nedjelja, 19. svibnja 2013.


Hammer to Nail - What to watch

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Well, folks, another calendar year has come and gone. So, was 2012 any good? Was it especially bad? Just kinda blah? From our vantage point here at Hammer to Nail, based on the names and films mentioned below, 2012 was as fine-and-dandy as ever. These days, thanks to the good ol’ digi-revolution, more films are being made than ever before, and though this is responsible for more inept shards of muck being hurled into the cosmos, it has also resulted in an outpouring of work that continues to break new ground. More importantly, thanks to determined individuals like this year’s Golden Hammer winner, so many of our very favorite films of recent memory are available for viewing no matter where you happen to live (a big hip-hip-hooray for VOD!). As we gear up for Park City and enter our sixth year(!) of operation at HTN, our core mission remains the same: to champion the most original, ambitious, and invigorating cinema of the very moment. We look forward to the year that lies ahead, but for now, let us take the time to be thankful for what 2012 hath brought.
To clarify, here are our general voting parameters and rules for eligibility:
1) American narrative features produced for one million dollars or less.
2) The film had its first public release—theatrically, VOD, DVD—in said calendar year.
3) No HTN contributor is allowed to vote for a film in which they have a cast/crew credit (i.e., Mike S. Ryan was not allowed to vote for The Comedy, Alex Ross Perry did not vote for The Color Wheel or Green, Dustin Guy Defa did not vote for Bad Fever or Richard’s Wedding, Brandon Harris did not vote for Redlegs, Michael Tully did not vote for Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, etc.).
4) Each contributor ranks their films in order from 1 (highest) to 10 (lowest). The number 1 film receives 10 points; 2 receives 9 points; and on down the line. These results are then added up in order to calculate our winners.
[A gentle reminder: This type of thing is never, and will never be, a perfect science (for example, not everybody got to see every eligible film obviously). But we stand behind our commitment to distilling our year-end awards attention down to films that have been produced in this just-as-worthy-yet-so-often-unfairly-overlooked narrative budgetary realm.]
In September of 2009, Matt Grady left his position as director of production at Plexifilm in order to launch his own label, Factory 25. His first release—Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland—was a bold, emphatic mission statement. Since then, Grady has continued to release work that meets his goal of keeping “physical media alive, while exposing the indie world to under-the-radar films, music, and other curiosities.”
The past few years have seen Grady continue to release audacious films in great packages, works that defy easy categorization and electrify in their own special ways: Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same, NY Export: Opus Jazz, The Oregonian, You Won’t Miss Me, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, and Make-Out With Violence, just to name a few.
In 2012, however, Grady hit a new stride. Not only did he acquire more films than ever this year, but his hard work has led to distribution partnerships in which many of these titles have become accessible through VOD formats such as InDemand, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Sony Playstation, and X-box. A quick scan below reveals just how much we here at HTN appreciate his efforts (The Color Wheel, Bad Fever, Francine, Richard’s Wedding, Green… the hits don’t stop coming!). In our current distribution climate, in which several of the mini-major companies who once supported micro/low-budget American narrative cinema have turned their backs in favor of more easily marketable material, Grady has risen to the occasion in a major way.
A filmmaker friend of mine jokingly refers to Matt Grady as a “philanthropist,” for he certainly isn’t getting rich and famous by doing what he’s doing. Still, he appears to be pushing forward as strongly as ever in 2013, with an upcoming slate (we’ll let him make those announcements when he’s officially ready) that will make even more of 2012’s best previously undistributed work available. What better way to sum up Grady than by quoting the man himself: “Yeah, I’m really psyched about my 2013 line-up… I get to release my favorite films. How great is that?” Considering how great his taste is, that is seriously great news indeed. Congratulations to Matt Grady, the very worthy winner of our 2012 Golden Hammer award. (Michael Tully)


Each year, we like to give our Silver Nail award to the individual who has displayed the best cinematic one-two punch, whether they be a writer, editor, director, cinematographer, or (insert other role here). This year, that award goes to writer/director Rick Alverson. As you’ll discover shortly, Alverson’s newest film, The Comedy, which premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, was much appreciated by us here at HTN (like, very much appreciated). Late in the year, Alverson’s previous feature, New Jerusalem, which world premiered at the 2011 International Film Festival Rotterdam, found a theatrical/VOD release thanks to our Golden Hammer winner Matt Grady/Factory 25 (there he goes again!). Though The Comedy and New Jerusalem share a similar filmmaking approach—treatments-as-opposed-to-fully-formed-scripts shot with superior technical craftsmanship and elemental control that breeds a striking blend of both intimacy and detachment, distance and immersion—they also couldn’t be more thematically different. New Jerusalem is a sincere exploration of one individual’s quest to find a tactile spiritual connection in a hazy world, while The Comedy is a scathing dissection of White Male Hipster Privilege run disturbingly amok. Proving that Alverson’s talents extend to the music video realm, there was also this small cherry on top of the sundae:
Moving forward, Alverson has two new projects in the works: Entertainment, a blackly comic slice-of-life portrait of a struggling standup comic (starring Gregg “Neil Hamburger” Turkington); and the Reconstruction-era drama Clement. But enough about the future. For delivering such an uncompromising and resonant one-two punch in 2012, we are happy to present Rick Alverson with our Silver Nail award. (MT)


15. The Wise Kids (Stephen Cone, 18 points) — Stephen Cone’s debut is a rare bird in American indie cinema: a micro-budget feature without a trace of irony or cynicism. Centered mostly around a group of evangelical teenagers at the end of their high school days, The Wise Kids sparkles with the hopes and fears of adolescence. There isn’t a false note in it. Cone treats his characters with an honest, tender touch, never once judging them for their beliefs. A film about acceptance, about doubt and questioning as a part of the human experience. Everyone listen up and take this lesson to heart: Love your characters, love your characters, love your characters… (Zach Clark) ***WATCH IT: DVD, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu***

14. Two Years At Sea (UK, Ben Rivers, 87m, 7:30pm) — Winner of a FIPRESCI prize at Venice, the first feature by renowned short filmmaker/installation artist Ben Rivers is a staggering accomplishment of low budget filmmaking. The placement in ‘Views from the Avant Garde’ section in the New York Film Festival might scare people away, daunted as they are by a 90-minute feature that features only one human on screen and not one single line of spoken dialogue, but the film is no less approachable than any late Tarkovsky or Albert Serra. Shot in anamorphic on Rivers’ favorite soon-to-be-discontinued black-and-white Kodak film stock and hand-developed in a ragtag manner befitting the patchwork lifestyle of the subject, Two Years at Sea showcases an impressive command of space, creating a wholly alien yet familiar landscape out of a remote cabin and the area surrounding it, where a solitary and robustly bearded man lives with his cats. Rivers steps almost as far back as possible, allowing many takes to linger for five, six minutes, even more, forcing the viewer to study the old man as he confronts inhuman objects, such as his record player, a handmade boat, or some unexplained apparatus that lifts his small trailer high into the trees. Rivers’ use of the widescreen format to illustrate the vastness of the forest and the miniscule presence of mankind within is outstanding, making this unmissable as a theatrical experience. (Alex Ross Perry)

13. The Dish & The Spoon (Alison Bagnall, 20 points) — Though Greta Gerwig and Ollie Alexander take turns stealing scenes, the main credit for the success of this film goes to director Bagnall, who honed her skills in Buffalo ’66 (which she co-wrote) and which she has perfected here. She perches her characters precariously at the top of a cliff and nudges them slightly, letting their own inertia send them hurtling downward towards a certain inevitability. It’s worth drawing another parallel between these two films, as both feature improbable couplings of a man and woman thrown together by virtue of their own bad decisions and held together by some kind of Machiavellian fate. In this odd manner, Bagnall compels us to root for Rose and Boy, despite knowing that, on many levels, it’s foolish that they should even find themselves together in the first place. (Vinay Singh) Read The Full HTN Review ***WATCH IT: DVD, Netflix, iTunes, Vudu***

11. 4:44 Last Day On Earth (Abel Ferrara, 21 points/4 mentions) — A number of recent films have collectively suggested that the more global, or even cosmic, the crisis, the more intimate the response. This was done most recently in Perfect Sense but also last summer’s Another Earth and, to a lesser extent, The Tree of Life, about which it might be more accurate to say that the cosmic is crafted from the intimate. (Melancholia breaks from this trend somewhat, and its cold remove is part of what makes it so disconcerting a film.) This art-house apocalypse continues in Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth, one of whose touchstones is a close-up on two lovers’ bodies as they sleep together: this, the longtime writer-director says repeatedly, is how we console ourselves in times of crisis. And yet, as a viewing experience, what comfort this lavishly titled, austerely shot film brings is mostly cold. Its largely confined setting of a single New York City apartment restricts our knowledge to that of the characters; there’s no omniscience to be found from either within or without. (Michael Nordine) Read The Full HTN Review ***WATCH IT: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant, Netflix, iTunes, SundanceNow, Google play***

11. Natural Selection (Robbie Pickering, 21 points/3 mentions) — This debut feature provides laugh-out-loud comedy coupled with deep, detailed characters that are fresh and compelling. Pickering’s picture of a woman’s journey to fulfill her dying husband’s last wish paints universal strokes with heartwarming earnestness. Nun and preacher porn, creepy gas station flashers, dirt bikes, and an impressively delicate approach to female desire add up to a fun, yet profound, ride. (Alexandra Roxo) Read A Conversation With Robbie Pickering, Rachael Harris, and Matt O’Leary ***WATCH IT: DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix, iTunes, InDemand***

10. Smashed (James Ponsoldt, 23 points) — I was initially drawn to Smashed by its cast. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul: this is substantial talent with an impressive range (though in truth I’d watch Aaron Paul read the phone book). As Katie Hannah, an alcoholic trying to get sober, Winstead gives the anchoring performance, but Ponsoldt’s film really is an ensemble piece, deftly making the most of even the smaller characters and scenes. There’s a giddy, anticipatory enjoyment in seeing top-tier television actors take on film roles, a pleasure the director seems to share with his audience. Working off the restrained, elegant screenplay by Ponsoldt and Susan Burke, the cast said they felt little need to improvise. I attribute this to Ponsoldt’s balanced direction, and his almost musical instincts for the tonal shifts of a scene. Addiction is inherently dramatic, and stories centered on it can easily devolve into miserablism or hot mess histrionics. Smashed pulls back from that drama in favor of a milder, much more realistic tone. It’s also very funny without being Apatow-ish. This shines through in Winstead’s immersive performance as Katie, a young woman stumbling, painfully, toward responsibility. It’s her honesty that wins our sympathies, and distinguishes Smashed from more conventional stories of addiction. (Susanna Locascio) Read The Full HTN Review ***WATCH IT: Still in Theaters, DVD and Blu-ray (available 3/13/13)***

9. Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (Madeleine Olnek, 25 points) — While Madeleine Olnek can brilliantly maneuver a script that both slices and entertains in a satirical breath, there are moments of pure, unfettered comedy in her first feature, from the absurd to the slapstick, that feel classic and even quotable. Like most movie aliens, Olnek’s have a childlike fascination with Earth’s most pedestrian innovations: a revolving dessert case is true love incarnate, a commercial clothes dryer better than psychedelics. As the aliens move with great difficulty through their new lives in New York City, their wit is so sharp that the original concepts and jokes become even funnier as the movie progresses. Olnek’s grasp of her comedic arc is enviable. She sustains, and even pushes the laughs further, with each successive one-liner. (Holly Herrick) Read The Full HTN Review and A Conversation With Madeleine Olnek ***WATCH IT: DVD, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, Google play***

8.Snow On Tha Bluff (Damon Russell, 33 points) — The premise is simple, and inspired. Curtis Snow, a drug dealer in Atlanta’s The Bluff neighborhood, steals a video camera from some college kids, and records his daily life and that of his crew. Snow on tha Bluff is the movie that results. Seemingly random incidents (crack sales, shootouts with rivals, family drama, a spell in prison) gradually cohere into a story arc—but how much of what we see is real? According to Snow and director Russell, some scenes are pure documentary, others are staged re-enactments or inventions; most of the time, viewers will be hard pressed to tell the difference. Snow succeeds as shocking, sad, scary-funny entertainment and a deadly serious piece of reportage on the human cost of American urban blight; it’s also one of the strongest contributions yet to the growing sub-genre of fact-fiction hybrids that question conventional notions of narrative form, performance, and truth-in-cinema. (Nelson Kim) ***WATCH IT: DVD, Netflix, iTunes***

7. Green (Sophia Takal, 34 points) — The most well-known female directors are those who express themselves through the plot/dialogue driven TV/radio format (ala Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers, Lynn Shelton, etc). Green is unique in that its female perspective emerges visually by allowing desire’s anxiety, danger and mystery to emerge naturally from the setting, acting, framing and editing. The themes this film explores are in many ways beyond verbal and it takes us into that strange unbalanced world through Takal’s control over the plastics of the medium in combination with a stunning Kate Lyn Shiel perfomance in the lead role. (Mike S. Ryan) Read A Conversation With Sophia Takal, Lawrence Levine, and Kate Lyn Shiel ***WATCH IT: Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, InDemand***
6. Francine (Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky, 37 points) — In an intense yet nuanced performance, Academy Award winner, Purchase graduate, and Homocide: Life on the Street alum Melissa Leo is the title character, an ex-con desperate to reclaim life from the grim realities of the seen-better-days upstate New York lake town she surfaces in after getting out of the big bird cage. Unable to maintain a job or build significant human relationships, Francine does little talking; almost everything you need to know about what this woman is going through registers in the film’s searing close-ups on Leo’s face. What close-ups they are! A scene where she takes in an impromptu, outdoors thrash metal show in a parking lot is like something out of Vivre Sa Vie. Directors Shatzky and Cassidy keep the camera at eye level and provide no exposition. Pretty solid strategy when you have someone like Ms. Leo in your corner. (Brandon Harris) Read A Conversation With Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky and 12 Quick ?s ***WATCH IT: Still in Theaters, Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu***

5. Starlet (Sean Baker, 41 points) — Sean Baker is no stranger to intimate studies of characters on the margins of society; his films Take Out and Prince of Broadway examined the lives of men toiling in the shadow of the American dream. With Starlet, Baker shifts to the blazing sunlight of California, but his concerns remain as vital as ever; his tale of the unlikely friendship between a curmudgeonly widow (Besedka Johnson) and an up-and-coming adult film star (Dree Hemingway) provided not only two of the year’s best performances, but a continuation of Baker’s exploration of how the hustle for money corrupts and transforms our social bonds. (Tom Hall) Read A Conversation With Sean Baker and Dree Hemingway ***Still In Theaters***

3. Bad Fever (Dustin Guy Defa, 55 points/9 mentions) — For those viewers with a deep-seated fondness for the character-based New Hollywood dramas that were churned out in the 1970s, Bad Fever will feel like a welcome return to that glorious past (I should know, as I am guilty of said deep-seated fondness). From the spare opening title card—complete with a copyright tag at the bottom!—to its placing of atmosphere and character firmly in the foreground, Bad Fever recalls films from the past more than it does those it brushed up alongside in film festival programs over the course of the past year. Yet, to be clear, Bad Fever isn’t some hip exercise in retro coolness. Defa’s film is a darkly funny, ultimately crushing portrait of a lost soul who is unable to forge the type of connection he so desperately wants. (MT) Read The Full HTN Review and A Conversation With Dustin Guy Defa ***WATCH IT: Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, InDemand***

3. The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, 55 points, 9 mentions) — What sets The Color Wheel apart from its contemporaries in American independent cinema is its multifaceted examination of the conflict between the democratic ideal of self-invention and vacuous scaffolding of the society that surrounds it. Family, career, social class, even the parameters of personal imagination: Perry sets the desperate need for connection squarely against the deep limitations of choice and freedom. In The Color Wheel, the dawning disappointments of adulthood can be squarely pinned to the moment when we recognize our own acquiescence to role-playing, to the expectation of others that we inhibit our true selves, our dream selves, in favor of something far less than we had hoped we might be. (TH) Read The Full HTN Review and A Conversation With Alex Ross Perry ***WATCH IT: Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, InDemand***

2. Compliance (Craig Zobel, 72 points) — Compliance is essentially a docudrama, but it moves with such analytical drive that it more closely resembles a police procedural. In this case, however, rather than watching how a crime is solved, we are watching a crime being committed as well as, through Zobel’s crafty writing and direction, an analysis of how that crime came to be and why it was committed. It’s a deceptively simple film, and both the lazy and the prickly, easily offended viewer will seek ways to escape the experience, either through accusations of misogyny or simply through the false interpretation that it has no other objective except to titillate and exploit. But the fact remains: this film should be required viewing. (MSR) Read The Full HTN Review ***WATCH IT: DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix***

1. The Comedy (Rick Alverson, 77 points) — The issue of the quarter-life crisis creeping ever closer to middle age is one largely associated with men, and yet despite the fact that The Comedy’s face needed to be Male, needed to be White, it speaks to a feeling that may not be an epidemic, though it certainly is a virus, which is applicable to many different people in different circumstances. Tim Heidecker brings wit, consideration and pathos to Swanson, displaying an arc—though slight—of a person searching for his own self-ness, for a self that goes beyond itself, for his own ability to be human. The bullying, the tirades, the endless jokes, the apathy, it’s Swanson’s process to redeem himself as a hopeful, giving adult, in a cynical, taking world. He needs to tear it all down before he can start building it back up. Alverson’s film isn’t easy viewing. It’s a give and take. But if you are looking for challenging cinema that speaks uncomfortable truths, look no further than right here. (Jesse Klein) Read The HTN Review and A Conversation With Rick Alverson ***WATCH IT: Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, InDemand, DVD (available 3/26/13)***

Other Films Receiving Votes (In Alphabetical Order):

The Do-Deca Pentathlon (Jay and Mark Duplass)
First Winter (Benjamin Dickinson) [HTN Review]
For Ellen (So Yong Kim)
Gayby (Jonathan Lisecki) [A Conversation With Jonathan Lisecki]
Hello I Must Be Going (Todd Louiso)
Jack and Diane (Bradley Rust Gray)
Jess + Moss (Clay Jeter) [HTN review]
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev) [HTN review and A Conversation With Julia Loktev]
Middle of Nowhere (Ava DuVernay)
New Jerusalem (Rick Alverson) [HTN review]
Nobody Walks (Ry Russo-Young)
Now, Forager (Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin)
Redlegs (Brandon Harris)
Return (Liza Johnson) [A Conversation With Liza Johnson]
Richard’s Wedding (Onur Tukel) [HTN review]
Scalene (Zack Parker) [HTN review]
V/H/S (Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence)
You Hurt My Feelings (Steve Collins)
Your Sister’s Sister (Lynn Shelton) [HTN review]

An Imperfect List of Films That Premiered in 2012 But Have Yet To Receive Some Form Of Release (If We Have Missed Anything Please Let Us Know In The Comments Section—We Aren’t Perfect!):
Bindlestiffs (Andrew Edison) [HTN review]
Black Rock (Katie Aselton)
Crazy and Thief (Cory McAbee)
Dead Man’s Burden (Jared Moshe)
The End of Love (Mark Webber)
Exit Elena (Nathan Silver) [HTN review]
Fourplay (Kyle Henry) [HTN reviews of Fourplay: Tampa and Fourplay: San Francisco and A Conversation With Kyle Henry and Paul Soileau]
Gimme The Loot (Adam Leon)
I Am Not A Hipster (Destin Daniel Cretton)
KID-THING (David Zellner) [HTN review and 12 Quick ?s]
Nancy, Please (Andrew Semans)
OK, Good (Daniel Martinico) [HTN review]
An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty (Terence Nance) [HTN review and A Conversation With Terence Nance]
Pavilion (Tim Sutton) [HTN review]
The Perception Of Moving Targets (Weston Currie)
Pilgrim Song (Martha Stephens)
Red Flag (Alex Karpovsky)
Rubberneck (Alex Karpovsky)
Simon Killer (Antonio Campos)
Somebody Up There Likes Me (Bob Byington)
Sparrows Dance (Noah Buschel)
Sun Don’t Shine (Amy Seimetz) [HTN review]
Tiger Tail in Blue (Frank V. Ross)
Una Noche (Lucy Mulloy) [HTN review]
The Unspeakable Act (Dan Sallitt)
(Contributors: Zach Clark, Dustin Guy Defa, Tom Hall, Brandon Harris, Holly Herrick, Nelson Kim, Jesse Klein, Susanna Locascio, Michael Nordine, Alex Ross Perry, Alexandra Roxo, Mike S. Ryan, Michael Tully)


Ten years into this renaissance in documentary culture that began, arguably (in America), with the release and success of Spellbound in 2002 and continued through such milestones as the birth of boundary-pushing film festivals such as True/False and CPH:DOX, as well as the founding in 2008 of the first documentary-only awards ceremony, Cinema Eye Honors, nonfiction cinema is at a crossroads. Two worlds have emerged: on one side we have an explosion of films, filmmakers and micro-movements that are pushing nonfiction cinematic form, creating immersive, expressive, genre-bending films that bristle with ideas and energy. On the other side, we have a film critic culture, well-versed in fictional narrative art cinema, completely missing the boat.
I like to situate my own films as a part of this renaissance, so I’m obviously not an impartial voice when discussing what I see as a critical failing. But how else do you explain The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, a gifted and beloved movie critic, writing the following sentences in her review of one of the year’s best films, Only The Young?
The movie is the feature directing debut of Jason Tippet and Elizabeth Mims, who were in their 20s when they started shooting. The two had recently graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, in Southern California, when a pair of teenagers, Garrison Saenz and Kevin Conway, skateboarded up to them and gave the budding filmmakers a subject. That meeting isn’t in the movie, which begins abruptly, with none of the usual documentary preliminary markers. [Emphasis mine]
What in the holy hell is that sentence doing in a review of a major film by a major film critic? Is Dargis implying the meeting of the filmmakers and the stars should have been in the movie? If she reviewed Sixteen Candles, would she have wanted to see script meetings between John Hughes and Molly Ringwald? Dargis is well-known as being a bit tone-deaf when it comes to documentaries, but that sentence was simply absurd, a frustrating part of a frustrating review that misunderstood the basic ideas at work in the film.
Later, in her year-end review, Dargis cited with due excitement the “aesthetic expansiveness of American movies” then went on to mention such formally uninventive films as Brooklyn Castle and Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry as her favorite documentaries of the year. And of course Dargis—a critic I genuinely respect, mind you—is not the only one. It’s not hard to be disappointed by most film critics if you’re a fan of groundbreaking nonfiction.
What are they missing? Well, almost no one is talking seriously about the collapsing walls between fiction, nonfiction and art cinema. Nonfiction cinema would best be described as a way of seeing and less a rigid and prescriptive “genre.” The most interesting documentaries push narrative bounds, re-shoot situations (as opposed to the somewhat tired practice of reenactment), play with the idea of performance, etc. They break the rules. Most interesting fiction, to me, is rooted in the observational camera, staging the action with the soul of cinema verité. How do so-called fiction and nonfiction films speak to each other? How do the stories being told or the situations being captured change according to approach? No one is asking these questions.
Meanwhile, there is a clear bias against discussing documentaries as movies first. If a film like the great Ballroom Dancer was fiction, critics would be fawning over its canny mix of melodrama and restraint. If the characters in Only The Young weren’t real people, no one would be asking them to discuss politics.
So I’ve decided to take a shot myself and offer a sort of corrective.
In that spirit, here is my list of some of the best rule-breaking, genre-busting or otherwise important/brilliant/moving nonfiction of the year. You’ll notice I don’t particularly worry about release dates or a film’s eligibility and my definition of “nonfiction” would certainly be called “expansive.”
We need a revolution in documentary criticism. I am a filmmaker, not a critic. But let’s try to light a fire anyway.
25. Traveling Light (Gina Telaroli) — A playful, experimental film journey on a train, loose and evocative, structurally open and in love with, well, light. You are taken in by the actively in-the-moment documentary camera before the beautiful hipsters start showing up. Then Telaroli’s film becomes something like a mystery without a plot or maybe a moving performance without drama. Either way, as a piece of nonfiction, it is a work of lovely impressionism.

