In the best movies of 2019, the definition of independent is blurrier than ever
I have been writing under the umbrella of “Indie Focus” for The Times for more than 10 years now and throughout that time, the definition of what it means to be an independent filmmaker has remained elusive and pliable.
Yes, there is the strict definition of where a movie gets its financing, but as there are pictures financed independently and then released by major studios, even that feels slippery. Ditto the strict delineations of who is releasing a film, as seemingly smaller companies may be lavishly funded or part of a larger conglomerate. The venerable Fox Searchlight Pictures, long a part of the 20th Century Fox corporate family tree, is now under the auspices of the even bigger Walt Disney Co.
As the boundaries between studio and independent financing, production and distribution have become cloudier, so too has the question of whether such distinctions are even still relevant. Filmmakers fluidly move among those realms with ease. 2019 saw a significant number of directors who once helmed micro-budget indies shepherding large-scale studio productions, while studio filmmakers crossed back over to independent ventures. This is nothing new, as directors like Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh can attest, but the back-and-forth felt especially pronounced.
2019 was also a year when many of the traditional champions of indie film — Searchlight, Focus Features and Sony Classics, among them — were upstaged by younger competitors. One could make pretty credible best-of-the-year lists strictly from the movies released by the independent companies A24 and Neon, which would include “The Farewell,” “Parasite,” “The Souvenir,” “Uncut Gems,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “The Lighthouse,” “High Life,” “Midsommar,” “Monos,” “Under the Silver Lake,” “Clemency” and “Luce.”
The streaming services that are changing the dynamics of how films are seen are also releasing a startling volume of work, from Netflix’s involvement with the outsize “The Irishman,” the intimate “Marriage Story” and the cross-cultural “Atlantics” to Amazon’s acquisitions of the messily emotional “Honey Boy” and the exactingly wonky “The Report.”
When thinking about “indie” film, this year in particular it feels less instructive to hem and haw over strict semantics and more vital to catch the vibe or mood of a movie or filmmaker, to capture some spirit of intent. Greta Gerwig emerged as a vital new voice from the American Independent micro-budget scene of the mid-2000s to become only the fifth woman nominated for a directing Oscar with her solo debut, “Lady Bird.” Her new “Little Women” is very much a studio movie — the Sony release could even be described as a product of franchise IP — but it nevertheless has a thrilling sense of risk, adventure and invention in the tumbling, tumultuous momentum of Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel.
James Gray has earned wide respect on the international film festival circuit for such intense, emotional movies as “The Immigrant “ and “The Lost City of Z,” which blend the intimate with the operatic. This year, he made a leap to a much larger budget and scale with the equally intense, emotional “Ad Astra,” which stars Brad Pitt as an astronaut traveling through space in search of his lost father. Produced for 20th Century Fox and released after the company’s acquisition by Disney, the movie features an understated, quietly riveting lead performance by Pitt against a spectacular visual sensibility. Gray responded to the scope of his story with transcendent imagery and one of the year’s best action set pieces with a car chase and shootout set on the surface of the moon.
The realm of independent filmmaking has often seemed to serve a dual purpose, providing a safe haven for some filmmakers while also serving as a farm system to develop others moving up to larger projects. And those paths sometimes meet in the middle, as big stars provide inventive performances in smaller movies.
Alex Ross Perry was a credited screenwriter on Disney’s “Christopher Robin” last year but then returned to the low-budget world for the grungy “Her Smell,” a scalding portrait of burnout and redemption with a transcendent lead performance by Elisabeth Moss. (The film was released by the scrappy lower profile distributor Gunpowder & Sky.)
As well, Josh and Benny Safdie threw Adam Sandler into the throbbing street-level chaos of A24’s “Uncut Gems,” and the actor responded with a galvanizing performance. Eddie Murphy returned to his first R-rated film in 20 years with the funny and moving “Dolemite Is My Name” for Netflix, directed by “Hustle and Flow” filmmaker Craig Brewer with a script by “Ed Wood” writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.
“Joker” director Todd Phillips and “Ford v Ferrari” director James Mangold now seem solidly ensconced as studio filmmakers, yet they both came from low-budget independent filmmaking on the festival circuit.
Yet it’s not always a one-way street. Rian Johnson followed up his “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” with the independently financed and Lionsgate released idiosyncratic murder mystery “Knives Out,” while Taika Waititi went from “Thor: Ragnarok” in Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe to the risky World War II satire of Fox Searchlight’s “Jojo Rabbit.” Both filmmakers brought an elevated sense of confidence and craft from their studio work back to their independent efforts.
Meanwhile, Marielle Heller moved to making a studio film with “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” after her indies “Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and created a tender, nuanced study of male emotions.
Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” had a gloss and glamour that made it feel like a much more expensive studio picture. However, it was financed and released by the relatively small company STX — which stepped up when a struggling Annapurna Pictures had to bow out — but then went on to make more than $100 million domestically.
Sophia Takal previously made low-budget explorations of the psychology of female friendship with “Green” and “Always Shine” and brings that perspective to directing the new Universal remake of “Black Christmas” for the hot horror specialists at Blumhouse Productions, which itself moves nimbly among indie, studio and streaming productions.
The Marvel superhero blockbuster “Captain Marvel” was directed by Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden, whose previous films include the decidedly smaller-scale “Half Nelson” and “Mississippi Grind.” Following a recent trend that also includes Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) and Jon Watts (the two most recent “Spider-Man” films), numerous upcoming superhero movies will be directed by indie filmmakers taking a leap to the studio world, including Cathy Yan with “Birds of Prey,” Chloé Zhao with “The Eternals” and Cate Shortland with “Black Widow.”
As for the veterans still in the game, 2019 also saw new films from such venerable independent voices as Jim Jarmusch with “The Dead Don’t Die” and Richard Linklater with “Where’d You Go, Bernadette.” The irrepressibly unpredictable Steven Soderbergh released two movies through Netflix: the shot-on-an-iPhone basketball drama “High Flying Bird” and the playful, star-studded “The Laundromat.”
Quentin Tarantino set up shop at one of the Hollywood majors for the first time and made his “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” for Sony with a budget reported at more than $90 million, and yet the film remains a pure expression of his sensibilities.
In thinking about this last year in image-making, content creation, filmmaking or however you want to describe the act of making motion pictures as what we can broadly consider cinema, my mind goes back to a comment by Ava DuVernay regarding Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” financed and released by Netflix.
DuVernay, a writer, director and producer who has done as much as anyone to push the boundaries of what is to be considered filmmaking — her limited series “When They See Us” is a monumental work whatever other labels you want to apply to it — said “The Irishman” was the work of “a filmmaker who feels free.”
That idea strikes at the very core of what it means to be independent — to be free to make the work creators want in the way they want to make it. It’s inspiring and exciting to see so many filmmakers pushing boundaries and blurring lines in pursuit of creating strong original work in the face of corporate consolidation.
Which also points toward a new freedom for audiences as well, to watch what they want, how they want, when and where they want. At home, in a theater, on your phone — those options can also feel like a state of independence, at last.
Two clever and wickedly funny looks at class warfare lead a standout year for deeply personal movies.
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