Judy (2014)I wasn’t the biggest fan of Emanuele De Santi’s Adam Chaplin (2011)—a superhero gore film that moved at a furious pace, well-suited alongside the Troma classics of the 80s. His follow-up film, Judy, is a hundred-and-eighty degree turn. A whacked-out group of street performers with a serious philosophy of brutality live on the periphery of the city. A beautiful blonde woman loses her way in the city and stops her car in a secluded area to use her cell phone. The matriarch of the whacked-out street performers approaches her car and begs for some money. The beautiful blonde refuses to give her money and even goes so far to pull her pistol on the woman for her to leave her alone. Back at her flat, the beautiful blonde woman attends to her dog, Judy, and the film, subsequently, never leaves this location. The blonde soon loses track of Judy, and distraught, she goes looking. As she explores her flat and the close proximity, the blonde slowly grows to realize that someone is fucking with her. Judy is more of an interesting experiment than a fully satisfying film and well worth a viewing (as the initial one will hold most of its power).
I am a huge fan of Richard’s Wedding (2012) and really enjoyed Summer of Blood (2014). Director, writer, and actor, Onur Tukel is easily one of the most interesting currently working in American independent film. Applesauce is his best film yet. Tukel plays Ron who listens to shock jock, Stevie Bricks (Dylan Baker) on the radio. Bricks has a call-in segment once a week where he asks his listeners to relate the worst things that they have ever done. Ron can’t tell his story, because his wife, Nicki (Trieste Kelly Dunn) summons him away to a restaurant with friends, Les (Max Casella) and his wife, Kate (Jennifer Prediger). Over dinner, Ron tells the story of the worst thing he’s ever done: in college, he got into a fight at a frat party during which he slammed the door upon the fingers of his combatant, severing them completely. Ron never knew what happened to the guy. Ron begins to receive body parts in conspicuous locations throughout the film. Les and Kate, motivated by Ron’s story, relate to each other each’s worst deed. Les is crushed when he learns Kate’s story. Each character’s revelations is the catalyst for each’s dramatic action, which all unfold in rather darkly humorous fashion. A very witty and entertaining film.
Christmas, Again (2014)
Kentucker Audley plays Noel who comes from upstate New York once a year down to Brooklyn to plant his camper and sell Christmas trees and wreaths to the city folk. He’s depressed this year, as it is apparent he is no longer with the woman he loves. Late one evening, he sees a young woman passed out on a park bench. He brings her into his camper away from the freezing cold. She awakens the following morning and flees, embarrassed. She later visits Noel with a kind gesture, and near the conclusion of Christmas, Again she spends Christmas Eve with him. Audley really excels at playing shy, mumbling characters, and over the course of the film, the viewer accompanies him as he interacts with myriad folks who come looking for a Christmas tree. A very good, character-driven film about a spiritual journey.
Fighting Fish (2010)
David (Val Emmich) is a sensitive, would-be writer who lives in upstate New York, forced to care for his two younger half-siblings while his mother recuperates in a hospital for her depression. David is resentful of his burdens. His wayward sister, Alice (Anna Moore), shows at the house for a visit, and she ignites strong emotions in him. David meets a pretty girl at the pet shop where works named Chris (Halley Feiffer). Fighting Fish then plays out the dilemma of David indulging his new romantic feelings for Chris (and their freedom) or rekindling his romantic feelings for Alice (and experiencing all its familiar heartaches). Fighting Fish would be good, if the writer/director, Annette Apitz, had more a command of dramatic confrontation. Scenes which should be emotionally-charged are allowed to fizzle, and she doesn’t use the pacing of the film to build any real energy or intensity. Apitz has a fondness for the montage or long, single shot whereupon an indie-rock song plays over. There are too many of these scenes, and they eventually become laughable. There are few precious scenes in Fighting Fish to make it worth seeing but these scenes hardly make it memorable.
