Yes, every summer movie season looks more the same as the last one. We have another Shrek, another Iron Man, another Sex and the City, another Twilight, another … well you get the point. Indie movies are the only remedy for this Summer blockbuster fatigue. Last year was quite strong (The Hurt Locker, Moon, 500 Days of Summer, The Cove), and this year we have an even more unusually fruitful indie selection. Experimental foreign films, quirky Sundance comedies, low budget shock-horror, socially conscious documentaries — you name it, it’s probably coming out this summer.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
Eat your heart out, Saw series! Filmmaker Tom Six has outdone everyone in the torture porn industry. In this little ditty, we follow two American girls on vacation in Germany. While on their way to a party they get lost and make the brilliant decision to look for help by walking into the middle of spooky-looking woods at night. They reach the house of a surgeon who invites them in, after which they are promptly drugged and gagged, the latest subjects in the surgeon’s experiment to create a living human/centipede hybrid to fulfill his sick twisted fantasies. This procedure is accomplished by connecting the human subjects through their gastric system (See Diagram). This does not bode well for the captive girls who are in for some of the worst torture ever conceived by a filmmaker. The Human Centipede has only screened at a few festivals and yet it’s already become a cult hit.
The sequel is also in the works: The Human Centipede (Full Sequence). Roger Ebert’s zero star review of the film is a gem.
The Good the Bad and the Weird
Ji-woon Kim’s Korean Spaghetti Western, which has been thrilling audiences all over the world since 2008, is finally its making its way stateside! This ultraviolent movie involves three Korean outlaws in 1940s Manchuria and their rivalry to possess a treasure map. All the while they are being pursued by the Chinese army and Japanese bandits. This flick is essentially a giant chase movie, but one that is consistently clever and inventive. Plus, the reviews are stellar so far.
Nicole Holofcener has carved out one of the most interesting careers in Indiewood. All her films (Walking and Talking, Lovely and Amazing, Friends with Money) are strictly about women, but they are never glamorous. The films can sometimes be damning portraits; her characters making mistakes but never playing for the sympathy of the audience. They are simply complex people that we are invited to have our own different feelings about.
Holofcener’s latest, Please Give, premiered at Sundance to great acclaim — which is a rarity for this frequently overlooked filmmaker. We follow a couple (Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt) who collect and sell antique furniture. Some tension arises between them and the granddaughters (Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet) of their 91-year-old neighbor, who is living in a goldmine of antiques. The film attempts to navigate the waters between selfishness and selflessness.
The film by Thomas Balmes has been compared to other meditative docs like Baraka. (Check out Joe Bardi’s review of Babies here.) For this doc, we have the novel concept of a near-wordless documentary capturing four newborn babies from four vastly different cultures on four different continents.
Mother and Child
This one’s almost certain to get some love at next year’s Academy Awards. This hyper-link film from Rodrigo Garcia (Nine Lives) focuses on the issue of adoption. We follow a 50-year-old woman (Annette Bening) coming to terms with the death of her disapproving mother, a cold and ambitious lawyer (Naomi Watts) with no close friends or family, and a young woman (Kerry Washington) jumping through hoops to adopt an unborn baby from a teenage girl.
Harmony Korine fans rejoice! His latest film is his most talked-about (and divisive) since his 1997 debut Gummo. Trash Humpers was shot on grainy video tape and made to look like some lost home movie found in a dumpster. It’s quite a departure from the high-end production values of 2007’s Mister Lonely. The film follows a band of deranged misfits (one played by Korine himself, another played by his wife) who wear creepy rubber masks and literally go about their day humping trash in front of the camera.
The reviews have been split down the middle, but there’s no doubt about the film delivering on the WTF level.
Laura Poitras’ follow-up to her Oscar-nominated 2006 film My Country, My Country centers on Abu Jandal, a former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden and currently a cab driver in Yemen. He is also the brother-in-law of Salim Hamdan, the plaintiff in the landmark supreme court case Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld.
