I watch a lot of movies. I’m pretty much indiscriminate in my consumption of film because I think it’s important to take in stories in whatever form they may come. Even bad movies can teach me what not to do when I finally write my brilliant screenplay (Ha!).
Inevitably, if you see a lot of movies and live in a town with a decent arts scene (or a university), someone will want to discuss independent films.
Generally, I think of people who go on and on about foreign or indie films as Kramer put it, “art house goons.” They seem unreasonably excited about reading subtitles and will offhandedly mention a film festival half as prestigious as Sundance, but much cooler because one-tenth of the people attended.
I’m not totally above discussing independent films, though. These are a few of my favorites.
5. Box Elder
Box Elder was written and directed by Todd Sklar and follows four friends as they attempt to graduate from the University of Missouri.
Everything about it is reminiscent of my college experience at Mizzou: the local references, the set pieces, the lifestyle and the uncertainty. One of the main characters, Rennie (Alex Rennie), is basically a facsimile of my former roommate Elliot.
It would be easy to chalk up its appeal to nostalgia, but it would also be a mistake. Sure, nostalgia plays a role, but its charm comes from realism and surprising wit.
Often studios market movies about the extended adolescence of high school and college toward guys like me, but every time I watch them I find myself wondering “What the hell was that? That’s not what college was like.”
But not Box Elder. Of course it has elements of those movies—wild parties and shenanigans—but it deals with the awful and messy parts of college such as stress, uncertainty and interpersonal relationships in an extremely earnest manner.
That’s what makes it great.
4. Nice Guy Johnny
Nice Guy Johnny is the most recent in a string of Edward Burns films that deal with difficulty and doubt surrounding relationships.
The film centers on the titular Johnny’s (Matt Bush) struggle between fulling his high-maintenance girlfriend Claire’s (Anna Wood) expectations and pursuing his own happiness. While trying to make good on a promise he made to Claire’s father, Johnny meets Brooke (Kelly Bishe’). Naturally, she makes him rethink his current path.
Bishe’ is excellent as Brooke. She displays a certain kind of magnetism that can’t be ignored. Some reviews criticized Bush, saying he didn’t work as the lead. They (they being jaded, bitter reviewers) claimed Bush was unsteady and meek and too young looking and a host of other things. If I’m not mistaken (I’m not), that’s the goddamn point.
Bush had to be believable as an unassertive boyfriend who gets walked over while putting others’ needs ahead of his own. If Burns cast a younger equivalent of a more rugged actor like Daniel Craig or a more debonair actor like Tom Hardy, the whole construct of the movie doesn’t work.
Admittedly, there are problems with the film. I’ve never been a big fan of the manic pixie dream girl character archetype, of which Bishe’ plays a sportier version.
Typically, the MPDG serves only as a means for a sensitive or otherwise unique young man to get over his neuroses, while she seemingly has no goals, problems or intricacies of her own. But in Nice Guy Johnny, the ending hints that Johnny and Brooke might have a future together, which, in my mind, somewhat validates her MPDG role earlier in the film.
It’s more than (500) Days of Summer can say. In (500) Days, Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is clearly there to get Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from point A to point B, and then she’s gone baby gone.
3. The Puffy Chair
The Puffy Chair is part of the mumblecore movement, which started at the beginning of the last decade. Jay and Mark Duplass made their mark on the scene with Puffy Chair, their debut film.
Like many mumblecore films, Puffy Chair focuses on post-college unsteadiness as Josh (Mark Duplass), his girlfriend Emily (Katie Aselton) and his brother Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) set out on a road trip to deliver the perfect birthday gift to Josh and Rhett’s father.
It features many staples of the genre including: improvisation, non-professional actors, low budget and production values and use of a digital camera. Those elements make Puffy Chair seem very natural and intimate.
The interactions between Josh and Emily are possibly the most realistic depictions of relationship I have ever seen on film. Realistic to the point it’s almost difficult to watch the scenes in which they quarrel.
Duplass and Aselton are married in real life, so that certainly helps. But it’s refreshing to see a relationship on film that doesn’t just feel like two impossibly beautiful people pretending to kinda, sorta like each other because they need a payday to finance another mansion.
Not to beat a dead horse, but realism guys. Seriously.
2. Igby Goes Down
Much like Catcher in the Rye, Igby Goes Down focuses on a cynical young man, Jason “Igby” Slocumb, Jr. (Kieran Culkin), who strikes out on his own path to escape his stodgy, upper-class family.
Igby gets thrown out of several prep schools and a military academy before going to live with his godfather D.H. Banes (Jeff Goldblum). He later escapes to Manhattan to avoid going back to school and is forced to face some unexpected realizations about his family.
This is one of the smartest movies I’ve ever seen. I’m not even sure I can sufficiently back up that claim; I just know that it is. But if I had to point to something, it would be the dialogue. It’s witty and cutting, but, at the same time, it doesn’t feel forced.
Igby also succeeds in taking viewers back to a time when they felt misunderstood or suffocated—mainly through great nuanced performances by Culkin and Goldblum. However, by the end of the film, you realize that maybe you didn’t know quite as much about yourself or your loved ones as you once thought.
1. 24 Hour Party People
The previous four films are kind of in the same vein, but 24 Hour Party People isn’t about whiny white-people problems. Well, actually, it kind of is but in a different way.
It follows the rise of Factory Records, starting in the late 70s with Joy Division and the British punk scene and moves into the 80s with New Order, Happy Mondays and the “Madchester” scene.
I could write about how great a number of things are in this film (Steven Coogan, the cinematography, etc…), but, honestly, I love it because it’s about music. It’s that simple.
I like biopics about musicians (see The Buddy Holly Story), but I really like movies like 24 Hour Party People and Cadillac Records that focus on a number of artists and follow the arc of a particular scene or movement.
If you like music, see this film immediately.