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Viewing Zeitgeists and the Best U.S. Indies of the Decade

To try to recall your favorite films from an entire decade (and then to limit them to only ten titles) is to immediately set yourself up for uncertainty and ridicule: first off because it’s hard enough to remember what you saw ten days ago, much less ten years ago, and secondly because to limit the list to ten is to leave hundreds of excellent films out, titles that you’ll undoubtedly get bludgeoned to death with through later feedback (“You blithering idiot~pretentious snob~Hollywood tool! How could you leave out Judd Apatow~Jean-Luc Godard~Abbas Kiarostami~McG,” read the heated responses to already posted lists). To create a list of a “the best” of a year (or a decade) is to confront what makes a person “love” a film in general: sometimes your response depends not just on personal taste, but timing, audience, and mood; you may have seen The Dark Knight or There Will Be Blood with a pounding headache and a group of incessant popcorn munchers to your left; you could have watched Beau Travail and Nobody Knows in a tiny overheated multiplex with a seven-foot-tall Dutchman blocking the subtitles in front of you, or you could have just been getting over some personal tragedy when, suddenly, you saw a film that made it all—life, love, friendship, whatever—make perfect sense.

Because of these random accidents of viewing, any list is bound to be personal; some of the following films were chosen because they affected the decade’s zeitgeist, others chosen because they just affected mine. Some are probably not in a top-ten for box-office, or even artistic merit; instead, they are ones that affected me the most with their intelligence/craft/humour/etc, or the ones that, due to whatever reasons of mood and life, moved me beyond belief.

Most interesting trend of the 2000’s: the return of regional styles of filmmaking to independent American cinema. Starting in 2000 with George Washington, with its decaying Southern setting and just-as-precise Southern aesthetic and mood, American film moved away from its “Anywhere, USA” style and instead rooted itself in a particular, evocative setting. Films like George Washington and All the Real Girls, Shotgun Stories, Ballast, Cinnamon, Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy defined regions of the United States usually ignored by commercial cinema, while titles like Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, Prince of Broadway and Take Out, Medicine for Melancholy, and Inbetween Days explored parts of “the big city” previously discarded.

Also, some questions about the other trends of the 2000’s:

1. Has blogging made it easier for individuals to get their voices and opinions heard about film, or has it made it paradoxically even more difficult, due to the sheer volume and periodic toxicity of such sites? Does the cream rise to the top, or only the screamers?

2. Seth Rogen and Will Ferrell are the screen emblems of the Bush years. Discuss.

3. Will the mumblecore movement last into the next decade, and how will it be remembered? Or should it be?

4. At the dawn of 1999 independent filmmakers had only one choice: to get their films into a festival (preferably Sundance), then hope it was either selected by other festivals or even picked up for “limited release,” (preferably by a larger indie distributor), and pray that it could later make a DVD release. At the end of 2009, is this the preferred route of discovery, or has online availability or self-distributed DVD deals become the alternative? And at the end of 2019, will any of these options be available?

5. Speaking of Sundance, what was in 1999 the best spotlight of American independent film has now become, arguably, the best place to see Paris Hilton in line buying perfume for the ski run. Its definition of “independent film” became “anything under $100 million, with more talking than action” and it became arguably overrun with whatever warmed-over family melodrama or this-is-our-quirky-town comedy that it could churn out.

Top Independents:

1. George Washington (pictured above), dir. David Gordon Greene, 2000. Coming out of nowhere in 2000, David Gordon Greene’s debut re-introduced a specific regional aesthetic into what had become an “Anywhere, USA” approach to American indies. It also reminded American filmmakers that it was alright to fill the screen not with shot-reverse-shots of people talking constantly, or even with people, but with images of the environment and the surroundings that made up their lives (Tim Orr’s cinematography made the film the best-looking of this decade as well.) A film of the decaying American south, created with the pacing and eye of a Japanese master.

