The Best Independent / International Films of 2012

When you think outside the box, it's amazing how novel and inventive your thoughts become. Same applies in film. These examples of beyond the mainstream moviemaking shine as creative and experimental entertainments.

When you think outside the box, it's amazing how novel and inventive your thoughts become. Same applies in film. These amazing examples of beyond the mainstream moviemaking shine as creative and experimental entertainments.

Film: Shut Up and Play the Hits

Director: Dylan Southern, Will Lovelace

Cast: LCD Soundsystem, Chuck Klosterman


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Shut Up and Play the Hits

The Spotify Generation finally gets its own Stop Making Sense, with a hint of The Last Waltz for good measure. Shut Up and Play the Hits captures LCD Soundsystem’s marathon workout of a 2011 farewell concert, but if frontman James Murphy feels any regret in his interviews with Chuck Klosterman, it’s concealed behind a trademark layer of cool. The film by Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace offers an intimate glance at Murphy’s private life in the hours surrounding the show, but there is no revelation as arresting as the performance footage itself. Funky, captivating, and rich with cameos (including Arcade Fire, Reggie Watts, and members of Soulwax), Shut Up and Play the Hits reminds us why LCD Soundsystem was such a big deal in the first place. Zach Schonfeld

Film: Strong!

Director: Julie Wyman

Cast: Cheryl Haworth, Michael Cohen, Sheila Haworth, Natalie Burgener, Dennis Snethen


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"Nobody can quite put their finger on why they want to be strong." Cheryl Haworth knows about being strong. As her mother recalls it, when Cheryl was just 13 years old, she pointed to a lifter in the gym and said, "I would really like to try that."

Cheryl doesn't press the question of why. Instead, speaking in the documentary Strong!, she focuses on how her strength has evolved, how it shapes her sense of self. "It's all about confidence," she adds, "And when that's shaken, you have to remind yourself why you're there." For Cheryl, "there" is on a world stage, where she's been since she was a teenager. At 15, she was an American national champion (and was for some 11 years following) and, beginning at 17, she made three US Olympic teams, in 2000, 2004, and 2008.

Yes, Cheryl knows quite a bit about being strong, the challenges and costs as well as the rewards. And as Julie Wyman's film shows her lifting -- from multiple angles and shot distances, in light and shadow, in gyms and on starkly attractive movie sets -- Cheryl talks about the complicated relationship between strength and weight. "The more mass you have on your body, the more mass you can move, mass moves mass," Cheryl explains. "It's just better to be heavier." Cynthia Fuchs

Film: Juan of the Dead

Director: Alejandro Brugués

Cast: Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Jorge Molina, Andrea Duro, Andros Perugorría


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Juan of the Dead

The title is one that will instantly turn off pretty much all but the most hardcore zombie fans at this point. "Juan of the Dead? A Spanish-language zombie film trying to trade on the success and reputation of Shaun of the Dead?" Well, yes, perhaps Cuban writer/director Alejandro Brugués could've done a better job with his title. But this filmed-in-Havana horror-comedy has a lot to offer. The early part of the movie shows a rare glimpse into everyday life in lower and middle-class Havana. Then the zombie apocalypse arrives in Cuba, and the government attempts to keep the populace calm by claiming that they are rabble-rousing dissidents, not infectious living-dead creatures.

Life in the city goes on pretty much as normal for awhile, and middle-aged layabouts Juan and Lazaro figure out they can make a good living as zombie exterminators. They aren't particularly skilled at it; they're just as likely to accidentally kill their human clients as they are the walking dead. But they're willing to do it, and that sets them apart from the government-sponsored denial in the rest of the city. Eventually, though, the zombies start to overwhelm the humans, and Juan, Lazaro, and their friends have to fight for their lives. Brugués manages to combine laughs and great zombie kills with genuine political subtext, which makes Juan of the Dead a throwback to the classic Romero zombie films. Amazingly, he did all of this in full view of the Cuban censors, who approved his script and his shooting locations every step of the way. Chris Conaton

Film: El Velador

Director: Natalia Almada


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El Velador

It's morning in Culiacán, Mexico. A rooster crows, the sound far off and faint. A dog walks with a man, making their way to the man's workplace, the cemetery. The camera doesn't move as they come near, slowly. The light behind them is pink and pale yellow, they pass a series of mausoleums in varying states of completion. For a moment, the pair is obscured by a pile of sheet rock, thin slabs waiting to be assembled into the next gravesite. "As soon as I wake up I take a walk around," says Martin. "When people drink, they leave a lot of empty beer cans. I gather them up. But that's all I do."

The moment is one of the few in Natalia Almada's superb El Velador (The Night Watchman) when Martin speaks. More often, he works, which means, he keeps watch over the cemetery, walking among the tombs and hosing down the desperately dry roads and walkways. But still, the film is full of sound, the clatter of construction, the music of funeral bands, the occasional wailing of mourners, as well as the sounds of children playing, a little girl who practices counting as she skips over the stones of a memorial, a portrait of the deceased on the wall behind her.

This and other images of the dead show reveal -- again and again -- that they're young. The cemetery at Culiacán is a preferred site for burying victims in Mexico's drug wars. There are many victims, gang members and police officers, as well as innocent bystanders. The TV that Martin runs at night by way of a makeshift antenna reports that some 11,000 have been killed this past month alone, some 21,915 so far during Felipe Calderón's presidency. You come to realize, late in the documentary, that the year is 2009, when a worker arrives at the cemetery with news: Arturo Beltrán Leyva has been killed, "the capo of capos." ("A shitload of money is going to fly, man," observes another worker as they prepare for their day, slipping on their Nikes and pulling together their buckets.) Cynthia Fuchs

Film: Room 237

Director: Rodney Ascher

Cast: Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner


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Room 237

Like the film it explores, Room 237 is many different films in one. It’s a film about obsession, about conspiracy theories, about watching and interpreting movies. And, of course, about watching one particular movie: Stanley Kubrick’s psycho-supernatural classic The Shining, one of the most haunting and mesmerizing films ever made.

In this groundbreaking documentary, director Rodney Ascher presents five individuals who each have intricate personal theories about the "real" meaning of The Shining. For these obsessives (and surely many more), The Shining is like a cinephile’s The Da Vinci Code, with the all-powerful Kubrick offering up clue after inscrutable clue. Is it an allegory about the Native American genocide, or perhaps a coded confession to faking the moon landing? By patiently letting each subject present their case, no matter how outrageous, Ascher creates a fascinating exploration of nothing less than what movies mean and the infinite ways of watching them. Pat Kewley

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