Independent cinema: so much to choose from! I found these ten films to be the most striking examples of contemporary independent filmmaking – films that you won’t find showing at your local multiplex – and films that have been made during my lifetime. These are all highly recommended and I urge you to see as many as you can, if you haven’t already.
Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light is a slow film. There are no gimmicks and there is no soundtrack. It is, instead, beautiful, engrossing and stark. Every moment is to be cherished – from the sunrise at the start of the film, to the sunset at the end. Known for his long, still shots and unknown actors, Reygadas tells the story of a married man, Johan, who falls in love with another woman – Marianne. What is most interesting, is that Johan isn’t a womaniser. Equally, Marrianne is not the kind of woman to steal husbands; and Johan’s wife, Ester, is good and kind – she’s not the kind of woman to drive her husband away – Johan loves her too. It’s a unique film that appeals to your compassion through candid documentation. Revered by audiences and critics alike, this film would go on to sweep the Jury Prize at Cannes; and was named by Roger Ebert as one of the best films of the 2000s.
This is one of those rare films that begins with the conclusion: officials break into an apartment to find the body of an elderly woman lying on a bed, wreathed in flowers. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) live in an elegant apartment in France. They are an attractive couple in their eighties, intelligent, sensitive and in love. Early on in the film, Anne suffers the first of two strokes. Georges promises he will never put Anne in a hospital, so takes it upon himself to look after her. As her life slowly ebbs away, so does her identity, and Georges is forced to watch as the foundations of their love is disassembled before his eyes.
Amour earned Michael Haneke his second Palm D’Or, and for good reason: his unflinching look at ageing, illness and love is as sharp and as cold as his previous works, but told with a tenderness, an understanding that some of his earlier works lack. It is deeply moving, unsentimental and unapologetic.
Three Colours: Red
Red is Krzysztof Kieslowski’s final instalment to his breathtaking Three Colours Trilogy. The basic plot involves a model named Valentine (Irene Jacob) who runs over a dog. This incident initiates her meeting with a retired judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) whom she finds out eavesdrops in on his neighber’s telephone conversations. Parallel to this story, we follow an aspiring judge who is in love with a woman who will later betray him. The plot of Red isn’t linear; there are no heros and villains. Instead, the story mimics the intricacies of everyday life, making the film far more fascinating and intricate than the classic three-part film: anything could happen. Kieslowski’s cinematographer, Piotr Sobocinski, is masterful. The camera picks out the small and beautiful things that are easily missed, and lingers on them. This mirrors the story of Red: it’s the minute things, the fleeting moments that make up the texture of life.
The Dardenne brother’s Rosetta was awarded Palm D’or and Best Actress at Cannes in 1999. It tells the story of a young girl who lives with her alcoholic mother in a caravan. The film’s title character is a determined girl, and a very resourceful one. She does what she has to survive – she is on the very edge of disaster, and wants to avoid this at all costs. Candid and plain in its delivery, Rosetta doesn’t demand sympathy, but eases it out of you nevertheless. Highly recommended.
Emir Kusturica’s tour de force – Underground – takes you on a raucous trip through Yugoslavian history. Originally created as a five-part television series running at 320 minutes, the film version runs at just under three hours. Underground takes place over several decades, and follows two communist friends – Blacky and Marko – through drunken nights, dubious business deals and a shared love for a beautiful actress. After World War Two, they are forced to take refuge in a subterranean shelter with a mixture of other people from the town. The war ends, and Marko and the actress convince everyone that it is still going on. Riotous and completely original, Underground went on to win the Palm D’Or at Cannes.
Secrets and Lies
Told with humour and care, British director Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies is another Palm D’or winner. Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn) is a working class woman with two children. She lives in London, has no partner, and works an unfulfilling job in a box factory. One day, she receives a telephone call from her adopted daughter, whom she has had no contact with since birth – she didn’t even look at her after birth. Cynthia arranges to meet her, initiating a difficult process of admissions, honesty and truths – unacknowledged truths that have slowly been destroying the family. As Scorsese’s films epitomise New York, Leigh’s films sensitively portray everyday life London and the intricacies of family life.
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
Set in South Korea, this entire film takes place in and around a small house floating in the centre of a lake. The house can be reached, and left, by means of a small boat. Living in the house is a monk and a small boy – his apprentice, who is expected to carry on after the monk. The film chronicles the life of the boy and the lessons he is taught through the seasons and the years. Universal in its themes, the film covers the whole spectrum of human emotion, from extremity to polar extremity. This is a deeply moving, timeless film.
The is, without a doubt, one of the most bizarre films I have ever seen (coming in second only to Alejandro Jodorowski’s The Holy Mountain). Surreal to highest degree, it retains some order through its script: Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. It’s too bizarre to be disturbing on a personal level, but disturbing it is, nonetheless – in a kind of hallucinogenic-nightmarish way. Using a combination of stop-motion, puppets and real actors, Jan Svankmajer’s grubby offering tells the legend of Faust – the man who sold his soul to the devil.
Another one from the acclaimed Dardenne brothers, L’Enfant tells the story of a young couple – Bruno (Jérémie Renier) and Sonia (Déborah François) who survive on benefits and money earned from petty crime committed by Bruno’s gang. When Sonia has a baby, Bruno seems unaffected. In a shocking turn of events, he tragically decides to sell the baby on the black market. The baby is left in a bleak room in an empty building, and sold: Bruno treats the baby as he would treat any of the other goods he steals. As with Rosetta, L’Enfant is objective in its portrait, avoiding a moralistic stance – the audience is forced to simply take a passive role: not once do with identify with Bruno, we simply observe. Camerawork is particularly effective here – sometimes it is a handheld camera focussing on the couple, other times it is still, focusing soley on Bruno. As with the Dardenne’s other works, we are provided with no solutions, answers or conclusions – only questions that we must answer ourselves.
The Bed you Sleep in
This really is a most extraordinary film. I found it in the university film library back when I was studying English Literature in 2009: this little gem was nestled in what looked like a knock-off dvd case – the cover looked like it had been designed using clip art. I had no idea quite how obscure it was until I made this list: research has yielded very few reviews and very little information.
Set in a sleepy American town, this film dissects the American dream through its candid study of an American family and the town in which they live. One day, a shocking accusation arrives, sending the family spiraling into despair and tragedy. But who is telling the truth? Camerawork seems telling here, but it is ultimately left to the viewer’s discretion; conversations are delivered in a realist style, reminiscent of Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. Far from stark, however, this film uses colour and exquisite cinematography to imbue its portrait of tragedy with a kind of stillness. The film is quiet in tone, and highly textured in its delivery. Directed by Jon Jost, it can be bought directly from his website and from Amazon.