2. Funny Ha Ha, dir. Andrew Bujalski, 2002. With a battered 16mm camera and some friends, Andrew Bujalski’s deceptively casual debut followed Marnie, a young woman with nothing much to do, and all the time in the world to not do it in. With its observational shoulder-cam realism and uncanny feel for the flow (or lack thereof) of contemporary youth, it touchingly unveiled the endless chatter and awkward intimacies of a new generation of the over-educated and under-employed, and bore far more resemblence to Linklater’s 90’s favorite Slacker than what it later became known for spawning, a “mumblecore” movement that shared its constant dialogue and monotonously white casting net, but often lacked its wit, pacing, and heart.

3. 10 Skies/13 Lakes, dir. James Benning, 2004. These two experimental features by legendary filmmaker James Benning (father of riot grrrl/Pixelvision icon Sadie) were as self-explanatory as their titles: images of 10 skies, or 13 lakes, but within them lay a beauty and a peace (and a true sense of life) rarely seen onscreen. To say that “anyone could film this stuff” is to miss the point; anyone could try, but very few do, and none have succeeded as Benning has in creating a work that echoes the nature, life, and awe of the American landscape.

4. Man Push Cart (2005) & Chop Shop (2007), dir. Rahmin Bahrani. Many films took place in New York City during the past decade, but few captured its energy, pace, and the struggle of its citizens to survive than these two vibrant films by Ramin Bahrani. These works, along with Sean Baker’s Prince of Broadway, will define NYC in 2000’s the same way that Taxi Driver defines our image of NYC in the ‘70s.

And then, in alphabetical order…
Better Luck Tomorrow, dir. Justin Lin, 2002. It’s easy to forget how game-changing this Asian American indie was when it debuted in 2002; its blend of valedictorians-gone-awry, suburban tract-home rebellion, and high school Tarantino’isms, added to a fierce declaration of Asian American identity, made even MTV sit up and pay attention (the company distributed the film), and served notice that Asian American filmmaking (and filmmakers, and film stars) were not only here, but ready to f**k you up.

Cinnamon, dir. Kevin Jerome Everson, 2006. Georgia-based filmmaker Everson has been making experimental shorts, documentaries and features for over a decade; his films illuminate, as he puts it, “the relentlessness of everyday life,” the gestures, rhythms, and places of black working-class America, and the pride and grace found within. A mechanic lovingly working on a car; a bank teller going through her day; correctional officers pacing a prison walls: he contemplatively turns his camera towards the worlds that most artists ignore, but that the rest of us live in every day. Cinnamon, a portrait of drag-racing in a Southern African American community, is his feature.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore) & Super-Size Me (Morgan Spurlock). Michael Moore introduced and perfected the one-man-with-a-camera- wrecking crew ideal in his Roger and Me, and gave it its most powerful form in the embitted Fahrenheit 9/11. Morgan Spurlock’s disarming one-man-campaign to eat his body into dis-repair, Super-Size Me, was a worthy successor to Moore’s cinema, and for better or worse paved the way for the parade of foodie-conscious documentaries of today.

The Foot Fist Way, dir.Jody Hill, 2006. This droll rural-Americana merging of martial arts and middle-aged breakdown features a small-town Tae Kwon Do instructor (Danny McBride, in one of his first starring roles) on his way to losing his mind and his bimbo of a wife, but who’s (almost) kept sane by his undying, utterly incorrect belief in his own talent. With the relentlessly mustachiod McBride unleashing a terrifyingly spot-on impersonation of Suburban Homo Sapiens (complete with khaki-shorts-and-white-loafers suburban-man outfit), The Foot Fist Way is not only funnier than any independent film made this decade, but funnier than any Hollywood film. Evidently worried about the competition, Will Ferrell and his production shingle Gary Sanchez Productions picked up the film for release, and added McBride and director Jody Hill to their stable of talent.

Grizzly Man, dir. Werner Herzog, 2005. A nature film that says more about humanity than nature. Herzog takes the footage left behind by naturalist/lost man Timothy Treadwell, who lived with the bears of Alaska, and turns it into an investigation of not only the natural world, but humanity’s, vision of it. Marrying the visuals of the most intimate Wildlife Channel special one could ever see (the film, in fact, was funded by Discovery Channel) to a psychological portrait of a possibly “lost” man, Grizzly Man becomes a debate between two filmmakers, Treadwell and Herzog, with the latter asking questions of the former, and finding answers only in the images left behind. “Here I differ with Treadwell,” Herzog intones at one point. “I believe the common denominator of nature is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder.”

