Hurray for Indiewood!

Al Gore and "Little Miss Sunshine" shone brightest at the box office. But which indie films did we warm to the most?

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 28, 2006 1:00PM (EST)

"Today's film marketplace is screwed up," says Marc Mauceri, vice president of First Run Features, a distributor in New York that specializes in foreign-language art films and other niche-market cinema. "It's totally overpopulated. Sometimes you get 10 or 12 movies opening in a given week. That's crazy. All the editors in all the papers are making reviews shorter, and the critics are sick of reviewing all these fucking films. How do all these people [i.e., distributors] stay in business?"

Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, a "mini-major" indie distributor founded in 2005, takes a different view. "I'm really excited and optimistic, both about the past year and the one ahead of us," he says. "We're seeing a continued expansion of the indie audience and higher levels of grossing potential. Films that don't follow a formula and that demand a creative marketing approach -- this is the time for those films. "

These guys are respected veterans of the independent film business. When you talk to them, you can tell they're both movie lovers first and businessmen second. They're describing exactly the same phenomenon: the chaotic profusion of films, distributors and venues that makes it so tough to figure out whether there's a good flick to catch on Friday night -- and whether you need to stand in line at a theater, buy it as an add-on to a PlayStation game or receive it as a laser transmission from the moons of Jupiter. How you judge the confusing marketplace for independent film in 2006, it seems, depends very much on where you're standing.

If 2005 belonged to the gay cowboys and the penguins, this year's indie-film symbol is even odder: a chunky, likable guy in a suit that doesn't fit quite right, giving a PowerPoint lecture about climate change. Actually, "Little Miss Sunshine," the cheerfully off-kilter comedy about a dysfunctional family's road trip, made almost three times as much money as did Al Gore's showcase, "An Inconvenient Truth." But it didn't shift public opinion on an issue of world-historical importance, nor did it perfectly, if accidentally, crystallize the widespread discontent with an arrogant and disconnected president.

Beyond a few obvious hits -- we might also mention "A Prairie Home Companion," "Thank You for Smoking" and "The Queen" -- patterns were difficult to discern in Indiewood, and paradoxical as well. Was it the best of times or the worst of times? As in Dickens, both things can be true. In the wake of 2005's supposed indie breakthrough with "Crash," "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," etc., everyone in the business now expects Oscar-worthy films to emerge outside the big studios' production and distribution systems. Berney's Picturehouse, for instance (which is ultimately owned by Time Warner), released "A Prairie Home Companion" last spring, and hopes to have another hit with "Pan's Labyrinth," perhaps the most eagerly anticipated film of the holiday season.

Mini-majors like Picturehouse, Focus Features (owned by NBC Universal), Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics and Warner Independent are where most of the genuine energy and excitement in Hollywood is found these days. These companies operate without interference from studio overlords, for the most part, and they're run by people who know and love movies. They also obviously benefit from the deep pockets and business clout of their corporate parents, and they have resources that smaller, free-standing distributors like First Run (or Zeitgeist or New Yorker or Palm Pictures or THINKFilm or a dozen smaller companies I could name) can only dream about. Mauceri argues that the mini-majors and their films, including "Little Miss Sunshine" and "An Inconvenient Truth," should be viewed, at least in business terms, as "a side strategy of the Hollywood conglomerates. Those companies are able to take out half-page, full-color ads in the New York Times," he goes on. "That's not an independent film. That's not the business I work in. You might as well say that 'Flags of Our Fathers' and 'Apocalypto' are independent films."

The term "independent film" has hovered on the edge of meaninglessness for many years, in fact, and 2006 might be the year it finally fell off the cliff. The Independent Spirit Awards has dropped the label, after its list of honorees last year virtually duplicated the Oscars. What we have today in the market formerly known as indie (MFKI) is a two-tier caste system, with the levels almost entirely disconnected from each other.

