Empathy Machines

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16 Great Independent Films

What is an “independent” film? How can you recognize one? What sets an independent film apart from a commercial Hollywood movie? What are the distinguishing characteristics of an independent film? What are these films “independent of? What is the “Indy Spirit”?

What makes good independent films so unique and special and satisfying?

I took a look at my shelf of movies tonight, and I picked out every DVD box that I thought was an independent film and then lined them up on the left side of the shelf.

I came up with 12 DVDs. Here they are:


This is a realistic forbidden-love story in a dystopian future starring Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton.


This is a half road-movie about a really screwed-up family that is trying to get their little girl, Olive, to a beauty and talent contest for little girls. There is more pathos and hope and hysterical comedy and ultimate optimism in this film than you can imagine. The acting in this film is so emotionally ALIVE it’s a cinematic miracle.


This film stars Northern Exposure’s John Corbett. It’s a story about the theater and the actors who live their lives in it.


This movie stars Jack Nicholson as a insurance company employee who retires and who then tries to put some life back into his life. (A briefly naked Kathy Bates is not naked for lust value, trust me.)


Robert Redford is the rich owner of a huge rental car company, who evaluates his life, his love for his wife, and his relationship with his employees. Also, by the way, he gets kidnapped by a violent disgruntled former employee played by Willem Dafoe.


A group of scientists is flown by spaceship to our dying sun, to restart it.


A man who has been lobbying for years to commit legal suicide sees the value in his life.


A Woody Allen drama about a man who doesn’t believe in God, and therefore contemplates that no one is coming to punish him… and thinks about committing murder.


A very funny Robin Williams comedy about falsified insurance claims involving a dead brother.


Jeff Bridges’ character’s marriage is in trouble and a young male intern of his gets involved with his sexy wife (a gorgeous, fragile, Kim Basinger).


A man is about to propose to his girlfriend on a hillside in England when a hot air balloon comes down out of the sky and bounces back up with a terrified young boy in it. The man and others run and try to hold the balloon basket down and save the boy. What happens when the balloon rises into the sky and what happens to the people scarred by the experience, creates unexpected results.


About a young woman whose mother tells her outright that she doesn’t love her, and several other stories about people looking for aliveness, art, love, God, and forgiveness.


I just bought a new copy of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE at King Soopers for $5.

Most of the rest of these movies I got, pre-owned, at Entertainmart for $3.99-$4.99.

Please look over this list. I’m curious, how many of these films have you seen? They were all made pretty much the last five years. How many have you heard of?

That is an important point about independent films. They don’t have the advertising budgets of Hollywood blockbusters.

They are independent of the commercial expectations of unrealistic, plot-driven, cardboard-character, lowest-common denominator, Hollywood movies.

(Most people’s impression of independent films is that they are low-budget and depressing. The reality is that the majority are well-made and most are hopeful, not depressing. (I hate depressing films!!))

People who want to see these eminently worthwhile and rewatchable films make the effort to seek them out.

Maybe they join Netflix, maybe they frequent Kimball’s Theater downtown.

The second characteristic of Indy films is that they may or may not have big movie stars in them.

Most importantly, Indy films are centered on characters, not on the plot.

They are concerned with how people think and feel and what gives them hope and a feeling of aliveness in their lives.

I got more from LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE in terms of soul, truth and emotion than I got from the last three times I went to church.

Fourth, usually, independent films don’t usually have $100 million dollar special effects budgets.

Most importantly, independent films are about life insights, their focus is not to create “interesting” (but fake and inhuman as cardboard) characters.

For example, Peter Parker in SPIDER-MAN 3, is a literal comic book character in a Hollywood blockbuster special effects film.

Greg Kinnear, in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE plays a realistic character who tries to put on his own Success Seminars, but is a failure at it. Now that’s an independent film character!

There is nothing about the Kinnear character that would make him unreal or amazing in a Hollywood way.

What is amazing in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE is the emotional and perceptual transformations (and the love the characters (eventually!) show each other).

If there is a sex scene in an independent film, it is probably not there for a gratuitous or semi-pornographic reason, it is there to show human emotion and beauty.

Independent movies are more like visual literature and poetry (not boring– interesting), whereas Hollywood movies are more like a Stephen King novel.

