2017 was a good year for indie cinema in the U.S., with some movies turning into theater hits. This list focuses on the best 10 productions of all genres. The criterion applied is absence of participation by Major Six in the funding of the movie – that is why ‘Get out’ or ‘ ‘the disaster artist’ are excluded from the list – and a moderate budget – that is why, for instance, ‘Logan Lucky’ or ‘Atomic Blonde’ are excluded.
The trump in indies’ card deck is their script. It has to be original, imaginative, to draw the attention. To think about it hours or days after you have left the theater. Scenarios full of fantasy and emotions that have to be carried out with minimum cost. This fact results in scripts that focus on interpersonal relations, with lengthy dialogues or interpretative silences. Stories about everyday life incidents, with ordinary, everyday people as heroes and heroines. Most of them cast an inquisitive or just derisive look in U.S. underbelly.
If I had to put a title on this year’s films in Sundance, it would be ‘the exploration of Otherness.’ Script writers seem to focus on the Other next to us, on difference – may that be a different race, different age, different sexual orientation, different culture. People of different origins, or different perceptions of the world, that try to co-exist. Or fight each other. There are also ‘coming of age’s, crime and thrillers, even a so-much different ghost story. Micro-stories filmed with sensitivity, some of them told by women – with a much higher than the Hollywood average women director’s percentage.
Most films are from U.S.A. and represent trends in American indie movement cinema. But, as the 14th on the list, I was tempted to put the excellent police thriller that won the Foreign Dramatic Grand Jury Prize in Sundance last Year. I loved this movie so much I couldn’t resist. So it became a list of 14 plus 1 best indie movies of 2017. Have a good time!
15. The Nile Incident Accident – Tarik Saleh
The 2017 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Foreign Dramatic movie went to an Interesting attempt to outline Egyptian society, and more specifically the Egyptian police of Mubarak, responsible for many crimes and tortures.
A well-known, beautiful singer is found with her neck cut in a room of Cairo’s Hilton. The police detective in charge of the case, protégée of the head in the police department, understands very quickly that this case may lead him to very powerful social milieus. He is determined to continue the investigation, even when the case is considered a suicide and the case file is closed. As he continues searching, the corpses around him multiply.
Tarik Saleh has lived and worked in Sweden, where he made TV series and his first two feature films. When he made up his mind to shoot a film about his homeland, he stepped on the paths of Hammett and Chandler: we write a detective novel, we shoot a crime movie, in order to talk about politics.
Police novels usually involve police officers And what is more challenging to deal with than one of the most corrupt police in the world, the one whose practices triggered the outbreak of Tahrir Square protests. So the director sets his film in a truly glorious moment of his distant homelands history: we are in January 2011, just a few days before the first demonstration in Tahrir for the murder of a young man by the police.
The city is in unrest. And a policeman is looking at the most unlikely places in the Egyptian capital, on her night streets and hangouts, to solve one murder, but also the other murders that come after the first. The camera also follows the life of the only witness, an illegal immigrant from Sub-Saharan Africa, and thus enters into the invisible part of the city, in the life of people without papers, who live like ghosts.
The film wants to be a complaint about the police violence and arbitrariness of the Mubarak regime, but it is also a bitter elegy for the city and the people who gave birth to the ‘Arab spring’. The cinematographer captures Cairo in dark tones, even in the morning shots, while a threatening dark ocher dominates in the evening ones. The only bright moments of are those that show crowds of people that begin to gather, ready to take life and history into their hands.
14. Rememory – Mark Palansky
Peter Dinklage is a sweet. A very good actor. And I loved the very idea of his in the leading role in a thriller. I think it suits hm. Moreover, it was the story that excited me: it was about memory, and how we mould it in order to reconstruct our past.
Gordon Dunn is a scientist working with a new machine that is able to capture people’s memories intact from any alteration human mind exerts on them. He sets up an experiment group in a big firm, Contex, who supports his experiments and presses him to go on with the invention.
