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The 9 Best Indie Films with Interlocking Story Lines (and 4 of the Worst)

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire June 19, 2014 at 12:36PM

"Third Person" jumps from Paris to Rome to New York as it traces the hidden connections between three very different men. Here's our list of the nine best hyperlinked narratives and the four that didn't make it work.
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Liam Neeson and Olivia Wilde in "Third Person"

People are still talking about that unfortunate year at the Oscars when Paul Haggis' "Crash" won Best Picture over "Brokeback Mountain." The 2004 winner is here on our list (check the bottom portion), but this week, Paul Haggis returns to the same form with "Third Person," which jumps from Paris to Rome to New York as it traces the hidden connections between three very different men played by Liam Neeson, Adrien Brody and James Franco. That got us thinking about our favorite films that have multiple story lines that either run simultaneously, or are interconnected in some way. Here's our list of nine of the best indies that use hyperlinked narratives, and four that aren't so memorable. Let us know your favorites in the comments. "Third Person" opens June 20.

"Ajami" Dir. Scandar Copti, Yaron Shandi (2009)

"Ajami" is the result of an astonishing collaboration between Palestinian Scandar Copti and Israeli Yaron Shani. The multi-character masterpiece contains five story lines playing out in non-chronological order with events often being shown from multiple varying perspectives. Set in Jaffa, Israel, the Ophir Award-winning film is narrated by a young boy, Nasri, who watches on as the world around him seemingly tumbles into anarchy: An Arab-Israeli family face ruin via a petty vendetta; a teenager is illegally employed in the Palestinian territory of Nabalus to pay for his mother's surgery; a Jewish cop becomes distracted on the job after his younger brother goes missing; a Palestinian cook hopes to marry a Jewish girl from Tel Aviv while another falls for a Christian. Incredibly, the story lines all merge at certain points; their significance and meaning altered and empowered by their build up after one another. As Eric Hynes wrote in our review, "'Ajami' is essentially a sustained gaze into a widening, all-encompassing trap. Life is cheap, death is random, and no one is safe." (Oliver MacMahon)

"Amores Perros" Dir. Alejandro Iñárritu (2000)

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Guillermo Arriaga are two of the strongest forces ever to emerge from Mexican cinema. The film, which translates to “Love’s a Bitch” and is often dubbed “the Mexican ‘Pulp Fiction,’” was the writer-director duo’s first collaboration in what evolved into a trilogy of interwoven narrative films with "21 Grams" and "Babel." "Amores Perros" was a prodigious directorial debut for Inarritu, showcasing a mastery of the craft that directors scarcely achieve with their sophomore efforts. The plot hinges on a tragic accident that brings three disparate characters together, though each narrative thread is individually developed and self-contained with its impassioned performances and complex relationships. Inarritu endeavors to explore the film's themes--love, morality, classism, and loyalty (epitomized in the man-dog relationship)--with harrowing extremes. Pain and loss ultimately illuminate these virtues, and the result is a heart-wrenching portrait of life and strife in Mexico City. The interwoven narratives grant the film its universal appeal. (Emily Buder)

"Cloud Atlas"

"Cloud Atlas" Dir. Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer (2012)

One of the most expensive independently produced features of all time, "Cloud Atlas" not only went to new lengths for funding, but it also took the idea of interlocking, ensemble stories and added and additional twist. The film features six plot lines set across different eras spanning from the 19th century Pacific Islands, to modern day London, to 22nd century Korea, to a post-apocalyptic future. But what made "Cloud Atlas" even more interesting was the choice to have the massive cast (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Doona Bae, Jim Broadbent, Ben Winshaw and Susan Sarandon) portray varying characters in each of the time periods, suggesting that their souls were in truth being reincarnated over and over again, repeatedly connecting with the same lives. That cross-casting earned the film some criticism for putting the actors in different degrees of makeup to convincingly play varying races. "Cloud Atlas" remains polarizing for that reason, but no one can deny that it's a stunning representation of how souls connect through space and time and maintains the idea that science fiction, while featuring technology or futuristic settings, should also have a heart.

(Casey Cipriani)

"Do The Right Thing" Dir. Spike Lee (1989)

Spike Lee"s urban desert drama "Do The Right Thing" is one of the most cogent pieces of cinema about racism in the United States that has ever been produced. The film takes place on a hot summer day and examines the lives of a myriad of Brooklyn residents who live on the same block. Although each of the residents start off by minding their own business, a series of circumstances lead to a violent collision within the community. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, "Do The Right Thing" has managed to withstand the test of time because Lee examines racism in both the sociological and ideological contexts. The narrative not only exposes racist behavior, but perhaps more importantly, it also demonstrates how the issue of racism has become increasingly systemic in the years since the Civil Rights movement. Even as people have adjusted their behavior and attitudes, institutions have not. (Shipra Gupta)

"Gangs of Wasseypur" Dir. Anurag Kashyap (2012) 

If "The Godfather" (parts one and two) and "Goodfellas" had a baby -- and then that baby was educated in the neorealist language of Satyajit Ray -- said baby would be the "Gangs of Wasseypur." Clocking in at 319 minutes, "Gangs of Wasseypur" is an epic two-part crime drama from visionary writer-director Anurag Kashyup. The film chronicles the rivalry between three families, spanning over two generations, as they battle over control of local government and resources in the small town of Wasseypur, located in the state of Bihar. Although the narrative is primarily driven by two characters -- the father and son of one of the three families -- Kashyap includes lengthy asides with other characters whose desires and actions, at some point or another, factor into the larger struggle between the three families. (Shipra Gupta) 


"Magnolia" Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (1999)