Even the most erudite film snob will have to admit that the mini-majors acquire (or produce) and distribute an admirable range of interesting, sometimes surprising films. They all take certain chances with adventurous fare: "Duck Season," a Mexican film in black-and-white that made my 10-best list (and attracted almost no audience) was released by Warner Independent, and Sony Classics released the gritty, wrenching "L'Enfant," an award winner at Cannes but a stiff in the American marketplace. But the mini-major raison d'être, from a business standpoint, is to churn out midbudget, upscale prestige pictures with at least some star appeal -- think "Babel" and "The Queen" and "Bobby" and "Little Children" -- aimed at awards season. (Of course, those don't always work either. Paging "Marie Antoinette"!)

Meanwhile, smaller MFKI distributors like First Run and the others fight like street rats over a crust of bread, trying to grab a microsecond of the public's and the media's attention for their rosters of foreign imports, low-profile documentaries and zero-budget American dramas. "I think it's getting harder and harder to promote small films, especially foreign films," says Sophie Gluck, a New York publicist who works with many different distributors. "When they're not happy stories or fairy tales, or when you don't have a hot director and a sexy star, the way you do with 'Volver' or 'Curse of the Golden Flower,' it makes for a pretty tough sell."

Consider that First Run's success story this year was "49 Up," the latest documentary in Michael Apted's "Seven Up" series. It premiered at the New York Film Festival, was marvelously reviewed, played in a few big-city markets and is now selling strongly on DVD. Its United States theatrical gross was about $238,000. Meanwhile, Mary Harron's film "The Notorious Bettie Page" grossed roughly six times that much money for Picturehouse -- and was considered a major disappointment.

There are economies of scale at work here that aren't always obvious: "49 Up" played at a handful of theaters (and only in digital format, not on film), so expenses were low and per-screen returns were quite decent. "The Notorious Bettie Page," on the other hand, was widely promoted and opened in dozens of cities because Picturehouse thought the film might become a crossover hit, so it needed to make much more money to turn a profit. The two movies literally weren't playing in the same league.

Actually, most of the indie insiders I spoke to were upbeat about their own 2006 projects, even if they offered a more skeptical assessment of the year's films, or the MFKI scene as a whole. Ken Eisen of Shadow Distribution, a small company in Waterville, Maine, followed his off-the-radar hit of 2005, "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," with "Heading South," a French-language drama about female sex tourism in 1970s Haiti. It grossed almost $900,000, an outstanding result for a foreign film by a little-known director whose star (the still-glamorous Charlotte Rampling) is 60 years old.

Still, Eisen says he sees "a great timorousness in the audience overall. I'd like to think that's changing, but I'm not at all confident it is. Whatever virtues 'Little Miss Sunshine' may or may not possess, people went to see it because it promised a good time. I don't want to hark back to a golden age that didn't exist, but there was a time when viewers for certain kinds of movies looked to be shook up, genuinely stirred. I do feel like the audience overall is emotionally less adventurous."

Mark Cuban, the billionaire software tycoon who has brought vertical integration to the MFKI business by simultaneously owning Magnolia Pictures, the Landmark theater chain and the HDNet cable network (among many other things), calls 2006 "a great year" for his empire. "Our Landmark Theatres business really benefited from an expanding number of adult titles that fit our demographic perfectly," he wrote me by e-mail. "Disappointments are consistent with what they always are in the movie business: 1) It costs too much to promote a movie, and 2) the theater industry sits back and lets everyone take potshots at us. We don't as a group promote the fun and excitement of going to the movies."

Cuban has become a lightning rod for criticism in the indie world, largely because he has so much money and so much power and came to the business as an outside entrepreneur rather than an insider steeped in film history. His experiment with releasing films in theaters, on DVD and on pay-per-view cable at the same time (known in the business as "day-and-date" release) got a lot of ink this time last year. In practice it turned out to be an enigmatic footnote to the year in film, rather than the lightning bolt that would transform moviegoing.

