The Best Independent / International Films of 2009

Looking for something far off the well-beaten mainstream path? Well, step on over to some savory world and outsider independent cinema. It's here where the risks, the experimentation, and the true art lives.

Film: The House of the Devil

Director: Ti West

Cast: Jocelin Donahue, Greta Gerwig, Mary Woronov, Tom Noonan, AJ Bowen


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The House of the Devil
Ti West

Finally. An entertaining scary movie. Genre savant Ti West takes the formula of the haunted house film, and fine tunes it to scare us in that old-fashioned way we long to be scared. College sophomore Sam's simple babysitting job for an elderly couple (The Ulmans) turns into a steadily, disorienting and nightmarish discovery of the couple's secrets. The film's title is a bit of a giveaway. The actor playing Mr. Ulman, the gaunt, tall, Tom Noonan, is extraordinary in this part, eerily unsettling as he is in his quiet calm. Part of the success of The House of the Devil, is that Ti West revels in simplicity, creating a mood of terror by the squeaking floorboards, the turning on of a light switch and the dread of a darkened staircase. Farisa Khalid


Film: Sin Nombre

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Cast: Paulina Gaitán, Edgar Flores, Kristyan Ferrer, Tenoch Huerta Mejía, Diana García, Héctor Jiménez, Gerardo Taracena, Luis Fernando Peña


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Sin Nombre
Cary Joji Fukunaga

There’s nothing fancy about Sin Nombre, Cary Fukunaga’s feature debut about Latin American immigrants seeking a better life in the U.S. However, he tells this familiar story with a freshness and sincerity which is disarming even when the fates of Honduran teenager Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and Mexican gang initiate Casper (Edgar Flores) can seem a little too cleverly intertwined. Fukunaga wrote the script as well as directing this much-honored film and researched his material by hopping trains in Central America, an experience reflected in the film’s understated, documentary-style realism and in its respect for the characters and their choices. Sarah Boslaugh


Film: Trick 'r Treat

Director: Michael Dougherty

Cast: Dylan Baker, Brian Cox, Anna Paquin, Rochelle Aytes


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Trick 'r' Treat
Michael Dougherty

Michael Dougherty's Halloween movie is sort of a throwback to the anthology horror flicks of the '80s. It tells five separate stories over the course of one Halloween night in a small Ohio town. Like those '80s movies (Creepshow, Catseye, Twilight Zone: The Movie), Dougherty relies more on story and atmosphere than gore, although Trick 'r Treat is firmly in "R" territory. Unlike its inspirations, though, the stories in this movie cross through each other and interconnect in a myriad of interesting ways. It's all tied together with Sam, a child-sized villain whose head is covered in a burlap sack and who shows up to varying degrees in each segment. With a strong cast including Brian Cox, Anna Paquin, Dylan Baker, and Tahmoh Penikett, the film has a higher pedigree than a lot of horror movies. This makes it all the more depressing that Warner Bros. couldn't find a way to market the movie, skipping a theatrical release entirely (save for individual screenings and film festivals) and unceremoniously dumping it directly to DVD. Chris Conaton


Film: Lemon Tree

Director: Eran Riklis

Cast: Hiam Abbass, Ali Suliman, Rona Lipaz-Michael, Doron Tavory


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Lemon Tree
Eran Riklis

The performance of Hiam Abbass as the Palestinian widow Salma Zidane is reason enough to see Lemon Tree, an allegorical film based on a true story, but there’s much more which makes this film worth your time. Director Eran Riklis captures many of the complexities of life in the West Bank and although his reach sometimes exceeds his grasp -- when an Israeli minister moves next door to Salma and her lemon grove, you don’t have to be a genius to know that the trees are going down -- he still offers an intriguing look at the consequences of unchecked power for those who have it as well as for those who do not. Sarah Boslaugh


Film: Before Tomorrow

Director: Marie-Hélène Cousineau, Madeline Piujuq Ivalu

Cast: Peter-Henry Arnatsiaq, Paul-Dylan Ivalu, Madeline Piujuq Ivalu, Mary Qulitalik, Tumasie Sivuarapik


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Before Tomorrow
Marie-Hélène Cousineau & Madeline Piujuq Ivalu

Following his iconic Atanarjuat and its less-praised follow-up The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk steps back to a producing role for the third entry in this unique trilogy about his indigenous culture. Before Tomorrow is a filmic meditation on the decline of traditional Inuit culture in the wake of European contact. The story of an old woman (the remarkable Madeline Ivalu, who also co-directs with Marie-Helene Cousineau) and her grandson stranded alone in a cave after European disease kills off their small community, the all-Inuit production visualizes the isolation of its two main characters as set against the sad but beautiful desolation of the frozen North. Lingering on long shots of Ivalu extinguishing her seal-fat lamp, Before Tomorrow is an unforgettable elegy, both for a way of life that has likewise been extinguished as well as for the Inuit who struggle to ensure their culture's survival. Ross Langager


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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

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Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

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