The 20 Best Indies of Summer 2013

The Lists Gabe Toro 9/16/2013 at 9:31AM

If the blockbuster season this year was contentious and divisive, the indie circuit was a treasture trove of bedeazzling content. Check to see what you may have missed or what you know you'll see again.

In previous years, audiences rightly protested that there simply weren’t enough options during the summer, a season reserved for blow-‘em-up spectacles for teenagers with disposable income. The adult demographic was becoming obsolete, pushed towards television, sports and, dare I say, video games. But that wasn’t the case this season. Not only was there an embarrassment of limited release treasures waiting for the discerning moviegoer with no interest in The Smurfs 2 and White House Down (a lot of you, actually, judging by the numbers), but several of these films could be found on VOD or On-Demand.
We decided to single out a couple of limited release wonders from the season, which in Hollywood defies nature and stretches from the beginning of May until the tail of August. Ten seemed like a nice round number, until we kept peeling back layers and finding treasures that went unnoticed even by the usual arthouse regulars. As such, here is your catch-all for everything awesome in independent cinema this past summer season (according to American release dates).

20. Fruitvale Station
Michael B. Jordan is a breakout sensation in this heart-wrenching story about the life of Oscar Grant. Director Ryan Coogler’s approach chronicles Grant’s last day, right up until he was felled by the bullet of a BART cop. The film rightly portrays a man who was not a saint, but a walking contradiction brimming with personality and energy. In Coogler’s world, it’s not the loss of a person, but the damage done to a community when a part is removed from the whole.

19. The Iceman
Sinister and sleazy, Ariel Vroman’s true-crime tale of hitman Richard Kuklinski is a dark night of the soul. As captured by Michael Shannon, in one of the year’s best performances, Kuklinski is seem as a laser-focused workaday craftsman who dispassionately disposes of bodies as a part of a life lived by snap judgments to maintain a generic family man cover.

18. Wish You Were Here
It’s anonymity a possible product of the over-familiar title, this Australian indie nonetheless cuts fairly deep. It’s been weeks since anyone’s heard of the mysterious stranger Jeremy who ingratiated himself into  a traveling troupe of a married couple and an attractive sister-in-law before disappearing, leaving behind questions, drugs and a possible broken marriage. Co-writer Felicity Price, acting alongside “marquee” names Joel Edgerton and Teresa Palmer, easily outshines them all with a nakedly vulnerable performance.

17. Behind The Candelabra
When the multidimensional career of Stephen Soderbergh ended, let it be known that his final film could not get funding from a single studio and instead was relegated to HBO. This hypnotic fantasia tells of the mortifying relationship between the extravagant Liberace (Michael Douglas) and willing boytoy Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), who willingly volunteered to be his lover’s plastic surgery love puppet. Fascinating, funny and perverse, it’s an alternately entertaining and queasy biopic stranger than any fiction.

16. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
David Lowery pays homage to the dusty contemporary westerns of the seventies with this moody waltz between a lovelorn bandit (Casey Affleck), his moony-eyed paramour (Rooney Mara) and the police officer wary of one wrong step (Ben Foster). Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is like a poem in the wind, able to be grasped for moments at a time, as Lowery’s elliptical voiceovers and dust-swept visuals recall early Terrence Malick.

15. Maniac
Sinister in new and unique ways, this remake of the slasher classic adopts a mostly-first-person POV to directly implicate the audience in not just the wanton savagery of the genre, but also the ugly push-pull gratification within our own misogyny. Maniac depicts a diseased Los Angeles where the friendliness and kindness of women is immediately perceived as a weakness to a man with only a binary understanding of sex, twisting the chase-stalk premise of the original to add a unique dimension through Elijah Wood’s demented turn.

