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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