Films, have always provided an escape from reality, a chance to get lost amongst a story that is removed from your own life. But right now, more than ever, we need happiness and lots of it, so find that happiness in stranger places – welcome to the world of feel-good indie films.
Independent films are often seen as complicated specimens, prone to the stereotypes of being challenging, overly-emotional, or utterly bizarre. Yet, amongst this array of all the things indie are many under-the-radar films that will boost your soul.
Where the Hollywood glitter ends, and the fading sun casts a shadow over this picture-perfect world, a grittier, more truthful reality comes into focus. Almost the less shiny aspects of life that indie films explore. An escape from reality, that’s not too far removed from what we know – more human and more familiar to us.
It’s not that one is better than the other, but the indie spectrum offers an exploration into more unusual facets of that feel-good movie, from a new perspective.
Hollywood-style feel-good films, often fit a mould. One tried-and-tested structure, storyline, often boys-meets-girl “rom-com”. They’re from big studios, with big budgets and big talent. It doesn’t mean we love them any less, but we’ve seen it before.
The whole landscape of film-making is changing, and that’s never been so clear with the South Korean film Parasite storming the Academy Awards and winning The Best Picture, and five others this year. Roma, a black and white cinematic tale set in Mexico City, with a break-out cast, similarly picked up multiple big awards in 2019. Sundance Film Festival favourites are now often propelled into the Oscars race: Boyhood, Get Out, Call me By Your Name, among others.
There is now a yearning and desire for the more alternative, and the reverberations are being felt throughout the indie sphere. Audiences now are more responsive and accepting to new and stranger features, with unknown casts. The huge rise of independent cinema in the last few decades reflects this – seen as the celebration of artistic expression. “Free the artist” and “free the audience” was the slogan of the Sundance Film Festival in 2007.
Hence, take this dip into the niche, the scary and often uncharted waters of strange and wonderful film-making. This is often the realm of films that the big studios didn’t want to make, either too risky or too subversive. Of untold stories, low budgets and unknown talent waiting to be discovered.
So, readers, from Japan to France, China to New Zealand or America’s wilderness, this is our list of 20 carefully-selected, worthy, and easy-to-watch indie films:
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) – from the phenomenal director Taiki Waitti, pre-Oscar fame, comes a slightly bonkers film, in his usual style. It’s about a child whose lost his way and an unwilling foster-father, whose adventures lead them to be at the centre of a manhunt in the New Zealand wilderness. If you think the film is headed in one direction, it will certainly go in the other and leaves no time for over-indulging in any sentimentality. It’s hilarious and in equal measure moving as an unlikely and unbreakable friendship forms.
- The life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) – an early Wes Anderson, definitely not considered his best but it has a strange magic to it. It examines family dynamics, a man on the cusp of change and the depth of sadness amongst Anderson’s typical microworld or story-book style set. Criticised for being too confused or somewhat broken – you can enjoy it exactly for its confusing brokenness, its pursuit of meaning, and the final scene – a submarine, a stop-motion shark and the connection that binds us all.
- Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) – a younger Pedro Almodevart directs this Spanish dramatic comedy about a woman dealing with a lover leaving her. On her crazy mission to find answers, what she finds instead are strange characters, the endless unexpected and a series of men and women desperately trying to understand one another.
- Little Miss Sunshine (2006) – a total Indie success story. A film no one wanted to make that went on to shine as a Sundance favourite and then become a huge box office hit. It chronicles a dysfunctional family who take a cross-country road trip for their daughter’s beauty pageant. It’s as funny as it is heartfelt and reminds us of the importance of family, no matter how screwed up we may feel.
- Dazed and confused (1993) – dipping perhaps into the “cooler indie hits”, it follows a graduating high school class throughout one day in the 70s, and set to a brilliant soundtrack. This a film in which almost nothing happens, instead the pleasure of watching comes from its pure simplicity. A group of young people feeling a little lost and drifting amongst hazing, cars, bars and parties, with the undercurrent of change in the air.
- The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) – A Japanese masterful creation, it’s about a girl born in a bamboo shoot, who quickly grows into a beautiful princess, but her life remains ruled by the moon. A strange, but truly beautiful and skilful animation, with a phenomenal soundtrack – you will be in awe of its visionary qualities and perhaps only a little heartbroken.
- Lars the Real girl (2007) – Ryan Gosling stars in this, but it’s far from the Hollywood glamour he’s used to. It has a wonderfully bizarre storyline of a lonely man that falls in love with a manikin, Bianca, his delusions leading him to believe she is real. It’s hard to not feel warm as you watch a town forget its differences, and come together to indulge in his fantasy until perhaps he no longer needs it.
- Ladybird (2017) – verging towards the more well-known, but this is Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut and a rare film. It’s about a very unique, pink haired and self-named character of Ladybird– hilarious, smart and clumsy. She navigates the complicated realm of dating, sex and the tumultuous highs and lows of adolescence. It’s also a wonderful portrait of a strained mother-daughter relationship as they struggle to reconcile their differences. It’s really a love letter to those complicated years we almost want to forget and most of us will see a little bit of ourselves in the character of Ladybird.