14. Byzantium
Gemma Arterton is absolutely stunning in Neil Jordan’s haunting vampire opus. Sexy and literate, this epic tells the story of a centuries-old woman with a vampiric curse and a grudge against the men who demeaned and degraded her, and the next-generation “daughter” she has taken in, despite a glaring lack of antagonism. Even with the ancient eras shared by both, the age divide gives a strong understanding for the justification of self-preservation to a younger, more permissive, generation. Of course, the movie also depicts the typically fluid understanding of sex and gender roles from Jordan’s earlier work. It’s his most acerbic horror work since 1984’s The Company Of Wolves.

13. Short Term 12
Brie Larson anchors this powerful drama about a young woman struggling to balance a life that finds her punching a clock for at-risk kids, a dedication that stretches past work hours and threatens the already-shaky romantic relationship with a co-worker. Rather than being a maudlin or overly depressing tale of suffering kids, Destin Cretton’s film is filled with bright humor and a delicate humanism that illustrates a sense of optimism at the end of the path for all these struggling kids and their overstressed caretakers.

12. A Hijacking
This tense Norwegian thriller finds the crew of a cheap vessel overtaken by ruthless but pragmatic pirates seeking a hefty bounty. A ransom is requested, and that request must be negotiated by a wary suit who has to tread lightly in negotiations, lest he risk the life of those onboard and lose whatever leverage they have. A Hijacking manages to be a nerve-rattling look at a very real problem, one that requires a specifically delicate approach, as one exec refuses to cave to unreasonable demands despite constant pressure from the families of the captured.

11. Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen’s latest seems like a tremendous misfire on paper: A sympathetic look at a callous one-percenter who fails to open her golden parachute in the wake of her corrupt husband’s hedge fund maleficence. But Allen finds a unique way to tell this story, cutting back and forth to the before-and-after period, showcasing that perhaps someone simply can’t shake the odious influence of too much money, no matter what happens. Allen also gets strong performances out of a diverse ensemble, headed by a manic Cate Blanchett turn that feels both like an unmistakably Woody creation, but also its own rare poisonous bird.

10. Nancy, Please
This unsettling microindie takes obsession to an entirely new level, focusing on one dogged post-grad who finds out the crux of his thesis remains at the house he rented with a dark, unpleasantly dramatic fellow student who refuses to give it back. What starts as a funny conflict between two self-absorbed people soon evolves into a twisty psychothriller, as the titular antagonist begins to exhibit borderline mythic powers of control and abuse over her competition. Academic folly soon becomes a tense battle of wits between a common man and an absolute Shiva of destruction.

9. Only God Forgives
Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn team up once again after Drive for a film that can be described as what the Driver dreams about when he sleeps. This hypnotic cocktail of western violence and eastern revenge shows what happens when a man of inaction tries to step away from a cycle of violence that is absolutely determined to bring him in. Like his other movies, Refn’s film is hyper-violent and fetishistic, but his detached, morbidly funny storytelling gives this picture an ethereal feel unlike anything else at the movies this year.

8. The Grandmaster
Wong Kar-Wai’s lyrical take on the Ip Man legacy is nonetheless compromised in its truncated American cut. Still, his work manages to glide through the raindrops, a graceful ballet of action that finds his muse Tony Leung as a human inside an icon. Leung and Zhang Zi-Yi, as lovers separated by circumstance and method, have electric chemistry, engaging in bouts of combat with only each others’ hearts on their minds. This turns their martial arts into a form of enchanting old-school courtship, the only consistency they can find in a world shifting beneath their feet.

7. In A World
Comedienne Lake Bell is a revelation as writer, director and star of this quirky industry comedy. As an aspiring voiceover artist, she finds herself competing for the same jobs not only with men, who have seniority and are ultimately the default for all gigs, but her father, who insists women are not wanted behind the microphone. Bell’s film successfully tackles the issues of institutionalized sexism as well as the infantilization of the woman’s voice as a response to the domineering authority of me. It also rings true as a well-calibrated romantic-comedy featuring standout performances from a cast of ringers. Rarely are comedic debuts this savvy, funny and well-acted, particularly by a gorgeous multi-hyphenate like Bell.

