Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Indie Extravaganza: The Spirits are Coming...

With the Independent Spirit Award nominations released (analysis forthcoming) and the ceremony less than two months away, it's time to take notice of some recent indie sensations. Some of them received love from the Spirits, some did not. But here are five films -- all recently released on DVD -- that have helped shape the year in indie cinema.

Twilight lovers, eat your lover's brooding heart out! From Park Chan-wook, director of Old Boy, already a legend in the edgy-foreign-indie scene, comes Thirst, and this is a vampire movie. Bold, inventive, endlessly entertaining yet thoughtful and unnerving, this is the kind of movie that would suck the sparkly life out of Edward Cullen.

Thirst is a love story -- the most twisted and appealing love story of the year, in fact, a film that dissects the nature of ravenous desire and feared temptation unlike any other film you've ever seen. A respected priest chooses to undergo an
experimental procedure to cure disease, flatlines, but comes back to life with a curious affliction: his overwhelming desire -- and indeed, the only thing that can keep his disease in check -- is drinking human blood. With this new thirst for comes a thirst for passion, which leads the priest to a childhood crush who becomes his star-crossed lover. The journey this couple treks is one of the wildest, most vividly potent psycho-sexual-emotional journeys to grace screens in 2009. It is about desire. It is about sin. It is about guilt. It is about love. It is, very simply, about thirst.

I was one of Half Nelson's few naysayers. For me, the film never played with the kind of brutal reality it so desperately wanted to. But filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck showed tremendous ability and promise, and they have taken another step forward with Sugar.

It is not quite a great film, in part because it allows its subject -- the fleeting roller-coaster rides of human drive and hope -- plays ping-pong with the audience in an infuriating way. But the filmmaking is strong. Boden and Fleck are one of the most exciting indie duos in the business, and their story, told with the authenticity of a docudrama, is a wonderful twist on the traditional sports formula. Sugar is that rare baseball picture that sheds light on one of the millions of big-league prospects who come to America and find themselves lost when they don't immediately skyrocket to the MLB.

Sin Nombre just landed an Indie Spirit nominations for Best Feature, Director, and Cinematography, and has become one of 2009's foreign-language indie darlings. It...sort of makes good on its reputation.

The film's story, of hopeful individuals riding atop a train in an effort to cross the border into America, is important and revelatory. Its central character relationship, between the trusting young Honduran woman trying to cross the border with her family and the reckless Mexican hood on the run from his fellow gang members, is an engrossing way to navigate this material. But writer-director Cary Fukunaga, a young American, knows the right information but seems unsure of how his story should unfold. All the right pieces are in place, but the screenplay never offers any real catharsis for its pained characters, and never reveals anything that makes this material more compelling. Fukunaga is telling a downbeat story that only gets more downbeat -- which is allowed -- but in this film, the incessant barrage of one dominant tone without nuance becomes wearisome. As a director, Fukunaga shows good promise and tells an insightful tale, but his own screenplay sometimes stands in the way of Sin Nombre becoming a transcendant picture.

Jim Jarmusch has always been a tone poet, and never has the term "tone poem" been more accurately applicable to any film in recent memory than Jarmusch's latest, The Limits of Control.

The film tells the story of a loner on a mission. What that mission is, we don't really know until the end, when all is revealed (or at least, as much as any Jarmusch film is willing to reveal). Isaach De Bankole plays the Lone Man, and Jarmusch with cinematographer Christopher Doyle studies the actor's cinema-perfect face with beautiful precision -- it is, after all, all we have to go on in this story, where literally nothing happens of any great significance -- but that is sort of the point. The Lone Man travels to various exotic locales, meets with a revolving door of famous cameos (among them Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Bill Murray) who exchange lofty bits of dialogue about the structure and meaning of existence, then exchange cryptic match-boxes with our hero before vanishing.

We study the Lone Man's actions -- he observes great art, does Tai Chi every morning, always orders two espressos in separate cups, and never allows his stone-faced focus to waver. Jarmusch (Broken Flowers, Coffee and Cigarettes, Ghost Dog, among many others), indie cinema's preeminent purveyor of films almost solely about film form, makes The Limits of Control a direct reflection of his lead character -- stoic, repetitious, and focused with intensity. The conceit is always pretentious, occasionally off-putting, but oftentimes oddly engrossing, as Jarmusch sets about to create a film about uncertainty and obfuscation, and he undoubtedly succeeds. The film is iced with Jarmusch's most gorgeous directorial work to date, and the hiring of master D.P. Doyle further extends the hypnotic film's visual grasp.

Another indie darling of the year, the buzz on this leadup-to-war satire has reached such a fever pitch that one is tempted to enter the screening room expecting the next Dr. Strangelove. My advice: leaven your expectations and you will have an enjoyable experience. No, In the Loop is not the next Dr. Strangelove, and it is not even the most savvily funny and intellectually probing dissection of our modern culture this year, but it is a smart and funny film with a few laugh-out-loud moments and several other witty chuckles.

Armando Iannucci, a mainstay of British TV, develops a wide array of interesting characters in his story of governmental P.R. run amok, and the result is such an entertaining experience that I'm disappointed I find myself posing counter-arguments to the trend of "it's one of the year's best" pronouncements. Maybe it was a case of diminished expectations, or maybe this just isn't quite my cup of tea, but In the Loop seems funny-but-flimsy, savvy-but-slight.

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