December is upon us, and the studios are breaking out the big guns: The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks, August: Osage County, Her, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty will all vie for Oscar gold (was that a Variety enough turn of phrase for you?) in the coming months. But as usual, the indies have some interesting pictures on the runway as well, including a few thankfully sour antidotes to all that “holiday cheer.”
Inside Llewyn Davis
Release: December 6 Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham, Adam Driver, Justin Timberlake
The Coen brothers’ muted, low-key latest introduces us to Llewyn Davis (Isaac), an also-ran folk singer in ‘60s-era Greenwich Village, and shambles through a few days with him. The Coens beautifully and convincingly recreate the streets and coffee shops where he dwells, and seem intoxicated with the look and feel of those surroundings. It’s a gray, dour, yet strangely riveting effort, masterfully capturing a time, a place, a sound, and a particularly stubborn type of character.
Release: December 6 Director: Josh and Benny Safdie
The Safdie Brothers, whose Daddy Longlegs was about the closest thing we’re gonna get to a Cassavetes movie in this millennium, move into non-fiction to tell the story of Cooke, a highly ranked high school basketball player (he was considered better than LaBron James and Carmello Anthony) who never made it to the NBA — and why.
Some Velvet Morning
Release: December 13 Director: Neil LaBute Cast: Stanley Tucci, Alice Eve
After a decade spent on films mostly bad (The Wicker Man) or baffling (that Death at a Funeral remake) writer/director Neil LaBute makes a naked play to go back to his talky, nasty roots with this battle-of-the-sexes two-hander, shot in eight days. The reach for former glory may be obvious, but it works; it’s merciless, unblinking, and occasionally shocking, as Alice Eve and Stanley Tucci (as, respectively, a call girl and the man who fell for her) talk, and talk, and overthink, and take offense, and talk some more, with the possibility of psychological and/or physical violence perpetually in the air. Those who loathed LaBute’s breakthrough works will find nothing new to love here. Those of us who found him a bracing and effective rabble-rouser will be glad to hear he’s made such a punchy return to form.
Release: December 13 Director: Abel Ferrara Cast: Zoë Lund, Albert Sinkys, Darlene Stuto
Drafthouse Films does it again — after blowing our minds with re-releases of eye-boggling baddies like The Visitor and Miami Connection and buried treasures like Wake in Fright, the retro distribution arm has restored Abel Ferrara’s 1981 cult classic to all of its grimy, shocking, uncut glory.
Here Comes the Devil
Release: December 13 Director: Adrián García Bogliano Cast: Francisco Barreiro, Laura Caro, Alan Martinez
Audiences at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and Austin’s Fantastic Fest came out buzzing about this Mexican indie that melds modern horror with ‘70s-style psychological terror, with flourishes of midnight-movie surrealism that should appeal to fans of both scary movies and oddball experimentation.
The Crash Reel
Release: December 13 Director: Lucy Walker
Lucy Walker’s sports doc was one of the opening night selections at this year’s Sundance film festival, and has been gathering positive buzz all year. Walker tells the story of Kevin Pearce, a snowboarder who was badly injured in 2009, via home movie and competitive footage, following the athlete on his long road to recovery.
Release: December 13 Director: Eric Heisserer Cast: Paul Walker, Genesis Rodriguez, Nick Gomez, Judd Lormand
The death of Paul Walker comes a mere two weeks before the release of this indie drama, which garnered good reviews at SXSW this year and found the Fast/Furious star flexing his acting muscles as a New Orleans father trying desperately to keep his baby girl alive in the messy aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Release: December 20 Director: Asghar Farhadi Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa
The great Iranian director Asghar Farhadi follows up his Best Foreign Film Oscar win for A Separation with this French/Iranian drama, in which he creates another story of intense personal relationships, fiercely complicated by the political prisms through which they’re viewed. It won Farhadi the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; Bejo took the Best Actress honors.
All the Light in the Sky
Release: December 20 Director: Joe Swanberg Cast: Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, Kent Osborne, Lindsay Burdge
According to IMDb, the ever-busy Joe Swanberg directed three movies in 2013 — but one of them was Drinking Buddies, which became his biggest hit to date and the closest thing the idiosyncratic director’s had to a crossover hit. All the Light was apparently shot before it, a semi-improvised look at the life of a mid-level character actress, played by the great Jane Adams (Happiness, Hung), who is credited as a co-writer (and, presumably, put more than a little bit of herself into the role).