Every week there are hundreds of films released on DVD, Blu-Ray or digital streaming and download. Each week we highlight some we are interested in watching, and at the end of the following month we will be publishing what wound up as our favorites.
In January 2014 we spotlighted 62 titles making their way to home video, of which I started 41, and finished 28. These are my five favorites:
1. You’re Next
Traditionally, horror is one my least favorite genres, while thriller is one of my favorite genres. Some find this strange, as the two genres are so similar, but the one element that usually divides these two are the amount of gore shown on camera. Hence, my appreciation for Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, Psycho, or The Shining and my lack of interest in Saw, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or any number of slasher films.
You’re Next has made me rethink not only about what makes a thriller or a horror film, but about if I can appreciate gore in a film.
On the surface, the plot of You’re Next is a moderately generic horror film. A large family meets for a reunion at a remote mansion for the parent’s anniversary. Unfortunately, the festivities are broken up by a home invasion, led by a number of uniquely armed and masked men who begin dispatching family members in a variety of shocking and gory ways.
These interesting methods of killing, combined with some efficient character development and some very good acting from all involved (especially Sharni Vinson, indie stalwarts Joe Swanberg and Amy Seimetz, and horror director Ti West) kept my interest through the copious amounts of blood and gore.
Halfway through this horror film, however, the script flips. The invaders become human, and we see their side of the story. We find out that there’s a reason for what’s going on, that this isn’t just a random attack on an unsuspecting family. I contend that if we had been able to see things from their perspective from the beginning, this would have been a thriller, not a horror film.
I actually served on a jury that gave Adam Wingard one of his first awards, for his film Pop Skull, and have known producer Keith Calder‘s work for years, having adored both the comedy/drama The Wackness and the emotional music documentary Thunder Soul which he produced, but nothing prepared me for this, a horror film I saw twice in the theater, and is one of my 10 favorite films of 2013.
The sheer number of medium-budgeted independent films has seemed to skyrocket the last several years. It seems impossible to count the number of films that play at festivals to various levels of fanfare and are even seeing decent sized releases. It gets hard to keep track of them, and more times than not they disappoint me.
My biggest complaint is usually that most of these films seem to trade in things like plot and character development for things like tone and mood. A recent Sundance film I watched took 13 minutes before the first conversation kicked in. That time was filled by following one of the main characters as they walk down a street, birds on a telephone wire, and waves crashing into rocks while a family walks down the beach. Almost anything except plot and dialog.
Short Term 12, however, starts immediately with dialog; before the picture comes in, actually. It opens with Mason (The Newsroom‘s John Gallagher Jr.) telling a story about a kid trying to escape the facility that the gathered group work at.
Within five minutes, before we find out that this group works in a foster-care facility for at-risk teens and before most of the credits, we already are learning about the characters at play, been dealt a clue about two character’s relationship and even had a poop joke.
While Short Term 12 focuses on Grace, the supervisor, there is plenty of room for intricate, subtle, plot-driven character development of her co-worker Mason, new arrival Jayden, and Marcus (LaKeith Stanfield, who reprises his role from the 2008 short film version, and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award here), who is turning 18, and will have to leave the facility soon.
To me, Short Term 12 is the epitome of a triumphant independent film. With a budget under a million dollars, it never feels small. It is emotional, without being cloying, is never obvious and seems to effortlessly bring its world into yours.
3. Enough Said
Like horror films, I also have a general distaste for romantic comedies. Even though I produced one. I don’t think it’s news to anyone that they are usually filled with repetitive tropes, and rarely try new and different things.
Nicole Holofcenter‘s fifth feature, Enough Said, is a breath of fresh air to the genre. James Gandolfini (Albert) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Eva) star as two divorcees in their 50’s who meet at a party, and then begin dating. Unfortunately, at that same party, Eva meets Albert’s ex-wife, played by Catherine Keener, oblivious to their relationship, lets her know all of his perceived negative qualities.
While Enough Said does follow some of the typical beats of a romantic comedy, what really sets it apart is that both of these people are divorce, older, and with teenage children. Every important relationship in our lives leaves scars when they end, and these are two disfigured people. They are like two beaten fighters who can only remember to keep their hands up, desperately trying to protect themselves from another punch, the one that might put them out for the count.
If you follow film or TV, you probably already assume that James Gandolfini knocked this performance right out of the park. He was an amazing actor, who inhabited he roles completely. I’m fairly certain this was one of my top five favorite male performances of the year and I think it’s a shame that he hasn’t been nominated for many awards because this is a comedy film, and that most of the awards he has been nominated for have been wrongly assigned to the supporting actor category.
4. Frances Ha
I have always been impressed by Greta Gerwig.
I recently calculated that when director Joe Swanberg gave me a copy of his film LOL, Greta Gerwig’s feature debut as an actor, a week before it’s World Premiere at SXSW Film Festival in 2006, that I was one of the first 100 or so people to see her act in a film. She struck me then as someone to be very excited about, and while my appreciation of the films she has been in have fluctuated back and forth, I’ve always liked her work, and her.
Now, with Frances Has, I think she has done not only her finest work to date, but a work that I could, and would, recommend to just about anyone.
Re-teaming with Greenberg director Noah Baumbach, she co-wrote the script and stars as Frances Halladay, a woman who doesn’t even have her shit together enough to have a quarter-life crises. A dancer at the start of the film, she ends up bouncing between apartments and jobs, trying to maintain friendships and occasionally the illusion that she isn’t in a hopeless situation. Shot in black-and-white, the film has a naturalistic but never amateurish feel.
Gerwig was nominated for a Golden Globe for Frances Ha, up against Julie Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, and the film is up for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature. She has also recently signed on for the lead role in How I Met Your Dad, and will also be a writer and producer on the show, which makes the project ten times more interesting to me.
5. In A World…
In a World… is a somewhat farcical comedy that takes place in the world of professional voice-over artists. Lake Bell, who wrote, directed and stars as Carol. Her father is Sam, one of the current top voices, played by the golden throated Fred Melamed from A Serious Man. Like most of the industry, it is a hard field to break into, and like most industries, even more so for a woman. Carol works as a vocal coach, teaching Eva Longoria who to do overdubs with an accent.
Lake Bell’s script juggles several tangential stories at once: Michaela Watkins plays Carol’s sister, who is going through some marriage troubles with her husband, Rob Corddry. Demitri Martin is a sound engineer at the recording studio Carol is working through. He has a bit of a crush on Carol, and wants to see her succeed. Carol’s dad is grooming a successor to his throne, and has recently had his girlfriend move in. Nick Offerman, Geena Davis, Eva Longoria, Tig Notaro and Cameron Diaz also have small roles.
In a World… isn’t a perfect movie, but it is funny, and it’s smart. With all the different plots going, it moves at a pretty brisk pace, and it has a fairly loose feel. It has some satirical moments, but never gets too far out of the realm of reality to feel fake. While In a World… isn’t essential viewing, it is one of the best comedies of 2012.