The middle of the year brings a lot of things, but we can probably all agree that the most important of those things are lists.
With that in mind, Landon Palmer and I set out to highlight ten of our favorite films of the past six months, but instead of being a straight forward list of the year’s best movies so far we chose to zero in on the great, smaller movies that may have bypassed your radar as they slipped in and out of just a handful of theaters. This factor is most obvious in the absence of Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor from Landon’s selections.
The films we’ve chosen run the gamut of genres and countries of origin, but they share a sense of quality sadly missing from the majority of Hollywood films opening wide in theaters these days. (Although if you have to see a wannabe blockbuster choose Roland Emmerich’s White House Down… the damn thing is dumb as dirt but sweet Jesus is it fun.)
You may have heard of some of the films below, but all of them are worth seeking out at your local arthouse or VOD provider of choice.
Film fans expect something pretty specific when they hear the name Cronenberg, and Brandon has proudly taken the baton of corporeal horror from his father David. Though the younger Cronenberg claims to have seen very few, if any, of his father’s films, the signature Cronenberg sensibility is available in full force in this story about celebrity “consumers” who seek to infect themselves with diseases shared by the renowned.
Like a Videodrome for today’s plastic celebrity culture, Antiviral follows a rogue functionary (Caleb Landry Jones, perfectly emaciated) whose side business of black market celebrity diseases comes to a quick halt when he acquires the terminal ailment of one of this alternate universe’s biggest names. His body and his knowledge of the world endure grotesque and fascinating changes, and provide ample opportunities for biting, timely satire.
One would think it would be annoying and predictable for the son of a famous filmmaker to follow so closely in his father’s footsteps, but Brandon Cronenberg both delivers on the family name and shows ample panache of his own. Antiviral proves that old adage: you can never have too many Cronenbergs. — LP
Where can you see it? Antiviral had such a limited theatrical run as to not even register on the box office map, but it is still available on VOD.
Berberian Sound Studio
British filmmaker Peter Strickland’s sophomore feature is both a pained love letter to Italian giallo horror and a potent journey into the deep, dark world of sound production. Toby Jones plays a meek sound designer who labors at practical foley effects for a gory horror film overseen by an eccentric director and a dictatorial producer. Besides a killer beginning credit sequence, we never see a frame of the film in question. Instead, Berberian Sound Studio lends its most detailed focus to Jones’s character’s process, which involves using a variety of fruits, vegetables and cooking materials to evoke the gruesome sounds of anything ranging from scalping to stabbing to acts best not mentioned here; our mind, and Jones’s pained reactions, fill in the rest.
The film eventually gets into our beloved sound designer’s psyche, and that’s where Berberian Sound Studio soars from an expertly executed exercise in film form to an innovative, no-punches-pulled journey into the subjectivity of a character for whom any prior divisions between reality and cinema are rapidly torn apart. — LP
Where can you see it? Berberian Sound Studio is currently available for rent on VOD, and is slowly expanding its limited theatrical run.
The History of Future Folk
You’d be forgiven for taking a single glance at the poster or images from The History of Future Folk and deciding that it just plain looks too goofy to watch, but you’d be making a big mistake all the same. And that’s not to say the movie isn’t goofy, an adjective that applies in spades, but instead the film manages something special with a light-heartedness that just makes you feel good even as it details a story about an impending alien invasion and the music that might save mankind.
Co-directors John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker have made a spiritual cousin to the films of Japan’s Yoshihiro Nakamura in their blending of humor, emotion and melody to tell a small-scale tale that’s ultimately about humanity as a whole. — RH
Where can you see it? This future low-fi classic is available on DVD and VOD.
Tied with Something in the Air as my favorite film of the year, young (24!) French Canadian auteur Xavier Dolan’s nearly three-hour character study is a dazzling cocktail of gender transgression, fantastic period costumes, affecting melodrama, and addictive pop music. Tracking the decade-long ups-and-downs of a couple in love as Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) realizes he must become a woman, Laurence Anyways uses the framework of a classic love story to articulate a detailed, layered depiction of fluid gender identity in a rigidly gender-specific society.
Despite its ambitious running time, the film moves seamlessly from one life event to another through a novelistic structure and tonal grace, staggeringly realized by Dolan’s incredible, seemingly innate eye and ear for cinematic style as an anchor for substance. But the heart of the film is the relationship between Poupaud’s Laurence and sometimes girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement) who bring humanity, specificity, chemistry, and nuance to a set of complex tensions and issues often relegated to near-invisibility.
The film’s US release came about on the tail of DOMA’s repeal, and Laurence Anyways is a necessary reminder that there’s still a long ways to go in queer politics – there’s a lot more to the LGBT acronym than those first two letters. — LP
Where can you see it? Laurence Anyways opened on 8 screens this past weekend and is slowly expanding through the month of July.
Landon went the highbrow route with his horror choice (Berberian Sound Studio), but as someone with far less class I’m going with one of the year’s goriest and most brutal films instead. Franck Khalfoun’s remake of the early ’80s slasher should have by all accounts faced the same fate as every other lame horror redo, but instead the film surprises with an excess of style, technical achievement and a truly empathetic killer.