The Attic (2007)
Elisabeth Moss is currently one of my favorite actresses, so her inclusion as the star of The Attic (2007), directed by Mary Lambert of Pet Sematary (1989) fame, made this one a must-see. Moss plays Emma, an agoraphobic, who lives with her mother and father (Catherine Mary Stewart and John Savage, respectively) and her mentally-disabled brother, Frankie (Tom Malloy). They moved into an old home which houses an odd history of the supernatural bent. Emma’s fragile mental condition combined with the supernatural proceedings around the house in short course cause a madness within her…or not. There may really be ghosts fucking with her, but no one believes her. The Attic is a total misfire. Its pace is glacial. Lambert’s direction is pedestrian: for example, one of the strongest tools of a filmmaker is her use of lighting. Lambert forgoes any interesting use of lights and shadows. The entire film is lit for coverage and only exacerbates the boringness of the film. Catherine Mary Stewart, a talented actress, is reduced to scenery. The screenplay is born of clichés from The Turn of the Screw. Moss’s performance is the sole attraction, and The Attic is only recommended for her die-hard fans.
I loved Homemakers. Rachel McKeon gives a Parker Posey/Greta Gerwig-esque performance as Irene, an aimless and passionate lead singer of a shitty punk band in Austin, Texas. Her off-the-wall antics prompt her bandmates to kick her out, and erstwhile, Irene learns that her grandfather devised his dilapidated home in Pittsburgh to her. She makes the journey to see the property and hooks up with a distant cousin named Cam (Jack Culbertson), who shares her penchant for hard drinking and inane fun. Irene enlists Cam to “fix up” the house, which initially amounts to them getting drunk and fucking it up to Irene and Cam making it into a home, a place where they both feel comfortable. Irene’s girlfriend and former bandmate, Kicky (Molly Carlisle) visits Irene in Pittsburgh to persuade her to come back to Austin (it appears a record label will not sign them without Irene). Irene must choose between the two locations. It’s fairly easy to glean from my brief synopsis where this indie comedy is coming from. McKeon as Irene is amazingly captivating, and Homemakers is a wonderful independent film.
A Horrible Way to Die (2010)
I wasn’t a fan of director Adam Wingard’s Home Sick (2007) nor was I a fan of his You’re Next (2011). However, there is a lot to like within both films. A Horrible Way to Die is an earlier collaboration of Wingard with writer Simon Barrett and stars three of my favorite indie actors, A.J. Bowen, Amy Seimetz (also a fave director), and Joe Swanberg (also a fave director). A Horrible Way to Die is my favorite film now from Wingard. A.J. Bowen plays a notorious serial killer, named Garrick Turrell, who escapes from custody and is heading towards the home of his girlfriend, Sarah (Seimetz) (presumably, this element is not explicit in the story). Sarah has relocated and has entered AA with a few months sobriety. She meets a kind fellow from her home group, Kevin (Swanberg) and she begins an awkward but loving romance with him. There is a real sense of dread and melancholy throughout A Horrible Way to Die as Bowen’s and Seimetz’s storylines lead to convergence. Even the flashback sequences, which show Bowen’s and Seimetz’s relationship are emotional and tension-filled. Wingard’s visuals are tops. Barrett’s screenplay is excellent, and he has blossomed into a fine writer. His story, “Dead Air,” an audio drama produced by Larry Fessenden and Glen McQuaid’s Glass Eye Pix in season two of Tales From Beyond the Pale is a personal favorite. Bowen, Seimetz, and Swanberg all give outstanding performances. I cannot wait for what these peeps do next.
Alps is Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to Dogtooth (2009). If Lanthimos was not yet a major world filmmaker, then with Alps he is. A group of four people, a nurse (Angeliki Papoulia), an ambulance driver (Aris Servetalis), a gymnast (Ariane Labed) and her coach (Johnny Vekris), come together to provide services to the loved ones of the recently deceased—one of the four will act as a substitute for the deceased loved one to aid in the grieving transitional process for the family. They name their group after the titular mountain range. The nurse attends to the death of a young tennis player and offers her services to her parents. She does this without the knowledge of the group. As Alps progresses, it becomes less and less clear as to what are the genuine motives of the group members. For example, is the man living with the nurse actually her father? Why is the nurse offering to be a substitute for a family without telling her compatriots? A beautiful and absurd film.
