Yes, 2013 is almost half over, but I say the best is yet to come. From reliving your adolescence to revisiting some classic Shakespeare to potentially redefining what identity is, here some of the best indies that may fly alittle under the radar until their release but will come to represent some of the best cinema has to offer. Take it from me; I’ve seen them.
*Note: published release dates for the US
1. Much Ado About Nothing (June 7th)
Director: Joss Whedon
Writer: Joss Whedon (screenplay), Will Shakespeare (play)
Cast: Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillon, Clark Gregg, Amy Acker
Where I saw it: Toronto Film Festival 2012
My Score: 4.5/5 stars
Synopsis: A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic comedy about two pairs of lovers with different takes on romance and a way with words.
Why you shouldn’t miss it: I don’t know how, but I missed ever reading ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, which made it even more special that I could first see it through the eyes of one Mr. Joss Whedon (yes, the one and the same). Whedon is a man who knows how to craft unique cult classics so it should be no surprise that this is a damn good one. Not everyone can weave modern material into Shakespeare but Whedon has found a way to blend in contemporary physical comedy with Shakespeare’s written follies in such a great way. Aided by charming leading performances by Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Amy Acker (Beatrice), the story revolves around two couples with vastly different ideas about love, one betrothed and in love and the other using bitter distain to mask their feelings, and the plots to tear them apart and bring them together. Not to be out done, Nathan Fillon (Dogberry) and Tom Lenk (Verges) together embody the spirit of a old time comedic duo as they take on the roles of incompetent citizen-police. Alcohol consumption is brilliantly used prominently throughout the movie to give plausibility to all the misunderstandings and mayhem that ensue. Added bonus; the movie is in black & white, a choice by Whedon to play up “the noir feel”. A must see especially if you’re a fan of the Whedon universe.
2. Fruitvale Station (July 19th)
Synopsis: The true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008.
Why you shouldn’t miss it: Some people may know the story of Oscar Grant. It was a big story in the media, one that was used to bring to light the ugliness of racial profiling and police brutality in the US. It fueled Bay area riots and the call for the examination of police practices in the last couple of years. Sure, Oscar Grant was a man who made bad decisions in the past that led to troubles with the law, but did he deserve this? And more importantly, what about the people he left behind? That is what the feature Fruitvale Station (initially titled Fruitvale) gives to us – a dramatic look into the last day of his life and his interactions with all the people he loved, depended on, and befriended him. And through all these people who learned just what a beautiful, complicated, struggling soul Oscar Grant was, heightened by the subtle but very nuanced performance by Michael B. Jordan as Oscar. He was a flawed man that was trying to move forward after all of his setbacks. Whether it was through his relationship with his mother (an incredible moving and Oscar-worthy performance by Octavia Spencer) which was threatened by his hot temper and drug dealing that landed him in jail in the past, his young daughter who he never wanted to ever feel abandoned, his girlfriend who he was building a life with, or his many friends who stood up by him no matter what. You see it and you know that his daughter will no longer have a father and his mother will no longer have a son at the end. It was like poetry on-screen brought to us by 26 year old, first time filmmaker Ryan Coogler, who possibly used his youth and background to identify with this young man and craft this movie as though we are walking together with Oscar Grant.
3. The Spectacular Now (Aug 2nd)
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers: Michael H. Weber & Scott Neustadter (writing duo best known for (500) Days of Summer), Tim Tharp (novel)
Cast: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh
Where I saw it: Atlanta Film Festival 2013
My Score: 4.5/5 stars
Synopsis: A hard-partying high school senior’s philosophy on life changes when he meets the not-so-typical “nice girl.”
Why you shouldn’t miss it: I initially wrote this film off (as I expect others to do) as just another medicore high school movie. This was until I discovered that this is actually a movie that finds its teenage characters taking on some very adult themes like alcohol abuse with grade A honesty, courage, and dare I say… reality. The movie captures a story of a precious love that may not be forever but remains an integral part of growing up and moving forward. It was also another one of those movies that made me long for my days in high school. Where the recent Perks of Being a Wallflower made me yearn for that ride-or-die supportive group of friends who made me feel ok with myself, The Spectacular Now made me yearn for that feeling of being on the brink of discovering that I had a whole beautiful life ahead of me, that feeling that I had overcome a hardship in my life called the teenage years and can now be better equipped to take on the world. From what I have seen, few mainstream movies tackle this emotional course of teenagers, especially guys, at this stage of life; this is where I look to and am grateful for independent films. Kudos to both Teller and Woodley for crafting a sweet teen romance on screen that did not make me cringe for being, you know, a teen romance. The Spectacular Now represents one of those wonderful film experiences that unite the audience in the way where no one is excluded form the laughs, the collective gasps, and those moments that move us to silent tears; its a film to see surrounded by others.