Elijah Wood, he of the big, blue eyes and hairy feet, plays the title character whose POV we experience the majority of the film through, and the result is dangerous, dizzying and disgusting. The story checks all the genre boxes, but Wood’s performance acts as a counter balance to the beautifully rendered but still grotesque onscreen activities. Add to that a score by Rob that that plays like Drive meets the Night Stalker, and you have a film that finds beauty in the monstrous. — RH
Where can you see it? This gory but gorgeous gem disappeared from theaters in less time than it takes Elijah Wood’s hands to scalp a street walker, but it’s still available on VOD. Those of you with region-free Blu-ray players can also pick up the just released Blu-ray from Amazon UK.
Much Ado About Nothing
There’s a reason why William Shakespeare remains the author of more adapted works than any other writer, and it pretty much all comes down to language. Many people will point to his love dramas and tales of revenge as the height of his output, but for me it’s his comedies that continue to impress, and none do so better than Much Ado About Nothing.
There’s a brief but intense drama to be found within, but it’s the sharp wit and big laughs that elevate it. When big time movie diretor Joss Whedon (The Avengers) surprised us with news that he had shot an adaptation at his own house in less than two weeks expectations were all over the place, but the resulting film is easily one of the best the Bard’s work has ever seen. Shakespeare’s words mesh beautifully with Whedon’s sensibilities and visual playfulness, and you can barely help but smile through the entire thing. — RH
Where can you see it? Joss Whedon’s indie-minded Shakespeare adaptation opened in early June in limited theatrical release and has been growing less limited ever since. It’s currently playing in over 200 theaters so you should hopefully be able to find one near you.
Post Tenebras Lux
What do a British rugby team, a girl who dreams of cattle, a well-endowed devil who glows like the byproduct of a nuclear fallout, and an erotic French bathhouse have in common? Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas (who won Best Director at Cannes in 2012 for this film) never provides direct solutions to what may initially, misleadingly seem like a cinematic riddle.
Instead, Reygadas opts to employ a dream logic where words, images, events, emotions, and landscapes slowly fold back onto one another into a whole that remains deliberately incoherent yet strangely unified. Post Tenebras Lux (Latin for “light after darkness”) is as mesmerizingly elegiac as it is twisted and discomfiting, as immersive as it is shocking and disturbing; the film is even, on occasion, pitch-black funny. The filmmaker who made a sizable impression with American audiences with the contemplative, remarkable Silent Light continues exploring his interest in micro-communities and social formations rarely captured on film, this time turning to his own life (the film is partly autobiographical), home (Reygadas was inspired to make the film while building his house in Morelos, Mexico, the area filmed), and family (his own daughter plays the precocious cow-dreamer).
The result is a challenging symphony of characters, images, and scenarios, all realized as stark, beautiful, intimate manifestations of a restless and singular cinematic imagination. — LP
Where can you see it? A release date hasn’t been set yet, but Post Tenebras Lux should be available on DVD from Strand Releasing soon.
Murder mysteries are often lumped into genre groupings that unintentionally act to diminish the film’s dramatic merits, but once in a while one of these thrillers stands out with its portrayal of evil and good in the real world. David Fincher’s Zodiac and Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder are the best of the best in that regard, but this little German thriller from 2010 comes pretty damn close. A teenage girl is murdered, and her killer is never caught, but when a similar crime presents itself two decades later the truth about the earlier crime begins to work its way up into the open.
We meet and spend time with all the players, from family and detectives to strangers and the killer, and all the while the loss, sadness and obsession worm their way into our brains. The film is beautifully shot, and even as we’re given the answers we’re disturbed with both realizations and new doubts. – RH
Where can you see it? The film had a brief, limited theatrical run in March and should hopefully be coming to DVD soon.
Something in the Air
Tied with Laurence Anyways as my favorite film of the year so far, Olivier Assayas’s semi-autobiographical tale of French teenagers/would-be-revolutionaries after the events of 1968 (the film’s French title translates to After May) is perhaps one of the most honest, thoroughly realized, and sincere examinations of a perpetually-recounted era, refusing either backward-looking cynicism of full-fledged romanticism.
After the modest, intimate family narrative of Summer Hours and the epic Molotov cocktail of a biopic that was Carlos, Assayas strikes something in the middle with this tale of a small handful of young people carrying the weight of big ideas. Gorgeously photographed and accompanied with a killer and surprisingly not-at-all cliché soundtrack, Something in the Air evokes post-’68 France in ways that only someone who was there could film. Typically, filmmakers use their first works as biopics, but I’m thankful that Assayas waited to share his peace/love/fuck the establishment youth after establishing himself as a master filmmaker with 13 features under his belt. Simply stunning. – LP
Where can you see it? Something in the Air will be released on DVD and Blu-ray in September.
This is the official two-sentence synopsis of writer/director Shane Carruth’s long awaited follow-up to Primer. “A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.” So while Upstream Color had substantial indie buzz no one was surprised when it didn’t catch on with the masses.
As seemingly convoluted as that desription sounds, the film is actually fairly straightforward in its tale of identity, relationships and the acceptance and reclamation of our very souls. It’s an empowering love story, and that personalized interpretation is one of its many joys. I’ve already heard multiple “explanations” of the film from people, and while some love it and some hate it, I find their wildly varied interpretaions just as valid as my own.
Carruth wore multiple hats on the production including acting and scoring, but his greatest accomplishment (outside of the writing and directing) was as lead casting director. Amy Seimetz, in the second lead role, gives one of the year’s fantastically affecting and unsung performances as a woman who sees great suffering and madness before struggling to come through on the other side. – RH
Where can you see it? Shane Carruth’s mind-bending yet simple love story is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD, Netflix Instant and VOD.
What fantastic but small movies have you seen and loved this year so far?