At risk of getting all post-Oscar hyperbolic, I have a bit of good news: this is one of the best months for independent movies in a long, long time. Of the 11 films I had the chance to check out in preparation for this month’s indie guide, every single one is at least worth your time, and several are a good deal better than that; they offer a wide range of experiences, from familial comedy to baroque suspense to penetrating documentary to, well, Wes Anderson. (He’s kind of his own experience.) Our many, many recommendations for March movie-going are after the jump.
Awful Nice Release Date: March 7 Director: Todd Sklar Cast: James Pumphrey, Alex Rennie, Christopher Meloni
Two adult brothers with a (to put it mildly) strained relationship are thrown back together after their father’s death in this wry and satisfying comedy from co-writer/director Todd Sklar. James Pumphrey and Alex Rennie are blessed with terrific chemistry and sharp comic timing, and Sklar’s sense of storytelling is likably weird. The supporting roles are mostly played way too broadly (Chris Meloni seems to think he’s still in Wet Hot American Summer), and the lightweight Odd Couple vibe can’t quite sustain the pat, serious turn towards the end. But when it zeroes in on its central characters, there are laughs (and a little bit of pain) to spare.
Bethlehem Release Date: March 7 Director: Yuval Adler Cast: Tsahi Halevi, Shadi Mar’I, Hitham Omari, Michal Shtamler, Tarik Kopty
A.O. Scott called this Israeli thriller a “West Bank Wire,” and while that’s painting with a pretty broad brush, the comparison is fairly apt; first-time director Yuval Adler weaves a morally challenging and narratively complex tale of Israeli Secret Service agents and their Palestinian informants, specifically one sympathetic cop and his key contact, the younger brother of a notorious terrorist. There’s plenty of food for thought about the cycle of violence, where each act is retribution for a previous offense which simultaneously begets another one, but it’s ultimately about this cop and this kid, carefully setting up a high-stakes confrontation that pushes their trust to its limits. Immersive and immediate, and its closing scenes are almost unbearable.
The Grand Budapest Hotel Release Date: March 7 Director: Wes Anderson Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronana, Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray
Wes Anderson’s latest is a delightfully snappy screwball romp, spinning the decade-spanning, story-within-a-story yarn of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, never better), the impeccable concierge of the title establishment. When Gustave is accused of the murder of a favorite guest, he escapes from prison, goes on the lam, and proves his own innocence. So it’s something of an action movie, really, but with a welcome jolt of silliness, and if you’ve ever wondered what a Wes Anderson shoot-out looks like, you’ll finally have the chance to find out here. (The short answer: inspired.)
Grand Piano Release Date: March 7 Director: Eugenio Mira Cast: Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé, Alex Winter
Grand Piano may bear the credit of director Eugenio Mira, but make no mistake — this is a better Brian De Palma movie than De Palma’s made in years. All the hallmarks are there: the slick, circling camerawork; the baroque framing; the eroticized violence; even a scene of split-screen. And yes, it’s also got a tin ear for exposition and an utterly absurd central premise (a concert pianist is targeted by a sniper, and told he’ll be shot dead if he gets a single note wrong), but only a killjoy would count those strikes against it. Sure, it’s a wind-up toy — but it’s awfully fun to watch it spin.
Bad Words Release Date: March 14 Director: Jason Bateman Cast: Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Philip Baker Hall, Alison Janney, Ben Falcone
Jason Bateman’s directorial debut pushes some easy buttons: rude behavior, unabashed vulgarity, corrupting kids (even its title recalls its most obvious influence, Bad Santa). But it’s got more ambition than its one-joke premise — loser 40-year-old exploits a bylaws loophole to compete in the national spelling bee — and more melancholy too. And Bateman doesn’t shy away from his character’s semi-sociopathic tendencies, nor does he reach too hard for the laugh. It’s not without its problems, but Bateman shows promise as a filmmaker, and hints at some interesting and heretofore unexplored depths within his onscreen persona.
