Is anybody else tired of hearing “they don’t make them like they used to”? It is easy to be cynical about the artistic output of one’s own generation. With hindsight behind the classics of old, it is easy to feel that the grass was greener in times of old. Sure, it’s easy to look at indie gems like Reservoir Dogs and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and think “it’s been a long time since we have had a decent indie film like that.” But, on behalf of the true cinephile contingent, let me be the first to dispel this notion.
Here, in the short five years between 2009 and 2014, we have seen boundaries pushed, sensibilities tested, and audiences thrilled, and often without a generous budget, or even wide theatrical release. For those who have had their ears to the ground, you will know this to be true already. For those that may not yet be fully exposed, here are some recent indie gems to whet your appetite and stir your imagination.
20. Cyrus (2010)
Yes, this is a quirky little number. Cyrus embodies the relaxed, realistic aesthetic we have come to expect from relaxed mumblecore pioneers Jay and mark Duplass. Yet, this is a character story, and by supplication, an acting masterclass. John C. Reilly, as ever, plays the common man as good as any other.
Reilly plays John, a lovable schlub who is encouraged back into the dating game by, of all people, his now re-engaged ex-wife. At a party, a drunken John meet the gorgeous and amiable Molly (played by an energetic Marisa Tomei). There is but one problem in their perfect romance – Molly’s bizarre, emotionally dependent son Cyrus.
To say that Jonah Hill is effective in this role is an understatement. He is absorbed and reborn in his role as the bone chillingly awkward, and ultimately manipulative ageing dependent. Be it introducing John to his bizarre music, informing John of the difference between “what you do” and “who you are”, or merely standing in a hallway, wearing a night shirt and staring blankly, Hill is mesmerizingly odd.
Most amazingly, this is all achieved by a mere realignment of Hill’s typical on-screen persona; like a foul beast born of Judd Apatow. To witness the antagonism between Reilly and Hill truly makes for a deliciously wicked experience in a romantic comedy.
19. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
Skepticism vs romanticism has been a thematic trait of many a great movie, as has myth building around certain, mysterious characters. As such, film may come across as typical indie fare, but there is a dazzling strangeness to its storytelling, not to mention its sentimentality.
The story, stemming from a 1997 Backwoods Home Magazine classified ad (placed in jest) in which somebody requested a companion for time travel. A bizarre story filled with dry wit by screenwriter Derek Connolly. Throw in a hint of romance, an element of self-discovery, some issues of individuality, and you have pure Sundance gold.
What works here is the ability to balance sentimentality with moments that are anything but. When journalist Jeff chooses his team by announcing “All right. Give me the lesbian and the Indian, and I got a story”, the film feels like something from the psyche of Judd Apatow.
Yet, the closer skeptical journalist Darius gets to elusive aspiring time traveler Kenneth, the more their connection highlights the need in all of us to have something to believe in. The ending is electric, a conclusion as magical as an early Spielberg fable, but with the aura of mumblecore never far from influence. Essentially, the oddball Kenneth is, in many ways, the wisest character in the film. He knows who he is, and that is good enough.
18. Super (2010)
An unapologetically bitter romp into the mind of psychosocially jaded writer/director James Gunn, Super was dismissed as trash by many an observer upon its initial release in 2011. How anybody could think that the filmmaker behind Slither would compromise his message is a wonder. Nonetheless, this film is a tough sell. Perhaps, it is the fact that Super dares to point out the contradictions in the superhero mystique that makes it so disturbing.
The story centers around a sympathetic character, but not necessarily a noble one. Rainn Wilson is blunt, absurd, and occasionally chilling as Frank Darbo, a man who feels the calling to become a superhero after his wife is accosted and reintroduced to drugs by dope pusher Jacques (Kevin Bacon) and his cronies. Familiar superhero story? There’s more. As Frank takes justice into his own hands, he becomes increasingly brutal and self-serving; in short, a brutal vigilante.
Central to this reassessment of the superhero ethic is Ellen Page’s Libby. From the moment Libby utters the the hideous term “mongloid”, we are aware of her imbalance. As it turns out, the romantically frustrated Libby is nothing short of murderous. In time, even Frank is appalled. But the weird must be united, and Frank and Libby do share some of the film’s few but potent tender moments.
