2008 — A Good Year for Indie Film

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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.


24 Comments

  1. Benjamin Wolaver

    Thanks for the great list, Curt. My family and I love indie/foreign films. The genre is one of the few where you can find some really clever and touching films… sometimes with little to no offensive material. Were these films good family films in general? Which ones would you recommend for that kind of viewing.

    Pete – Seth-

    Sorry to disagree, but the Dark Knight, in my opinion, was a vastly overrated film. Just a few criticisms: 1. Bruce Wayne’s character arc was non-existent, taking place over the space of about four scenes, 2. Gotham lost all of its mysterious charm, so present in Begins, and became just another big Chicago substitute, 3. Maggie Gyllenhaal lacked any emotional appeal, and 4. The film had no real heart, especially when compared to Begins and Bruce Wayne’s poignant memory of his father. The Dark Knight was technically fantastic much in the same way as The Prestige. But both celebrated nihilism more than heroism.

  2. Chris Slaten

    I loved “The Visitor.” That movie sneaks up on you. I couldn’t believe how much I actually cared, by the end of the movie, about the very dry protagonist.

    “Son of Rambow” was also really entertaining, but the last 15 minutes of it seemed contrived. I appreciated that it was more about fatherless children learning how to live, rather than just a sentimental movie about childhood film making

    Another one that I would recommend from this past year is “Transsiberian.” A very hitchcockian thriller that deals with guilt and paranoia on that infamous train route. Ben Kingsly and Woody Harrelson are in it, but the show stealer is the protagonist. I don’t remember her name, but she played the (real) wife on Lars and the Real Girl. It is not a blockbuster thrill ride, but instead is quiet and chilling like the landscape.

    I don’t remember if it was 2008 or 2007, but I recently rented “The Orphanage” and loved it.

    Encounters and Man on Wire are probably the next two movies I’ll watch.

  3. jeremy

    saw “last chance harvey” yesterday with my wife and really enjoyed it. just enough unlike typical mainstream romatic movies that it was fun. a lot more heart and normalcy than one would expect.

  4. Matt Brown

    Benjamin – I have to disagree. Dark Knight was incredible hyped, but so worth it. Though it may not work every aspect of the Batman story, it does an incredible job with Joker. How could you not leave the theater thinking about the struggle between good and evil, choas and order, justice and venegance, citizenship and anarchy. Although definitely a dark movie (both in content and lighting), it was thoroughly enjoyable

  5. becky

    I saw, and liked, Son of Rambow and The Visitor. I read the book, The Secret Life of Bees, and had mixed feelings about it. Can’t decide if I want to see the movie or not.

  6. Keith

    Curt,

    Good list. It is exciting to see a Christian interacting and engaging with film, and taking the films as they are presented and not trying to make the movie say something it is not. I love In America, Son of Rambow and have been holding out on Chop Shop for no good reason, but you’ve convinced me to finally give in.

    I also wanted to throw one film your way.

    The Fall – This is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. It was filmed over the course of 4 years and in 18 different countries. It also has one of the most captivating performances by a child actor I have ever seen. The story may be a bit weak at times, but the cinematography and acting help pull it along.

  7. Chad

    The independent movie TSOTSI was a moving story of a young heartless gang leader slowly becoming more softened by the life of a little child. The movie went on to win an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film of the Year in 2005 and I think they picked a great one for once. Gavin Hood, the director and co-writer, adapted the storyline from a novel by the same title. If you watch the DVD version, be sure to also view the spectacular short film by Gavin called THE STOREKEEPER which is so well written and directed that there is nothing in it that is non-essential to the storyline. This parable stirred my heart deeply.

  8. Chad

    Also, MY LEFT FOOT (1989) is another great film by the same director of IN AMERICA which garnared a couple of awards from Daniel Day Lewis and Brenda Fricker. I think it was released as an independent film as well.

  9. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Pete/Seth/Matt: Okay guys, The Dark Knight was a lot of fun. How’s that? It was among the quickest 2 1/2 hours I spent in a theatre in 2008, that’s for sure. The IMAX crashes and explosions were cool, but particularly in the second half of the show, were a distraction, slowing the story, I thought. That, and some irrelevant twists and turns stole some momentum. I like Christopher and Jonathan Nolan as writers. Their first writing effort was Momento, which I loved. I like Christian Bale as Batman, but this was obviously Heath Ledger’s movie. He stinkin’ knocked the ball out of the park. Good movie, fun, well-made, but not a masterpiece. Maybe this one deserves it’s own review from somebody with more enthusiasm than I have been able to muster (hint, hint).