Big Men Release Date: March 14 Director: Rachel Boynton
Director Rachel Boynton (Our Brand Is Crisis) meticulously tracks a small Texas company’s discovery of oil in the waters off Ghana, tracing the years-long process of discovery, paperwork, controversy, corruption, shifting governments, accusations, investigations, and nervous investors, all during the upheaval of the financial crisis of 2008 (and beyond). For good measure, she contrasts the story with that of Nigeria, which has exported oil for decades and is none the better for it, in an ingenious before-and-after framework. In doing so, she poses a basic conundrum of capitalism: should oil riches go to the outside interests who take the risks, or the people who live on the land it is wrenched from? Detailed and fascinating, with the twists, turns, shady motives, and backroom deals of juicy fiction.
Teenage Release Date: March 14 Director: Matt Wolf
An inventive archival montage in the style of Atomic Café (with some decidedly modern techniques thrown in), this documentary from director Matt Wolf blends aged newsreels, educational films, diary entries, and dramatizations to create a portrait of the teenager — the origin of the term, and the concerns of the age that transcend borders and calendars. Wolf sprints through history and casts a worldwide net, bouncing back and forth across the Atlantic and peeking in on preoccupations of adolescents ranging from the jitterbug to Hitler Youth. Wolf’s peculiar style can be a tad off-putting, but no matter; it’s an ambitious, informative, and often slyly funny time capsule.
Cheap Thrills Release Date: March 21 Director: E.L. Katz Cast: Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, Sara Paxton, David Koechner
E.L. Katz’s dark morality tale requires a bit of a strong stomach, but it’s bluntly effective and undeniably unsettling. Compliance’s Pat Healy (again hiding his capacity for menace behind flat, regular-guy features) plays an average guy in bad financial straits who, along with a similarly down-on-his-luck old buddy (an unrecognizable Ethan Embry), ends up spending an evening of escalating excess with a rich couple (David Koechner and Sara Paxton, both very good). Trent Haaga and David Chirchirillo’s script focuses tightly on these four characters and the shifting power dynamics between them, establishing a wild, careening freedom within the narrative; it could go any number of ways, none of them good. Its squirming climax and chilling closing scenes are increasingly unbelievable in theory, but you buy them — the film’s steadily mounting nihilistic brio lends a sense of inevitability to this disturbing but satisfying picture.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I Release Date: March 21 Director: Lars von Trier Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Christian Slater, Uma Thurman
I don’t wanna push too hard, because it’s the one movie on this list your film editor hasn’t seen yet. But c’mon now: Lars von Trier does an epic two-part sex movie with that cast? As if that’s not gonna be worth a blind ticket buy?
Breathe In Release Date: March 28 Director: Drake Doremus Cast: Felicity Jones, Guy Pearce, Amy Ryan
Drake Doremus again takes Felicity Jones as his muse for this Like Crazy follow-up, in which she plays a kindhearted exchange student who proves irresistible to her host family’s father (Guy Pearce). It’s not the freshest story in the book, and the melodrama of the third act nearly sinks the ship. But it’s got a wonderfully intimate quality, where conversations seem overheard and slights are unintentional, and every performance in it is a winner.
Finding Vivian Maier Release Date: March 28 Director: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Years ago, a young historian named John Maloof bought a random box of negatives at a Chicago auction. Inside, he found a treasure trove of work by an unknown street photographer named Vivian Maier — just a portion of the vast archives she’d left behind, seemingly unseen by anyone’s eyes but her own. Maloof (who co-directs) documents his attempt to discover exactly who this remarkable woman was, creating a film that is part artistic appreciation, part mystery. Maloof assembles scores of photos, 8mm home movie footage, and Maier’s own audio tapes, allowing us to dig into the detective work alongside him; he also gathers fascinating interviews with the people who knew her — or, more accurately, didn’t know her. A spellbinding, thoughtful examination of the artistic temperament.
Mistaken for Strangers Release Date: March 28 Director: Tom Berninger
Matt Berninger is the lead singer of The National, poised for a breakthrough and heading out on a year-long world tour. Tom Berninger is his brother, a chubby metalhead and filmmaker who goes out on the road with the band as a roadie, bringing along his video camera to make a fly-on-the-wall rock doc. What he comes up with is something far richer and more personal, a candid portrait of a very specific kind of understated, polite dysfunction. Tom has a good heart, but he’s such a fuck-up — not maliciously so, but effortlessly. You’ve known guys like this. (Maybe you’ve been one.) It’s very funny, sometimes uncomfortably so, yet it bends in on itself rather inventively in the third act, while still getting at some genuinely heartfelt and moving material about family, and love, and forgiveness.