"I know it when I see it."--U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in reference to the definition of obscenity, 1964.
The past decade has seen an explosion in the number of films proudly identified -- either by the filmmakers themselves, marketing campaigns, or members of the press -- as "independent." But what makes an "independent" film independent, anyway? Is it the source of financing or is it the artistry? Or is it a combination of elements?
I've wrestled with this question for weeks, through at least one blown deadline, and keep coming back to Justice Stewart's definition: "I know it when I see it." Not that I'm an expert; in fact, one of the greatest frustrations of the past ten years has been the difficulty I've had in keeping up with all the films whose independence is defined by their artistry -- the closest to a definition that I can come. Over the decade I've worked in various capacities with several different film festivals and I've also covered a number of festivals as a working member of the press. So I've had the opportunity to see hundreds of indie films. And it's still not enough.
Setting aside all the decade's great documentaries, ably covered by Christopher Campbell, and all the wondrous foreign-language films, well captured by Jeffrey M. Anderson, we're left with thousands of English-language indies. (Sundance says they had 1,058 (?!) feature-length submissions for their dramatic competition this year.) Obviously, the biggest challenge is to see a reasonable amount of films. And unless you've been lucky enough to spend all your time watching movies, and traveling to a multitude of film festivals and markets, you only see a tiny percentage of what's been made.
Over the past decade, I haven't been that lucky, but from a more limited menu, may I present ten of the best "truly" independent English-language narrative films that I saw. These are the ones that left a lasting impression, that changed me, moved me, and haunted me, sometimes simultaneously. Listed in chronological order:
Funny Ha Ha (2002; d. Andrew Bujalski)
Lo-fi to the extreme, awkward and fumbling and uneasy, the film shambles along as it follows Marnie (Kate Dollenmayer) in her post-collegiate confusion. Bujalski has steadily improved as a filmmaker -- check out his latest, Beeswax -- but his real calling card was set in his first feature, which is calmly focused on characters rather than narrative.
Charlotte Sometimes (2002; d. Eric Byler)
Navigating the tricky waters of a relationship is never easy, much less when three people are involved. Eric Byler's visual style matches the script: it's elusive and suggestive, providing the road markers that are needed without spelling everything out.
The Talent Given Us (2004; d. Andrew Wagner)
What an awful idea: making a road movie starring your family! From that raw, unappealing premise emerges the antithesis of 'old family photos,' with tears and laughter and sorrow and aggravation unraveling across the miles.
Ethan Mao (2004; Quentin Lee)
Ah, yes, to be young and Asian and gay and in love: can there be anything better and/or worse? For all the imperfections of the film itself; the passion of the pent-up feelings fairly burst through every frame, leaving indelible images behind. Imperfect? Yes. An argument in favor of putting a camera in every kid's hands, with the hope that one out of 100 will produce something like this some day? Yes.
Head Trauma (2006; d. Lance Weiler)
Lance Weiler crafted a very simple horror story, built around a man who returns home to find it's not quite as he remembers it. Of all the nightmare scenarios that could be constructed from that premise, Weiler chooses a fairly oblique path that actually feels like it's chipping away at your own sanity. Weiler's decision to self-distribute the film is worthy of a case study all its own.
Old Joy (2006; d. Kelly Reichardt)
Reichardt would go on to make Wendy and Lucy, which ended up with a higher profile in part because of the presence of Michelle Williams. Without any stars, it's easier to watch Old Joy without any distractions and be carried away with the tale of two friends who venture into the woods. Not much happens outwardly; the changing nature of their friendship is signaled almost entirely by internal cues that are gradually revealed.
Day Night Day Night (2006; d. Julia Loktev)
The ticking time bomb of terrorism is what drives every agonizing minute, visible in the face of a young woman who may or may not commit suicide. The focus shifts from minutes to seconds, and the decisions that are made between them, as the question of the young woman's identity, and her motives, hangs in the balance.
August Evening (2007; d. Chris Eska)
Shimmering landscapes enfold Jaime and his daughter-in-law Lupe. He has lost his son and she lost her husband, and they cling to each other as the world pushes them around. Their only security is with each other, yet Jaime feels selfish to ask anything of the young woman, and Lupe realizes the old dear gentleman would be lost without her. The rhythms of the film ebb and flow along with their changing fortunes.
The Pool (2007; d. Chris Smith)
A bit of a cheat, since most of the dialogue is spoken in Hindi, but I'm including it because Smith wrote the script in English and had it translated. In any event, it deserves notice because the modesty of its ambition allows the characters to shine, especially a poor young man who yearns, not for a woman, but for the ideal of a private swimming pool and all it represents.
Make-Out With Violence (2009; d. The Deagol Brothers)
I've only seen it once and that viewing at South by Southwest left me staggered. The zombie angle is the grabber, but it's the off-kilter pace and the unpredictable narrative that feels like it's either carefully calculated or entirely accidental and random. Whatever it is, it's unique and sometimes breathtaking. And I'm not the only fan here at Cinematical: see what Jen Yamato wrote.
As a point of reference, here's a double handful of more widely seen pictures that I feel best demonstrated a fierce independent artistic intent and accomplishment during the decade. Listed in order of preference:
1. There Will Be Blood (2007; d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
2. Mulholland Drive (2001; d. David Lynch)
3. No Country for Old Men (2007; d. Coen Brothers)
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004; d. Michel Gondry)
5. Spider (2002; d. David Cronenberg)
6. The New World (2005; d. Terence Malick)
7. 25th Hour (2002; d. Spike Lee)
8. Shattered Glass (2003; d. Billy Ray)
9. George Washington (2000; d. David Gordon Green)
10. Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005; d. Miranda July)
Obviously, these are highly subjective selections. You're encouraged to pitch in with your picks and offer your own definition of "indie" in the comments section.