Its taken me a long time to curate this list. As my readership is extremely important to me, I wanted to ensure that this list contain films that are important to our culture and the independent film industry. As I am a strong supporter of the independent artist and their "hustle," its not out of the ordinary that my favorite films happen to be those that first appeared in art houses. Yes, I really enjoyed the recently released The Avengers, this summer's blockbuster...it was directed by Joss Whedon at least ;)
1. Secretary, dir. Steven Shainberg, 2002, United States
What don't I like about this movie?! Amazing performances. Steaming, hot love story. AND S&M!!!! Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader's performances are amazing! But, the most important reason why I love this movie is because, unlike the traditional romance film, neither person of the couple changes for the other. Instead, these characters found someone who compliments their "styles."
2. Pulp Fiction, dir. Quentin Tarentino, 1994, United States
I was 21 years old, a recent college graduate, when I first saw this movie. And guess what? One of my now favorite films, I absolutely HATED at the time when I first viewed it. Why? Maybe because I fell asleep at the very beginning of it and then woke up during the scene where Mrs. Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman) receives an adrenaline shot to the heart following a mistaken cocaine overdose. It took an ex-lover (one who shall remain nameless because we no longer speak to each other) years later to ignite my passion for both this movie and almost all of Quentin Tarantino's films. I now own almost all of his movies.
3. Malcolm X, dir. Spike Lee, 1992, United States
I've been professing this on my self-designated soap box since I first watched this film: Denzel Washington deserved the Academy Award for this role rather than for Training Day! To play such a complex, historical figure over a span of a lifetime (well, almost a lifetime) is a huge task to accomplish. I first saw this film during an all-school field trip to the movie theatre. I'm from Detroit and was fortunate to grow up in a positive Afrocentric school system, one that taught us about the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history from kindergarten to high school (it was through my elementary school where I first watched the mini-series Roots). My favorite part in this film is when Malcolm X visits Mecca. The voiceover of the letter home to his family and then watching him pray still gives me chills! This is a film that I can watch over and over again, for I gain a different perspective on both Malcolm X's life and also Spike Lee's filmmaking techniques. The other thing that I admire about this film is the hustle that Lee had to undertake in order to finish this film.
4. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, dir. Woody Allen, 2008, United States
Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz = too much sexiness in one film! Unlike the other films on this list, I can't remember when I first saw this film. However, I can tell you how many times I've watched it since buying it on DVD recently! If I were to ever curate a film festival of movies about Americans Abroad, this would be the film to open the festival! There's so much to love in this film, including Penelope Cruz's Academy Award-winning performance and the cinematography! The vast portraits of Spain's landscape are so beautiful (I think that it helps to have the Spanish cinematographer, Javier Aguirresarobe, work on this film). And Penelope Cruz looks stunning throughout the entire movie, including during her numerous fits of rage. This is the film that percolated my interested in Woody Allen.
5. Biutiful, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2008-2009, Spain
This is one of the many films that I've seen at Amherst Cinema, and one of the films on this list where I couldn't stop crying (I advise to never see a film that's a tear-jerker in the trailer by yourself). Another film starring Javier Bardem, Biutiful is a story about a terminally-ill father who tries to correct all of his wrongs while he's still alive. Bardem was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in this film, becoming the first performance that's entirely performed in Spanish to earn this nomination. The cinematography and the dialogue are amazing in this film. I highly recommend renting this movie. Just make sure to have plenty of tissues handy.
6. Departures, dir. Yōjirō Takita, 2008, Japan
Another film that I saw at Amherst Cinema, I've only seen this film once but remember it vividly. Its another film that you need a couple of boxes of tissues prepared prior to viewing. Though I don't want to spoil the plot, I wanted to give a little bit of insight into what its about. The protagonist, a professional cellist, lost his job with the country's symphony orchestra. Recently married and with a baby on the way, he needed to find a source of income. Responding to a newspaper ad, he interviews and scores a job with a departures agency. Thinking that it was a travel agency, it takes him some time to get adjusted to this line of work. This agency specializes in preparing the deceased for burial. Unlike its American counterpart, this Japanese film captures grief in a way that western movies probably could never accomplish due to how our society deals with emotion. Be prepared to cry throughout 3/4s of the movie.
7. Little Miss Sunshine, dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2006, United States
I hope that everyone has seen this film by now! It plays regularly on basic cable and is available on Netflix. What isn't to like about this film?! I would talk more about the plot but I would be giving the entire movie away. I recommend watching this movie prior to any others on this list!
8. Election, dir. Alexander Payne, 1999, United States
I remember when I first heard about and saw this movie. The VHS (yes, this was WAY back in the day) was on sale for $5 at the local brick and mortar video rental place in the neighborhood where I grew up. I bought it in 2000 and I still own it! Well, my parents have it, along with many of the films I collected while I was living at "home." This film, a satire about a high schooler running for student body president, introduced me to Reese Witherspoon (who I loved in Legally Blonde...yes, I'll admit to not only seeing this film multiple times but also to really liking it). Election offers a unique critique of suburbia, politics, and teenage culture.
9. Brown Sugar, dir. Rick Famuyiwa, 2002, United States
The soundtrack! The soundtrack! The soundtrack! Its SO GOOD! I was recently introduced to this film by one of my closest friends. The soundtrack (yes, its that good) brought back some fond memories. From Jill Scott to Erykah Badu to Mos Def to the Roots, this film's soundtrack reminded me how amazing the music of the late 1990s to early 2000s was to both me and African-American culture. This is one of a long list of films where the gorgeous and multi-talented Sanaa Lathan plays the protagonist and romantic interest. Get ready...there's a steamy love scene in this one! This is a film that can be watched with friends and with significant others!
10. Eve's Bayou, dir. Kasi Lemmons, 1997, United States
This is the only film on the list that I was introduced to via a class. It was the Spring of 2009 when I took a graduate-level film class, Black Female Image in Cinema...a class that changed my entire career trajectory. In this class, we talked about films made by black women and also films made featuring black female characters. Of course, filmmaker Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou is her directorial debut) had to be on the syllabus. This film is so important that it made it onto Time Magazine's list of The 25 Most Important Films on Race. From its opening voiceover, its easy to note the importance of this film and its impact on our culture.
Being the cultural critic that I am, I want to note that there are not too many women on this list. Unfortunately, there are not too many women film directors out there. Better yet, there are not too many female theatre directors, female playwrights, female film, television, and theatre producers out there. There are too few women at the head of the creative process. As a female writer and arts administrator, I think that its beyond time for us to assume positions at the head of the table, both in commercial and independent art-making circles. Kathryn Bigelow, director of the film The Hurt Locker (2008), became the first woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Director. This was in 2009! Though I haven't seen this film yet, I've definitely added it to the list of films to watch because it is important to support those who are breaking barriers, quite like the films on this list. I also want to add to this list the new television series Scandal, created by Shonda Rhimes and starring Kerry Washington. When was the last time a television series featured an African-American woman in a lead role? Nuff said. I haven't seen Scandal yet, but trust that over the next couple of months that I'll get caught up on the series.
Over the summer, I will be working on a post containing a list of female artmakers who we need to support. Be on the lookout for it!
There's also many independent films that did not make this list. It is simply because I haven't seen a lot of other important films of the industry yet (i.e., Do the Right Thing, a film that I'll be watching in a couple of days). I hope that as I add to my own personal DVD collection that this list will only expand.