When I hold the remote in my household, what I decide to watch on television is wholly reliant on how I feel. During the week? It depends. Football season? Hands down, it’s football. NCAA tournament? I’m there. Guilty pleasures? “Top Chef” and “Chopped,” of course. Without these distractions, I’ll opt for reruns of the original “Law and Order” series. Or, maybe, an episode of “Midsomer Murders” or Colin Dexter’s “Inspector Morse” on Mystery! Maybe I’ll hit NatGeo or History Channel, who knows?
On weekends especially, once the routine of the day has run itself out, and depending on how I feel at that particular moment, I really like to watch independent films and documentaries. They offer great variety and appeal to any number of interests.
What Does “Independent Film” Really Mean?
An independent (or what’s commonly called “Indie”) is a film that’s made and produced without financing or distribution from a major motion picture studio. Also, films that receive less than half of their budgets from major studio are often considered “independent” films. As independent film has become more popular with viewing audiences, these distinctions are becoming blurred. What distinguishes an independent from the rest today? Typically, cost (usually lower), style, subject and content. And, once made, an Indie might enjoy a limited run or get screened at a film festival before its release.
Important Role of Film Festivals
European and North American film festivals have done much to advance independent filmmaking. Sundance, not unlike LA, Tribeca, Toronto, South By Southwest (SXSW) and, even, Indie Grits, shines a bright light on independent films so much so that these precious Indie gems now account for nearly 20% of US domestic box office revenue.
Must-See Independent Films
Want to sample some great independent films but not sure where to start? It pays to do some research. For example, I recommend scouring the multitude of websites and blogs hosted by Indie film festivals, schools and institutes that showcase promising directors and new films on a regular basis. There are also a fair number of helpful movie lists online that will provide direction. Keep in mind, Indies have been around for a long time so don’t be afraid to go back in time. You might just find a jewel of a film you would have otherwise missed. Not in any particular order, here are just a few of my personal favorites:
Frances Ha (2013)
Directed by Noah Baumbach and starring Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Michael Esper, and Adam Driver, this quirky comedy-drama follows the life and times of a New York gal whose dreams and visions of what her life is supposed to be don’t connect to what’s really happening. Charming cast, delightful and bittersweet moments, “Frances Ha” has it all.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
Directed by Woody Alan and starring Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Louis C.K., Sally Hawkins, and Bobby Cannavale, this little gem shows what can happen to anyone who starts believing their own high society, over-the-top, entitled narrative. Family dynamics and fish-out-of-water at their best. Great cast and script, sure to please.
Barney’s Version (2010)
Directed by Richard J. Lewis and starring Paul Giamatti, Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver, Rachelle Lefevre, Scott Speedman, and Dustin Hoffman, this comedy-drama chronicles the life and times of Barney Panofsky, exploring love, friendship, betrayal, hopelessness and redemption along the way. Paul Giamatti in the leading role is absolutely at his best as the hopeless romantic and – what’s the word – scoundrel? Great cast and script, will keep you guessing until the bitter end.
A Bronx Tale (1993)
Directed by Robert DeNiro, this lovely film is an all-American crime drama set in the rough-and-tumble streets of the Bronx during the early 1960s. If you like mobster films, this is a classic on a smaller, more intimate scale, one where the characters are drawn with insight and empathy. One of my favorite films of all time, sure to be yours. Truly, an exceptional coming of age film starring Robert DeNiro and Chazz Palminteri (the latter of whom wrote the play and script, drawing largely from his own childhood.)
The Visitor (2007)
Directed by Thomas McCarthy, this indie drama takes a deep dive into the immigration debate, providing important insights along the way. A critical film on this topic, starring Richard Jenkins as a lonely, university professor who has a chance encounter and budding friendship with two refugees (played beautifully by Haaz Sleiman (as Tarek, a djembe musician) and Danai Gurira ( as Zainab, a Sengelese jewelry designer). When events take a turn for the worse, enter Hiam Abbass, as Tarek’s mother, and life is never the same. The musical backdrop is mesmerizing as is the script itself. A thoughtful film on the human toll and many complexities of immigration, particularly timely given a Syrian theme.
Cairo Time (2010)
Directed by Ruba Nadda and starring Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig in the leading roles, Cairo Time is a romantic drama involving issues of love, marriage, friendship, culture and cityscape. One of my favorite movies, an independent film not to be missed.
Directed by Swede Lukas Moodysson and starring Gael García Bernal, Michelle Williams, and Marife Necesito, Mammoth tackles globalization is an up-close-and-personal way, but not without controversy. But, isn’t that what art is supposed to do, challenge our world view? Perhaps not the most sympathetic leading characters, in any event, well-written and acted by all.
Directed by John Sayles, this story follows the trials of a union organizer and workers in their struggle for dignity and a better life with King Coal. This is one indie that captures a moment in time and the infamous Matewan Massacre of 1920. A cautionary tale then, even more so today. An independent that will stay with you long after the movie’s over.
Roger and Me (1989)
Way before his appearances on CNN and MSNBC, Michael Moore was a filmmaker and documentarian extraordinaire, especially evident in “Roger and Me,” the cautionary true story about the closure of an automobile plant in Flint, Michigan and the subsequent economic loss that followed. This indie was and remains his best work, truly insightful and provocative, one that told a story that would unfortunately be repeated across the United States as Corporate America busted unions, outsourced jobs and put the American Middle Class out to pasture. Sure, it’s snarky, but no one’s done it like Michael Moore and no one has since.
Independents to look for in the year ahead? Too many to count, but the buzz is getting louder for a few of this year’s Indies, like “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014), directed by Wes Anderson, “Like Father Like Son” (2014), directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, and “Omar” (2014), directed by Hany Abu-Assad.
1001 Films Before You Die
Yahoo! Movies on Twitter
Hall, Phil (2009). The History of Independent Cinema. Bear Manor Media.