Best Worst Movie
A documentary about the cult and the legend that surrounds what is purported to be the worst movie ever made, Troll 2. This documentary is made by Michael Stephenson (who was the young star of the film). Stephenson goes to investigate what happened to the cast and crew after shooting ended, and examines the cult phenomenon the film has become.
The sophomore effort by writer/director brothers Josh and Benny Safdie (The Pleasure of Being Robbed) is a surprisingly poignant story about a father who can only spend two weeks a year with his children, so he intends to make that short time together very memorable. The filmmakers describe it as “a swan song to excuses and responsibilities; to fatherhood and self-created experiences, and to what it’s like to be truly torn between being a child and being an adult.” The reviews have been stellar so far, in particular for the performance by first-time actor Ronald Bronstein (director of 2007’s Frowndland). Look out for this one on IFC on demand on May 14th.
As bad as the SNL skit adaptations are, there are a couple exceptions to the rule (The Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World). Could MacGruber be another diamond in the rough? With Val Kilmer as the villain and Kristin Wiig as a master of disguise, it’s hard to see how this one can go wrong. The film’s premiere at SXSW drew a surprisingly positive response, and the Red Band Trailer is funny as hell (and this is coming from someone who normally rolls his eyes at these kinds of comedies).
Hasidic Jews smuggling drugs. Interesting premise for a non-comedy staring Jesse Eisenberg. But don’t get your hopes up too much; this one was reportedly panned at Sundance.
Looking For Eric
Ken Loach (Kes, Sweet Sixteen, The Wind that Shakes the Barley) is one of the longest-working and most-respected filmmakers in Europe. His latest is a comedy about a down-and-out middle-aged man (Steve Evets) who has football (that’s soccer for all you Yankees) legend Eric Cantona (playing himself and in what many consider a breakout role) as his imaginary friend. It all sounds hokey, right? Leave it to Loach, who takes this material and makes it funny and real. The film has received great acclaim and become a sleeper hit in England, though it’s taken nearly a year for it to find its way across the Atlantic.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of the international sensations Amelie, A Very Long Engagement and Delicatessen, is back. His latest is an apocalyptic fairy tale about a group of social outcasts living in a dump, and their attempts at turning it into a hospitable home while also plotting revenge on those who wronged them. The Jeunet visuals here are as fantastic as ever!
Mia Hansen-Love’s Cannes award-winner follows a very successful film producer (Louis de Lancquesaing) who is too immersed in his profession to spend much time with his family. But after a financial failure puts his career in in jeopardy, he falls into a depression and is forced to reexamine his life. The film is said to be inspired by the life of the late film producer Humbert Balsan, and has been celebrated for its true-to-life depiction of running a small movie studio.
Here we follow two young and rebellious scientists (Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley) who create an entirely new organism using human DNA. At first they think they have created the perfect organism, that is until it begins killing people and putting the entire human race in jeopardy. When will those silly scientists ever learn?
From director Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game) comes a gorgeously shot (courtesy of the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle) fairytale about a fisherman (Colin Farrell) who finds a woman in his fishing net that he believes is a mermaid. This movie follows the fascinating trend of auteur-driven children’s movies (Alice In Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are, Fantastic Mr. Fox).
This film has been described as a gory horror movie that looks like it was directed by Terrence Malick. In actual fact, it’s director Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher Trilogy, Bronson) who gives us this bloody tale complete with Vikings, crazy fight scenes and awe-inspiring imagery. This is my kind of action movie!! Heres the IMDB synopsis:
“1000 AD, for years, One Eye, a mute warrior of supernatural strength, has been held prisoner by the Norse chieftain Barde. Aided by Are, a boy slave, One Eye slays his captor and together he and Are escape, beginning a journey into the heart of darkness. On their flight, One Eye and Are board a Viking vessel, but the ship is soon engulfed by an endless fog that clears only as the crew sights an unknown land. As the new world reveals its secrets and the Vikings confront their terrible and bloody fate, One Eye discovers his true self.”
