The best indie movies of 2007

Andrew O'Hehir picks the most underappreciated, and most amazing, films to come out of indie-land this year

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published December 28, 2007 12:00PM (EST)

There must be some kind of human tendency to seek intellectual convergence that kicks in, I suspect, whenever movie critics (or ordinary citizens) start concocting year-end top-10 lists. Maybe pop-science genius Malcolm Gladwell has a name for this phenomenon, but it can be both as subtle and as hard to resist as the flowing current of a river. You might not notice the force of this opinion-suck, even as it sweeps you off your feet and pulls you downstream in a rushing torrent of groupthink. Even if you sense it and nobly struggle against it, that doesn't mean you've escaped its effects.

Maybe the term exists; maybe it's "herd mentality." Or brainwashing. Read enough of the top-10 lists that American movie critics put together, for one thing, and you might wonder whether a single damn film worth watching came out before the first of October. There are exceptions to this rule, naturally enough, but by and large the films that rack up the rave reviews and award nominations, and thereby begin to emanate "Oscar buzz" like some mutant horror-movie bumblebee, are films of a certain kind, released in a certain season.

It's not merely that these swooned-over movies are likely to be fall releases from the specialty divisions of the major studios (e.g., Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features and so on) or from the shrinking roster of midsize independent distributors. It's not just that they tend to be mid-budget productions packaged around serious-minded intentions, name directors and a handful of well-liked actors. That's all true, and it applies to most of the critical-fave releases of the past few years, from "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country for Old Men" to "The Queen" and "Babel" and "Little Children" and "Brokeback Mountain" and "Good Night, and Good Luck." Beyond that, these are movies that offer a specific kind of cinematic experience, and involve a specific understanding of what movies are supposed to be and how they should make you feel.

While reporting my recent year-end article on the state of the indie business, I had a conversation with Milos Stehlik, the director of Facets Multimedia, a company in Chicago that runs both an art-house theater and an adventurous home-video distributor. Somehow we got onto the topic of "No Country for Old Men." Neither of us actively disliked the film -- although I see it as maybe the third or fourth best of Joel and Ethan Coen's career -- but I confessed that I really wasn't sure why critics' groups across the country were proclaiming it as the be-all and end-all of cinema, circa 2007. "I have no problem with this movie," Stehlik said. "It's a lot of fun, it's wonderfully made, it's very accessible. But it's not the best movie in the world. It's a very complete and satisfying experience. It's a little bit like, 'Here's your burger and here's your fries.' It's a very consumer-driven experience."

OK, comparing a Coen brothers movie, especially one as bloody and fatalistic as this one, to the drive-through window at McDonald's is pretty harsh (even if Javier Bardem's hairdo is nearly as silly as Ronald's McFro). Stehlik's point was more that "No Country for Old Men," whether you find it terrific or sucky or in between, arrives in a familiar package, one that in its own way is just as well defined as the packaging for Hollywood's summer-sequel blockbusters. It's presented with a festival pedigree, rave reviews and tons of advertising as a "complete and satisfying" entertainment product aimed at upper-middlebrow adult viewers. Its aesthetic aims may be to thrill you and disturb you, to provoke pity and terror, perhaps even to spur a certain degree of thoughtfulness or introspection. (All of which are noble aims, by the way.) But it's not trying to uproot anybody's ideas about what movies are for, or how they should behave up there on the screen, or what watching them should feel like. It's not challenging the idea of moviegoing as a "consumer-driven experience."

I'm not arguing that all movies or most movies should be disorienting postmodern experiments or seven-hour contemplative exercises; I get that most people, most of the time, would rather see "Spider-Man 3" than "Our Hitler" (which really is a seven-hour experimental film you can buy from Facets). I am arguing, however, that most critics -- excepting all of my friends in the business, thank you very much -- have become passive receptors who may grumble occasionally about the overall quality of films they see but who accept without question the "Matrix"-like universe of the contemporary movie business, in which expertly packaged fall releases like "No Country" or "There Will Be Blood" are inherently more exciting, more valuable and therefore better than smaller films released earlier in the year. You'll see those two films at or near the top of a kajillion top-10 lists, but you'll have to dig hard and deep to find any mention of, say, Shane Meadows' "This Is England" or Andrea Arnold's "Red Road," both of them complete and satisfying entertainment experiences in their own right.