24. Planet of Snail (Yi Seung-jun) — So it turns out that watching a gangly, blind-deaf poet and his tiny, sweet, supportive wife make their way through the world in their necessarily particular way can pretty much confirm the existence of love in the universe.

23. Detropia (Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing) — Although I wouldn’t have minded someone with the Ross Brothers’ aesthetic delivering this much-needed symphony of that great, embattled American symbol of decline called Detroit, Ewing and Grady are quite capable themselves. Detropia does everything “right” and while sometimes it may feel a little too tried-and-true, the film remains full of distinctive cinematic flourishes that elevate the slightly predictable material. Meanwhile, the love of the place that the filmmakers clearly feel comes through vividly in every frame. Viva the Motor City!

22. The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield) — When one of the film’s stars, David Siegel (the billionaire owner of Westgate Resorts), filed a lawsuit against director Lauren Greenfield, his lawyer claimed that “The Queen of Versailles is a fraud – more fictional than real… a staged theatrical production, albeit using nonprofessionals in the starring roles (as themselves).” Well if that doesn’t make you want to see it, how about this: you know how you watch a reality TV show and it’s kind of good but you really wish the hilarious, crazy, oh-my-god stuff you’re seeing could be in a real movie, handled by a real filmmaker? Well that’s The Queen of Versailles.

21. Abendland (Nikolaus Geyrhalter) — Set at night and relying on Austrian formalist Geyrhalter’s signature structuralist style, Abendland is full of potent observations about the secret lives of Europeans. These kinds of rigorously composed, image-first films can sometimes feel a bit one-note, but Abendland succeeds by finding moments in spaces that communicate clearly the way people really live.

20. The Sheik and I (Caveh Zahedi) / The Ambassador (Mads Brügger) — Forget the Errol Morris-meets-crime show aesthetic and hermetically-sealed narrative of The Imposter and instead check out these fakers. Troublemaker Caveh Zahedi’s much-discussed The Sheik and I is every bit as morally prickly as you’ve heard in its take-no-prisoners and leave-none-unannoyed approach. The film is crazy entertaining, but I liked it most as a tale of two opposing religions: fundamentalist Islam and the Me-First/Art-For-Its-Own-Sake Church of New York City.
Then you have Mads Brügger’s dense and almost unbelievable follow-up to The Red Chapel, where the Danish filmmaker/journalist goes full gonzo in impersonating a European ambassador to Africa. The level of danger and corruption uncovered is as jaw-dropping as you’d expect. Though both films are flawed, the bravery it took to get them made should be praised wildly and the cheap digital tools used to capture their unmistakable images point to the future of stunt-performance movies to come.

19. The Patron Saints (Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky) — Foregoing all the niceties we normally associate with films about the elderly, The Patron Saints isn’t afraid to go bleak in its depiction of an unnamed nursing home. It’s a disturbing film to say the least, but in refusing to hide from the darkness, Cassidy and Shatzky achieve a hard-fought sweetness that wins the day. In its negative review of the film, The Hollywood Reporter writes, “the film exists in the agonizing present tense.” I can’t think of a better compliment than that.

18. Kuichisan (Maiko Endo) — I had a small role in helping this curious whatsit get finished, my friend and collaborator Sean Price Williams photographed the picture, and I know Maiko very well, but this movie still feels like it fell from the sky fully formed. It’s a post-apocalyptic punk vision, shot as a 16mm documentary, about identity and youth and nationality in Okinawa, Japan. Just see it.

17. How To Survive A Plague (David France) — Essential viewing. The AIDS epidemic and the heroic response by the LGBT community is delivered as a present-tense struggle against political irrelevancy and death. Like a war film that makes the viewer feel the bullets whizzing overhead, How To Survive A Plague places you firmly in the present-tense confusion of this incomprehensible nightmare. France builds his structure with amazing archival material, but the way he uses talking heads to create something of a twist in the narrative is truly inventive. Powerful stuff.

16. Whore’s Glory (Michael Glawogger) — A film that obliterates the wall between fiction and nonfiction with ease. Celebrated Austrian auteur Glawogger is concerned with how global, abstracted systems (work, living conditions, and in this case, the world’s “oldest profession”) affect and are affected by actual human beings. He’s an aesthete and a stylist, but he gives as much attention to the rhythms of real conversation as he does the mise en scène. This is a film about sex as a commodity, sex as a source of power/oppression, and how bodies and cultures interact.

15. Me @ The Zoo (Chris Moukarbel and Valerie Veatch) — The rise and fall of internet hyper-celebrity Chris Crocker, known by everyone as the “Leave Britney Alone” guy, is more effective than most This is How We Live on the Internet Now movies because its primary concern is understanding Crocker, not in understanding everyone who watched his videos. With a visually quick-witted style and the same bare-everything-now aesthetic as its star, Me @ The Zoo arrives with energy and delivers a truly amazing tale.

14. Open Five 2 (Kentucker Audley) — My pal Kentucker Audley appeared in another movie this year that could have made this list, Joe Swanberg’s meta-trick The Zone, which deserves praise for its sexy layering of fiction and nonfiction. But for his own work, Audley buries the meta and maximizes the intimacy to lovely effect. Playing himself along side his real-life girlfriend Caroline White, Audley recreates real events, lets chance have its say and builds towards a subtle, emotional climax that is completely rooted in lived-in observation. He would never call his work documentary, but there’s no difference to me.

13. Family Nightmare (Dustin Guy Defa) / Grimes’ “Oblivion (Emily Kai Bock) — Two short, vital pieces that make the case for the expansion of nonfiction technique. Dustin Guy Defa’s masterful Family Nightmare gets my vote for scariest movie of the year by simply dubbing creepy voices over truly disturbing home videos to gut-wrenching effect.
Meanwhile the video for Canadian pop star Grimes’ song “Oblivion” plays with documentary by having the singer interact with real situations in playful and surprising ways. The result is a doc/music video hybrid full of pathos and joy.

12. The Waiting Room (Peter Nicks) — A deeply political film, mixing a Wiseman-like focus on the nuance of institutions with a powerful humanism to deliver a portrait of an Oakland hospital. The film wants to tell stories, wants to observe the damage wrought by a flawed health care/economic system and succeeds with a rough hand-made quality that adds to the immediacy of the emotional portraits. Necessary viewing.

11. ¡Vivan Las Antipodas! (Victor Kossakovsky) — This tricky, mysterious study of antipodes—places on Earth located diametrically opposite to each other—by Russian master Victor Kossakovsky (who was virtually unknown in this country until True/False gave him their 2012 “True Vision Award”) is a cinematic carnival ride of visual ideas and wonder, but it is equally adept at bringing to life the people and places its gliding camera rests on.

10. Argentinian Lesson (Wojciech Staron) — Swoon alert. Alive at every moment, this film is at once out-of-time and happening-as-you-watch. Starring the Polish filmmaker’s own seven-year-old son Janek as he adjusts to a new place in a foreign land, Argentinian Lesson is full of tiny, perfectly-rendered observations and an undeniable poetry that turns daily routines and practical life-lessons into cinematic bliss.

9. Tchoupitoulas (Bill and Turner Ross) — Criticized in some corners for compressing nine months of shooting into one glorious New Orleans night, Tchoupitoulas should instead be lauded for draping itself in its dreamy cinematic artifice and wearing its construction as a movie proudly. More importantly, though, (full disclosure: my friends) the Ross brothers have quickly become our most reliable documenters of place. Each new film of theirs moving forward should be treated as an event.

8. Project X (Nima Nourizadeh) — This polarizing piece of high trash is just one of the fiction films that play with a documentary aesthetic (the devotion to the iPhone premise in King Kelly and the thrilling flight scene in Chronicle were also pretty great), but no other movie bent the rules so gleefully. Obviously fictional and silly, Project X was still apparently made like a documentary—that’s a real party and those are real cameras capturing legit mayhem. Nerd teen sex fantasies are nothing new, but by going immersive and using nonfiction techniques, with actors “playing” themselves, Project X goes beyond lusty hedonism as it devolves, by the end, into something close to a pure rush of nihilism.

7. Ballroom Dancer (Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed) — From the exciting Danish documentary movement comes this emotionally gripping verité portrait of former World Latin Dance Champion Slavik Kryklyvyy and his girlfriend and partner, Anna Melnikova. A story of artistic and athletic obsession becomes a tale of love lost, with each melodramatic note balanced by an attentive camera and a potent editorial restraint.

6. Summer of Giacomo (Alessandro Comodin) — A film so pure in its portrayal of youth and love, so immediate in its capturing of light and bodies, that it effortlessly wiggles free of any documentary vs. fiction constraints.

5. Bad 25 (Spike Lee) — Finally we have the definitive Michael Jackson film. In his particular pop-doc style, Spike Lee gets at the cultural icon’s vast influence by going narrow and focusing on the wildly popular (though often derided) Bad album. From this song-to-song hyper-focus a stunning portrait emerges of an African-American artist at his highest peak. “Man in the Mirror” as the finale is masterfully devastating.

4. Two Years At Sea (Ben Rivers) — A film full of magic, where light leaks merge with the environment at the surface of the image. Genre-defying at its core, Two Years At Sea is about myths and loss and growing old and movies, where experience and process converge and one man’s experience is rendered universal.

3. This Is Not A  Film (Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb) — This stunning film is not only the next logical step in Iranian meta-cinema, but a brave act of political defiance. As a documentary, being labeled “not a film” is not simply a legal maneuver but a freeing act of expression, bringing the weight of the present tense to the forefront and creating an almost unprecedented immediacy. The last scene of the movie, a random trip down an elevator with a trash collector that leads to a shocking history-as-it-happens moment, is maybe the best 10 minutes of pure cinema this year.

2. Only The Young (Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet) — A nearly perfect film about youth. Only The Young is a subtle and beguiling portrait of three Southern California teenagers that unfolds with such ease that one might not immediately recognize how exact every frame is or how perfectly calibrated is each moment. The film’s unhurried, non-judgmental style is an antidote to the desperate need-to-entertain-and-explain compulsion that you find in most documentaries based around interviews. There have been some great films made about the lives of teenagers and Only The Young has claimed its spot as one of the best.

1. Leviathan (Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor) — From the near-revolutionary Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard comes one of the most important documentaries ever made. By pushing their immersive verité portrait of a Maine fishing boat and its crew past the point of observation and into pure abstraction, co-directors Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have created a new type of experiential cinema and have drawn the map to the future. There is no going back after a masterwork like Leviathan. The game has changed.

Near Misses (in alphabetical order)
Girl Walk // All Day
Low & Clear
Off Label

Did Not See But Could Likely Have Made The List (in alphabetical order)
5 Broken Cameras
Beauty is Embarrassing
The Clock
Into The Abyss
The Law In These Parts
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
Room 237
Shut Up And Play The Hits
Stories We Tell
The Vanishing Spring Light

Not On The List For A Reason (in alphabetical order)
The Imposter
The Invisible War
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Searching For Sugar Man

— Robert Greene


The first nine years of the 21st century ushered in an official digital revolution in independent filmmaking. Sparked by the improbable success of The Blair Witch Project, filmmakers began to fully embrace the more efficient—and affordable—technologies that were being presented to them at a breakneck pace. These startlingly high quality consumer-grade video cameras helped to level the playing field and allowed new voices to emerge. But this revolution wasn’t relegated to the indie sphere. By 2009, some of Hollywood’s most powerful figures—David Fincher, Michael Mann, Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch—had fully embraced a digital aesthetic. As we write this now, the Red camera appears to be dramatically changing the landscape once again. Who knows what will happen in the coming years, but if things keep moving in this direction, by the end of 2019, 35mm and 16mm will have gone the way of Super 8.
Which is funny when you consider the following list. As with our 2008 and 2009 Hammer to Nail Awards, we decided to separate ourselves from the pack by using a stricter guideline than most. We think this works in two ways: 1) It gives us a different purpose; and 2) It shines a valuable spotlight on work that otherwise might get lost in the shuffle. Eligible films include:
If you think 25 films seems like a large number for such a specific niche, let it be known that we could have made it a very worthwhile 50. On a subjective note, I’d like to say that, to my disappointment, a few of my own personal favorites did not make the cut. The same can be said for all of our contributors.
When it comes to those that did tally enough points, something immediately jumps out. Out of the first 24 films, only one was shot on video. While this certainly wasn’t a conscious choice, if anything, it speaks to the type of ambition that made us launch this site in the first place. That said, if we’re still doing this in 2019, I can pretty much guarantee that subsequent lists won’t be so celluloid-centric.
I won’t bore you with details of the voting process itself (if you’re interested, take a look at our 2009 Awards for an equivalent explanation). However, I do feel compelled to offer two notes of clarification to remind readers that we did our best to remove directly personal connections from the equation. Though that creates its own perhaps unfairly negative ramifications for some of these filmmakers and films, we ultimately decided that this was a more ethically sound approach to take. Here are those notes:
One more quick point. In the case of ties, we opted against having any re-votes, simply assigning those films matching numbers and listing them alphabetically.
Okay, enough disclaiming. We’d like to congratulate and thank the following filmmakers for rising to the challenge, for depleting their own hearts, minds, and wallets, for defying the odds, to create such inspiring, moving works. For anyone who’s considering going to film school, I suggest a cheaper alternative: Buy these 25 films on DVD and study them closely. Many valuable lessons are contained within. — Michael Tully


25. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008, 59 points)
On paper, Nina Paley’s animated spectacle sounds like a lesson in pretension, but in execution, it’s one of the more exhilarating and original motion pictures of this young century. In fusing the classic Indian myth Ramayana with the late-1920s vocal stylings of jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, Paley doesn’t just perform a creative personal exorcism of the pain inflicted upon her when her husband dumped her by email. Against all odds, Sita Sings the Blues soars as a poignant statement on the universality and timelessness of female suffering. Oh yeah, it also happens to be laugh-out-loud funny and an all around giddy delight. (MT) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
24. Palindromes (Todd Solondz, 2004, 62 points)
Todd Solondz’s films seem to be made from the head rather than the heart, but Palindromes has moments that so effectively sear themselves into your brain with their tender strangeness that you create your own emotional memories around them. Provocation and shock value aside, Palindromes conjures a fractured reflection of the innocence of a single child whose only desire is to make another child in her own image. As the name hypothesizes, this movie does turn out to be a compelling and uncanny puzzle. Is this one of the best films of the decade or just the most bizarre? In either case, it’s unforgettable and not to be missed. (Holly Herrick) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
23. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung, 2007, 63 points)
Munyurangabo represents the decade’s finest example of a new type of emerging American independent cinema, one that eschews the regional and narrative conventions that have defined our movies for decades in favor of a creative and aesthetic engagement with the world beyond our national borders. In the case of the breathtaking Munyurangabo, this newfound engagement comes in the form of reconciliation with the ghosts of the Rwandan genocide, each given a voice in the native Kirwanda language. Every moment of Lee Issac Chung’s film is transformative, and as a narrative and a standard-bearer for filmmaking, Munyurangabo is the beginning of something powerful and new. (Tom Hall) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
20. Raising Victor Vargas (Peter Sollett, 2002, 67 points)
If some titles on this list demonstrate how independent filmmaking can push the boundaries of expression and show us things we’ve never seen before, Raising Victor Vargas offers the kinds of pleasures mainstream movies are supposed to deliver but rarely do. This small miracle of a film about teenage love on the Lower East Side is perfectly accessible, and perfectly delightful, for anyone with eyes and ears and a beating heart. Peter Sollett, co-writer Eva Vives, DP Tim Orr, and a luminous cast of novice actors get everything right, from the shimmering haze that hovers above NYC sidewalks in deep summer to the way these hard-shelled youths open themselves up to feeling like a fist slowly unclenching. (Nelson Kim) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
20. The Pool (Chris Smith, 2007, 67 points)
Chris Smith’s return to fiction storytelling after a decade-long sidetrack into documentary land was worth the wait and then some. Part of the magic of The Pool is that it doesn’t feel like an ethnographic exercise of an American director working in an exotic locale; it doesn’t feel like it was made by an American filmmaker, period. Though this story could have just as easily been told in small town Wisconsin, Smith’s decision to travel to India to shoot it in an unfamiliar language produces something much richer and more rewarding, a tender coming-of-age tale that will resonate with viewers no matter what language they speak. (MT) ***NOT YET AVAILABLE ON DVD***
20. Funny Ha Ha (Andrew Bujalski, 2002, 67 points)
Whether or not you appreciate the films it has been lumped together with, Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha stands on its own pigeon-toed feet as a witty, tender character study that is clearly film-history literate while remaining utterly itself. Freshman year of college, during a month of mono-mandated bed rest, I found Funny Ha Ha on the shelf at the video store and watched it three times in 24 hours, transfixed by Kate Dollenmayer’s deliciously amateur performance. I was also desperate to understand what this movie was. I rewound the ending again and again, trying to discern the film’s final marbles-in-mouth line. (Lena Dunham) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
18. The Pleasure of Being Robbed (Joshua Safdie, 2008, 68 points)
I was at a film festival in Greece last month and ran into Josh Safdie. He told me about a job he recently took back home in New York, working on the crew of a corporate video, holding a boom pole all day. Many independent filmmakers are familiar with this type of temp work, and know how stultifying and creatively draining it can be—it’s dangerous, is what it is, and Josh countered it thusly: when another crew member asked him a question, he shrugged and responded in French. As far as everyone on that shoot was and is concerned, Josh Safdie is the sound guy who didn’t speak a lick of English. And that, moreso than any literal review, pretty much sums up the particular je ne sai quoi of his first feature film. (David Lowery) ***COMING SOON TO DVD***
18. Afterschool (Antonio Campos, 2008, 68 points)
Directed, written and edited by Antonio Campos, and gorgeously lensed and framed by Jody Lee Lipes (recipient of this year’s Silver Nail Award), this debut feature premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim. A dark, edgy story of a young man’s voyeuristic adventures at a privileged boarding school, Afterschool provokes a complex array of sensations in the viewer. Tough-minded and polarizing, it marks the emergence of an exciting and challenging new voice in American cinema. (Pamela Cohn) ***NOT YET AVAILABLE ON DVD***
17. Ballast (Lance Hammer, 2008, 78 points)
When Lance Hammer’s debut feature premiered in competition at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, it felt like a master had accidentally walked into a roomful of rookies. Shot on handheld 35mm using available light by cinematographer Lol Crawley, Ballast is an authentic and grittily poetic drama about one family’s grieving process during a gray, bleak Mississippi Delta winter. And while Hammer pays as much attention to the somber aura of the landscape as he does his melancholy narrative, Ballast ultimately reveals itself to be a hopeful tale of reconciliation. (MT) ***BUY IT ON DVD OR BLU-RAY***
16. Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski, 2005, 79 points)
Andrew Bujalski’s follow-up to Funny Ha Ha gets funnier, warmer, and deeper every time you see it. The long mid-film back-to-back parties sequence, which has little to do with the official “plot”, first seems like a pointless digression; in fact, it reveals itself to be the heart of the film in terms of character, structure, and theme. Mutual Appreciation isn’t just a comedy about the romantic entanglements of men and women. It’s a probing examination of gender identity, self-identity, and how we define and present ourselves to the world. (Tom Russell) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
14. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008, 81 points)
Kelly Reichardt followed up Old Joy, her lyrical Northwest bromance, with a different kind of love story: Wendy and Lucy chronicles the star-crossed connection between a boyish drifter and her sand-colored mutt. A timely meditation on the tiny injustices that conspire to send a person off the map and into poverty, Wendy and Lucy is heartbreaking in its modesty as we follow Wendy’s wordless descent. And who needs dialogue since Michelle Williams, all tattered shorts and lank, greasy bowl cut, can get the job done using only her eyes. (LD) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
14. Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004, 81 points)
Once in while, just when you think you’ve got a filmmaker figured out, he blows you away with a completely different turn. Who would have thought that the flip, cinematically casual director of The Doom Generation was capable of bringing actual tears to my eyes through a straightforward story of a dreamer and a fighter facing off against the cruel world? Mysterious Skin is proof that as filmmakers get older they can actually become better artists, once they live through and move on past their youthful flash. Beautiful, smart, stunning things can actually come out of a wizened middle age. (Mike S. Ryan) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
13. Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006, 82 points)
Written by the dynamic duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, Half Nelson tells the story of an inner-city junior high school teacher with a bad drug habit (the superb Ryan Gosling, in an Oscar-nominated role) and the unlikely friendship that blossoms when one of his students discovers his secret (Shareeka Epps, in a real head-turning performance). As directed by Fleck and edited by Boden (who has some of the best cutting instincts around), the film achieves a thrilling level of emotional intensity. Audiences were buzzing about it after its premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, and it received the same attention when it was released theatrically in August of that same year. (PC) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
12. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani, 2008, 87 points)
After making a name for himself as a New York City filmmaker with the critically acclaimed social realist dramas Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, Ramin Bahrani returned to his small town roots for his third feature. Though the backdrop might have changed, Bahrani’s devotion to characters that have been otherwise marginalized by society did not. In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Solo, a Senegalese cab driver, and William, a despondent Southerner, forge an unlikely bond when Solo catches on to William’s plan to take his own life. By the time Goodbye Solo reaches its quietly transcendent climax, Bahrani has shown us, with great skill and care, a profoundly humane vision of a New America. (MT) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
11. The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009, 94 points)
A zoom lens is a tricky thing. It brings its subject into variable perspective, but on a different visual plane than, say, a dolly, which moves the camera through physical space. A zoom lens has nothing to do with space; rather, it’s about discernment. It allows a director to control what part of an image the audience is looking at without actually changing the intrinsic nature of that image, to tell us what to focus on in the same way our own consciousness tells our eyes what to we want to pay attention to in everyday life. In short, it’s a tool of manipulation. With The House of the Devil, so full of zoom ins and zoom outs that—along with the ’80s couture and Satan-worshipping antagonists that fill the frame—never tip the film into cheesy territory, Ti West reveals himself as a master manipulator. This is great horror filmmaking, and great filmmaking, period. (DL) ***COMING SOON TO DVD AND BLU-RAY***
10. Junebug (Phil Morrison, 2005, 97 points)
It’s been four and a half years since I first saw Phil Morrison’s Junebug. I’ve probably watched it another ten times since then. No other film captures, in such a subtle, humorous and heartbreaking way, the central fissures of American life in the first decade of the 21st century. How to reconcile the urban with the rural, the halfheartedly Progressive with the uncompromisingly Conservative, our doubts with our faith? Is there any salve for the cultural alienation that grows between family members in vastly different social and professional spheres? How do we go home again? Junebug is a truly special film. (Note: Props to HTN contributor Mike S. Ryan for being a part of this masterpiece!) (Brandon Harris) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
9. Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004, 99 points)
Made for the price of a good used car and with enough ingenuity to fuel ten films, Shane Carruth’s surprise Sundance winner came out of nowhere and disappeared just as fast. Not like anyone was going to figure out how to market this heady little DIY time travel movie to the masses, but in Primer we find the conceptual vision that’s missing from so many indie films made for ten and a hundred and a thousand times as much. You might need an advanced degree in Physics to wrap your head around Carruth’s narrative about the spiritual implications of metaphysical doubling, accidentally discovering how to go backwards in time in your garage, and ultimately—and most troublingly—how ethics so often get pushed aside in the name of progress. This is part of the fun. To embrace Primer’s endless complexity is to give in to its essential charm and its great gift. If you seek to be pacified and reassured, walk through another door. (BH) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
8. Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, 2006, 104 points)
Kelly Reichardt perfected her personal craft of short story filmmaking with Old Joy, a minimalist portrait of a weekend camping trip shared by two 30-somethings in the Pacific Northwest. As the reunited friends amble through a misted wood, the constant, brooding tension between the two signals their painful realization of an imminent rupture. What ultimately makes Old Joy so complex and beautiful is what simmers beneath the surface, as each man—suffering from the political apathy of leftist America—searches in vain for the shadow of a past self who would certainly know how to connect to the other. (HH) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
7. Keane (Lodge Kerrigan, 2004, 105 points)
A man passes through the Port Authority. A stranger, calling out, “Excuse me sir, have you seen this girl? This is my daughter…” No one seems to find the time to listen to, or even hear, the question. The crowd passes him by. Millions of eyes staring at him, voices thousands and nameless and muttering. Searching with all of them echoing within him. She will not appear. His thoughts so loud we can hear them ourselves. His family name, repeated: “My name is Keane. Keane. K – E – A – N – E…” We say it with him. Was she real? Could she still be breathing? If she was a dream, then wherever she is she must know: she may as well have never existed at all, save for him. It is no dream. (Evan Louison) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
6. Momma’s Man (Azazel Jacobs, 2008, 109 points)
Just when you thought the overgrown-child-returns-home genre had officially worn out its welcome, along comes Azazel Jacobs to inject it with a breathtaking amount of heart. More than just an understated comic portrait of a new husband and father’s temporary quarter-life crisis, Momma’s Man is also a deeply touching love letter to Jacobs’ parents (painter Flo and experimental filmmaker Ken, who act in the film), their staggeringly jam-packed Tribeca loft, and a fading New York City spirit. This, my friends, is how you make the personal universal, how you turn your own little life into a work of gracious art. (MT) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
5. Great World of Sound (Craig Zobel, 2007, 115 points)
Craig Zobel’s Great World of Sound is a perceptive yet human—and often humorous—look at contemporary American culture and its exploitation of talent and hope. Pat Healy and Kene Holiday are con-artist record producers, scoping the American landscape for naïve souls looking for their big break (something all too common in the world of modern television). What makes the film so special isn’t just Healy and Holiday’s revelations or their sobering taste of reality, but those wonderful, endearing documentary clips of real people auditioning, whose talent and charm give the film a necessary dose of optimism. (Cullen Gallagher) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
4. The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo, 2003, 116 points)
Miles down the road and all I need is a heaven. A place to go where I can really be. Ghosts appear like flowers from dirt. Forget all of her, leave memories behind, before they made me run. No matter how hard I try, I know if I stop for too long, I’ll remember her: Someone I lost, back there, and keep losing, over and over again. Try to keep it from happening again and again but I can’t. The windshield and the rain, the heat on the highway. Desert plain of the horizon. The road ahead of me, strangers with names the same as flowers. They remind me we all have to wilt and die like the rest of it. Trying to keep going but I’m alone. Afraid of never knowing where to stop. And it just goes on. (EL) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
3. Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, 2007, 132 points)
As a firm believer in the concept that more money doesn’t bring better films, Shotgun Stories stands as the penultimate example of how classical brilliance is attainable on a no/low budget. The writing and directing here announces a talent so immense that one can only scratch one’s head in bewilderment as to why Jeff Nichols hasn’t yet directed a studio picture. Blame it perhaps on a don’t-give-a-damn agent (CAA) or perhaps the bad advice of friends, but can someone please give this man some material—his is a talent that far surpasses his peers. (MR) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
2. Frownland (Ronald Bronstein, 2007, 152 points)
Emerson defined genius as having the courage to declare that “what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men.” By that standard, Ronald Bronstein’s bleakly hilarious debut feature is manifestly a work of genius. Here is a movie for the troll lurking inside all of us, the little monster that tells us we’re ugly, doomed to failure, and undeserving of love or mercy. If we’re lucky, that inner voice takes up only a small percentage of our headspace, a small amount of the time, and quiets down as we age. Frownland cranks up the volume on that voice until it drowns out every other sound in the room. This is a challenging, often aggressively unpleasant, but strangely exhilarating viewing experience, and a triumph of DIY filmmaking. (NK) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
1. George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000, 158 points)
Summer is fleeting, yet the days last forever… A reticent, rural symphony, David Gordon Green’s George Washington strikes that rare tonal balance between location, character, and story. Led by a strong ensemble cast and Tim Orr’s opulent yet naturalistic photography, the film evocatively captures the rich atmosphere of the North Carolina countryside over the course of a summer. Comparisons to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (and, in turn, Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography) only reinforce the impact the film has made, and the stature it has attained, since its release in 2000. (CG) ***BUY IT ON DVD***
(Contributors: Pamela Cohn, Lena Dunham, Cullen Gallagher, Tom Hall, Brandon Harris, Ted Hope, Holly Herrick, Nelson Kim, Evan Louison, David Lowery, Mike S. Ryan, Michael Tully)


Welcome to the second annual Hammer to Nail Awards! The ever-increasing torrent of end-of-the-year lists and trophies can become an overwhelming blur, which is just one of the reasons why we here at HTN have made a commitment to do something different with our own contribution to the fray. As with last year, we are focusing our attention on AMERICAN NARRATIVES THAT WERE PRODUCED FOR ONE MILLION DOLLARS OR LESS.
If you revisit the 2008 Hammer to Nail Awards post, you might see some overlap with a few of this year’s titles. I take full responsibility for that, as I was still trying to figure out the best plan of attack for this complicated endeavor. Now that we’ve been through the rigamarole once, we have come to settle on the following overriding guideline: A FILM IS ELIGIBLE IF IT RECEIVED SOME FORM OF PUBLIC RELEASE, WHETHER IT BE THEATRICAL, VOD, OR STRAIGHT-TO-DVD, IN SAID CALENDAR YEAR. Last year, we were counting festival premieres, which is unfair to filmmakers, as many of our contributors hadn’t been able to catch up with that work until it received an even somewhat legitimate release. This is the main reason for taking this approach, which can seem less timely but, in the grander scheme, makes the most overall sense. We are confident that all of these films—especially the cream of the crop—will eventually find a public release (see last year’s Prince of Broadway, which won’t technically become eligible until next year!—or this year’s Number 3, which we were worried might never see the light of day).
As for the voting process, that has remained the same. Each main HTN contributor (see bottom of post for this year’s voters) was asked to submit their Top 10 Films of 2009. Ten points were assigned to each number one, nine points were assigned to the number two, and on down the line. These results were tallied into the list you see below. In the case of ties, the film that appeared on the most ballots received the edge.
Thanks so much for reading and supporting our mission at Hammer to Nail. Times are tight, but we’re determined to keep moving forward and carefully curating your viewing experience, whether it be in a theater, on television, on your computer, or on something even smaller than that. And now, onto the main event…
The indie film industry has imploded, due to reduced demand, the decline of DVD sales, the folding of theatrical distributors, and the drying up of funding sources caused by the economic crash. The industry as we once knew it has in effect vanished. However, that statement is applicable only toward your own take on the term. If your definition of ‘indie film’ starts with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Spike Lee and Kevin Smith, then yes, that industry has died. The sale of Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 breakout hit inspired the major studios to create “indie sub-companies,” some of which were distributors and some of which were content developers. Over the years, between Sex, Lies and Hamlet 2 (the last eight-figure Sundance deal), the indie industry grew to embody not maverick ideas and techniques but instead tepid warmed over sub-par industry drivel. Fueled by the box office success of films like Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine, the American indie film movement ossified into the indie-quirk-pseudo-grunge-alt-maverick business defined by such recent films as Sunshine Cleaning and Arlen Faber (aka The Answer Man). As we step toward the first Sundance without Geoff Gilmore all I can say is:
larryfessendenstillWhile all that hullabaloo was going on over at Sundance, while people made more and more money and the films got blander and more ‘commercial,’ there was a toothless NYC curmudgeon toiling in the shadows of the East Village. Amazing feature after feature, like Habit and Wendigo, blew my mind with their classical yet aggressively pointed spins on the horror genre. It was clear to me, and most everyone who saw the work of Larry Fessenden, that there was a fully accomplished voice working within the genre, saying something significant about what it means to be alive today.
It was always clear to me that though Larry works in the horror genre, his voice is as authentic and as passionate as the first pioneers of true indie cinema, people like Oscar Micheaux, John Cassavetes and Kenneth Anger. The fact that these earlier films of his never played in the Midnight section at Sundance is criminal. Late night after late night I sat in the Egyptian theater watching some bland Tarantino wannabe or some slick piece of crap like Donkey Punch wondering, “Why isn’t Larry Fessenden here?”
Well, that period of indie film, marked by those go-go Sundance years, is gone. I say good riddance. I hope some of the ’stars’ of that period have returned to selling real estate, because it was their drive to make money that sidetracked the authentic indie film spirit. I’m glad their game has gone bust. In its wake will rise true independent visions, films made by people who have something to say, and all the soulless LA sub-companies of the Hollywood industrial entertainment mind-melt industry can go to blazes as they watch the future rise out of the gutter. It’s great that the ‘industry’ is dead because maybe now the crap that these companies forced onto the small screens will go away and true indie film companies like GLASS EYE PIX will rise to the foreground.
thelastwinterstillIn the past few years GLASS EYE PIX—and now Fessenden’s low-budget horror banner SCAREFLIX—has been responsible for some of this past decade’s best work, from the films of Kelly Reichardt (that was Larry acting in her first film River of Grass as well as her most recent Wendy and Lucy) to the Ti West mindbenders The Roost and The House of the Devil, to Larry’s own The Last Winter. This year alone has seen an amazing batch of new releases, including Graham Reznick’s startling one-two punch of the camping trip-gone-awry feature I Can See You and the amazing hand-made true 3D short The Viewer.
My favorite 2009 effort from the GLASS EYE PIX stable, however, is Glenn McQuaid’s I Sell The Dead, a film savvy journey through horror history that gleefully combines a graveyard robbing Hammer film from the mid-1960s with a brash high contrast classic lurid Zombie movie of the ‘80s. Wrapped up in dark humor and creepy shocks, I Sell the Dead has it all. But Larry and his collaborators do more than just make excellent films on micro-budgets. They hype the heck out of them, with great viral and old-fashioned three-dimensional merchandising tactics (playing cards, comic books, posters, etc.).
A company like GLASS EYE PIX—and, in turn, SCAREFLIX—is the future of indie cinema, a small, individually run force, driven by passion and an aesthetic vision that can embrace both pure character driven pieces like Wendy and Lucy, as well as informed, intelligent genre films such as The House of the Devil and I Sell The Dead. Mark my words, this is a company that will eventually have a Paranormal Activity-level breakout hit. In the meantime, keep track of their releases and get stunned, rocked, shocked, and transported. Welcome to the new world, where GLASS EYE PIX is the model. For all of these reasons, for being such an inspiring force in the industry, we give Larry Fessenden the 2009 GOLDEN HAMMER AWARD. He’s the past, present, and future combined. He is American Independent Cinema. — Mike S. Ryan
Every so often, a vision emerges from directly behind the camera that feels as important as—or more important than—the person who’s sitting in the director’s chair. From the very first frame of Antonio Campos’ Afterschool, it’s immediately clear that whoever is shooting this picture is good. And as the film goes on, it’s hard to suppress the feeling that one is watching a master cinematographer at work. Months before experiencing Afterschool on the big screen at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 2008, I had a strangely similar reaction to a film that couldn’t have been more different. As I watched Matt Wolf’s Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell at the 2008 Sarasota Film Festival, I found myself awed by the imagery. And not just the beautifully grainy recreations that were shot on film. Something about the video interviews had a warmth and tenderness that felt much more cinematic than I was used to seeing in this type of project. Without question, in this instance the cinematography had made a good movie great.
jodyleelipesstillIt turns out the same person was responsible for the imagery in both of these films. His name: Jody Lee Lipes. Though not yet thirty, and with only these two features under his belt (though much more work was being done along the way: videos, commercials, shorts, etc.), Lipes exhibited a technical range, intelligence, and care that reached far beyond his years. This year, with the premiere of his own documentary, Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same, at the 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival, Lipes confirmed what I suspected: he’s a great director too.
Like Afterschool, Brock Enright has elicited fiercely passionate reactions from both yaysayers and naysayers. But in my experience, what people “hate” about Brock Enright has nothing to do with the point Lipes is actually making. As in, he didn’t set out to make a “point.” A bracingly intimate portrait of controversial New York City artist Brock Enright as he travels out west with his girlfriend Kirsten Deirup to work on a new gallery commission on her parents’ land in the Upstate California woods, BE:GTWNBTS feels downright revolutionary. Whereas most no-budget filmmakers are running around trying to make their lazily unscripted narrative features feel like sloppy documentaries, Lipes filmed his real situations to look and feel like a European art film. The effect is mesmerizing.
brockenrightstillAs his deadline approaches and Deirup continues to grill him about their mounting bills back in Brooklyn, Enright begins to succumb to the pressure. And when the director of the Perry Rubenstein Gallery visits the compound to check up on Brock, the situation spins all the way out of control. The unsettling nature of the content, mixed with Lipes’ innovative approach to shooting his material, is undoubtedly the reason for so much viewer discomfort (i.e., discomfort = dissatisfaction). But for someone who yearns to see a universal story—the mounting pressures of a twenty-something couple—told in such a fresh way, there is no discomfort. There is only exhilaration. Though BE:GTWNBTS has not yet been picked up for distribution, that will happen. But more importantly, Lipes continues to work both behind the camera and from the director’s chair. In some cases, as with the upcoming NY Export: Opus Jazz, he’s doing both.
For his creativity, startling execution, and daring work on Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same and Afterschool (which finally made its way into theaters in 2009), for truly straddling the line between fiction and nonfiction, erasing those boundaries in a way that should have both camps rejoicing—especially you documentary advocates, wake up, people!—Jody Lee Lipes earns our 2009 SILVER NAIL AWARD. — Michael Tully
Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani) — Who needs a big budget when you’ve got great storytelling? Though his first two features, Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, established Ramin Bahrani as a talented new American filmmaker in the tradition of the Neo-Realist masters of yore, with Goodbye Solo, he officially joined their ranks. Set in Bahrani’s hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the film tells the tale of two figures whose paths cross incidentally when a Senegalese cab driver, Solo (Souleymayne Sy Savane), receives a strange proposition from a fare, William (Red West). Solo understands what this proposition really means, yet rather than simply ignoring the signs as would be expected in these increasingly selfish, hurried times and letting William drift away, he latches on to this bitter man and won’t let go. As portrayed by Savane, Solo has a tireless spirit that can’t be extinguished. Yet as the film builds to its quietly transcendent climax, he learns that some people’s pain is simply too much to bear. For saying so much with so little, for being simultaneously sobering and uplifting, for capturing the true multi-cultural spirit of 21st century America, and, most importantly, for receiving the most votes, Goodbye Solo is our Best Film of 2009. — MT
(Click on the titles below to read their official HTN reviews, and click on the names to read our HTN conversations with these extremely talented directors.)
1. Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani)
2. The House of the Devil (Ti West)
3. Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung)
4. Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)
4. Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim)
6. Humpday (Lynn Shelton)
7. That Evening Sun (Scott Teems)
8. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley)
8. Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America (Tony Stone)
10. Afterschool (Antonio Campos)
11. Children of Invention (Tze Chun)
12. Stingray Sam (Cory McAbee)
13. Weapons (Adam Bhala Lough)
Other Films Receiving Votes (in alphabetical order):
Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski)
Big Fan (Robert Siegel)
Christmas on Mars (Wayne Coyne)
Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-ItchyFooted Mutha (Melvin Van Peebles)
Everything Strange and New (Frazer Bradshaw)
Half-Life (Jennifer Phang)
Harmony and Me (Bob Byington)
I Sell the Dead (Glenn McQuaid)
It Is Fine. Everything Is Fine! (Crispin Glover)
Loren Cass (Chris Fuller)
The New Year Parade (Tom Quinn)
Paper Covers Rock (Joe Maggio)
The Princess of Nebraska (Wayne Wang)
The Toe Tactic (Emily Hubley)
White on Rice (Dave Boyle)
(Contributors: Pamela Cohn, Cullen Gallagher, Tom Hall, Brandon Harris, Ted Hope, Holly Herrick, Nelson Kim, Michael Lerman, Evan Louison, David Lowery, Mike S. Ryan, Michael Tully)


We started Hammer to Nail at the beginning of 2008 with one goal in mind: to champion the most adventurous, ambitious, provocative, and exciting low-budget American narrative cinema of the very moment. And though we have broadened our horizons to cover exceptional films of all shapes, sizes, and ages, that primary purpose remains the same. To prove our commitment to this cause, we present to you the inaugural Hammer to Nail Awards.
In order to get the fairest and most comprehensive result possible, we asked H2N’s current roster of expert contributors to submit their own top ten lists that fit within the following parameters: American narratives (shorts or features) made for under one million dollars that either premiered or received some form of a theatrical release in 2008. These results were weighed, measured, and combined to produce a democratic final tally.
This process can get complicated. What about those titles that premiered towards the end of the year and have had minimal screenings up to this point (such as So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain or Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo)? Or what about those 2007 premieres that weren’t seen by many and never found distribution in 2008 (such as Lee Isaac Chung’s criminally overlooked Munyurangabo)? After much deliberation, we have removed films such as these from contention. Our hope is that, moving forward in the years to come, no more gems will slip through the cracks.
Looking over the final list, it is screamingly clear that outside-the-system, low-budget American independent cinema isn’t just alive and well; it’s thriving. While it’s too early to determine, we feel strongly that 2008 has been a banner year and will stand the test of time. But what makes the situation even more unique is that these films have emerged just when the distribution landscape is rapidly shrinking. Though the movies are better than ever, it is incredibly difficult to get them shown. Imagine what it would be like if there were real opportunities for these films to be seen by wider audiences. That’s why we started this site, and that’s why we’re handing out these awards. We applaud the following filmmakers for inspiring us, and we hope they receive the attention and acclaim they so rightly deserve. And now, without further ado…

Lance Hammer — The 2008 Sundance Film Festival began with a whimper. There was much grumbling in that opening weekend as press screening after press screening unveiled work that varied from mediocre to worse. And then came Ballast, which felt like a master songwriter stepping on stage at the end of a particularly amateurish open mic night. Lance Hammer’s directorial debut didn’t feel like a debut at all. It had a command of tone that most experienced directors only dream of achieving. With grace and intelligence—and gorgeous natural light 35mm cinematography—Hammer found the poetic tenderness inside a cold, harsh, somber Mississippi Delta landscape. Ballast took home two awards at the festival—Dramatic Directing and Excellence in Cinematography—and distributors came calling. Yet after a flirtation with IFC Films, Hammer decided to retain the film’s rights and forge his own distribution path. It is for both of these reasons—making an extraordinary film the old-fashioned way yet distributing it the new-fashioned way—that Lance Hammer is the recipient of our first ever Golden Hammer Award.

