Please enjoy this spring sweet spot at the art house, free of the baggage of early-year releases that weren’t good enough for the end of the year, but not yet clobbered by the onslaught of summer blockbusters. This is one of the best times of the year to release your indie movie, and appropriately enough, we’ve got a whole mess of them for you this month: a baker’s dozen razor-sharp documentaries, American independents, and noteworthy imports. Mark up that calendar now.
RELEASE DATE: April 5 DIRECTOR: Claire Denis CAST: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin
There’s something sort of delicious about imagining the Robert Pattinson fans, diehards from his Twilight days, heading to the art house a couple of times a year to get their minds melted by his latest collaboration with David Cronenberg or the Zellner brothers. But nothing they’ve seen will prepare them for this violent, disturbing, hyper-sexualized outer space drama from director Claire Denis, which begins with Pattinson and a baby all alone on a space station, and reveals the derailed prison experiment that put them there. The themes are grim and the images are unforgettable; it’s as uncompromising a work as one would expect from Denis, and that’s a high compliment indeed.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
RELEASE DATE: April 10 (info here) DIRECTOR: Terry Gilliam CAST: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård
The title card that opens Gillian’s riff on Cervantes’s classic is, if anything (and for once), understated: “And now… after 25 years in the making… and unmaking…” Quixote was, for all those years, the movie that Gilliam could not get in the can; an earlier attempt was documented in the train-wreck autopsy Lost in La Mancha, and the closing titles dedicate the film to not one, but two deceased actors who were slated to play its lead. All that off-screen drama could easily overshadow what finally made it to the screen, but the final product is, surprisingly enough, a light and lithe bit of interpretation and autobiography (ultimately, and appropriately, it’s about how the story of Don Quixote can drive men to madness). The central premise is juicy: a slick commercial director (Driver) is shooting an ad in Spain when he encounters the aged man (Pryce) who played Quixote for him in a student film many moons ago, and is apparently still lost in the role. It is A Lot, as most Terry Gilliam movies are. But Driver and Pryce are very funny (and serve as appropriate counterpoints), and Gilliam smoothly navigates the tonal turns, venturing into self-aware, melancholy, and very funny territory.
RELEASE DATE: April 12 DIRECTOR: Alex Ross Perry CAST:Elisabeth Moss, Dan Stevens, Agyness Deyn, Gayle Rankin
Here’s how good Alex Ross Perry’s latest is (and how good Elisabeth Moss is in it): there’s a scene where she performs Bryan Adams’ “Heaven,” and hand on a Bible, this viewer was misty-eyed. It’s a goofy song, yes, but sung with earnestness and kindness, and that’s how this whole movie works; even when treading through familiar territory, it does so with honesty and immediacy. And Moss is a marvel as the Courtney Love-style rocker whose fame is fading – watch the way he face turns from one interaction from the next, the masks she wears and doffs, how she makes a simple move like a walk across the room into an occasion for anticipation and nervous laughter. And then compare those early scenes with her vulnerability in the closing section, the extremes she encompasses with equal intensity. It’s a great performance, and a great movie.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
RELEASE DATE: April 12 DIRECTOR: Bi Gan CAST:Huang Jue, Tang Wei
“Do we know when we’re dreaming?” he asks. “Maybe,” she replies. “The TV said dreams are lost memories.” Bi Gan’s delicate memory play, in which a young man attempts to unravel the great mystery of his late father’s life, is paced so deliberately that it’s a bit of a watch-checker, at least early on. But in time, it conditions the viewer to its dream time and logic; it’s the kind of movie you have to settle in to, and allow to cast its spell. Yao Hung-i’s cinematography is jaw-dropping (those long takes! That focus play!), and the interweaving of past and present is crafted with both precision and fluidity. It’s a challenging movie, but well worth the effort.
Wild Nights With Emily
RELEASE DATE: April 12 DIRECTOR: Madeleine Olnek CAST: Molly Shannon, Susan Ziegler, Amy Seimetz
The premise and the title – Molly Shannon as the “wild” Emily Dickinson – makes Madeleine Olnek’s comedy/drama sounds like a satire of A Quiet Passion, and there are moments here that send up the conventions of the contemporary biopic. But Olnek isn’t taking cheap shots; her portrait moves freely from silliness to sincerity, taking on the conventional impression of the poet as a “spinster old maid who was afraid to leave her room or publish her work” and burrowing in to find a story that’s far deeper and more tender. Shannon is quite good, particularly in the (still potent and relevant) scenes of her struggle for publication and recognition, while Amy Seimitz’s masterfully embodies (and mercilessly skewers) post-mortem legacy-keepers. It’s not just an accidental companion piece to A Quiet Passion; it’s every bit that picture’s equal.
RELEASE DATE: April 12 DIRECTOR: Max Minghella CAST: Elle Fanning, Rebecca Hall, Zlatko Buric
Even before the “What A Feeling” needle drop, there’s something of a Flashdance quality to actor Max Minghella’s feature directorial debut; he also wrote this story of a working-class girl with dreams of performance who finally gets her shot. Said girl is played by Elle Fanning (and there’s a very “cinema of boys looking at girls” quality to Minghella’s direction of her), so it’s not hard to guess whether she’ll make it big or not. But for all the picture’s predictability, it’s saved by its approach: Minghella’s script has a dizzy, cock-eyed charm, and he gets charming performances out of Fanning, Hall, and the scene-stealing Buric.