Sidewalks of New York (2001)
I am a huge fan of Edward Burns, as an actor and director. I tend to like all of this films, even the uneven ones. I missed Sidewalks of New York during its original theatrical run. I do remember his film being given a delayed release, because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, Sidewalks ranks as one of my least favorites from Burns. Burns shoots his film as a faux documentary, focusing on six New Yorkers of various ages talking about dating and relationships in New York City. Stanley Tucci plays the husband of Heather Graham who is having an affair with a young waitress, played by Brittany Murphy. Edward Burns plays a recently single television executive who begins dating again. He has a fledgling relationship with Rosario Dawson. My main complaint with Sidewalks is that there is too much of Tucci’s character. It is not that his performance is poor, but rather, Tucci’s character is extremely repellent. Almost of all of Graham and Murphy’s scene involve Tucci. Dawson is given relatively little screen time. The most endearing relationship of the film is between Graham and Burns, but it only really begins in the final act. A film of missteps.
The Deep Dark (2015)
The plot synopsis of The Deep Dark sounds as if it would be right up my alley: a sculptor (Sean McGrath) who makes mobiles is having a difficult time selling any of his artwork. Desperate, he call his successful uncle who offers him a month’s let of flat that he can use as a workshop. Inside of the dilapidated flat, the young sculptor discovers a small hole in the wall that begins feeding him written messages. The hole soon begins speaking to him in a female voice, promising to help make him successful. The hole releases a fleshy mass in the shape of a ball which he attaches to his mobile. The hole produces several of these. His art captures the eye of the most important art dealer in town and has a very interesting effect upon all who view it. In return, the hole in the wall demands to have an intimate relationship with the sculptor. The Deep Dark could have been a truly weird piece of alternative cinema, but it is way too conservative and traditional to be entertaining. At the midpoint in the film, the director chooses to make the burgeoning relationship between the art dealer and the sculptor focal, and this choice is far from appealing.
The Big Bad (2011)
I started to zone out towards the end of The Big Bad, so any real criticism of it is probably unfair. Another interesting premise and opening act: a young woman camps out all day inside of a bar, desperate to get the attention of an excitable bar patron. Eventually the young woman forms a bond with the excitable young woman. She reveals to her that she is looking for someone, and this same person may have infected others. The excitable young woman then begins to turn monstrous, and the film reveals that the young woman is chasing a werewolf conspiracy towards a group that killed her loved ones. The filmmakers made some interesting choices in telling their story, but The Big Bad never really captured my attention very much.
Ben (Chris Riquinha) contacts Isabel (Meissa Hampton) via email in an attempt to cast her in his new independent film. They exchange flirty emails and agree to meet for a date. Uptown begins as they meet for that date at a restaurant. After dinner, Isabel tells Ben that she is married. Throwing caution into the wind, Ben implicitly agrees to continue the date, and they spend the city walking around the city and talking. Their relationship remains platonic as they agree to meet each other some more, and they begin to have strong romantic feelings towards each other. Eventually, they have to confront each other about how they really feel. Uptown is the essence of “mumblecore” and is based around strong characters and a lot of conversation. The premise of the film is fairly incredulous; but if you are able to buy into it, then Uptown is a satisfying alternative to traditional romantic cinema.
I didn’t like Mickey Keating’s Pod (2015), but I greatly admired its style: it’s a film that begins slowly in building its tension and escalates increasingly as the film progresses. Keating’s previous film Ritual adopts the same style and it’s a better film. A young woman, Lovely (Lisa Marie Summerscales) calls her estranged husband, Tom (Dean Cates), in the middle of the night to a secluded motel. When he arrives, Lovely reveals in her hotel room that she has killed a man, claiming it was self-defense to rape. Tom and Lovely are flustered and struggle to do something. They decide to cover up the murder, and as Tom searches the dead man’s car, he finds a video camera. Inside the room, the couple views the tape, and it shows a satanic ritual, replete with a human sacrifice. They become extremely fearful when the phone in the room begins ringing. Ritual is really evocative of seventies, grindhouse cinema and well-directed and executed. Looking forward to more work from Keating.
