GoIndieNow Presents is an occasional column featuring the third Plotaholics, Joe Compton. In these columns, Joe will discuss that state of indie film and offer suggestions for worthwhile media to consume in that market. This iteration of GoIndieNow Presents is a three-part exploration of 2020’s indie film landscape.
Hello, Plotaholics faithful. Joe Compton (the third Plotaholic) here.
Let’s be honest: 2020 sucked. Who knows what all of it means as far as 2021 goes, especially when it comes to Independent Film, which is something I cover over at Go Indie Now. But as for now, I am here to continue discussing the best in indie film from 2020.
Today, we wrap up my list of the top ten indie films of 2020 with entries 5-1.
#5 SHOOT TO MARRY – DOCUMENTARY (USA)
SYNOPSIS: After a failed marriage proposal, heartbroken filmmaker Steve Markle heads to L.A. to shoot a doc about Kate, a gifted artist and crush from his past. Suddenly, Steve realizes he’s found the perfect way to meet women: ask them to be in his documentary! Hopping from city to city, Steve stumbles through interviews with dozens of intriguing women. What transpires is a hilarious and often poignant real-life romantic comedy about a filmmaker intent on finding love.
WHAT THIS FILM DOES WELL: Steve’s one-man-gang approach really lends to an incredible and beautifully composed narrative that is highlighted by moments of gorgeous framing and timing that works as interludes and chapters in the story. It makes all the transitions so natural and so much fun. This has a great Michael Moore feel and pace in its approach, mixing humor with moments of clarity and impressive self-reflection that not only help us sympathize but really feel like we are on Steve’s personal mission and journey. In doing so, we find ourselves rooting for him at times, while at others we are screaming, “Don’t do that! What are you crazy?” That engagement really makes you invest in a story that you might otherwise dismiss because its been told in countless movies and even some documentaries.
For Steve to let loose and let us in really makes it more unique than you might think it to be on the surface or in just seeing the trailer. This movie finds a 3 act structure too, and in doing so doesn’t overstay its welcome or drown in gags or manufactured moments.
#4 SOUND OF METAL – DRAMA (USA)
SYNOPSIS: Ruben is a drummer who is gradually losing his hearing and determines he can only successfully hear 20-30 percent of words. He knows that his hearing will continue to deteriorate rapidly. He decides to try and get implants, which are beyond expensive, and try to maintain the life he has lived with his bandmate and girlfriend Lou. However, with Ruben being a recovering addict, Lou and his sponsor find a place he can go specifically designed to help addicts learn to live with becoming deaf and show them a way to live life with their disability, instead of in spite of it. After some fight, Ruben decides to give it a go, at least until he can get the implants and get his life back to how it was.
WHAT THIS FILM DOES WELL: A film like this will frustrate you and stir up emotional responses that maybe you didn’t know you were capable of. Yet, it will also charm, disarm, and overwhelm you with the sense that what you might be watching is the growth of a human being and an evolution that most of us, if not all of us can relate to on a visceral level.
That all comes from Riz Ahmed’s acting. Here, he gives what may be the male performance of the year, and one of my Top 5 acting performances overall this year. It is not Riz’s surface-level performance that makes the film so powerful. It is his adjustment to life as Ruben, his reacting to people reacting to him, and because we are mostly in his head and skin for this movie, his performance is how we come to our feeling about this film entirely. It is a heavy burden for any actor and few can pull it off. Even fewer can pull it off near flawlessly as Riz has done here.
As I said, he can frustrate you with his choices all while warming your heart. This also shows a lot of the skill of first time narrative director Darius Marder. The way Marder navigates and incorporates us into Ruben’s POV and world is amazing. This film moves with such precision and transitions with a logical smoothness that garners no lapse in our minds as even time passes by more rapidly than we are experiencing on the screen. This is a trick that so many directors try and so few pull off as well as Marder has done here.
The casting is stellar with the likes of veterans Paul Raci who plays Joe, the head of the rehab center (my favorite supporting performance of 2020), and Mathieu Amalric who plays Lou’s Father. Then there are the recognizable names like Olivia Cooke (playing Lou, the girlfriend) of Bate’s Motel and Ready Player One fame, and Lauren Ridloff (playing one of the teachers and counselors Diane) of The Walking Dead fame. Both along with newcomer Chelsea Lee (who plays Jenn) provide a much needed moral compass. These characters see through Ruben and the barrier he puts up, not just as someone dealing with what he is dealing with but as a natural way that Ruben has learned to be. This is such a tour-de-force on many levels.
