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April 29, 2013 at 2:13 PMComments: 8 Faves: 0

Giving Independent Films a Try

By Jeff from SLN More Blogs by This Author

There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.

- Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington)

You may have already read last week’s blog about the shortfalls of movies with monster budgets, monster size casts, and, in all likelihood, monsters. But, that’s not to say a quality movie is so different that it’s unrecognizable. Movies are something to be enjoyed; really, I mean it. It may have been the Thomas Edison clan that gave us the video camera and the first pieces of film, but he was interested in spectacle. If you look at his company’s footage, you’ll likely view a cockfight – illegal even then - or girls in a pillow fight. The film industry of the west coast led by the likes of D.W Griffith put stories on film and found crowds growing in the movie houses, which translated into an industry…just forgive that KKK sympathetic epic Birth of a Nation.

A shift has occurred that favors spectacle over plot within today’s blockbusters, but there’s also story as good as there’s ever been…

Independent Film

Movies can entertain, yes, but they don’t have to be restricted to that single means. As I mentioned last week, they can move, enlighten, and inspire. And if that’s what you’re looking for, independent cinema might just be the best place to look for a fresh taste of great moments on film.

What makes them so great?

Ah yes. Well, the focus for those people behind independent movies is simply the pleasure of crafting a narrative that can be enjoyed visually and engaged mentally. Sure, some independent films are picked up by a major motion picture company and gain a nice payday, but the making of a movie without the benefit of deep pockets can push a director to find a unique script and writer to write an imaginative plot or unforgettable characters.

When, potentially, the most intriguing part of the movie is the story itself, imagine how much more work could potentially go into that script. That goes for creativity too. You want something new, something interesting? When money isn’t the main goal, the person writing the script doesn’t feel a need to stick to the accepted, yet often worn-out methods of today. As a result, imaginations are given free reign, and genres are reinvented. When this level of ingenuity is applied to a film, it’s hard to be boring. It becomes absorbing.

Don’t believe me?

As much as I enjoy telling you about the joys of indie movies, watching a good one is better than reading my praise. Independent filmmakers are putting some great films out there and experimenting with different aspects of their films:

  • The progression of the events, or plot, is one of the more obvious changes for a film but possibly one of the hardest to change and be understood. For example, it takes careful design for a film to jump between the past and present in a logical way. A movie that can be followed without work on the part of the audience actually takes a fair amount of effort.
  • Characters are another necessary element, but they have become increasingly complex. A character starts to feel real when he/she has multiple dimensions, but filmmakers are finding other ways to develop characters than their speech or actions, their environment is becoming a telling element in a character’s persona.   
  • Filmmakers also have to choose a way of presentation for the story: style. Tone could also describe this aspect of film, it’s term for the elemental features that a  color scheme or setting could provide. A good director will be purposeful with nearly every light, sound, or physical shape to create a full experience.

As a showcase of the more creative work in independent film, here are some movies that showcase experimentation but also serve to craft a better experience because of it:

Plot: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

This movie is unlike any other romantic comedy you’re likely to see, partially because of the physical mechanics of watching memories. Like Being John Malkovich, also written by Charlie Kaufman, this movie is absurdly comedic in certain situations, yet somber in the effects of relationships. With the assistance of a memory removal procedure, Jim Carrey’s character decides to delete all the memories he has with an ex, and the movie takes place primarily in his mind as he lives through the process of his memories’ removal. Despite this abstract scenario, the movie feels fluid and cohesive, but more than that. It’s heartbreakingly memorable.

Also try: Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, or Mulholland Drive

Characters: Drive

A movie by Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn (Only God Forgives), this story takes a principle character that’s stoic and silent, but don’t mistake silence for tedium. Every other character expertly fills in the emotion that the lead lacks, and Refn is gaining a reputation for brief scenes of violence that provide enough shock for the entire picture. Ryan Gosling plays a driver for hire - movies, heists, stock cars – that happens to get involved with the wrong people. Because of the driver’s (his name/background isn’t explained) modesty in emotion, the emotion he does show speaks volumes. Also, the beautiful night driving scenes of L.A. are captivating.

Style: Moonrise Kingdom

A film by one of the best known indie director/writers in the business: Wes Anderson. This director has made a name for himself with his previous films, including Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Royal Tenenbaums, with his quirky characters and unique situations, but also for the way he presents those elements. The dialogue always has a subtle wit with a comical logic. Notice the kids in this one plotting out their runaway, the directions are oddly specific.  Or kids picking up weapons, like a spiked bat, for “defense” as preparation before going out as search party. He likes to give the movies a personal quality by purposefully adding imperfections like handwritten lists, or pants that are too short. Everything feels flawed in an endearing way. The settings are always brightly colored and the music is often folksy, adding a cozy warmth.

Also try: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (be warned, it’s in French)

Where do I go next?