Sean Baker — We wanted to give an award to the filmmaker who did the most with the least. Sean Baker shattered that concept by delivering two films for the price of barely-even-one. Though Take Out (co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou) debuted in 2004, it didn’t receive a proper theatrical release until this year (reviews were unanimously positive). Shortly after that, Baker world-premiered his next feature, Prince of Broadway, at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it won the coveted Target Filmmaker Award. Separately, these films are micro-budget digital cinema of the highest order, yet when placed next to one another, they become something much more important. This isn’t just the work of an on-the-margins filmmaker with a video camera. It’s the work of one of America’s most vital social realists transcending his limitations to present worlds that pulse with documentary-like realism and throb with humanity. And so, for proving that budget doesn’t matter in delivering the finest one-two punch of 2008, we present Sean Baker with our Silver Nail Award.
Frownland (Ronald Bronstein) — For most of us, the Frownland revelation came in 2007, either at its SXSW world premiere (where it won a Special Jury Award for Singularity of Vision) or during its subsequent festival run. But 2008 is when the film found its way into actual theaters, albeit on a sadly limited basis (it didn’t win a “Best Film Not Playing At A Theater Near You” Gotham Award for nothing). Still, these one-week, self-booked runs were enough to catch the attention of two of America’s most revered critics—Manohla Dargis and Roger Ebert—who both recognized the mad genius on display. But we knew that already. Not only did Frownland receive the most points in our poll, it received the most number one votes as well, making it a shoo-in for the top spot. While this year’s list is overflowing with brave and adventurous acts of personal creative expression, Frownland is a universe unto itself. It’s what Hammer to Nail is all about.
(Click on the titles below to read their official H2N reviews.)
1. Frownland (Ronald Bronstein)
2. Momma’s Man (Azazel Jacobs)
3. Ballast (Lance Hammer)
4. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
5. The Pleasure of Being Robbed (Joshua Safdie)
6. Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols)
7. Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker)
8. Take Out (Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou)
9. The Pool (Chris Smith)
10. Afterschool (Antonio Campos)
11. Glory at Sea (Benh Zeitlin)
12. Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani)
13. Medicine For Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)
Other Films Receiving Votes (in alphabetical order)
The Acquaintances of a Lonely John (Benny Safdie)
The Adventure (Mike Brune)
Baghead (The Duplass Brothers)
Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-Itchyfooted Mutha (Melvin van Peebles)
Goliath (The Zellner Brothers)
The Foot Fist Way (Jody Hill)
A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy (Dennis Dortch)
Half-Life (Jennifer Phang)
Hug (Khary Jones)
I am so proud of you (Don Hertzfeldt)
Idiots and Angels (Bill Plympton)
My Effortless Brilliance (Lynn Shelton)
The New Year Parade (Tom Quinn)
Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig)
Pop Foul (Moon Molson)
Present Company (Frank V. Ross)
The Second Line (John Magary)
Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley)
Small Apartment (Andrew Thomas Betzer)
Wellness (Jake Mahaffy)
Woodpecker (Alex Karpovsky)
Yeast (Mary Bronstein)
(Contributors: Lena Dunham, Cullen Gallagher, Tom Hall, Brandon Harris, Ted Hope, Holly Herrick, Nelson Kim, Michael Lerman, David Lowery, Mike S. Ryan, Michael Tully)

HIDDEN GEMS – Summer Megamix

And just like that, the game appears to be changing, as the once wholly loveable Netflix doesn’t seem to care just how quickly it’s about to fall out of favor with a group of passionate movie lovers such as ourselves. No, I’m not referring to the new pricing plan. In fact, my memory is that in the early days of Netflix, my tab landed at around 15 dollars each month for a subscription (for 3 discs out at a time, I seem to recall it being 19 dollars?). Back then, that number didn’t seem outrageous to me. To be honest, as a filmmaker, the shrinking monthly rate for streaming everywhere seems like a dangerous proposition, for it alerts me to the fact that films aren’t being accounted for on a stream-by-stream basis. Which, if one does some even basic mathematics, has the filmmaker coming up shorter than ever. But that’s for another article that someone far more informed than myself will hopefully write (this one certainly provides valuable insight).
It’s not the monthly fee that has me so disappointed. It’s that I didn’t just think Netflix used to be a big supporter of the little guys, I knew they were (this was based on statistical data relayed to me by distributor friends and associates). Yet not anymore. Rather than building and maintaining as comprehensive a library as possible and using their assets to their advantage, Netflix is instead abandoning this concept in favor of a more streamlined approach: i.e., concentrating predominantly on TELEVISION and BIG STUDIO PRODUCT. Obviously—you will get no argument from me here—this is where the real money exists, and it’s what has helped Netflix to become such a business juggernaut. But part of what made Netflix so special is that they were using their position of power to acquire smaller titles to the point where it seemed like that was part of their overriding mission. Perhaps this was never the case. Either way, reality has arrived.
We’ve never had any official partnership with Netflix. When we started up our ongoing “Netflix Hidden Gems” column, we did it out of appreciation for what they were doing. Who knows, maybe we’re jumping the gun here. But it sure doesn’t seem like it. The situation with Criterion provided the first chink in their armor, and now, it seems like the tower is beginning to crumble. For now, we are renaming this column “Hidden Gems” so that we can include other sites that provide services similar to Netflix but who are more interested in ambitious cinema than television. ***Let it be known that I personally realize that we should have been doing this all along, and for that I apologize.***
Soon, I am planning to post a trusted, as-comprehensive-as-possible guide to alert you to all the other exciting options that are out there, though this post is a good way to get that ball rolling. Though this Netflix development is a disappointing one, it certainly isn’t the end of the world. Hopefully, it will turn out to be the beginning of an even brighter home video future for all of us. As usual, only time will tell…
The New York Ripper (1982) — This is Lucio Fulci’s dazzilingly stylish, gruesomely gritty, and totally outlandish slasher flick. A killer is stalking the Big Apple, slicing up beautiful young women with sharp knives and broken bottles. The only clue? The killer quacks like a duck. As absurd as it is frightening, The New York Ripper is fueled by an existentialist drive that boils the essence of terror to its primal fears and desires. Plus, the on-location shooting is superb, including a late-night chase through the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station! (Cullen Gallagher)

Up Tight!

Up Tight! (1968) — Unavailable on DVD and effectively suppressed after its brief release, Up Tight!, a terse and melancholic 1968 thriller from Jules Dassin (Rififi) is suddenly available on Netflix Instant! An odd piece of socio-cultural history, it’s a Hollywood film which offers, despite its genre trappings, the most eloquent dramatization of the tensions that ultimately fractured the Civil Rights Movement. Dassin’s remake of John Ford’s The Informer—set amongst warring black nationals and liberal integrationists in the impoverished Hough district of Cleveland—is informed very much by its northeastern Ohio setting and the historical moment. Co-scripted by stars Julien Mayfield and Ruby Dee, the film features Mayfield as a doomed black nationalist ostracized for his drunkenness and ineptitude, who turns snitch for the cops. The great cinematographer Boris Kaufman makes Hough into a shadowy and nightmarish post-industrial wasteland, albeit one punctuated by illusive moments of beauty. (Brandon Harris)
Paid in Full (2002) — Charles Stone III’s underrated gangster drama set in 1980s Harlem is genre filmmaking of a high order: what in lesser hands would come across as a retread of clichés instead takes on a nearly classical grandeur. Even the most inventive contemporary crime movies, like the work of Tarantino and the Coens, sometimes seem to be taking place in a world disconnected from recognizable social reality. Stone, in his first feature film (he went on to make the crowd-pleaser Drumline), yanks the genre out of its closed loop of ever-more-baroque film-geek flourishes, and jolts it full of life. Paid in Full restores a sense of tragic consequence to its heroes’ downfall, and many viewers will be left shaken and appalled as the film arcs its way to its conclusion. Most mainstream reviewers ignored the film upon its release, and its distributor, Miramax/Dimension, treated it as just another disposable ‘hood shoot-’em-up. But people will go on rediscovering it on video and talking about it for years to come. (Read Nelson Kim’s full review here.)
NETFLIX: Stream/Rent
Dominick Dunne: After the Party (2008) — Dominick Dunne said things so other people didn’t have to. His lauded Vanity Fair articles show his commitment to revealing the ugliness in power, the unspoken lies of Hollywood. In After the Party directors Kristy de Garis and Timothy Jolley show an aged, sage Dunne looking back on his life, one that could stand in for the post-war American journey. Chronicling the Phil Spector trial while recounting stories with Hollywood legends, Dunne shows us the thin line between celebrity and tragedy. (Jesse Klein)
HULU: Free Stream!


Rockers (1978) — The perfect summer jam. Greek director Ted Bafaloukos spent two years in Jamaica “casting” the reggae musicians who largely play themselves in his sunny, rasta version of The Bicycle Thief. The plot is thin, but who cares? The search for a stolen motorbike is a reason to follow drummer Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace around his Jamaica, a 1970s haze of color, smoke, style, and beats. Horsemouth and his Dreads are tricksters, carried by hustle, quick wit, and only occasional violence. Mostly they goof, run records, and brush off their women, inspiring generations of rolling stones with the idea that home is just a place to change your shirt. The slang is so thick you need subtitles, but the music (Jacob Miller, Burning Spear, Gregory Isaacs) is loud and clear. (Susanna Locascio)
NETFLIX: Stream/Rent
Gone With The Wind (1939) — If you didn’t get the weekend beach invite and can’t bear the sight of Prospect or McCarren park on another Saturday, than call whomever you know with a hearty AC unit and a decent couch* and make a day of watching Gone With the Wind, a recent addition to Netflix Instant. Since the film is roughly four hours long, if you plan it right you can miss the hottest part of the day, especially if you bookend the film with meals and/or drinks. *Or use Rhett and Scarlet’s amorous banter to take you and your summer fling to the next level in a comfy bed. (Alexandra Roxo)
NETFLIX: Stream/Rent
The Man In The Net (1959) – This is one of those bizarre films that got made in the bustling studio heyday that makes you ask “what the hell were they thinking?” It stars Alan Ladd as an introspective NYC painter who has retired to the country to pursue his artistic dreams. He spends his days in the fields painting happy country children at play while his younger city slicker wife, Carolyn Jones (Morticia on the original Addams Family), hits the bottle hard and flirts with the square-jawed local cop. The first few scenes have the couple battling it out like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, except Ladd’s tight-lipped steady eddy calm demeanor is like Liz Taylor facing off against a Richard Burton loaded up on Prozac. That spins off into a murder mystery when he returns from a trip to the city to find the raving wife gone and his paintings all slashed to shreds. Then those children of the fields become key players in Ladd’s plot to save himself and find his wife’s true killer. The kids are those types of overly emotive ‘50s era stage kids that come off as super-creepy-too-perfect and director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) dotes on them a bit too much. A truly strange off kilter film that may have been motivated by writer Reginald Roses’ (12 Angry Men) interest in larger issues like those surrounding the themes of class, race and art versus commerce, but in the end boils down to an overwrought freaky hybrid where the NYC stage meets a whodunnit in a low-budget Children of the Damned. (Mike S. Ryan)

Mamachas Del Ring

Mamachas del Ring (2009) — Set in the surreal and spectacular world of cholita wrestling, in which indigenous Bolivian women fight each other WWF-style dressed in traditional petticoats and bowler hats, Betty M. Park’s doc follows Carmen Rosa la Campeona, a force of nature and the sport’s biggest star, as she fights back against godfather-like impresario Don Juan Mamani, organizing her own tour after he kicks her out of his league. Park goes deep into Carmen Rosa’s troubled psyche, as she stands up to the apathy and betrayals of her comrades—and mounting pressure from her family to give up her passion for wrestling. (Paul Sbrizzi)
Trouble the Water (2008) — In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, co-directors Tia Lessin and Carl Deal went to New Orleans to make a film about U.S. forces returning from Iraq to their new deployment in an underwater city. What they found instead—or what found them—was Katrina survivor Kimberly Rivers Roberts, a self-proclaimed “street hustler” and rapper looking to broadcast the footage she shot during the storm. “This needs to be worldwide,” she told the filmmakers. “Ain’t nobody got what I got.” That sense of urgency pervades all of the footage she shot during the hurricane. The result is Trouble The Water, a riveting documentary comprised of Roberts’ footage, broadcast material, and 16mm shot by Lessin and Deal. (Daniel Scott)
NETFLIX: Streaming/Rental
David Holzman’s Diary (1967) — Recently at Fandor‘s Keyframe blog, I wrote an essay about my own personal connection to Jim McBride’s seminal debut feature. This is the opening excerpt: “Like most folks who weren’t raised in cinematically enlightened environments, I discovered Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary while in film school (this was the early 1990s). It really spun me. McBride’s concept was so smartly executed that even though I knew it was a work of fiction and understood that my teacher’s main purpose in presenting it to us was to spark a discussion about the film’s fiction/nonfiction ethics, I couldn’t get past my visceral reaction of wondering what could possibly make this David Holzman guy think that pointing the camera at himself and filming his own boring life was an even somewhat good idea. Having just revisited it for the first time since then, 15 or so years later, David Holzman’s Diary has revealed itself to be an even more indelible work.” Read the rest of it here. (Michael Tully)
FANDOR: Stream
GREENCINE: Rent (available August 16, 2011)


(NOTE: This is a reposting of an old list but it never gets old so we’re reminding you of it once again!)
In order to celebrate this 4th of July weekend, we thought we’d publish a new HTN list for your reading pleasure. Yet rather than paying a more blatantly direct tribute to that specifically American holiday, we decided to pick a topic that still screams 4th of July while also allowing for us to expand our horizons.
No, not flags (though maybe we’ll save that for next year). And, no, not hot dogs either (as that would almost certainly yield too long of a list). This year, we’ve decided to focus our attention on a much brighter, flashier, flamboyant symbol of Independence Day. That’s right, you guessed it: fireworks! As is the case with all of our lists—which we intend to begin publishing more frequently, we promise—this is in no way meant to be taken as a definitive statement. In fact, we are hoping to spark all of you faithful readers into action (pun intended) and get you to add your own favorite examples of fireworks in movies in the comments section below. So please contribute and have a very happy weekend!
Adventureland (Greg Mottola) — Again, I recognize it as self-serving but I will always love both Adventureland’s firework kisses and the bottle rockets on the hill as they both give me chills, capturing the romantic notion of glory—that never reaches its ultimate desire—and its inevitable end. And hey, it is the 4th of July in the movie too! (Ted Hope)
Avalon (Barry Levinson) — Levinson’s semi-autobiographical memory film begins with the arrival of Sam Krichinsky, a young Polish Jew, at Ellis Island on the Fourth of July. As he takes his first steps onto American soil, the air explodes with slow-motion fireworks, and he looks around him in wonder. I haven’t seen the film since it was released, when I was in high school, and can hardly remember anything else that happens in it, but this image of immigrant optimism remains fixed indelibly in my mind. (Nelson Kim)
Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson) — Anderson’s debut feature isn’t included in this list based on its title alone. For those who don’t remember, there are actual bottle rockets on display, as the trio of hapless burglars celebrate their first “big score” and subsequent running from the law by stopping off at a roadside fireworks stand and shooting bottle rockets out of their moving car like the overgrown children that they are. (Note: This remains my favorite Anderson film by a wide margin.) (Michael Tully)
Dance Party USA (Aaron Katz) — There are some lovely mini-DV fireworks in Dance Party USA. (Lena Dunham)
Fireworks (Kenneth Anger) — While still in his late teens, Anger conceived, directed, edited, and starred in this 15-minute psychodrama—a landmark in American avant-garde filmmaking, and a seminal (in more ways than one, yuk yuk yuk) classic of queer cinema. At a time when his sexuality was widely considered a perversion of nature and a criminal offense, Anger had the courage to put his deepest private fantasies on screen; the wit to treat them objectively, so to speak, and humorously; and the artistry to render them in gorgeous images that still have the power to amaze, nearly sixty years later. Oh, and the only shot of actual fireworks in the film is one of the great dick jokes in the history of cinema. (NK)
fireworksfeaturedThe Guatemalan Handshake
(Todd Rohal) — Not only does Rohal’s wildly inventive picture climax with a truly delightful fireworks display, but fireworks also play a vital role in sparking that climax, helping to solve one of the film’s many strange mysteries. (MT)
Manhattan (Woody Allen) —The opening sequence, set to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” as fireworks light up the sky. Black-and-white but perfect. (Tom Hall)
Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese) — No actual fireworks are shown, but Michael (the aspiring wiseguy) and Tony (the bar owner) scam the Riverdale kids who come downtown looking to score some. “You got sparklers?” “Yes.” “Cherry bombs?” “Yes… Now, what we’re gonna do is, we’re gonna let you out right on that corner and we’re gonna come back for you… We’ll be back in about 30 minutes.” (NK)
Meet Joe Black (Martin Brest) — For me, though it’s not indie, a shout out should go to Meet Joe Black. It was hell for me but we had the Gauchi brothers, who do the NYC 4th of July fireworks, shoot off a massive amount of fireworks as close to the ground as possible for twenty nights. They spent close to $200,000 every night… it’s in the climax scene at the party so maybe people can fast forward if they just want to watch fireworks rather than a bloated overlong film. The experience for me ruined all interest in fireworks. (Mike S. Ryan)
Summertime (David Lean) — Frigid, moralistic Katherine Hepburn drops her 16mm camera for Rosanno Brazzi’s arms and kicks off her flame-shaped red heels while fireworks tell the rest of that wild night in Venice. (Cullen Gallagher)
To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock) — The French Riviera, a high-class hotel, a dark room, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant on the divan—the classic sex metaphor is obviously called for in this scenario, and Hitch doesn’t skimp on the explosions, either. (CG)
Wonderland (Michael Winterbottom) — As Michael Nyman’s astoundingly great score fills the soundtrack, a young boy wanders alone through a crowded nighttime fair, his innocent, wide eyes admiring the fireworks on display before a mugging makes him see a different brand of flashing stars. (MT)
(This clip cuts out at the 1:10 mark but it’s still very worth watching.)

