In the best movies of 2019, the definition of independent is blurrier than ever

Mark Olsen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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.


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