For the avid filmgoer, summer is defined by one word: blockbuster.
Ever since Steven Spielberg’s great white shark named Bruce bared his sharp set of teeth at audiences nationwide in July 1975, not one summer season has passed without the presence of record-shattering box office revenues, highly anticipated sequels and, in recent years, overly indulgent CGI displays.
Though multiplexes are crowded with these mind-numbing, popcorn-munching flicks during the humidity-stricken months of July and August, art-houses flourish with Sundance Film Festival favorites. Though these films might be odd, slightly perplexing, and even emotionally brutal, they often make for early Academy Award contenders and a more intellectually satisfying experience than the typical multiplex fare.
If you were stranded in the ’burbs this summer and missed out on these cinematic gems, do not fear: the following independent films are still playing in theaters throughout Los Angeles.
Writer-director Max Meyer’s Adam is a simple film about a complicated man. The title character (Hugh Dancy) suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, a little-publicized disorder that falls under the autism spectrum. Though Adam is brilliant — especially when it comes to science and space exploration — he lives in his own sheltered world, unable to form relationships with others. This changes when Adam meets Beth, his new, beautiful neighbor. Meyer explores both the ups and downs of these two very different worlds colliding, painting a bittersweet portrait of a man living life slightly less normal than most. Dancy sheds his charming British accent for an unusual yet equally as charming staccato speech that, combined with his acute mannerisms, could garner him his first Oscar nomination.
One part Being John Malkovich — an actor (Paul Giamatti) playing a heightened version of himself — and one part Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — a strange, new-fangled contraption (a machine that extracts souls) that incites the film’s momentum — Cold Souls immediately appears to be penned by the master of offbeat cinema: Charlie Kaufman. Despite the uncanny similarities, Cold Souls is not a Kaufman piece, but the spawn of French writer-director Sophie Barthes. Though the film possesses a wild plot — after extracting his soul because it was weighing him down, Giamatti finds out that his soul has been stolen by an up-and-coming Russian actress — Barthes does not run away with her incredibly high concept, but rather stays true to her characters, crafting a film that will indeed touch your soul.
Though Judd Apatow and his male companions introduced the bromance into everyday moviespeak, it took a 43-year-old Seattle woman to validate the genre. Lynn Shelton’s Humpday — a Special Jury Prize winner at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival — follows two 30-something men who embark on a rather ambitious feat: make a gay porn art film with themselves as the stars. In any other cinematic hands, Humpday would have turned out as irreverent as it sounds; Shelton’s sensibility in her approach, however, transcends the film from a cheap gimmick for laughs to an exploration of the male psyche, heterosexual relationships and homophobia in modern-day society. Humpday is not only a landmark film in the Mumblecore movement — a faction of American independent film characterized by extremely low-budget production, improvised scripts and a focus on intimate relationships — but an exemplary model for high-priced Hollywood comedies.
The Hurt Locker
As a slew of Iraq War-themed films have bombed at the box office in the past several years, studio executives and filmgoers are unanimously turned off by any notion of seeing the American military-occupied Middle East depicted on screen. This was the unfortunate scene onto which director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) had to launch The Hurt Locker, her latest explosive action film that documents the lives of a three-person US Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit stationed in Baghdad sometime in 2004. The film displays masterful direction by Bigelow, who understands tension is created within a scene through compression, timing and character. Bigelow’s perceptive direction combined with screenwriter Mark Boal’s well-crafted script produces a film that is ridden with paradoxes — objective but not heartless, realistic but not documentarian, hard-hitting but not over-the-top and yes, a war film not exactly about war.
What do you do when you don’t believe in love? According to spunky comedienne Charlyne Yi, you travel the country, interview an assortment of eccentric couples and make a documentary. To an extent, that is Paper Heart — until you add alternative heartthrob Michael Cera into the equation.
Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Paper Heart is a charming hybrid documentary that interweaves fictional elements into Yi’s quest for understanding the mechanics of love. Yi, along with director and co-writer Nicholas Jasenovec (played in the film by Jake Johnson) and co-star Cera, do this with a whole lot of DIY aesthetic. Yi and Cera collaborated on Paper Heart’s whimsical musical score, and Yi also designed puppets and miniature sets out of ordinary household objects in place of live-action scenes. Paper Heart does not have one moment of inauthenticity, a quality every kinda-sorta-maybe-documentary should possess.