That is up to you my friend. I suggest that if you see a movie you like, find who directed and wrote it and investigate their other projects. You can also follow actors, but in my experience they tend to be less consistent with their work. Think of Darren Aronofsky. His movies, which include Black Swan, The Wrestler, and Requiem for a Dream, are consistently dark and psychological.  However, Marlon Wayans who plays a main role in Requiem for a Dream is also a lead character in White Chicks and the Scary Movie series. Actors seem to enjoy variety in their work more than directors do…that is unless it’s Stanley Kubrick.

I hope this give you a chance to open up your world, or at least have more options on Netflix. Happy viewing.

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  • I find it interesting that each of the movies you have spoken about in the last two entries had A-list actors in them Jeff. You have yet to list a movie that has an unknown cast and all the characteristics you find satisfying.

    That being said, I don't necessarily disagree with your views, but your approach may be slightly flawed. Say what you will, but a good script and the right actors make a movie, nothing more.

  • You make a good point. I agree that good writers and actors are necessary, but I would also hold the director accountable for coordinating the right mix of those two necessities. When I chose "Eternal Sunshine," "Drive," and "Moonrise Kingdom," I think was trying to make a list that was more of a transition than an outright immersion into indie films, opting to focus on only a few unfamiliar features to a new audience.

    However, if you aren't looking to hold onto any loyalties with familiar faces, I'll suggest a few films. "Mosters" is a good thriller/adventure/monster movie. "Primer" is a unique sci-fi that deals with time travel, but a lot is going on - I might suggest taking notes. Then there's "Mulholland Dr.," which I'll admit Naomi Watts is in, but it was before anyone knew who she was. That's movie a movie you can't be ready for, it intentionally breaks the assumed rules of character and plot, but it's well crafted and the experience means something different for everyone.

  • All three are excellent films, but you again bring up the idea of one personage making the movie (director), instead of the independent aesthetic that you argue for. For instance, take Darren Aronofsky. He had two excellent, low-budget films that put him on the map, but the budget for these movies should not erase the inherent genius behind "The Fountain" and "Black Swan."

    While I think it is certainly noble of you to argue for independent films, to discount a film because of the money spent on it is a bit of a stretch. From what I have read, your deeper argument deals with substance over glitz. If this is so, kudos and I could not agree more.

  • I'll accept your conditional praise, thank you. I did target movies backed by significant dollars, but you're right that money alone doesn't spoil a movie. Darren Aronofsky is an excellent of a director that showed talent early on and has found financial means because of it. I'm sure you're aware of other directors that have had a similar rise (I mentioned Christopher Nolan last week). I think that the indie movie scene can serve as a proving ground for emerging talent, and I'm very happy that's the case. As a result of these filmmakers' rising success, their talent has been applied on a larger scale with major studios.

    I think I just have soft spot for indie films because of their bravery to explore. This isn't to say a major motion picture can't do new things, I'd just suggest that the change in a the picture of a major studio seems to be more incremental than the potentially wild ideas of one person or a small group of people making a film.

  • I will give you that. Major studios do tend to err on the side of caution versus taking artistic leaps forward.

  • When I lived downtown and I could browse the library's impressive collection of films, I watched a lot of independent films. Many, I have to say, were horrible, BUT there were some that despite their low budget, found redemption in great writing, and a lucky pick of actors.

    I actually saw Elisabeth Moss years before she took the part of Peggy Olsen in Mad Men, in this great, if not a little exploitative, independent film.

    "Virgin" is about a rebellious, loner teen from a religious family that passes out at a party, is raped, and ends up pregnant. Having no memory of the incident, she can only conclude she must be carrying the second coming of christ. While the whole town lashes out against her, it's a little, strange as it might sound, like the "magic shoes", because of the belief that she was chosen by God, she is kinder, she reaches out to help similarly outcasted people, and she gains new confidence in herself.

    While there are some aspects of the film - the treatment of the rapist in particular - I didn't care for, the ideas behind the plot are strong enough to carry it, and Elisabeth Moss, in her first film appearance, was excellent. They were very, very lucky to find her! I end up crying every time I watch it. haha

    Some other great, under-the-radar films off the top of my head -

    The Science of Sleep - surreal, romantic comedy very similar to Eternal Sunshine.

    American Pop - animated history of pop music following and generations of family.

    Psycho Beach Party - kitsch, campy, totally great spoof comedy on 60's B surfer movies.

    Fantastic Planet - awesome, awesome french animated film (you can get a dubbed version) about an alternate planet where humans are treated like pests or pets. Trippy.

  • I'm not sure I really understand the when a film stops being "indie" and starts just being, I don't know - artistic (?) - though.

  • Those sound like some excellent suggestions! I can only say I've seen "The Science of Sleep," which was a great movie - the dream scenes were really imaginative.

    As for artistic vs. indie, I think of them as two terms that just happen to coincide a lot of the time. I would define indie as more of a business term for the way the movie was financed, and I would describe "artsy" as more of an abstract idea or method a movie tries to make use of.

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