Let's face it: movie-wise, there's a lot of crap out there. For every kickass popcorn blockbuster blasting into mall cineplexes, there's a cool, quirky indie that could be just as appealing to the masses if given a chance. To be fair, blockbusters have become more intelligent in recent years--I'm thinking of the Spider-Man franchise, at least the first two; and the new Star Trek is getting rave reviews for being both thought-provoking AND fun to watch--but there's still a lot of really good stuff that either gets ignored completely or is banished to direct-to-DVD purgatory. (FYI, Slumdog Millionaire almost suffered the latter fate. Yes, THAT Slumdog Millionaire.) Or it comes out only in big cities, in tiny art-house theatres, for a week. Sad.
Want to have your mind blown by a film that's NOT at the top of the box office (or trying to be), but don't know where to start? Below are five of my favorite "small" films (by small, I mean low-budget, independent, and/or specialty). Watch 'em and weep (in a good way).
1. Brick: High school sucked for a lot of us. Even for the favored few, navigating clique hierarchy while trying to stay out of trouble with the administration--and figuring out where and with whom to eat lunch--was far from easy. Now imagine juggling all of the above, while solving your ex-girlfriend's murder. Teenager Brendan Frye doesn't have many friends, and lost his girlfriend Emily for being too possessive. Three days after he received a cryptic phone call from her, Emily turns up dead. With the help of his confidante Brain, Brendan encounters druggie jocks, back-alley burnouts, lascivious drama queens, and a femme fatale with questionable motives as he doggedly pursues the truth. Did I mention that everyone talks like 1940's gangsters? Shot at a real California high school (director Rian Johnson's alma mater) and featuring the smokin' Joseph Gordon-Levitt (of Angels in the Outfield and 10 Things I Hate About You fame) in a deliciously intense performance, Brick is well worth your watching while. The dialogue takes some getting used to, but soon you'll find yourself absorbed in a world that's both extremely unique and surprisingly relatable.
2. Bottle Shock: Ever wonder where Chardonnay comes from? Me neither--I'm too busy drinking it. Still, this fun film inspired by true events is up there with Sideways when it comes to well-acted wino education. In the 1970's, Napa, California, is a sleepy farm town whose stellar vineyards are a well-kept secret. Enter a Paris wine snob (the always-amazing Alan Rickman) determined to drum up business in his own shop by hosting a competition between American and French wines. Upon traveling to Napa, he encounters Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), a former lawyer whose little vineyard-that-could is verging on collapse, and Jim's scrappy son Bo (a pre-Star Trek Chris Pine, whose baby blues shine under a mop of tangled hippie hair). Meanwhile, another wannabe vintner (Freddy Rodriguez) is working for the Barretts by day, but concocting his own red by night. When the Barretts stumble upon what could be a perfect Chardonnay, do they stand a chance against the Frenchies? I really wish this little gem had gotten more recognition, so give it some love: it's a classic underdog story with a fantastic cast, beautiful scenery, and a charming plot.
3. Every Little Step: Picture going into the office and having to interview for your job and prove your mettle every single day. (Before the recession.) Also, unless you can branch out and gain more skills in your field or elsewhere, you'll be rendered useless once you hit your thirties (if you even last that long). Oh, and if you get injured, stick a fork in yourself--you're DONE. You live in a state of constant unemployment, and even when you do find work, you better enjoy it, because this job might be your last. This is what it's like to be a Broadway dancer. For that reason, the musical A Chorus Line--which began when dancer/choreographer Michael Bennett asked a group of his friends to talk about their lives while plying them with terrible red wine, and taped the whole eight-hour session--has been beloved since its inception in the late 1970's and was once the longest-running show on Broadway. (NOTE: do NOT, I repeat NOT, see the horrendous 1980's film version. No no no. You will thank me.) This documentary was filmed in 2005, when an open call was held in New York City for the Broadway revival, and over 3,000 dancers showed up for under 20 spots in the cast. All sweating, singing, emoting, and putting themselves out there for a job that they have a very small shot at landing. So why do they do it? Why does anyone take an artistic risk knowing it will most likely never pay off? (Figuratively and literally: dancers don't make much money, ever.) Even if you're not a dance freak like me, Every Little Step is compelling, rich and rewarding--for both the viewer and the passionate individuals on screen. You really will laugh and cry, I promise.
4. Surfwise: Jon and Kate Gosselin were far from the first to raise a large family in a nontraditional manner. In the 1970's, surfer Dorian "Doc" Paskowitz abandoned his successful medical practice and hit the road with his wife and nine children in tow. The Paskowitz kids grew up in a 24-foot camper, never tasting junk food or even going to school (as one points out, you can't be missed in a system you were never part of in the first place), and cutting their teeth on the wild ocean waves. Let's face it, many of us entertain the odd fantasy of saying "screw you" to society and striking out on our own, but what happens when you actually DO it? And how do your own decisions affect the lives of your children, who had no say in the matter? Interviews with the now-grown Paskowitz kids, as well as Doc himself (now a kickin' octogenarian), combined with archival footage of the family in their road-tripping heyday, reveal the various benefits--and detriments--of a play-by-your-own-rules existence. What's most fascinating is how not one of the Paskowitzes have the same reactions and insights to their unusual childhoods: they may have been viewed as a unit in the surfing community, but behind the Paskowitz name are nine wildly different individuals, all of whom bear the smiles and scars resulting from a truly unique upbringing.
5. Nothing Like the Holidays: Freddy Rodriguez is awesome. Whether he's kicking alien ass (Grindhouse: Planet Terror), toiling in a mortuary (Six Feet Under), or making midnight wine (the aforementioned Bottle Shock), the guy always brings it. Plus, he earns a special place in my heart for being a proud Chicago native. Which brings us to his cruelly overlooked pet project, Nothing Like the Holidays. Originally titled Humboldt Park, the film takes place in the week before Christmas, as a Puerto Rican family reconvenes in their native Chicago neighborhood. On everyone's first night back home, matriarch Ana Rodriguez announces that she is leaving her husband Edy--who just sits there, mute and defenseless. The three adult kids all have their own baggage: Mauricio is an eager-to-please New York attorney, whose Jewish wife has never really fit in with the family; Jesse has just returned from Iraq and is now expected to take over the family bodega; and Roxana's L.A. acting career isn't going quite as well as she'd hoped. What I love about this film is how nuanced and complex ALL the characters are--it's a true ensemble piece, and every character is written and portrayed with the utmost care. Also, the family's cultural traditions are shown in a respectful manner, far from the usual look-at-the-ethnics-in-their-natural-habitat crap you tend to see in mainstream movies. The cast is chock full of recognizable actors (Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Melonie Diaz, as well as Mr. Rodriguez) giving it their all and making us all wonder, Why aren't they getting more work? I was especially impressed by an actress I don't usually like: Debra Messing of Will & Grace fame. She delivers a thoughtful, skilled performance as Sarah, Mauricio's Jewish wife, who is still struggling to please his family while staying true to her career-loving baby-ambiguous self. Overall, this portrayal of a perfectly imperfect family makes for a memorable viewing experience with those who matter most.
Want me to watch/review something? Leave a comment!