There’s plenty to talk about in the indie film world right now, but most of it is coming off of Sundance — and, sadly, we won’t get to see most of those movies for several more months. But the art houses certainly aren’t going dark this month; we’ve got several terrific new indies out for February (many hitting theaters and home screens after running the festival gauntlet last year). Here are eight that you shouldn’t miss, particularly if you find yourself heading out with someone who’s dead set on, say, Fifty Shades of Grey.
Release Date: Out now Director: Céline Sciamma Cast: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh
There’s a scene about a third of the way into Girlhood when four teenage friends who’ve played hooky from their lives, renting a hotel room and playing dress-up, lip-sync and dance along with Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” In that scene, writer/director Céline Sciamma captures something indelible about being a teenager: the way song can mean everything to you and your friends, how it can encompass your entire being, how it can create, as our protagonist later explains, “a perfect moment.” Girlhood is about those moments, and how they’re shattered; deeply felt, keenly observed, and marvelously acted, it’s far more complicated and difficult than the simple coming-of-age story the title suggests. (Read Flavorwire’s interview with Sciamma.)
Release Date: February 6 Director: Johanna Hamilton
In March of 1971, a group of antiwar protestors called “The Citizen’s Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into the FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania, and stole every file in the joint. Among them were detailed descriptions of the agency’s surveillance and penetration into various “subversive” organizations — y’know, like antiwar groups, civil rights leaders, and women’s liberation organizations. The most incendiary items were sent to media outlets, resulting in the first congressional investigation of the FBI and a healthy shot of pre-Watergate government distrust among constituents. It’s a killer story, all but forgotten today, but this isn’t just a dry document. Director Johanna Hamilton supplements the customary archival footage and talking heads (many of them the perpetrators of the burglary, who were never caught) with slick and successful reenactments that configure the picture as both a political thriller and a heist movie (on fight night, even!). It works both as a “tick-tock” and as history; 1971 is as riveting as it is thoughtful and introspective.
Release Date: February 6 Director: Jody Lee Lipes
Director/photographer Jody Lee Lipes shadows 25-year-old dancer/choreographer Justin Peck as he assembles the New York City Ballet’s Pas de La Jolla, working in a pure vérité style that doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand — no retrospective interviews, no voice-overs, and sparse expositional titles. The bulk of the film is up-close observation of process, and appreciation of the many, many moving parts of a production like this. Lipes likes the concentration and focus of the work, the sound of shorthand and shop talk, the close-ups of dancers’ ravaged feet — a reminder of how taxing this work is, and an apt visual encapsulation of this absorbing and well-made documentary’s spirit.
Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine
Release Date: February 6 Director: Michele Josue
First-time writer/director Josue was, indeed, a friend of the late Shepard, a gay college student beaten to death in 1998 whose murder became a flashpoint in public discussion of hate crimes and subsequent legislation. But Josue aims to make a film to introduce the world to “the real Matt,” and she crafts her intimate, first-person account from private pictures, family home movies, journals, and letters. She goes from biography to a nerve-wracking description of the murder to heart-wrenching interviews with family and friends about letting him go, then and now. It’s an admirable tribute to both his life and his legacy, and while some of the filmmaking (particularly her narration) is pretty pedestrian, it’s a heartfelt, important testament.
What We Do in the Shadows
Release Date: February 13 Director: Taikia Waititi Cast: Jemaine Clement, Taikia Waititi, Jonathan Brugh
This deadpan comedy from writer/director/co-star Taikia Waititi (Eagle vs. Shark) and co-writer/co-star Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) proves there’s plenty of life left in that increasingly wheezy mockumentary form. Here, a crew from “the New Zealand Documentary Board” observes a flat full of vampires as they prepare for the annual “Unholy Masquerade” — and deal with the typical roommate complaints (dishes not getting done, blood all over the sofas, you know the drill). Shadows is gracefully inventive and cheerfully gory, spiced up with casual yet impressive effects and some sparsely used but well-played pathos, and funny from end to end.
Release Date: February 13 (limited and on demand) Director: David Cross Cast: Matt Walsh, Meredith Hagner, Wyatt Cenac
Writer/director David Cross cooks up a timely and frequently effective satire on celebrity, Internet culture, and Tea Party “citizenry.” It’s a wildly uneven movie, often stumbling in its search for the proper tone, and the aesthetics are passable at best. But Cross’ rage is real (and evenly distributed; he seems even more cynical about Brooklyn vegans than small-town dullards), and by the time the pieces fall together in the big climax, Cross’ sneering cynicism achieves a kind of transcendence. It’s not a great movie (or even a great satire), but it’s surly and nasty and it gets the job done. (Read more here.)
Maps to the Stars
Release Date: February 27 (limited and on demand) Director: David Cronenberg Cast: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson
Part vicious Hollywood satire, part portrait of horrifying dysfunction, and part Greek mythology, the latest from director Cronenberg is wickedly funny — it’s probably the closest thing he’s ever done to comedy, though it’s far too bizarre solely to carry that classification — and marvelously dark. And it’s got a savagely perfect performance by Julianne Moore, playing a paranoid falling star as a cross between Norma Desmond and Madonna; if there were any justice in the universe, this is the performance she’d be getting an Oscar for. (Read more here.)
Release Date: February 27 (limited; on demand now) Director: Joe Lynch Cast: Salma Hayek, Laura Cepeda, Hiroyuki Watanabe
Salma Hayek fronts this brisk action thriller, a kind of gender-switched John Wick — or, more accurately, a Mariachi movie with Hayek shooting things up rather than tending to wounds. Confined to one location and running in something like real time, Hayek plays a tough, resourceful, tenacious woman who finally strikes back against some truly scuzzy dudes. The typical action flaws — dopey dialogue, thin characters, etc. — are on display, and the brief, bizarre third-act detour into “torture porn” doesn’t work at all. But Lynch’s direction is energetic (he breaks up the typical chop-chop-chop style with inventively staged fights, sometimes in single, long takes), Hayek is fun to watch (her guttural “FUCK YOU,” repeated four times, is perfection), and it’s actually got a sense of humor, God bless it.