December can feel overwhelming for movie watchers with all the awards contenders flooding the arthouses -- if you're in New York and Los Angeles -- and multiplexes this holiday season. But it's always true, too, that films from earlier in the year manage to get notice from critics in the pre-Oscar-nomination territory. Here, I begin a two-part look at how you can catch up with those contenders that are already available on DVD and, in some cases, Blu-ray. Today: the indies. Up next: the studio films.
Indie-wise, there's no higher honor for a little film than to take home a Spirit Award, handed out by Film Independent. This year's nominees were recently announced, and winners will be celebrated on February 21, 2009, live on the Independent Film Channel. More than a couple of the nominees are already viewable at home ... which is a good thing, because the tiny releases these films received early in 2008 mean that little shiny discs are the only way most people will ever see them. Don't miss:
Nominated in multiple Spirit categories -- Best Director for Thomas McCarthy, Best Male Lead for Richard Jenkins and Best Supporting Male for Haaz Sleiman -- this is the sweet and deeply moving story of a mild-mannered college prof (Jenkins) who finds himself irrevocably embroiled in the immigration woes of a visitor to U.S. shores. This profoundly humanistic film is one of the best of the year, and don't be surprised if Jenkins is nominated for -- and wins -- a Best Actor Oscar, as well as this award.
Also honored with multiple Spirit nominations -- Ramin Bahrani for Best Director and Michael Simmonds for Best Cinematography -- this is another story of the hidden lives the unseen among us live. Here it's a young boy who finds work and shelter among the legit auto mechanics and less-than-legit chop shops of Queens. It makes the New York City borough look, not unjustifiably so, like a third-world country.
I wasn't crazy about this low-key science fiction film, but Spirit has seen fit to nominate it for a John Cassavetes Award, given to the best feature made for under $500,000. It's certainly notable for the audacity and imagination it took to mount an urban disaster movie on such little dough. It's not a bad film, just not a great one. (For a different take, Film.com's Eric D. Snider dubbed it one of the "Five Best Movies of 2008 You Missed.")
Ditto this '90s-nostalgia coming-of-age flick, nominated for a Spirit for Best First Screenplay for Jonathan Levine's script. (I'm cheating a little here: The DVD will be out on January 6.) Could be the '90s are just too close in my memory for me to find much novelty in hip-hop and the transition from cassette tape to CD.
Three of the five Spirit nominees for Best Documentary are already available on disc:
I have seen James Marsh's Man on Wire -- about a daredevil wire walker who strung a line between the two World Trade Center towers in the 1970s and dashed across it -- and it's so improbable and yet so rousing that it's bound to get remade as a big-budget Hollywood feature starring Jim Carrey or someone else wildly inappropriate.
I've also seen Yang Chung's Up the Yangtze, about how China is coping -- or not -- with its rapid modernization, and it's a kick in the pants to anyone who thinks China today is merely the U.S. 50 years ago.
(I haven't yet seen the fourth nominee, Margaret Brown's The Order of Myths, also up for a Truer Than Fiction Award, about how Mardi Gras has evolved in Mobile, Alabama, but that'll be out on DVD on January 13.)
A few more noms I can catch up on myself, having missed them in theaters: The Take, with a nomination for Rosie Perez for Best Supporting Female; Sangre de Mi Sangre, nominated for Best Screenplay, by Christopher Zalla (on DVD December 16); Savage Grace, also a Best Screenplay nominee for Howard A. Rodman (on DVD December 23); and Summer Bishil, a nominee for Best Female Lead in Towelhead (on DVD December 30).
It's gonna be a busy month.
MaryAnn Johanson (email me)
film reviews and TV blogging at FlickFilosopher.com