Zodiac (David Fincher) — A menacing, sweeping shot set against the bay, fireworks in the distance… (TH)
There’s a really amazing episode of a canceled Nickelodeon show called Cousin Skeeter (who remembers this puppet-filled Cosby ripoff from the late ‘90s? No one? Ok, cool) in which the puppet voiced by Bill Bellamy believes he and his lady friend have amazing chemistry because he saw fireworks when they kissed—but it turns out that they were just standing near some ACTUAL fireworks! (LD)
Of course, the Opening Credits of Love, American Style. (TH)


Netflix Hidden Gems: Park City Special
High Art (1998) —1998 was probably my favorite year for American indies. There were so many solid, small films. Movies like I Shot Andy Warhol, Buffalo ’66, Safe Men. Probably my favorite was Whatever by Susan Skoog. Liza Weil gave one of the great growing up performances ever in that movie. Alas, that one ain’t on Netflix. So I’ll go to maybe my second favorite Sundancer from that year: High Art. Lisa Cholodenko was still a little too neat for me as a director—but not so anal retentive and cartoony as The Kids Are All Right. High Art captured a very specific world—whether you liked the world or not. And it was a world I’d never seen on film. And it was Patricia Clarkson as a German heroin addict lesbian former model. And it was the classy Susan A. Stover producing. And it was Ally Sheedy in the shadows. (Noah Buschel)
13 Tzameti (2005) — Georgian filmmaker Géla Babluani’s noir thriller/shocker won the Jury Prize in the 2005 Sundance World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Sébastien, played by the director’s brother Georges in a fabulous performance, embarks on a nightmarish journey into a violent underworld where men’s lives are like so many poker chips laid out on a green felt table. The young man leads a simple, quiet life, but when he comes upon a set of mysterious instructions intended for someone else, he goes along for the ride. Beautifully shot, riveting, heart-stopping, brave. (Note of caution: There is an American remake of this film from 2008 called 13—why, why, why, why, why???—starring Mickey Rourke and Jason Statham. And 50 Cent, for goodness’ sakes. Please do not see this version.) (Pamela Cohn)
Chameleon Street (1989) — Wendell B. Harris’ Chameleon Street, a diabolically funny, ripped from the headlines, nearly forgotten Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, reveals a black consciousness as messy, hysterical, and laden with the unspoken burdens of otherness as those that belong to most of the black folks I know. Which is also to say that Harris gave us, in the form of William Douglas Street, the con man who impersonated a Time Magazine reporter, Ivy League student, appellate lawyer and gynecological surgeon, one of the most unforgettable characters to grace American movie screens in the past quarter century. Charming and unrepentant, Street gets lost in his various masks, but even when he’s caught, he never fully lets on to the low simmer resentment than swims just underneath the surface of this formally audacious, wholeheartedly entertaining yarn. He’s just too debonair to be a victim, too singular to be an archetype, too righteous to be Flint, Michigan’s black answer to Tom Ripley. (Brandon Harris)
No End In Sight (2007) — Charles Ferguson’s 2007 documentary about the calamitous mismanagement of the Iraq war walloped audiences in Park City, where it won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. At the time, this felt like the quintessential film about US presence in Iraq under the Bush Administration, and four years and countless war documentaries later, No End In Sight remains among the most essential. (Holly Herrick) ***STREAM IT NOW***
Moon (2009) — An elegant and psychological sci-fi film about loneliness, Moon features Sam Rockwell as a dutiful space-age employee of a lunar station used for mining helium that is converted into clean energy back on earth. He keeps sane through the company of GERTY, a cutely primitive but empathetic A.I. robot, and frequent calls back to his family on earth. The film takes a sharp and creepy twist when he discovers clones of himself on the moon and has to confront the veracity of his own existence. Director Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie) wrote the lead role for Rockwell, who does an incredible job acting against multiples of himself. (Susanna Locascio) ***STREAM IT NOW***
Daughter from Danang (2002) — A mother and daughter reunite after 30 years of separation. Their attempt to reconcile the demands of cultural, familial, and individual differences meet head-on inside conflicted cultures. Tension is ripe, and the outcome is implosive in the most honest way possible. Kudos is given to the filmmakers for knowing when to keep recording, and when to turn off the camera. Profound ambivalence contrasts with firm commitment at the ending of the story. Resolution ain’t easy. Winner of Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. (David Redmon) ***STREAM IT NOW***
The Daytrippers (1996) — Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Slamdance Film Festival, Greg Mottola’s feature-length debut remains one of my very favorite indie films from that, or any other, era. Mottola expertly threads the line between comedy and drama, and he gets consistently excellent performances from his accomplished cast (Hope Davis, Stanley Tucci, Parker Posey, Anne Meara, Pat McNamara). The Daytrippers is as messy and alive as real life. (Michael Tully) ***STREAM IT NOW***


With the end of 2010 comes the neat-o realization that we’re about to turn four years old at Hammer To Nail. And while it’s already becoming a pattern for us to say something similar to what we’re about to say right now, it’s true: Reading over this list makes it abundantly clear that truly independent American narrative cinema is as alive and thriving as it’s ever been. Though that doesn’t solve another persistent question that we can’t keep from constantly considering: How can we help to widen the viewership of the “smaller” movies that we love? That’s why we started HTN: to let the world know about these less publicized (and much less fiscally supported) films. Our hope is that you, faithful reader, will continue to frequent the site and spread the word. In 2011, we’re going to keep things moving forward, and while we are going to remain experts when it comes to the micro/low/mini-budget realm, we are also determined to keep writing about the best, most ambitious viewing out there, whether it be a foreign film, a documentary, or even a big studio work.
To clarify, here are our general voting parameters:
1) American narrative features produced for one million dollars or less.
2) The film had its first public exhibition—theatrically, VOD, DVD—in said calendar year.
3) No HTN contributor is allowed to vote for a film in which they have a cast/crew credit (to that end, no, Ms. Lena Dunham did not vote for Tiny Furniture; in fact, she didn’t vote at all this year).
That’s about it. After much deliberation, we’ve decided to not hand out a Golden Hammer and Silver Nail award this year. Not because there weren’t excellent candidates. We just thought it would be nice to focus on the films themselves and not contribute even more tumbling snow to the increasingly icky “awards” avalanche that happens at this time every year.
Thanks for reading, congratulations to the filmmakers mentioned below, and let’s keep up the good work in 2011, everybody!

13. Holy Rollers (Kevin Asch, 22 points)
On paper, Holy Rollers sounds like one of those movies that could go wrong in so many different ways it doesn’t seem possible that it won’t. But from the very first frame of Kevin Asch’s debut feature, there’s a feeling in the air that this one just might be different. It is. Holy Rollers is an unexpected treat that rises above its superficial trappings thanks to assured filmmaking, a healthy dose of unforced humor, and a whole lot of actual heart. Oh yeah, and not to mention a performance by Jesse Eisenberg that is as impressive as his work in The Social Network. (Michael Tully) HTN REVIEW

12. The Freebie (Katie Aselton, 23 points)
The main characters of The Freebie, Darren (Dax Shepard) and Annie (Katie Aselton), are in a stable seven-year relationship built on love, trust, and communication. While they have fun together and really love one other, they also opt out of sex for crossword puzzle races. After realizing how many months it’s been since they’ve made love, they come up with an idea: one night of freedom to sleep with whoever they want, no strings attached. They hope a “freebie” will be the cure they need… but whether or not they can go through with it is a different story. Like many other m-word movies, The Freebie is a true collaboration between those involved, but this is especially true when it comes to the director, DP and editor. (Alexandra Roxo) HTN CONVERSATION

11. Easier With Practice (Kyle Patrick Alvarez, 26 points)
In his feature film debut as a writer/director, Kyle Patrick Alvarez and his team have delivered a top-notch production every step of the way. Easier With Practice looks good, sounds good, and is extremely well acted. But what distinguishes this low budget effort from so many others on the festival circuit is not just the story Alvarez tells, but how he tells it. Beginning with a catchy—dare I say quirky—hook (based on the GQ article “What Are You Wearing?”), he gradually, deceptively draws viewers into a more joltingly personal place. By the conclusion, you’ll wonder how Alvarez managed to go from there to here, and you’ll be all the more surprised and impressed because of it. (MT) HTN REVIEW

10. The New Year (Brett Haley, 30 points)
Brett Haley’s The New Year is a modest little number in just about every way, from its meager budget (just under 10k) to its understated performances to its graceful handling of material that could have so easily devolved into maudlin made-for-TV schlock. Which is what makes it such a pleasant surprise. Why is it that so many young writer/directors feel a burning urge to amp up the drama and conflict in their stories to implausible degrees, producing work that shows filmmaking talent but lacks real world maturity? To his credit, Haley isn’t interested in those stylistic and emotional pyrotechnics. He is more concerned with telling an honest story, trusting that his audiences will respond to the sincerity of his cause. (MT) HTN REVIEW

9. Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench (Damien Chazelle, 32 points)
Harvard grad Damien Chazelle’s debut has no need for exposition or forced accessibility, and yet it’s not esoteric in the slightest. It’s meant to pass over you like a calm spring day in the park, with a few jokes, some sterling almost-but-not-quite-bitter observations, and more than a fair share of fun. While obviously a throwback (you won’t be able to help thinking of Breathless, Bing Crosby and early Cassavetes), one hopes it’s a harbinger of things to come, a bebop tinged DIY mumblemusical that, despite its New Wave-esque 16mm B&W aesthetic, is very much a movie of this time and moment. (Brandon Harris) HTN REVIEW

8. The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray, 41 points)
In The Exploding Girl, our viewing experience is controlled through writer/director Bradley Rust Gray’s framing, lighting, sound design, and editing. Rather than solely through dialogue and acting, it’s the moments between the mumble and chatter where the drama of The Exploding Girl is located. Unlike most mumblecore films, this is a visual experience, conveyed through a camera perspective that is similar to Hou Hsiao-hsien’s ‘invisible observer’ perspective, which allows the characters’ state of instability to resonate so strongly. The Exploding Girl’s drama is centered in those awkward off-balance moments fully because the filmmaker is confident enough to stretch beyond naturalism and explore the unspoken through oblique camera angles, foregrounded sound design, as well as the skillful, articulate staging of actors. (Mike S. Ryan) HTN REVIEW

7. You Won’t Miss Me (Ry Russo-Young, 45 points)
Ry Russo-Young’s follow-up to Orphans features a tour-de-force performance by Stella Schnabel, who plays Shelly Brown, an early 20-something who has just been released from psychiatric care to return to life in downtown New York City. As Shelly bounces from encounter to encounter and goes through the motions of trying to be an actress, it becomes difficult to tell if she is truly on the brink of insanity or if she’s just an abnormally intense young person grappling with the troubles of early adulthood. Russo-Young’s mixed media approach further mimics Shelly’s hyper-intense mental state and turns an otherwise typical portrait into something artful, layered, and dynamic. It’s one of the year’s best independent films. (MT) HTN CONVERSATION

6. Low and Behold (Zach Godshall, 58 points)
Though it wowed me after watching it in conjunction with its world premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, I sense that Low and Behold will only get better with age. Not only is it a striking time capsule of post-Katrina New Orleans; on a filmmaking level, it’s one of the more unique hybrid films to emerge in early 21st century American indie cinema. On the one hand, it unfolds like a traditional work of fiction, in which a timid insurance claims adjuster, Turner Stull (co-writer Barlow Jacobs), arrives in New Orleans and forms an unlikely bond with a local man, Nixon (Eddie Rouse), who is searching for his lost dog. On the other hand, it plays like a straight-up documentary, as Godshall, Jacobs, and cinematographer Daryn Deluco take the time to stop and interview actual residents who share their own personal tales of survival and recovery. (MT) HTN REVIEW

5. Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker, 67 points)
It’s hard to make more astute observations about the work of writer/director Sean Baker than the ones that have been made in piece after piece about his last film, Take Out. But, with the coming of his next work, I’m going to try. His latest, Prince of Broadway, is the simple story of a self-proclaimed Ghanaian hustler whose life is turned upside down when his ex-girlfriend Linda stiffs him with their baby to raise. But in the hands of an intelligent and witty filmmaker like Baker, Prince of Broadway is anything but simple. It’s as if Baker could find the drama of a wall being painted and make it kinetic, unexpected and cinematically original with a pixel-vision camera. (Michael Lerman) HTN REVIEW and CONVERSATION

4. Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, 69 points)
Lena Dunham’s follow-up to Creative Nonfiction isn’t just a major leap forward. It’s like a rocket launch to a bigger and brighter planet. For those of you who have been pining away for Whit Stillman’s return, Dunham is here to scratch that itch in a major way. Aspiring romantic comedy makers, please study this film. Dunham’s first brilliant stroke was to work with 2009 Silver Nail winner Jody Lee Lipes, who shot this film on the Canon 7D—technically a still camera—but has somehow made it look like The Graduate. But removing that vital element from the equation, Dunham delivers a sharply written comedy that uses pop culture references in a way that is never overly hip or gratingly snappy. This is dangerous terrain, to be sure, but Tiny Furniture is a reminder that, if done appropriately, this genre can be artistically invigorating. It is the very real deal. (MT)

3. Daddy Longlegs (Josh and Benny Safdie, 71 points)
It’s clear every step of the way that Josh and Benny Safdie didn’t make this movie to come to any resolute determinations about their shared past, or were never working toward a yay-or-nay conclusion about Lenny’s character. They understand that good people do bad things, that mean people can be funny, that the world can be both hilarious and tragic. And that is what perhaps best exemplifies the artistic vision of the Safdie Brothers. Theirs is a world blooming with strange contradictions, in which fantasy fuses with reality, humor overlaps with sadness, innocence coalesces with awareness, and childlike wonderment rides on a subway car next to a ball of teeming, adult stress. Come to think of it, that sounds like a fitting description of New York City itself. (MT) HTN REVIEW

2. Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine, 78 points)
Trying to erase Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers from one’s mind is like trying to scrub graffiti off a brick wall with a diaper and some spit. This alternately hilarious and haunting ode to a recent-but-bygone pop-cultural tradition might very well be Korine’s purest act of creative expression yet. Abandoning the lush, sweeping formalism of his last feature, Mister Lonely, Korine has expectorated a proudly deformalistic American trashterpiece. (MT) HTN REVIEW and CONVERSATION

1. NY Export: Opus Jazz (Jody Lee Lipes and Henry Joost, 88 points)
The brainchild of New York City Ballet dancers Ellen Bar and Sean Suozzi, NY Export: Opus Jazz is a dazzling modern retelling of acclaimed choreographer Jerome Robbins’s 1958 ballet—moodily scored by Robert Prince—which stands as a more boldly abstract companion piece to Robbins’s more widely heralded, and narrative driven, West Side Story. In updating Robbins’s “ballet in sneakers” for modern dancers in modern times, Bar and Suozzi—in collaboration with co-directors Jody Lee Lipes and Henry Joost—have transposed this spectacle to the streets of New York City. By doing this, not only have they made a convincing argument for their increasingly marginalized art form; more impressively, they have paid tribute to their source master by proving that, fifty years later, his work is as vital and robust as ever. (MT) HTN REVIEW and SET REPORT
Other Films Receiving Votes (In Alphebetical Order):
Audrey the Trainwreck
Bass Ackwards
Breaking Upwards (HTN REVIEW)
Entre Nos
Flooding With Love For The Kid (HTN REVIEW)
Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then
The Happy Poet
Helena From The Wedding (HTN REVIEW)
The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle
The Juche Idea (HTN REVIEW)
Lovers of Hate
Modern Love Is Automatic (HTN REVIEW)
Night Catches Us
Open Five (HTN REVIEW)
Red, White & Blue
(Contributors: Pamela Cohn, Tom Hall, Brandon Harris, Holly Herrick, David Lowery, David Redmon, Alexandra Roxo, Mike S. Ryan, Ashley Sabin, Michael Tully)