Now watch this one become a cult classic just from the bloody NSFW clip. Warning not for the squeamish!!
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
One of the most acclaimed docs at Sundance this year was an unfiltered look into the life of hard-working comedy legend Joan Rivers. Directed by Anne Sundberg and Ricki Stern (The End of America), the doc makes the effort to look beyond the comic’s daily life to consider how women are treated in Hollywood, and how difficult it is to survive the old boys’ club that is show biz.
Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky
This is actually the third film made in less than a year about fashion designer Coco Chanel, although this one looks like a more-interesting take on the artist than those other, more standard biopics. Coco and Igor focuses on Chanel’s relationship with another innovative artist, Igor Stravinsky, the Russian composer of the great ballet suites The Firebird, Petrushka and the revolutionary Rite of Spring. Set in Paris circa 1920, the general setup is that a newly wealthy Chanel and the penniless Stravinsky meet, and the attraction between them is electric.
The most celebrated and popular feature at Sundance this year was from director Debra Granik (Down to the Bone). The film stars Jennifer Lawrence (in a breakout role) as a teenager who goes on a tough search for her drug-dealer father and encounters more danger than she ever anticipated.
I Am Love
Showered with praise at nearly every film festival (Venice, Toronto, Sundance, Sarasota), this Italian melodrama from director Luca Guadagnino could be the breakout foreign hit of the summer. Anchored by an extraordinary performance by Tilda Swinton (who masters the Italian language with a Russian accent), the film follows a high-society woman in Milan who has an affair with a young cook. This sets off a series of events that will change her and her family forever.
I was able to see this one in Sarasota earlier this year, and I was blown away: The film is an operatic wonder. There is nothing new here, but the actors, costumes, decor, drama and the wonderful music (courtesy of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams) are all great. You simply have to get lost in this movie.
One of the most controversial and divisive films at Sundance this year was Michael Winterbottom’s pulpy adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel, which is sure to turn heads and raise eyebrows. We follow a crooked cop’s (Casey Affleck) descent into madness and murder, and the two women he loves (Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba) who get caught in his web. Simon Baker, Ned Beatty and Bill Pullman round out the exceptional cast. The film’s depiction of violence toward women is so unrelenting that it prompted numerous walkouts during its premiere screening. That controversy might make another appearance when the film opens in theaters on June 18th.
This is just one of two (or possible three) films Winterbottom is releasing this year (the others being the Naomi Klein doc The Shock Doctrine and the Colin Firth ghost story Genova). But this is just an average year for Winterbottom, whose name alone is enough reason to see this film.
French New Wave icon Alain Resnais (Night and Fog, Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad) is 87 years young and still producing some of the best and most exciting work of his career. His latest is a kaleidoscopic love story that rivals the style-driven cinema of younger, “hipper” French filmmakers like Michel Gondry and Arnaud Desplechin. The film follows Marguerite, a business woman who loses her wallet. The wallet is found by Georges (Andre Dussollier) who, after seeing her photo in the wallet, becomes obsessed with her and forces his way into her life. But that’s just the beginning of this beautifully surreal tale. French stars Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum of Solace), Emmanuelle Devos (A Christmas Tale) and Anne Consigny handle the supporting roles.
The film also features hands-down my favorite trailer of the year.
Last year’s notorious Greek import from director Yorgos Lanthimos finally gets a release. The film has drawn comparisons to the disturbing early works of Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier. We follow a seemingly wealthy family who are completely cut off from the rest of the world. They are not allowed to leave the confines of their gated property and preform incredibly bizarre rituals. But when an outsider makes an appearance, their insular world dissolves into violence and chaos.
The Kids are Alright
This is one of two breakout Sundance hits opening on the same weekend (the other one being Cyrus). Lisa Cholodenko’s honest and funny portrait of a modern family could be a real crowdpleaser and possible Oscar front-runner. Two teenage siblings (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) seek out their biological father (Mark Ruffalo) and introduce him to their two moms (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore). Soon afterward, their entire family structure is turned inside out.