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Unrated) (2015)
I admit that I like this one. However, I don’t know if my like of this latest installment of Paranormal Activity is relative. The Marked Ones and Paranormal Activity 4 were awful pieces of cinema. If you remember your Paranormal Activity folklore, then remember the childhood home of Katie and Kristy mysteriously burned to the ground when they were children. Cut to present time and a new home has been erected on the property which houses a new family, a young couple with a small daughter and their very attractive nanny. The father’s brother arrives for a Christmas visit, and while the brothers are plundering around the garage, they find an ancient VHS camcorder along with a box full of tapes. The camcorder is still operational, and the young father is able to capture very interesting, vague images around the house. They watch the tapes which show ritualistic images of Kristy and Katie. The young daughter begins talking to an imaginary friend, and her behavior subsequently becomes disturbing. The beginning of Paranormal Activity starts slow, replete with bad jokes and characterization, but as it progresses, the tone becomes more serious and the imagery and pacing are quite good. Worth a look, at least for the fans of the series.
The Russian Woodpecker (2015)
The Russian Woodpecker is a wonderful documentary about Ukrainian artist, Fedor Alexandrovich, who alleges that the Chernobyl meltdown was a deliberate act by a Russian minister, to cover up for the failure of the expensive spy radar that sits in the shadow of the reactor. Alexandrovich interviews key members of the Russian government involved at the time and makes a credible case towards his allegation. Overshadowing his investigation is the escalating tension between the Ukraine and Russia, and the toll that his investigation is taking upon him and his family. The Russian Woodpecker is almost Hertzog-ian in its artistry; and the viewer gets treated to many performance pieces by Alexandrovich. A must-see.
Go Down Death (2013)
Go Down Death is a black-and-white art film which is made up of loosely-connected performance pieces, either involving playful, elliptical conversation or musical sequences containing lyrics of the same. It is set primarily in an Old West Saloon and involves the prostitutes and their johns. Outside in the forest, a war rages on. Non-traditional, experimental cinema, like Go Down Death, can be appreciated in the right frame of mind (e.g. in the right mood), and there is a lot of humor and wit to appreciate here. I’m certain it will gain more power with subsequent viewings.
Be Good (2012)
Amy Seimetz and Thomas J. Madden play Mary and Paul, respectively, a married couple with a newborn baby girl. Be Good begins when Mary ends her maternity leave and has to go back to work. Paul stays home with their daughter. He is an independent filmmaker working on a screenplay. He has little time to work on it, because his infant daughter demands most of his time. He has no funding for his new project and is not producing any income for the family. Mary doesn’t want to work and wants to come home to care for her daughter. Over the course of the film, Paul has to confront the decision of abandoning his filmmaking to get a nine-to-five job to support his family. Be Good follows the spiritual journey of Paul in various episodes as he makes the adult decision to pursue his art or fully decide to care for his family. Be Good has a strong verisimilitude, good performances, and an overall wholly positive message. Recommended.
Larry Fessenden’s latest directorial effort, Beneath, continues his obsession with ecological horror. A group of recent high-school graduates visit a lake where a large, carnivorous fish swims within. Two girls and four guys float a canoe and paddle out to the middle. One gets attacked by the fish while three are swimming. They eventually lose one of their group and the two oars to paddle the boat. Stuck out in the middle of the lake, they turn against each other in an attempt to survive from the monstrous fish. Like Larry Cohen, Fessenden, despite his screenplay firmly rooted in B-movie, creature feature, creates a real sensitivity to his characterization and the drama. Ultimately, a big fish isn’t really the killer, but rather the selfish motives of each character. Wonderfully visualized and executed, Beneath is an excellent horror film from Fessenden.
Generation Um... (2012)
Generation Um... would have disappeared into Indie-movie limbo had it not been for the casting of Keanu Reeves as the lead. Reeves plays a forty-ish drifter, engaged in a relationship with two obnoxious, party-hard young ladies, played by Bojana Novakovic and Adelaide Clemens. Wandering in the city, after a night of partying, Reeves’s character steals a video camera. This video camera becomes his metaphoric new eye on life: he begins questioning his existence by asking child-like questions and taking videos of simple things, like trees in a park. When he hooks up with the two girls the following evening, he asks the two a series of questions and just generally allows them to perform however they want in front of the camera. Obviously, confronting the answers to the essence of existence is rarely very pretty. Generation Um... is generally an unpleasant film, showing its characters as shallow and selfish; and when they begin to question their values, they retreat to either anger or alcohol. I would recommend most people to view this one with an open mind. It’s probably due for a reconsideration.
