In a fit of frustration last spring when the Gothams and Spirits doled out their ever-increasingly suspect “independent film” awards, I vented on Twitter and then wrote a short piece expressing my belief that the time had finally come to step things up and expand our own Hammer to Nail Awards from a two-dimensional post on this here website into an actual three-dimensional public event. For too many reasons to bother listing, it proved to be impossible to organize an event this year that we would have felt all-the-way comfortable with. Having said that, the gears are indeed still grinding for us to launch a new awards show some day soon that will pay tribute to truly independent cinema, so stay tuned for a (hopeful) announcement at some point in 2014.
But enough about the future. We’re here to celebrate the year that was 2013. Looking over this post, it’s safe to say that the previous 12 months has gifted us with another exceptional crop of films. If the past few years of assembling these HTN Awards posts has taught us anything—the names Nichols, Zobel, Dunham, Ponsoldt, and Durkin immediately spring to mind—many of the directors on this year’s list will be broadening their horizons in the years to come. We can only hope that they’ll continue to produce personal and honest and uncompromising work as they navigate their way through the choppy waters of the studio system.
To clarify, here are our general voting parameters and rules for eligibility:
1) American narrative features produced for one million dollars or less.
2) The film had its first public release—theatrically, VOD, DVD, online (for these purposes, a festival premiere doesn’t qualify)—in said calendar year.
3) No HTN contributor is allowed to vote for a film in which they have a cast/crew credit (i.e., Mike S. Ryan was not allowed to vote for About Sunny, Zach Clark did not vote for White Reindeer, Michael Tully did not vote for Prince Avalanche, Mark E. Lukenbill did not vote for Drinking Buddies, etc.).
4) Each contributor ranks their films in order from 1 (highest) to 12 (lowest). The number 1 film receives 12 points; 2 receives 11 points; and on down the line. These results are then added up in order to calculate our winners.
5) In the case of a tie with regard to points, the film with the most individual list mentions wins out.
[A gentle, polite reminder: This type of thing will never be a perfect science. For example, not everyone got to see every eligible film. Beyond that, there are always going to be some titles that simply slipped through the cracks. But even factoring those unfortunate realities into the equation, we nonetheless stand behind our commitment to distilling our year-end awards attention down to films that have been produced in this just-as-worthy-yet-so-often-unfairly-overlooked narrative budgetary realm. A humble recommendation: Don’t look at this post in order to criticize what’s not here; use it to recognize and discover what is here.]
The name Andrew Bujalski is synonymous with modern American independent cinema. Bujalski’s 2002 debut feature, Funny Ha Ha, ushered in a new wave of micro-budget filmmaking in the early 21st century, even though his M-word disciples preferred digital cameras and computer editing to Bujalski’s old-school methods of shooting on celluloid and splicing on a Steenbeck. Bujalski continued this trend with Mutual Appreciation (2005) and Beeswax (2009), tonally different films that nonetheless reflected the unique voice of their maker. In the years after Beeswax, Bujalski has flirted with the studio system, writing and adapting scripts for hire, but his primary plan of getting a much larger-budgeted project off the ground never came to fruition. Lucky for us. Arriving at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival like a long-lost artifact projected onto Park City screens from some tripped out alternate universe, Computer Chess was a deliriously glorious wonder to behold (see below for more on that).
The reason for Computer Chess‘s existence is something we shouldn’t celebrate too gleefully, as it was borne out of a very talented individual’s professional stagnation and creative frustration. But paradoxically, that is what fueled this movie’s wild, bizarre, go-for-broke spirit. One hopes that Bujalski’s bold foray into uncharted dimensions pays dividends moving forward, allowing him to pay the bills while continuing to write and direct projects on whatever scale he so chooses. For doing the exact opposite of giving up, for showing us what a truly original voice looks and sounds like, Andrew Bujalski is the very worthy recipient of our 2013 Golden Hammer award.
