It’s literally snowing in New York City today, but as far as studios are concerned, April is summer – this month’s slate includes another Avengers movie, a movie starring The Rock and a giant ape, and an inexplicable remake of Overboard. But this month’s indie line-up features some of the best movies we’ve seen this year, including thrilling new efforts from Lynne Ramsay, Andrew Haigh, and Claire Denis; here are our recommendations.
You Were Never Really Here
RELEASE DATE: April 6 DIRECTOR: Lynne Ramsay CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts,
At home, Joe (Phoenix) is a caretaker and mess-cleaner to his elderly mother; out in the world, he’s something of a freelance brutalizer, who can hurt or worse for the right price. This sounds like the set-up for a million empty genre movies, but Lynne Ramsay is no hack; in fact, she often chooses to blink during the violence rather than revel in it, and focus more on the pain in Joe’s eyes than the pain he’s inflicting. Here is genuinely unnerving, particularly as Ramsey lets us see more and more of the images he’s desperate to get out of his head – but it’s also full of transcendent compositions, human moments, and little unexplained touches. It’s stylish and sorrowful and strange, and a rewarding ride for those who are up to it.
Where is Kyra?
RELEASE DATE: April 6 DIRECTOR: Andrew Dosunmu CAST: Michelle Pfeiffer, Kiefer Sutherland, Suzanne Shepherd
In the opening scenes of this minimalist character study, the elderly Ruth (Sheperd) is given a bath by her daughter Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer), who sends her to bed and proceeds to color her graying hair. In other words, this is a movie with no filters, with a story of petty crime that also loads all sorts of thought-provoking subtext about aging in Hollywood. Yet the strongest commentary on that implicit subject is seen and not told, in the painterly compositions and deep shadows of cinematographer Bradford Young; his camera gives these characters plenty of space, lest we seem to intrude on these private moments, but when we get a good look at Pfieffer – and we get many of them – we’re struck that hers is a face that’s lived a life, and seen things, and is just trying to keep above water. The film around that performance is a tough nut to crack, and even harder to box up – maybe you can call it a noir story done as an art film (though that only becomes clear at its conclusion). But whatever they’re doing, it works.
ACORN and the Firestorm
RELEASE DATE: April 6 DIRECTOR: Reuben Atlas and Samuel D. Pollard CAST: Documentary
ACORN was over 400,000 member families strong when it became a conservative boogeyman during the 2008 election; less than a year later, the organization had been discredited and defunded, thanks to a Breitbart-approved exposé by video “journalist” James O’Keefe. This shrewdly constructed documentary uses the depositions related to that video as framing devices, bookmarking the simultaneous timelines of the organization’s history and the scandal that brought it down. It’s an intelligent film, adroitly conveying the bombshell of those videos, and then savvily unpeeling the deception behind them.
Lean on Pete
RELEASE DATE: April 6 DIRECTOR: Andrew Haigh CAST: Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi
The new drama from writer/director Haigh is nothing you’d expect from either Weekend or 45 Years, aside from the fact that it’s vividly drawn and elegantly executed. Plummer stars as 15-year-old Charlie, who falls in with an aging, “broker than he used to be” cowboy (Buscemi), which begins a journey of both emotional growth and human desperation. He is, after all, just a kid, and when bad turns come his way, they’re sudden and scary. Haigh colors in his journey with beautiful Northwestern locations and finely-drawn supporting characters, building a little world for his protagonist to inhabit, and (we suspect) transcend. What a lovely, introspective movie this is.
RELEASE DATE: April 11 DIRECTOR: Brad Anderson CAST: Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Dean Norris
“It’s nothing that can’t be fixed.” That seems to be the mantra of Mason Skiles (Hamm), a slick U.S. diplomat stationed in Lebanon, until an attack on a party in his home leaves his wife dead and his adopted son kidnapped. Ten years later, perpetually drunk and still pretty broken, he’s called back to Beirut to negotiate a hostage swap, and finds himself having to sharpen up his tool set. Anderson directs this long-shelved (but recently refurbished) script by the great Tony Gilroy; as per usual, his dialogue snaps and crackles and bobs and weaves, and Hamm delivers it with the kind of muscular off-handedness required (he’s a not-too-distant cousin to Russell Crowe in Proof of Life or, especially, George Clooney in Michael Clayton). The politics are a little dodgy, and the penultimate scene is a real problem. But as pop thrillers for grown-ups go, you can’t do much better than this.
RELEASE DATE: April 13 DIRECTOR: Chloé Zhao CAST: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau
In the opening sequence of writer/director Zhao’s intimate drama, Brady (Brady Jandreu), a horse trainer and bronco rider, peels off a bandage and removes the staples from the place on his head where the wild horse stepped. It’s an injury that has understandably taken him out of that world for a bit – and made him second-guess his entire life, and reassess the degree to which everyone around him is broken, in one way or another. “We have to play the cards we’re dealt,” advises his perpetually drunk and in-debt dad, and “sometimes dreams aren’t meant to be.” That’s not a message you hear in a lot of movies, but as dramatized in this one – and acted out, free of affectation, by a family of non-professionals playing variations on themselves – it rings with a lot of truth.
Let the Sunshine In
RELEASE DATE: April 27 DIRECTOR: Claire Denis CAST: Juliette Binoche, Xavier Beauvois, Philippe Katerine
In one of the most blatant metaphors of her cinema, Denis begins her latest with star Binoche literally naked, pre-coitus. She then proceeds into a sex scene with a lover who can’t quite get her there, and when he asks, “With your previous friend, did you cum fast?” she slaps him right off of her, and starts to cry. And with that, we’re off to the races. Sunshine isn’t what you’d call “plot heavy”; it’s mostly portraiture, an observation of this recently divorced woman and her attempt to find physical and emotional fulfillment. The real subject here is the verbal and psychological games men and women play, and the mastery with which Denis circles these men (her compositions and camerawork are clean and elegant) as they bait, switch, lie, and chase. Wise and often very sexy, and Binoche continues to astound.
RELEASE DATE: April 27 DIRECTOR: Sebastián Lelio CAST: Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz, Alessandro Nivola
We can put aside our true selves, our dreams and our desires, but they have a way or roaring back to life when we least expect it. That’s what happens in this emotionally overwhelming drama from co-writer/director Lelio (A Fantastic Woman), telling the story of a love triangle from years ago that’s suddenly, forcefully reignited – and resituated. Leilo builds tension like a thriller-maker, mining emotions buried and things left unsaid, while paying considerable attention to the rituals and formalities that necessitate such secrets. And every performance is a gem, though Rachel McAdams is particularly vivid as a Jewish Orthadox wife who discovers a fire still burning inside her.
RELEASE DATE: DIRECTOR: Miguel Arteta CAST: Alia Shawkat, Laia Costa, Mae Whitman
Shakwat (who co-writes) and Costa create a credible sexual spark quickly in the latest from director Arteta (Beatriz at Dinner), which is important – since the entire movie hinges on the idea that they would decide to plunge into an intensive, twenty-four-hour sex-and-romance marathon, to plunge past all the clumsiness of early dating and get to the good stuff. They do indeed get the full early-dating experience – out-of-nowhere fights, little pokes and irritations, awkward familial interactions, and unfortunate suggestions for “spicing things up.” More than anything, they allow themselves to reveal the kind of vulnerability you usually keep in the tank for a couple of years, lending what could’ve been a gimmicky sex comedy a genuine sense of emotional intensity.