For Your Consideration: Oct. 24, 2014

People usually hesitate to call the Independent Film Project’s Gotham Awards the official start of the awards season – as the East Coast-little sibling to the Spirit Awards (which are already themselves the awkward cousin of the Oscars, Golden Globes, et al), the Gothams are hardly an influential affair. But hey, they’re the first group to actually start putting out competitive categories, and there’s just something so damn fun about an end-of-year list. This year’s list of nominations seem as suitably discerning as ever, with “Boyhood” leading the way and love for “Birdman,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Under the Skin,” among others (I’m particularly intrigued by their Best Actor nod for Oscar Isaac in J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” – an interesting way to sneak around the review embargo that’s been placed on the film so far).

In any case, we’re going to kick off the season by celebrating Gotham Awards past – here are three films that took the top prize from the New York indie scene.

– Ethan

“Half Nelson” (2006)

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Shareeka Epps, Anthony Mackie

Available to purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

“The Notebook” may have catapulted Ryan Gosling to the A-list, but it was “Half Nelson” that made him a critics’ darling too. His turn as a drug-addicted inner-city junior high school teacher is riveting (and remains his only Oscar-nominated role), but revisiting the film the real shocker is how well Shareeka Epps, as Gosling’s student-turned-confidante, holds her own. Combine those two with Anthony Mackie’s electric performance as a neighborhood dealer who draws Epps into his business, and “Half Nelson” is a great example of what the 21st-century indie scene has offered so far: raw, rough talent, standing out in a well-written, on-the-fly production.

– Ethan

“Frozen River” (2008)

Cast: Melissa Leo, Misty Upham, Michael O’Keefe, Charlie McDermott, Mark Boone Jr.

Available to purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

This pick also serves as a bittersweet tribute to Misty Upham, who died under tragic and rather mysterious circumstances a few weeks ago. Courtney Hunt’s drama finely balances elements of a crime thriller with scathing indictments on the American economy and immigration policy. As Ray Eddy and Lila Littlewolf, two women who form an uneasy partnership to smuggle immigrants across the St. Lawrence River from Canada to a Mohawk reservation, Leo and Upham are a well-matched odd couple, never quite falling into the sappy screen clichés of unlikely friendship. Amid the snow and ice, the film smolders, fueled by Ray and Lila’s desperation to support themselves and their children in a society where they’ve run out of options.

– Ethan

“Winter’s Bone” (2010)

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Lauren Sweetser, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Doesn’t it seem an eternity ago that we had no idea who Jennifer Lawrence was? It’s been a whirlwind few years, but even after a blockbuster franchise and an Oscar, “Winter’s Bone” remains Lawrence’s best work (sorry, David O. Russell fans, it’s true). The film bears a passing resemblance to “Frozen River,” as another chilly, rustic thriller about a woman driven to extreme measures to protect herself and her family – but “Winter’s Bone” drops to an even darker place, where drugs, poverty and violence are inescapable. The menace in Debra Granik’s vision of the Ozarks is palpable, especially whenever John Hawkes is on screen as Lawrence’s hostile, enigmatic uncle. Watching “Winter’s Bone,” it’s not hard to see how Lawrence won the lead in “The Hunger Games” – Ree is nothing if not the real-life version of Katniss Eberdeen, and all the admirable for it.

– Ethan

For Your Consideration: July 25, 2014

We don’t generally like to get into politics here at The Best Films of Our Lives – but whatever your stance on the issue, it’s undeniable that the age-old topic of immigration has come to the fore again, at least in the 24-hour American media hype cycle. It’s not an issue limited to American society, though – filmmakers the world over have found fruitful material in the act of trying to make a new home in a strange and isolating land. This week, we’re recommending three films that deal with the immigrant experience.

– Ethan

“El Norte” (1983)

Cast: Ernesto Gómez Cruz, David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez

Available streaming on Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, and iTunes; on disc from Netflix

Championed by Roger Ebert and favored by high-school substitute Spanish teachers, “El Norte” is more or less exactly what you would think of regarding the dramatization of Mexico-U.S. immigration: a young brother and sister, cast out from their Central American village by the cruelty of poverty and strife, smuggle themselves across the border to the southwestern U.S., and try to handle the fact that they are now rejected by both the country where they were born and the one where they now live. Exceptional craft, including some stunning low-budget cinematography and a beautiful folk score, make the melodrama of “El Norte” stand out, and believable, un-stylized performances from both the unknown lead actors ground the events and helped set the standard for American independent cinema.

– Ethan

“Sugar” (2009)

Cast: Algenis Perez Soto, Jose Rijo, Walki Cuevas

Available to purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s sports/immigration drama hybrid is all the more remarkable for the way it manages to completely avoid, if not subvert, stereotypes of both genres. Refusing to get swept up in broad gestures, the co-writers and directors tell the story of Dominican baseball prospect Azúcar “Sugar” Sanchez in observant, human detail, unconcerned with validating Sanchez’s (or the audience’s) dreams. On the flip side, there’s the potential for an incredibly depressing, soul-destroying tale on par with Malamud’s “The Natural” (book, not the movie) in here, but again Boden and Fleck slide sideways and find affirmation and value in community, wherever one may find it.

– Ethan

“35 Shots of Rum” (2009)

Cast: Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogué, Grégoire Colin

Available on disc from Netflix

Questions of homeland and identity have always factored heavily into the work of Claire Denis, herself a white colonial West African transplant who has lived and filmed for much of her life in France or elsewhere in Europe. Alienation based on race and culture is clearly a searing, personal issue for her, as seen in fiercer works like “I Can’t Sleep” or “White Material;” but “35 Shots of Rum” is perhaps her most gentle treatment of the circumstances faced by France’s considerable immigrant population. A father and daughter navigate everyday trials of romance, employment, family, with the kind of tenderness, resignation and stubbornness that rises from making one’s own way in unfamiliar territory. Also unique among these selections for addressing the generational gap between first and second-wave immigrants, a subtlety of motivation and outlook treated in shades of gray rather than a black-and-white division.

– Ethan