Tuesday, April 11, 2006

13 films which cost nothing

As Orson Welles might admit, a writer/director's first feature is often his best work - apart from those hundreds of directors like Martin Scorsese and John Ford for whom it obviously isn't. For a certain kind of one trick pony though, it holds. The tricks are new, the energy is real and a zero budget tames the ego which often fatally bloats later, more 'serious' work.

Zero budget films are also insanely commercial. Why don't the big studios realise this? When it hits, a film made for nothing, hits big - making back its costs a hundred times in the cinemas and a thousand times on DVD. It's the $80 million, focus grouped to death, rewritten till all the jokes are gone, romantic comedy that disappears down the pan.

A zero budget film cannot rely on tedious computer effects or lazy star power, but must concentrate on plot, dialogue and above all provide a fresh vision - the very thing this space dog loves movies for. A great definition of a true poetic image is that those few words change how you see, say a tree, forever. All these films increase the possibilities of movie making, no matter how many times they've been done before.

Modern technology produces bloated worthless behemoths but equally it allows anyone with a pocketful of ideas and a Prosumer digital video camera to conquor the world. All the films here could have been made for Meg Ryan's weekly botox bill.

They're best watched late, when all the fish are sleeping, on DVD of course. Forget the multiplex, DVD is the future of cinema, all that begging at the Oscars to 'embrace the movie experience' was such a pathetic give away. Who wouldn't rather watch a flick in the comfort of their own home, in the company of their own kettle, toilet and reasonably priced array of custom snacks? No chinese girl yacking into her mobile phone. No gangster yoofs talking all the way through. No boots on the seat or popcorn on the floor. And no stupid adverts for something you've already paid for! Frankly, when road testing a new prospective mate there's nothing better than sitting them down before one of these films and gauging their reaction. If they don't like it, you won't like them, cut your losses before she asks you what sign you are and introduces you to her aunties. Here's a brief run down of some canine couch favourites.


As something of a 'happy, scrappy, hero pup' myself Kevin Smith's homespun debut tops my list of dirt cheap recommendations. Made at night in the convenience store he worked in and financed by credit cards and the plundering of his comic book collection, Clerks is as fast and true as every other film he's made has been ponderous and dire. Imagine Woody Allen as a skateboard punk, only funny. This is literally Dante's journey through the nine stages of hell as filmed by a security camera.

Playing like Noel Coward with tourette's syndrome, there's only one clunky line in the whole movie - "I'm making a generalization about broads". Clerks remains vital while a dozen other GenerationX products languish in the bargain bin, yes I'm looking at you Douglas Coupland. Its ethos can be summed up with the fact that non smoker Kevin Smith begins the film with an anti smoking rant and ended the shoot as a two pack a day man. It's hell, but we all wish we were there with them.

Not the least of its merits is its refreshingly anti-slacker libertarian message, delievered by Randall as bluntly as he phrases everything else. How often do our oh so activist hollywood stars challenge their audience in this way? I'm obviously alone in thinking the original, brutal ending was better, if only because 'life is a series of down endings' but Clerks, in a word, is berserker!

Repo Man

Shrimp? Plate of Shrimp? You knew I was going to say that. It's often claimed that Americans don't understand irony. This is nonsense, as any fan of "Larry Sanders" knows, what Americans can't do is punk. Yes, I'm looking at you Green Day. This is as near as they got, thanks to immaculately British Alex Cox, who understands it perfectly. The more times you watch this, the fresher it gets. It creates its own perfectly logical world of complete madness in exactly the same way that Dune doesn't. Intensely weird (but then a repo man's always intense) it's everything a boy wants in a film, wacky chases, diamond dialogue and a sci-fi maguffin lifted straight from "Kiss Me Deadly", itself the darkest, and therefore best, noir film ever made. This was ranked #7 on Entertainment Weekly's "Top 50 Cult Films of All-Time", you can't get any better than that.

