We started Hammer to Nail at the beginning of 2008 with one goal in mind: to champion the most adventurous, ambitious, provocative, and exciting low-budget American narrative cinema of the very moment. And though we have broadened our horizons to cover exceptional films of all shapes, sizes, and ages, that primary purpose remains the same. To prove our commitment to this cause, we present to you the inaugural Hammer to Nail Awards.
In order to get the fairest and most comprehensive result possible, we asked H2N’s current roster of expert contributors to submit their own top ten lists that fit within the following parameters: American narratives (shorts or features) made for under one million dollars that either premiered or received some form of a theatrical release in 2008. These results were weighed, measured, and combined to produce a democratic final tally.
This process can get complicated. What about those titles that premiered towards the end of the year and have had minimal screenings up to this point (such as So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain or Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo)? Or what about those 2007 premieres that weren’t seen by many and never found distribution in 2008 (such as Lee Isaac Chung’s criminally overlooked Munyurangabo)? After much deliberation, we have removed films such as these from contention. Our hope is that, moving forward in the years to come, no more gems will slip through the cracks.
Looking over the final list, it is screamingly clear that outside-the-system, low-budget American independent cinema isn’t just alive and well; it’s thriving. While it’s too early to determine, we feel strongly that 2008 has been a banner year and will stand the test of time. But what makes the situation even more unique is that these films have emerged just when the distribution landscape is rapidly shrinking. Though the movies are better than ever, it is incredibly difficult to get them shown. Imagine what it would be like if there were real opportunities for these films to be seen by wider audiences. That’s why we started this site, and that’s why we’re handing out these awards. We applaud the following filmmakers for inspiring us, and we hope they receive the attention and acclaim they so rightly deserve. And now, without further ado…
THE GOLDEN HAMMER AWARD
Lance Hammer — The 2008 Sundance Film Festival began with a whimper. There was much grumbling in that opening weekend as press screening after press screening unveiled work that varied from mediocre to worse. And then came Ballast, which felt like a master songwriter stepping on stage at the end of a particularly amateurish open mic night. Lance Hammer’s directorial debut didn’t feel like a debut at all. It had a command of tone that most experienced directors only dream of achieving. With grace and intelligence—and gorgeous natural light 35mm cinematography—Hammer found the poetic tenderness inside a cold, harsh, somber Mississippi Delta landscape. Ballast took home two awards at the festival—Dramatic Directing and Excellence in Cinematography—and distributors came calling. Yet after a flirtation with IFC Films, Hammer decided to retain the film’s rights and forge his own distribution path. It is for both of these reasons—making an extraordinary film the old-fashioned way yet distributing it the new-fashioned way—that Lance Hammer is the recipient of our first ever Golden Hammer Award.
THE SILVER NAIL AWARD
Sean Baker — We wanted to give an award to the filmmaker who did the most with the least. Sean Baker shattered that concept by delivering two films for the price of barely-even-one. Though Take Out (co-directed with Shih-Ching Tsou) debuted in 2004, it didn’t receive a proper theatrical release until this year (reviews were unanimously positive). Shortly after that, Baker world-premiered his next feature, Prince of Broadway, at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it won the coveted Target Filmmaker Award. Separately, these films are micro-budget digital cinema of the highest order, yet when placed next to one another, they become something much more important. This isn’t just the work of an on-the-margins filmmaker with a video camera. It’s the work of one of America’s most vital social realists transcending his limitations to present worlds that pulse with documentary-like realism and throb with humanity. And so, for proving that budget doesn’t matter in delivering the finest one-two punch of 2008, we present Sean Baker with our Silver Nail Award.
THE BEST FILM OF 2008
Frownland (Ronald Bronstein) — For most of us, the Frownland revelation came in 2007, either at its SXSW world premiere (where it won a Special Jury Award for Singularity of Vision) or during its subsequent festival run. But 2008 is when the film found its way into actual theaters, albeit on a sadly limited basis (it didn’t win a “Best Film Not Playing At A Theater Near You” Gotham Award for nothing). Still, these one-week, self-booked runs were enough to catch the attention of two of America’s most revered critics—Manohla Dargis and Roger Ebert—who both recognized the mad genius on display. But we knew that already. Not only did Frownland receive the most points in our poll, it received the most number one votes as well, making it a shoo-in for the top spot. While this year’s list is overflowing with brave and adventurous acts of personal creative expression, Frownland is a universe unto itself. It’s what Hammer to Nail is all about.
(Click on the titles below to read their official H2N reviews.)
THE TOP 13 FILMS OF 2008
1. Frownland (Ronald Bronstein)
2. Momma’s Man (Azazel Jacobs)
3. Ballast (Lance Hammer)
4. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt)
5. The Pleasure of Being Robbed (Joshua Safdie)
6. Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols)
7. Prince of Broadway (Sean Baker)
8. Take Out (Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou)
9. The Pool (Chris Smith)
10. Afterschool (Antonio Campos)
11. Glory at Sea (Benh Zeitlin)
12. Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani)
13. Medicine For Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)
Other Films Receiving Votes (in alphabetical order)
The Acquaintances of a Lonely John (Benny Safdie)
The Adventure (Mike Brune)
Baghead (The Duplass Brothers)
Confessionsofa Ex-Doofus-Itchyfooted Mutha (Melvin van Peebles)
Goliath (The Zellner Brothers)
The Foot Fist Way (Jody Hill)
A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy (Dennis Dortch)
Half-Life (Jennifer Phang)
Hug (Khary Jones)
I am so proud of you (Don Hertzfeldt)
Idiots and Angels (Bill Plympton)
My Effortless Brilliance (Lynn Shelton)
The New Year Parade (Tom Quinn)
Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig)
Pop Foul (Moon Molson)
Present Company (Frank V. Ross)
The Second Line (John Magary)
Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley)
Small Apartment (Andrew Thomas Betzer)
Wellness (Jake Mahaffy)
Woodpecker (Alex Karpovsky)
Yeast (Mary Bronstein)
(Contributors: Lena Dunham, Cullen Gallagher, Tom Hall, Brandon Harris, Ted Hope, Holly Herrick, Nelson Kim, Michael Lerman, David Lowery, Mike S. Ryan, Michael Tully)