"It was a great marketing angle for 'Bubble,'" says Bob Berney, referring to the no-budget Steven Soderbergh film that became Cuban's test case. "Is it going to change the world? That came and went, but the possibilities are still out there."

"For a lot of people in the business," Marc Mauceri adds, "'Bubble' looked like a failure. Convincing theater owners to play movies on a day-and-date release is the big issue there. Some exhibitors are going to stand their ground." Indeed, most indie-oriented theaters (at least the ones not owned by Cuban) have strongly resisted closing the traditional "window" between theatrical and DVD release. New York's Film Forum, the most important venue in the country for artistically adventurous film, won't play movies with less than a six-month window. For "49 Up," First Run was able to persuade exhibitors to accept a six-week window, but that remains rare.

Cuban says his companies will release 10 to 12 day-and-date films in 2007, and promises that budgets for production, acquisition and promotion will increase. Those films will still probably screen exclusively at Landmark's theaters, but he owns almost 60 of those. "So if the big chains continue to gang up against us and jointly exclude day-and-date," he says, "we can still be very successful."

Despite his reputation in certain circles as the guy who would demolish moviegoing, let's remember that Cuban actually owns a theater chain that shows films aimed almost exclusively at adult audiences. He wants you to buy tickets at your local Landmark movie house, and he insists that home video, no matter how swift and how good the technology gets, will never replace the theatrical experience. As he often tells film-biz audiences, perhaps in order to shock them: "Theaters are not in the movie business, we are in the date business."

In fairness, the question Cuban has tried to raise with day-and-date remains unanswered. Potential viewers outside the big-city or college-town date demographic, such as families with small children, older or disabled people and those who live far from metropolitan centers, don't get to see the kinds of movies I write about in this column until many months later, when they may have forgotten them or lost interest. Maybe those people wouldn't increase the total audience significantly. But there are a lot of struggling filmmakers who would love to find out.

Speaking of those struggling filmmakers, and the rarefied date demographic willing to sample their work, how did the year go for, you know, actual movies? Even allowing for the hits I've already mentioned (none of which makes my personal 10-best list), it has been an odd and unbalanced 12 months. I hardly saw anything after about June that really rocked my world. Other than "Volver" and "Pan's Labyrinth," the fall season's two obvious winners, almost every prestige picture of the last few months has been kind of a chore. Earnest, noble in intention, sometimes visually or thematically appealing, always competently made? Check, yes, all of that. But I'm sorry, that's not enough.

Good movies are supposed to engage us visually, emotionally and intellectually, all at the same time. "An Inconvenient Truth" didn't make my list, but against all odds it connected on two of those three levels. My three most exciting movie-watching moments of this year came with "Pan's Labyrinth," which I saw in a roomful of jaded Cannes critics who acted like 14-year-old boys at the latest Bond film; "Half Nelson," which I'm really grateful I saw in a theater with paying customers; and the obscure German film "Agnes and His Brothers," which I watched on DVD from the comfort of my couch (and which knocked me off it).

Even so, I've had a tough time whittling the 280 or so films I saw this year down to 10 (or even 20). As always, I practice affirmative action and I'm not ashamed about it. If two films are roughly even in my mind, I'll favor the one that met a cruel commercial fate, or the one you've probably never heard of, or the one that, in my arrogant and completely subjective opinion, deserves rescue from unfair criticism. I'd love to see your own lists and hear your comments, outraged or otherwise. Happy New Year, everybody.

1. "Pan's Labyrinth"
Undoubtedly some critical backlash will have kicked in against this movie by the time you read this. Nothing this universally beloved by so many people in the film business can avoid that fate. Well, nuts to that. Guillermo del Toro, the oddball Mexican auteur beloved by fanboys for "Hellboy" and "Blade II," has finally made his masterpiece, and not a moment too soon.

Interlocking the fantasies bred by a teenage girl's fascination with fairy tales and the grim real-life story of her fascist stepfather (the terrifying Sergi López), pursuing the last Republican holdouts in the Spanish mountains, might seem incoherent, or overly schematic. I think it works so beautifully because the two stories become each other: the political story becomes a fairy tale, in which the Spanish people will outlast and throw down Franco's regime, and the fantastic monsters turn out to be real.

