Independent Movies of 2015 Round-Up

Here’s where we take quick close-up looks at the latest in independent cinema...

Welcome to Den of Geek’s round-up of the latest in independent film, with quick spotlight reviews of some of the best or at least the most interesting new releases out there that don’t have the name of a superhero or Star Wars in the title. This list will be updated from time to time with the newest featured films on top, with the goal of finding some of the most unique indie films of 2015.

Some of the movies on this list will get either limited or occasionally even wide theatrical release, while others are more likely to be found on VOD. With distribution platforms changing all the time, a number of quality films are finding new ways to get to potential viewers without the pressure of trying to get placement on 800 screens or more. You’ll find those movies here as well, and hopefully we’ll point you in some intriguing cinematic directions. We lead off with the latest entries…

Stonewall (out now in limited release)

Director Roland Emmerich has taken perhaps the single most significant event in the history of gay rights and fashioned one of the year’s worst motion pictures around it. Used to working with exploding White Houses, crumbling planets and massive alien spaceships, Emmerich has no idea how to fashion a drama out of the Greenwich Village riots that arguably launched the gay liberation movement. The most mystifying and disastrous decision made by Emmerich and screenwriter Jon Robin Baitz — both openly gay — is to reduce key real-life historical figures like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy to either stereotypes or bit players while making the movie’s central focus a fictional white gay kid from Indiana (a bland Jeremy Irvine) who is hoping to get into Columbia while juggling advances from his new friends.

The riots — compressed here from four nights to one — are almost an afterthought to the tedious soap opera that takes up most of the preceding 100 minutes, and are diminished even further by the fact that Christopher Street is very obviously a set. The movie is lifeless as a piece of film and actively offensive as a recreation of history. The U.S. Supreme Court did more for gay rights this year than Emmerich and Stonewall ever will.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

The Keeping Room (out now in limited release)

Director Daniel Barber, screenwriter Julia Hart and three terrific actresses — Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld and Muna Otaru — have fashioned a revisionist Western that buzzes with female empowerment even if it only moves in fits and starts. Marling and Steinfeld are sisters, living with former slave Otaru on their family’s farm in the South toward the end of the Civil War. The men are long gone, and the air is pregnant with lawlessness and anarchy in that gray area before authority reasserts itself. When Marling must make a foray to the nearby inn in search of medicine, she draws the attention of two drunken, murderous Union soldiers who eventually track her back to the house, where they lay siege to the three terrified but resourceful women.

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Marling is typically excellent in her first period piece, and while Steinfeld’s role is a bit underwritten, Otaru is outstanding; Marling’s Augusta is still a virgin, while Otaru’s Mad knows more about sex — thanks to her one-time standing as property — than she cares to remember. Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller are frightening as the home invaders. An atmosphere of dread suffuses the film, but the characters stop to make speeches, allowing both the mood and narrative tension to drain from the film at several points. Nevertheless, it’s an original and often striking piece of work, and worth your time despite its flaws.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Queen of Earth (out now in limited release)

Writer/director Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Phillip) gets outstanding performances out of Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) and Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice) as best friends who are spending a week at the latter’s family lake house, ostensibly to let Moss’ Catherine recover from both the recent death of her dad and a fresh breakup with her boyfriend. But long-simmering petty rivalries between the two women and Waterston’s dalliance with a creepy neighbor (Patrick Fugit) help push the already damaged Catherine toward a complete psychological breakdown.

Repulsion is an obvious reference point here, but the sharp Perry substitutes that film’s claustrophobic apartment for the most pastoral daytime nightmares of ‘70s films like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death or The Other. Yet there is almost no physical violence in Queen of Earth, although the tension-filled atmosphere and barbed exchanges between all the main characters (including Catherine’s boyfriend, played by Kentucker Audley in flashbacks) are brimming with one emotional assault after another. Queen of Earth icily captures how cruelty and selfishness can disguise themselves as love and friendship, with the appropriately bleak results.  