4. Breathe In (TBA, Fall 2013)
Director/Writer: Drake Dormeus (best known for Like Crazy)
Cast: Felicity Jones, Guy Pearce, Amy Ryan
Where I saw it: Sundance Film Festival 2013 (world premiere)
My Score: 4/5 stars
Synopsis: When a foreign exchange student arrives in a small upstate New York town, she challenges the dynamics of her host family’s relationships and alters their lives forever.
Why you shouldn’t miss it: I was taken aback by how good Drake Doremus’ movie Like Crazy was. I loved the way that it was framed as this sweet and sentimental story of love found and lost but deep within it lay something a little more heavy and unfortunate, a look at two people who enter each other’s lives, change it forever, but ultimately do not find the forever happiness that hoped for. That is what also drew me to see Doremus’ latest film Breathe In, which also stars Felicity Jones. Instead of witnessing the love between two young college students over time, this one looks at the (very inappropriate) connection formed by a young exchange student and an older, married man. For this reason alone, this movie is darker iteration of Like Crazy, but where the subject matter has the ability to shock or invoke dismay, the film takes great care with this relationship and presents it with a sort of innocence. As in Like Crazy, Drake Doremus finds a way to craft beautiful, soft, intimate moments between the lead characters. It’s all in the looks, the touches, and the chemistry he evokes heightened by music which gently nudges the characters together and apart as needed. The film only faults in some contrived montages towards the end which only acts to sum up some of the actions anyone would predicted would transpire. The very last moment though is enough to make up some of it for me. This film is, in so many ways, a worthy companion piece to Like Crazy.
5. The Pretty One (TBA, Fall 2013)
Director/Writer: Jenee LaMarque
Cast: Zoe Kazan, Jake Johnson, Ron Livingston
Where I saw it: Tribeca Film Festival 2013
My Grade: 4/5 stars
Synopsis: When a woman’s identical prettier twin sister dies, the woman assumes her sister’s identity, moving into her apartment and the big city.
Why you shouldn’t miss it: That manic-pixie dream girl fixation of so many isn’t going away anytime soon, which is a fact that I am grateful for (as long as we continue to do it in moderation, people). Using these characters as muses for film to appear all sugary sweet and harmless on the surface but end up representing something so much more affecting. This has been a recent bait-and-switch tactic that has kept contemporary independent film interesting. In the film The Pretty One, Zoe Kazan plays both Laurel and Audrey, identical twin girls who are vastly different in both demeanor and presentation. Audrey has always been the successful one, the confident one, the pretty one, while Laurel has lived in that shadow of not being quite special enough. And because of this delineation, Audrey grows up to be independent, fashionable, and desirable with Laurel remains shy, awkward, frumpy, lonely, and afraid to leave her small hometown and her caretaker role to her father. Just when Laurel, with the coaxing from Audrey, decides to try and break out of her shell, a freak car accident takes the life of Audrey and gives Laurel the opportunity to step into the life of someone she thinks had it all figured out. But did she really? Enter Basel (New Girl’s Jake Johnson), Audrey’s duplex tenant in the city who Laurel (posing as Audrey, another way she hides and loses her own identity) grows closer to, opening her eyes to who she is and what she has to offer. The Pretty One stands as a bright, quirky, heart-warming thing of a film that would definitely satisfy on a first watch, a re-watch, and a gorge-watch. The film swings from cutesy, rom-com status to commentary on the importance of defining our own identities, not using grief or low self-esteem or admiration of others to dictate who we show to the world, and teaching us that complimenting ourselves every now and then can go along way. This movie definitely continutes the indie film love affair with Zoe Kazan following happythankyoumoreplease and Ruby Sparks, and as for Jake Johnson, well I’m starting to think he is just a charming man who can playfully banter with any leading lady they throw at him (some math for you New Girl fans: Basel = Nick + beard + a myriad of books – pullovers).