When, one morning, Gordon is found unexpectedly dead, it will the mysterious Samuel Bloom, a man who feels guilty for the death of his brother in an car accident, that will start a survey to find who killed Gordon. His research leads him to the stolen machine and the members of the experiment group, at least the ones alive, to Gordon’s wife Carolyn and to his own, painful memories.
Memory is a relative term, very much remote to what is called ‘truth’. Human memory, by the time, modifies and beautifies the past, so that we can handle it and go on living with it. What if suddenly somebody puts wires in our head and we can see what had happened in our lives as clear as if it was the news? How can we deal with it?
‘We are the sum of our memories, but we are much more than that.’ A melancholic and sophisticated film about past guilt and present forgiveness.
13. The Little Hours – Jeff Baena
It seems that the Monty Python have left a solid legacy. I am convinced that Jeff Baena has seen their works more than once before starting with his ambitious comedy project, The Little Hours. Based on the Decameron, the script was written by Baena who let his actors and actresses improvise during the release. That ended in a really crazy, somehow sacrilege, comedy with good performances and clever dialogues.
The story is set in the summer of 1347, in a place that could be Italy. The nuns in a monastery are in an unrest, as no one of them feels devoted to God and monastic chastity is rather a burden than a joy. Not far away from there, young Massetto is found guilty of adultery, as he slept with the lord’s wife, and he runs away to save his life.
In the forest he meets with father Tommasso, the alcoholic priest of the monastery, and asks for help. Father Tommasso agrees to bring him to the monastery with him as a gardener – the former has left after being brutally attacked by the enraged nuns – on the condition that he pretends to be deaf and mute. However, even soundless, the presence of the young handsome man further agitates the nuns and practically derails monastery pious life, as the astonished visiting bishop finds out.
The plot mixes classic comical features with innovative characters. Father Tommasso follows the medieval tradition of good-hearted drunk priests. The nuns, on the other hand, behave as New York hipsters; they have lesbian sex, do drugs and speak as truck drivers. It is a funny story, and if you don’t laugh, you will surely smile. It’s a work of love by both director and a really amazing cast.
It seems that Roman Catholic Church didn’t think the same way. The Catholic League declared that the movie was ‘trash, pure trash’. Just because it was comedy, pure comedy, this declaration was included in the promotional posters of the movie.
12. Gook – Justin Chon
Justin Chon writes, directs and plays the leading role in a ‘do the right thing’ inspired drama about marginalized ethnic and racial minorities in their habitat.
The drama is divided in two parts: the first is the day, an ordinary day when everything goes the way it did the day before. Kamilla, a 11 years old orphan of Afro-American origin who lives with her elder brother and sister in the outskirts of Los Angeles, prepares to go to school. On the way she decides to stay with her friends, Eli and Daniel, two Korean American brothers who own a shoe store near her house. They work, dance and have fun together and get along with Mr. Kim, the anti-social grocery owner, played by Chon’s father.
The second is the night. This is not an ordinary night. It is April 29th of 1992 in L.A. Earlier the court has announced the verdict for Rodney King case and one of the biggest civil unrests in U.S. history is about to start. For the black population of the city any other ethnicity is against them and they come to the Korean neighborhood to fight. Kamiilla’s brother doesn’t accept the sentimental bond between her and the Korean brothers, pulling the trigger of the drama.
The quintessence of independent cinema, a black and white very low budget production deserved well the audience award in Sundance and a place in this list. It treats relations between ethnicities and racism, the bottom end of the American dream, the dreary routine of suburban life, the explosion of rage. The camera moves around quickly, from close-ups to panoramic, revealing a talented young director in his first steps.
More than that, he poses questions on the dipole of love and hate (remember Radio Raheem’s bracelet in Lee’s movie). How love can help us overcome difference and come closer, how hate brings nothing but distraction. A good apprentice of Lee, a really good, underestimated movie.
