GoIndieNow Presents is an occasional column featuring the third Plotaholics, Joe Compton. In these columns, Joe will discuss the 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 2021’s indie film landscape.
Hey everybody! It’s the third Plotaholic here, Joe Compton, and it’s that time of year again when I get to discuss my favorite indie films of 2021. Today, we will be taking a look at my five favorite films from last year.
5. DOWNEAST (CRIME/THRILLER)
Co-Written & Directed by Joe Raffa, Starring Greg Finley (who also co-wrote the story), Dylan Silver, Judson Mills, and Joss Glennie Smith
SYNOPSIS: A story of love, loss, and redemption, Downeast dives into the often-ignored seedy underbelly of Maine. The film combines crime, revenge, and the hope for a new life.
WHY THIS FILM MAKES MY LIST: This was a surprise film for me. Downeast could have easily been stale, 2-dimensional, and amateurish. Instead, it’s smart, perfectly paced, and plays to its strengths. This is chock-full of character actors absorbing a local cadence and culture while molding carefully crafted “real” people in a subtext not designed to be beautiful. The atmosphere of Downeast is often murky and sloppy. It is not choreographed or needing to be “uglied-up.” That type of authenticity is what sells an already very well-structured script.
The film features the creepiest, villainous performance of the year in Joss Glennie Smith’s Brennan character. I also appreciate that this film allows the viewer a chance to get into the story. It take its time to land its punch, and because it does that, the pacing seems right in line with the viewing experience. This film often feels more like a documentary than a fictional story. That’s how real these characters are and how well the shots capture the incredible landscape of Maine.
4. BASTARDS’ ROAD (DOCUMENTARY)
Written by Mark Stafford Directed by Brian Morrison, Starring Jonathan Hancock
SYNOPSIS: Walking 5,800 miles around the United States, Veteran Jonathan Hancock uses the solitude of the road, the company of his fellow Marine brothers, and the families of the fallen to successfully manage his wounds from war.
WHY THIS FILM MAKES MY LIST: Bastards’ Road is another film with a message more important than the film itself. It is a documentary that is made as well as any narrative on this list. You won’t find a more earnest, truthful, tough and heartbreaking expose than this film. It pulls no punches but it also is very respectful of the human condition and the humans experiencing it. That is a fine line to edit into and Morrison, Stafford, and the crew of this film might do the best editing job of the year with this film. It’s also helpful when the subject matter is as charismatic as Jon is. The partnership between the subject and the director makes a movie like this stand out, and its message is more than effective because of it.
3. MAN UNDER TABLE (COMEDY/DYSTOPIAN/SCI-FI)
Written & Directed by Noel David Taylor Starring Noel David Taylor, Ben Babbitt, and Danny Lane
SYNOPSIS: Set against the backdrop of a comically surreal and anachronistic LA, a beleaguered young man tries to write a movie but instead gets pulled into everyone else’s projects as he hallucinates his way through a bizarre indie film scene.
WHY THIS FILM MAKES MY LIST: Finally, the thing that has been missing in my movie-going experience has returned: sarcastic surrealism. Man Under Table is another movie about making movies that never get made, which is not exactly my niche category, but damn, if it’s not going to be. Noel David Taylor really knows how to construct, and in some weird ways, deconstruct a shot and make it all work within the confines of a narrative. The comedy is on point here, and Ben Babbitt really finds a way to be Noel’s equal as he shines as the foil/rival. The color choices make this a weird, surrealistic experience. Through Taylor’s direction, we get this story about the indie scene that is more true-to-life than anyone would care to admit. I am so excited to see what the director/actor does next.
2. LAMB (HORROR/DRAMA/WTF?)
Written by Sjon & Valdimar Johansson, Directed by Valdmir Johansson, Starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snaer Guonason, and Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson
SYNOPSIS: A childless couple, María and Ingvar discover a mysterious newborn on their farm in Iceland. The unexpected prospect of family life brings them much joy, before ultimately destroying them.
WHY THIS FILM MAKES MY LIST: I read that synopsis above and the only thing I could say about it is, “okay?” Seriously, this movie is the mind-fuck of all mind-fucks. It will test your patience, everything you know about narratives and storytelling, and in the end, somehow finish in the way you kind of expected it to.
There is little subtext, no time spent on backstories, no flashbacks, and yet somehow you become attached to Ada and her family–at least, I did. I found this movie profoundly sad, beautiful, and funny. The conventional wisdom of storytelling would tell you that less is more, and I would say that if you subscribe to that wisdom, there is no way you can’t love this film.
This will be the most polarizing of all the films on my list. Many viewers will plain hate it. I get that. This is not for everybody. However, I really could not have been more into it. It was like putting together a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of infinite space. Noomi Rapace is absolutely brilliant and delivers the performance of the year for me. Additionally, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson, who plays brother-in-law Petur, gives one of my favorite supporting performances of the year. The way he navigates the family dynamic and ultimately comes to the conclusion he does are almost mirroring mine, so I really appreciated that. This is an experience I won’t soon forget.
1. THE SUBJECT (DRAMA/THRILLER)
Written by Chisa Huthchinson, Directed by Lanie Zipoy, Starring Jason Biggs, Nile Bullock, Anabelle Acosta, Carra Patterson, and Aunjanue Ellis
SYNOPSIS: The Subject follows a successful white documentary filmmaker dealing with the fallout from his previous film, which caught the murder of a Black teen on tape. Now, someone films his every move, threatening his idyllic life.
WHY THIS FILM MAKES MY LIST: Movies about movies, but moreover, narratives about documentaries, are what I like, but the thing is, I do a lot of interviews with documentarians and never have I seen one of my own questions play out in a plot of a movie. I love Chisa’s approach in the writing of this script and how much she challenged the acting and directing to take it on. I love all the characters and how they all get these moments to shine. I think Jason Biggs, as Phil Waterhouse, is the perfect actor to anchor our navigation through the characters, and when it is not him, Anabelle Acosta’s Jess Rivas character gets to take us away for a little bit, too. Another nod I would have to give for a supporting character is Carra Patterson, who I think has the best and most surprising moment of the film for me, but there is no denying that the last 30 minutes of this film belongs and is commanded by Jason Biggs and Aunjanue Ellis in a scene I will not soon forget.
Lanie Zipoy and her cinematographer, Darren Joe, really aid the storytelling with how they use shadows and the vibrancy of a city like Harlem. They also expertly mix in close-ups, two shots, and wide establishing shots to perfection here. This movie was the measuring stick for me this year, and while a couple films got close, nothing else touched how much I really loved this film.
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!