14. You Kill Me (2007)
Frank, a working Joe, is in an existential funk. He is appreciated at work, though the work has become tiresome to him. He is an alcohol attempting desperately to recover. He has a younger woman in his life, and must deal with the rigors of dating again after so many years.
Cliche? What if I told you Frank is a professional hitman, guilty of mass murders and in the midst of a mob war between his Polish sect and the city’s premiere Irish mafia clan. Of course, it being an Indie comedy, the minutia of Frank’s life, including AA meeting with his gay friend and romance with his young belle (Tea Leoni) take preference over the life or death mob struggles.
Veterans of many a great supporting role are employed to give the film its charm. Philip Baker Hall, Dennis Farina, Luke Wilson, and even Bill Pullman make very memorable appearances. Despite this, it is the turn of the great Ben Kingsley that gives the film its humanity; ironic for a character that is as such a callous murderer.
From the first time that we see him cooling a bottle of vodka in the snow, to his eventual redemption, we truly feel the breath of this characters personal awakening. His self-contentment in a showdown with Farina’s antagonist feels as refreshing to us as it does to Frank the character. This film is a romp, with a surprising lack of blood and an even more surprising abundance of heart.
13. The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
With a monologue worthy of Shakespeare in its closing moments, the opening of this slick noir homage could not be more understated. With The Man Who wasn’t There, the Coen Brothers have found a real elegance in the arena of mad cap. It’s alternate title, The Barber, is revealed in an elegant opening crawl reminiscent of film noir’s heyday.
From the beginning, there is something sinister to the universe. Billy Bob Thornton’s droll voice-over about the futility of cutting hair when it will simply grow back is a perfect introduction to this defeated man. The rhythm of the editing emphasises the repetition of his daily torment. Only a business offer from a flamboyant customer offers to brighten up his dreary existence. Will this get rich quick scheme work? Simply put, no.
Murder, pianists, marriage, aliens, and oral sex ensue. Maybe it is the closeted nature of urban life in 1950s America that the Coens were trying to emphasise? Maybe it the futitlity of manhood? Either way, this powerful tale came nestled between the more commercial outings O, Brother, Where Art Thou? and Intolerable Cruelty on the Coens’ mighty timeline, and thus was largely overlooked.
But it is a worthy entry indeed. Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini are sensational in supporting roles. Scarlett Johansson, a mere fifteen at the time of filming, makes her breakthrough. The films of the fifties are effortlessly re-evoked visually, particularly with a recurring spinning wheel motif. “What kind of a man are you?” An apt question.
12. Down to the Bone (2004)
A film about no more than a single Mom raising a kid, doing drugs, buying a snake, and finding love; and no less enthralling than most great films you are likely to see in your lifetime. made on shoestring budget, this film is perhaps the very definition of Indie.
The constant presence of American patriotic iconography must surely be ironic, as the crumbling district in which Irene (Vera Farmiga in a career best performance) dwells is dilapidated beyond recognition. She works a dead end job, struggles to make ends meat, and even the drugs are not quite working as they used to. Her life seems angrily pitched in direct reaction to the glamour of Hollywood’s typical output.
Like the snake slowly consuming its prey, one gets the idea that the characters are very much consumed by, and trapped in this life of monotony. Yet, there is a quiet strength to Irene. Her ability to overcome addiction. Put her son first, even over her lovelife. Even the ability to jettison that which, in her life, poorly affects her primary purpose.
There is no glamour, but that is not to say that there isn’t sweetness. Motherhood has rarely looked stronger onscreen. Relationships are discussed with harrowing rationality. This is not just a world, it is the real world. In the world of this film, life’s petty victories are the only ones to really cherish, not always the way of the movie universe. Simply put, Down to the Bone is as stark as the landscape it portrays.
11. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
A Sidney Lumet film with a true claim to the mantle of “Indie” had not been released in an era. But, with his last filmmaking breath, Lumet decided boldly to lay claim to this hard boiled sunset noir. Just think, it opens with a graphic sex scene. Yet, the most shocking thing about this airtight thriller is the uncomfortably real depiction of a family is deadly dissolution.
When Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) decide to rob their parents jewelry store for a little extra cash, they believe that they can execute a victimless crime. Knowing the work of Sidney Lumet, it doesn’t take a film critic to predict the murder, adultery, lies, and tears that follow.
Yet, it is executed with brutal efficiency from the onset of its steamy opening sequence. At the behest of a great sense of pacing, sequences like the robbery are absolutely electric. In the end, it is a tale of battling egos. The duplicitous older brother, the ornate Mother, the cheating wife, the aspiring thug younger brother, the loathsomely unreliable thief.
