Once October hits, Oscar-bait season begins in earnest. There will likely be too many good movies to keep track of them all, so now is a perfect time to catch up on some of this year’s most buzz-worthy indie films. These are the ones that you may have overlooked, but that you’ll probably hear more about as we approach awards season. Here are four of my top picks, available on demand now.
If the writers of Looney Tunes took The Hunger Games and set it on a train during a post-apocalyptic Occupy Wall Street movement, you’d begin to approach an attempt to describe the inspired sci-fi pastiche that is Snowpiercer.
In a future frozen, uninhabitable version of Earth, the remaining population lives on a large train that circles the globe once a year. The rich live the high life in the front, while those in the back live in squalor, feasting on nothing but bland protein blocks while their children are taken to the front of the train for a mysterious purpose. On the 17th anniversary of the train’s never-ending voyage, a man named Curtis (Chris Evans) leads a revolt against the vicious Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) in hopes of reaching the front and eradicating the train’s oppressive class system.
The movie is the English-language debut of Korean director Joon-ho Bong, who made the awesome horror film The Host. The plot is pretty simple, but there are so many clever little surprises running throughout the film that it’s hard to take in in just one sitting. The train, with its dozens of cars, is a genius plot device that allows Bong to show the audience pretty much whatever he wants. No two cars are alike, and each one holds a new, unexpected surprise for our freedom fighters. One may be a greenhouse, the next a classroom for the train’s privileged children. While the film’s cinematography first appears to be another slice of generic sci-fi dystopia, it quickly becomes one of the more visually arresting sci-fi films in memory.
Although the film has some grand ideas, it’s also quite violent, but not distractingly so. Curtis and his fellow have-nots have to literally fight their way to the front, and the resulting action is beyond spectacular. There is an epic, grandly orchestrated action set piece about halfway through that I think will go down as one of the finest in cinema history.
But grand visuals and action can’t carry a movie’s emotions on their own, and thankfully Snowpiercer’s wacky characters are brought to life through sharp writing and tremendous acting. Evans shows a depth here that he’s only hinted at before. But Bong has assembled an international cast that is to be envied, including Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Ed Harris and the brilliant Korean actor Kang-ho Song. But the biggest pleasure here is watching an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton spot oversized glasses and false oversized teeth to play the most entertaining and bonkers villain of the year.
Even with its mostly English dialogue, Snowpiercer is a Korean movie at heart, which means it’s incredibly bizarre. It’s so strange it almost defies categorization. But, even when its grand ambitions and left-field surprises threaten to derail it, the film remains a sci-fi treat that actually has something important to say. The ending is stunning, leaving us with just the right mix of hope and despair. No cinematic tale of haves and have-nots has ever been so visually arresting, consistently surprising or just plain bonkers. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it.
Speaking of things you’ve never seen before, The Congress makes Snowpiercer look as comforting and familiar as a new Marvel blockbuster. It is easily one of the most ambitious movies ever made, a philosophical treatise on the nature of modern celebrity, the unreliability of memory and the concept of identity in the digital age. As you might expect, the movie takes on way too many grand ideas and ends up a bit of a mess. But it’s also an arresting work of art that defies categorization.
Robin Wright gives a spellbinding performance as a fictionalized version of herself, struggling to find fulfilling roles as an actress after her glory days of Princess Bride fame have faded. While taking care of her daughter and son, who has been diagnosed with a degenerative disease that is slowly making him deaf and dumb, her agent (Harvey Keitel) tells her of a new program, one that will “sample” her and allow a digital likeness of herself to star in endless future movies. The catch is that Robin Wright the person can never act again.
The world of The Congress is one where everything is homogenized, including the movie studios (Wright works for Miramount). The first half of the film is a sly, cynical commentary on the soullessness of the Hollywood studio system, but the script skewers it in a way that feels genuine rather than cheap (and, let’s face it, Hollywood had it coming).
In the second half, the film flash-forwards 20 years and something…else emerges. Miramount studios has become an “animation zone,” a place where even average citizens now have the ability to be whoever they want to be, whenever they so desire. And Wright, or at least her likeness, is their hero, a true embodiment of what people can do when they leave their physical manifestations behind. The film ponders over which is better, real life or this new escapist fantasy land?
The second half of the film is indeed animated, building off of director Ari Folman’s experience making the all-animated Waltz With Bashir, which I think is one of the best films of the past decade, animated or otherwise. Wait…you haven’t seen it? You should go fix that…now. I’ll wait…you’re welcome.