Super is a film that asserts that only a dangerous lunatic would become a superhero. This is not necessarily a message that the Iron Man generation particularly want to hear, but it makes its point strangely well. Also, it’s quite funny.
17. Winter’s Bone (2010)
As bare as Ozark landscape of its setting and as unflinchingly honest as its young protagonist Ree, Winter’s Bone rose from modest beginnings and lingered in the consciousness of those that saw it. The leading role made a star of the now ubiquitous a-lister Jennifer Lawrence. Of course, given that Lawrence had to learn to skin a squirrel and shoot for the movie, many would argue that stardom was well deserved.
Ree, a teen left to fend for her family due to an absentee father and an incapacitated mother, never succumbs to self-pity. However, when her father goes missing and has skipped bail, Ree is faced with the potential loss of the family home. To protect her mother and younger siblings, she ventures into the criminal depths of her impoverished Alaskan town, forced to confront the worst of her society in her search for her neglectful father.
The film is, in essence, an examination of how criminal culture can perpetuate itself. These Ozark natives have few opportunities. Most girls become mothers young in the local high school. For many, crime is preferable to poverty; and the golden rule is to keep your mouth shut as as far as the criminal investigations are concerned. These ideas are embodied in John Hawke’s Teardrop, not so much villainous as violently cynical.
Still, Lawrence’s stoic performance anchors the film’s unassuming narrative. She is stoic and dignified through tears, beatings, and fear. The conclusion is not cheerful, but silently hopeful. Above all else, Winter’s Bone feels real.
16. Young Adult (2011)
Protagonists are ideally lovable, relatable, and underprivileged fighters. Those, indeed, that we can relate to and whose struggle we can empathize with. Yet, this can make it all the most astounding when a film presents a protagonist that is none of these things, or at least not initially. Set to a part inspired, part kitsch 1990s soundtrack, this is a story of an individual firmly stuck in the past, unable to attune to the responsibility and compromises of adulthood. Indeed, rarely has arrested adulthood been depicted as being so oppressive.
Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a shallow, self-obsessed ghost writer of a series of popular young adult novels. With the franchise on the slide, and a series of bad relationships in the can, the delusional Mavis believes that the path to a continued life lies in getting back together with her high school sweetheart Buddy back in her native Minneapolis. The problem? Small towner Buddy is married with children.
What ensues is pure opera. It is part comedy, part tragedy. Theron excels as the bitter Mavis, leaving her voracious mark on everybody from barmen to retailers in a wave of destruction through Minneapolis. Patrick Wilson is superb as the naive, coy Buddy; a man too polite to simply dismiss Mavis in her blatant attempt to break up his family. However, it is Patton Oswalt that steals the show as the downtrodden and physically handicapped Matt.
A toy collector and general oddball, Matt seems, like Mavis, a victim of his society. There are all girl bands, mix tapes, and moonshine to stir up semblances of fun. Yet, this remains a black dramedy, and one of those movies that makes adulthood look like a truly daunting prospect.
15. Source Code (2011)
A single scene, single setting matrix of gradual narrative and mystery, Source Code makes a sleuth of the viewer. The film unfolds almost like sci -fi’s answer to Groundhog Day, only with little attempt to induce the hysterical laughs that the aforementioned strives for.
The film’s protagonist, soldier Cole Stevens is played with typical quirk and flare by Jake Gyllenhaal. He is, however, a character in some predicament. The rules of the game are intense, Cole wakes up in the body of a strange man who is eight minutes away from his death at the hands of a bomb aboard a Chicago train. Cole’s mission? Live out his avatar’s last eight minutes over and over again until he discovers the bomb, saving the train’s passengers and his host body.
Duncan Jones follows up his success with “Moon” well with tight direction and staging. As Cole fails time and time again, the film more readily resembles a taut thriller than science fiction. The sequences aboard the train are tense and astute. The same characters and situations recurring over and over hinder Cole, then in time play into his hands.
It is as though the very same elements that made Groundhog Day funny and make Source Code tense. Yet, in the conclusion, the film becomes so dystopian that they almost resemble a Terry Gilliam nightmare, virtually washing the thriller away, leaving in place only claustrophobia.