The Last Broadcast

This was the first desktop computer feature film, photographed, edited, and screened entirely digitally. One day it'll be as famous as the Jazz Singer in that respect. Unfairly seen as a 'Blair Witch' clone, it's actually the film that 'Blair Witch' shamelessly ripped off. Once again a small party of young film makers disappear into the woods to search for a mysterious monster - this time the famed 'Jersey Devil'. This time one of them survives. The documentary style, making full use of its 'footage' as a major plot point, again anticipates Blair Witch and it shows something of the vaguaries of fate that this film sank without trace in the mass market while 'Witch' became an international phenomonen. Perhaps it's because 'Broadcast' is let down by its ending, while Blair Witch ended in unforgettable style. The budget for this one? $900.

Blair Witch Project

So it's not Citizen Kane. No-one ever said it was. It's a smart little horror film that scared people. Cinema is pretty simple really. A comedy should make people laugh, a weepie should make people cry and a horror film should make people throw up in alleys and then pay to see it again. After 36 Friday the 13th films had disemboweled the genre and Scream had danced over its bones along came this and everything seemed possible again. Made for absolutely nothing it's strength was the nth rediscovery of the fact that terror is best transmitted by showing terrified faces, rather than 'scary' monsters or CGI cartoons. Using nothing but sticks and stones, a few scufflings in the undergrowth and some shaky camera work this is a film which, love it or loathe it, rips a hole in your heart. The climax is the scariest thing I've ever seen. It's like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, it's got nothing, but somehow it always wins.

Cat People

Cat People is a haunting, wartime horror noir employing supernatural suggestion and smoldering sexuality to wonderfull effect. It's spoilt only by the studio's insistence of showing the 'monster' towards the end and the memory of a quite dreadful remake with Natassia Kinski. Sex kitten Simone Simon is a young bride menaced by fears of the unknown, as unbeknownst to her, her repressed emotions may transform her, werewolf like, into a feline killing machine. Its brooding atmosphere of suspense and dread works its way into the watcher's imaginations while the stark photography is a treat for the eye.

It was shot in less than a month on a shoestring budget and borrowed sets but spawned not only sequels but a whole subgenre of film. It's delight in dated phsycological clue dropping may seem naive but it stands up on all four slinky legs far better than such leaden clunkers as the 'Exorcist' today. Anyone tempted to watch Alien 4 again, just to see if it really was THAT bad, should rent this instead.

LA Takedown

Remade as the arthritic, elderly 'Heat' Michael Mann's original TV pilot heist is fresh, fast and exciting. The director's lush style tends to the pretentious and self regarding on the big screen but the small budget forces concentration on the story, which rattles along. Riding the last ripples of the designer detective wave of the eighties 'LA Takedown' failed completely in its day but is far more watchable because of its lack of preening star quality. The lack of great actors acting ac each other is its strength rather than flaw. Good as 'Ali' is, Mann's best film remains the peerless 'Manhunter', which frankly eats the liver out of the ever more woeful trilogy with extra gay Anthony Hopkins as the laughable Lecter.

Fucking Amal

It's a film about young swedish lesbians with 'fucking' in the title, of course it's going to be good. Far from a sleazy sex show, Lukas Moodysson's first film is an acute and funny film about the sweet agonies of first love, and did I mention it has young swedish lebsians in it? As big as Titanic in its home country, this film cost a millionth of the amount though, to be fair, it is only a hundred times better. There's a tiresome new american teen flick to ignore every day, but this affair, both drab and tender, captures the essential boredom of youth. The dreary town is lit with the tentative bravado of the young girls in love, and though the dogme style is an aquired taste for some, there's a cup of chocolate all round for this one.

I've heard the mermaids singing

Patricia Rozema's debut feature is another sweet comedy of manners, featuring a misfit's hopeless love for an unattainable ideal, soon revealed to be a fraud. It's funny, original and full of ideas and was the first time I heard that bit of lorelei opera that gets played all the time now and no-one knows the name of. If you've ever ordered raw octopus in a fancy japanese restaurant by mistake you know just what 'organisationally impaired' Polly's going through. I can't believe this is twenty years old. Like any other great work of art, from Vermeer's paintings to 'Blonde on blonde' it hasn't aged a day. It's a very sexy film too, far more erotic than any naked screen portrayal could be.