WORK Series: Sheriff (2006) and Musician (2007) — Since “work” is the theme this month, where better to start than with the first two installments of the WORK Series by Daniel Kraus?
The protector calms us when we’re alarmed and alarms us when we’re calm, shocks us out of complacency and placates us when what we fear is not all that bad. Ronald E. Hewitt, the titular lawman in Sheriff, disarms the ever-leaned-in news media (their cameras pose nude for Kraus’s stealthier camera) by delivering matter-of-fact monologues about apprehended perpetrators and their felonies of choice. Kraus said he decided to make this film when he saw Hewitt walk out of a flaming building with a baby in one hand and a shotgun in the other and begin addressing the assembled newscasters without stopping for breath—and that is indeed the man at the center of this film. We might distrust his keen ability to master a spectacle of horror, but when it comes to law enforcement Hewitt embodies an unexpected pick-your-battles fairness. That nudist colony over yonder does not facilitate dangerous crimes but backroom gambling does—so goes his earnest negotiation with a Bible Belt constituency as he kneads the pulpit at a small church during its civic duty hours.
Ken Vandermark, a less oratorically gifted Musician, doesn’t vamp. In at least one scene words are pried from him (one wonders if Vandermark’s deadpan modesty is the exception in the WORK Series, as the other film/job titles are Preacher and Professor). He’s academic enough to engage young listeners with proselytic pedagogy but also lugs heavy equipment down dark narrow hallways—we’re reminded that musicians must at times be as invisible as janitors. Kraus allows a moment of tendentious comment to intrude behind Vandermark’s back as he reveals that the musician’s largely unseen wife pays the bills, feeds the dog and takes out the trash while the important artist travels abundantly. Vandermark (and Kraus) both know there is a kind of music which can only matter when performed live: though it may be adequately bottled by multisensory depiction (e.g., a documentary film), it’s not intended for albums or radios. In such cases we aren’t listening to the music but to the musician, and being present is the point. Vandermark’s final performance in the 58-minute film sounds like some ancient thing breaking, dying; a biblical scourge; the slow destruction of a seafaring vessel. The aggressively atonal “music” calls to mind Joyce Carol Oates’s seditious remark about experimental fiction—that it provides joy for the author alone. Well, in so many cases I bask in that author’s joy and require nothing else.
Are these sheriffs and musicians exemplary in their respective fields (the musician doesn’t do drugs, much to the disappointment of Canadian border cops) or simply amenable to being on camera? Documentaries of this kind need merely to be visually competent, and rough-hewn is perfectly acceptable. That they are visually interesting is hard to believe. Kraus employs devices which preclude any serious application of the term “vérité,” but such departures are liberating. Besides: from the beginning “cinéma vérité” was a useless phrase, a lovely and euphoric lie. (Alejandro Adams)
On the Waterfront (1954) — This Kazan/Brando film ends with the words “Let’s go to work!” Brando has just taken down the mob and given power back to the union. It’s a film about having the right to be honest. To make an honest living. To sweat. Perhaps there is no greater horror then when a man takes away another man’s right to make an effort. (Noah Buschel’s Unhidden Gem) ***STREAM IT***
Guilty By Suspicion (1991) — What happens when the government takes away one’s right to work? Robert De Niro finds out the hard way in this modest but powerful little movie. A big time Hollywood director, he thinks he’s untouchable. But the blacklisting touches everyone. He can either sell out his friends or never direct another film again. “All I ever wanted to do was make movies,” squints Deniro as his dreams are torn apart by his conscience. (Noah Buschel’s Hidden Gem) ***STREAM IT***
Secretary (2002) — Work it, girl! The always-wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her first starring role, lets her inner masochistic passion loose in this artfully directed small indie by Steven Shainberg. The script by Erin Cressida Wilson is sublime. The also always-wonderful James Spader (his picture should be next to the word wry in the dictionary) plays the S to her M. Successful lawyer Spader promptly hires the recently released young mental hospital patient as his secretary, even though she has absolutely no experience, after she answers his ad: “The law offices of E. Edward Grey, ESQ. requires a secretary who is open to a hands-on disciplinary approach.” The perfect admixture of humor and eroticism, this film makes the idea of working in an office from 9 to 5 quite appealing. (Pamela Cohn)
Innocence (2004) — Before she was a household name, Marion Cotillard (Inception) starred in Innocence, a staggeringly beautiful coming-of-age fable by Lucile Hadzihalilovic (the wife of French enfant terrible Gaspar Noé). Hadzihalilovic’s visionary story is set in an isolated girl’s boarding school where the tropes of womanhood have been transformed into a series of mysterious rituals that shape the flow of the days. But what pleasures exist beyond the school’s walls? Filmed in lusciously saturated colors that accentuate the film’s girls-eye view of a fairy-tale universe, Innocence is a stunning work by a major artist. (Tom Hall)
Office SpaceNote: As he’s embroiled in production on his first feature, Mr. Harris has not supplied a description to justify his pick. That said, does Office Space really need an explanation? (Brandon Harris)
Working Girls (1986) —Welcome to a typical day in a Manhattan brothel in 1986. Lizzie Borden’s film follows a “working girl” named Molly who is a lesbian with two degrees from Yale and the same cropped haircut my mom had in 1986. She wears a shapeless azure colored sweater dress and control top panty hose throughout the film making her look much more like a school guidance counselor than a prostitute. Nevertheless she has about eight clients in one day! She and three other Manhattan women wait around all day for clients in an immaculate and expensive apartment eating burgers, reading magazines, making runs for more Trojans, and complaining about their Madame until the doorbell rings and a man says, “I’ll take her.” Molly patiently spanks a lawyer, role plays with a doctor, and provides companionship with a smile. This successful, yet controversial, film premiered at Cannes in the Director’s Fortnight, won best feature at Sundance and was distributed by Miramax. Award winning feminist director Lizzie Borden (Born In Flames) spent six months interviewing real prostitutes for a genuine, non-glamorized peek into an ancient profession that never ceases to be a hot topic. Borden’s brilliant choice in the surprise ending made my jaw drop. First Run Features distributed it on DVD with a commentary track by Borden, as well as cinematographer Julie Irola. (Alexandra Roxo) ***STREAM IT***
Newsfront (1978) — The story of Australian newsreel photographers in the tumultuous forties and fifties, Phillip Noyce’s film is an intimate drama, a sweeping record of social change, and above all, a film that celebrates honest work, craftsmanship, and dedication. (Tom Russell)
Take Out (2008) — Work is pretty much always a grind, but if you’re an illegal Chinese immigrant who has one day to pay off an outstanding debt and your only source of income is delivering Chinese food to thankless, over-privileged New Yorkers, that work day seems much longer. Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou’s outstanding micro-budget drama is modern Neo-Realism at its finest. When I saw it at the time, I said I’d never look at Chinese deliverymen the same way again. Two years, and several hundred movies, later, Take Out still hasn’t faded from my mind. (Michael Tully) ***STREAM IT***
Ninotchka (1939) — The Lubitsch Touch in full effect. Like drinking champagne with your funniest friend. Billy Wilder’s script is deep and true and hilarious. More modern than anything in theaters today. And Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas have chemistry supreme. It’s simply as elegant and fun as movies get. A film that actually makes you high. (Noah Buschel)
Death to Smoochy (2002) — This is one of those films that divides the men from the boys, but I think it’s one of the funniest and sharpest satires out there. You do need to like your comedy on the dark side, however. Danny DeVito directs Robin Williams, Edward Norton and Catherine Keener in this hilarious flick that depicts the cutthroat world of kid’s TV. Popular host Rainbow Randolph (Williams, in a role that earned him a Razzie nomination for worst actor), is a corrupt in-it-for-the-money, high-living host of a popular show for children. When he’s fired by the network for receiving payola, he is replaced by “the son of Barney,” a cuddly, sweet purple rhino named Smoochy (Norton). The revenge plot plays out like some of the best Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote smackdowns out there. I haven’t seen it in a while, to be honest, but I remember throwing it onto one of my “best of” lists immediately after watching it for the first time. It’s odd, bizarre—did I mention dark?—and incredibly entertaining. It only registers a 42 on the ever-reliable Tomatometer, so if that’s your litmus test for what’s good out there, you’ve been forewarned. For other adventurous viewers, give it a whirl. Goes great with frozen mini pizzas, bagel bites and strawberry margaritas. (Pamela Cohn)
Lisa Picard is Famous (2000) — Directed by Griffin Dunne, this mockumentary is about a delusional New York City actress who thinks she’s teetering on the edge of the big time when in fact she’s teetering on the edge of sanity. An examination of show business’s underbelly is one of my fave genres (top picks include The Player, Living in Oblivion, Celebrity, and Ellie Parker) and this one does something particular, odd, and ticklishly funny. It’s Sunset Boulevard meets the oblivious everyman humor of The Office. Laura Kirk is a total revelation, and she wrote it too. (Lena Dunham)
Beeswax (2009) — In Beeswax, Andrew Bujalski focuses on a pair of twin sisters (Meg and Tilly Hatcher), one of whom is crippled and co-owns a thrift shop that she feels she has too much responsibility for, the other an attractive post-collegiate freelancer who’s just broken up with an older man and is drifting toward various opportunities. Bujalski uses color expressively at times, but generally he has refined his rough hewn, Eric-Rohmer-gone-all-DIY aesthetic only slightly; what makes Beeswax special are elements that have already been strong in his previous films getting even better. His casting is perfect and his ear for contemporary post-collegiate vernacular among the pale is without par. He gets a performance out of fellow filmmaker Alex Karpovsky (who was much less funny in Bob Byington’s nearly unwatchable Harmony and Me), playing the dual romantic foil for the two sisters, which is worthy of vintage Albert Brooks. The Hatcher sisters are incredibly warm and appealing screen personas. The dynamics that exist between them are often unpredictable, never malicious and always fun to watch. Beeswax is ultimately about the ways in which adulthood forces us to reconcile our own desires with those of others, subject matter that’s hinted at in Bujalski’s first couple of films, but given a fully textured rendering here. He delivers plenty of trademark awkward laughs that hinge on his performers’ lack of verbal dexterity, but also suggests, without being mawkish and without losing his cool, legitimate depth of feeling for the first time. (Brandon Harris) ***STREAM IT***
His Girl Friday (1940) — Yes, I know: surely I could have picked something less safe than this screwball-comedy chestnut. Something that hasn’t been canonized as an old-Hollywood classic, or endlessly picked to death by hordes of film critics, historians, and theorists. No doubt Fletch would be a better representative of my generational tastes, and Putney Swope would win me more indie-cred points. Eff all that. This is the movie that makes me laugh the most. When Rosalind Russell announces her presence in Cary Grant’s office, my head starts tingling, and once the bullet-train dialogue hits full speed, I feel like I’ve just inhaled all the nitrous oxide in the world. (Nelson Kim) ***STREAM IT***
Shampoo (1975) — My first viewing of Hal Ashby’s comic masterpiece coincided with my first visit to Los Angeles. I didn’t have a car, didn’t know my way around town, and didn’t have anything to do; and so after an initial attempt at making my way somewhere, anywhere, on foot, I retired to the couch I was crashing on and randomly picked a VHS copy of Shampoo off the shelf and popped it in. And so it was that my memory of my first trip to Hollywood is comprised of amazing hair, casual husbandry, too much sunlight and the sort of prolapsed comic timing that gives every punchline the rest of the film’s running time (and then some) to sink in and get funnier. Ashby’s approach feels so casual that it’s easy to forget how biting the picture really is. Given that he and screenwriter Robert Towne set the story squarely within the final 24 hours of LBJ’s presidency, it’s tempting to apply all the sexual ups and downs of its hairdresser protagonist George Roundy (Warren Beatty) to a more broadly social canvas, but let’s not discount what a profoundly realized character George really is, nor how handily he seduces us alongside the trophy wives and starlets and teenage sex fiends. We want to love him, and to dismiss his dalliances, just as his many paramours do. That we ultimately can’t is just the sort of indictment that Ashby always made loud and clear, and it’s this caustic edge that has perhaps kept me from ever really trusting Los Angeles. I feel like I’ve got its number. (David Lowery) ***STREAM IT***
Birthday Girl (2001) — Jez Butterworth’s movie is the best kind of romantic comedy, because it presents two damaged, fucked-up people and says, Yes, even you are worthy of being loved. Sweet, dark, lovely and very funny. Miramax tried to sell it as a thriller; don’t be fooled. (Tom Russell) ***STREAM IT***
Parenthood (1989) — The first five minutes of Parenthood sell the title hard: kids singing about diarrhea, a naked four-year-old wearing a gun holster and cowboy hat to sleep, and a little girl projectile vomiting on her father. Made just one year after his hit Willow, Ron Howard’s follow-up chronicles the ups and downs of late ‘80s parenting. With an all-star cast including Steve Martin, Martha Plimpton, Keanu Reeves, Rick Moranis, and a tiny scene stealing Joaquin Pheonix as an angsty adolescent, 21 years later this comedy stills hold its own. (P.S. Whatever happened to Martha Plimpton? I miss her.) From daffy, toe-headed toddlers wreaking havoc to an always-funny Steve Martin using bath mats as chaps when dressing as a cowboy to save his son’s birthday party to the Keanu Reeves who can incite a laugh by galumphing into a room, speaking in his slow, surfer drawl, this film will make even those with no interest in child-rearing enjoy this classic comedy. (Alexandra Roxo) ***STREAM IT***
Superstarlet A.D. (2000) — This super micro-budget black-and-white post-apocalyptic saga is by the king of Memphis pulp, Mike McCarthy, whose current film Cigarette Girl is just starting to hit the festival circuit. Superstarlet A.D. features buxom women roaming bombed out Memphis streets on horses while carrying large guns as the men cower in the shadows. It’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! meets Mad Max in Memphis. Shot for a pittance on real old-school film stock, McCarthy has told me stories about shooting (without any permits) in abandoned Memphis neighborhoods where the cops would pull up and not even get out of their cars as they watched the topless women ride around on horseback. A modern-day drive-in classic. (Mike S. Ryan) ***STREAM IT ONLY***
Nuts in May (1976) — This might be my favorite of Mike Leigh’s early made-for-BBC films—it might very well be my favorite out of so many favorites—in which a stuffy upper-class husband and wife decide to go on a camping trip and instead find themselves at war with a much less posh and refined couple in the tent next door. Leigh’s work has always been forcefully defined by his obsession with attacking England’s rigid class system, but the genius of his a work is that you don’t have to appreciate that to fall in love with a film as dramatically alive and brilliantly funny as this. (Michael Tully) ***STREAM IT***
Red Without Blue (2007) — This moving and fascinating film is the documentary feature début of Brooke Sebold, Benita Sills and Todd Sills. The directors spent three years with identical twin brothers, Mark and Alex Farley. The boys had both come out as gay in their early teens, but the heart of the film is how they come to terms with Alex’s decision to transition from male to female, becoming Mark’s sister, Clair. What’s most beautiful about this story is the unbreakable bond between the twins and their united front when talking about their past, particularly their relationships with their mother, Jennie, a woman who experiences her own transitions during the course of the film. Like transgender director Kim Reed’s portrayal of her life growing up in Montana in Prodigal Sons, the Farleys had what appeared to be a quintessential American small-town upbringing. But by the time they had reached adolescence, the family was suffering through divorce and the fallout from a joint suicide attempt that precipitated a forced separation of the boys for two and half years. Told with much sensitivity and a strong cinematic voice by the directors, this is a hidden gem that should definitely be re-discovered. (Pamela Cohn) ***STREAM IT***
Fugazi: Instrument (2001) — Few other music docs could even begin to hold a candle against Jem Cohen’s Fugazi: Instrument. Cohen is a long time friend and artistic collaborator with the legendary D.C. punk band (he provided photography and other artwork to some of the band’s albums). Instrument is an outgrowth of their relationship, culling together Super 8, 16mm, and video footage from their travels together. As innovative and formally exploratory as the band’s music, Instrument pushes the relationship between sound and image, forgoing clichéd notions of synchronicity and seeking a deeper, more tonally based synthesis. (Cullen Gallagher)
Crumb (1994) — Art can save lives. That is the most urgent notion one gracefully stumbles upon when reflecting on the life of R Crumb. Born in Philadelphia to a career military man and his amphetamine popping wife, the widely influential illustrator’s entire career has unfolded on the outskirts of the mainstream comics industry, in places like Cleveland, San Francisco and the South of France. No one can deny that the legendary artist is an iconoclast, LSD user, chronic masturbator, genius—especially those that have seen Terry Zwigoff’s stunningly penetrating look at this troubled, deeply perceptive and engagingly witty man, which is coming out this summer in a richly deserved Criterion edition. One of the gold standard’s of 1990s American documentary filmmaking (and the director’s last foray in documentary), the new edition includes the typical assortment of enticing extras one would expect, including fifty minutes of discarded footage, an essay on the film by longtime Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and a commentary track featuring Roger Ebert and Zwigoff. (Brandon Harris)
Deep Water (2006) — Summer is the best season to sit in a dark, air-conditioned room and watch others struggle for survival against the natural elements via your DVD player. If this sounds about right to you, then Louise Osmond and Jerry Rothwell’s Deep Water is your ticket to summertime movie satisfaction: a thrilling documentary that marries physical and psychological suspense in a story that is just as much man vs. nature as man vs himself. In short: a brilliant engineer and outdoor adventurer named Donald Crowhurst entered a 1969 solo sailing race to circumnavigate the globe in a ship of his own invention. With money and career on the line, the stakes were already sky-high before Crowhurst set off on this wildly treacherous experiment. (Holly Herrick) ***STREAM IT***
Powder (1995) — While of all the pictures to try and champion this one at first glance or remembering might seem the most laughable, I beg open minds to think again. If only as a guilty pleasure if it must be anything, this button-pusher from the same god-awful, wish you could forget them, family fable modern Faust/Christ/Rasputin school of stories that started as far back as Harvey, continued through Carpenter’s Starman, and brought us such refuse as Phenomenon, K-Pax, Sidekicks, City of Angels, and Forever Young, actually can brag a little more than the rest. If you can’t get off on the eccentricity of the casting, at least Sean Patrick Flannery as a bald, static electric, mystical albino on par with Bruno S. should spark your interest and respect hopefully. That is, if you can overlook the tabloid scandal surrounding the director Victor Salva’s previous exploits with children, and enjoy the good in anything, even in the face of a mostly disappointing world of work. (Evan Louison)
A Real Young Girl (1976) — This French coming of age tale is director Catherine Breillat at her best and most raw. Shot on grainy 16mm in 1976, A Real Young Girl is the story of an angsty boarding school teen coming back to her parent’s house in the country for one long summer. Former porn star Charlotte Alexandra plays the beautiful, pouty and terribly bored Alice, who cleans out her earwax with her fingers and slips her spoon into her panties before slurping her soup. Breillat’s first film is rough around the edges technically, but provides an uncensored peek into the fantasy life of a virginal teen, bored and on the brink of madness. We watch her find some very creative and often ridiculous ways of amusing herself, including a carnival ride where Alice sits next to a creepy dude that brings a horrific/hilarious twist to the “dick in a box” concept. (This scene can be YouTubed.) The film was banned in many countries and only released in theatres in 2000. In case this summer isn’t hot enough for you already… (Alexandra Roxo)
Into Great Silence (2005) —Two and a half hours of monks, doing monk stuff. Nothing more, nothing less. The result is a film that isn’t about a monastery, as director Philip Gröning so memorably put it, but is a monastery. The boldest experiment in film time and space in many a moon, and the freshest and yet the most mature documentary in an era in which documentaries are increasingly commodified and gussied-up to appeal to low attention spans. (Tom Russell) ***STREAM IT***
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009) — I was slow to watch this because director Ti West really ran it down to me that the whole film was so hung up in corporate limbo with Lionsgate not knowing how to release it, so I assumed Ti’s vision was neutered. In fact, Ti still feels it was and he says he wishes he could have used an Allen Smithee credit. It may not be the film Ti envisioned, but boy, is this a handful! Super gross out imagery like a closeup of a penis oozing puss and blood, lots of projectile blood vomit, fingernail pulls, fire extinguisher head bashing, sex with virgin fat girls, self amputation, the list goes on. But what is actually really cool about the film is that though it’s in the retro ’80s prom night horror movie genre it’s actually really well grounded with some sharply acted and staged high school awkward/paranoid clumsy geek scenes. The moments between lead Noah Segan and his pretty but smart and classy love interest Alexi Wasser are so honest and believable that they tilt the whole balance of the film toward the hyper-real and yet the gross out violence is so over the top the movie then seems to exist in this actual nightmare space of neo-magic realism. It’s a meta-horror film and yet it’s not a spoof or a satire; it’s more than a homage and yet it is very much a comedy. I don t know what it is but it’s something utterly unique. It’s Takashi Miike meets John Landis via Herschell Gordon Lewis, or something like that. If you can deal with the blood and gore, Cabin Fever 2 is a solid, fun film. (Mike S. Ryan)
At Close Range (1986) — This is one of those unheralded mid-1980s gems that shows its age in many ways, but boasts performances so commanding by Sean Penn and Christopher Walken that its climactic showdown still packs a serious wallop. James Foley’s drama is based on a true story about a Pennsylvania criminal whose sons got caught up in the crossfire. They are played here by real life brothers Sean and Chris (whose role takes on a greater weight in light of his tragic early demise). Madonna contributed the song “Live to Tell” to the cause, which provides the film with its recurring theme. It ain’t perfect, but it’s still mandatory viewing due to the burning intensity Walken and Penn, who are at their very, very best here. (Michael Tully)

A Shock To The System (1990) — Graham (Michael Caine) is a murderous advertising executive whose nagging wife (Swoosie Kurtz) won’t stop reminding him of his failures in this 1990 film that slipped under the radar most likely due to its intensely dark humor. When he accidentally commits a little murder, Graham is not punished, but rather his life and career are energized; not a message for the masses but hilarious and gripping. Unforgettable are Graham’s tete-a-tetes with the detective trying to catch him in a slip up, played by the great Will Patton. Their encounters are delicate dances that both of these heavyweight actors clearly relish.

The Twilight Samurai (2002) — Huge in Japan and nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, this is not the type of picture to garner much hype in America. Unlike most Samurai movies, it is not dominated by action but rather tells the tale of the everyday life of a poor, dirty, smelly and terribly unlucky low ranking Samurai. He works a boring job, is a good man who avoids conflict, and takes care of his ill mother and young daughters. Delicate scenes that would be instantly tedious in the hands of a mediocre director are somehow intensely compelling when handled by the master Yoji Yamada. But fear not, as the slow pacing will carefully build and lead to the encounter all fans of Samurai pictures crave; even if this one involves a bit of sitting around and talking while blood spills from open wounds. ***STREAM IT***
The Chocolate War (1988) — Keith Gordon’s surrealistic debut about the tough road faced by an anti-conformist was criticized for playing with the book’s ending and not delivering the author’s intent. But films cannot be slaves to their sources and the ending here is sufficiently complex. The plot revolves around a student’s dilemma when he refuses to follow orders and sell chocolates for the school. The secret society known as “The Vigils” is brought in to squash the rebellion. The music of the ’80s is a key layer, ending with memorable use of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill”. Like many great films, this one is dominated by the villain, Archie (Wallace Langham), an intellectual heavyweight who raises his nefarious deeds to the level of art as the leader of the Vigils’ campaign to reek havoc on the psyche of the rebel.
Elevator To The Gallows (1957) — As the great era of the film noir gets further and further behind us, classics like Double Indemnity or Touch Of Evil remain on best ever lists while lesser knowns are in danger of slipping away. In my campaign to watch them all, one that stayed with me is this 1957 Louis Malle classic. It follows the noir template: a bad decision and fate trap man in a web from which there is no escape. In this case it’s a faulty elevator that literally does the trapping. But this gem has two special elements: the visage of Jeanne Moreau and a score from Miles Davis that jazz critic Phil Johnson called “the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear and the model for sad-score music ever since. Hear it and weep.” Indeed. ***STREAM IT***
Groove: Requiem in the Key of Ski (1991) — This is quite simply the greatest ski film—no, not just ski but extreme sports film—ever made. It rises above the genre into the realm of art film with a political edge. The best athletes (Laird Hamilton windsurfing at 30knots with Iggy Pop belting out “Butt Town”), a sublime soundtrack ranging from Seal before anyone had heard of him to Ice-T, and a phenomenal show-stopping final segment of extreme off-piste skiing and boarding in the mountains of Alaska. The film asks: If the world is at war and falling apart, what should one do? Work for political change? Or disappear into the snow or surf and live a simple life enjoying the beauty of nature? There is no easy answer, though the Vietnam vet chopper pilot who ferries the athletes to the top of an Alaskan mountain long ago made his decision. (Special Note: The film no longer has its original soundtrack after Mr. Stump ran into some legal problems with regard to licensing.)
The Rachel Papers (1989) — Based upon the Martin Amis novel, this is a film about a precocious English lad, Charles Highway (Dexter Fletcher), who uses all his intellectual and technological prowess to woo women of all stripes. He falls for an American played by Ione Skye in her only real role other than Say Anything and falls in love with her. But old habits die hard. Will true love survive Charles’s persnickety attitude? Featuring performances from many notable names before they got big: James Spader, Jonathan Pryce and Michael Gambon. A great soundtrack and smooth, stylized imagery add to the potent mix.
Vernon, Florida (1981) — This is one of Oscar winning documentarian Errol Morris’s early films. He set out to meet and film the residents of Vernon, who, he had learned, had become known for severing their own digits and then filing insurance claims on the injuries. The film evolved to be about the town in general: a turkey hunter forever on the prowl, a couple who ‘grow’ sand in jars, a policeman who mans a speed trap where no one is ever in a hurry. Totally surreal and utterly gripping. ***STREAM IT***
Suture (1993) — In one of the great surrealistic Bunuelian casting ploys, half-brothers Clay (Dennis Haysbert – black) and Vincent (Michael Harris – white) approach one another and one says to the other: “Isn’t it remarkable how much we look alike?” No, they don’t, of course. But everyone else pretends they do, which is audacious and sets the tone for this psychological thriller/noir directed by Scott McGhee and David Siegel. The plot is a fun one in which one brother attempts to get away with the murder of their father, whilst pinning the crime on his sibling. It involves classic suspense elements of amnesia and a case of mistaken identity. It’s shot in black-and-white, is slick and smart, and oozes style and suspense.
Car Wash (1976) — With appearances by Richard Prior, George Carlin and Professor Irwin Corey, Car Wash is routinely thought of as a lightweight comedy. It’s funny, yes, but it’s also so much more, capturing a day-in-the-life of minorities in America (not unlike Do the Right Thing). The Hispanic, African American (and one homosexual) crew of the car wash experience what it is like to be a minority and under-employed at a menial job at a white-owned business. What begins as funny and lighthearted during the sunny LA morning becomes darker and increasingly dramatic after the sun sets. Great music, including the famous disco title track, lend a great deal to the proceedings. ***STREAM IT***
Rififi (1955) Yes, Rififi is acknowledged as a gem but do the kids really rent it today? They should because it invented the heist film and even though, yes, it is in French, subtitles don’t matter when the 30-minute set heist set piece has NO DIALOGUE, a tour-de-force that still enthralls as the criminals ply their trade in real time. It is also notable as the work of an American directer, Jules Dassin, working in France, where censorship was not the issue it was in the States during that period. As for the ending, well, it’s French and it’s Noir. Need we say more?
The Vanishing (1988) — Not the remake (1993, starring Jeff Bridges), but the original adaptation of the novel, The Golden Egg, as directed by George Sluizer. The film tells the story of a man obsessed with finding out what happened to his girlfriend, who disappears one day when they innocently stop for gas on a trip. His desire to know what happened leads him toward a fate of Greek proportions. The Vanishing does not, like most pictures of this genre, wait to reveal the identity of the kidnapper in a zinger at the end. Rather, he is introduced about halfway through the film, a choice that ironically provides much more suspense. All pictures must be judged by their endings, and rest assured this is one you will not forget (and one much too audacious to be found in the studio remake). It might very well cost you a few night’s sleep. ***STREAM IT***

