1. The Tree of Life– Terrence Malick’s epic tone poem weaves in and out of the life of a typical American family in 1950s Texas, zig-zagging between the creation of the universe and the afterlife in the process. By placing the location of his own childhood at the center of these celestial events, he puts a very personal spin on his warring perceptions of creation; the way of nature and the way of grace. As his camera weaves in and out of the O’Brien family’s lives (a three son household run by Brad Pitt’s nature and Jessica Chastain’s grace), the element of visual improvisation makes their everyday life and afterlife beautiful. Even if you hated it, you’ll never forget it. Read our review.
2. Certified Copy- Unexpected in every way, the romance film by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami follows two strangers as they meet up in Tuscany one afternoon and divulge into their passionate opinions on art, originality, philosophy and love. Over the course of a single afternoon, their relationship takes twists and turns, leaving the audience in awe of the puzzle laid out before them and clinging to the aesthetic beauty of its settings and characters to reveal clues. Sophisticated filmmaking technique brilliantly interlaces heavy academic, multilingual conversation with a flowing narrative to sculpt this as one of the most unique and thought-provoking films of the year. Read our review.
Win Win Directed by: Tom McCarthy Written by: Tom McCarthy (screenplay) Starring: Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, and Melanie Lynskey
Tom McCarthy’s Win Win reminds you that even a genre labeled “independent” can succumb to endless cliches. This is not because it is predictable, but because you are lead to believe that it will be from the beginning.
Armed with a mordant wit (what successful indie comedy filmmaker isn’t?) and a sly sense for what a movie with Paul Giamatti is supposed to be like, McCarthy dismantles the sports genre and the midlife crisis movie from the inside out. We follow Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) a down-on-his luck New Jersey lawyer with a tough-but-loving wife (Amy Ryan, who else?) and two children.
Cold Weather Directed by: Aaron Katz Written by: Aaron Katz (screenplay) Starring: Cris Lankenau, Trieste Kelly Dunn, Raúl Castillo and Robyn Rikoon
At the beginning of Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather, it seems like there will be no way through it. The main characters, a brother and a sister wandering Portland, are not interesting enough to sustain interest in a movie where nothing happens narratively. Thankfully, this emerges as the point as the movie becomes more and more clever without sacrificing its realism.
A sense of being with Doug (Cris Lankenau) and Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn) as they improvise a missing person’s investigation is Cold Weather‘s most crucial element. The meandering first third hints at several different directions that it may take but not the one it does take. Doug gets a job bagging ice with Carlos (Raúl Castillo) and the two engage in casual banter about events in their lives and, most importantly, Sherlock Holmes.
L.I.E. Directed by: Michael Cuesta Written by: Stephen M. Ryder, Michael Cuesta, & Gerald Cuesta Starring: Paul Dano, Brian Cox, Bruce Altman, and Billy Kay
Watching L.I.E. reminds you of what the American Independent Cinema first set out to do; it’s of full moral ambiguity within a premise that would never in a million years be green-lit by a Hollywood studio. Looking at recent indie fluff like Juno or any of its brightly colored siblings makes the often edgy facade of independent movies seem like they’re losing touch, never mind the quality.
L.I.E. stars Paul Dano in what is still his most daring role. His excellent performances in Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood almost seem safe next to his role as Howie, a gay, misguided 15-year-old who becomes romantically entangled with a much, much older man. If Dano is daring, than Brian Cox is fearless on an almost unparalleled level as that older man.