- The Science of Sleep (2006) – a charming and comedic film, set in Paris, about a man who struggles to separate his dreams from reality. He falls for his beautiful, creative neighbour, but his remarkable and senseless inner-world TV show threatens to overtake his mind. You will likely love, laugh, and want to scream at this unlikely and vulnerable hero.
- Our Little Sister (2016) – Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Japanese film is a wonderful creation, centring around three sisters inviting their newly discovered half-sister to life with them. They’re a bit of an intricate muddle, all facing their own issues and all left behind. Everything is understated and yet wields a gentle power through its simple conversations, stunning visuals, and beautiful depiction of family life. It will brighten your day.
- American Splendour (2003) – this is the biography and semi-adaption of the comic books with the same name, based on the somewhat ordinary life of Harvey Pekar. In an amalgamation of animation, documentary and film, it follows this unhappy middle-aged man. He is far from a typical comic book hero, with nothing romanticised or seeming too bland to leave out. It’s a gritty, funny and entirely truthful account of life, that somehow leaves you feeling totally uplifted.
- Le Chat du Rabbin (2011) – A French cartoon set in Algiers, about a cat that swallows a parrot and learns to talk. It’s certainly a rogue one and not for everyone – this is a feline, who smokes, philosophises and embarks on a strange quest to find a hidden tribe in Africa. It’s an easily joyful comedy.
- This Beautiful Fantastic (2016) – the effortlessly and beautifully simple story of a woman, neurotically cautious and introverted. She sets about to nurture a garden back to life, and in doing so, in part repairs herself – it’s got romance, friendship and very tender moments.
- Station Agent (2003) – another film about an unhappy middle-aged man, this follows a dwarf who seeks to escape by moving into an abandoned train station. Bear with this one – it’s slow-moving, peaceful and delicate. We watch a man learning to love life once again, through romance and through friendship. Its closing scenes are completely worth the wait.
- Never Goin’ Back (2018) – a raw coming of age story, of two teenage girls left alone except for one drug-dealing older brother. They have a sincere don’t give a f*** attitude, and enjoy a life where nothing seems to go their way, but they have each other. Its a total celebration of youth, rebellion and the power of female friendship. The lasting image of pure joy, will leave you desperate to be young again.
- Les Choristes (2004) – a French film, focused on a choirmaster arriving at a school for orphaned and problematic children. It’s about the power of music and redemption. Admittedly, a little emotionally taxing, but an ultimate feel good.
- God of Cookery (1996) – the celebrated Hong Kong director, Steven Chow, starred in and directed this comedy in his earlier days. It’s messy, silly and perhaps because of the language barrier never really reached Western audiences. Yet, it’s still insanely funny, the world over.
- Empire records (1995) – an all-time favourite film. A dying record shop, a mis-matched collection of young characters, and one fine day. Sit back and watch the craziness unfold within its four walls– hilarious, fun and at times moving, you’ll want to be each of them, in different parts. This film could not be more feel-good, cool and simple to enjoy.
- Captain Fantastic (2016) – a truly unique film about a father raising his six children in the American wilderness. They’re all fiercely intelligent, can hunt or make clothes out of animal skin, yet don’t know what Coca Cola is. As an event pulls the family back into society they must grapple with the decision, to return to their uninterrupted utopia or embrace the real world. At its heart, it’s a story more about parenthood than childhood. It’s wildly moving and you may cry as much as you laugh, but you will come away feeling brighter and heartened.
- Cinema Rex (2020) – we must finish on a truly good feel-good. A stunning seven minute animation that delves into the story of a very exceptional cinema. The only Arab-Jewish owned business in a divided and British occupied Jerusalem in 1938. A true symbol of unity and peace, in its short existence it made a lasting impact on the city as a whole.
Or, dear readers, maybe the “feel-good” isn’t for you, and you’re looking for the complete opposite, or a pallet-cleanser between some of the above . Our 21st indie selection for you is The Disappearance at Clifton Hill, a brand new mystery and psychological thriller, with masterfully created suspense. Set in Niagara Falls, one woman must uncover the dark secrets and horrors hidden within both her past and present. Not for the faint-hearted. You can Stream on Hulu or watch on Prime Video.
They’re independent, they’re brave and you never know quite how they’ll be received. That’s the beauty and the risk of making films not for the audience but for the passion of telling a story honestly. Making films not only to be enjoyed, but to challenge us, confront us and leave a more lasting story.
A philosophising cat, a crazed shark hunter, falling in love with a mannikin or saving a dying record shop, let this in noway exhaustive list, guide you to your next film choice.
And, find a little solace in films that show a more truthful humanity, in all its glorious vulnerability, dysfunctionality and beauty.
To find out more about Cinema Rex, click here
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