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Last week, the death of influential musician Adam “MCA” Yauch prompted millions of fans to post their condolences and tributes via the internet and various social media outlets. In addition to being a founding member of the Beastie Boys, Yauch founded the indie distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories in 2008. Based on the business model established by indie record labels that Yauch grew up around, the company specializes in selecting the best in independent cinema, be it documentary or narrative, and marketing these films with the same artistic integrity with which that they were made.
The films associated with Oscilloscope Laboratories run the gamut from quirky foreign offerings to documentaries with important social messages to off-beat and entertaining comedies and then some. Since its inception, Oscilloscope Laboratories has become synonymous with quality; whenever audiences see the Oscilloscope Laboratories’ logo, they know they are about to see a great film. Films affiliated with Yauch’s company have been nominated for every award imaginable (including several Oscars)—quite an accomplishment for such a young enterprise.
We know that Adam Yauch’s friends and colleagues at Oscilloscope Laboratories will continue to make the best of independent cinema available to film audiences. Join us as we take a look at 10 of our favorite Oscilloscope Laboratories titles, though we easily could have picked 20.
Premiering at the 2008 ESPN/Tribeca Sports Film Festival, Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot is a gripping sports documentary about the first annual Elite 24 All Star Game at the famed Rucker Park in Harlem. Helmed by Yauch himself, the documentary team follows 8 of the top 24 high school basketball players from across the county who were handpicked by the game’s sponsors. Seamlessly blending home movies and archival footage with unique graphics (such as trading cards), Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot literally pulses with hip-hop beats. The documentary, which includes interviews with players and family members from all walks of life, feels completely organic and honest. While the athletes acknowledge the pressures of being on the fast track to the NBA, they come across as remarkably relaxed on camera. Perhaps that is because Yauch interviews his subjects on the fly at a variety of locations familiar to them—everywhere from their homes to barbershops to doorsteps to cars and, of course, on the court. No only does this documentary serve as a showcase for these remarkable players and for the Elite 24 All Star Game; it also highlights Yauch’s skill behind the camera. Our favorite moment? The embarrassed look on player Kevin Love’s face when it is revealed that his cellphone’s ringtone is Fight For Your Right (To Party).
Howl, starring James Franco, had the honor of opening the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. The film is about the life and humble beginnings of Allen Ginsberg, but more than that, it’s about his most famous work, Howl, and the controversy surrounding it. To convey the feel of those turbulent times, the film re-creates black and white interviews from early Ginsberg documentary footage and intercuts them with dramatized courtroom scenes (featuring David Strathairn and Jon Hamm) from the famous Ginsberg obscenity trial. Much of the dialogue is transcribed directly from the court case, and the testimony of the key witnesses and so-called “experts” seems absurd from our modern day perspective. One of the most fascinating elements of Howl is the poem itself. Directors Epstein and Friedman make the poem come alive, overlaying vibrant animation with a powerful reading of the work by Franco as Ginsberg. You will never think of Howl the same way again. With a cast comprised of such notable actors as Franco, Strathairn, Hamm, Jeff Daniels, Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams, and Bob Balaban, Howl is a passionate and ambitious account of one of America’s most well-known beat poets, making it a worthy entry into the Oscilloscope Pictures canon.
One of the most powerful documentaries in recent years is Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished. Almost 70 years in the making, the film really began when a team of East German archivists discovered a Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw Ghetto entitled Das Ghetto, which purported to present an authentic view of life in the Ghetto. In 1998, however, a missing reel was found which revealed that many of the scenes in Das Ghetto had been exaggerated and staged by the Nazis. In A Film Unfinished, Hersonski and her team investigate the new footage and the old, shedding further light on the reach of the Nazi propaganda machine. The filmmakers managed to find 9 witnesses featured in the film, along with Willy Wist, one of the cameramen on Das Ghetto. Masterfully weaving together interviews with these witnesses and narration from diaries and third-person reports, Hersonki provides extraordinary insight into the motives of and techniques employed by the Nazi filmmakers. A Film Unfinished is difficult to watch, but it is vital to our understanding of the power of film to mislead.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is not your average yuletide movie. Set deep in the mountains of Finland, this film provides a twisted take on the origin of one of the world’s most beloved holiday icons. Instead of a jolly old man with an appetite for cookies, this Santa Claus is a bloodthirsty monster straight from the primordial earth with an army of terrifying elves who will stop at nothing to free him from his prison. Despite the blood and gore, Rare Exports is surprisingly touching and heartfelt, mainly because of its protagonist, a young boy named Pietari (played with a wide-eye innocence by Onni Tommila). Pietari believes that Santa Claus is responsible for the sudden disappearance of children in his town. His emotionally distant father is consumed with searching for reindeer that are being mysteriously slaughtered. Even with a story that takes unexpectedly grim twists and turns, Rare Exports is the closest that Oscilloscope Laboratories has come to a “traditional” Holiday release. Thank goodness.