#3 FOX HUNT DRIVE – PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER (USA)
SYNOPSIS: Alison, a down-on-her-luck young professional, spends her evenings trying to make ends meet as a rideshare driver. Wrapping her shift, she decides to take on one last passenger — only to find herself in unexpected danger when she discovers the mysterious stranger is not what he appears to be.
WHAT THIS FILM DOES WELL: For me, what sells Fox Hunt Drive begins with the 2 main characters: Alison (Lizzie Zerebko) and The Passenger (Michael Olavson). The chemistry these two have together and their acting instincts are expert level. If it was anything but, this film would be flat, and it is not. This film is well written with great twists and turns in it, but it’s also the directing prowess of Drew Walkup who gets the right shot, shows the right moment, a gives us a 3-act structure that we may be expecting. These things are at the top of the charts for me.
This film may not be altogether unique in the way it presents itself or its twists and turns but meeting and exceeding the obvious expectations is just as great a skill as subverting or playing with them. It is one of the best edited and lit films I saw all year. The transitions, which mostly rely on the actors, are so seamless that you become entrenched in the film’s shifts. The lighting does so much mood setting and gives these strong compositions that also add to the elements helping the actors do their thing. All this makes this trio (Drew, Lizzie, and Michael) a formidable group that I hope make more movies together because they know how to entertain as well as compel and surprise.
#2 BEASTS CLAWING AT STRAWS – CRIME THRILLER (S. KOREA)
SYNOPSIS: After failing in business, Jung-Man works part-time at a bathhouse. He is in a difficult financial situation and lives with his sick mother. At the bathhouse, Jung-Man discovers a bag filled with cash in a locker which seems just might solve all his issues. What he doesn’t know is this handbag has a rich history and has more than one owner interested in reclaiming it.
WHAT THIS FILM DOES WELL: This movie kicks you in the throat and knocks you down from moment one and doesn’t get off your throat but for a second. It’s stylish like a caper movie in the veins of Snatch or Way of The Gun, and its chock-full of interesting characters, who all have these unique and twisted story arcs–like a Pulp Fiction or Fargo. Much like one of my Top 5 films of 2019, Parasite, this movie shows the true nature of people when they are bad and the naivety of people when they are just not bad enough to be aware of how bad people can be.
Sung Woo Bae and Jeon Do-yeon are standouts in this film, and often we are more privy to their POV’s than not, and there are good reasons for that. The awesome thing about this movie is how many subtle clues and easter eggs sprinkle about to give you so much to engage and think about. Then, how it all neatly (or not so neatly) comes together and makes so much sense. The element of surprise is used so well to the point of absurdity that you are enthralled by its charming presentation. This movie has incredible visuals, sometimes of the gruesome variety, but it also has smart dialogue, well-developed characters, and a pension for buggery. Of the many movies on this list, this will be the one I watch more than a couple times.
#1 THE PENNY BLACK – DOCUMENTARY (USA)
SYNOPSIS: Will, the estranged son of a con man fights temptation, paranoia, and his own nefarious legacy after being left with a mysterious, million-dollar stamp collection.
WHAT THIS FILM DOES WELL: Documentaries have made incredible strides. Some have been so avant-garde and so unique that they almost don’t feel like documentaries but more like narratives. That’s where The Penny Black is different. It uses the conventions and standard devices of a documentary–like captured raw footage, reenactments, close ups, interviews, and time lining–and spins the most unique, unexpected story that reads, looks, and feels like a noir piece. It is riveting, interesting, twisting and turning, and just as you catch your breath the roller coaster ride sends you for one more drop.
Beyond all that, what Alexander Greer and Joe Saunders do better than maybe anyone I have ever seen, is present all of the facts as they need to. They never infiltrate the sacred mark of demarcation that often has been done in Documentaries like this one that have so much going on in them. Moreover there are shots in this film composed like works of art–that work like we are spies infiltrating the secret criminal lair, only we never really know who the bad guy is. We are being told who it might be and why, but Will is so unreliable and so scary-good at being our narrator, investigator, and navigator that you become equally enthralled and frightened by him.
The viewer is left to feel unsatisfied, even when the conclusion and evidence presents itself because Will just simply makes you question it all. There are moments when you aren’t even sure you are looking through the lens of a camera as that camera stays on its subject and marinates for you like a hot off the grill steak you want to devour but know it has to rest first. Often in this film that questioning and fierce desire to know more brings you to believe one way or the other but never with certainty, and dare I say it makes you want to learn more about stamps. How the fuck did it pull off a magic trick like that? I don’t know, and the best part of this 90-minute plus journey for me is I don’t care because, damn, this movie was so fucking good.
And that is going to do it for this look back at the world of indie film in 2020. Until next time, check out GoIndieNow on YouTube and Twitch, and be sure to subscribe if you want to stay up-to-date on all things indie!
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