The mega-multi-talented Amy Seimetz has been a well known figure in the indie film world for many years now. In 2008, she associate produced Barry Jenkins’ Medicine For Melancholy, in addition to co-directing the documentary short We Saw Such Things with James Ponsoldt. In the intervening years, she has become a much sought-after actress in the indie sphere (Alexander the Last, The Myth of the American Sleepover, Tiny Furniture, The Off Hours, etc.). This year, however, Seimetz unleashed a one-two punch that shifted her career into overdrive (mind you, we’re not even factoring her featured roles on AMC’s The Killing and HBO’s Family Tree into the equation here). The first big splash came back in January at the Sundance Film Festival, when Seimetz delivered a magnetic and fiercely committed performance in Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. The second splash was an even bigger one: the release of Seimetz’s own feature, which she wrote, directed, and shot in her home state of Florida. Sun Don’t Shine drips with the authoritative sweat and grime of a person who was raised in that strange, strange state, where the evening news is a never-ending parade of warped shenanigans (check out her follow-up short When We Lived In Miami to confirm that this feature was no fluke).
Though the cat isn’t out of the bag, Seimetz has confirmed that she is currently working on bigger projects behind-the-camera. At the same time, her acting career shows no signs of slowing down. It will be interesting to see how she manages to balance writing/directing and acting in the years to come, as she’s so gifted at both that it would be a major shame if she were forced to sacrifice one for the other. For now, we’ll remain optimistic that she’ll be able to keep both torches held high. As a writer, as a director, as an actress, as the individual who delivered the most exhilarating one-two punch of 2013, we present our Silver Nail award to Amy Seimetz.
THE TOP 14 FILMS OF 2013
14. Newlyweeds (Shaka King, 29 points/3 mentions) — Shaka King’s debut feature may be the first stoner comedy for grown-ups. Its giddy, off-the-wall humor will leave you buzzed even without the aid of horticultural enhancement, but soon after settling into its easygoing vibe, you realize there are some heavy truths about romance, responsibility, race, and class being slid your way on the sly. Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris), the couple at the center of the film, are young black Brooklynites with a shared love of ganja. They’re such a likeable and attractive pair that it’s easy to initially overlook their marked differences in background and worldview: he’s a blue-collar repo man who smokes blunts to soothe the stress of his day-to-day reality; she’s a happy-go-lucky pot-brownie-baking bohemian supported by a parental safety net. But once some weed-impaired decisions land them both in trouble, the small fractures in their relationship widen into yawning gaps, and this bright, fizzy farce moves into deeper and darker waters. Foremost among the movie’s many pleasures is its outstanding cast: Cheatom and Harris are effortlessly engaging, and they’re supported by one of the best ensembles in recent memory. (Nelson Kim) ***WATCH*** DVD / Amazon Instant / iTunes
13. Blue Caprice (Alexandre Moors, 29 points/4 mentions) – It’s been almost a year since I first saw Blue Caprice, and I still can’t get the score (by Sarah Neufeld and Colin Stetson) out of my head. Two notes, see-sawing back and forth and mining up an unparalleled sense of dread; it is the perfect musical accompaniment to John Allen Muhammad’s apocalyptic manifesto, which is delivered with galvanizing force by Isaiah Washington; which is presented over the course of two scenes, the second looping back on the first; and which, through this bifurcation, represents one of the most boldly chilling directorial choices I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s an editorial affect which the trailer spoils, so I would suggest going into this movie blind, even going so far as to forget your memories of the true-life events that inspired it; they’ll be dredged back to the surface soon enough, with a clarity you didn’t ask for but won’t be able to forget. (David Lowery) ***WATCH*** DVD / iTunes