Let It Ride (1989) — One of the most underrated comedies of the ‘80s, now slowly gaining a cult following. Teri Garr, David Johansen, Robbie Coltrane, Jennifer Tilly, and Allen Garfield are all at the top of their game. Richard Dreyfuss at his most irksome, repugnant, and wonderful. (Noah Buschel)
Ushpizin (2005) — This wonderful and warm film marks the first feature made by members of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox community in collaboration with secular filmmakers. Sensitively directed by Giddi Dar, Ushpizin (“the guests”) provides an extremely touching look at the daily lives of ultra-Orthodox Jews as they question and explore their faith in this humorous tale of deeply religious people trying to live in a modern world. Shuli Rand, playing “Moshe” (he also penned the excellent script) gives a powerful performance alongside his real-life wife, Mechal Bat Sheva Rand (“Malli”). Their love is tested, their deep faith challenged, when a secret from Moshe’s past reveals itself during the harvest holiday of Succoth (think Jewish Thanksgiving) when two unannounced guests, who have just sprung themselves from prison, show up and turn their lives upside down. Absolutely beautiful. (Pamela Cohn) ***STREAM IT***
Ishtar (1987) — After weeks spent chasing down a copy of Elaine May’s famous 1987 fiasco finally landed me an unopened VHS via Ebay, I was a proud cultural spelunker. Vanity Fair recently excerpted a section from Peter Biskind’s Warren Beatty bio that left me desperate to watch the famous flop. After all, if Elaine May is given Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and the desert as tools, how bad could is really be? And tales of backstage drama only increase my curiosity. So this Wednesday I am having a small Ishtar party, replete with thematically appropriate middle-Eastern food. And then, this morning, I found out the movie can be streamed on Netflix instant view. Buzz. Kill. (Lena Dunham) ***STREAM IT***
Trigger Man (2007) – Before making the masterful The House of the Devil (#11 on our Top 25 of the Decade list), Ti West created Trigger Man, a film as minimalist as The House of the Devil is opulent, and every bit as tense. The story follows as three friends leave New York City for a day of hunting, beer, and male bonding in the woods. Soon, however, they discover that they aren’t the only hunters in the woods, and someone has their targets set on them. Think of it as Old Joy meets Deliverance. Special mention must be given to Sound Designer Graham Reznick, whose expert manipulation of the soundscape is as integral to the film’s sustained suspense as West’s skillful command of atmosphere. (Cullen Gallagher)
John And Mary (1969) — Directed by Peter Yates and starring Dustin Hoffman (hot on the heels of his great performance in Midnight Cowboy) and Mia Farrow (just after her star-making turn in Rosemary’s Baby), John and Mary is the story of two Manhattan singles awaking after a one night stand. Told as a series of conversations, flashbacks and complicated gestures, the film unfolds the nature of attraction between two people who, living in the moment, did not take the time to discover one another’s name before getting down to business. Considered racy (and even “amoral”) by some in 1969, the film today feels light, charming and, given the concerns of so many low-budget independent films of our own time, strangely prescient. (Tom Hall) ***STREAM IT***
Starting Out in the Evening (2007) – The last gasp for Gary Winick’s InDigEnt label, which in its 2000-2007 lifespan specialized in heartfelt and unadorned NYC indies, ones usually shot on digital with a movie star or two for somewhere south of a million dollars, was Andrew Wagner’s Starting Out In The Evening. It also happens to be the best of an impressive if uneven group of films, a meticulously acted kammerspiel marvel, deftly avoiding the clichés that latch onto films about secluded, ambitious writers, young and old alike. Never much of a Frank Langella fan, this one sold me on his bona fides. (Brandon Harris) ***STREAM IT***
Blind Shaft (2003) — A gripping thriller set in China’s semi-illegal, unregulated, and highly dangerous network of coal mines, where thousands of workers are reported to die each year. Two migrant workers have come up with the perfect scam: they recruit other men to join them on mining jobs, kill them, then claim there was an accident and collect hush money from the mine owners. The film’s combination of punch-you-in-the-face pulp vigor and muckraking political anger recalls Sam Fuller at his best. Writer/director/producer Li Yang, whose background was in documentary, shot Blind Shaft independently, without the permission of the central authorities; the film was subsequently banned in China but went on to play several major international festivals, winning the Silver Bear award at Berlin. (Nelson Kim)
Lawn Dogs (1997) — Some may mistake Tom DiCillo’s Box of Moonlight from the same mid-‘90s boom to be Sammy “the Rock” Rockwell’s breakout role, and that’s a damn shame when this little gem (directed by John Duigan) is considered. With a beautiful lead performance by Mischa Barton (at 11, both striking and sincere, despite how most consider her as of late), this story of a gated community with a talented, frustrated lower-class groundsman who develops a strong and eventually dangerous bond with one wealthy family’s precocious, pubescent daughter, manages to unfold and enwrap its audience before unraveling in a disarming, thoughtful way. Pretty much perfect, don’t let the triteness of the title deceive you, it is what the picture wants you to think. There is more here than in most others of this genre, breed, and period. (Evan Louison)
God Told Me To (1976) — This low budget ‘horror’ film, written and directed by genre master Larry Cohen, stars Tony Lo Bianco as religious cop whose faith is is challenged by a series of strange murders in which the killers claim that “God told them to kill.” As Tony pursues similarities between the seemingly unrelated murders he starts to fall apart as he realizes that his belief in a benevolent and all knowing creator may be wrong. God Told Me To is a pulpy classic that is set in a gritty long gone New York City and demonstrates how flexible the horror genre can be when realistic character development is used in pursuit of sincerely argued thematic issues. (Mike S. Ryan) ***STREAM IT***
Dallas 362 (2005) — Scott Caan’s directorial debut is a jacked up affair that shows Caan’s reverence for the testosterone-heavy character pieces of the 1970s. Caan and Shawn Hatosy star as best friends in LA who can’t buy a drink in a bar without getting into a brawl. Caan shows great instincts along the way, and his assembled players—Jeff Goldblum, Kelly Lynch, Val Lauren, Isla Fisher—clearly revel in the opportunity to get loose. It ain’t perfect, but it should have received way more attention than it did. (Michael Tully) ***STREAM IT***

12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) — Corneliu Porumboiu’s fantastic film is set in the city of Vaslui, a very fractured city, indeed, and centers on a group of characters who revisit/revise the event that brought an end to the communist regime, the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled following the Revolution at 12:08 p.m. on December 22. The title in Romanian translates as “Was There or Wasn’t There?,” describing the central issue of whether the city protested before he fled—there are disparate views. Intriguing, surprising, with a dark absurdist twist to offset the dour ambience, this brilliant satire won the Camera d’Or at Cannes upon its release in 2006. (Pamela Cohn)
Spread (2009) — Ashton Kutcher’s “dude, where’s my bong?” persona has always been at odds with his alarmingly beautiful face. Not the case in Spread, a tonally confused but surprisingly effecting sex romp/Hollywood warning story which Kutcher produced and also stars in as Nikki, a grifter with the skills to make a rich lady pay his bills. Spread will no doubt be dismissed by many as a toolish vanity project, but Kutcher turns in a surprisingly mature performance under the thoughtful, sexy direction of David Mackenzie, whose bleak (and excellent) Young Adam explored similar Cougar themes, only on a filthy barge in Scotland in the early 1950s. Look out for smart cinematography from Donnie Darko lensman Steven Poster, specifically during a comically mercenary banging montage between Kutcher and Anne Heche. In an interview for the DVD’s special features, Heche informs us that this is a film about “people who are not making loving choices.” (Lena Dunham)
Phantasm (1979) – This horror classic is also a landmark of independent filmmaking. Don Coscarelli served as Director, Producer, Writer, Cinematographer, and Editor, an ambitious undertaking that is all the more impressive when one considers how expert he is in all these capacities, and on a shoe-string budget. In Phantasm, The Tall Man has taken over the local funeral home and is unleashing an army of shrunken corpse-mignons to do his bidding… and it is up to the unlikely trio of teenage Mike, his wannabe-rocker brother Jody, and ice-cream man Reggie to take down The Tall Man. Highly inventive with the perfect balance of horror and humor—don’t wait for Halloween to check this out. (Cullen Gallagher)
A Good Day to Be Black And Sexy (2008) — A groundbreaking film, Dennis Dortch’s A Good Day To Be Black and Sexy is a frank, joyous, aesthetically alive comedy of manners. Over the course of six vignettes, Mr. Dortch’s film is as earnest and consistently amusing about the sexual behavior of post millennial Los Angelenos, black or not, as any filmmaker’s has been in a long time. Full of jump cuts, naturalistic camera work, and situations never before glimpsed in narrative films, A Good Day To Be Black and Sexy is a fun and stylish rumination on the battle of the sexes. (Brandon Harris)
To Sleep with Anger (1990) — Charles Burnett’s other great movie—never released here on DVD—is available for instant viewing on Netflix? Who knew? A black middle-class family in Los Angeles is visited by an old acquaintance from down South, a ramblin’ man with a roving eye and a shady past, who goes by the name of Harry Mention (Danny Glover in the role of his career). Harry’s wicked ways bring the family’s simmering internal tensions to the boiling point. Under the surface of gentle, low-key comedy lies a richly suggestive parable about cultural memory, blood ties, and Old vs. New. Now that Burnett’s debut Killer of Sheep has taken its place in the canon of modern American classics following its triumphant 2007 restoration and re-release, it’s time for To Sleep with Anger to join it there. (Nelson Kim)
Going All the Way (1997) — It only seemed appropriate for January to pick Mark Pellington’s first feature as it does perfectly follows the archetypes that we’ve coming to expect of a coming-of-age movie that premieres at Sundance. And, yet, the filmmaking is undercut with a perfectly sinister and unique tone, one that led Pellington to jobs directing thrillers (Arlington Road), horror films (The Mothman Prophecies) and music docs (U2 3D). Inspired performances by both Jeremy Davies and Ben Affleck make this an above average sex drama worth taking a look at. (Michael Lerman)
The Secret of NIMH (1982) — Returning to this masterpiece recently—first viewed when I was four and my parents sprung for a VCR—may have redeemed my winter before it even began. It kept me warm on a chilly night with no heat in my apt: Loosely adapted from a Robert O’Brien children’s book and sporting the rich and textured voices of Derek Jacobi, Sandy Dennis, Don Ameche, and John Carradine, this picture is animation at its darkest, most cryptic, and stands the test of time and intrigue better than any other. A mother field mouse who is faced with the impossible challenge of moving her family after her hero-mouse-husband passes away trying to drug the farmer’s cat, seeks wisdom and aid in the arms of an army of escaped lab-rats, gifted with intelligence, and with the conflict of greed and compassion deep in their ranks. The imagery and score alone will leave you filled with a well of emotions normally saved for things other than cartoons. (Evan Louison)
Something In the Wind (1947) — Deanna Durbin. What charm, what poise, and what pipes! Universal’s top star made twenty-six films in twelve years before retiring, and this is one of the strangest, a risque comedy revolving around mistaken identities and a fake out-of-wedlock pregnancy that was part of a late-career effort to eschew her good girl image. And though she’s extremely carnal in one of her numbers (you’ll know which one), it’s Donald O’Connor at his Donald O’Connorist who really steals the show. (Tom Russell)
Magic (1978) — This 1978 gem was written by William Goldman from his novel, directed by Richard Attenbourough, and stars Anthony Hopkins as an unhinged ventriloquist. It’s a simple story but really well paced and all of the performances are stellar. Ann-Margret plays the love interest that Hopkins escapes to and Burgess Meredith plays the slimy Rolls Royce driving William Morris agent who pursues him in his ’success panic’. The whole package is topped off with a classic ’70s-era Jerry Goldsmith score. Top of the line talent operating at their best to create a simple film thriller that grabs you without talking down to you and without the reliance on cheap tricks. Watching this you can t help but wonder if Goldman could have continued to make quality original screenplays like this if he hadn’t sold out to take top dollar to polish the schlock of others. (Mike S. Ryan)
Hangin’ With The Homeboys (1991) — Truth be told, I haven’t watched this film since it was first released on video, so I’m anxious to see if, nearly twenty years later, its charms still outweigh its flaws. At the time, I found Joseph B. Vasquez’s night-in-the-life comedy/drama to be a minor, yet worthy, contribution to that sub-genre, featuring sharp writing and some very funny performances (to this day I still quote Nestor Serrano’s Vinny/Fernando preaching the power of prophylactic enhancer Nanoxel 9—”Knock that shit right out”). Vasquez’s subsequent descent into manic-depression and 1995 death by AIDS adds a bittersweet element to the story, but for this brief moment in time, he knocked it out the box. (Michael Tully)

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006) — Stanley Nelson’s brilliantly executed documentary shows how one man can persuade 900 people to commit mass suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the jungles of Guyana (it’s where the saying “he/she has obviously drunk the Kool-Aid” comes from). This profile of Jim Jones tries to penetrate the mysteries of that epic tragedy and is a stunning post-mortem portrait of the demented preacher. Incorporating never-before-seen footage and audio accounts of two Jonestown survivors, Nelson uses this seminal event as an abject lesson in the lengths human beings will go to recreate an Edenic spot on Earth for themselves and their families. (Pamela Cohn)
The Chateau (2001) — Jesse Peretz’s improvised comedy tells the story of two American brothers (Paul Rudd and Romany Malco) who inherit a French Chateau—along with its equally French staff (including Sylvie Testud). Rudd and Malco are now comedy stars in the Apatow stable and this film has got to be a big part of the reason. Peretz lets his stars fly their freak flags high, riffing off each other in a film that’s equal parts Mumblecore and Duck Soup. (Lena Dunham)
Habit (1996) — Still got some of that Halloween candy leftover? No problem! Relive the holiday by popping in Larry Fessenden’s realist re-working of the vampire genre about a man (played by Fessenden) whose life literally and figuratively drains away after meeting a mysterious woman. The location shooting around the Lower East Side is astonishing, perfectly capturing that gritty sense of urban beauty, as well as preserving a cityscape that is barely recognizable sixteen years later. (Cullen Gallagher)
Straight Time (1978) — Fresh on the heels of his high profile roles in All the President’s Men and Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman decided to take a detour from a Hollywood script and make a gritty, low budget drama called Straight Time. Hoffman gives one of the greatest performances of his career as Max Dembo, a paroled felon living under the thumb of a corrupt parole officer. While Max wants to live on the straight and narrow, the humiliations of the work-a-day world and the temptations of the easy score force him to battle his inner demons. Unconscionably underseen since its release in 1978, and the subject of a fascinating story of Hollywood ego and intrigue in the production process (read more on that here), Ulu Grosbard’s film is an unflinching slice of 1970s brilliance, exactly the type of engrossing, character driven film that simply does not get made anymore. Go get ‘em. (Tom Hall)
Zabriskie Point (1970) — A singular anomaly in the American and Italian cinemas, Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonioni’s first and last American film, is a radical departure from the director’s previous work, a deeply imperfect work that nonetheless brilliantly highlights, both in its thematic incoherence and aesthetic indecisiveness, the still irresolvable ideological conflicts that arose on American streets, university campuses, Capitol Hill and suburban living rooms during the 1960s, that place where all the 20th century’s founding myths went to die. Three reasons to see it: Desert orgy scene; Harrison Ford cameo as a locked up student protester; Pink Floyd scored ending, which features more explosions than Joel Silver could ever dream of. It’s the most definitive metaphor to date on the death of the ’60s ethos. (Brandon Harris)
Esther Kahn (2000) — Arnaud Desplechin’s whirling, hallucinatory Victorian drama is the best film ever made about acting. Summer Phoenix delivers a brilliant, commanding performance as Esther, a London shop girl overcome with ambition to be a successful stage actress. Esther’s tendency towards cold disaffection is keeping her from realizing her talents, until heartbreak, unhappy sex, self-mutilation and the filthy streets of London begin to stir up her passion. Not for the faint of heart, Esther Kahn is a cinematic treasure and one of Desplechin’s very finest—yet, sadly, most often overlooked—films. (Holly Herrick)
Ace In The Hole (1951) — Maybe it’s not exactly “hidden” anymore, but it’s a gem that was only recently unearthed: this Billy Wilder masterpiece (a flop upon its original release) was hard to see for decades, until it got the Criterion treatment in 2007. Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a big-city newspaper reporter who, after burning one bridge too many, gets stuck cranking out local-color copy for a tiny rag in a tiny town in New Mexico. By chance, he stumbles onto a story he knows can put him back on top: a treasure hunter, breaking into a Native American burial ground, has been trapped in a cave-in and hovers between life and death. Tatum ably manipulates the trapped man, the police, the press, and the public alike—utterly amoral himself, he has expert insight into the self-interest and moral vacuity of others—and stage-manages the story into the biggest headline in the country. Ace In The Hole is thoroughly jaded and misanthropic and witheringly bleak in its worldview, for those who are bothered by that kind of thing; it’s also a hot-dogging hoot of a good time, serving up one killer line of dialogue and one cracklingly tasty scene after another. (Nelson Kim)
Silent Tongue (1994) — This totally mind-numbing and completely fucking absurd Western trip courtesy of Sam Shepard (who does not make an appearance) is almost indescribable. In the nameless American west, Richard Harris plays a doting father whose Injun daughter-in-law dies tragically, leaving the stability of his son (River Phoenix in full-on, off-the-fucking-wall mode) in serious question. I mean it, his performance speaks wonders for the term “out of this world,” as he would be shortly, and, arguably, shamefully, may already have been at this time. Harris can’t deal with his son’s grief so he kidnaps the Squaw’s almost identical half-sister from her father (Alan Bates), who sets off with his son (Dermot Mulroney) in tow to exact revenge or rescue, whichever comes first. Too bad once the replacement woman gets to River’s camp in the desert all he can seem to do is hallucinate and babble and contort his face until you can hardly stand to look. Fortunately, I have a feeling once play is pressed here, you’ll hardly be able to do anything else. Bizarre. (Evan Louison)
Squirm (1976) — Jeff Lieberman’s Worms Gone Wild horror film eschews the nastiness and gore that seemed de rigueur for low-budget ’70s horror in favor of suspense, humor, and the goofball charm of leading man Don Scardino. An unusual and idiosyncratic horror film, definitely not the stinker that MST3K made it out to be. Be sure to watch the director’s commentary—not only is it informative, but the director is just as entertaining and engaging as his film—and listen closely to that lullaby/theme song, “I Can Hear the Dark.” Doesn’t it sound an awful lot like the main theme for a certain modern day Oscar-winner…? (Tom Russell)
The Gods of Times Square (1999) — On the eve of our faux election for mayor, take a look at a New York City that existed before the Republican Pro-Development mayors took over. Richard Sandler’s film documents the last days of Times Square before it was sold out to the national chains in order to put the most amount of money into local developers’ pockets (and our mayor’s pockets: his wealth has quadrupled since he stepped into office). The film follows the Times Square preachers and apocalyptic prophets that used to gather there as they set up their soap boxes in front of old businesses that were shuttered in the name of progress. The film is captivating because the director directly interacts with his subjects. He doesn’t treat them like insane babblers but actively engages them on the foundations of their beliefs. There are anti-white, openly racist black preachers; there is a young white hipster rock-and-roll prophet who thinks he is Jesus Christ and deserves a date with Madonna. The Gods of Times Square is a snapshot from a long lost New York City, before our mayors made it safe for the tourist or the Sex and the City-watching recent transplant to buy without fear from worthless chain stores like the Hershey outlet. Watch it and weep, or at least let it motivate you to vote out our “development-at-any-cost” mayor. (Mike S. Ryan)
Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working With Time (2003) — An inspiration on a multitude of levels, Thomas Riedelsheimer’s patient, restrained, beautifully crafted portrait of Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy is one of those magical viewing experiences that will enrich your perception of the world. Goldsworthy doesn’t just work in and with nature to make his sculptures; he embraces it wholeheartedly, allowing its uncontrollable force to dismantle his creations, transforming them into something even more connected with the earth. If this sounds hippified and heady, it isn’t. Rivers and Tides is a mesmerizing glimpse into the process of a modern human treasure. (Michael Tully)
Forbidden Lie$ (2007) Australian filmmaker Anna Broinowski and her subject Norma Khouri take us on a head-spinning romp of fact and fiction in this fascinating documentary. Khouri, a compulsive liar, is determined to salvage her reputation when her best-selling bookForbidden Love (published in the US as Honor Lost) about her best friend’s (purported) honor killing at the hands of her own father in Jordan is exposed as a hoax a year after publication. To say that the director plays with form and content with extraordinary innovation would be an understatement. You will also never forget Norma Khouri, a con artist and femme fatale par excellence, a woman who even took Broinowski for a ride. If there was a category for Best Performance by a Documentary Subject, Khouri would certainly walk away with the prize. Then she’d sell it to the highest bidder. The film, deeply critical of Jordanian culture, was surprisingly a top prize-winner at the ‘08 Al-Jazeera Film Festival. (Nota bene: see 3 Rooms) (Pamela Cohn)
May (2003) — The “quirky indie about an isolated awkward person lookin’ for love” genre is getting real old, real fast. Yet Lucky McKee’s May avoids those pitfalls. McKee’s sensitive character study is about a lonely goth girl with a lazy eye and only one friend—her childhood doll. Things take an unexpected turn when May (Angela Bettis, a favorite of mine—she’s like if Zooey Deschanel and Carol Kane merged) starts chopping up potential pals. Look out for awesome supporting performances by Anna Faris and Jeremy Sisto as victims of her wrath. (Lena Dunham)
Girl With Green Eyes (1964) — In celebration of the publication of Farber On Film: The Complete Film Writing Of Manny Farber, I offerGirl With Green Eyes as a unique opportunity to find your way into Farber’s mind and see a film you may otherwise have missed. In a world full of celebrity ass kissing and sterilized film writing, you may be shocked to read something as hilariously cruel as Farber’s takedown of young actress Rita Tushingham in Pish-Tush, but boy does it pop off the page: “An even worse example of the megalomaniac star who can make the simplest action have as many syllables as her name is Rita Tushingham… Tossing her head about like a basketball and nasally, toothily spewing scorn at her high school teacher, she seems a cross between an adolescent Maggie Jiggs and a delinquent Orphan Annie…”– the actress was 23 years old when the piece was originally published. Girl With Green Eyes, made two years prior to Farber’s reprimand, is something of a standard bearer for the British realist movement that was arising in the early 1960s, the story of a country girl (Tushingham) who comes to Dublin to work in a shop and who meets Mr. Right… or is he? Fans of the upcoming An Education will recognize plenty, but the most fun will be had dissecting the finer points of Ms. Tushingham’s performance and uncovering the particular peccadilloes of Manny Farber’s work. Have fun, kiddies! Buy the book atAmazon. (Tom Hall)
Bitter Moon (1992) — It’s been years since I last saw it, but recent events—I refer, of course, to the High Holy Days—have made me want to revisit Roman Polanski’s intercontinental sex comedy. Not that I expect the movie to offer any handy, pocket-sized “insights” into the current headlines, or ones from 32 years ago. It’s a twisting, knotty, multi-stranded thing, with a tricky narrative structure that mixes stories within stories, frequent flashbacks, and a narrator of dubious reliability. On a cruise ship, a staid British couple (Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas) meet an aging, wheelchair-bound American (Peter Coyote) and his slinky, seductive young French wife (Emmanuelle Seigner). The American sees that the Englishman is entranced by his wife, and proceeds to tell him the story of their life together. What follows might be read as a cautionary tale about sexual libertinism or a thumbing of the nose at sexual repression; a misogynist nightmare or a hilarious satire of male fantasies and fetishes; a smutty, freewheeling lark or a deeply personal autocritique.Polanski directs with something like his old assurance and audacity. (Nelson Kim)
True Confessions (1981) — Long since forgotten & wrongly overlooked John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion collaboration (better known for their Panic in Needle Park A Star is Born) directed by Ulu Grosbard, this one is for the classics. Roberts De Niro & Duvall play brothers—Irish priest & cop respectively—in ‘40s LA. A prostitute is found dismembered akin to the Black Dahlia mystery, and Duvall’s sneaking suspicions lead him dangerously close to members of the Irish dignitaries & the inner circle of the California Archdiocese, threatening his brother’s rise to power therein. Burgess Meredith shows up as a priest who has lost favour with the Monsignieur, Charles Durning as a crooked Irish land developer in deep with the Church’s pockets, all worlds of nice period details make appearances (old Stag Films, racetrack footage, unreal production design), but the real stars are the two Bobbys, never better, never more understated, and the quiet brooding of De Niro’s padre matches perfectly Duvall’s angry, embittered vice detective. Where do performances such as these come from in an era of such ambiguity, disinterest, and laziness? Eternidad, claro. (Evan Louison)
Hi, Mom! (1970) — Brian De Palma is often unfairly charged with imitating a certain established Master of Cinema, but with Hi, Mom!, there’s no bones about it: he’s completely and totally aping Jean-Luc Godard (who did you think I was going to say?). This disturbing, funny, and essential film is a tonally-schizoid examination of radical politics that’s just barely held together by Robert De Niro’s wonderfully weird performance and culminates in the still-powerful and disturbing “Be Black, Baby!” sequence. (Tom Russell)
Calvaire (The Ordeal) (2005) — I was lucky enough to catch this film at its Toronto premier in 2005. Directed by Fabrice Du Welz, it’s lushly shot by the amazing DP Benoit Debie (Gaspar Noe films) in oversaturated super 16mm. It’s a straight up horror film in the tradition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes: an innocent traveler from the city—in this case an effeminate show tune singing troubadour—gets stuck in the Belgian backwoods. What is amazing is that despite the story, which has been told a million times before, we actually get to experience it here in a way that we haven’t seen before. Mostly it’s about tone; Calvaire feels more like a character driven art film than horror, a tact we’ve seen recently work with foreign horror pictures like Let The Right One In orWolf Creek. Pretty much throughout the first act, we’re not sure what kind of film we are entering. Then, when it becomes clear that our hero is in serious danger, the second act plays out with perfect tonal balance between pure actual horror and knowing self-conscious genre winking. With this kind of story it’s all in the execution—specifically the staging and the tone of the acting, which adds up to an unusual horror film experience. Based on the direction here, I would say everything by Du Welz is worth seeking out. (Mike S. Ryan)
Trees Lounge (1996) — In many circles, Steve Buscemi’s feature-length debut as a writer/director wouldn’t be thought of as a ‘hidden gem.’ I thought that was the case, but in the past few months, I’ve been struck by how many in the know friends of mine haven’t actually seen it. So here I am to unhide it. Loosely autobiographical and written after a weekend bender of Cassavetes movies, Buscemi’s film tells the bleakly funny story of a downtrodden Long Island boozer (Buscemi) who takes a job as an ice cream man and finds himself getting caught up in a dangerously escalating flirtation with a cute teenager (Chloe Sevigny). With Trees Lounge, Buscemi teaches a wonderful lesson in how to make that risky filmmaking trifecta work (writing/directing/acting). Trees Lounge is one of my favorite American indies of the ’90s. (Michael Tully)