This may sound hopelessly old-fashioned, but once upon a time a critic's job was supposed to be to challenge received opinions and reject the homogenization of taste. Pauline Kael (with whom I mostly disagree, when it comes to the merits of specific films) built her whole career around angrily rejecting both the elitist self-flattery of the art-house audience taste and the lowest-denominator pandering of Hollywood. Jonathan Rosenbaum, to cite a critic with nearly an opposite orientation, has spent a lifetime championing the most ambitious strains of auteur cinema, where mainstream film brushes against avant-garde aesthetics and postmodern philosophy.

Over the years, veteran Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman has become known for his willfully heterogeneous top-10 lists, which sometimes seem, as one friend of mine jests, "to consist largely of Slovenian films that played one Thursday afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art." (In fairness, his No. 2 film last year was "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.") I'm not capable of emulating Hoberman's example, partly because I don't see the mind-boggling range of world cinema he does but mostly because I myself am trapped in the Indiewood matrix, just barely able to perceive the magnetic force of conformist opinion but not quite able to pull free of it.

When you resist one kind of orthodoxy, after all, you fall prey to another. If you're about to write a letter pointing out that most of the movies on my list for 2007 are obscure little indies that only a few snooty big-city intellectuals have even heard of, I'll save you the trouble. I always root for the underdog and grade on a curve in this annual exercise, and this year more than ever I practiced affirmative action on behalf of adventurous, difficult-to-categorize pictures that fared poorly in the marketplace. You could almost describe this as a list of the year's most underappreciated films, except that "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" (which I adored, but has now been masterfully hyped and packaged) definitely does not fit that description and the fate of the Romanian abortion thriller "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" has yet to be determined. (Read Stephanie Zacharek's 2007 top-10 list here.)

I live by my own code, just like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name in those spaghetti westerns. (I resemble him in many other ways too.) Everything on this list played in an honest-to-God American movie theater for at least a week, so there are no festival-only films or unreleased pictures. ("4 Months, 3 Weeks" qualifies because IFC snuck it into a Los Angeles theater for a one-week run before the holidays, although it won't open widely until next month.) Hey, it may be wrong or it may be right, but it's my code, even if it means that one of the movies on my list this year was on Stephanie Zacharek's list last year. (A prize for the first reader to take the trouble, and yes I'm serious.)

Video: Salon's favorite films of 2007

1. "Bamako" -- African director Abderrahmane Sissako returned to the courtyard of the house where he grew up in Bamako, Mali, to film this extraordinary, unclassifiable docudrama that addresses the driest and least dramatic material possible -- the debt crisis that has devastated Africa's economies in the post-colonial period. Sounds great, right? You're so there! Look, just give it a try; although "Bamako" played only in a few big-city theaters and college campuses, it sparked intense discussion everywhere it went, and it's a weird, wonderful, constantly surprising film. It focuses on a show trial, held in that Bamako courtyard -- and occasionally interrupted by goats, chickens, washerwomen and wedding parties -- pitting the international financial institutions against African society (with both sides represented by pompous, white-wigged Caucasian attorneys). It also includes a mock western called "Death in Timbuktu" starring Danny Glover, philosophical conversations about death, and a haunting subplot about a crumbling marriage and a beautiful, self-destructive nightclub singer. Sure, on one level "Bamako" is an intellectual film that shows the influence of Jean-Luc Godard and Ousmane Sembène, but if you're willing to ride with it, it's also a wry, witty and tragic experience with a dynamite emotional payoff.