Paul Thomas Anderson once said that he’ll never make a movie better than his third feature, "Magnolia." The film, which clocks in at a bit over three hours, features a large ensemble cast, including Anderson regulars such as Julianne Moore, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in a series of interconnected, but independent story lines. The film epitomizes a successful multi-narrative structure and introduces tons of characters whose lives intersect in some way or another. Still, what makes "Magnolia" so successful is that none of these arcs seems extraneous. They are thematically sound sequences that look at the roles happiness, forgiveness and guilt play in life. For most it would be a pretty hard thing to achieve, but Anderson's complex film is a staple of the multi-narrative structure. (Eric Eidelstein)

"Pulp Fiction"

"Pulp Fiction" Dir. Quentin Tarantino (1994)

"Pulp Fiction" is the movie that told the world that non-linear, episodic and jigsaw puzzle screenplays could work and could be huge hits. This Palme D'Or winner launched Quentin Tarantino into the filmmaking stratosphere overnight and announced the resurrection of John Travolta. While the whole picture of the film is fascinating and well executed, it is the small, disjointed vignettes that we fall in love with. Christopher Walken "hiding" a watch, Travolta and Uma Thurman killing it on the dance-floor or even that iconic dialogue in the diner are what make the work so unforgettable. (Brandon Latham)

"Short Cuts" Dir. Robert Altman (1993)
Perhaps the ultimate example of the interlocking narrative feature is Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," which features 22 leading characters spread out through loosely intertwined stories set in Los Angeles. "Short Cuts" stars the likes of Julianne Moore, Robert Downey Jr., Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mathew Modine, Jack Lemmon and even musicians Huey Lewis and Tom Waits, and many, many more. Based on the works of Raymond Carver, "Short Cuts" plays more like a super-cut of these parallel, yet distinctly flavored narratives. (Brandon Latham)

"Traffic" Dir. Steven Soderbergh (2000)

Soderbergh won the Best Director Oscar for his interlocking crime drama, "Traffic," which examines the illegal drug trade from a number of perspectives: a user, an enforcer, a politician and a trafficker. With a top notch cast that includes Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro and Don Cheadle, "Traffic" explored the dirty side of the war on drugs that many refuse to acknowledge. Soderbergh's choice to saturate the different story lines with their own color palettes (blues in Ohio, reds in San Diego and grainy yellows in Mexico) gave each setting its own mood and feel, and was one of the most praised elements of the film. (Casey Cipriani)

And four of the worst...

"The Air I Breathe" Dir. Jieho Lee (2007)

Jieho Lee's directorial debut "The Air I Breathe" is a sad mess. With a slapdash cast including the likes of Sarah-Michelle Gellar, Kevin Bacon, Julie Delpy, Brendan Fraser, Andy Garcia, Emile Hirsch and Forest Whitaker and an estimated budget exceeding ten million dollars, the crime drama insults the entire reasoning behind hyperlink cinema. It is pretentious in the most excruciating way imaginable. Based on a Chinese proverb representing "four emotional cornerstones of life" – Happiness, Pleasure, Sorrow, and Love each given their own vignette and protagonist – it is inadmissibly and unintentionally comical, and can't (no matter how much you try) be taken seriously. Fraser is a hitman who can see the future, Garcia is mob boss named Fingers, Gellar is plainly unlikable and Whitaker just loves butterflies. Need I go on? Basically, "The Air I Breathe" isn't just unbelievable, it's tasteless trash that should be forgotten.

(Oliver MacMahon)

"Crash"
"Crash" Dir. Paul Haggis (2005)

The movie that let Paul Haggis go make a decade's worth of other bland melodrama is the popular pick as the worst Oscar Best Picture winner to date (some of us are still a little bitter that it defeated "Brokeback Mountain"). A mix of interconnected stories that preach Haggis's distaste for racism, "Crash" amounts to little more than an overly sentimental vehicle for the likes of Matt Dillon and, yes, Ludacris. With inconsistent characters and writing heavily reliant on the prejudices it warns against, Haggis's effort falls short of its ambition. (Brandon Latham)

"Hereafter" Dir. Clint Eastwood (2010)

The opening flood scene in "Hereafter" was Clint Eastwood's first use of computer generated imagery in a movie. It works fine, and he is a talented filmmaker, but it is a little sad that watching fake water crush a fake palm tree is the best thing about a movie. Tied together by Matt Damon's protagonist, a medium who once made a living contacting the deceased, "Hereafter" is a powerfully unbelievable melodrama filled with just enough cliché to keep the wheels from falling off, not that we'd mind that.

(Brandon Latham)

"Southland Tales" Dir. Richard Kelly (2006)
 
Somewhere among the chaos that is Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales," Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson says, "I've never considered suicide. I'm a pimp and pimps don't commit suicide." He then winks. It's a bafflingly glorious statement and truly embodies what this ridiculous, sprawling nonsense film stands for – absolutely nothing. As Jeff Reichert correctly wrote in Indiewire’s review, Kelly's follow-up to the wonderful 'Donnie Darko' plays “like a terribly conceived single-theme episode of ‘Saturday Night Live.” From Justin Timberlake singing The Killers' "All These Things That I've Done" to Sarah Michelle Gellar's smash hit song "Teen Horniness is Not a Crime" airing on a television to unexplained dwarves, "Southland Tales" simply does not play to any specific audience and it’s collection of interlocking stories will ultimately leave you unsatisfied. It's way too wrapped up in self-satisfaction, Kelly clearly getting his giggles through this expensive 'post-cinematic' experiment, to make anyone feel or emote in the slightest. (Oliver MacMahon)

This article is related to: Lists, Crash, Third Person, Pulp Fiction, Cloud Atlas, Magnolia, Do The Right Thing, Traffic