Driver 23 / The Atlas Moth (2002): This widescreen documentary directed by Rolf Belgum (who claims that he shot, edited, directed, produced and distributed his film for under $10) showcases Minneapolis-based musician/deliveryman, Dan Cleveland, as he battles against his obsessive-compulsive disorder. We follow Cleveland as he works for success with his band, Dark Horse. He’s a thoroughly winning subject and these films depict a fantastic personal journey of one man’s fight to overcome his inner demons. An astounding, and deeply moving, portrayal of madness. (Pamela Cohn)
I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) — Robert Zemeckis’ first feature film was also the first VHS tape I ever bought (out of a bin at a yard sale) and I watched it over and over until the VCR ate it. This overwrought and oddly charming comedy chronicles the first stages of Beatlemania—you’ll laugh with it and at it in equal measure (and wonder how this came from the mind of the man that brought youBeowulf). (Lena Dunham)
Blast of Silence (1961) — Few films have captured the bleak poetry and hardboiled humor of noir like Blast of Silence. As raw as the winter wind that whips through the streets, Blast of Silence follows a hitman (played by director/writer Allen Baron) who blows into New York City at Christmas hoping to make his kill as quick and quiet as possible—but then he is recognized by an old friend, and he must try and complete his mission without arousing suspicion. A B-eccentricity that saw little exposure upon its initial release, the film’s reputation grew by word-of-mouth until it became something mythological, yet it never saw any video release until Criterion’s fabulously restored DVD edition last year. Essential for those who like their noir extremely gritty and pulpy, with that odd elegance that can only come from the lowest of budgets. Plus, great vintage New York City location photography! (Cullen Gallagher)
XXY (2007) — Publicly overlooked despite a strong run on the festival circuit, Lucia Puenzo’s stunning XXY is the story of Alex (Inés Efron), an intersex teen who is facing a complicated dilemma about her sexual feelings and the rigid gender roles she encounters among her family and fellow teenagers. Puenzo’s take on the material, to place Alex’s normal, everyday confusion in the context of the outsized reactions of her social network, show the true heartbreak of at the center of Alex’s intersex identity; Alex just wants be a happy, passionate kid. One of the gems among the recent flowering in Argentine filmmaking, XXY places Puenza alongside directors like Lucrecia Martel and Alexis Dos Santos as an important voice in the new Latin cinema. (Tom Hall)
Beyond Hatred (2005) — A true diamond in the rough of Euro nonfiction, Beyond Hatred (winner of 2006 Teddy Award at Berlin for Best Documentary) explores an abysmal hate crime committed against François Chenu, a young gay Frenchman, brutally murdered by skinheads one night while walking through a park in Rheims.  The film begins one year later, as the Chenu family revisits the events of  François’ death while taking part in the sentencing of their sons’ murderers. A strikingly beautiful and cinematic story that inherently puts our own justice system into eloquent relief, Beyond Hatred is one of the most powerfully emotional docs I’ve ever seen, and definitely ranks as one of my top films of the decade. (Holly Herrick)
The Hours and Times (1991) — Christopher Münch’s first feature (actually, it’s only an hour long) got some attention when it was released, but seems to have dropped off the radar—people don’t talk about it much anymore, which is a shame, since the film has many virtues to recommend it. First, it’s a highly original take on the biopic: using the historical record as an imaginative jumping-off point, Münch gives us a possible version of what might have happened during a trip John Lennon and Beatles manager Brian Epstein took to Barcelona in April 1963, on the verge of Beatlemania’s international explosion. Münch easily sidesteps celebrity-cult prurience, rendering an evocative portrait of friendship and romantic yearning that ranges in mood from lyrical and tender to stark and raunchy, often following the lead of the mercurial, ultimately mysterious Lennon. Second, The Hours and Times is simply a gorgeous movie, exquisitely written and directed (and produced, shot, and edited) by Münch, and acted with great sensitivity by Ian Hart as Lennon and David Angus as Epstein. Finally, in a time when no-budget filmmaking is undergoing a resurgence, Münch’s DIY approach should serve as a model for others to emulate—with no crew, little equipment, and a budget of a few thousand dollars, he made a defiantly personal, searchingly intelligent work of art that, whatever fanciful games it plays with biographical fact, seems to carry the emotional complexity and candor of lived experience. (Nelson Kim)
State of Grace (1990) — Irish modern just pre-Benito Guiliani era NYC crime story, with Gary Oldman and Ed Harris as brothers who welcome back their childhood friend played by Sean Penn, who’s turncoated himself with an undercover mission for the police. Absurdist, stylized, operatic violent sequences coupled with understated performances by almost everyone (including a young John Turturro and John C. Reilly, plus an aging Burgess Meredith) except for Oldman, still in his fresh out of Sid stage & so over the top it’s almost hallucinatory. Key moment occurs where Oldman holds up a severed hand of an adversary to Penn and says “You need a hand?” See only to believe material for sure, and sadly forgotten. Great shot of famed Soho landmark Finelli’s for one particularly intense sequence. Go there. (Evan Louison)
Charley Bowers: The Rediscovery of an American Comic Genius (1917) — During the silent era, Charley Bowers created a series of unusual shorts, many of them lost today, combining live-action and stop-motion animation with his patented “Bowers Process”.  Clever visual gags and endlessly inventive Rube Goldberg machines are underpinned by a slight sense of melancholy (he’s one silent comedian that doesn’t always get the girl, and it hurts) and a whole lot of hand-made charm.  Definitely a subject worthy of rediscovery, and this two-disc set presents all but one of his surviving films. (Note: a couple of these films unfortunately conform to prevailing racial attitudes and stereotypes of the time period.  It’s never a major element of any of the plots, nor is it ever on par with something like Birth of a Nation, but there’s enough to cause some mild discomfiture.) (Tom Russell)
Iguana (1988) — This 1988 film is set on a beautiful deserted island in the 19th century. A scared and deformed sailor who is tortured by his mates on a boat surrvives a shipwreck and creates his own kingdom on the island. He makes himself master and puts other survivors in chains and rules with an iron fist. A woman he enslaves becomes his concubine and through her he starts to question his view of humanity. For those who like Monte Hellman because of his spare minimalism first evidenced in Two-Lane Blacktop and theRide in the Whirlwind-era Westerns, you may be disappointed. But , if you are actually interested in Hellman’s world view as evidenced by several of his other features, Iguana is essential viewing. This is a portrait of an extreme individual who is directly confronting the standard assumptions about morality and the ‘just life’, it’s a character we’ve seen often in his movies, the man who is committed to finding his own meaning in life, no matter the cost. For years this film was ‘lost’. I would have loved to seen it projected but alas here it is on Netflix. I bought a bootleg version years ago in an underground Rome video store and have rarely found anyone who has seen it. It’s really quite amazing that Netflix stocks it. (Mike S. Ryan)
Flirting (1991) — The second film in John Duigan’s supposed autobiographical trilogy (the first being The Year My Voice Broke, the third yet to come) might very well be my favorite movie about the blossoming of young, first love. Noah Taylor’s intellectually-minded Danny Embling (Noah Taylor) is now at boarding school, and when he encounters a recent transplant to the nearby girls’ school, Thandiwe Adjewa (Thandie Newton), the butterflies begin to swim. Economically told yet filled with swirls of emotion, Flirting remains a very important film in my own personal canon of favorites. (Note: While Nicole Kidman’s presence is displayed prominently on the box cover, she only plays a peripheral role. Flirting is Taylor and Newton’s—and Duigan’s—show.) (Michael Tully)

 The Hairdresser’s Husband (Le mari de la coiffeuse) (1990) — This BAFTA nominated film starring the magnificent Jean Rochefort and the beautiful Anna Galiena packs such an unexpected emotional wallop, it will never leave your mind fully after seeing it. Directed by Patrice Leconte, it is by turns erotic and highly entertaining, and poignantly illustrates the full arc of a passionate love affair, tragic ending and all. It is one of my favorite movies ever. (Pamela Cohn)
Happy Campers (2001) — This pulpy summer camp flick puts Heathers, Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin and A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a blender, creating a farcical fantasy that remains one of best depictions of teen lust I’ve yet to see. The stinky, hormonal melee is conducted by Brad Renfro (RIP, gorgeous) a thinking girls sex symbol whose snarky confidence throws a Tracy Flick-type cheerleader—Dominique Swain, in one of her only acceptable roles post-Lolita—for a loop. Their ensuing love scenes definitely make you want to set out for the woods. Don’t miss Peter Stormare’s turn as a power-mad camp director with the ability to smell children coupling. (Lena Dunham)
Little Fugitive (1953) — One of the most influential of all American Independent films, this modest masterpiece by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Ashley captures the wonderment and anxiety of a seven-year-old Brooklyn boy (Richie Andrusco) who hides out on Coney Island convinced he is guilty of killing his older brother. Featuring groundbreaking naturalistic photography shot on location, this example of New York Neorealism was one also one of the principal influences on the French New Wave, particularly Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. (Cullen Gallagher)
The Last Bolshevik (1992) — One of the great Chris Marker’s greatest accomplishments, The Last Bolshevik is an unparalleled look into the revolutionary ideals and disillusionments of the 20th century and the cinema and images that sprung forth from the great social experiment of the Soviet Union. Ostensibly a portrait of the filmmaker Aleksander Medvedkin, Marker deploys his unique blend of wit and ironic juxtaposition to expose the tensions and heartbreaks born of the betrayals and the violence of the Stalin regime, at the intersection of political ideals, art and terror. Marker’s gift, his ability to find history and meaning in tucked away in the corners of otherwise forgotten images, is the stuff I live for as a film lover. (Tom Hall)
August The First (2007) — Shot with a gentle naturalism in long, loose hand-held takes, Lanre Olabisi’s Gotham Award-nominated August the First recounts the college graduation party of Tunde (Ian Alsup), a sensitive if irresponsible young man who unbeknownst to his typically dysfunctional New Jersey family has invited his estranged Nigerian father (a terrific Dennis Ruben Green) to the party after an abrupt, ten-year absence. His ailing grandmother (Gloria Suave), pregnant sister (Kerisse Hutchinson), alcoholic mother (Joy Meriweather) or dutiful brother (Sean Phillips) all hold onto different degrees of hostility toward the returned patriarch. The film never reveals the nature of his earlier disappearance, but we slowly learn of the tentative relationship he has maintained with Tunde, and his desire to relocate his new Nigerian family into his previous household. Olabisi and co-writer Shawn Alexander parcel out details with sparseness, and to great effect. As the Nigerian’s Machiavellian intentions and supremely manipulative nature rise to the surface on this long day’s journey into night, August The First delicately burrows underneath the spectators skin, becoming sneakily powerful by its climatic moments in a way reminiscent of Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger. (Brandon Harris)
Touki Bouki (1973) — Twenty years prior to completing his masterpiece Hyenas, Senegal’s legendary Djibril Diop Mambety crafted this tale of hijinks, passion and desperation that feels like an acid-infused African version of Bonnie and Clyde. Two lovers dream of escaping dusty Dakar for a life of wealth and freedom in Paris. Hustling to achieve their lustful aspirations at any cost, the couple becomes corrupted to the core by a newfound hunger for the material promise of western life. With acrid humor and full on experimental passages that slide between tripped out fantasy and reality, Touki Bouki is a searing and unforgettable post-colonial tale and an all-time great in the history of Senegalese cinema. (Holly Herrick)
The Chase (1966) — I could not figure out how I put Arthur Penn’s The Chase at the top of my Netflix queue. It was a real treat, one that offered more than just the usual pleasures; The Chase is a film that captures cinema as its dominant forms start to change—it is a movie in transition, something we can only recognize now through the privilege of time passing. Some of its strength comes from the conflict of forms within itself. There’s a tour of acting styles on display: Marlon Brando is deep into a method approach, soulful as the small town sheriff; Jane Fonda is the adulterous spouse to Robert Redford’s conflict, both running on their movie star beauty, but seeking something else; Robert Duvall rests more on charactery shtick than he ever does again. It’s a huge cast and a great study of a town in crisis courtesy of both Horton Foote and Lillian Hellman, but the schematic trends of its time, along with its theatrical origins, give it a rhythm that is almost operatic. It’s the kind of film that television once consistently revived to redefine cinema classics, a populist fable of small town life. (Ted Hope)
The Gambler (1974) — James Caan is at his thoughtful-simian best playing Axel Freed, a City College lit prof and hopeless risk-and-adrenaline junkie, in this 1974 gem. Karel Reisz directs from a James Toback script, bringing Toback’s existentialist-egomaniac vision to the screen with vigor and verve. Also with fine supporting work by Paul Sorvino’s eyebrows, Lauren Hutton’s legs, and Burt Young’s jowls. (Footnote: David Simon has cited The Gambler’s final scene as the direct inspiration for our last glimpse of Marlo Stanfield at the end of The Wire’s Season Five.) (Nelson Kim)
Giants & Toys (1958) — Despite his groundbreaking work with genre, sexuality, characterization and camera, the name of Japanese auteur Yasuko Masumura often gets left off of a list of the nation’s great directors because of the hit-or-miss nature of his body of work. Giants & Toys might be his most playful and deceptively complex piece, a breathtaking series of metaphors and symbolism all embedded in an uproarious and bizarre comedy about rival candy companies that builds into a great theatrical satire worthy of Aristophanes. Of all the films that play on every level of intelligence, this one really delivers the goods. (Michael Lerman)
Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981) — Daniel Petrie’s notoriously overlooked visceral ‘70s NYC street war story, with corrupt cops & dope dealers locked in battle. Examines concepts of loyalty within different social dynamics & circles from community organizing, badge/rank fraternity, and interracial romance. Sporting a solid Paul Newman, an understated Ed Asner, a young Danny Aiello, and an almost anonymous Miguel “scatter my ashes on the Lower East Side” Pinero, it’s a real shame it’s so unnoticed to this day. Straight up raw morality play. (Evan Louison)
Local Hero (1983) — Every now and then you discover a filmmaker who seems to have gotten short thrift in the annals of recent history. Such was my immediate conclusion last summer when a friend sat me down and showed me Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, a whimsical tale whose tried and true, honest to goodness narrative is pinioned from both ends by surehanded strangeness and unexpected beauty. This is the story of an oil man from Houston (Peter Reigert) who’s sent by his boss (a stargazing Burt Lancaster) to purchase an entire Scottish town, upon which he plans to build a refinery. Of course, said oil man falls in love with the odd Gallic charm of the place and finds himself questioning his industrialist ways. A mermaid may or may not have something to do with his decision. What people remember the most from this film is the aching guitar score by Mark Knopfler, and one can hardly blame them; but a closer look reveals the work of a filmmaker excited by the possibilities of his medium, eager to surprise audiences even as he plays within the classic confines of a fable. Next up on my Bill Forsyth viewing list: That Sinking Feeling, about a heist at a sink factory, and Housekeeping, an adaptation of Marilyn Robinson’s heartbreaking novel. Neither, sadly, are available on DVD. (David Lowery)
Born To Win (1971) — Directed by the unsung hero of the Czech New Wave, Ivan Passer, and edited by maverick Ralph Rosenblum—an appealingly odd mix of comedy and drama, buoyant silliness and ’70s nihilism that finds George Segal at his career-best as Jay Jay, a heroin addict/hairdresser about to hit bottom. Can the love of Karen Black save him from himself? Will Hector Elizondo give him a deadly “hotshot”? Wait, was that Robert De Niro? And why is Segal trouncing about Manhattan in frilly pink women’s underwear? A spellbinding, unusual, inexhaustible film. (Tom Russell)
Twinky (1969)— The first film by Richard Donner, set in groovy 1968 rack focus land, Charles Bronson trying to do light comedy as a porno writer who seduces a rich 16-year-old schoolgirl (Susan George) in London and before the law clamps down marries her and takes her back to NYC where she becomes a flower child too free for even him to keep down….WAK! (Mike S. Ryan)
Lifeguard (1976) — Another Daniel Petrie movie makes the list? So be it. Lifeguard is one of those little gems that lackadaisically coasts along to a particularly 1970s groove. 33-year-old Rick Carlson (Sam Elliot) can’t seem to play the game that his parents and ex-girlfriend (Anne Archer, man, is she pretty) so desperately want him to. While they pressure him to grow up and get a real job, Rick doesn’t see what’s so shameful in being a lifeguard at the beach. The dinner table scene in which Rick’s parents grill him as if he’s a 15-year-old—mind you, Sam Elliot in his mid-30s still comes off like he’s closer to fifty—is worth the price of admission alone. But it’s the budding relationship with a starry-eyed 15-year-old lifeguard groupie (Kathleen Quinlan) that makes this film a great example of how even PG movies got rawer in the ’70s. (Michael Tully)


  • A Conversation With Michael Jacobs (AUDIENCE OF ONE)

    by Michael Tully
  • A Conversation With Tze Chun (CHILDREN OF INVENTION)

    by Michael Tully
  • A Conversation With Ramin Bahrani (GOODBYE SOLO)

    by Michael Tully
  • A Conversation With Sean Baker (PRINCE OF BROADWAY/TAKE OUT)

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  • A Conversation With Barry Jenkins (MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY)

    by Michael Tully
  • A Conversation With Azazel Jacobs (MOMMA’S MAN)

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