A popular subgenre of independent filmmaking, mumblecore films are defined by a brand of naturalism that binds the acting and the aesthetic quality of the work. Influenced by filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky and films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker, works belonging to the mumblecore genre often explore the lives of individuals who float around aimlessly in the urban jungles of modernity.
One of the pioneers of mumblecore cinema, Andrew Bujalski said: “That’s one of the things I find exciting about cinema, in general — all art, really, but movies in particular are just extraordinary time machines. And when you’re building a time machine, you can’t be too conscious of what you’re doing. I mean, I wasn’t thinking, This’ll be a great portal for future citizens.”
Adding, “You do hope that the movie will stick around. You hope that it will ultimately serve that purpose. Hopefully, you make something that, if it’s about human beings, will stay relevant, no matter how much the culture changes. But it’s going to have its culture written into it in ways that you could never understand or anticipate.”
As a part of our weekly feature on world cinema, we examine the evolution of the mumblecore genre in order to better understand how these films were different from their contemporaries.
10 essential films from the ‘mumblecore’ genre:
The Puffy Chair (Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass – 2005)
The Puffy Chair is a mumblecore road film that investigates human memory, the transitory legacy of physical space and the eternal occurrence of nostalgia. It does all of this and more by telling the story of a man who buys a replica of a lounge chair that his father used to own as a birthday gift for his dad.
“I’m kind of a non-lover of road movies,” Jay Duplass said. “There’s only one I liked, National Lampoon’s Vacation from 1983. But my brother, Jay, and I really wanted to saddle the movie in a strong genre. We’d come out of the short movie world, and we knew how to make a 10-minute film work. Why not string together eight 10-minute scenes? The road-movie form seemed right.”
Mutual Appreciation (Andrew Bujalski – 2005)
Made by the “godfather of mumblecore” who is often credited as the filmmaker of the first mumblecore film ever made – Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation overwhelms the viewer with its undeniable ennui while presenting the case of a group of young people who try to find their place in the world.
“Watching Mutual Appreciation now feels more personal than watching it back then; I’m kind of communing with that 20-something kid who made the movie,” the filmmaker reflected. “It’s not something I’m pulling off the shelf all the time. but we had the opportunity to do this fantastic new 2K scan of it, and while we were doing post-production on that, I spent time watching it again. There was real pleasure in revisiting it, everyone’s contributions, everything the cast and crew brought to it.”
Frownland (Ronald Bronstein – 2007)
Frownland marked Ronald Bronstein’s remarkable directorial debut. The film stars Dore Mann as Keith, a sketchy salesman who peddles coupons to people suffering from multiple sclerosis. Bleak and uncompromising in its vision, Frownland is a raw character study of “a burbling troll in his underwear.”
Bronstein explained, “I wanted to make something that felt really intimate and it’s funny how a sort of crummy, slipshod aesthetic can do that. Sort of like the feeling you get from reading some hand-scrawled Xeroxed fanzine, where the sloppiness of the presentation becomes a kind of expressive asset to the work, rather than something you have to excuse.”
Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins – 2008)
Barry Jenkins is famous now for his Academy Award-winning masterpiece Moonlight but this 2008 romantic drama was his first real breakthrough in the world of cinema. It asks political and philosophical questions through a one-night stand between two young African-Americans who try to make sense of gentrification and the new San Francisco.
Jenkins recalled, “I was at a point in my life when I needed to take a risk — on myself and on my friends. But now I’m beyond that. Now it’s time to move on to the next challenge, which is: Who am I as a filmmaker? What kind of movies do I want to make? What kind of movies am I going to make? And again, that’s another reason why I kind of want to just step away from Medicine, why I don’t want to go out on the road and really try to pound it. I think this movie — or my relation to it — is done.”
The Pleasure of Being Robbed (Joshua Safdie – 2008)
Before the widespread critical acclaim of Good Time and Uncut Gems, there existed this 2008 drama which was Joshua Safdie’s directorial debut. The film stars Eleonore Hendricks as Eleonore, a lonely kleptomaniac living in New York City. It ended up winning the Independent Visions Competition award and the Heineken Red Star award.
Benny Safdie said, “Both of us are gamblers in the sense that with every movie we’ve put everything we have into the movie and parlayed it onto the next movie. And if that one fails, ‘Hey, you’re screwed.’ So I can relate to putting everything on the line. But in the sense of actual gambling, Josh is a heavy gambler. He can get into it.”
Harmony and Me (Bob Byington – 2009)
Harmony and Me stars Justin Rice as Harmony, a young songwriter who uses his break-up as a gateway to misery tourism. The film is a great example of what American independent filmmaking is capable of, capturing the humour as well as the anguish of misguided youth.
While talking about his influences, Byington mentioned Harmony Korine as a major one: “He was in my mind’s eye when I started. I had seen him at Telluride in the mid-90s, and his personality had a big impact on me. His demeanour in the world was one of the inspirations for the character.
“That was blended in with seeing Justin Rice in Mutual Appreciation, and sort of writing it for him in my mind’s eye also. And then I was also writing it for the guy who was in Registered Sex Offender, Gabriel McIver. But then Justin basically emerged out of that rubble.”
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin – 2011)
Starring the likes of Elizabeth Olsen and Sarah Paulson, Sean Durkin’s 2011 dramatic thriller tells the gripping tale of a young woman’s mental turbulence after escaping from the clutches of a dangerous cult. The film earned several prestigious accolades, including awards at Sundance Film Festival among others.
Durkin elaborated, “I know my goal was to draw in without any judgement. I try not to judge any characters or cast anything on to them other than their actions. Obviously, when bad things happen, that’s different. But I didn’t want it to be this clearly bad thing where you would say, ‘Why would Martha do that?'”
The Colour Wheel (Alex Ross Perry – 2011)
Alex Ross Perry’s screwball black comedy features a road trip undertaken by two arguing siblings whose lives devolve into something unimaginable. Shot on 16mm film, The Colour Wheel received critical acclaim for its unusual narrative and its stylised storytelling.
Perry commented, “I just think there’s something really, seriously wrong that upsets me and disgusts me about a certain generational malady that is sweeping people in their late twenties and early thirties right now. I feel like a lot of people refuse to try. I had these questions for myself. And what I wanted to explore is, why was it so important to me to try?”
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach – 2012)
One of the most famous entries on this list, Noah Baumbach’s 2012 comedy stars Greta Gerwig as a young woman who struggles to accept the challenges of adulthood like employment and evolving friendships. For her brilliant performance as Frances, Gerwig received a Golden Globe Award nomination.
“I wanted it to feel like a first film, quick and scaled down. That’s the spirit of it – a certain kind of regeneration. But it’s a kind of starting again, as opposed to starting for the first time,” Baumbach said.
“In making this, I was led by Greta. Things were clear to me in large part because of knowing Greta. And it became clear to me that I was motivated by a desire to protect this character. I wanted the movie to be as buoyant as she is.”
All the Light in the Sky (Joe Swanberg – 2012)
Another major figure in the mumblecore landscape, Joe Swanberg’s 2012 drama stars Jane Adams as a struggling actress. When her young niece visits her, she comes face to face with the reality of her own mortality and encounters an existential dilemma.
Swanberg explained, “We make a comparison between this actress who’s middle aged and the sun, which is a middle-aged star as well. We have the environmental movement tied in with this idea that by not utilising these talented actors who’ve gained so much insight and wisdom in their career, we’re wasting valuable natural resources. I hope the movie gets people thinking about how we can learn from these people by utilising the skill sets that they’ve spent their entire lives developing.”