RELEASE DATE: April 12 DIRECTOR: Robert Budreau CAST: Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace, Mark Strong
Based, as its opening splash tells us, on “an absurd but true story,” this docudrama from director Robert Budreau is, basically, an explainer of where the phrase “Stockholm Syndrome” came from: the 1973 robbery of Stockholm’s Kreditbanken bank, in which a robber (Ethan Hawke) and hostage (Noomi Rapace) got, very briefly, rather hot for each other. Budreau and his actors pull off toughest sell, making the pair’s desperate, pressured chemistry convincing; Rapace gives him a look after their first kiss that’s one of the trickiest bits of acting I’ve seen recently, and she absolutely nails it. Hawke and Budreau previously collaborated on the Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue, and this is a very different role, but a good fit – Hawke is clearly having a great time playing a bit of a bumbler. Budreau never quite finds an ending, but the vibe he grooves in along the way (much of it provided by the less-remembered, early-‘70s Dylan on the soundtrack) is just right.
RELEASE DATE: April 19 DIRECTOR: Wanuri Kahiu CAST: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva
The title translates to “friend,” and for a long time, Kena (Mugatsia) and Ziki (Munyiva) pretend like that’s what they are. But there’s a nervous, pace-quickening vibe between them, and soon neither of them can deny the attraction they feel – try as they might, living as they do in a Kenyan community where homosexuality is seen as a transgression both in the eyes of the law and of God. Director Kahiu coaxes warm, naturalistic performances out of her young actors, and smoothly navigates the tricky turns of the third act, wherein the lyrical romanticism is offset by a hard dose of reality. It’s an energetic and entertaining romance, but with real, scary stakes.
RELEASE DATE: April 19 DIRECTOR: Penny Lane CAST: Documentary
The story of the Satanic Temple is a rich one, especially for a student of media manipulation like director Lane (whose previous credits include Nuts! and Our Nixon): founded in 2013 as a combination of stunt and troll, the group became a gathering point for all sorts of rebels and outsiders (many from religious backgrounds), exploding from a membership of three people to 50,000 in three years. They are real hellraisers (forgive me, sorry), taking on issues of church and state and accidentally, along the way, inspiring real passion and dedication (and to be fair, their “seven tenets” are much more reasonable than most religious dogma). But it’s not a valentine, not entirely; by the end, Lane’s very funny and very pointed film is asking important questions about what happens when a rebellion has to deal with rebellion, and becomes the kind of buzzword-spouting rule-makers they ostensibly set out to destroy.
Under the Silver Lake
RELEASE DATE: April 19 (on demand April 23) DIRECTOR: David Robert Mitchell CAST:Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough, Topher Grace
Mitchell broke out big a couple of years back with It Follows, and his new one feels very much like a movie by a guy who suddenly got invited to the cool L.A. parties, and did some very good drugs at them. In other words, it’s a big, wild sophomore swing, a la Southland Tales, and if that sounds like a threat, you should probably stay away. But those who can tune in to its dreamy old music / loopy camera moves / tossed-off references style will have a great time. Some of it doesn’t work – the bursts of brutality are incongruent with the otherwise omnipresent good vibes – but Garfield and Keough are bang-on, the humor is just deadpan enough, and Mitchell’s shaggy narrative becomes an appropriate private eye story for the gig economy.
RELEASE DATE: April 19 DIRECTOR: Julia Hart CAST: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Saniyya Sidney, Lorraine Toussaint
You can keep your endless Spider-Man and Batman reboots; this, friends, is a real superhero origin story. Like the best of them (including Unbreakable, its clearest influence), Fast Color is less interested in effects and iconography than personality and relationships, here in the form of three generations of women with “abilities,” trying to work through how to use (or not use) them in a world of post-apocalyptic draught. Mbatha-Rawis as charismatic and magnetic as ever, while Sidney makes quite an impression as her daughter. But the most memorable work is from Toussaint as the matriarch of this family of special women, and her big climactic scenes are a straight-up barnburner. Julia Hart’s direction is both focused and free; this is one of the best movies of the young year.
RELEASE DATE: April 19 DIRECTOR: Nia DaCosta CAST: Tessa Thompson, Lily James, Luke Kirby
Writer/director DaCosta helms this whisper-quiet but deeply affecting story of opioid dealing in the backwoods of North Dakota, anchored by an achingly good Tessa Thompson performance. She stars as Ollie, a broke young woman on parole for dealing oxy on job sites and truck stops, who reluctantly reenters the life in a family emergency. (Look at that, it’s a movie about “economic anxiety.”) Thompson conveys vulnerability, desperation, and toughness with aplomb; it’s full of scenes other actors would’ve oversold and blown, and she nails every one of them. DaCosta directs in a modest, slice-of-life style, which only heightens the tension of events on screen — this is the kind of movie you lean forward to hear, and before you know it, you’re overwhelmed.
Carmine Street Guitars
RELEASE DATE: April 24 DIRECTOR: Ron Mann CAST: Documentary
Ron Mann produces and directs this slight (80 minute) and sweet documentary, profiling Rick Kelly, the Greenwich Village guitar maker who builds his instruments from the lumber of the city’s oldest buildings. Mann follows one guitar – built from wood in McSorley’s, New York’s oldest bar – from when Rick walks a plank out their door through when he places the finished guitar in his window, but that’s the most formal thing in this shaggy, hang-out doc, which mostly consists of Kelly talking shop with the musicians who pop in looking for a new axe. But it’s not just for music lovers; Mann also captures the dynamics of the changing neighborhood, holding up Kelly as the kind of niche craftsman that the city increasingly has no place for. Charming and entertaining, with a whole lot of great music.