I surveyed a number of "official" lists of independent films and was a little baffled by some of the titles that were included. Does Woody Allen, with 50 films under his belt, count as "independent"? Are movies like Margin Call, The Descendents and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, with their star-studded casts, indie movies? It really doesn't matter, I guess, since my categories thus far have not been at all pure. I placed Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams in with foreign films and not with documentaries. So let's just go with the flow...
Terri is Azazel Jacobs's story of a misfit high school kid. Terri is overweight, introspective and his wardrobe consists exclusively of pajamas. His parents are absent, and he lives with an uncle suffering from dementia, for whom he lovingly cares. Terri the outsider reluctantly allows himself to be taken under the wing of the highschool counselor (played sympathetically by John C. Reilly). The film has something of a cinéma vérité air. It ambles in the same ambling shuffle that is Terri's gait. He is befriended by two other misfits -- bully Chad gives the lie to his brashness with his nervous tic of pulling out his hair strand by strand and the flirtatious Heather is not as emboldened as she would like to seem. One of Terri's chores is to set the traps for mice in the attic. He takes the dead mice to a field behind his school where he feeds them to the resident hawk. Jacobs's gentle direction and Jacob Wysocki's thoughtful portrayal of Terri allow us to understand that this is merely a part of his exploration of the world into which he is becoming an adult, not the perverse behavior of which he is accused.
I'm a Gus Van Sant fan, but Restless lacked the edge I expect from his movies. I saw previews more than a year before it was released, so perhaps distributers had reservations. Annabel is played by Mia Wasikowska (busy this year with Jane Eyre and Albert Nobbs). She is dying from cancer, rather too beautifully and blissfully. Henry Hopper plays the Gus Van Sant young man Enoch who, because his parents have recently been killed in a car accident, lives with his aunt. Enoch also has an imaginary friend/mentor who is the ghost of a young WWII Japanese kamikaze pilot. Neither seem to have obligations such as school or whatnot so they spend their idle hours crashing funerals. Are these poor souls, confronted with death at so young an age, meant to evoke empathy, sadness, or just shallow sentimentality? Hard to say.
J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call is a morality play about the 2008 financial crisis, an event that caught all of the "experts" by surprise when for years I had been saying, THIS CAN NOT SUSTAIN ITSELF!! The cast is impeccable, the script tight, the sets a reflection of the materiality of lives given over to greed and self-interest. The film is so good not least because the characters are presented not as heartless villians, though heartless they can be, but as human beings faced with dilemmas they believe in their panic they do not have the time and luxury to sort out with any ethical balance. Writing in the New York Times, A. O. Scott remarked, "It is hard to believe that 'Margin Call' is Mr. Chandor’s first feature. His formal command — his ability to imply far more than he shows or says and to orchestrate a large, complex drama out of whispers, glances and snippets of jargon — is downright awe inspiring." It has been a little more than three years since the meltdown; yet I was surprised that a film this smart and deft appeared so soon after those events. I'm glad it was this one.
Drake Doremus's Like Crazy was improvised without a script. It has met with critical acclaim, but I think a script would have been a good idea. Anna is a Brit in Los Angeles on a student visa. Jacob is a young furniture designer. They fall in love, she overstays her visa, she's sent home, and despite her efforts, U.S. immigration refuses to allow her to return. Meanwhile, Jacob moves on. I have to hand it to the filmmakers for refusing to devolve into cliche. In real life, frustrations and complications often take the upper hand. The film tries to stay true to this reality. Still, were I to pick the best love story of the year, it would be The Weekend hands down. (See Foreign Films)
I had low expectations for The Way, which looked to be one of those movies DVD blurbs describe as "inspirational." Emilio Estevez tells the story of an ophthalmologist whose son has been killed in extreme weather in the Pyrenees just as he set off on a pilgrimage down the Camino de Santiago. Tom has lived what he considers a responsible life, a point that he argues with his son in flashback. The exchanges are especially poignant because the father is played by Martin Sheen and the son by Estevez. The tragedy sends Tom to Spain to bring his son home, but once there, events push him into a re-examination of his own life, and a desire to somehow memorialize his son's. He will walk the arduous Camino de Santiago himself (his son's gear has been given to him by the authorities), spreading small handfuls of Daniel's ashes as he goes. Along the way he encounters, and tries to brush away, one after another, three fellow seekers. Together they make up a troupe of four Canterbury pilgrims -- each of whom will find, not what he or she is looking for, but the grace of shared humanity. Martin Sheen's performance is deeply nuanced and the ensemble cast is finely atuned to one another.
Bear with me for the next six paragraphs. I loved Miranda July's 2005 Me and You and Everyone We Know. Her new film, The Future, is not about much of anything, and about everything. Sophie is a failed artist teaching a children’s dance class part-time. Jason does call-in tech support from the couple’s sofa. They have adopted Paw Paw, but because the cat is injured it must stay at the shelter. Their only connections to the outside world are their Macs and the prospect of bringing Paw Paw home in 30 days. Sophie feels they must examine their priorities in their last 30 days of freedom from responsibility. She decides to create 30 dances in 30 days. Jason decides to quit his job to live in a kind of Zen awareness, though he simply ends up volunteering for a donate-a-tree organization.
Paw Paw narrates the film. His opening monologue asks: “Have you ever been outside? I mean really outside. Then you know about the darkness that is inappropriate to talk about.” …. “When night comes I am alone, and always have been and always will be alone….” Paw Paw does speak about the darkness that is inappropriate to talk about, again and again throughout the film. We are alone, living lives of quiet desperation, desperately seeking connection, both human and cosmic.
In addition to a talking cat there is a talking moon, a walking T-shirt and an old savant. Everyday fears and the sense of wasted mundane lives find metaphysical weight as the film turns more and more toward magic realism to tease out its truths. A. O. Scott called it an “ingeniously constructed wonder cabinet of a movie…,” and indeed, it is so meticulously put together that I went back to the theater the next day simply to marvel at the way it is put together.
At first they seem like a quirky couple, but it becomes increasingly clear that their anxiety, their sense of unfulfillment, their passivity that borders on paralysis are the emotions of 21st century anomie. “I thought by now I would have done more,” Jason says ruefully. We do not know the future. We expend great effort diverting ourselves from ontological questions. We have become a culture that ridicules those who ask the BIG questions: What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of death? What should we do with ourselves while we are here? And what will what we have done, if anything, mean in the face of eternity?
Katrina Onstad’s piece on July for the New York Times Magazine noted, “…in July’s work, nobody is cool. There’s no irony to it, no insider wink. Her characters are ordinary people whose lives don’t normally invite investigation. So her project is the opposite of hipster exclusion: her work is desperate to bring people together, forcing them into a kind of fellow feeling. She’s unrelentingly sincere, and maybe that sincerity makes her difficult to bear. It also might make her culturally essential.”
“[Onstad] asked [July] what, if anything, she would like to say to those people [who do not believe her sincerity]. ‘I would just say I’m totally not kidding…. Life is too short. This is all too hard to do to actually be kidding about the whole thing.’"
PS: I am certain that the title shared by Leonard Cohen's song is an intentional allusion.