Best Indie Films of 2018: The Fix Picks

By Dorri Olds 09/18/18

In early recovery I had moments where I was sure I could not stay sober for one more minute. That’s when my friends offered sound advice: Don’t think, and go to movies.

Still from the film Nico 1988
“I don’t need everybody to like me,” Nico says in the film. “I don’t care.”

In early recovery I found myself inundated with obsessive worries scurrying around in my head. It was repetitive dark noise that I ached to shush with alcohol. At times I was sure that I could not stay sober for one more minute. That’s when my friends offered sound advice: “Don’t think, and go to movies.”

So, as we head into fall with the looming Nov. 6 midterms, a real-life nail biter, let’s talk about the great escape—indies!

This first film is an uplifting true story about an exceptional human being. He is a creative philanthropist with an unexpected approach to helping people with addiction and ex-cons who are way down on their luck.

Skid Row Marathon is about a superior court judge in Los Angeles. Craig Mitchell is a one-man crusade helping addicts and ex-cons who live in tents and cardboard boxes on LA’s Skid Row. The worst part of his day job is sending criminals to prison. The compassionate judge came up with a way to have a positive impact. He gets the homeless back on their feet with a running club.

Wife-and-husband team, Gabi and Mark Hayes, heard about the judge who trains the homeless to run marathons.

Mark told The Fix. “Many of the homeless are on drugs—crack, heroin, crystal meth, alcohol, you name it. Gabi and I wanted to do something [to help]. My wife is the real runner. Me? I go kicking and screaming.”

When the couple first approached Judge Mitchell about doing a documentary, Mark said Mitchell’s response was, “’You can’t just show up with a camera and start filming people at the lowest point of their lives.’”

"The judge was right," said Mark. “At first, some threw bottles at us. But we hung in there and put in the time to get to know them until they felt safe enough to speak to us. We were there to help, not exploit them.”

The response to their film has been high praise and enthusiastic reviews.

“I think [the film] resonates with so many audiences because people know everybody deserves a second chance,” said Gabi. “The homeless situation is heartbreaking and it keeps getting worse. More and more tents keep popping up and there are people lying in the streets. They just took a wrong turn in life.”

Runners find purpose when they show up to run with the judge and are treated with respect. Their self-image improves which helps them to get off and stay off the drugs. Skid Row Marathon has raked in 21 awards at film festivals across America—including Best Director, Best Editing, and multiple audience awards. To find out how to see it, visit the website.

For this next winner, it doesn’t matter if you weren’t born yet or if you can’t remember a thing about the 60s and 70s because you were too damn high. Any age is the right audience for this one.

Nico, 1988 is about the last year in the life of German model-singer-actress Nico (neé Christa Päffgen). Her glory had faded long ago, as did her exquisite beauty. She looked ravaged beyond her years due to her 15-year heroin addiction. In one scene, Nico (Trine Dyrholm) is sharing a cigarette with a friend.

“Am I ugly?” She asks. He jokingly replies: “Yeah. Really.”

“Good,” she says. “I wasn’t happy when I was beautiful.”

In her teens she was a model for Vogue and Elle which led to acting in a number of films. But Nico is best known as Andy Warhol’s muse and as a singer for the Velvet Underground. Lou Reed wrote the band’s revolutionary lyrics about heroin, prostitution, and sadism.

In 2003, that first album ranked number 13 in Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” If Nico had been alive to see that, she would not have been impressed.

“I don’t need everybody to like me,” she says in the film. “I don’t care.”

She says in the movie that Jim Morrison suggested that she form her own band. When asked if she’s disappointed that her band never had commercial success, she rasps “I hate the word commercial.”

Smartly directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli, Nico, 1988 is a fiery and fascinating study of another rock and roll tragedy. Though there’s nothing glamorous about watching someone eaten away by drugs, it was a great reminder to stay sober. Don’t miss the explosive tour de force by Dryholm. It brings chills.

After I gave up substances, I became aware of—and had to let go of—magical thinking. Ironically, my next pick is about two dreamers who built a fantastical world that sparkled like a disco ball:

Studio 54

In Manhattan, 254 West 54th Street was the place to be. Studio 54 opened in 1977 and it was a smash hit—a nightly revelry of drinking, drugging and disco dancing. We’re talking gobs of cocaine, mountains of Quaaludes, and A-listers. Everyone else had to wait outside hoping they would be allowed in.

Owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, two Jewish guys from Brooklyn, became great friends at Syracuse University. Rubell’s charisma was always on but Schrager avoided attention—until now. The 71-year-old finally told details from 40 years ago that nobody has ever heard. Director Matt Tyrnauer got his hands on loads of never-before-seen footage.

The owners were not prepared for the club’s instant success. It became a haven for celebrating sex and drugs. You’ll see Rubell zipping around, spoiling his guests, flashing open a long coat to reveal a drugstore in pockets—a smorgasbord of chemical delights.

Rubell paid steeply for his 24/7 bacchanal. So, although the flick triggered my euphoric recall—wild nights hoovering cocaine, glugging Bacardi and dancing all night—I also remember what it cost me. I’m lucky—I did survive, hey, hey.

The following film is about an unusual triangle between a girl and a “good” mother (the only mom she’d known) and an alcoholic stranger that kicks off a psychodrama.

