An Incredible, Eternal, Dynamite, Sideways Year

Somewhere around 1969, there was a pocket of time when Hollywood made films about people. Many defend the time as the birth of the independent film, smaller movies that engaged us with their characters, dialogue, and spirit. Events in these films were shaped by the characters, as opposed to the blockbuster films where events shaped the characters.

The independent spirit is still alive, and in many ways, stronger than ever. Thanks to the proliferation of film festivals, cable channels and DVD, more independent films are finding their way into the mainstream. Four films on this list reflect that transition, proving that the movement is as healthy and vital as it was when the likes of Bob Rafelson, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman first started kicking up dust.

When the dust cloud settled this year, one film stood out from the rest, a small, independent comedy-drama about two men coming to grips with their pending adulthood, even though both men are already knee-deep in that reality. Some critics have compared Alexander Payne?s Sideways to the early work of Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces), but in my mind it more accurately reflects another independent film of that era: Easy Rider.

1. Sideways

Fox Searchlight Features

Like Easy Rider, Sideways deals with a road trip between two men in search of the American dream. Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) fueled their Los Angeles-New Orleans motorcycle odyssey with drugs and women. Twenty-five years later, Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) take a week off to drink their way through California?s wine country, hoping to gain a little insight and maturity. Based on Rex Pickett?s novel, the screenplay by director Payne and Jim Taylor is filled with witty, sharp and sometimes painful observations about the way men treat each other and the opposite sex. Giamatti and Church are excellent sparring partners, two men cut from opposite ends of the same cloth. Each has an agenda and goal, one to savor the time and friendship like a good glass of wine, the other finish sowing his wild oats before getting married. The pleasure of the film comes in watching the men, and eventually their women (Virgina Madsen, Sandra Oh), reconcile their hopes, dreams, disappointments and flaws. Their existence becomes real to us, and we reward that honesty with devotion and admiration. It?s rare when a film speaks to an older audience, but it?s even rarer when that film does so with a voice of reason and respect. Sideways is expected on DVD in March.

2. The Incredibles

Pixar/Walt Disney Pictures

The folks who brought us Finding Nemo and Toy Story took a lot of chances with The Incredibles, a PG-rated super hero comedy starring a computer-generated cast of human characters living in a world that looks and sounds like a James Bond film from the sixties. What could have been a hard sell turned out to be one of the best films or the year, a state of the art animated film with modern sensibilities and a fabulous retro style. The palette is darker, truthfully representing the source material, even aping the bombastic John Barry Bond scores note-for-gleeful-note. There?s also more action and adventure, plus enough menace to warrant the mature rating. Director Brad Bird, whose equally nostalgic The Iron Giant served as a preemptive strike, takes great delight in controlling his super world, reinventing the wheel with every chance he gets. Cliches are not only turned on their ear, they become silk purses. The Incredibles also has heart and soul, proving that in the right hands, we can even care about animated characters. The Incredibles is expected on DVD in April.

3. Shrek 2


Sequels by nature reinforce yet rarely surpass the original, relying on familiar themes to recapture the same magic. This approach usually lends itself to a retread, an inferior imitation. Shrek 2 defies nature, in more ways than one, by expanding on rather than retelling the same story. The fractured fairytale world Shrek occupies is ripe for picking, and the filmmakers, both old and new, fill the basket with more delicious puns and jokes. Working under the belief that everyone under the sun has seen the original allows the filmmakers to forge ahead with minimal backtracking and repetition. The result is a film that is funnier and more inventive than Shrek. The DVD is currently available.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Focus Features

Irony works overtime as a film about a man trying to erase his memories ends up being one of the most memorable of the year. Writer Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) employs a complex time line, both real and imagined, to relate the heartbreak and misery of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey), a man so distraught over his recent breakup he undergoes a memory-erasing procedure. As the process makes it?s way through his brain, selectively erasing all traces of the relationship, Barish changes his mind. That leaves the door open to a world that teeters between reality and illusion, forcing Barish and the audience to decipher the myriad of images we are given. Kate Winslet makes a delightful muse, a woman worth remembering. Director Michel Gondry not only makes sense of all this madness, he makes it matter. The newly released 2-DVD special edition of the film is a great tutorial for a great movie.

5. Napoleon Dynamite

Fox Searchlight Features

Unassuming, unpretentious and totally unexpected, Napoleon Dynamite explodes with originality. Like most independent films, Napoleon Dynamite arrived with a distinct voice, one that had a lot to say about the human condition. Told in the most simple, endearing way, this little movie about a young man with a pure heart and honest outlook is a real treat. Written by the husband-wife team of Jared and Jerusha Hess, and directed by Jared, Napoleon Dynamite is the equivalent of walking into a room and finding a surprise party on the other side of the door. It?s impossible not to fall in love with these seemingly dysfunctional but normal-than-most characters who inhabit a world that appears a tad off kilter. Anchoring the film is carrot-topped Jon Heder, whose unique delivery has already made him a cult icon. Currently available on DVD.