12. Exit Elena (Nathan Silver, 29 points/6 mentions) — Nathan Silver’s work has quickly evolved from the wonderfully arch, icy control of his 2008 short Anecdote. He started to loosen the reins in his first feature, The Blind, and in Exit Elena he has embraced a very different style, riffing on Cassavetes. Silver lets his scenes play out loose and conversational, as twitchy camerawork underplays his characteristic, painterly compositions. Like in Anecdote, a principled young woman is confronted with the unbearable banalities and hypocrisies of the real world: in this case, a caretaker hired by a middle-aged couple to look after an elderly parent. Silver buoys his weighty subject matter with a fantastic comedic performance by his mother, Cindy Silver, as Elena’s relentlessly meddling employer. The core of the film is an archetypal battle of wills between Cindy, with her need to connect, and Elena—played with quiet intensity by co-writer Kia Davis—who is determined to be left alone. (Paul Sbrizzi) Read: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** Vyer Films / Seed&Spark / Fandor
11. White Reindeer (Zach Clark, 35 points) – Cynicism is inherently easier than pathos, and it stretches to the point of laziness when your topic is such an easy target as Christmas; the commercialism, nonsensical tradition, and general happiness provides ample ammunition for filmmakers who are much more mundanely negative and much less endearingly odd than Zach Clark. White Reindeer is Clark’s third feature, and it remains wholly committed to a manifesto of total sincerity, an abhorrence of irony, and an infectious sense of goofiness. Here, he’s found his perfect counterpart in Anna Margaret Hollyman, who gives an absurdly committed comic performance as Suzanne, a Christmas-obsessed, slightly drab suburban woman whose life is upended when her husband is gruesomely murdered right before the holiday season. The unholy, grief-stricken bender that follows is a colorful and hilarious subversion of holiday tropes that manages to execute the trickiest of tonal balances and then perfectly stick the touching ending. (Mark E. Lukenbill) Read: A Conversation With Zach Clark ***WATCH*** iTunes
10. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 38 points) – What got lost in the common discussion of Upstream Color (“Shane Carruth has reemerged from hibernation with a fully formed and densely layered film!” “He’s hoodwinked us again!” etc.) was its year-zero game changing of the narrative rules we didn’t realize had become so rigid. I suspect people need another year or so before a proper discourse worthy of the film itself has time to emerge. Carruth subverted the (painfully long, then mercifully brief) set of expectations we had regarding ‘what do you do for an encore after Primer?’ by not presenting another sci-fi-within-means retread but instead forging new ground in the game of uncompromised independent cinema. Upstream Color establishes Shane Carruth not as a new Terry Gilliam, George Lucas, or whatever sci-fi auteur people expect him to be, but as a sort of American Leos Carax: working at his own pace, always essential, and always two steps ahead of everybody else. (Alex Ross Perry) Read: HTN REVIEW/INTERVIEW ***WATCH*** DVD / Blu-ray/DVD Combo / Amazon Instant / iTunes
9. KID-THING (David Zellner, 40 points) — The Zellner Brothers (David and Nathan) expand both their stylistic and narrative ambitions in this visionary fable of the anarchies of childhood. Never nostalgic or sentimental, KID-THING captures the surrealism of the adult world through the eyes of a motherless tomboy who knows she doesn’t yet have to play by its rules. Fun, freewheeling, and at times truly scary and unsettling, there’s a real compassion here and a sense of camaraderie with wild children everywhere. In her last performance, legendary character actress Susan Tyrell does more with her disembodied voice than most performers do with their careers. (Zach Clark) Read: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
8. Mother of George (Andrew Dosunmu, 41 points) – A small story of a Nigerian couple living in Brooklyn becomes the material of Greek tragedy. Ayodele (Isaach De Bankolé) and Adenike (Danai Gurira) are trying to conceive their first child and Ayodele’s mother is hell-bent on a grandson, by any means necessary: the customs they bring from Nigeria mingle and clash with their burdened New York lives. Director Andrew Dosunmu and cinematographer Bradford Young firmly ground the characters in their story, their world, but bring them out with their use of color, camerawork and their consequent combined grace. They float just above the crowds they’re stuck in, the problems they face, doomed and blessed to be together forever. (Jesse Klein) ***WATCH*** DVD / Blu-ray / iTunes
7. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terence Nance, 43 points/5 mentions) – An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is truly artisanal filmmaking. Part stop-motion, part traditional animation, part reenacted narrative, part awkwardly filmed interviews with the “subject,” it is a lovely and deranged summation of the director’s not-quite-but-almost unrequited and purely platonic love. A series of short experimental films that radically deconstruct Terence Nance’s romantic foibles, the whole is vastly more interesting than being the mere sum of its parts. Nance, a prototypical blipster with a wavy fro, an overwhelmingly goofy smile and the occasional bow tie, explains in an insistent voice-over that informs the visuals for much of the movie, how he came to meet and become too encumbered by infatuation with Namik Minter, who earns a “starring and inspired by” credit in this madcap, multi-format evocation of and meditation on the director’s obsessive love for her. (Brandon Harris) Read: HTN REVIEW / A Conversation With Terence Nance ***WATCH*** DVD / iTunes
6. The Unspeakable Act (Dan Sallitt, 43 points/7 mentions) — What others attempt to say through the inverted lens of black comedy and social satire, critic and filmmaker Dan Sallitt says directly. In his pained, tender The Unspeakable Act, Sallitt dives headfirst into the inner life of his protagonist, a teenaged Brooklyn girl named Jackie Kimball (played with longing and languor by Tallie Medel). It is Jackie’s unrequited desire that lends the film its title, and Sallitt not only provides an unflinching look at Jackie’s yearning but ennobles it with almost painterly compositions, exploring the dark corners of Jackie’s Ditmas Park, Brooklyn home as if searching for ineffable secrets. Crafting beauty and universal truth from unlikely, working-class sources is not the typical domain of recent American independent filmmaking, but Sallitt’s maturity and vision only provide more relief for this film, allowing it to stand apart as the work of a uniquely patient, gifted, and essentially cinematic artist. (Tom Hall) ***WATCH*** DVD / iTunes
5. This is Martin Bonner (Chad Hartigan, 49 points) — Winner of the “Best of NEXT” award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, This Is Martin Bonner is a very deliberate, restrained, naturalistic tale of two middle-aged men trying to restart their lives alone. Writer/director Chad Hartigan was raised by Christian missionaries and his main character, Martin Bonner, played beautifully by Paul Eenhoorn, is going through a ‘crisis of faith’ by working as a counselor for early release prisoners. The head of his organization, an aggressive evangelical, played by Robert Longstreet, gets nowhere with Travis (Richmond Arquette), a newly released prisoner whose struggles to find a place in society mirror Bonner’s own quest for meaning. Both men live an almost monastic lonely existence in small efficiency apartments in Reno, Nevada. The film’s quiet, peaceful tone and its ultimately optimistic belief in the ability for older people to start over makes it one of this year’s most extraordinary works. In contrast to the disingenuous, hateful Nebraska, This Is Martin Bonner truly faces the silence and loneliness of old age and finds majestic beauty in the struggle to find meaning. Unlike Alexander Payne, Hartigan is in awe of his ordinary characters and he brings their stories to the screen out of respect for them and the audience. Anyone who tells you they liked Nebraska, send them running to This is Martin Bonner. It’s the real deal. (Mike S. Ryan) Read: A Conversation With Chad Hartigan / The Composing Process: This Is Martin Bonner ***WATCH*** DVD / Amazon Instant / iTunes
4. Sun Don’t Shine (Amy Seimetz, 86 points) Shot on gloriously grainy Super 16mm by Jay Keitel, Amy Seimetz’s character study of two boneheads on the lam—an appropriately skittering Kate Lyn Sheil and an impossible-to-take-your-eyes-off Kentucker Audley—is dripping with authentically grimy Florida sweat. Seimetz was raised in Florida and it shows; she’s well attuned to the heatstroke dementia that is native to the state and which is the likely cause for the consistently demented behavior that plagues it. Yet as American as it is, Sun Don’t Shine also has a strongly European pulse. Spring Breakers and Pain and Gain did their jobs quite nicely, but Sun Don’t Shine is by far the most legit Florida movie of 2013. (Michael Tully) Read: HTN REVIEW / A Conversation With Amy Seimetz ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
3. Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, 89 points) — Given that he is best known for a sizable body of work comprised mostly of fly-on-the-wall music documentaries and fly-in-the-ointment shorts that consistently locate the poetic within the political (and vice versa), it might have surprised some that Jem Cohen’s first properly narrative feature assumed such a restrained form. But Museum Hours distinguishes itself from the rest of the pack through the painstaking care with which it works out a simple idea–usually taken for granted—that complete strangers can become friends if the conditions, however melancholy, are right. Boasting some of the most striking format-mixing this side of Computer Chess, Cohen’s quiet elegy brilliantly combines the intimate scale of a relationship portrait with its own low-key take on the city symphony. Vienna, take a bow. (Dan Sullivan) ***WATCH*** DVD / Blu-ray / iTunes
2. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 91 points) — Beyond the formal elegance of the filmmaking and perfect performances by lead actresses Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner, Frances Ha is remarkable for being a different kind of love story. Not love as an act or an event, but as a learned ability to love oneself and others; it’s a concept that our hero Frances is clunkily grasping at. With sincere empathy towards its characters, Frances Ha weaves through the unexpected growing pains of adulthood—making great effect of the crushing moments that make the 20s nearly unbearable—while pulling us all into the effervescent sense of possibility that is being young. (Holly Herrick) Read: TOM HALL’S HTN REVIEW / TULLY’S HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** DVD/Blu-ray / Amazon Instant / iTunes
1. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 116 points) — With the advent of digital technology, movies are easier to make than ever before, and yet why does it feel like nobody is really taking any chances? Andrew Bujalski’s latest is that freakishly rare work in which it seems every single decision was dictated by one basic mandate: pure creative expression. Yet—and here is the most magical trick of all, perhaps—Computer Chess is never pretentious. One weekend at a bland hotel in the early 1980s, a group of computer programmers gather to see if their machines can, in fact, defeat humans (specifically chess expert Pat Henderson, immaculately realized by film critic Gerald Peary). Along the way, they cross paths with a weird New Agey couples’ therapy group, who are doing their own form of searching. Effortlessly casual and technically marvelous (thanks to the work of cinematographer Matthias Grunsky), Computer Chess feels like it was directed by a warm-hearted, funny, human alien. It also happens to be the most visionary narrative motion picture of 2013. (MT) Read: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** DVD / Amazon Instant / iTunes
Other Films Receiving Votes (In Alphabetical Order)
About Sunny (Bryan Wizemann) Read: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
All The Light In The Sky (Joe Swanberg) ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
Breakfast With Curtis (Laura Colella) ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant
The Canyons (Paul Schrader) ***WATCH*** Unrated Director’s Cut DVD / Unrated Director’s Cut Blu-ray / iTunes
Crazy and Thief (Cory McAbee)
Diamond on Vinyl (J.R. Hughto) Read: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** iTunes
Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg) ***WATCH*** DVD / Blu-ray / Amazon Instant / iTunes
Frames (Brandon Colvin) ***WATCH*** NoBudge
Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler) READ: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** DVD / Blu-ray / Amazon Instant / iTunes
Ghost Team One (Ben Peyser and Scott Rutherford) ***WATCH*** DVD / Blu-ray / iTunes
Gimme The Loot (Adam Leon) Read: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** DVD / Amazon Instant / iTunes
Go For Sisters (John Sayles)
I Used To Be Darker (Matt Porterfield) ***WATCH*** DVD
Kiss of the Damned (Xan Cassavetes) Read: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** DVD / Blu-ray / Alternate Artwork DVD / Alternate Artwork Blu-ray / Amazon Instant / iTunes
