Anyone tired of seeing all the usual suspects at the various year-end and year-start awards can turn to the Hammer to Nail Awards, which honor the best in films made for $1 million or less released in the calendar year. The site has polled a handful of contributing writers and come up with their 17 best films of the year:
1. “Listen Up Philip” (Alex Ross Perry)
2. “It Felt Like Love” (Eliza Hittman)
3. “See You Next Tuesday” (Drew Tobia)
4. “Blue Ruin” (Jeremy Saulnier)
5. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (Ana Lily Amirpour)
6. “Crimes Against Humanity” (Jerzy Rose)
7. “Stop the Pounding Heart” (Roberto Minervini) (tie)
7. “A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness” (Ben Rivers/Ben Russell) (tie)
8. “Soft in the Head” (Nathan Silver)
9. “Land Ho!” (Aaron Katz/Martha Stephens)
10. “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” (Josephine Decker)
11. “Hide Your Smiling Faces” (Daniel Patrick Carbone)
12. “Hellaware” (Michael M. Bilandic)
13. “War Story” (Mark Jackson)
14. “Palo Alto” (Gia Coppola) (tie)
14. “Ape” (Joel Potrykus) (tie)
15. “Memphis” (Tim Sutton)
Voters included Hammer to Nail editors Michael Tully and Mike S. Ryan and filmmaker Alex Ross Perry (who, it is stressed, was not allowed to vote for his own film, nor were other contributors allowed to vote for films they had any involvement in). Other films receiving vote include Joe Swanberg’s “Happy Christmas,” Charlie McDowell’s mind-bending “The One I Love,” Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child” and Zack Parker’s criminally underseen thriller “Proxy.” Here, Nelson Kim writes about Hammer to Nail’s number one pick:
Although indebted to the work of Philip Roth in ways both superficial (the title font; the main character’s first name) and profound (its reckoning of the costs of artistic obsession; its use of shifting POVs as both plot twist and vehicle for moral insight), Alex Ross Perry’s third feature fuses its influences and inspirations into a singular, stunningly assured creation. It’s the story of an artist coming into his own, as well as a demonstration of same. Pulsing with wit and energy—why can’t more movies move this fast while being this smart?—the film offers up a gleefully cynical portrait of the writer as a young prick. On that level alone, “Listen Up Philip” is one of the year’s best comedies, but Perry takes the tale in some surprising directions. It becomes deeper and wiser and more tender and empathetic, while remaining resolutely unsentimental to the end.
I’m 100% with Kim on “Listen Up Philip,” which never downplays the cruelty that its central characters are capable of without denying them empathy; Perry recognizes how difficult it is for young (and old) misanthropes to pull themselves out of their own bullshit.
The only film that came close to taking the top spot from “Listen Up Philip” (it was only one point away) was “It Felt Like Love,” which Susanna LoCascio praises here:
Eliza Hittman’s debut feature about a teenage girl’s tentative stabs at love is the sharpest coming-of-age story I’ve seen in years. These types of films often fetishize adolescent girls like they’re ripe fruit waiting to be plucked from a tree. Hittman challenges this myth and dares to tell a much different story. “It Felt Like Love” is deeply emotional without being at all romantic, the frames practically quivering with lust, longing, danger, and violence (beautifully captured by cinematographer Sean Porter). Hittman brings a lived authenticity to her film, from the backwaters and bus routes of deep Brooklyn to the cast of local teens (this is as far from artisanal Condoburg as you can get). Under her guidance, lead actress Gina Piersanti gives a startling and heartbreaking performance. Though “It Felt Like Love” was criminally underseen during its brief theatrical run, the film has definitely distinguished Eliza Hittman as a director to watch. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
One of the more striking titles on the list is Ana Lily Amirpour’s vampire movie “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” which impressed Annapurna founder Megan Ellison enough that she’s funding Amirpour’s next film. Paul Sbrizzi writes:
Ana Lily Amirpour’s sparse, poetic script is brilliantly performed by Arash Marandi as the doe-eyed man-child and Sheila Vand as the titular “girl”—a vampire re-imagined as chador-clad avenging angel. Their first encounter comes to a boil in a terrifyingly slow, tender, menacing embrace. The film is a feat of style, conjuring a mythical version of Iran (in Taft, California) in alpha-state black-and-white. For her debut feature, Amirpour sets up an expectation of female victimhood and promptly turns it on its head; she rebuilds genre conventions from the ground up in loving, subversive detail, finding startling imagery, clever juxtapositions and layers of meaning.
Finally, Hammer to Nail also asked director David Gordon Green to write an appreciation of Eddie Rouse, the talented character actor best remembered for playing the hot-tempered Damascus in Green’s “George Washington,” who died of liver failure late in 2014. Here’s part of what Green wrote:
I met him at a bowling alley in Winston-Salem. I was trying to get his son to be in a short film of mine. He was living with an old pal of his from the theater days. When I started talking to him he got all pumped and said his kid wasn’t allowed to be in my movie because he was getting into too much trouble at school but he wanted to be in it himself. There is so much about Eddie’s life, I wouldn’t begin to be able to tackle it in a paragraph. People were always asking me, “Who is that guy?