2. "Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten" -- Of course it helps if you're a fan of the Clash ("the only band that mattered," circa London 1977) and its late frontman a chameleonic and troubled figure who died of a heart attack at age 50 in 2002. But in my admittedly partial judgment, English director Julien Temple has made the greatest film yet about the punk era and its lingering aftermath, and one of the very best documentaries about a pop musician and his cultural legacy. (Temple made two films about the Sex Pistols, including the excellent retrospective "The Filth and the Fury.") You could argue that "The Future Is Unwritten" isn't about Joe Strummer at all, although Temple clearly loved Strummer and strives to portray him in full. It's about the transformation of England in the 20th century, about the thwarted hopes and dreams of a misunderstood generation (misunderstood by itself, at least in part), about aging and mortality and about the strange wormholes of possibility that open in pop culture, and then close again.

3. "Romance & Cigarettes" -- OK, once in a while critics still do make a difference. Sony was going to dump John Turturro's downbeat but delightful "karaoke musical," a story of a working-class marriage in Queens, N.Y., in which James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon et al. sing along with 1960s pop hits, straight to DVD. But film-festival audiences loved it, and after flat-out raves from the New York Times and (ahem) a few other places, a brief engagement at Manhattan's Film Forum sold out almost every seat. So "Romance & Cigarettes" went on to become an amazing success story, earning millions of dollars and a best-director nomination for Turturro! OK, that happened in my fantasy universe. What actually happened was a modest, limited release that's still going strong in much of the country, which allowed thousands of people to see the most remarkable new film from any American director this year. I'll take it.

4. "Regular Lovers" -- As I wrote in defending French director Philippe Garrel's three-hour, black-and-white magnum opus about the Paris riots of 1968 during its exceptionally brief U.S. release last January, this is a movie that isn't about its purported plot (even when it pretends to have one). It's about spending time with Garrel's cast of stoned, romantic and cynical young drifters (headlined by his prodigiously handsome son Louis, a major star in France), walking the night streets of Paris with them in boredom or in terror, experiencing the subtext of their stupid political arguments, feeling the pull between lover and friend, between getting high and getting laid. "Regular Lovers" will bore some viewers past tears into insanity, but if you have the appetite for this kind of languorous, beautiful, mind-trip movie, this is one of the greatest European examples of recent years. Rapturously photographed in widescreen black-and-white (by William Lubtchansky), "Regular Lovers" may not teach you much about the history of youthful rebellion in 1968; it lets you know what the youthful rebellion of 1968 felt like, which is quite a different thing.

5. "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" -- At this point, you're either convinced already or you can't be. With a light touch never displayed (to my taste) in his über-macho painting, Julian Schnabel has turned the apparently bleak tale of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a magazine editor so badly paralyzed he could move only one eyelid, into one of the most beautiful and delightful cinematic experiences of the year. Full to the brim with visual inventiveness, and animated by a lighthearted transcendence you could call agnostic spirituality, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" expresses a simple, painful joy at the wonders of human perception. Often funny, resolutely warm and tragic without being depressing.

6. "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" -- Winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, this compact, marvelously made existential thriller from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu is almost the definition of a tough sell. Yeah, it's all true: It's a movie about two young women trying to set up an illegal abortion, in Romania, during the dying days of Nicolae Ceausescu's Communist dictatorship. But if "Romanian abortion flick" doesn't float your boat, try this line of thinking: Why is a story about two college-age girls planning an illegal and dangerous activity less tense or exciting than a film about two dudes planning to rob a bank or murder a rival? "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" isn't a movie about abortion; it isn't likely to change your views, whatever they are. It's a story about two ordinary young people (Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, both terrific) who must venture into the darkest corners of a corrupt society, putting their lives and futures at stake, and it's a note-perfect, Hitchcock-level exercise in cinematic pace and control.

