In a look back at recent independent films, journalist and film critic, Michael Fox asks, where is the edge? Leaving no stone unturned, he examines the indie films of 2005, putting down penguins and praising underdogs, in a year of not living dangerously.
For all the accomplished and intriguing films released under the indie banner last year, 2005 has to be viewed as something of a step backward—or toward the middle. That is, if you look to independents for subversive perspectives, daring techniques and new voices clamoring to reinvent American cinema. As a gauge of how circumscribed the art house world has become, consider that not a single oddball crashed the party in the way that Napoleon Dynamite and Tarnation did in 2004 (unless you count the in-joke novelty hit The Aristocrats).
What indies did deliver were sharply written, elegantly photographed slivers of drama tailored to an upscale audience. Straight-shooting sagas such as A History of Violence and Crash, along with evocative psychological portraits like Capote and Brokeback Mountain, took on tough subjects with a lack of bombast (though not, in all cases, a lack of pretension). They succeeded in challenging, and even provoking, a well-defined tier of educated urbanites. There’s certainly no shame in that, especially as the studios zeroed in on teenagers and prepubescents. But for all the discussion they engendered and tickets they sold, these movies were hardly radical.
Whither the Edge?
A certain mainstream inclination could be detected in the less ballyhooed films that emerged from the pack. Craig Brewer’s Hustle & Flow, the streets-to-studio saga of a would-be rap artist, combined a formulaic story with exceptional acting. Noah Baumbach received accolades for his screenplay for The Squid and the Whale, a slender, acutely observed portrait of a disintegrating family, but nobody who subscribes to premium cable would call it edgy.
Perhaps what distinguishes indie filmmaking is no longer sociopolitical commentary but quirkiness. Two of the year’s higher-profile movies, indie icon Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers and newcomer Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, made modest hay out of deadpan irony and offbeat rhythms. Transamerica contrived an odd-couple road trip between an uptight male-to-female transsexual and her newly discovered and faintly troubled son, while Bee Season employed artfully fragmented storytelling to mask its star (mis)casting.
Call it quirkiness or artistic vision, but filmmakers who eschew full-speed narratives take the biggest risks these days. In lieu of roller-coaster plots, Junebug and 40 Shades of Blue rewarded patient viewers with low-key evocations of their Southern milieus. But those were action movies compared to Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, which was ephemeral to the point of abstraction unless you knew this glimpse of an alienated young musician was inspired by Kurt Cobain’s final week.
Playing for Stakes
It was a memorable year for films with gay themes, even if one recognizes that Capote and Brokeback Mountain were about class differences and personal freedom rather than sexual identity. Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, a subtle and unflinching look at the adult consequences of childhood sexual abuse, drew raves from the few who caught it during its brief run.
All that said, the award for Most Uncompromising and Defiantly Noncommercial Film of the Year (drum roll, please) goes to an austere black-and-white period piece conceived for and aimed at an extraordinarily narrow yet exceedingly influential sliver of the society. I’m talking about Good Night, and Good Luck, which was a sharp stick in the eye of modern television news. I’m convinced that it was made solely to reawaken TV news directors, producers and reporters to the difference between journalism and “infotainment,” comparatively little attention to profits and Oscar statuettes. Yes, director George Clooney could have financed the movie out of the landscaping budget on his Lake Como villa, and to some people that precludes it from being “independent.” The film speaks for itself, I say.
Paging Docu Feelgood
It was a surprisingly tepid year for documentaries, compared to the flood of political-themed works released ahead of the 2004 election. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room may have aroused the most audience outrage of any film in 2005, with megalomaniacal Enron execs performing skits celebrating their greed, and energy traders cackling over California’s brownouts. The biggest crowd-pleaser was arguably Mad Hot Ballroom, with its “cast” of adorable, enthusiastic children.
Don’t talk to me about March of the Penguins, which I only stuck with to the end in hopes that Morgan Freeman would slip through a crevasse. Unlike many distributors and pundits, I can’t see its success as emblematic of any trend—unless somebody can show me that millions of penguin lovers called their congressmen to object to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.
The best documentary with animals, largely because it was so insightful about people, was The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. And the most ambitious and underrated doc of the year was Mondovino, Jonathan Nossiter’s sly exposé of globalization which masqueraded as a breezy travelogue about the wine industry.
The biggest name in nonfiction, ultimately, was a director who hasn’t been considered an independent filmmaker for three decades—Martin Scorsese, who crafted the bemused, ramshackle portrait Bob Dylan: No Direction Home, for public television.
In an era when big-name actors routinely star in cable movies, it shouldn’t come as a shock to find the latest work of America’s most revered filmmaker on the small screen. All sorts of traditional lines of demarcation are evaporating—between television and film, between movie theaters and DVD and, increasingly, between mainstream movies and independent films. Something is gained in every case, but something is also lost. For American independents, that something may be the provocateur’s wink that attracted us in the first place.
Michael Fox is a San Francisco-based freelance journalist and film critic.
(An Inside Indies exclusive posted February 17, 2006.)
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