There are many different forms of both success and failure in the film industry. A film may be considered a failure for financial underperformance, critical disapproval, or fan disillusionment.
Other films are just so poorly released and distributed that, regardless of merit or lack thereof, the film simply is not seen by many people. Thus, both a Box Office smash hit and a film under limited release in just one movie theatre can both, in their own individual ways, be referred to as “failures”.
Film in general has this quality in common with “indie” pictures. This term carries quite the floating definition. Nobody really has a set idea of what “indie” is. Technically speaking, it refers to that which falls outside the studio system, thus “independently” produced. But, for others, “Indie” is more a way of life, a style, a tone.
Here, I am using the term in all of its senses to shed light on films that may not have enjoyed adequate attention. Some were poorly distributed, some were undersold, some had gaping flaws in their narrative. For some though, there was little reason why they should be so thoroughly overlooked. In the opinion of this writer, they all have considerable merit.
14. Damsels in Distress (2012)
The inimitable Whit Stillman made a typically vivacious return to filmmaking with Damsels in Distress. On the surface, the film centers around a group of college students who set out to “save” scores of depressed fellow students.
However, the focus, as new recruit Amy soon learns, is far more about the girls’ own self-interests and about imposing their ideals on others. The controlling queen bee Violet (an abrasive Greta Gerwig), for instance, is especially absorbed in her own feelings when she is among the less-fortunate, amidst of a host of ludicrous activities.
Of course, it is not easy being known as an even-wordier Woody Allen. Stillman’s films fall under a very remote category; they chronicle the ennui of the over-privileged intellectual. Hence, they are not to everybody’s taste.
However, this one speaks as strongly to the collective memory of youth and the whirlwind of college life as it does to the standard Stillman canon. It is bolstered by romance, wit, and even charm. Thus, it is an apt film with which Whit Stillman may commence his career anew.
13. Safety Not Guaranteed (2013)
Here is a mumblecore flick that almost teases you with the hint of having a real plot, only to reveal a string of events as esoteric as most in the genre—in this case, showcasing the absurdities of life on the cultural fringe.
When cynical journalist Darius (Aubrey Plaza) investigates a bizarre classified ad in a newspaper requesting company for timetravel, the vulnerable but sweet Kenneth enters her life. At the expense of her two colleagues, Darius’ story, romance, friendship, and hard life lessons ensue.
The film may be rife with indie self-awareness, something which has come to exhaust many film fans, but there is something exceptional at play here. Kenneth’s vulnerability never gives way to outright complacency.
Instead, his desire for time travel is a goal he pursues with great self-confidence and, in tandem, charming humility. He convincingly wins Darius over to his strangely positive thinking. You do not even necessarily need an ending that proves definitively whether or not Kenneth was, in fact, honest and sincere. Nevertheless, you get just that.
12. Drive Angry (2011)
A controversial entry to this list, but only for those who take no pleasure in the gleeful hilarity of grindhouse sadism. Simply put: this is a film in which Nicolas Cage drinks beer from a man’s skull. Even more bizarre is the fact that that particular scene is far from the film’s most ridiculous one.
Nic Cage has an ongoing tendency to baffle critics by signing on for films that could not possibly be hits, yet in an odd way this is his most impressive venture into such ludicrous territory.
Indeed, ludicrous is the operative word. There are sex, guns, and booze—in one scene and at the same time. There are sexy chicks (Amber Heard), muscle cars, and supernatural occurrences.
Yes, this is a B-movie-lover’s dream turned into hysterical reality. Amber Heard plays her part, as does a sensationally nasty Willaim Fichtner as the bad guy. But, as always, the most hyperactive is Cage himself as John Milton, a character he plays like Con Air’s Cameron Poe on speed. Wild, weird, and wonderful.
11. Bernie (2011)
Richard Linklater seems intent to prove he can get away with anything. One of the more mainstream examples of his rampant genre-hopping is his understated 2011 offering Bernie. At the very least, the film is as understated as a movie about the murder of an elderly woman can be.