Anyway, the stunning animation here is less realistic than Waltz, recalling instead the gangly, stylized creations of Walt Disney and other early animated creations like Betty Boop. The animated portion is a visual feast in a strange land where people can be Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe or Abraham Lincoln. The resulting trippy visual kaleidoscope reminds me of the brilliant animation of Yellow Submarine. It has to be seen to be believed.
The Congress has important things to say about a society hooked on the drug of the age, the internet, and how it combines with our culture’s moral relativism to create, in essence, a new communist dictatorship, this one led by the entertainment industry. But it never really finds a way to say it; the trippy visuals are so bafflingly bizarre that they ultimately distract from any human drama the story is trying to convey, and the plot veers sharply into the realm of the nonsensical.
Thankfully, the last fifteen minutes are pretty amazing, suggesting a tight pacing and dramatic momentum that I wish the rest of this very slow movie would have adopted. That, along with the sheer audacity of the visuals, make this half live action, half animated sci-fi mindbender worth checking out.
Locke is a difficult movie to describe without giving away what makes it so interesting. It’s essentially an hour and a half of watching a man driving in a car as his life erodes around him. Yes, the entire film takes place inside a car, which is actually way more interesting than it sounds.
The man is Ivan Locke, played brilliantly by Tom Hardy, who is forced to make some incredibly tough life decisions from the driver’s seat of his car. The movie consists of Locke’s phone conversations (don’t worry, he’s got a hands-free device) with several important people; his wife and children, his boss and co-workers at a construction company preparing for the largest concrete pour of their lives and a woman giving birth to his child who is not his wife (yikes).
Hardy, who is the only person we see in the film (we hear the voices of the other characters) is absolutely arresting. Few actors can pull off a truly solo performance; even Cast Away featured scenes with other actors. Hardy plays Locke as a good man who has made a very bad decision and is dealing with the earth-shattering consequences. He’s a man that refuses to lie, and insists on doing the right thing even if, in this case, the right thing will rip his life apart.
Thanks to director Steven Knight and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, the single location never gets boring; the camera movements and lighting changes create a relentless pace. The film is also mercifully short, ensuring the gimmicky structure doesn’t get stale. In fact, I think the film’s in media res structure and single location give it a startling realism we’re unaccustomed to in the age of effects-driven blockbusters featuring exotic, globe-spanning locations.
We also stay with the movie because Locke is a good, honorable man dealing with the consequences of a single, sinful decision. It’s a film of quiet but devastating revelations, never building to any sort of traditional dramatic climax. We never see the result of Locke’s decisions, though we do get some hints. The film ends as it begins, with Locke on the drive of his life.
The film maybe feels a bit too slight, but its focus on the life of one man is also what makes it stand out. An individual life is important, and that’s something to remember in an age where action-movie extras are disposed of in increasingly creative and brutal ways. Locke is a powerful testament to the way one wrong decision can create ripples that forever alter our lives. It’s definitely a one-of-a-kind viewing experience.
If you want to become a movie star, land a lead role in a British prison drama. It worked for Michael Fassbender in Hunger and Tom Hardy in Bronson. Now, if there is any justice in the world of cinema, the same will happen to Jack O’Connell, the star of the engrossing prison film Starred Up.
O’Connell stars as Eric Love, a violent teenage offender who is being transferred (or starred up) early to an adult prison. There, he attends an experimental group rehabilitation program while struggling under the “protection” of another prisoner, his unpredictable father, Neville (a brilliant Ben Mendelsohn).
The film is reminiscent of other modern British prison dramas like Hunger in that it focuses on the mundane, quiet experiences of prison life as much as it does the moments of danger. The pacing and camerawork are methodical and painstaking. It also highlights the unjust balance of power that often exists in prison. While a supportive counselor (Rupert Friend) believes in Eric’s rehabilitation, those in power seem more intent on keeping Eric violent, unpredictable and therefore malleable. This injustice is more frightening than the film’s bone-crunching violence.
The movie is filled with very fine performances all around, but it really is O’Connell that gives the movie its soul. He is a seething mix of rage, anger and hope. He perfectly embodies a man just trying to survive while hoping and knowing that life is about so much more than survival. O’Connell is starring in this year’s Oscar hopeful Unbroken, and I can’t wait to see how he’ll fare in a big studio prestige picture. He’s definitely got a big career ahead of him.
The film builds to a very satisfying climax, even as it indulges in a few prison movie clichés. When Starred Up hits, it hits hard, and the totality of this gritty, unflinching story will leave you breathless and maybe even a bit winded. Thankfully, the script leaves room for the quiet, desperate moments of hope that are never completely out of reach even in a place as seemingly hopeless as prison. This is an utterly compelling and engrossing film, one that will likely be remembered as one of the finest of the year.