When there are hundreds of movies made every year, patterns start to show up. Whether it’s the characters or the ending, there isn’t much in the way of originality in the movies. This is especially true with characters, whose archetypes have been mixed and matched since Hollywood’s inception. As time progressed, new characters have emerged, and been implemented and overused just like the old stereotypes before them. Here is a list of movie characters we’ve seen time and again the past few years, and that we’ll probably continue to see for many more to come.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl- Realizing your dreams and fulfilling your potential is one of the most common goals of movie protagonists. Young male independent writers/directors like to do this with the help of a leading lady. At first, these characters almost demand to be recognized as free spirits, but as soon as love and narrative momentum chains them down, they become muses whose only purpose is to help the main character fulfill their own potential while they are left unfulfilled. The phrase was first coined by critic Nathan Rabin, who used the term in his review of Elizabethtown. Find them in: Garden State (Natalie Portman), (500) Days of Summer (Zooey Deschanel), Almost Famous (Kate Hudson) and Elizabethtown (Kirsten Dunst)
The Royal Tenenbaums Directed by: Wes Anderson Written by: Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson (screenplay) Starring: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller and Gwyneth Paltrow
The idea that movies can have a literary quality to them is something that a director like Wes Anderson often takes to heart. His movies operate on many basic storytelling conventions- the dysfunctional family, the adolescent emerging the cocoon- but within them is an entire world of his own creation.
The Anderson Aesthetic is one where his art and his life-view merge; where the clothes of the characters often meticulously match their surroundings. It’s a style of filmmaking that can be divisive, which also means that it’s a style that is always interesting.
Everyone Else Directed by: Maren Ade Written by: Maren Ade Starring: Birgit Minichmayr, Lars Eidinger, Hans-Jochen Wagner, and Nicole Marischka
A fear of the bourgeoisie lifestyle has infiltrated European cinema for decades. It surfaced most prominently in the American mainstream with The Graduate, but it’s still a very European ideal, and one that the deliberately paced, intensely independent film Everyone Else focuses on with a new twist.
The film was written and directed by the little known Maren Ade and also stars a cast of complete unknowns; a testament to their talent when you see how good this movie actually is. It’s handling of the complex, almost undefinable emotional feelings of its characters is something most American films cannot hope to touch on.
Winter’s Bone Directed by: Debra Granik Written by: Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini (screenplay), Daniel Woodrell (novel) Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey
In the realm of regional specific tales of mortality, Winter’s Bone is endowed with the element that puts it in the caliber of every other movie in this subgenre: hollowness.
Just like the dryness in Frozen River or the arid feeling in No Country for Old Men, the film holds an empty feeling that results from holding itself to the conventions of convention-bucking indie cinema. The conventions rely on being as minimalistic and realistic as possible, which is indeed interesting and brave, but results in a complete lack of tension, which is key for a character based thriller.
Happy-Go-Lucky Directed by: Mike Leigh Written by: Mike Leigh Starring: Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Alexis Zegerman, and Karina Fernandez
Impossible would be one way to describe Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the flamboyantly optimistic center of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. With that one word, you can take her as impossibly happy, annoying, or over the top. She is all of these things and more, as you and she both learn during the course of this off-beat life lesson comedy.
Hawkins and Leigh both approach this complicated woman with true zest and unapologetic heart. This performance is a work of art inspired by a terrific actress and this director’s unique method. Leigh casts his movies with only story in mind, and then works with his actors to craft improvised moments and write out the actual screenplay.
Dogville Directed by: Lars von Trier Written by: Lars von Trier Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, and James Caan
You’ll notice while watching Dogville that the town doesn’t actually exist. Not in any literal sense that is, but in the minds of the actors and the ideals of the provoc-auteur behind it, the fictional non-town comes fully to life. Lars von Trier, hell-bent on eliminating elements he deems unnecessary in films, has this time decided to completely remove an actual setting from his movie. Instead all of the actors, big ones mind you, walk around a stage marked with condescending street names and flimsy outlines of houses. You can see the entire population, and you often do.
For three rapturous hours von Trier holds and sustains a mood without anything but people, white lines, and some flimsy set pieces. It’s a terrific feat all by itself, but added to the material is a script powered by ideas and filled with allegory. He may have never been to America, but he sure knows how this country sees itself. He approaches the filming as if he were watching a village of ants, often looking from above and then zooming in with his magnifying glass.