mankind’s extinction–the animated version of Werner Herzog’s similar statement in Encounters at the End of the World–is advanced quietly and poetically. It’s also a charmingly sweet love story, which hearkens back to the purity of love found in some silent movies, where purity and congruency of emotion was necessary because of the lack of dialogue.

Iron Man and The Dark Knight – Fun. That’s all.

The Secret Life of Bees – Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Besides Dakota Fanning, the movie is pretty good too, despite it’s reliance on overworked filmmaking conventions.

For the record, I enjoyed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire, but not near as much as the Academy (apparently).

Possible reviews to come … Doubt, Revolutionary Road, Man on Wire, and Wrestler, some of my favorite recent viewings.

As usual, the most fun—at least for me—comes from our discussions. Agree or disagree, please weigh in. I saw a lot of films as the result of Rabbit Room recommendations in 2008. As I would have guessed, you have good eyes and ears. Thanks for sharing your good taste with me. Please don’t hold back your comments and recommendations for 2008.

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