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The Ten Best Films from Adam Yauch's Oscilloscope Laboratories

May 6, 2012  |  3:54pm

Adam “MCA” Yauch was a groundbreaking musician, but he was pretty darned important to the indie film world, too. He founded Oscilloscope Laboratories, an indie distribution company that over the last few years has released not only these ten amazing films but dozens more, including Wendy and Lucy, The Messenger, If a Tree Falls, Howl, and The Maid. In the process, the company has become not only a critical and festival darling, but also a Paste favorite. I had a great conversation at Sundance this year with an O-scope exec about how much our companies’ respective sensibilities overlapped. I told him that when I saw that O-scope was releasing a film, it automatically doubled my interest in it, and he laughed and said he felt the same about Paste’s recommendations. I thought about that conversation this weekend when we got the sad, sad news of Yauch’s far-too-early passing. I’ll miss his music of course, like everyone, but as the Film Section Editor for Paste I thought it was also important to pay tribute to his contributions to the indie film world, too. While you’re spinning Beastie Boys records this week in his honor—and you should—why not pick up one or two of these films, too? In honor of Yauch and our dear friends at Oscillocope Laboratories, here are our 10 favorites.

10. Shut Up and Play the Hits (2012), Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern
A year ago, hundreds of friends and thousands of fans converged on Madison Square Garden for LCD Soundsystem’s farewell performance. All the while, the cameras were rolling, resulting in Shut Up And Play the Hits, a documentary that follows James Murphy and the band in the days leading up to, during and after the tumultuous four-hour farewell. Directors Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern use a staggering number of cameras and crosscut liberally to provide an experience that’s arguably even better than seeing the band live (okay, maybe not quite that good but…). And the scenes outside the concert footage are equally compelling. —Michael Dunaway/Bo Moore
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9. The Other F Word (2012), Andrea Blaugrund
Blaugrund’s documentary is ostensibly about reconciliation. The film, which premiered at last year’s SXSW Film Festival, asks one very simple question: How can a punk rocker balance his job as an anti-authoritarian mouthpiece and his responsibilities as a family man? The movie also sheds light on how nihilistic passion can slowly give way to commodification, given a long enough span of time. These are guys with jobs, and these jobs involve quite a bit of acting. They have cultivated a brand, and it’s now their profession to deliver a product to the snot-nosed 17-year-olds who continue to eat it up. The problem for the fathers doesn’t seem to be reconciling angst with parental responsibility so much as how to project an image of disenchantment when they’ve finally found fulfillment. And these guys seem genuinely fulfilled. —Allie Conti
Stream it: Amazon
Buy it: Amazon

8. Dark Days (2000), Mark Singer
One of the strangest documentaries of recent years, Dark Days is a perfect illustration of Oscilloscope’s quirky sensibility. When director Marc Singer moved to New York City, he became fascinated with a community of homeless people living in the subway tunnels of the city. He even lived with them for months. And when he decided to shoot a documentary about hem, he didn’t hire a crew, he recruited one. Using those same homeless, none of whom were experienced camera operators. During the time they were filming, the authorities decided to clean them out of the tunnel system, dialing up the dramatic tension of the film. As Singer struggled for years to create exactly the film he wanted, the documentary became somewhat of a cause celebre for New Yorkers; I’ve never met a Big Apple filmmaker who didn’t profess his love for it. DJ Shadow contributed a score, Yauch’s Oscilloscope bought and distributed it, and an underground legend—literally—was born.—Michael Dunaway
Stream it: Netflix
Buy it: Amazon

7. Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Kelly Reichardt
Reichardt’s commendations for Rivers of Grass, Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy might not have won her a huge budget for Meek’s Cutoff, but they did help her secure a great cast, including Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood and Paul Dano for this little Western set in 1845. The film examines a group of settlers encountering a native culture they don’t understand. The cinematography is gorgeous, and Reichardt’s dogged determination to take time to give each moment in the film its due produces a pace that feels luxurious. —Michael Dunaway/Josh Jackson
Stream it: Netflix
Buy it: Amazon

6. Burma VJ (2008), Anders Ostergaard
Ostergaard has access to some stunning footage. When Buddhist monks began protesting Burma’s repressive regime by marching in the streets, their actions — and the government’s violent response — made international news. A band of vigilante videographers captured many of the events up close, at their peril, and smuggled their footage out of the totalitarian state using satellite phones. It should make for riveting stuff on its own, when presented properly, but Ostergaard has woven it with invasive reenactments that blur the line between what’s real and what’s recreated. I spent most of the time assuming the cell phone audio that we hear is recreated, but then we see one of the reporters recording his cell conversation with a tape recorder; what we’re watching is reenacted, what he’s recording may or may not be, but the picture is telling us it’s not. I don’t mind reenactments that explain the action, but these are confusing, and they undermine the vivid, first-hand accounts that should not only be the film’s spine but its very reason for existence. It’s the story of videographers. Stay out of their way. —Robert Davis
Stream it: Netflix
Buy it: Amazon

5. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008), Kurt Kuenne
When Kurt Kuenne’s lifelong best friend Andrew Bagby is murdered, he goes on a cross-country road trip, recording his remembrances of Bagby and stopping along the way to capture memories from other key people in Bagby’s life. He hops to turn the footage into a document for Andrew’s son Zachary, a tribute to his father and a way for him to have some sense of the man he was. What he discovers along the way—and the new events that develop—take the film in directions neither he, nor we, could fathom. Quite simply, one of the most stunning, heartbreaking, enraging films you will ever see.—Michael Dunaway
Stream it: Netflix
Buy it: Amazon

4. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Lynne Ramsay
While Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s previous films, Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), took linear (albeit drifting and dreamlike) forms, for her first film in nine years she has chosen a more ambitiously fragmented approach. Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need To Talk About Kevin concerns the experience of a mother struggling with the aftermath of a school massacre carried out by her own son. Incorporating the intense, sensual cinematography of her previous work with a more rigorous and archly stylized approach, Ramsay lures us into the world of Eva (Tilda Swinton, the perfect mix of iciness and fragility for the role) as she reflects on the upbringing of her son, the eponymous Kevin (played as a teenager by Ezra Miller, a similarly well-cast blend of charisma and aloofness) and the growth of her family, in the aftermath of its disintegration. But the real horror of We Need To Talk About Kevin is not that of a teenager choosing total negation over the banality of normative family life—it’s that, in the life into which he was born, these appeared to be the only two choices available.—Donal Foreman
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3. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), Banksy
Thierry Guetta is a pudgy, mutton-chopped Frenchman living in Los Angeles, obsessively filming nearly everything he does. Then he meets Banksy, the Babe Ruth qua Deep Throat of the street art world, and eventually convinces him to approve a documentary based on his legendary work. But the source tapes of Guetta’s film are soon lost in the sea of unlabeled and unfiled tapes of his life; when he eventually submits an unwatchable mess to his subject, Banksy seizes the camera and tells him he has to now go out and make art of his own, becoming the new subject of the documentary. Against all odds, Mr. Brainwash, as Guetta christens himself, puts on the largest and most profitable street art exhibition in history. It’s delightful to watch the hyper-reclusive Banksy actually give commentary on film’s events, albeit in almost total silhouette and with a disguised voice. And his commentary is very, very funny. But the most compelling theme of the film is its cinematic exploration of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—that a phenomenon cannot be observed or measured without simultaneously changing it. Guetta never puts spray can to wood until he’s being documented by Banksy. Does that mean Banksy made him what he is? Destroyed, in some sense, what he was? And is that good or bad, or neither? A brilliant film. —Michael Dunaway
Stream it: Netflix
Buy it: Amazon

2. A Film Unfinished (2010), Yael Hersonski
One of the most important documentaries of our generation, and one of the strangest and most compelling. In 1942, the Nazis began making a propaganda film about the happy life of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. The scenes were staged and unrealistic, yet many historians accepted them as authentic for decades. The debate was put to an end in 1998 when a lost reel was discovered, showing the staging of the scenes. The story alone is fascinating, but director Yael Hersonski turns the film (really, the two films in one) into a profound meditation on history, truth, art and propaganda. There’s one scene in particular that contains such a jarring surprise that it’s unwise to give it away here. You’ll know it when you see it. Still, perhaps the most moving sections of the film are watching present-day footage of Warsaw ghetto survivors watching the old footage, mostly in silence. It feels like an honor to be in their presence, even virtually.—Michael Dunaway
Stream it: Netflix
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1. Bellflower (2011), Evan Glodell
At first, the plot of Bellflower seems to follow a familiar path: Boy is romantically frustrated, meets cute girl, goes on a quirky date and falls in love; girl breaks boy’s heart, and buddy tries to help him pick up the pieces. But then the plot twists and turns unexpectedly. A truly epic muscle car is built, complete with shotguns and flamethrowers. Many, many things explode or catch fire. Skulls are caved in, both accidentally and intentionally. This is not your mother’s indie rom-com.

The product of a miniscule budget, eight years of work, and countless hours spent building flamethrowers, custom cars, and various other implements of destruction, Bellflower is like no film you’ve ever seen. Glodell and cinematographer Joel Hodge shoot many of the scenes in high-contrast, shaky shots, giving the entire film a dreamlike quality. (Glodell also custom-built some of the camera equipment used in shooting.) The shifts from those stylized scenes to more conventional shooting only add to the sense of disorientation and disaffection that hangs over the entire film.

Often a concept-heavy film like Bellflower suffers from lack of sufficient attention to, you know, storytelling, but that’s definitely not the case here. As protagonist Woodrow, Glodell is so sweet and goofy in his role that you’ll immediately finds yourself rooting for him, and he and real-life buddy Tyler Dawson (Aiden) have a great chemistry onscreen. Aiden’s matter-of-fact devotion to Woodrow (Dawson plays the role to perfection) is one of the most touching aspects of the movie; their love story is really at the heart of the film. Even if it’s often obscured by (or is it illuminated by?) discussions about building monster cars and flamethrowers to slay their enemies, forming the Mother Medusa gang, and idolizing a mythical role model named Lord Humungus, (only loosely based on the Lord Humongous from Mad Max).

And, of course, discussions about women. Young men’s confusion about women is, as much as anything, the central theme of Bellflower, and although the boys’ discussion of women does occasionally cross into aggression, it’s obviously more about the pain at hand than about true misogyny (even after the film takes its dark turn).

Those women provide a good bit of fuel for the rage. Rebekah Brandes imbues Courtney with a just-under-the-surface wildness that is fascinating to watch. And Jessie Wiseman, as Woodrow’s love interest Milly, pulls off a very difficult task with aplomb. It’s so crucial for us to fall in love with Milly along with Woodrow, and later to simultaneously love and hate her, just like Woodrow. In Wiseman’s expert hands, Millie brings out both emotions.

Not everything in Bellflower completely works, as you’d expect from so audaciously daring a film by a first-time feature writer/director. But it’s got more great ideas, takes more daring chances, and has more life in it than just about anything you’re likely to see all summer. Glodell, Dawson, Wiseman, Brandes, Hodge, and producer/actor Vincent Grashaw have hit a home run that should lead to bigger things for all of them, especially Glodell. This is an impressive debut by an exciting new talent.—Michael Dunaway

Stream it: Amazon
Buy it: Amazon

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