In a world drowning in content, independent films give jaded audiences a fresh way to look at the world. Nothing new there. But lately, some of these movies have really gone off the deep end.
In “Lamb,” an Icelandic couple discovers an adorable sheep-baby and attempts to raise it as their own. In “Titane,” a car-show dancer murders a would-be rapist, then turns around and has sex with a tricked-out Cadillac. In “The Green Knight,” a reckless Arthurian hero hacks down a human tree, knowing full well it will cost him his head.
Unconventional as these movies may be, they’re finding an audience today that I would not have thought possible a decade or so ago. Not a huge audience, mind you, but a small yet dedicated segment of the public that’s fed up with formula, hungry for movies with the capacity to surprise, perhaps even to shock.
Let’s call them “bizart-house movies,” for lack of a better term — unapologetically odd and original creations, led by a gifted group of rebel auteurs who don’t kowtow to popular expectations. Think Ari Aster (“Midsommar”), Robert Eggers (“The Lighthouse”), Sean Baker (“The Florida Project”) and Harmony Korine (“The Beach Bum”).
Film critics certainly respond to originality, celebrating risk-takers and championing movies that try something different. And while it can be thrilling to see such artists let their freak flags fly, they wouldn’t be doing it without the support of a cluster of young companies that have come to the collective realization that outré is in.
Companies including A24, which functions as a small studio, working with distinctive directors to make movies that break the mold, like gonzo buns-and-guns bonanza “Spring Breakers,” “Under the Skin” and “The Lobster.” Companies such as Neon, IFC and Focus, which both produce and acquire films that aren’t necessarily easy to swallow, but tweak seen-it-all audiences in unpredictable ways (e.g., “Promising Young Woman” and “Parasite”). On the much smaller side, new players Dekanalog, Utopia and Altered Innocence are gravitating to the fringes where Bertrand Mandico, Quentin Dupieux and Gaspar Noé do their thing.
The Sundance Film Festival is as good a place as any to take stock of this phenomenon — a global trend that’s admittedly hard to put one’s finger on, if only because it’s near-impossible to identify what a wave of nonconformist films have in common, beyond a shared commitment to defying the rules.
For 30-odd years, Sundance has been the country’s best platform for outside-the-box storytelling, from radical realism (“The Blair Witch Project”) to aggressively against-the-grain narrative experimentation (“Memento”). Things got cutesy there for a while, back around the time of “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” to the extent that an entire generation came to associate indie with “quirky,” candy-colored dramedies.
Now the pendulum’s swinging hard in the other direction. From this year’s Sundance lineup, I’d point to examples such as Goran Stolevski’s “You Won’t Be Alone,” a Macedonian-language folk-horror movie about a witch that shape-shifts through several identities, and the Searchlight-acquired “Fresh” in the Midnight section. IFC Midnight’s “Hatching” — about a seemingly ordinary girl with a most unconventional playmate — and Riley Stearns’ clone-versus-clone death match “Dual” also qualify, featuring startling and/or unsettling elements that cut through the bigger-budget competition in theaters.
The rise of such experimentation suggests that directors are not only allowed but actively encouraged to be transgressive: Kill off a main character (“Midsommar”), splice the story into three chapters (“Moonlight”) or turn to Twitter for your source material (“Zola”). Given the marketplace, there’s something logical, even inevitable, about that strategy. No indie distributor can compete with the majors’ monster advertising budgets, but insofar as those massive releases tend to look and sound the same, weirdness gets noticed.
Although their slates tend to be super diverse, A24, Neon and others have effectively cultivated their own dedicated followings, wherein each distributor is viewed as the curator of distinctive moviegoing experiences, wildly different from what the studios are selling. Tired of “Avatar” and “Avengers” and live-action remakes of classic Disney cartoons? Why not watch a movie in which Paul Dano motorboats around on a flatulent corpse (“Swiss Army Man”)? Or a slow-burn culinary thriller in which Nicolas Cage plays a lonely chef hellbent on retrieving his truffle-hunting companion (“Pig”)?
The recent success of such bizarre offerings springs from the fact that today’s audiences are savvier than ever. They’ve grown up inundated with sequels and series, reboots and reruns, absorbing countless versions of the same stories in their lifetimes, to the point that they can predict what comes next in most mainstream releases. They’ve consumed their share of directors’ commentaries and behind-the-scenes extras, and many have dabbled in filmmaking themselves.
For adventurous viewers, these bizart-house movies represent a special kind of challenge, a chance to stretch their limits, expand their cinematic vocabulary and potentially witness something totally unlike anything they’ve previously experienced on-screen. I see a certain overlap with the horror genre in this respect — especially a movie such as “Hereditary,” which marks A24’s biggest success to date, blindsiding audiences with its mid-film decapitation and ultra-dark finale.
There’s no guarantee that a movie such as “Uncut Gems” or “Red Rocket” will deliver a happy ending, and there’s a high likelihood that it will serve up at least one truly mind-blowing scene to justify the price of admission.
Remember back in the early aughts, the way moviegoers came to associate M. Night Shyamalan with twist endings, to the extent that they’d be furious if one of his films didn’t yank the rug out from under them? These days, I’ve noticed audiences perking up when they see the A24 or Neon logo, conditioned to expect the unexpected — and disappointed when the films don’t deliver. And that appetite in turn supports an indie-film environment where directors are motivated to be more original, more surprising and all around more creative.
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