In his brief career, cut tragically short when he lost his battle with cancer at age 42, John Cazale appeared in only five movies. However, they happened to be the defining films of a generation: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather: Part II, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. This intimate documentary explores the life of John Cazale as told by the people who knew him best. His charm and kindness were celebrated in New York City theater circles, as was his dedication to the craft of acting. With the help of Steve Cazale, John’s beloved brother, the film features interviews with Meryl Streep (his co-star and off-screen partner), Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman, Francis Ford Coppola, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. This retrospective includes plenty of clips from Cazales’s movies that truly showcase his talent and provide a touching tribute to a man who may not have lived to see his best years.
Zoe Kazan won the TFF 2009 Best Actress Prize for her work in The Exploding Girl. This meditative character study follows Ivy, an epileptic young woman who returns to her home in Manhattan for spring break. She is a girl whose life is controlled by a routine (doctor’s appointments, dinners with mom) to combat the triggers that can cause her seizures. Shooting on the streets of Manhattan (where Oscilloscope Laboratories is based), director Bradley Rust Gray allows the city to envelop Ivy as she tries to manage a long distance relationship with her boyfriend while quietly struggling with her feelings for her (on scene) male best friend. Heavy on improvisation and lush city cinematography, The Exploding Girl is a rare film that captures the delicate transition to womanhood in as few words as possible.
What happens when punk rockers, who make their living by raging against the establishment, become the ultimate authority figures: fathers? The Other F Word is a documentary that explores just that. This eye-opening, funny and unexpectedly sensitive film takes a look at well-known punk rockers Jim Lindberg (Pennywise), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Mark Hoppus (Blink 182), and Art Alexakis (Everclear) as they adjust to the ins and outs of raising children, vowing to never repeat the mistakes of their own fathers. As mortgages and college funds become a reality, these musicians come to think of punk music as their profession rather than their lifestyle, and viewers see how difficult a profession it is. Long tours are draining and take them away from their families, causing musicians like Lindberg to question their commitment to the bands and their bandmates. Shifting from dressing rooms and concert arenas to playgrounds and carpools, these hardcore musicians are all mush when it comes to their kids. Like these rockers, Oscilloscope Laboratories’ films always have a lot of heart, which keeps audiences coming back for more.
One of the company’s first major acquisitions, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy is one of the defining films of the Oscilloscope canon. This lyrical film follows Wendy (masterfully played by Michelle Williams), a girl in dire economic straits who is determined to get to a potential job in a cannery in Alaska. When her beloved dog and only companion, Lucy, disappears after Wendy is arrested for stealing dog food, a series of unplanned events ensue. Wendy encounters kindness from some strangers and harsh judgment from others as she desperately searches for her dog. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, we won’t reveal the ending here. We will say that Wendy and Lucy is a film that takes place in the harsh light of reality, where the unemployment rate is high and people are unable to escape untenable conditions. Oscilloscope Laboratories appreciates rich characters crafted by gifted storytellers like Reichardt. They also distributed her 2011 follow-up film, Meek’s Cutoff, which again stars Michelle Williams.
Exit Through the Gift Shop, a PDA release, captured the attention of both the film and art worlds. With the director credit going to the mysterious street artist Banksy, (whom no one has ever seen to this day), this documentary is about Thierry Guetta, an eccentric French shop keeper who has shot 1000 hours of footage attempting to make a film about the street graffiti scene and Banksy himself, but winds up becoming the subject of a film edited by Banksy from Guetta’s raw footage. After a series of meetings, Banksy takes over filming himself and follows Guetta’s path to creating street art of his own. The film features one of the most exhilarating and baffling art exhibitions in art history. Staged in an old CBS television studio, it includes a painted and bejeweled elephant and is attended by celebrities like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Does the film deal in real life or art? The answer doesn’t really matter. Nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, Exit Through the Gift Shop is an amusing guerilla-style look into an extraordinary world. This kind of film has become calling card of the Oscilloscope Laboratories’ DVD library: insanely original, daring and utterly entertaining.
The Messenger is a war movie without the combat, but every bit as gripping as Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. It provides an entirely different look at the aftermath of the Iraq War and the lingering effects on the soldiers and civilians whose lives have been touch by its chaos. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson (nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) give stunning performances as two soldiers charged with the difficult duty of notifying family members that their loved ones have died in battle. Director and co-writer Oren Moverman slowly shows the two men ease into a friendship, tentative at first, but soon the two began to rely on the other to deal with their grief, anger, and disillusionment. This compelling and nuanced drama lost out to that other Iraq war film, The Hurt Locker, the award juggernaut of the season, but still managed to get nominations for Harrelson and for Moverman and Alessandro Camon (Best Original Screenplay). With the release of The Messenger, Oscilloscope Laboratories solidified its status as one of the top emerging independent distribution companies.
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