These are the top ten best indie film productions (I’m including features, shorts, music videos, and web-series) of this year, and I acknowledge upfront that I folks involved on many of these. I should mention that not all of these were actually made in 2013 but I first saw all of them in 2013. And so, here is my list:
10. LOSERS (dir. Carlos del Rosario)
This 20-minute short film, which serves as a TV pilot, is surprisingly sweet and reminiscent of the early days of Judd Apatow. The plot is simple enough: two pop-culture obsessed nerds go their friend Roy’s engagement party. Roy is a closeted nerd, hiding his obsessions from his girlfriend. Of course our two heroes will try to bring him back to the dark side. But amidst all the moments of broad slapstick and lightsaber fights, LOSERS is a love letter to all nerd fandoms, be it STAR WARS, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, video games, or GHOSTBUSTERS. Carlos del Rosario‘s script is clever and his direction and FX work elevate the material. The whole thing just has a lovable innocence to it, which is difficult to achieve in this modern “jaded zeitgeist” where every single film is bleak and every comedy is grotesquely dark. Zack Abramowitz is excellent, better than he was on the original webseries playing the same character. Maya Murphy, Shannon Kendall, and Jordan Gosnell are great too, but the breakout star is Matt Steiner. Let’s hope LOSERS gets picked up as a full fledged series, where it belongs.
9. SHE, WHO EXCELS IN SOLITUDE (dir. Mako Kamitsuna)
The production value on this short is incredible. Made as a student film at the AFI Conservatory, this moving period piece tells a true story about an anecdote in history that is often neglected. It also features a cameo by William Fichtner, adding a little name talent to this amazing film.
8. PLATONIC PARTS (dir. Nate Brown)
Made as an entry for The New York 48 Hour Film Project, this is a very charming comedy about a man and his sex robot. The comedy is delivered just right and the end result manages to move you. I must admit I’m not a big fan of this competition. I think it’s great for filmmakers and it’s impressive to see films made in only 48 hours, but once you remove that element, the films themselves tend to feel like works rushed into production. This is the best single film that The 48 Hour Film Project has produced from the crop I’ve seen in the past two years. And once again, there’s definitely a breakout star heavily responsible for this. Christine Scharf creates a character so believable, who delivers deadpan humor with touching pathos. This film won the NY48HFP awards for Best Writing, Best Actress, Best Use of Character, Audience Choice, and Best Trailer! There’s not a single negative thing I could ever say about this film. It’s just a perfect gem!
7. GREEN EYES (dir. Jack Gattanella)
I wrote a much longer piece on this film back in March that you can read here, but having seen GREEN EYES three times now, I’ve only become stronger in my resolve that Dasha Kittredge deserves a Best Supporting Actress nomination. I really wish there was a way to make this film elegible for that consideration. The film has many characters and plotlines, but it can be best summed up as Jamie’s Tragedy and Its Aftermath.
6. DEAR MR. WATTERSON (dir. Joel Schroeder)
The only other feature on this list. First off, this documentary is historic as the first real film about CALVIN AND HOBBES in history, and has served as a gathering place for the strip’s many fans. Aside from that, this doc is a very passionate and loving tribute to a work of art, and also gives the viewer an eye-opening history lesson on the disappearing art of newspaper comics, and the large role they had in the early part of the twentieth century. No, Bill Watterson himself doesn’t appear, nor was it likely he ever would have, but this mystique, which has added to CALVIN AND HOBBES for years, ends up adding to DEAR MR. WATTERSON as well, as it is a love letter to an unseen character.
5. THE HARBOR STORY (dir. Tony DiMasio)
It’s so refreshing to see films that push boundaries and do new things. Here is a film without a single word of dialog. And no, not the way something like THE ARTIST used this as a gimmick. For this film, dialog is simply not required, and the result is a work of pure cinema that breezes by. We’re told a love story between two people that soon turns tragic but goes to the uplifting place that moves us. It’s a sentimental film and was made by the director as a tribute to his parents. My one criticism is that I do wish it ended around the 21-minute mark. The epilogue showing an older version of the couple is unnecessary and drags, and is where the sentiment really pours in. Regardless, this is a very moving and refreshing film, featuring great performances by Thomas Wesson and Dina Cataldi.
4. SKELETON ARMY music video by ASSORTED ANIMALS (dir. Brandon Pro)
This is an example of the quality music video that made the format what it was in the 1980’s. At first you are drawn in by a simple gimmick: that medicine cabinet. Then you watch and rewatch, looking to see how they did that effect. And every time you rewatch, the song grows more on you, until soon you’re humming it. This music video, produced by Hanging Charlie Productions, features a fully constructed set, amazing camerawork, and creative use of props. Oh, duh, and a great song from Assorted Animals.
3. DAMAGED (created by Liz Miele)
This is an animated webseries about broken robots in the future. I love DAMAGED for two reasons. First, the style of animation and humor is a fun throwback to the fun days of cartoons, mixing in the sophistication of Adult Swim and SOUTH PARK. You never quite know what to expect in this world of surreal humor. But secondly, it’s fascinating that the series was created by Liz Miele, who is not a conventional film director but a stand up comedian. Normally when a comedian starts a webseries, it’s a starring vehicle they use to show off their comedy. Here is a comedian creating something completely original, in the field of animation, yet funny and touching, and relates to her style of comedy in a more intimate way. Come to think of it, this series is kind of its own CALVIN AND HOBBES. We’re all damaged in some way, and we all live with our missing parts.
2. FRIENDS AND STRANGERS (dir. Edward Caban)
Just watch the above video. Watch all 13 minutes of it. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
That was beautiful. That was just a perfectly moving work of short filmmaking. You had characters and you had atmosphere. The story was simple enough: it’s about the characters, not the plot. The heart of the film is a great performance by Larry Block, a veteran actor who appeared in such films as HEAVEN CAN WAIT and DON’T SAY A WORD, but passed away before this film was completed. I really just having nothing to say about this one. It speaks for itself. It knocks it out of the park.
…and the best indie production I saw in 2013 was…
1. GIRLS WHO SMOKE (dir. Tawny Foskett)
This is a meditative, melancholic film with many silences. Two women meet and share a connection over a pack of cigarettes. Through narration, one tells us something, but the reality we see suggests things aren’t what they appear. We see their boyfriends, we sense the conflict…but we’re not told anything more than we need to. This could so easily have been a film about domestic drama, and instead it becomes about a moment between people. A moment that can’t be captured in words. The music and sound design are also great. But mostly I love the film’s subtleties, and one of my favorite last lines to a film ever:
“It took me a long time to quit that boyfriend, and to quit smoking. And sometimes, I still miss the smoking.”
Hope you liked my list. Join me on New Year’s Eve, where I’ll be counting the Top Ten Hollywood films of 2013!