The first big crossover effort by Mumblecore veterans Jay and Mark Duplass. Despite the appearance of big stars (John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Marissa Tomei, Catherine Keener) and a very warm reception by large audiences, the Duplass Brothers haven’t changed their filmmaking process much at all. They still rely heavily on their actors improvising (which gives the films an unusual amount of spontaneity), and they like quick-cheap productions. This one follows John (Reilly), a newly divorced sad sack, who meets and falls in love with the woman of his dreams, Molly (Tomei). It all seems too good to be true — and it is. He soon has to deal with Molly’s borderline-psychotic son Cyrus (Hill), who follows her everywhere.
Life During Wartime
Todd Solondz was one of the most revered filmmakers of the ’90s with the uncompromising indie classics Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness. The ’00s weren’t as kind, with his critically panned films Storytelling and Palindromes both criticized as retreads of his earlier work.
Solondz’s latest may have put things back on the upswing for him. Life During Wartime has been described as a “kinder, gentler” Solondz. It features many of the same characters from Happiness, only this time played by an entirely new cast. And oh what a cast it is! Shirley Henderson, Michael K. Williams (The Wire), Allison Janney (The West Wing), Ciaran Hinds, Ally Sheedy, Charlotte Rampling and Paul Reubens (yes, that’s Pee-wee Herman himself).
Jim Carrey has not had the best track record lately. Since 2004’s triumphant Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he hasn’t really done anything memorable (unless you count 2007’s memorably awful Number 23). Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s (Bad Santa) darkly comic fable seems perfectly suited for him, and Carrey has been getting some of the best notices of his career. And the IMDB synopsis is quite ridiculous:
” Steven Russell is happily married to Debbie, and a member of the local police force when a car accident provokes a dramatic reassessment of his life. Steven realizes he’s gay and decides to live life to the fullest — even if it means breaking the law. Steven’s new, extravagant lifestyle involves cons and fraud and, eventually, a stay in the State Penitentiary where he meets sensitive, soft-spoken Phillip Morris. His devotion to freeing Phillip from jail and building the perfect life together prompts Steven to attempt and often succeed at one impossible con after another.”
One of Quebec’s most exciting new writer/directors, Xaveir Dolan is only 21 years old. He tells the semi-autobiographical story of a young homosexual with a strained relationship with his mother. The film has been celebrated as an uncompromising tale of growing up in a constant war between you and your parents. The prolific young director also has another film in the can, Les Amours Imaginaires, which is set to premiere at Cannes this year.
Oscar season starts early this year with another career-defining performance by Robert Duvall. In 1930s Tennessee a mysterious old hermit (Duvall) throws a funeral party for himself (while he is still alive) and invites the entire town. He hopes to set the record straight about his life, after countless rumors and folktales the town has made up about him. The excellent cast also includes Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek and Lucas Black.
Fatih Atkin’s previous films (Head On, The Edge of Heaven) have been huge international hits. His latest is a departure from those hard-hitting dramas. Soul Kitchen is a light-hearted comedy about a young man’s attempts to keep his roadside restaurant open after many setbacks. As in all of Atkin’s films, the cast is full of quirky characters of various nationalities (most from Germany and Turkey).
Winner of the Audience Award at Sundance this year and also the opening film at this year’s Gasparilla film festival. The film’s writer/director is How I Met your Mother star Josh Radnor (you know, the one who isn’t Jason Segel or Neil Patrick Harris). His romantic comedy’s official synopsis suggests an ambitious film:
“happythankyoumoreplease” captures a generational moment – young people on the cusp of truly growing up, tiring of their reflexive cynicism, each in their own ways struggling to connect and define what it means to love and be loved.”
The ensemble cast includes: Malin Akerman, Kate Mara, Zoe Kazan, Tony Hale, Richard Jenkins and Radnor himself.
– Anthony Nicholas