If you’re in the (seemingly shrinking!) minority of people who don’t run salivating to the theater for movies where superhumans in fast cars defy the laws of gravity and physics, April is a pretty grim month for mainstream cinema. Between the Nicolas Sparks adaptation, the Paul Blart sequel, the chat-room horror movie, and the aforementioned sixth sequel to a warmed-over braindead Friedkin wannabe, it’s like looking like January all over again at the multiplex. So once again, it’s indies to the rescue; here are ten four-star limited releases to check out as spring rolls in.
Release Date: Out now (theatrical and VOD) Director: Hal Hartley Cast: Liam Aiken, Aubrey Plaza, Parker Posey, Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Martin Donovan
If there were ever an ideal actor to embody Hal Hartley’s deadpan style and wry sensibility, it’s Aubrey Plaza, who brings her dry wit (and an unexpected smear of femme fatale sexiness) to this follow-up to Hartley’s 1997 Henry Fool and 2006 Fay Grim. (Somehow she and Posey don’t share any scenes, but that’s probably for the best, lest my head explode.) The installment finds young Ned (Aiken) seeking to kill Henry (Ryan) “for destroying my mom’s life,” and while Hartley’s customary absurd humor, rapid-fire dialogue, and florid monologues are intact, the winking style gives way to a story of real tragedy and pain. The score is maddeningly generic and the ending doesn’t quite come together, but it’s worth seeing nonetheless for the risks it takes —and the majesty of Plaza’s performance.
Release Date: April 8 (theatrical) Director: Asghar Farhadi Cast: Golshifteh Farahani, Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti
So here’s an odd tale of cinematic archaeology: writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s gripping Iranian drama played the festival circuit all the way back in 2009 to great acclaim, but rights issues prevented American distribution, even after the tremendous stateside success of his 2011 Oscar winner A Separation and 2013’s The Past. Now, finally, six years later, About Elly hits American screens, and better late than never, I suppose — since it’s just as remarkable as the works that followed it. A sort of Middle Eastern L’avventura, Farhadi’s film follows a good-natured group of friends and friends of friends on a weekend seaside getaway that goes horribly awry when an averted tragedy leads, quite possibly, to a real one. As usual, Farahadi shows a remarkable talent for harnessing situational uncertainty and making it over as dramatic tension, expertly capturing how his protagonists, in trying to make sense of their own actions, can turn on each other (and themselves). A haunting, difficult, powerful film.
Release Date: April 10 (theatrical) Director: Alex Garland Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac
Screenwriter Garland (Sunshine, 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go) makes a startling directorial debut in this Frankenstein-inspired mindfuck. Isaac is a tech bazillionaire who’s developed a sentient form of artificial intelligence in his remote, ornate hideaway home; Gleeson is the employee who comes to help him test it, but is quite possibly an experiment subject himself. Crisply executed, complexly acted, and intellectually satisfying, it’s the kind of smart science fiction that’s all too rare these days.
Clouds of Sils Maria
Release Date: April 10 (theatrical) Director: Olivier Assayas Cast: Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloë Grace Moretz
A respected movie star (Binoche) and her personal assistant (Stewart) prepare for her to return to the play that made her famous — this time opposite another young actress on the rise (Moretz) — in this intelligent and unpredictable drama from writer/director Assayas (Carlos). He focuses on the rich, complex relationship between this seasoned (yet still self-doubting) performer and the bright young woman who serves her, which gets particularly interesting when playing with the intertextuality between their situation and the psychologicially (and sexually) charged script they’re rehearsing. As with any inside-Hollywood story, it’s fun to connect the dots (fave moment: Twlight star warning Binoche to “be careful” about pissing off “pre-teens”), but the emotional resonance of this one lingers beyond such momentary pleasures.
Release Date: April 10 (New York); April 23 (Los Angeles) Director: Francesco Munzi Cast: Marco Leonardi, Peppino Mazzotta, Fabrizio Ferracane, Barbora Bobulova
I’m a sucker for tales of twisted allegiances and family loyalty and organized crime, so I’m sort of the target audience for this businesslike Italian crime drama; your mileage may vary. The Godfather echoes are loud and clear in this story of a good brother who’s steered clear of the family business and the son who wants in — but co-writer/director Munzi slyly inverts those expectations and spins off in his own directions. He pulls a sharp flip, painting their world as seductively generous and glamorous early on, before the picture’s simmering emotions finally boil over in its bleak, powerful closing passages.