Nancy, Please (Andrew Semans) ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
Nor’easter (Andrew Brotzman) ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
OK, Good (Daniel Martinico) Read: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
Pavilion (Tim Sutton) Read: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
Pilgrim Song (Martha Stephens) ***WATCH*** DVD
Prince Avalanchee (David Gordon Green) Read: HTN REVIEW / A Conversation With David Gordon Green ***WATCH*** DVD / Blu-ray / Amazon Instant / iTunes
The Rambler (Calvin Lee Reeder) Read: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** DVD / Blu-ray / Amazon Instant / iTunes
Red Flag (Alex Karpovsky) ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
See Girl Run (Nate Meyer) ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
Short Term 12 (Destin Daniel Cretton) ***WATCH*** DVD / Blu-ray/DVD Combo / iTunes
Simon Killer (Antonio Campos) ***WATCH*** DVD / Amazon Instant / iTunes
A Teacher (Hannah Fidell) ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
Tiger Tail In Blue (Frank V. Ross) Read: HTN REVIEW
Welcome to Pine Hill (Keith Miller) Read: HTN REVIEW ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
Zero Charisma (Katie Graham and Andrew Matthews) ***WATCH*** Amazon Instant / iTunes
Not Made-In-America But Most Reflective Of The HTN Spirit
The Dirties (Matt Johnson, Canada) — I was on two different festival juries this year that awarded Matt Johnson’s movie the highest honor in its section (Sarasota Film Festival‘s “Independent Visions Award” and Fantastic Fest‘s “Next Wave Best Picture“). For me, what makes The Dirties such an exceptional work is that on paper it is a one-stop-shop of what not to do: it employs a faux-documentary aesthetic, contains a ceaseless barrage of pop culture references, injects humor into the tragic everyday reality of school shootings, etc. And yet, it’s clear from the very beginning that Johnson has the maturity and intelligence and wit to avoid turning this into an exploitative, hackneyed exercise. The Dirties is a striking meta-text about many things at once: the filmmaking process, high school bullying, male teenage friendship, and, yes, our fascination with pop culture entertainment. See Johnson’s vital and hilarious movie as soon as you can. (MT) Read: HTN REVIEW / “Bullies On Screen” ***WATCH*** iTunes
Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus (Sebastian Silva, Chile) — In Sebastián Silva’s second film of 2013 (Magic Magic was the other), Michael Cera absolutely drills the role of Jaime, an over-exuberant American in a foreign land whose gleeful embracing of every substance imaginable makes him borderline insufferable. But it is Gaby Hoffmann who steals the show with her portrayal of the titular character. At first, we/Jaime think that Crystal Fairy is just another annoying, spaced out, clueless hippie, but during the film’s climax, her true humanity is revealed. It’s refreshing to confront a male-directed film that seems like it’s heading in a typically chauvinistic direction but turns out to be quite the extreme opposite. (MT) ***WATCH*** DVD / Blu-ray / iTunes
Kuichisan (Maiko Endo, Okinawa) — The marriage of image and sound can be a violent affair. Sometimes collision, sometimes dance, the potential of their union is manifested in Kuichisan, Maiko Endo’s apocalyptic 16mm creation that portrays the last days of childhood as a swirling paradox of terror and tenderness. Sean Price Williams does some of his best work in capturing an intimate yet foreign Okinawa, while Endo’s soundtrack pushes the experience to an unspeakable transcendence. (Dustin Guy Defa)
Films That Premiered In 2013 And Will Hopefully Be Seeing The Light of Day In 2014
Black Box (Stephen Cone)
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Bob Birdnow’s Remarkable Tale Of Human Survival And The Transcendence Of Self (Eric Steele)
Butter On The Latch (Josephine Decker)
Congratulations! (Mike Brune)
Ellie Lumme (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky)
It Felt Like Love (Eliza Hittman)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola)
See You Next Tuesday (Drew Tobia)
(Contributors: Zach Clark, Dustin Guy Defa, Tom Hall, Brandon Harris, Holly Herrick, Nelson Kim, Jesse Klein, David Lowery, Mark E. Lukenbill, Alex Ross Perry, Mike S. Ryan, Paul Sbrizzi, Michael Tully)
PRETTY PLEASE FEEL FREE TO ADD TO THE DISCUSSION IN THE COMMENTS SECTION BELOW!