    Benjamin
    – I can’t say that most of the films I discussed would be good family fare. It’s not that they are particularly inappropriate. More so, that they deal with topics that might not be of interest to children. I do recommend, In America, Wall-E, and Son of Rambow as good possibilities, depending on the age and personality of your children. My son grew up with general anxiety disorder, but when I sat him down in a theatre, he was captivated and would sit through most movies without flinching, totally captivated by what was happening on screen. Thanks for weighing in, Benjamin.

    Chris – I thought you may have seen The Visitor, since your wife mentioned this film. Your observation of Richard Jenkin’s Walter Vale is perceptive and spot on; despite Vale’s close to the vest personality, at some point, I really began to like this guy. I started to silently root for him. Walter changed for the better, despite sleepwalking through the first 60 years of his life. That deserves more than a golf clap.

    Transsiberian looks like a solid recommendation, and it’s an instant viewing choice on Netflix (for those that subscribe). Ben Kingsley is a heavy weight actor. I hope to watch it soon. Thanks for the heads up. It’s in the queue. I also put The Orphanage in my queue after getting a Rabbit Room recommendation in a thread last year, and it hasn’t come up yet, but it is also an instant viewing choice.

    I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about Man on Wire. It too is an instant choice at Netflix. It blew me away in so many ways. It was made by an artist/craftsman, so it’s not the standard documentary. Philippe Petit, the “man on wire,” is a MASTER story teller. Despite knowing the basic story arc, I was on the edge of my seat, particularly whenever he had the floor. I am skittish about heights, which added to the drama for me. Simply looking at stills aimed down from the roof of the WTC gives me the white hot heebee jeebees.

    Jeremy
    – Nice call on Last Chance Harvey. I went last week with low expectations. I just wanted to see what the great Dustin Hoffman was up to. I thought it was his best performance in years. His chemistry with Emma Thompson was tempered just right; nothing cutesy like we would find in mainstream romantic comedies (as you noted). This is a dramatic movie that dribbles realistic doses of comedy at just the right intervals.

    Becky – I haven’t read the book, so I can’t really offer any counsel, but let me just note that Dakota Fanning’s performance is something to behold. Man, she can act. Her performance is one reason I wouldn’t want to miss it. I think the DVD version has just been released. Let us know what you think if you see it. I know it’s tough for movies to live up to their book counterparts.

    Keith – Thanks for the good word. I’m not sure how I missed The Fall, but it looks like one I will probably like. When I looked at the trailer, the first thing that caught my eye was the way in which the light pierced the keyhole, and the spectacular colors. It looks like a good story too. Thanks, Keith.

    Chad – I haven’t seen Tsotsi yet. Thanks for the heads up. It looks like a beautiful film of redemption, one of my favorite movie angles. And I second your motion on My Left Foot. Daniel Day Lewis. Need we say more?

  10. Pete Peterson

    Of all the movies I saw last year, The Dark Knight is the only one other than Wall-E that I’d put in the same sentence as “masterpiece”.

  11. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Pete – We’ll probably have to agree to disagree on this one. While I might assent to 2008 being a year without many films that rise to the level of masterpiece—even stretching—I can’t really give that tag to The Dark Knight. I can appreciate how my terse description might be annoying to one that ranks it as highly as you do though. It probably deserves more than I gave it in my initial note, but I can’t go “masterpiece.” For what it’s worth, the critics side with you on this one. I think I’m in the minority opinion.

    Nate – Another vote for Son of Rambo. Thanks! Did you learn about it here in The Rabbit Room or somewhere else?

  12. whipple

    I love that you mentioned Man on Wire. I think I saw the preview for that at The Dark Knight. Still haven’t seen it, or Son of Rambow, but they’ve been on my must-see list for a while.