6. Crystal Fairy
Michael Cera is in maximum jackass mode in this Argentinian film about a pushy American tourist who abandons all tact and likability as he attempts to pursue a navel-gazing drug trip thanks to the local San Pedro cactus. Along the way, he and his crew (played by director Sebastian Silva’s real-life brothers, all naturals in front of the camera) are joined by the titular character, a delusional hippie who attempts to force her beliefs onto others. Ultimately, Silva’s film, a crude road trip picture powered by two ultimately intolerable characters, points towards a certain kindness between people who refuse to change but must acceptingly exit their narcissist comfort zone to understand each other.

5. Frances Ha
Noah Baumbach’s black-and-white slacker comedy takes the mumblecore movement and stands it on its head with this sweetly realized comedy about a post-grad slowly coming into her own when her best friend moves out. Greta Gerwig is absolute magic as a rambling, neurotic mess who can’t seem to get herself together, and who nonetheless finds herself tripping forwards into the disasters of adulthood as if she were blindfolded. Ultimately, there’s a post-millennial time capsule element to the picture, which captures both Gerwig’s lovely face and the landscapes of New York City as if they were poems, powered almost entirely by ellipses.

4. Before Midnight
The cat’s out of the bag: Celeste and Jesse of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset made it together, and years later are a wonderfully happy couple. But observe the darkness of the title versus the abstraction of previous entries. These two are no longer young, and their romance is no longer a fresh fantasy. Richard Linklater’s trilogy-closer (or maybe not?) suggests that perhaps these two might be ripe for a mid-life crisis, as they question the person in bed next to them, as demonstrated through Jesse’s stubborn condescension and passive-aggressive masculinity versus Celeste’s delicate victim complex and anti-patriarchy. Check it out if only for the most suspenseful final scene of the year.

3. Something In The Air
Olivier Assayas’ coming-of-age drama (released at the very beginning of summer, against a microbudgeted tchotchke called Iron Man 3) is an epic both in the sense of a massive time period being tackled, but also as far as the emotional charge of becoming a man through an era of great social upheaval. It’s the late sixties, and it’s an era of free love and great music, as a romantic affair gone sour leads a promising art student to a trip across Europe to promote, and provoke, political change. Assayas remains one of the world’s great filmmakers, an agitated provocateur who dares to pursue the natural of political ideals in all of his films with a surgeon’s precision, and this might be one of his strongest films yet.

2. The Act Of Killing
This terrifying doc, brought to audiences by the powerhouse combo of producers Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, takes a look at when history writ in blood is penned by the victors who still walk the streets. Today’s Indonesia openly harbors men who profess to killing hundreds of communists with brute force, criminals who walk the streets with the confidence that they’ve won, earning hosannas from the locals and inspiring the shady local defense crews who further a corrupt state agenda. Their justification was, and is, moral to them, furthered by what they claim is an absolute lack of interest from the western world. Director Joshua Oppenheimer flips the script on them, provoking these men to make their own film, loaded with re-enactments of the deaths as something of a Technicolor musical. The results are absolutely stupefying, in one of the year’s darkest, weirdest, scariest and upsetting movies.

1. Computer Chess
Andrew Bujalski climbs out of his micro-indie world of stuttering, shiftless millennials with this riotous experimental comedy about a group of technicians in 1980 spending a weekend at a conference dedicated towards teaching computer programs how to play chess. Bujalski is coy, but not overly so, about how these pencil-necks are essentially building the future of artificial intelligence, instead focusing on the interplay between yesterday’s computer nerds from different social and class strata, flummoxed by the then-massive technologies crowding their desks, but also the specter of Uncle Sam looking over their shoulder. Computer Chess playfully recreates an era by Bujalski’s decision to shoot on low-fi video technology of the era, creating a sense of nostalgia through technology that recalls an earlier time when A.I. wasn’t immediately associated with death machines, but instead a new way to connect people. Packed with non-actors, it’s also surprisingly light and funny, making for an absolute joy to sit through.

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