6. Spider-Man 2

Sony Pictures

Having dispensed with the back-story in Spider-Man, director Sam Raimi and writer Alvin Sargent are free to swing into action, and boy do they deliver the goods. Filled with sympathetic heroes and heroines, dastardly villains, action sequences that literally leap from the pages of a comic book, Spider-Man 2 is not only a better film that its predecessor, it is possibly the best super hero movie of its type. Never has the marriage between live and computer-generated action been so successful, creating images that defy logic yet seem totally believable within the frame. Writer Sargent takes the emotional level of the series to new heights, giving the characters even more purpose and payoff. With his mechanical tentacles and intense inner rage, Alfred Molina?s Doc Ock is downright frightening. The 2-DVD Special Edition is a virtual film school, taking the viewer deep inside the movie magic machine.

7. The Aviator

Miramax Films

The life and loves of Howard Hughes is so complex and expansive it would be impossible to encompass all of it in one film. The television miniseries The Amazing Howard Hughes (with Tommy Lee Jones) tried, but even then pieces of the puzzle were missing. Director Martin Scorsese and writer John Logan don?t concern themselves with the billionaire?s biography as much as the time he spent in Hollywood and in the air. There are traces of the phobias that eventually enveloped his mental well being, but Logan wisely captures Hughes during his meteoric rise in the entertainment and aviation industries, a time frame that allows star Leonardo Di Caprio to effectively capture his brash, bold and obsessive behavior. Scorsese?s film is larger-than-life (it looks expensive), but is always grounded by sincere, truthful performances. The Aviator isn?t as much a history lesson as a portrait of a pioneer who always looked to the skies even when he was grounded by reality. The filmmakers and cast paint that portrait with respect and honor. The Aviator is due on DVD in May.

8. Collateral


Collateral is a perfect example of what can happen when all of the stars are in alignment. Separate the individual ingredients and the film becomes a standard-issue thriller about a hit man and his unwitting accomplice. Make Tom Cruise the hit man, Jamie Foxx his accomplice, toss in a smart, literate script by Stuart Beattie, and driven direction by Michael Mann, and what you end up with is a dark, disturbing and frequently nail-biting parable about the choices we make and the choices we are forced to make. Even though he?s painted as the villain, Tom Cruise, with an icy mane, is just like Max (Foxx), the cab driver forced to escort him on his rounds. They?re both professionals, and that is what makes their constant battle of wills so unnerving. Vincent (Cruise) doesn?t really need Max, but in order to survive the ordeal, Max insures that Vincent needs him. All of this is played out against the cobalt steel and concrete backdrop of Los Angeles, which under Mann?s direction, becomes a vital character in the story. The DVD is currently available.

9. Garden State

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Imagine being twenty-something and already washed up. That?s the state of mind explored in Zach Braff?s warm, funny, poignant coming-of-age story that comes out of nowhere and hits a home run. Braff, the likeable star of television?s Scrubs, pulls off a hat trick with Garden State. Not only does he play the disenfranchised Andrew Largeman, returning home to New Jersey after a nine year absence, Braff also wrote the bright, revealing screenplay and directed the film. Braff looks comfortable in front of the camera, and he?s very assured behind it. His dialogue feels like we?re in the moment, never showy, never flat. The characters act like people we know and not creations of the writer?s imagination. Natalie Portman is fragile yet full of surprise as a free spirit, while Peter Sarsgaard acts and talks like the best friend you?ve known all your life. That?s the beauty of Garden State. It grows on you. Braff, Portman and others lend their thoughts to the DVD?s lively audio commentary. The DVD also features outtakes, bloopers, a making-of featurette and 16 deleted scenes.

10. Kill Bill, Vol. 2

Miramax Films

Funny how necessity can lead to brilliance. Wickedly dark and playfully irreverent, Kill Bill, Volume 1 was just Quentin Tarantino?s warm-up for Kill Bill, Volume 2, a decidedly different beast still capable of doing some major damage. Once upon a time, Kill Bill was one film, but length forced Tarantino to conquer and divide. What at first seemed like a marketing ploy was actually a way for the writer-director to distinguish between the two very different experiences. The films work perfectly as a whole or as two separate tales, a brilliant bit of showmanship on Tarantino?s behalf. Whereas Volume 1 was wall-to-wall action, Volume 2 is more cerebral. Characters spend more time talking to rather than killing each other, giving Tarantino plenty of opportunity to mine his unlimited knowledge of current and nostalgic pop culture. If you pay close attention to Tarantino?s films, you can see his life flash before his character?s eyes. This round the characters were even more offbeat than before, with Daryl Hannah stealing every frame as a one-eyed assassin who gets to relive her Blade Runner glory days. The DVD is short on extras, but Tarantino promises to put it all together into one epic experience.

By John Larsen

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