Ken Eisen of Shadow Distribution (who has no connection to this film) describes it as the one semi-commercial picture of 2006 to possess the vibrancy, terror and thrilling confidence of the challenging art films he grew up loving, like Bertolucci's "The Conformist." I can't say it any better; this picture alone redeemed the phoniness, hassle and sunstroke of Cannes. But if "Pan's Labyrinth" is a movie for movie buffs, it's also a generous, bighearted picture that should appeal to a wide audience of regular folks. Take grandma, if she's OK with murderous fascists and eyeless child-eating monsters.

2. "Agnes and His Brothers"
I've been lauding this thrilling, disturbing and maddeningly inconsistent German movie to the skies, to no discernible effect, since it was (very briefly) first released. Marc Mauceri at First Run now says he never thought it would work, and, boy howdy, he was right. Let's see: One brother in Oskar Roehler's film is a transsexual (hence the bewildering title), another is a dorky, porn-addicted librarian, and the third is a workaholic, quasi-corrupt politician. The tone veers from madcap sex farce to torch song to murderous family satire, and the debts to Almodóvar, Fassbinder and, especially, "American Beauty" are so clear they feel like rip-offs. Sounds golden, right? (Total reported U.S. gross: $2,731. No lie!) "Agnes" is a prickly, ambitious high-wire act that doesn't always work, but is always trying to piss you off and mess with your head. If you're exactly the right person for that sort of thing, go get it. (Roehler directed a previous film called "Suck My Dick." I can't wait to see it!)

3. "Half Nelson"
Hey, if there's a poster child this year for the continued vibrancy of indie film, this is it. The hype is deserved: Ryan Gosling's agonized performance as a well-intentioned white teacher in a Brooklyn, N.Y., junior high -- OK, so he smokes a little crack in the bathroom after hours! -- is some of the noblest acting you'll see in any movie, big or small. At virtually every step, director Ryan Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden evade cliché for complexity: in the terrific performances of Shareeka Epps (as the serious-minded seventh grader who befriends the teacher) and Anthony Mackie (as the upstanding family man and drug dealer), in photographing their beaten-down urban setting, and in the exquisite delivery of that memorable knock-knock joke. And while the mode of gritty realism at first seems familiar, this is also a movie with Brechtian interruptions and lectures on the Marxist dialectic. I can't wait to see it again.

4. "Volver"
The plot may be torn from Spanish soap opera, but the emotions are real and the all-female cast (winner of a collective award at Cannes) is dazzling. As director Pedro Almodóvar has chivalrously announced, star Penélope Cruz is possessed of "the finest cleavage in world cinema," which she displays early and often in this role as a Madrid working-class woman confronting sexual abuse, a murder she must cover up, impromptu restaurant management and the visitations of her dead mother. Carmen Maura is wonderful as the not-so-spectral mom, but you'll also fall in love with Lola Dueñas, playing Cruz's oddball sister, and reedy, resilient Yohana Cobo as her daughter. Marvelously photographed in Almodóvar's home region, the central Castilian plain of La Mancha, land of wind, widows, madness and Don Quixote.

5. "The Proposition"
This terrific "outback western" from Australian director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, the alt-rock legend) resurrected the dying genre much more effectively, to my taste, than Tommy Lee Jones' likable but miscellaneous "Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." Impressively bloody and fatalistic, as you'd expect from Cave, but also a sophisticated film with an intelligent gloss on Aussie history and a finely honed moral sense. The outstanding cast is headed by Ray Winstone as the English-born lawman and Guy Pearce as the outlaw who must betray one brother to save another, with fine work also from Emily Watson and Danny Huston. Shot in glorious wide-screen format by Benoît Delhomme. Did only $2 million in U.S. box office despite high expectations; just too depressing for the masses, I guess.