Yet, in the end, the hardest of the hard boiled is none other than the family patriarch Charles, portrayed in a brilliant late-career turn by Albert Finney. As he makes his last walk into the climax of the film, we realise that he may be one of cinema’s saddest vigilantes. Highly recommended.
10. Brick (2005)
An uncompromising narrative ideal is a sure mark of Indie filmmaking in the modern age. Thematically, tonally, and stylistically, these are films that relish in being different. Brick is most certainly that. The story of a young girl who is found dead in a reservoir, and the high school student who takes it upon himself to investigate her demise, is as cryptic as it is grim. Many didn’t see this in theaters, just as many who did see it were baffled by its plot intricacy.
Raymond Chandler would be proud of the twists and turns, the candor and the lies, the ubiquitous new evidence, and the new characters that spring insesently out of the woodworks. Still, Chandler would, we would hope, also wonder at the luscious style with which the film is presented. Even more still, it was the final confirmation of the rise to A list stardom of Joseph Gordon Levitt.
All of the hipster iconography associated with youth in Indie cinema is present. Nerds in thick rimmed glasses, jocks in football jackets, outcasts with rubik’s cubes. Yet, there is a dark soul that festers in this movie. The essence of horror is to be felt everywhere. Like a David Lynch film, the narrative is fixated on a dark underbelly existing clandestinely in middle America.
This is physically depicted by scenes with prostitutes, dopers, and killers. It is certainly a fish out of water tale. But this fish seems equipped, Levitt plays Brendan as a sensititive soul concealed in a very rough exterior. A high school student with an old soul, he is the perfect guide through this dark maze of ideas. If he fight a jock, he can solve a murder; we the viewer are confident of that.
9. Wonder Boys (2000)
A film whose appeal is almost impossible to articulate, yet one example of a romantic comedy that will linger with you despite the overcrowded nature of the canon. It is sweet, with a great insight into the human condition. Mostly, though, it is simply howlingly funny. Think of it as the best modern day Woody Allen film, not actually directed by Woody Allen. Instead, the film is written and directed by veteran scribe Curtis Hanson, and the script is raucous one indeed.
The tale of a reclusive author and his socially impotent student in search of one of Marilyn Monroe’s jackets, is merely an extended McGuffin meant to facilitate the unabashed disconformity of its characters actions. It is about love as an acquired taste, and that includes love for oneself.
“He probably calls everybody Vernon”, “he put all kinds of things on it…ground lamb.” These lines may not mean much to you now, but they may just mean a great deal once you have joined the fandom of this cult classic. A script rife with musings on celebrity suicides and old movies calls for a great cast to support its dialogue centered remit.
Thankfully, the cast included a back from the brink Robert Downey Jr. Indeed, this was the film that began his career comeback, and perhaps his life comeback. Michael Douglas and Tobey make a great pair, if an unlikely one. The always brilliant Frances McDormand pitches it well also. Well worth a watch, this film is not afraid to finish with sentimentality, as film about finding somebody worth making life’s journey with.
8. Tape (2001)
Shot defiantly on tape with a camcorder, and with the films only “action” taking place in one motel room, this is quintessential Richard Linklater territory. Yet, considering that, it is rather strange that Tape was largely overlooked by the Box Office and fans alike. Poorly promoted, this is nonetheless one of the more dramatically effective examples of Linklater;s often devisive method of narrative storytelling.
The plot is irresistible. Vince, a bidding filmmaker in Michigan to promote his film, meets old friend and lifelong flake John (Ehtan Hawke) in a motel room. Quickly, the two begin to rehash an age old argument over the “stealing” of Vince’s old girlfriend by John in the dying days of their high school life. Better still, the ex soon joins them, and she is played by none other than Uma Thurman.
An admittedly wandering script is bolstered by remarkable characterisations from the three person cast. John hold the audience’s attention singlehandedly in the opening minutes- brishing his hair, drinking, bowling beer cans- it is remarkable magnetic. The intricacies of Vince and John’s petty disagreements are revealed in timely fashion, as are their individual insecurities.
Furthermore, Uma Thurman’s performance as Amy adds a real humanity to the this petty courtroom affair. This is vintage Richard Linklater, yet, shot the year before he embarked on his journey with Boyhood, this film was lost in the fray. Hopefully, like the relationship between Tape’s characters, the film too is due for an overdue rekindling.