Alex of Venice
Release Date: April 17 (theatrical) Director: Chris Messina Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Don Johnson, Derek Luke, Chris Messina
Chris Messina (The Mindy Project) makes his feature directorial debut in this slice-of-life story of a working mother (Winstead) who finds everything tumbling down when her husband (Messina) decides he needs some “time away.” Tasked with taking care of not only their son but also her aging father (Johnson, wonderful), she gets a dubious assist from her wild-child sister and tries to figure out, at this late date, exactly who she is and what she wants to be. It also sounds pretty well-worn, but Alex transcends its clichés, thanks to naturalistic dialogue (a raw sex talk between the sisters is glorious), an eye for details, and its relaxed, delicate vibe. And Winstead is phenomenal, turning in a genuine, heart-on-her-sleeve performance of real heft.
Release Date: April 17 (theatrical) Director: Rupert Goold Cast: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee
Hill plays New York Times journalist Mike Finkel, freshly dismissed and disgraced when he discovers that accused murderer Christian Longo (Franco) has been using his name while on the run. Finkel realizes Longo’s grisly crime can be spun into an opportunity — at a moment when he’s unemployable, it’s a story only Finkel can write. Based on Finkel’s 2006 memoir and vividly (sometimes upsettingly) dramatized by first-timer Goold, True Story is a thoughtful and frequently tense exploration of truth, deception, and exploitation, anchored by a series of effective two-handed jailhouse scenes between its stars, who are both working at top skill here.
Release Date: April 17 (theatrical) Director: Noel Marshall Cast: Tippi Hedren, Noel Marshall, Melanie Griffith
Since their inaugural release of Four Lions back in 2010, Drafthouse Films has done the commendable work of alternating new films with re-releases of long-forgotten or long-lost pictures, from mini-masterpieces like Wake in Fright and Ms. 45 to jaw-droppers like The Visitor and Miami Connection. This 1981 effort definitely falls into the latter category; made by Birds star Hedren and her husband Marshall (with her daughter Griffith and his two sons playing their kids), it’s a stunningly ill-advised tale of a researcher living with jungle cats, who apparently had the run of the set and, legend has it, injured 70 cast and crew members during the production. You can see how: the frame is filled with lions and tigers attacking each other and people, to the point that you stop watching the movie and start really worrying about everybody’s safety. It’s a mess, but one you have to see to believe, with that wonderfully distinct quality of the best bad movies: total befuddlement that anyone thought this was a good idea.
Release Date: April 24 (theatrical and VOD) Director: Ross Katz Cast: Nick Kroll, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Joel McHale, Jane Krakowski
Kroll, fresh off his sketch show’s conclusion, wisely aligns himself with the Duplass Brothers (here credited as executive producers) to reconfigure himself as an indie movie leading man. The story — of a selfish douchebag who rediscovers his humanity by reconnecting with family — is nothing groundbreaking, to be sure. But director Katz and writers Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive (and Kroll, who gets a story credit) burrow deep into the complicated dynamics of adult siblings, examining how they breed tension, indifference, and resentment. The comedy is low-key and character-based, and the dramatic beats are believable (if predictable); it’s a modest movie, and that might be its best quality.
Release Date: April 29 (New York); May 1 (Los Angeles) Director: Albert Maysles
The penultimate film from legendary documentarian Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter, countless more) profiles style icon and famed clotheshorse Iris Apfel, dubbed “Manhattan’s geriatric starlet” after a wildly popular one-woman show at the Met. The 90-year-old spark plug has a fascinating biography — how she went from textiles to clothes, how she accumulated her massive collection, her decades-long marriage to the charming Carl — but, as per his usual style of cinematic conversation, Maysles is more interested in just hanging out with these interesting people, soaking up their lives, tagging along as she shops and chats and haggles (she’s just as likely to find something at a Florida swap meet as on Fifth Avenue). And while the film was completed long before Maysles’ death, it arrives — via Carl’s 100th birthday celebration — at some unexpectedly poignant material about one’s golden years. “You made it this far,” Maysles tells Carl, off-camera. “So you can go further. That’s my idea.” Amen, Al.