Look at the list above again. Even though I picked them out honestly, I was mistaken about two of them. Two of these films are not independent movies.

Can you guess which two are not independent films–and why?

Actually, SUNSHINE and the BIG WHITE, especially, are not Indy movies.

SUNSHINE is big budget science fiction movie with mostly glam-slam characters (with the exception of Benedict Wong who was in a movie I kind of liked called CODE 46. Wong is painfully real with his portrayal of guilt.)


THE BIG WHITE is low-budget, but just fluff– unrealistic comedy entertainment.

Here are a few more great independent films:



An aging Englishman is disgusted with his life after being laid off, and decides to swim the English Channel.



Nick Nolte is a coach who decides to teaches a lesson to the kid who “toilet papers” his house. Also, he takes the kid to his high school reunion with the kid posing a his son.



The great Toni Collette plays a woman who must take a visiting Japanese man on a tour across the Australian outback. Things happen in this truly amazing movie journey, especially at the end, that you will absolutely never see in a Hollywood film.



A depressed IRS agent tracks down a family in the enchanted New Mexico desert. He finds a family headed by a man who is even more depressed than he is (Sam Elliot). Sam Elliot’s portrayal of depression is the only realistic portrayal of depression I have ever seen in any movie, ever. Pure poetry. The entire film comes together in the last two minutes. A miracle! (Not depressing at all–supremely uplifting!)


Maybe start with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and see if you don’t find in that movie nourishment for your soul and something else that you have never before seen in a Hollywood movie.

These are not normal, safe, fast-paced, entertainment movies.

Some even have the power, I am not kidding, to take you to a world you’ve never been to, to give you an emotion or an insight you’ve never had, or to maybe change your perspective on life for the better.

That’s why I love independent films.

(I wrote this a while back: I would add IN AMERICA and EAGLE VS. SHARK to this list…)

Curtis Smale



03C497BA-8587-49B5-A6B7-256DA58F7D4D(No plot spoilers, only the basic setup as given in the movie trailer is revealed in this review.)

I wasn’t sure what exactly attracted me to this movie. Maybe it was the wilderness adventures that I’ve had with my Dad, Harry, and my brother Bryan. I think of the time that we flew in to an area of Alaska (Yakutat) by a float plane, also with my Mom.

The stark wilderness shots reminded me of the movie NEVER CRY WOLF that I saw with my Dad 35 years ago. A crazy coincidence is that this movie was inspired by a book written by Charles Martin, and NEVER CRY WOLF starred Charles Martin Smith.

In movies, all’s well that ends strong. This movie begins with terrifying events and predicaments, but the reactions of the actors were not in line with the life-threatening seriousness of the situations, but as the film went on, the tone changed so much that by the ending, the movie turned into a strong drama, even if it did not have the gritty emotional severity of an indie film.

This movie has dozens of absolutely gorgeous shots of the Utah mountain wilderness terrain.

Two people at an airport are trying to fly to DIA (Denver International Airport) but their flight has been delayed.

Kate Winslet’s character needs to get to her wedding, and Idris Elba’s character is a doctor who needs to get to his destination to do emergency surgery on a young boy.

They decide to charter a small plane together going over the extremely high mountains of Utah. Through a series of events, the plane crashes. They are immediately in a survival scenario as this VFR (Visual Flight Rule) flight was not logged.

Some of the dialogue was choppy and seemed disconnected.

There are many dialogue references to TITANIC, most notably the guy looking for the frozen bodies in TITANIC, who says “Is ANYBODY alive out there?!”

They actually lifted the indelible TITANIC dialogue, “Not without you!” and put it in Elba’s mouth.

Winslet’s acting language is quite similar to her other movies across the last 20 or so years, but when the chips are down, she comes through with the demanded emotion.

Being that both actors have English accents in real life, it must have been a challenge for Winslet to not start matching Elba’s sound.

This movie got a 48 on Metacritic but it deserves a much higher rating, I would give it at least an 75.

This is an excellent film of character and situation and emotion, exactly what people want out of a movie story, and as you’re watching it and it approaches the ending, it ties up loose ends and it satisfies.

At the end, I adored the close-up shots.

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is powerful and moving, and if you watch it to the very end and you see the title of the movie, and a creative hidden meaning in the title, putting the final touch on the movie.

This one is worth seeing. Redbox.