7. "Red Road" -- I guess Andrea Arnold's startling debut, an erotic and claustrophobic thriller set amid the notorious housing projects of Glasgow, Scotland, was just too dark (and too subtitled) to make much of an impression outside the film-festival circuit, but it's one hell of a movie. Americans like their Brit imports to be either tweedy and comfortable drawing-room material or tales of aristocratic depravity. Part of the point of Arnold's film about a surveillance-camera operator (the amazing Kate Dickie) who becomes obsessed with a man she observes in the Red Road housing towers is that it could just as easily be happening in Los Angeles or Zagreb. Hot sex ensues, along with surprising twists and turns and a liberating conclusion.

8. "Forever" -- With the simplest of premises -- meeting the people who hang out in Paris' legendary Père Lachaise cemetery -- documentarian Heddy Honigmann (a Peruvian who now lives and works in Holland) has crafted one of the loveliest and most moving films I ever hope to see. Along with Werner Herzog, Errol Morris and Finnish director Pirjo Honkasalo, Honigmann belongs on that shortlist of documentary filmmakers whose work has the density and ambiguity of the most adventurous narrative films. She's a fantastic, if almost offhand, crafter of images, and even in daylight the faces of her subjects possess an almost spiritual luminosity. In profiling bereaved people who are tending the grave of a loved one, or the obsessives who visit Proust or Chopin or Modigliani (or some forgotten 19th century female poet) every day, Honigmann paints a joyous, enigmatic portrait of the border between life and death, which can at once seem so tragically impenetrable and so mystically porous.

9. "Zodiac" -- What good would a list like this be without one Hollywood sleeper? David Fincher's meta-serial-killer movie baffled mainstream audiences, and no wonder: It's a police procedural about a dead-end case, an unsolved murder mystery, and a story where virtue goes unrewarded and sin unpunished. It's also the best and most restrained movie of Fincher's career, a masterful use of sound and vision to evoke place and period -- San Francisco, in the late '60s and early '70s -- a haunting story about the price of obsession, and a visual puzzle-box full of wonderful performances (including one of Robert Downey Jr.'s best) and strange surprises.

10. "Killer of Sheep" -- Charles Burnett's legendary debut film, a nearly plotless black-and-white narrative inspired by Italian neorealism and shot in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in the mid-1970s, certainly isn't new. But it had never been officially released before this year, despite kicking around film festivals and college screening series ever since its Berlin premiere in 1981. Dramatically, this story about a sensitive but beaten-down African-American named Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) trying to rise above a life of poverty and toil is sometimes flat, and its acting is wildly uneven. But Burnett's unrehearsed, deep-focus street scenes are amazing, as are his wordless sequences set to a virtual history of African-American music. Both as pure cinema and as social document -- and most important, as a revolutionary reconception of what black American filmmakers could create on their own terms -- "Killer of Sheep" is a singular accomplishment, not quite like anything else in movie history.

Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: Julia Loktev's "Day Night Day Night" tells the haunting story of a suicide bomber in Times Square. David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen tackled the Russian mob in the moody "Eastern Promises," but audiences didn't follow. Austrian director Barbara Albert's hard-edged "Falling" was the year's most genuinely affecting female-friendship drama. Emanuele Crialese's gorgeous "Golden Door" turned the standard saga of Italian immigration into surrealist allegory. Jasmine Dellal's delightful "Gypsy Caravan" taught me more about Roma culture than I'd ever known -- and the music is a blast. Jennifer Baichwal's breathtaking "Manufactured Landscapes" follows photographer Edward Burtynsky into the world's most horrible industrial zones. John Carney's charming Irish musical "Once" was the year's irresistible sleeper hit. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Syndromes and a Century" is the gentlest, loveliest nonlinear narrative puzzler you'll ever see. Shane Meadows' extraordinary autobiographical drama "This Is England" recaptures his misspent skinhead youth. Wang Bing's "West of the Tracks," a nine-hour series of three vérité-style documentaries about industrial decay in China, will go down in history as one of that nation's greatest film accomplishments (when people are brave enough to watch it).

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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