  13. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Whipple – I saw Man on Wire just a few days ago, so my enthusiasm is fresh. I loved every minute of it. And reading that there is some interest, I’m anxious to get a review out. It offers so much: beauty, passion, drama, humor, skillful story telling, action, and even deep emotion. I can’t wait to read your thoughts. If you are so inclined, give us a shout after you see it. I’d love to read your thoughts.

  14. Nate

    CURT: “Nate – Another vote for Son of Rambo. Thanks! Did you learn about it here in The Rabbit Room or somewhere else?”

    My brother-in-law is really into this type of movie. The indie scene and everything. And he loves kids movies. He actually got Cars for me last year on DVD. He’s really into both animation and documentaries.

    And I’m with you on Slumdog. I finally saw it last night because my wife wanted to see it so badly. She spent some time in India a few years ago. An we occasionally will rent an R rated movie but have never seen one in the theater before (which brings up the horrible rating system we have. Some movies aren’t suitable for kids. Some movies aren’t suitable for anyone. But they all have the same ratings.) I almost feel the same way about it as I do the so-called “Christian” movies. I feel like I’m being manipulated… but thats a whole ‘nother conversation.

    Anyway, Curt, thanks for this run-down on these movies. I will try to check a few more of them out.

  15. Stephen Lamb

    @stephen-lamb

    Curt, I have a post coming about The Visitor, my favorite film of the year, along with Flight of the Red Balloon, my second favorite film last year. Son of Rambow is also in my top ten. I watched it in the theatre, and when the boy’s mom pulled the pastor’s plate away from him in the middle of a bite and kicked him out of the house, I almost stood up and cheered.

    As for Slumdog Millionaire, I think it is by far the most over-rated film of the year. A moderately good film at best, the plot is so contrived, such bad story-telling. Jeffrey Overstreet summed up its problems here better than I’ve seen anyone else do.

  16. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Nate – Thanks for the update. I recently viewed a film about the rating system, called This Film is Not Yet [R]ated. It features quotes from Darren Aronofsky, and other Hollywood directors, unhappy about the rating system.

    Personally, I think the rating system works pretty well. It tells consumers what they need to know, at least in a general sense. Moviemakers claim that their art is compromised by the rating board. While that may be true, it’s only true to the extent that they allow it.

    The thing is, no particular rating prevents moviemakers from releasing their product. Moviemakers want a more “favorable” rating so that—from a practical standpoint—more viewers will see it. Certain ratings result in more revenue; simple as that.

    The directors make some relevant points, noting inconsistencies of process and criteria. But largely, their arguments don’t seem reasonable. They seem mercenary. Censorship—which is what some of them claim—would prevent movies from beings released. And that’s not what happens. They can release their product, albeit tagged with a label that means something to consumers.

    Your mileage may vary.

    Stephen – I’m anxious to read your words about The Visitor. Bring it, brother.

    I did not see Flight of the Red Balloon, but I did enjoy the film that inspired it, The Red Balloon (also White Mane) by Albert Lamorisse. I was inspired to rent it after listening to some cuts from Sandra McCracken’s project Red Balloon.

    You and I have already kicked around Slumdog Millionaire. I enjoyed a little more than you, but apparently not as much as the public or Oscar voters. I don’t think it rises to best picture level. I’ll check out your link to Jeff’s review. Thanks for putting that up.

    Sam
    – Thanks for joining the thread. And yes, I would totally date myself. Never mind. Wrong thread.

  17. Tony Heringer

    Curt,

    You are not alone on Dark Knight – I saw it in the theater and recently on DVD. The pyrotechnics and effects definitely overwhelm the second half of the film – the hospital explosion was just dumb. The ferry boat scene felt like they lifted it from Spiderman. Heath Ledger deserves kudos for his role, but the first film had better pacing, character development and overall story line. This one was fun, but it seemed a bit overdone to me.

    Thanks for the list. We were recently wondering around the local Blockbuster and couldn’t find anything, so recommendations from you, Pete, Matt and other Roomers are much appreciated.

  18. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Pete, in your honor, I have The Dark Knight at home, ready to watch it again. If my second viewing doesn’t result in a more favorable assessment, you may cast the demon of unbelief out of my body.

  19. Tony Heringer

    Pete thanks for the morning chuckle. My son and daughter loved it too. When speaking of this masterful work I’ll be sure to speak in hushed tones from this point forward. 🙂

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