It’s been a couple of months since our last indie movie roundup, for the simple reason that it’s not just the majors that save their weakest releases for the first of the year; there wasn’t a whole lot to crow about at the art houses recently either, aside from 2012 holdovers. But as winter becomes spring, we’re starting to see some interesting foreign and indie releases; a quick rundown of our favorites awaits you after the jump.
The End of Love
RELEASE: March 1 (now on demand) DIRECTOR: Mark Webber CAST: Mark Webber, Shannyn Sossamon, Jason Ritter, Alia Shawkat, Michael Cera, Aubrey Plaza, Amanda Seyfried
Webber, a likable young actor you might recognize from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or For a Good Time, Call… writes, directs, and stars in this charmingly personal comedy/drama. He plays Mark, a young actor of some success who is struggling to raise his two-year-old son (played by Webber’s own boy, Isaac) after the unexpected death of the child’s mother. The kid is great, and the film is a disarmingly candid character study, where the character’s proximity to the actor playing him is an open question that keeps the audience both intrigued and uneasy. It is, on occasion, a little bit precious, but there’s an abundance of poignant and powerful moments, and Webber is a writer/director worth watching.
Beyond the Hills
RELEASE: March 8 DIRECTOR: Cristian Mungiu CAST: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga
Writer/director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) dramatizes the true story of a young woman whose attempted exorcism (though the word is never spoken in the film’s entire 150 minutes) at a Romanian monastery became a national scandal. Mungiu is less interested in the sensationalistic aspects of the story than he is in the motivation for it — why was this woman there, and why did she subject herself to this? As a writer, he has a gift for discerning what to articulate in dialogue and what to leave unsaid, for undercutting expectation, and for making his themes clear without smashing us over the head with them. Simply put, this is a story of faith, friendship, and responsibility — and the difficulty of choosing between them. Leisurely but involving, and given tremendous weight by the deeply felt (and keenly contrasted) performances of lead actresses Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur.
Somebody Up There Likes Me
RELEASE: March 8 DIRECTOR: Bob Byington CAST: Nick Offerman, Keith Poulson, Jess Weixler, Kevin Corrigan, Megan Mullally
Parks and Recreation’s Nick Offerman co-stars and co-produces this strange, prickly, and ultimately sublime absurdist comedy from writer/director Bob Byington. The story of an oddball friendship covering 35 years (in five-year increments) over the course of less than 90 minutes, Somebody moves fast, often grabbing moments rather than full scenes. But that’s the right format for Byington’s frisky comic voice; he’s got a dry sense of visual wit, filling his frames with unexplained jokes and little asides to match the non sequiturs of this dialogue. It’s an honest-to-God original, and while the descriptor “quirky” has been cheapened by marketers and junketeers, it’s about the only word that seems appropriate to summarize the weird world glimpsed here.
RELEASE: March 8 DIRECTOR: Peter Webber CAST: Matthew Fox, Tommy Lee Jones, Kaori Momoi
This true story of American forces investigating war crimes in post-WWII Japan is full of problems: subtext-free dialogue, flat supporting players, and an endless backstory for our ostensible lead, a genuinely terrible Matthew Fox. But holy cow, Tommy Lee Jones as General Douglas MacArthur. It’s unquestionably a supporting role, but he crushes it from scene one, clamping a pipe between his teeth and announcing, “Let’s show them some good old-fashioned American swagger,” and as his importance increases in the second half, the picture improves vastly, coming to a strong finish with a final meeting of two titans that amps up the emotional and historical poignancy.
Photo Credit: ©François Reumont
Philip Roth: Unmasked
RELEASE: March 13 DIRECTORS: Livia Manera and William Karel CAST: Documentary
Directors Manera and Karel aren’t out to reinvent the wheel with this bio-documentary, which is running for a week at New York’s Film Forum (free of charge, thanks to a grant) before debuting on American Masters on March 29. It’s almost exclusively talking heads, with a few photos, but one of the talking heads is the film’s subject — so they don’t have to get elaborate. Starting with his first publication in 1958 (seems appropriate; that’s his “birth”), back-tracking briefly into childhood, but mostly focusing on the discovery of his voice and evolution of his style, Unmasked is primarily noteworthy for its access to Roth — seen at work and in conversation as a warm, thoughtful, and friendly guy. The filmmakers struggle with the unenviable task of conveying a writer’s greatness cinematically, but this is a fine and engrossing profile.
RELEASE: March 15 DIRECTOR: Matteo Garrone CAST: Aniello Arena, Loredana Simioli, Nando Paone
Matteo Garrone made his name among American art house audiences with the grim 2008 crime drama Gommorah, but his follow-up is a much gentler effort; it is to Gomorroah as, say, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was to his Trainspotting. A good-natured fish seller (Aniello Arena) auditions on a lark — or what he pretends is one — for the cast of Big Brother, and is driven more than a little mad not even by fame, but by the mere promise of it. Garrone shoots in an intimate, personal style (up close, in the midst of things), which pushes the story past broad comedy and into something both more biting and poignant; up to its final moments, you’re never quite sure where it’s going to go, which is a refreshing feeling to get in a movie theater these days.
RELEASE: March 20 DIRECTOR: Megan Griffiths CAST: Jamie Chung, Beau Bridges, Scott Mechlowicz, Matt O’Leary
Harrowing, heartbreaking, and hard-to-watch, this true account of a young Korean girl’s kidnapping and life as a sex slave is honest but not exploitative. Chong Kim (Jamie Chung, very good at showing nothing but telling everything) tries to escape her captors, but quickly learns that her chances at getting away are exponentially better if she makes her way inside the organization. It’s a totally convincing procedural — her training in the workings of the business becomes, by proxy, ours — and director/co-writer Megan Griffiths finds real suspense in the tension between her survival instinct inside the organization and her desire to get out of it. How do you do the “right thing” when you’ve been so wronged?
RELEASE: March 29 DIRECTOR: Rodney Ascher CAST: Documentary
The best movie-lover’s movie in years, this sometimes uproarious, sometimes ridiculous, entirely fascinating documentary examines the subtext of Kubrick’s The Shining, with various theorists, critics, and enthusiasts claiming the horror picture to be everything from an apologia to the American Indian to a confession of Kubrick’s involvement in the fakery of the moon landing. But it’s not just about King and Kubrick. In its home stretch, director Rodney Ascher shifts into a sly commentary on the entire act of criticism and analysis — of the line between the insightful and the insane. The result is a brainy blast, a witty and funny doc that’s a cinephile’s dream.
RELEASE: March 29 DIRECTOR: Quentin Dupieux CAST: Jack Plotnick, Eric Judor, Alexis Dziena, Steve Little, William Fichtner
The latest from writer/director/editor/cinematographer Quentin Dupieux is seriously strange (no surprise there; his previous film, Rubber, was about a killer tire), but in an absurd and enjoyable way; it’s loaded with surrealistic imagery and oddball dialogue, all played in admirably deadpan key. The schizo climax threatens to get out of Dupieux’s control (even compared to the rest of the picture), but the conclusion is surprisingly warm and successful. Dry, weird, and frequently funny.
Those are our recommendations for March; what are you looking forward to?