In Between Days, dir. So Young Kim, 2007. This icy Canadian psychological study follows a young immigrant teen set adrift in the dead of a Toronto winter; marrying a Dardennes Brothers sense of relentless realism to an eerie grasp of nature and environment (the crunch of ice and snow under the heroine’s boots is more omnipresent than any human voice), this debut announced a formidable talent in director So Yong Kim (who later made Treeless Mountain) and producer Bradley Rust Gray (responsible for the wondrous The Exploding Girl).

Me, You, and Everyone We Know, dir. Miranda July, 2005. The best of the “quirky little people in our quirky little town” subgenre of independent filmmaking (see: Napoleon Dynamite; Little Miss Sunshine, etc), due to its memorable aura of sadness, strangeness, and hope. Less interested in the usual indie-film expose of suburban life, July instead focuses on the magical strangeness of everyday living, of children who want to become adults, of the old hoping to reclaim their youth, and of all of us, and everyone we know, hoping to be loved.

Sleep Dealer, dir. Alex Rivera, 2008. This little-seen sci-fi epic about a future where companies controlled the global water supply and Mexican immigrants did American’s crap work not in person, but through cyber-power beamed over the border (“we get the labor, not the bodies,”) did the impossible: through new technologies and visual effects, it created a glossy, highly believable sci-fi future with about 1/100th of the budget of a Hollywood film, and, like the best science fiction, addressed the contemporary fissures of American society.

The Subconscious Art of Graffitti Removal, dir. Matt McCormick, 2001. The most inventive, comical idea I’ve seen in film this decade, Matt McCormick’s arid 15-minute docu-fiction dryly proposes that the efforts to paint over graffiti on urban streets are, in fact, a form of subconscious art. Not just a tongue-in-cheek novelty, this short (narrated by Miranda July) calls into question all ideas of art, art appreciation, and the strange beauty that can be found even on highway underpasses or the sides of city busses.

Old Joy (2006) & Wendy & Lucy (2008), dir. Kelly Reichardt. Reichardt dragged the American indie out of its comfy shell and straight into the woods of the Pacific Northwest, where it uncovered trash-strewn mountain-sides and most of all an ignored, little-seen, but ever-growing American underclass, individuals who were either shut out of the economy, or who just preferred to ignore it completely.

Tarnation, dir. Jonathan Caouette, 2003. Seemingly forgotten now, Caouette’s stunning documentary, famously created on a home computer, opened the way for first-person, highly personal documentaries, though few matched Tarnation’s intensity and fever pitch. “Tarnation is designed to mimic my thought processes so the audience can feel like they’re in a living dream,” wrote Caouette, “which can be scary and intense, but also beautiful and glorious.” Such adjectives certainly apply to Tarnation, but sadly to few other American documentaries.

Top American independents, studio creations:

1. Before Sunset, dir. Richard Linklater, 2004. This Julie Delpy/Ethan Hawke sequel to Before Sunrise was utterly unlike any Hollywood romance before it, and is unlike any Hollywood romance made afterwards. No gay best friends, no moments of high comedy with blundering relatives; instead, just a measured, melancholy take on love, loss, and coming to terms not only with what your life didn’t become, but what it probably never will be.

2. Mulholland Drive, dir. David Lynch, 2001. You may have heard of this film. There’s been enough written on it, but suffice to say that decades from now, people will be thinking, “Wow, 2001 was a great year for American film, if it made, released, and made successful a film like Mulholland Drive.”

3. Being John Malkovich, dir. Spike Jonze. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind may have done American Strange better and bigger, but Being John Malkovich paved the way; before its success, no one could have believed the country was ready for Charlie Kaufman’s bizarre scripts and Spike Jonze’s skateboard surrealism. (Editor’s Note: Being John Malkovich placed on our poll but was removed because it was released at the end of 1999.)

4. When the Levee Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, dir. Spike Lee, 2006. Made for HBO but given a limited release in festivals, Lee’s powerful documentary on Hurricane Katrina is still the greatest work on one of the greatest of 21st century American tragedies. Personal and political, filled with both rage and quiet intelligence, it’s a testament to a city, and to filmmaking.

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