Tu dors Nicole (2014)
Tu dors Nicole is a wonderful, French-language Canadian film about Nicole (Julianne Côté), spending her summer at home with her best friend Véronique (Catherine St-Laurent). Nicole’s older brother shares their house, along with his two bandmates, while their parents are away on vacation. Nicole is trying to figure out what to do with her life. She falls in love with the drummer of her brother’s band. She has a big fight with her best friend. She loses her job. All familiar subjects of “coming-of-age” cinema, but there is a real sensitivity and energy to the film. Shot in black-and-white with excellent performances, Tu dors Nicole is a sleeper hit.
Last Shift (2014)
Last Shift is an excellent, low-budget horror film. Rookie cop, Jessica (Juliana Harkavy) is assigned to the night shift on the last evening of an old police precinct. She is all alone and she isn’t told that previously the cops in the station experienced several paranormal episodes. Three members of a Satanic, Manson-like cult committed suicide in one of the holding cells, and on this evening, the spirits have come back. Harkavy is really sexy and is also a very talented actress. She carries the film. I expect to see her in more high-profile roles in the future. Eschewing familiar J-Horror tropes for effective, creepy tension, Last Shift is well worth seeing.
Man Up (2015)
Man Up stars Lake Bell as a cynical, single woman in her mid-thirties who is mistaken by Simon Pegg to be her blind date. Instead of telling the truth, she pretends to be his date and go out with him. The two have a strong chemistry. Halfway through the film, Pegg discovers Bell’s ruse, and the two separate. In romantic comedy fashion, the final act ends on a high note. Man Up is nothing new to romantic comedy. Its visuals and energy are at times evocative of the work of Edgar Wright, and a lot of the jokes are reused or familiar. Nevertheless, Pegg and Bell make an endearing couple, and it is their performances that make Man Up worth seeing.
Meadowland is a depressing-as-hell drama about Olivia Wilde and Luke Wilson who play young parents whose son is kidnapped. A year later, the film begins, and they know nothing about the whereabouts of their son nor if he is alive or dead. Wilde plays a school teacher who has become detached about the welfare of her students. She grows a strong attachment to an autistic child attending her school. She stops taking her medication and as Meadowland progresses, she becomes almost totally disassociated from reality. Wilson plays a beat cop, and like Wilde, he has less passion towards his work. He’s bottling up all of his anger but is attempting to get help and find some closure to his son’s disappearance. Meadowland is extremely well-done and prescient. The film contains myriad strong performances in supporting roles from the likes of John Leguizamo, Juno Temple, Elisabeth Moss, Giovanni Ribisi, and Kevin Corrigan. I’ve only seen Wilde in few choice roles but I think she is a very talented actress. I hope more good roles come her way. Meadowland is way too depressing for a re-watch but definitely worth seeing for people who like real adult drama.
Soft in the Head (2013)
I loved Nathan Silver’s Uncertain Terms (2014), so I decided to give Soft in the Head a watch. Sheila Etxeberría plays Natalia, an attractive and aimless woman in her mid-20s who gets thrown out of her boyfriend’s apartment. She also has a drinking problem. On the street, she is found by kind-hearted Maury (Ed Ryan) who houses her in his apartment, along with a group of ragtag derelicts. The brother of her best friend, Hannah (Melanie J. Scheiner), named Nathan (Carl Kranz), falls in love with Natalia. He’s shy and very socially awkward. His overbearing parents disapprove of Natalia, because she is not Jewish. Soft in the Head follows Natalia as she fucks up everything in her path, because of her drinking, often with darkly humorous results. It is a very well-done film about the limits of control: how much can one control his/her life, beyond his/her behavior?
Best films of 2015:
4. Uncertain Terms
3. Mistress America
2. Digging for Fire
1. Queen of Earth