Tuesday, January 19, 2010

More Indie Love...Now on DVD

If 2009 was a horrific year for big studio pictures, it was an amazing year for wonderful independent films. You oftentimes had to look real hard to find it, but there was big-screen greatness in 2009. And now you can catch up with it on the small(er) screen on DVD.

Tilda Swinton gives the performance of the year as Julia, a staggering drunk who sleeps around and never tells the truth. She is such an unbelievable, iredeemable mess that you can't help but root for her...while averting your eyes from her destructive behavior. And then, out of ridiculous circumstance, Julia makes a deal to retrieve her equally drunken neighbor's son, goes on the run with a kidnapped boy, and plays a vast network of thugs for ransom money while legitimately attempting to return the boy to his mother. Or does she? The film bearing our heroine's name, Erick Zonca's Julia, brilliantly throws our expectations and understanding of plot and character for an exuberant loop. It is the most surprisingly riveting, funny-yet-tragic, ingeniously engaging thriller of the year.

Zonca's camera fixes on Swinton with the shaky, hand-held gaze of a great documentarian. His story is sprawling in its content and length, but never wavers in its shattering intensity. We simply cannot take our eyes off Julia, the most facinating screen character I've experienced all year. Is she brilliantly playing every last deadly criminal who crosses her? Or is she merely being herself, incapable of telling anyone the truth and therefore indirectly orchestrating a brilliant scheme? We cannot know, but oh, how glorious the frustration is.

And what of the film's ending? Without giving anything away, Julia makes a final decision, one last promise that is entirely consistent with her reckless nature...but what are her intentions? Is she pulling another scheme, or making a solemn pact for the first time in her life? The stakes of her journey are so great that either option would be valid and meaningful in the fate of this wonderful character, and discussing the possibilities results in some of the most fascinating post-film conversation viewers will ever experience. Julia is a character, and Julia a film, that thrives on the dizzying fury of uncertainty. It is an absolute joy.

Moon is great science fiction because at its heart, it is not just science fiction, but an enthralling character study filled with wonder, sadness, and revelation. Directed and conceived by first-time feature director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) on a relative shoestring budget, the film casts a celestial spell unlike any space opera in recent memory.

Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, who is finishing the final days of his three-year mission, intended to scour the moon's surface for traces of Helium-3, an alternative energy source. His only companion is Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey), an advanced piece of A.I. which may slightly resemble 2001's HAL-9000, but is a very different character indeed. Sam is anticipating a return home to his wife and young child, but then...a routine maintenance jop on a lunar vehicle goes awry. Upon Sam's return...he starts seeing things. And from there, Moon becomes an equal parts challenging and entertaining space mind-bender.

The film is a piece of genius not simply because of its plot twists, which occur fairly early and then explored for the film's duration, but for its unconventional representation of self-reflection. Even as it seems we understand the film clearly, there is a still a gleeful doubt, a heightened uncertainty that serves as a riveting hook that never lets go until the film's final cut to black. Sam discovers mind-blowing facts about his mission and his existence that send him on a mission to protect himself from unseen villainy (which may not be villainy at all, but that's where it gets too complicated for this article), and our own uncertainty bonds us with Sam as he continues his journey of discovery and survival.

Rockwell's performance is astounding. He delivers not only the best work of his career, but perhaps the best male performance of 2009, a performance that -- like Swinton's virtuoso work in Julia -- will go entirely unnoticed for the major (and minor, for that matter) awards. And Duncan Jones is a filmmaker to watch. He takes elements of other sci-fi films (sure, a little 2001, but more resonantly Solaris, among others) and reinvents them to create a truly original experience. Moon is riveting, absorbing, and unforgettable.

Amreeka is honest independent filmmaking, made with passion and reflecting the joys and the sorrows, the victories and the defeats, the happy security and painful uncertainty of life.

Muna (Nisreen Faour, in a wonderful lead performance) is due for a fresh start. She lives in her native Palestine, where she works thanklessly at a local bank, spies on her philandering ex-husband on her way home, and then arrives home to a cantankerous mother and a son who yearns to come to America.

Then, Muna checks the mail. There she finds that a visa application submitted several months prior has finally been approved, and with a healthy combination of fear and excitement, Muna and her son, Fadi (Melkar Muallem), set off for the United States, where they find a home in Illinois with Muna's sister, Raghda (Hiam Abbass), and her family. Setbacks are incessant: Muna is rejected by all the jobs she applies for...except White Castle. Fadi is bullied by prejudiced classmates. Raghda's husband, a local physician, is facing a loss of several clients simply because of his nationality, which many associate with terrorism. America is a struggle for these hard-working, well-intended people. They only want a chance to succeed, but they must fight twice as hard as a typical citizen.

Amreeka, which means "America" in Arabic, is set at the outset of our country's disastrous occupation of Iraq, and the authenticity of its unique cultural viewpoint -- an oftentimes painful slice of life from Palestinian immigrants at a time when U.S. paranoia over any person of Middle Eastern descent was on overdrive -- is striking and powerful. First-time feature director Cherien Dabis piercingly conveys that heinous prejudice and its painful effects, but beautifully leavens the strife with wonderful human comedy. Even at its most dramtic, the film's tone remains buoyant, and this story -- of a loving family's valiant American struggle, no matter where they come from or what their skin color -- washes over you like a refreshing waterfall.

Big Fan could have been many things: a goofy comedy, an eerie character study, a disturbing psychological tragedy, or a dry satire. Any one route might have been effective enough, but in the hands of writer-director Robert Siegel, the film is a sublime combination of all of them.

Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt) is a loser. He works mindlessly at a New York parking garage, lives with his mother, and sleeps in a bed with all the NFL team names stiched onto it. But he is a fan, the kind that goes beyond the generic "die-hard" label. In fact, the only venue in which Paul comes to life is talk radio, where he makes nightly calls to a local sports talk show and recites prepared monologues about the genius of the New York Giants. He idolizes the Giants' fictional star player, Quantrell Bishop, and when he takes one step too far, Paul is forced to reconsider his duties as a big fan.

Siegel, the celebrated writer of The Wrestler, shifts focus in his directorial debut from the fallen sports hero to the sort of fan who refuses to believe that sports heroes can fall. The film unfolds with the kind of hysterical tension that makes you simultaneously giggle and cringe. Oswalt, best known as a comedian, is a revelation as Paul, who is such a miserable lug that we can't help but root for him, even as his fan-dom becomes his very avoidable unraveling. His performance, in tandem with Siegel's writing, painfully captures the futility of Paul, who could turn into Travis Bickle, but at the end of the day, he's too naive.

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