Summer is usually the season for blockbuster movies, which usually feature lots of action, special effects, heroic characters, superstar actors, huge budgets, and so on. I watch my share of these movies, enjoying some a lot (e.g., Batman Begins), others less so.
But, in the last few years, I have increasingly enjoyed watching what are often referred to as "Little Movies."
These are films with small budgets, no special effects, little action for the most part, and no big stars (although every so often some will moonlight in them), and generally play in small "art houses" instead of the multiplex. While little movies are often experimental or avant-garde, they mostly focus on the lives of ordinary people, showing us what may be essentially a slice of real life which the camera just happened to catch.
Such movies used to be hard to see. Their appeal is generally much more limited, they have small marketing budgets, and they play in few theaters, usually for only a short period. The advent of DVD, Internet rental services like Netflix, and digital cable or satellite with their large number of channels have made it much easier to get access to a much, much wider variety of movies. John Patrick and Gordon Haff have recently written blogs about the freedom we now have to depart from mass market tastes, and they both reference a very interesting article on the subject called "The Long Tail."
Let me then tell you about some of the little movies I have most enjoyed over the last few years, beginning with two of my favorites, "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset." In "Before Sunrise" an American man and a French woman, both in their early 20s, meet on a train in Europe. They fall in love, get off the train in Vienna, and spend the night walking through the city and talking about life, romance, love and many other subjects, before he goes off to catch his plane back to the US.
In "Before Sunset", we meet the same two characters nine years later; this time they only have one hour or so to talk and walk through the streets of Paris. They have had their ups and downs, so life, romance and love are now more bittersweet. Their dialogue is so real that you feel almost embarrassed, like an intruder overhearing their conversation. Yet, the screenplay for "Before Sunset" was nominated for an Oscar, so you know this was all tightly scripted. This is a pair of really good movies which I strongly recommend as do most critics in their reviews.
One often associates America with big budget, action movies, and thinks of the small budget, intimate movies I am talking about as "foreign", i.e., not made in America. While small-budget American movies clearly do not get the attention that the bigger budget ones do, there are an increasing number of them. "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" were directed and co-written by Richard Linklater, who was born in Texas. Let me briefly mention other small budget American movies I have enjoyed a lot.
"The Apostle," was written and directed by the great Robert Duvall who also starred in it. This is a wonderful movie, made much more so by the non-actors that play a number of the roles and give the film added authenticity. "Sling Blade" is another great film written, directed and starring a famous actor, this time Billy Bob Thornton. "The Good Girl" is a very good movie that stars Jennifer Aniston in a strong performance, quite different from the roles she usually plays. Finally, there is "You Can Count on Me," a very touching movie featuring great performances by Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo.
There are so many little movies made outside the US, that I would not know where to begin putting together a list of my favorites. So let me focus instead on one of my favorite directors of such movies, Eric Rohmer. Rohmer, who is French, is a key figure in the French New Wave, a hugely influential cinematic movement that started in the late 50s and included a number of other great film directors like Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle. Rohmer has been making movies, since the 1950s, and his last movie (so far) came out in 2004 when he was 84 years old.
Now, let me warn you. While I have liked most of the Rohmer films I have seen, his movies have been described by others as the equivalent of watching paint dry. At first blush, nothing of consequence happens in his movies. In Rohmer's movies, people talk and talk and talk, about their boredom, their summer vacation plans, their relationships, their boyfriends, girlfriends, and so on. At the end of the movie, you have gotten to know the characters, particularly how they reacted in what looks like relatively normal real life situations, what decisions they made and why they made them. Then, as in real life, the characters move on. Life goes on.
Why do I like Eric Rohmer's films? At one end of the spectrum, you have movies that deal with intergalactic wars and other kinds of incredible actions out in outer space. The various Star Wars and Star Trek movies are great examples of this genre. Rohmer is way over at the other end. To him, the action is all in inner space, that is, inside the mind of his characters. Like a neuroscientist with a futuristic X-ray machine, Rohmer points his camera at his characters, and tries to show us that there is a lot going on inside their brains even when, from all outward appearances, not much seems to be happening. While there is some nudity here and there in Rohmer movies (these are, after all, French movies), what Rohmer really tries to lay bare before us are the feelings of his characters, even those feelings that they are not aware of but which he, Rohmer, finds most interesting and wants to share with the audience.
The good news in all this is that whether you prefer big or little movies, or both, you now have more choices of films to watch than ever before.