Curtis Smale



MAN ON WIRE Movie Review

The word on the cover of the DVD box perfectly describes this movie: “exhilarating.”

James Marsh’s documentary of the tight-rope heist of Philippe Petit is something to behold.

On August 7th, 1974 Philippe Petit and his motley crew surreptitiously rigged a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City…and he walked across that wire, and danced across that wire, and ran across that wire–eight times, over the course of almost an hour, taunting the police.

He was up so high, the crowd below could barely make him out.

Technically what he did was a crime, but certainly it was one of the most wonderful crimes ever committed.

This beautiful film is tensely exciting and extremely interesting, painting as it does a portrait of the 1970s era in which Philippe’s Petit’s greatest high wire act was performed.

The film follows Philippe’s progression toward the twin towers–first performing in the streets of France, then crossing two points on a cathedral.

In a way, this film is a time-travelling way for Americans to get the World Trade Center back–September 11th is never mentioned.

Our attention is held from the first shot to the last–the wire is stretched across the length of the film, and the emotional climax is well worth the wait.

“If you want something, nothing is impossible.” –Philippe Petit.


If you want to see a great documentary movie, rent this the first chance you get: MAN ON WIRE.

Curtis Smale


MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – Video Movie Review by Curtis Smale – 3 minutes


Why I Haven’t Written a Review of PASSENGERS Yet

Laurence Fishburne in PASSENGERS


Laurence Fishburne’s character in PASSENGERS was not a throwaway character. That guy packed his few minutes onscreen full of pathos, authority, respect, paternalism, confrontation with mortality, and concern. I think he was far more than a supporting character. He is ~integral~ to the movie.

Curtis Smale


CODE 46: My All-Time Favorite Movie


In this review, I give away some plot points, basically the same information as on the back of the DVD box. But you cannot ruin this movie no matter what information you give about it, as it is not a plot-driven movie.

Movie Info: CODE 46 stars Tim Robbins (Andy DuFresne from THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION); and Samantha Morton (the bald PreCog girl from MINORITY REPORT.)
CODE 46 was released on DVD in 2004. It is one hour and thirty-three minutes in length.


The first time I saw this movie I thought it was kind of cool, and it seemed like BLADE RUNNER a little.

I later realized it is one of those rare films that would leave an indelible impression on me.

I was thinking about it and remembering it a year after I saw it.

After watching it 40 times, I know it is the greatest movie ever made.

So what happened between my first viewing of the film and my fortieth viewing? (By the way, I don’t usually watch movies this repetitively. The only other two movies I have ever watched many times were TITANIC (eight times in the theater) and STAR WARS, about 15 times, but only once or twice in the theater. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, ALIENS, THE ABYSS, AND DEEP IMPACT were pretty much the only other massive repeat movies for me.

I was drawn to watch CODE 46 again and again, though, because it had a certain visual and emotional appeal that intrigued me. It also had certain indefinable qualities that I couldn’t explain.

I believe that this film is the CITIZEN KANE of today. It’s innovative, and I believe that very few people have noticed the major cinematic innovations in this film.

Once, after watching it, I read others’ reviews of it on ( Reading those reviews made me realize how important my own perceptions of things are to me–and how important others’ perceptions are to them, and how differently people see things.

Some reviewers gave the movie 10 stars (the highest rating), and some people gave it zero stars.

Some reviewers said there was great chemistry between the two main romantic characters; and some reviewers felt that they had zero chemistry.

Some reviewers said it was boring and hard to follow, while others said it was engaging, magnetic and fascinating.

Only a significant work of art can inspire such sincere and opposite reactions.

I believe CODE 46 is an amazing work of art. It is at once completely realistic and cinematically artistic.

But why do I feel that it is the greatest movie ever made, so far?

Let me count the ways…

CODE 46 is a science fiction romance with virtually no special effects, except natural reflections and in-camera filters.

There were no Hollywood sets–it was all filmed on location in London, Shanghai, and Dubai.

One thing to think about is why the moral failure at the center of the story may have happened.

Please realize that this is an extremely well thought-out film, and if some things seem not to make sense–think about them a little more.

CODE 46  is the story of an investigator who is searching for a person who is making fake passports, or “papelles.”

