Bad news: The multiplexes have been overtaken with the likes of JENNIFER’S BODY and TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN. Good news: with Netflix, Amazon, VOD and every other pipeline now pouring out content, you don’t have to settle for the big-budget brain farts. Much, much better stuff is out there, to wit (and in no particular order):
While James Cameron was busy putting the finishing touches on his mega-million dollar, computer-generated, virtual paradise, Duncan Jones (previously known as Zowie Bowie… yes, that Zowie Bowie) gave us a low-budget, old school SF drama featuring actual, physical modelwork and Sam Rockwell as the corporate grunt facing down his own clone on a moon-based mining facility. Bonus points for casting Mr. Irony himself, Kevin Spacey, as the voice of the base’s AI system.
The rich, beautiful speaking voice of Stephen McHattie gets a workout in this zombie invasion thriller, in which a small town shock-jock and his two-woman production team have to ward off an onslaught of the not-really-undead-but-not-the-kind-of-folks-you-want-to-get-too-close-to-either. Another example of making a virtue of a low budget and limited resources, with director Bruce McDonald letting moody atmosphere and engaging dialogue become his special effects.
Strictly speaking, Focus Features is Universal’s “indie” brand, so CORALINE should qualify as a stop-motion entry here, but let’s not kid ourselves, okeh? Instead, how about an Australian/Israeli co-production in which director Tatia Rosenthal adapts the stories of Etgar Keret and creates an episodic, animated tale of the inhabitants of an apartment complex discovering the meaning of life. With Geoffry Rush as a surly angel and Anthony LaPaglia as the father of a slacker who’s just purchased a book — for the princely, titular price — promising to unveil said mysteries of life, the film’s a quirky mix of sly humor and strange fantasy. You will believe a man can swim like a dolphin.
4) BIG MAN JAPAN
TV comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto sends up the tokusatsu (translation: big-ass super hero) genre in this tale of an unmotivated slacker carrying on the family monster-stomping business and receiving a less-than-grateful response from the Japanese populace. We dare you to try and purge the image of a pudgy, fright-wigged Matsumoto clomping around toy cities in a diaper. It’s just not possible
5) LOS BASTARDOS
In Amat Escalante’s film, the horror is all (okay, mostly) in the mind as a pair of illegal immigrants stage a home invasion and find a drugged, dispirited single mother crashed out on the living room couch. You may mistake this for social drama, but don’t be surprised if the finale leaves your palms sweaty.
6) I SELL THE DEAD
No one’s going to mistake this episodic recounting of the adventures of a pair of 19th century grave robbers for nuanced storytelling, but director Glenn McQuaid has cast Dominic Monaghan, Ron Perlman, and Larry Fessenden in key roles, and thrown zombies, vampires, and aliens into the mix, making this comic-book-inspired tale just pure, frackin’ fun.
7) MARY AND MAX
UP wasn’t emotional enough for you? Try this Australian, puppet-animated story (and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s debut as a voice actor) of a young, Aussie girl (voiced by Toni Collette) growing up and learning some rather peculiar life lessons via a pen-pal exchange with a New Yorker plagued with Asperger’s Syndrome. Directed by Adam Elliot — who was also responsible for the equally curious, Oscar-winning short HARVEY KRUMPET — this features possibly the most devastating use of Que Sera Sera ever.
8 SLEEP DEALER
Hellooooo, cyberpunk — we’ve been missing you. Director Alex Rivera and a largely Latino cast take a look at border politics in the future, and create a not-too-implausible world of virtual migrant workers, remote-controlled drones protecting corporate water rights, and a black market where personal memories are the most sought-after commodity. Lou Dobbs, this is your wake-up call.
From out of Denver comes this stunningly mounted, surprisingly compelling tale of a young girl snatched into a surreal netherworld and the father who may or may not be up to being her savior. Director Jamin Winans has clearly sipped deep from the well of Terry Gilliam and Neil Gaiman, but make no mistake about it: This is his own, singularly unique vision, one that only leaves you hungering for more.
Love it, hate it, be too intimidated to actually see it, you still have to concede that this is the horror film of the year. Using stunning visuals and incredible performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Lars von Trier takes his protagonists deep into a dark, dark psychological wood, and demonstrates that film still has hitherto unimagined powers to get under people’s skins. With rusty scissors, if need be.