Like Punch Drunk Love (2002), the film was met with skepticism when it was announced that a primarily comedic actor (Jack Black) would attempt a change of style in the lead role as Bernie Tiede. Furthermore, the film choose to satirize the parlance of small-town Texas, rather than benefit from the typical, wandering Linklater dialogue.
Yet the good decisions are clear from the get-go. Jack Black is wonderful as the busybody Tiede, who is sweet enough to win us over, yet odd enough to cause the audience to question him from the onset.
Set in a pseudo-documentary framework, there are performances of quiet elegance, most notably from Matthew McConnaughey as the wry, cynical town sheriff. Shirley Maclaine, too, is unmissably deadpan as an unlikely love interest.
Yet, in the end, the film does belong to Jack Black; through his meek pleasantries, a tale of murder by circumstance unfolds. The film dutifully causes us to contemplate our own sense of morality, more so than most would expect when approaching the film in the first place.
10. Upstream Color (2013)
Quite simply, this is a film in which the viewer is never fully aware of what is going on. Nor, indeed, are they expected to be. It is a film about effect, without full disclosure of the cause. it also represents both the artistic highs and cryptic lows of elusive director Shane Carruth.
The film’s summary reads “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism.” Though none of this is explicit, we do know that at some point, for some reason, a group of people have discovered something truly amazing. As an audience, we are eager to discover what it is.
The cinematography and montage editing is gorgeous, not entirely dissimilar to the recent works of Terrence Malick. Are these characters addicted to some invigorating drug? Have they made a spiritual breakthrough? Is it psychological? Is romance at the heart of this?
A scene in a farm towards the end of the film does little to clarify but does much to intrigue. In the end, for the viewer at least, human empathy seems to be the true breakthrough and achievement.
9. Young Adult (2011)
As unsentimental as they come, this film was too bleak for many. But, for some, it may well be remembered as the final masterpiece of Jason Reitman, whose subsequent work has sadly declined. Mavis (Charlize Theron) is a thirty-something who emotionally has never left high school; she is unable to abandon the free-spirited popularity of her youth for an adult life that has proven too much for her.
Mavis, a semi-successful young adult franchise ghostwriter, is a victim of arrested development. Lost in a haze of alcohol and self-interest, Mavis feels that there is only one respite for her: to recover her old high school sweetheart, Bobby. The fact that he is now married with kids is but a minor roadblock to her.
What follows is a Minnesota fish-out-of-water tale. The rich, spoiled city girl returns to the small town to get ahead, but she ends up ever so much more behind. The inability to connect with Mavis is the oft-cited critical complaint about this film. Yet, since when did imperfection and weakness not lead to human identification? Indeed, Mavis develops and becomes frighteningly likeable.
The film is also quite witty, lampooning everything from the Kardashians to young adult fiction itself. Not least, a never-better Patton Oswalt plays the disabled Matt, the true heart of the film. Mavis and Matt’s union is consummated in a scene that is utterly unforgettable.
8. Dark Horse (2012)
Todd Solondz has never played by anybody’s rules. It is difficult to characterize his work outside of the umbrella term that is “indie”. Nonetheless, the term “controversial” is never far from the tongue. Here, in an attempt to mount a comeback of sorts, he presents a story of the devastation that arises when two emotionally ill-equipped thirty-somethings attempt to conduct a relationship.
Preying on every youth’s fear of still living at home after thirty is the film’s protagonist, Abe. Abe is a directionless social outcast that finds some solace (but not much) in flights of fancy. Thus, as we see his relationship with Miranda (Selma Blair), the viewer can never truly distinguish between what is really occurring and what is simply a figment of Abe’s active, yet pessimistic, imagination.
Perhaps the film was misunderstood due to how irredeemably bleak its implications are. Nothing really comes to fruition in this film. Pregnancy, illness, and even love itself, all appear teasingly over the course of the film, only to be completely abandoned or to have their authenticity questioned within the story.
The real message here: people are often average and doomed never to be anything more. A dark story indeed, despite the surprising chemistry of its leads. But Solondz does endeavor to be sincere in his narrative, despite the complications inherent in that goal. Can you handle it?