Here’s the second half of my blog about the top ten non-mainstream films that you may have missed in 2011. Part I outlined numbers 10 through 6 . These are essentially films that may have flown under the radar, but are readily available either via video-on-demand, released on DVD, or even streaming online. Although I had absolute fun with the recent MISSION IMPOSSIBLE film (Paula Patton, love me!) and the final HARRY POTTER was a befitting ending to the franchise, they already exist on other people’s lists. Even FAST FIVE got kudos in Time and The Hollywood Reporter. But, this list is for the “little guys,” indie films that need to be seen and hopefully, will be seen by Offenders like you!
5. JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHIIn the basement of a Tokyo office building, 85 year old sushi master Jiro Ono works tirelessly in his world renowned restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro.As his son Yoshikazu faces the pressures of stepping into his father’s shoes and taking over the legendary restaurant, Jiro – san relentlessly pursues his lifelong quest to create the perfect piece of sushi.
Yes, this is food porn, but the way director David Gelb’s camera is invited into the lair of one of the culinary masters of the world, makes this respectful, yet playful documentary work on so many levels — from the salivating, beautiful images of Jiro-san’s sushi creations, to the pairing of these images with classical music, to the “read between the lines” interviews between the sushi master and his sons, it’s essentially a story about a small family business and the legacies behind it. JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI had major film festival play in 2011 and is opening theatrically in March of this year.
4. CIRCUMSTANCEMaryam Keshavarz’s electric debut of a young woman’s sexual rebellion and her brother’s descent into dangerous obsession in Tehran is taut, sexy, lushly photographed, and filled with great performances. Produced by Karin Chien, who was recently in the film blogosphere over her open letter to the Producers Guild of America of not accepting foreign language films for consideration, CIRCUMSTANCE is currently available on DVD.
3. THE TROLL HUNTERThe government says there’s nothing to worry about – it’s just a problem with bears making trouble in the mountains and forests of Norway. But local hunters don’t believe it – and neither do a trio of college students who want to find out the truth. Armed with a video camera, they trail a mysterious “poacher,” who wants nothing to do with them. However, their persistence lands them straight in the path of the objects of his pursuits: trolls. They soon find themselves documenting every move of this grizzled, unlikely hero – the trollhunter – risking their lives to uncover the secrets of creatures only thought to exist in fairy tales.
Yes, it’s another mockumentary/found footage horror film, but this ain’t Blair Witch bullshit. THE TROLL HUNTER is one of the most inventive horror films to come out in years, and it’s a fun mix of Norwegian fairy tales, Dungeons & Dragons lore, and some nifty special effects that make the film a truly fun ride.
2. IN THE FAMILYPerhaps one of the biggest indie gems of the year, IN THE FAMILY, from NY-based playwright and actor Patrick Wang, completely came out of left field. Recommended to me by Phil Yu, Angry Asian Man himself, and others, I pulled this film straight from our general call for entries at the Hawaii International Film Festival, to view right away. A 3 hour family drama about an Asian American southerner who tries to fight the system to regain his young son after the death of his partner, who was the biological father, doesn’t really read well on paper. First off, it’s 3-hours long. Secondly, Wang wrote, directed and is the lead. These are all warning signs of a ill conceived, ego-fueled magnum opus from yet another actor-director. But let me tell ya, IN THE FAMILY, is one of the most elegantly designed, exquisitely performed debut films I have seen in years. Everyone is in top form, especially Wang, with his southern drawl and “aw shucks” charm. Yes, it’s a long film, but it’s so worth it to go along on this languid, beautiful journey of a man who tries to get his family back together.
IN THE FAMILY was purportedly rejected by 30 film festivals, until I invited the film to have its world premiere in Hawaii this past October. It soon went on to win a major award at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and a one week run at the Quad Cinemas in NYC. But like the cadence and tone of this quiet drama, the film has slowly garnered much deserved recognition, ranging from a glowing NY Times Review to an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Feature. Patrick is planning a theatrical release for this spring as the film goes on a roadshow across the country. This is not only a wonderful love story, but also one of the best Asian American films to come out in years. Check out Hammer to Nail’s recent interview with Wang.
1. A SEPARATIONAnd my #1 pick of the year, is also the second film on this list set in contemporary Iran. A SEPARATION is a compelling drama about the dissolution of a marriage. Simin wants to leave Iran with her husband Nader and daughter Termeh. Simin sues for divorce when Nader refuses to leave behind his Alzheimer-suffering father. Her request having failed, Simin returns to her parents’ home, but Termeh decides to stay with Nader. When Nader hires a young woman to assist with his father in his wife’s absence, he hopes that his life will return to a normal state. However, when he discovers that the new maid has been lying to him, he realizes that there is more on the line than just his marriage.
I first saw this film, when it premiered as NADIR AND SIMIN, A SEPARATION, at the Berlin Film Festival last February. It blew me away. The latest film from one of Iran’s best directors, Asghar Farhadi, whose work reflects the everyday lives of middle class Iranians, are always compelling and fresh, with great performances, and situations that may seem middling and run-of-the-mill, but soon escalate to life changing events that anyone can relate to.
Even though I saw this film earlier in 2011, it always resonated with me. You think it’s KRAMER VS. KRAMER, but then it becomes YOJIMBO, mixed in with a fascinating look into the Iranian legal system, secular and Muslim law, and you cannot be more enraptured and sucked into the whole process. Peyman Mooadi and Leila Hamini, who play Nader and Simin respectively, are so real in their performances, lead a stunning ensemble.
For anyone familiar or not familiar with Iranian cinema, A SEPARATION needs to be seen. It is a masterful work that is guaranteed awards recognition in the months to come. And yes, this film was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, and yes, I did say this top ten list is for indie films, but Iranian cinema has had little headway in the U.S., except amongst arthouse circles. A SEPARATION should be championed as a crossover film for film buffs and newbies alike. It is that good. And as I mentioned before, it is a rare Iranian film that doesn’t deal with poverty, or war, or politics for that matter. It’s a story about a family that is tested by human frailty, perceptions, all for the pursuit of happiness. Roger Ebert hailed A SEPARATION as the best film of 2011.
The film just opened this past weekend in NY and LA, but expect it to be released in a theater near you in the coming months. My prediction: A SEPARATION will win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.