In case you haven’t noticed, there’s not much doin’ at the multiplex this April. You’ve got a new Captain America, and a Johnny Depp thing by Christopher Nolan’s regular cinematographer that could either be amazing or terrible and silly, and then — what, The Other Woman? Once again, it’s the art house to the rescue, and here are ten of the most notable and recommendation-worthy independent releases of the coming month.
The Retrieval Release Date: April 2 Director: Chris Eska Cast: Ashton Sanders, Tishuan Scott, Keston John
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained examined the business of slavery through a satirical lens; Chris Eska’s modestly lyrical drama pushes further, using a similar bounty hunter angle, though a good deal less jovially. The time is 1864, and a ruthless black man named Marcus (Keston John) and his young nephew Will (Ashton Sanders) make a living selling out runaway slaves. They’re sent to retrieve Nate (Tishuan Scott) for their employer, armed with a fake story about a sick brother, but during their journey, the young man’s loyalty is challenged by the father-figure role Nate effortlessly assumes. The narrative is simple and the style is unassuming — this is a movie that whispers, an approach that renders its powerful conclusion all the more devastating.
Nymphomaniac Vol. II Release Date: April 4 Director: Lars von Trier Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Willem Dafoe
The second half of Lars von Trier’s epic mediation on sex, romance, violence, and fly-fishing isn’t quite as playful as its predecessor; his protagonist Joe goes to some pretty dark places (sexually and emotionally) this time around, right up to and including the rather nihilistic conclusion. Not all of his detours and experiments work, and there’s no single scene with the jolt of Uma Thurman’s powerful appearance in Vol. I. But there’s tons of material to unpack and consider here, and if the Nymphomaniac films are messy and unruly, they also showcase a brilliant filmmaker given free reign (for better or worse).
Under the Skin Release Date: April 4 Director: Jonathan Glazer Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Lynsey Taylor Mackay
A beautiful, bizarre, and occasionally troubling bit of abstract art-house sci-fi in the Beyond the Black Rainbow vein from director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth). Scarlett Johansson (who appears in just about every frame) plays a well-disguised alien creature who picks up men and devours them; some have dismissed the picture as an indie riff on Species, but if the narrative is derivative and a tad monotonous, there’s something intoxicating about the fluidity of Glazer’s striking images and the mood he manages to sustain throughout the peculiar tale.
The Unknown Known Release Date: April 4 Director: Errol Morris Cast: Documentary
Oscar winner Errol Morris crafts the closest thing he’s ever made to a sequel, following up the spirit and style of The Fog of War, his 2003 documentary profile of Robert McNamara. Here, he turns his first-person camera to another controversial and much-reviled Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld — and again, he resists the urge to frame him as some sort of Bond villain and leave it at that. Instead, via pointed interview segments, sly juxtapositions, and ingenious visual devices, he asks what makes this man tick: why he made the decisions he made, and how he lives with them. Penetrating, insightful, and brilliant.
Hateship Loveship Release Date: April 11 Director: Liza Johnson Cast: Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Hailee Steinfeld, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Though they couldn’t be more different stylistically, Liza Johnson’s adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story is strangely reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love — it places a Saturday Night Live performer’s oddball persona in the real world, and takes it seriously. The star this time is Kristen Wiig, playing one of her painfully shy, oddly unassuming, and socially awkward types, a housekeeper who tumbles into a deeply dysfunctional family. A muted sadness permeates the narrative, and at times the paces it puts her character through are genuinely difficult to watch. But it draws you in with its peculiar rhythms and troubled characters, and moves with the strangeness and spontaneity of everyday life.
Joe Release Date: April 11 Director: David Gordon Green Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Ronnie Gene Blevins
It’s awfully refreshing to see Nicolas Cage acting again — or, more accurately, not Acting (or at least not ACTING). Director David Gordon Green (himself on a bit of a comeback trail) surrounds the frequently overcooked actor with a cast of unknowns, non-actors, and the endlessly believable Tye Sheridan (Mud), and reminds us of the unaffected power at Cage’s center. Green, meanwhile, is again dwelling in the working-class naturalism of his earlier works, and he keep capturing indelible little touches: the joy of a young man working with his hands, the all-consuming sadness of a broke-down whorehouse, the certainty and inevitability of a mean old drunk spoiling everything. Cage’s portrait of an enigmatic hothead who eschews his instinctive detachment (“I can’t get my hands dirty in every little thing”) is given extra weight by his own return to form; there’s an additional, potent poignancy to the picture’s closing passages, because the character has done the right, difficult thing — and the actor has too.
Only Lovers Left Alive Release Date: April 11 Director: Jim Jarmusch Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Mia Wasikowska
A pair of vampires (Swinton and Hiddleston), married since 1868, meet up in Detroit. They make love. They talk. Eventually, Eve’s sister (played by Mia Wasikowska, in buzzy little spark-plug mode) shows up and causes some trouble. They go to Tangiers. That’s pretty much the plot of Jim Jarmusch’s latest; it is, as you may have guessed, not exactly a hard-target narrative. It’s a hanging-out movie, just with vampires, and as such, its pleasures are many — the effortless cool, the slyly knowing performances, the contributions to the vampire mythos. It’s a fun movie to just luxuriate in, and may well be the director’s most Jarmuschian film to date.
Fading Gigolo Release Date: April 18 Director: John Turturro Cast: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sofía Vergara, Sharon Stone
You’ve gotta feel a little bad for writer/director/star Jon Turturro; landing Woody Allen’s first acting-only appearance in over a decade must’ve seemed quite the coup when he made Fading Gigolo, and then, well, things happened. But the segment of the audience that can still laugh at Allen will find themselves doing so frequently here; much of the picture is basically a two-act between Turturro’s unlikely male prostitute and Allen as his even less likely pimp, with Turturro giving his co-star most of the good lines and creating, in effect, a (rather ill-timed) Allen vehicle. The first half plays that way, at least; the second takes a surprising turn into a tender, modest romance. It’s a slim and minor picture, but it has its moments.
Young & Beautiful Release Date: April 25 Director: François Ozon Cast: Marine Vacth, Géraldine Pailhas, Frédéric Pierrot, Charlotte Rampling.
The great François Ozon (Swimming Pool, In the House) directs yet another tale of sexual exploration and deception, this time focusing on a 17-year-old French girl who loses her virginity and embarks on a series of affairs and sexual adventures. (I know, so French, right?)
Blue Ruin Release Date: April 25 Director: Jeremy Saulnier Cast: Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves
“I’m not used to talking this much,” explains Dwight (Macon Blair) in Jeremy Saulnier’s dramatic thriller, and the film lives by that same principle — it’s sort of remarkable, particularly early on, how little of the story is told in dialogue. Saulnier instead traffics in haunting, arresting images to tell the story of a drifter who goes after the newly released man who killed his parents. But this is no mindless revenge tale; it’s a gripping, tightly wound picture, inviting the viewer to watch with helplessness and dread as a bad situation spins further and further out of control. Sharp, riveting, visceral filmmaking.