The early 2000s was a good time for American indie films. Known as the "mumblecore" film movement, independent filmmakers grew in popularity, making their films strong competitors against the slate of big-budget blockbusters.
But what exactly is mumblecore, and what’s the state of the movement now? Anyone who is a fan of the Duplass Brothers, Safdie Brothers, or of Greta Gerwig’s early works as a writer, director, and actor knows the genre. This indie film movement is ingrained into American filmmaking culture, so keep reading to understand the power of the mumblecore film movement.
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'Jeff, Who Lives at Home'Credit: Paramount Vantage
What is the mumblecore film movement?
Mumblecore is an independent film movement that originated in the early 2000s. It is often characterized by naturalistic acting and dialogue that is occasionally improvised. The plots focused on a group of people in their 20s or 30s dealing with terrible jobs or unhappy relationships with friends, families, or themselves.
The term was coined in 2005 at the SXSW Festival when Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, and Jay and Mark Duplass all had films with similar characteristics. Like the relaxed and moody aesthetic that it has, “mumblecore” presents itself as all lowercase despite being a genre of film.
Arising from the digital revolution and self-marketing possibilities of the internet, the DIY style of these filmmakers is all about making films without excuses. Mumblecore was about showing the older millennial perspective of the world as they adopted and adapted to the Web 2.0 era.
'Drinking Buddies'Credit: Magnolia Pictures
The influences and characteristics of mumblecore
There is a good chance that you lived through mumblecore and might have unconsciously noted this important and quietly revolutionary film movement in your cinema history. Despite the movement being fairly recent, it has already gone through significant changes.
The genre has numerous influences, often pulling from French New Wave, the BBC mockumentary The Office, and reality TV shows like The Real World. The indie movement of the 90s also influenced mumblecore filmmakers. Slacker and Clerksdefined a unique style of filmmaking that the mumblecore filmmakers adopted. Typical conventions were thrown out of the window in favor of a more indie/punk-rock aesthetic.
Some of the defining characteristics of mumblecore include:
- Naturalistic dialogue and performances
- Non-professional actors
- Heavy use of improvisation
- Low budget
- Filming in real locations
- Shot digitally
- Plots revolving around trouble articulating desires and problems in romantic relationships
Another often-cited influence on mumblecore is the proliferation of cheaper filmmaking technology in the era, such as the Panasonic AG-DVX100 video camera and accessible and easily affordable video editing software like Final Cut Pro.
Because the equipment was relatively new, cheap, and digital, the films have a rough edge to them.
Sounds that other filmmakers may leave out are left in the film to create a more natural world where people don’t always have the smoothest actions or know what to say.
The loose camerawork combined with the natural-sounding world of mumblecore films helps to make these films feel like you’re watching old friends trying to navigate the strangeness of their lives.
A brief history of mumblecore
The movement emerged around the early 2000s just as DIY filmmaking was becoming more readily accessible thanks to affordable video cameras and editing software that could be used by anyone with a Mac.
“This is the first time, mostly because of technology, that someone like me can go out and make a film with no money and no connections,” said indie filmmaker Aaron Katz to the New York Times.
Many of the early mumblecore films had budgets of less than $1 million. It has been believed that mumblecore is responsible for the American indie film renaissance.
Andrew Dujalski, who is widely considered to be the “Godfather of mumblecore,” set the template with his 2002 film Funny Ha Ha.
'Funny Ha Ha'Credit: Fox Lorber
The 2005 SXSW Festival screened a number of other films that came to be considered part of the mumblecore movement, including Bujalski's second film, Mutual Appreciation, The Puffy Chair by Mark Duplass & Jay Duplass, and Kissing on the Mouth by Joe Swanberg.
Eric Masunaga, a sound editor who has worked with Bujalski, coined the term “mumblecore” one night at a bar during the festival after he was asked to describe the similarities between those three films. Bujalski brought the term to the public consciousness after using it in an interview with IndieWire.
“It was an obnoxious name nobody liked and it was meant to be a joke,” director Joe Swanberg told the New York times. “But we haven’t been able to get rid of it.”
The films that are noted as influential in the mumblecore movement have aimless plots with simple motivations reflecting the anxiety-free filmmaking that these directors were creating. Because of the low budgets and lack of studio backing, many of these directors didn’t care if their films sold or not.
Instead, they just wanted their work to exist in the world for the audience. It was the filmmaker being fully transparent about their intentions and feelings to an audience who could easily relate to the character’s fears and anxieties of adult life.
'Appropriate Behavior'Credit: Peccadillo Pictures
The evolution of mumblecore
Most films are trying to replicate the real world, but mumblecore did it the best. It felt raw and real, yet distant like a grainy photo you took on your Motorola Razr.
But these days, that quality of filmmaking doesn’t capture our modern reality in the same way. Instead, the movement has influenced both big-budget films and the new share of American indie filmmaking, known as American Neorealism.
Big filmmakers like Christopher Nolan are pushing for a realistic soundscape in their films. The dialogue in Tenetis hard to understand because it would be hard for anyone to hear what someone behind a mask was saying. It's a level of realism that is being explored in big Hollywood movies that haven’t been explored before.
While mumblecore doesn’t truly exist anymore, Sean Baker is leading the movement’s little sibling, American Neorealism, by filming movies primarily on smartphones and casting local, nonprofessional actors from small towns in Middle America. He embraces improvision, on-location shoots, and adapting to location or character mistakes, finding ways to turn those mistakes into character-defining moments.
Mumblecore isn’t truly gone, but it has evolved to fit the higher-quality technology that is more accessible than ever in this new era of the internet and technology. It's a movement that promotes working with what you have, and that is something we will and should never stop celebrating.
'Tangerine'Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Best mumblecore movies to watch
There are dozens of mumblecore films out there, so which ones should you watch if you want to adopt some of the filmmaking techniques for your own style?
Here are 10 mumblecore films to check out:
- Drinking Buddies (2013)
- The Puffy Chair (2005)
- Greenberg (2010)
- Mutual Appreciation (2006)
- Daddy Longlegs (2010)
- Joshy (2016)
- Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011)
- Appropriate Behavior (2014)
- Funny Ha Ha (2002)
- Frances Ha(2012)
Do you have any films, actors, or directors from the mumblecore movement that you think should be mentioned? Let us know who we should recognize and celebrate in the comments below!