As last year, I want to use this space to highlight some terrific films that came down the pike in the first six months of the year -- and merrily continued down the pike without anyone giving much of a damn. This happens to a host of deserving movies every year; given how much of a miracle it is when an indie actually takes off, there's no avoiding it. But these seven are eminently worth your time; at the very least, I promise they're interesting. Give them a shot.
1. Two Lovers (James Gray) -- Actually my favorite film of the year, this melancholy character study is carried out with such painstaking attention to detail that it becomes akin to one of Henry Selick's stop-motion miracles -- watching it inspires a sort of awe. This is James Gray's follow-up to We Own the Night, and Gray has announced himself as one of our most important newcomers, a master at creating living, breathing, populated, real universes for his characters to inhabit. [Now on DVD.]
2. Julia (Erick Zonca) - This movie barely saw theaters at all -- I saw it in a one-week run courtesy of our local Film Society -- but it might have been a decent investment for an actual distributor. Though it has someone profoundly unpleasant at its center -- the perpetually drunk and nasty title character, played by the incredible Tilda Swinton -- it eventually turns into a remarkably tense little thriller, complete with a classic kidnapping scenario and a chance for the rotten protagonist's redemption. [On DVD August 18th.] strong>3. Fired Up! (Will Gluck) - The odd flick out on a list mostly populated by indies and art films, this hilarious, subtly subversive "teen comedy" is better than virtually anyone gave it credit for. It's the kind of movie that plays at being stupid, but actually isn't, at all. I put "teen comedy" in scare quotes for a reason. [Now on DVD.]
4. The Broken (Sean Ellis) - I stand by what I said in this Public Service Announcement, written during The Broken's ill-fated run at the annual schlocky After Dark Horror Fest back in January. The movie rivals Drag Me to Hell as the year's best entry into the horror genre -- it's smart, insinuating, and incredibly creepy. It holds up on second viewing, too. Sean Ellis is a major new talent. [Now on DVD.]
5. Phoebe in Wonderland (Daniel Barnz) - Moving a bit further off the beaten track, this was an uncommonly thoughtful and intelligent take on mental illness, featuring nine-year old Elle Fanning -- Dakota's little sister -- in what is seriously one of the most astonishing child performances I have ever seen. A portrait of a young girl struggling with a condition that deliberately goes unnamed until the final minutes, the film is heartbreaking and refreshingly uncondescending. [Now on DVD.]
6. Sugar (Ryan Fleck & Anna Boden) - I am surprised this didn't catch on. An amiable (if sad), very entertaining drama with an appealing concept -- Dominican baseball prospect tackles the American minor leagues -- Sugar was ultimately too unconventional (and filled with unknowns) for mainstream success, but it might at least have built up a bit more arthouse steam before petering out. Anyway, this is a very auspicious follow-up for the folks behind Half Nelson, who I suspect will be well-known along the lines of David Gordon Green a few years hence. [On DVD September 1st.]
7. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) - This one was never going anywhere, commercially. A dramatic departure for acclaimed Japanese genre director Kiyoshi Kurasawa, Tokyo Sonata begins as a lovely, subtle dramedy, goes completely off the deep end in the last third, and then rebounds with one of the year's most perfect endings. [On DVD sometime in August.]