Daughter of Mine (Figlia mia) is a fictional story set on the coast of Sardinia, Italy. Two women, adoptive-mom Tina (Valeria Golino) and alcoholic biological-mom Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher), compete for the love and attention of 10-year-old Vittoria (Sara Casu).

The shy, fair-skinned, redheaded girl had no idea that she was adopted. Heavy drinker Angelica has a life that is totally unmanageable. She’s being kicked off a farm for not paying her bills, but before slinking out of town, this “bad” mom begs adoptive mom Tina to let her spend time with Vittoria. Tina, who is compassionate but wary, finally agrees. She thinks What’s the harm? Angelica will be gone soon.

Vittoria, however, is enchanted by her wild birth mother that looks so much like her. As they bond, Tina’s anxiety skyrockets. The story is at times predictable but that doesn’t take away from its emotionality or the power of the acting.

Italian director Laura Bispuri described it as “three characters who are all placed in a conflict that…breaks their heart.”

The thoughtful, slower pace of a European indie is refreshing. The backdrop of rural Sardinia, with its cliffs, expansive sky and turquoise water, adds to the film’s richness. After the U.S. debut at Tribeca, Strand Releasing purchased this touching award-winner, which is now available on Netflix and DVD.

This next indie won the top award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival for Best Narrative Feature. It also won Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. All prizes are well-deserved.

Diane stars Mary Kay Place as a sad, retired widow (badly in need of Al-Anon, if you ask me) who exhausts herself by putting the needs of others first. Her mess-of-a-son Brian (Jake Lacy) is a man-child who’s in and out of rehabs and opiate stupors. It’s maddening to see what she puts up with. Both actors give industrial-super-strength performances, as does the rest of the cast which includes Estelle Parsons and Glynnis O’Connor. Diane is the first narrative feature for documentarian Kent Jones (Hitchcock/Truffaut) who wrote and directed. Jones is also Director of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center. Martin Scorsese is executive producer.

Diane spends her days schlepping long distances, performing good deeds. She feeds the homeless at soup kitchens, visits sick friends, and tends to her dying cousin and the rest of the extended family. She meets her klatch of old friends for lunch, where she has angry outbursts (Oh, Diane! Get thee to Al-Anon). The actress is a master at comedic nuances. Her self-blame is a mystery until the satisfying reveal and her character's profound spiritual arc. IFC bought the film. Theater release date to be announced.


Mary Kay Place in Diane

Next is an award-winning narrative feature from the UK. It’s got the right ingredients: excellent writing, directing, acting, and cinematography—all in the first sequence. Clever, subtle hints show the audience what they need to know about the year (2011), the place (London), and the protagonist.

Obey is explosive. Nineteen-year-old Leon (Marcus Rutherford) has been gone for four years. He came home to care for his alcoholic mother (T’Nia Miller). But there is one condition: she has to stop drinking. The good news is that his father is gone. Bad news? His mother replaced Leon’s abusive dad with a creepy, scary boyfriend who enables her addiction.

Leon likes to hang out with his friends, box at the gym, and inhale nitrous oxide from balloons. Things intensify when he meets the movie’s female lead, Twiggy (Sophie Kennedy Clark). She’s a blonde with big blue eyes and luscious full lips. Leon is transfixed but femme fatale Twiggy has a boyfriend. Leon’s tension builds. It’s all too much and he is going to blow. Leon hates his mother’s boyfriend and her alcoholism, and outside is the chaos of the 2011 London Riots. Director James Jones uses actual news footage seamlessly. To find out how to see it, visit the website.

Blowin’ Up is a documentary about sex workers who are caught in the legal system. Many who end up in “the life” have substance use disorders. Director Stephanie Wang-Breal presents their gripping stories without judgment as the film zeroes in on an experimental program in a Queens court. The compassion in the film is its biggest strength. The heroes are an empathic team of women, including a judge and DA, who work diligently to help the workers find a new start. Counseling is used to help them fight their way off of drugs and out of the life-sucking cycle of turning tricks, getting arrested and seeing their lives circle the drain. This solution-oriented program offers a chance at redemption. The new approach toward an age-old problem appears to be working. It is inspiring and brings hope for America’s failing justice system where recidivism is commonplace. Blowin’ Up opens April 5th in New York and April 12th in Los Angeles.

Pssst. Don’t miss these options:

Roll Red Roll is a documentary directed by Nancy Schwartzman. It tells the horrifying story of a sexual assault case that took place in Steubenville, Ohio. Male high-schoolers, clearly intoxicated, were caught on cell phone videos, laughing about raping a teenage girl while she was in and out of consciousness. Much of the town mocked her on social media and sided with the local boys. She was ridiculed for being drunk. It’s a powerful film that shines the light on how vulnerable one is when intoxicated. Crime blogger Alexandria Goddard broke the case. The hacking group Anonymous became involved in order to fight for justice. If you ask me, not enough justice was served.

Read more: Roll Red Roll

Jellyfish is a fictional story about Sarah Taylor (Liv Hill), an overburdened teenage girl living in Margate, a dreary seaside town in England. Her mother, Karen (Sinéad Matthews), stays in bed all day while Sarah rushes her younger siblings, boy and girl twins (Henry Lile and Jemima Newman) to school. Sarah pedals madly on a bicycle with the youngsters seated in a makeshift wooden trailer that’s hooked to the back. It’s a sad rickety setup that instantly conveys how poverty stricken they are.

Read more: Jellyfish Captures the Reality of Growing Up with a Mentally Ill Parent

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.