11. I don’t feel at home in this world anymore – Macon Blair
How does a depressed nurse feel when she comes home from a literally dying working day and finds that some people had broken into her house, smashed her beloved china dishes and stole her cherished grandmother’s silver spoons? More depressed, one could say. Ruth felt angry. Very angry. Really angry. She felt that this is not a world to live in, if people turn to be so bad. When her mobile reveals her the place where the stolen laptop lies, she starts a crusade with the help of her weird neighbor, with whom she never had much to do before.
Set in the outskirts of Portland, no one could foretell from the beginning of the movie that it would evolve to a tenacious crime thriller, with intense pursuit scenes and several homicides. And yet it did, not sacrificing though its humorous and humanistic approach for action shake.
The Grand Jury Prize of 2017 Sundance festival is Macon Blair’s directorial debut and brings together very good second role actor Melanie Lynskey who gives a great performance and ‘Frodo’ Elijah Wood, hardly recognizable but brilliant too.
10. A Ghost Story – David Lowery
David Lowery had to move with his wife to California and leave the old Texan house they had been living in since they got married and this really hurt him. And he turned his sorrow into a movie.
This is also a really indie movie, with a budget of about 100.000 $. Lowery didn’t want it to be announced and made it a project held among friends and intimates. No matter that one of those friends is Oscar-winning Casey Affleck and Oscar nominee Rooney Mara.
C and M move to an old house in Texas. C, a timid composer, loves the house and its history while his beloved wife senses some kind of danger and wants to move. In less than twenty minutes from the beginning of the film C has a car accident just outside the house and dies, just to come back as a draped ghost that silently stands next to his mourning wife. After she moves from the house, just leaving a note in a slit on the wall, the spirit of C remains in place for the eternity, waiting for her to come back.
The spectator wonders: now we have more than half the movie to go on. What will happen with a sheet -covered ghost in an empty house? And that is where the magic begins. With a monumental score that repeats itself and practically almost no dialogues, we watch the persistence of a soul in between this and the other world, not leaving but staying in place watching time and people passing, watching his beloved home being inhabited by other people and then turned down to be a mall and him, the ghost of C, again alone in the faceless corridors of the multilevel building, all the loneliness of this world that brings tears to the eyes.
A film like no other, that raises questions about the hereafter, the inapt connection between past and present, memories, legacy, love, the very idea that we exist for ever if we have ever been loved.
9. Mudbound – Dee Rees
Women directors are hard to find. Black women directors even harder. If it was only for that, it would worth the time to watch this movie. What if we have a period drama set down in the deep South, starring lovely Carey Mulligan, Garret Hedlund, Jason Mitchel, Mary Blige and other distinguished actors?
Dee Rees drives to Louisiana to tell the story that haunts American history: racist hate in American South. In 1939 Henry meets Laura, a thirty one years old spinster, they get married, have two daughters and live happily in a small town, until Henry decides to become a farmer and buys a vast farmland in Mississippi delta.
After Henry being cheated about the house he thought he had bought, all the family ends in the muddy cotton fields of the delta, living in the same shanty house as their black and white laborers. Henry and his father, who came to live with them, are convinced racists, as most of the white inhabitants, and he treats scornfully Hap and Florence, a black couple with their kids who live close to them and work his fields.
Laura is a delicate, sentimental woman depressed by all that, who seeks help and comfort in Florence. When Henry’s brother and Florence’s son return form World War II, hardly balanced community’s relationships will be put into question as the two ex-soldiers will get close friends in order to share common experience, paying no attention to their community’s prejudices and taboos.
This film reminded me a lot of Ritt’s Sounder. Could it be the low angle of the shots on the fields, the orange and yellow sunset backgrounds on which figures are shaped, the unceasing need to talk about South’s past, about racism in America. This theme has been treated various times in American cinema lately. To be treated by a black woman director, oh, I expected that could make the difference. Well, it didn’t. It was just another well-shot period drama with excellent performances, and that is why it deserves a place in this list.