The futuristic world of this movie has all of society segregated into either high-tech cities or deserts–and you need a papelle to get into the cities–or out of them.

One of the reasons you need a papelle is that a huge IT database, The Sphinx, monitors the actions of all people to protect them from health risks.

One of the health risks concerns the then widespread practice the IVF (In Vitro Fertilization), and cloning. Many people are genetically related to one another without knowing it.

To avoid genetic problems, people are required to check with The Sphinx to find out if they can marry and have sex and have children. So the “Big Brother” in this movie is not portrayed as being all bad–The Sphinx often saves people’s lives.

The investigator, played by Tim Robbins, has a job whose objective is to find out who is counterfeiting the papelles.

He takes an “empathy virus” in order to read the minds of potential suspects.

When he finds the guilty person, he decides to protect her from prosecution because he has fallen in love with her.

It is a tale of doubly-forbidden love.

Make that triply-forbidden, now that I think of it.

At the end of the film, it is the viewer who must decide if their sin was punished or not, and whether there was something right about it, despite it’s obvious wrongness.

Or possibly whether, in the future, there might be something wholly legitimate and good that could come out of it.

There is one graphic nude shot in the film that lasts about five seconds.

The shot makes sense when understood in the context of one of the main themes of the story. In other words, it is not gratuitous for no reason.

Initially, I found these five seconds shocking and visually unnecessary.

I think this scene was put into the film partially to shock and also to underscore the romantic vs. genetic conflict at the core of the story.

If the director’s purpose were pornographic titillation, the graphic scene would have been longer, it would have been repeated, and other more obvious things and physical interactions could have been shown, but they weren’t.

I found out that there are several versions of the film, and my guess is that this scene, obviously played by an extra, would have been cut in one of them.

Nudity is not always exhibited to incite lust. It all depends on the intention of the artist or performer or author.

The love scenes in CODE 46 are not Hollywood-glamorous nor are they pornographic.  The love scenes are warm, human, and real.

This is not a film for kids, because of the love scenes, and because of the grown-up themes throughout.

There is no violence in this film, and I don’t remember any profane language.

The main reason I love this movie is that it is about human empathy–people loving people just as they are, and for who they are, a theme that is rarely shown in movies.

In that sense, it is the healthiest movie I have ever seen.

There is one very innovative thing about this film. Something very subtle. Something I have never before seen in a movie. Something that is almost taboo in movies. The characters are actually, and extremely subtly, and continually: looking at you.

Little glimpses here and there–in rear view mirrors. When they enter the room. As they are looking around. As they are thinking. Very quick. Very subtle.

After a while, you strangely begin to feel that somehow the characters are aware of you: they know that you are there–a very unique connected emotion to experience while watching a movie.

This was so subtle, I couldn’t figure out how the director achieved this effect of making me feel like I was a character in his movie!

This is one of the main reasons why I think CODE 46 is one of the greatest movies ever made.

I had to use slow-motion to slow down the action to see what was happening.

The director, Michael Winterbottom, has an impossible amount of empathy for his characters and an amazing cohesiveness in his organic visual storytelling.

The contemplative and heart-felt music by The Free Association is wonderful, and the voice-overs by Morton are emotionally intimate.

Once Winterbottom hooks you in, which takes him about three seconds, you are there for the duration.

There are so many ideas (scientific, moral, spiritual, political, relational), sounds, humorous touches, editing combinations, subtle verbal cues and gorgeous visuals in this movie that it overwhelms your attention and just starts to wash over you.

CODE 46 is a masterpiece of cinematography without equal or even a close second.

The movie is so layered and multifaceted, you can watch it probably five times before you become aware of even the basic things that Winterbottom is doing.

In some ways, this movie might remind you of BLADE RUNNER or GATTACA, but in many ways it is far superior to both.

CODE 46 is my favorite film. I have never seen a film like it.

I didn’t, and you might not either, appreciate everything that is in this film in the first viewing.

This is probably a movie to watch alone, on DVD–with the lights out, and maybe a glass of good wine. And your full attention.

Better yet, skip the wine so you will realize that it is the acting, the story, the beautiful cinematography, the music, the editing, and the directing that are making you feel wonderful.

CODE46 has a great emotional arc, and an ending that might satisfy you, once you think about it.

I hope you enjoy this movie as much as I do.

Curtis Smale

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