You've heard of garage bands, this is a garage feature film - Shane Carruth made this movie for $7000, yet it's slicker than 'A.I.' in a bucket of eels. Its cool isolation and ever tightening paranoia evoke the spirit of HG Wells' 'The Invisible Man' rather than 'The Time Machine' as two garage inventors stumble across a bizarre scientific effect and, in trying to get rich, unpick the fabric of reality. As an exercise in off hand style the dense techno-babble finds perfect counterpoint in the crisp white shirts of our heroes and the clinical interiors they inhabit. In demanding intelligence and concentration from its audience, Primer is a rare gem in an era when effects driven blockbusters are giving science fiction, the most thought provoking literature of the 20th century, a bad name. Just as the experimenters seek to gain through endlessly repeating the process, the film itself rewards repeated viewing, the puzzle unravelling like onion skins. The question is, what collapses when you create an unsolvable paradox, the universe - or you? As their doubles begin using the machine, it becomes hard to tell who the 'primers' are but I'm sure Harrison Ford might want to use it to go back twenty years to when he was a star.

Down by Law

It's not where you start, it's where you start again. Ain't that the truth? A mismatched trio of Leningrad cowboys find themselves in the swamps of Louisiana in a film whose monochrome is as luscious as the humour is deadpan. Italian clown Roberto Beninni steals the show but don't miss Tom Waits' finest film performance as a lugubrious DJ. He described it as a "Russian neo-fugitive episode of The Honeymooners" and Mr Waits is never wrong, except about the liberation of Iraq. A down at heel fairy tale, it features the most economical, and therefore best, prison escape scene in the movies. It's a sad and beautiful world all right. Best avoided by the more avid rabbit lovers.

The Descent

After the long, turgid decline of Hammer Horror into camp, British horror films fell into an abyss. Brilliant films like the Wicker Man, and good ones like The Devil Rides Out were all we had until recently. "Shaun of the dead" was a genuinely funny zombie parody and 'The Descent' is genuinely scary. An all female cast cunningly evade the single greatest problem in all film plotting in these days of ubiquitous mobile phones - why don't they just call the police? - by descending deep into the bowels of the earth. Claustrophobia, supernatural stalkers and dark secrets within make a potent mix. These girls are english teachers, not fucking tomb raider, and it's all the better for that.

Last Night

Tonight we're gonna party like it's 1999? Remember when that seemed futuristic? If you're old enough to remember that Prince was once a star then you're mature enough to appreciate the best film about the end of the world since 'the day the earth stood still'. There have been a lot of big budget apocolyptic films recently but none are as real, as engaging, as moving as this. Begging the inevitable question (how could they tell?) hanging over any such film set in Toronto, it explores human reactions to the last six hours of the world on December 1999. Making up in irony, style and human sentiment what it lacks in huge cartoon monsters and wimpy heroics (i'm looking at you tom cruise) it's been criticised for romanticism, yet isn't the world more likely to end with a man ringing everyone in the world thanking them for using the gas company? Dead pan, rather than hysterical, romantic rather than bombastic, it has the appeal of a Norah Jones C.D. It's adult, it's intelligent and above all, compared with the ceaseless clamour of today, it's quiet enough to make you think. This is what everyone else does in the world while Bruce Willis is running around in a sweaty vest machine gunning people. It's a rare thing, a film about people which is actually humane.

Dark Star

John Carter went on to a long, undistinguished horror career while Dan O'Bannon wrote the original story which became 'Alien'. This low budget sci-fi stoner romp may be the best thing either of them ever did. Crammed with ideas, including super intelligent bombs discovering self consciousness and conversations with the dead, the hippy californian surfer dudes have been slowly going mad on the eponymous ship for twenty years, clearing 'unstable' planets in a way Douglas Adams obviously found amusing. The beachball alien is rather less threatening than O'Bannon's 'star beast', the ending is stolen pretty much intact from Ray Bradbury's 'Kaleidoscope' and Sergeant Pinback's video diary is on an 8-track tape but Dark Star retains a twisted manic energy even today. The down at heel squalor of the ship anticipates 'Alien' even as the sleek intelligent bombs remember HAL and it's all light years better than 'Star Wars'.


Blogger Tim Newman said...

The Descent was superb, as was Dog Soldiers which preceded it. What they mastered in the latter they took onto the former and improved on it.

I thought Clerks and Blair Witch Project were awesome too.

5:04 pm  

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