6. "Friends With Money"
I'm not sure a film that was the opening-night feature at Sundance and then did $13 million in business can be called underappreciated. Lots of directors would give their left nut for that. Nicole Holofcener didn't have a left nut to start out with, which may be the problem. Once and for all, people: This. Was. Not. A. Chick Flick. Yeah, I know, Jennifer Aniston was in it, and that horrifies some of you, for reasons I won't try to understand. But "Friends With Money" establishes Holofcener as the most viable heir to the Bergman-Woody Allen tradition on the American film scene. It's a sometimes ruthless, sometimes compassionate and generally dark satire about the edge of middle age, driven by outrageously good performances from Frances McDormand (with ratty, unwashed hair), Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, Aniston (yes! even her!), and a fine supporting cast of husbands and other losers. Also an interesting combination of wide-screen format and intimate, hand-held camerawork.

7. "Duck Season"
This is the part of any top-10 list that starts to get random -- how clear is the difference between No. 7 and No. 12? I really loved Fernando Eimbcke's "Duck Season" when I saw it, and if it ranks no higher than this, the year can't have been so bad after all. "Duck Season" is a classic example of a movie that was adored at film festivals but could find no general audience. A black-and-white film from Mexico with a confusing title (it isn't about ducks, or hunting), starring two unknown teenagers, that takes place almost entirely in a high-rise apartment building. If I tell you that Eimbcke's inspiration for "Duck Season" was drawn equally from "Stranger Than Paradise" and "The Breakfast Club," that starts to sound interesting (in fact, that's a really good summary of the film), but somebody at Warner Independent was smokin' something if they thought it would play in Peoria. A strange, warm, meticulously crafted little film, one of this year's totally unexpected delights.

8. "Lady Vengeance"
Warm up those angry-e-mailin' fingers, fanboys. Yes, I think Park Chanwook's "Lady Vengeance" is by far the best film in his "Oldboy" trilogy. That's partly for the amazing lead performance of Lee Yeong-ae (a major Korean pop star) as its vengeful, beautiful and guilt-ridden heroine. But even more for its somber, wintry tone and lovely cinematography. It's as if Park has finally realized that those lovingly worked-out revenge fantasies of his earlier films come at a price much steeper than he had imagined. Almost as violent as "Oldboy" or "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance," but none of the carnage seems purely formal, or free of shame.

9. "Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple" Maybe you had to be there, in San Francisco in 1978 (as I was), but Stanley Nelson's documentary was one of the truly wrenching experiences of my year, and takes its place as by far the best and clearest exploration of one of recent American history's darkest corners. You may know that 909 people killed themselves in Guyana that year, in what is probably the largest mass suicide in recorded history. You may have heard of the Rev. Jim Jones and his Christian-socialist People's Temple. As Nelson makes clear, the people who died in Guyana were not freakazoid hippie cultists, but idealistic liberal-to-radical Americans who believed in multiracial democracy. That horrible day in the jungle was when the most beautiful dreams of the '60s drank the Kool-Aid and died.

10. "Rolling Family" Forget "Little Miss Sunshine." If you really want to put the fun back in dysfunctional family, and take a road trip as well, this is the movie for you. Argentine director Pablo Trapero's semiautobiographical opus takes a large, disheveled and discordant family from Buenos Aires to the Brazilian border in a jury-rigged Chevy camper (the very one Trapero's father built and rebuilt). The scope of "Rolling Family" is operatic and the characters are memorable, and the comedy ranges from slapstick to profound sweetness. Trapero casts members of his real family (including his grandmother) alongside actors, and the result is an intimacy and genuineness unlike anything else I saw at the movies this year. Another festival favorite that barely played in theaters.

Honorable mentions: "Brick," "The Bridge," "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," "4," "Iraq in Fragments," "Jesus Camp," "L'Enfant," "Lunacy," "The Road to Guantánamo," "A Scanner Darkly."

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For more Salon year-end stories, click here.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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