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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

awards contenders on DVD: the indies

December can feel overwhelming, for movie watchers, with all the awards contenders flooding the arthouses — if you’re in New York and Los Angeles — and multiplexes this holiday season. But it’s always true, too, that films from earlier in the year manage to get notice from critics groups in the pre-Oscar-nominations territory. Here, I begin a two-part look at how you can catch up with those contenders that are already available on DVD. Today: the indies. Up next: the studio films.

Indie wise, there’s no higher honor for a little film to take home a Spirit Award, handed out by Film Independent. This year’s nominees were recently announced, and winners will be celebrated on February 21, 2009, live on the Independent Film Channel. More than a couple of its nominees are already viewable at home… which is a good thing, because the tiny releases these films received early in 2008 means that DVD is the only way most people will ever see these. Don’t miss:
The Visitor [Region 1] [Region 2 preorder]: Nominated in multiple Spirit categories — Best Director, for Thomas McCarthy, Best Male Lead for Richard Jenkins, and Best Supporting Male for Haaz Sleiman — this is the sweet and deeply moving story of a mild-mannered college prof (Jenkins) who finds himself irrevocably embroiled in the immigration woes of a visitor to U.S. shores. This profoundly humanistic film is one of the best of the year, and don’t be surprised of Jenkins is nominated for, and wins, a Best Actor Oscar, as well as this one.

Chop Shop [Region 1]: Also honored with multiple Spirit nominations — Ramin Bahrani for Best Director and Michael Simmonds for Best Cinematography — this is another story of the hidden lives the unseen among us live. Here, it’s a young boy who finds work and shelter among the legit auto mechanics and less-than-legit chop shops of Queens. It makes the New York City borough look, not unjustifiably so, like a third-world country.

The Signal [Region 1]: I wasn’t crazy about this low-key science fiction film, but Spirit has seen fit to nominate it for a John Cassavetes Award, given to the best feature made for under $500,000. On that basis, it’s certainly notable, for the audacity and imagination it took to mount a urban disaster movie on such little dough. It’s not a bad film, just not a great one.

The Wackness [Region 1 preorder] [Region 2 preorder]: Ditto this 90s-nostalgia coming-of-age flick, nominated for a Spirit for Best First Screenplay, by Jonathan Levine. (I’m cheating a little here: the Region 1 DVD will be out on January 6.) Could be the 90s are just too close in my memory for me to find much novelty in hiphop and the transition from cassette tape to CD.

Three of the five Spirit nominees for Best Documentary are already available on DVD. I haven’t seen Encounters at the End of the World [Region 1], but, you know, it’s from Werner Herzog, so that’s an automatic pass. I have seen James Marsh’s Man on Wire [Region 1] [Region 2] — about a daredevil wire walker who strung a line between the two World Trade Center towers in the 1970s and dashed across it — and it’s so improbable and yet so rousing that it’s bound to get remade as a big-budget Hollywood feature starring Jim Carrey or someone else wildly inappropriate. I’ve also seen Yang Chung’s Up the Yangtze [Region 1] [Region 2] [my review], about how China is coping — or not — with its rapid modernization, and it’s a kick in the pants to anyone who thinks China today is merely the U.S. 50 years ago. (I have not yet seen the fourth nominee, Margaret Brown’s The Order of Myths, also up for a Truer Than Fiction Award, about how Mardi Gras has evolved in Mobile, Alabama, but that’ll be out on Region 1 DVD on January 13.)

A few more noms I can catch up on myself, having missed them in theaters: The Take [Region 1] [Region 2], with a nomination for Rosie Perez for Best Supporting Female; Sangre de Mi Sangre [Region 1], nominated for Best Screenplay, by Christopher Zalla (on DVD December 16); Savage Grace [Region 1] [Region 2], also a Best Screenplay nominee for Howard A. Rodman (on DVD December 23); and Towelhead, a nominee for Best Female Lead in Summer Bishil (on Region 1 DVD December 30).

It’s gonna be a busy month.



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