Rating 4 out of 5 stars

Before We Go (on VOD now, in limited release September 4)

Chris Evans (making his directorial debut as well as starring) and Alice Eve (Star Trek Into Darkness) must use all their considerable charm to keep this low-budget romantic drama from meandering off the screen into nothingness. Evans is a trumpet player hanging around Grand Central Station late one night when he meets Eve, who has missed the last train back to New Haven and must get there before 8:00 a.m. for reasons that gradually become clear. Evans’ offer to help turns into a Before Sunrise-style amble through a sleeping Manhattan that only proves how completely ineffective Captain America is at getting a girl a ride out of NYC.

The two performers are watchable and share a few nice moments, but otherwise the continuous plot contrivances and generally superficial tone turn this into a forgettable exercise. Evans and cinematographer John Gulesarian do make Manhattan look lovely, but the movie’s overall listlessness makes it seem as if Evans was too busy learning the nuts and bolts of directing and forgot to put interesting people or situations in front of the camera.  

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Digging for Fire (out now in limited release and via VOD)

Director and co-writer Joe Swanberg’s latest movie – at least until 15 minutes from now, when he makes another one – is an amiable and occasionally poignant journey through one night in the life of a couple (Jake Johnson, who also co-wrote, and Rosemarie Dewitt) that tests their marriage with results that could be surprising depending on how you feel about the institution. The couple are housesitting for a friend in the Hollywood Hills when Tim (Johnson) discovers a bone and a gun while digging in the backyard. As Lee heads off to what is supposed to be a night out with a girlfriend, Tim becomes obsessed with solving the mystery at the expense of other obligations (like doing their taxes) and even while his own friends pile into the yard for a party.

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Not as sharply focused as Drinking Buddies (Swanberg’s career best so far), Digging for Fire does dig into a lot of the same ground that Swanberg has covered before about relationships, marriage and adulthood. Johnson and Dewitt are both likable, with both characters making choices that keep the story from painting itself into predictable corners. Yet the movie never reaches any great emotional heights, and the parade of Hollywood cameos (Anna Kendrick, Sam Rockwell, Jane Adams) becomes a distraction. Digging for Fire is pleasant and occasionally insightful, but almost aggressively minor-key. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Phoenix (out now in limited release)

Written and directed by German filmmaker Christian Petzold, Phoenix is a complex, slow-burning and profound tale of memory, betrayal and identity in the ruins of post-World War II Berlin. Nelly (Nina Hoss from A Most Wanted Man), a German-Jewish nightclub singer, returns home with her face altered through surgery after it was disfigured in the concentration camps. Her own husband (Johnny Zehrfeld) doesn’t recognize her, and she strikes up a new relationship with him under an assumed persona in order to find out whether or not he was the one who gave her up to the Nazis during the war.

Phoenix takes its time and reveals its full meaning gradually, but is an atmospheric and rewarding meditation on what people will do to survive and all the little ways in which evil can manifest itself even in the aftermath of an unspeakable malignancy like the Third Reich. But it is also an emotionally tense character study of a single survivor who literally has everything she knew about herself stripped away and must rebuild herself from the ground up. Hoss is amazing, the rest of the cast is compelling, and Petzold’s direction is brooding and compelling, evoking thrillers yet focused on human drama. The last scene alone is a powerhouse.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Stanford Prison Experiment (out now in limited release)

Based on the notorious true-life incident, The Stanford Prison Experiment stars Billy Crudup as Philip Zimbardo, the Stanford psychology professor who in 1971 divided a group of male students into guards and prisoners and put them in a makeshift jail in the basement of the university’s psychology building. Originally slated to last for up to two weeks, the experiment was abandoned by Zimbardo after six days as he saw the “guards” growing more abusive and wielding their power more authoritatively over the increasingly submissive “prisoners.”

The real-life experiment is ripe for continued exploration and dissection, but director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and writer Tim Talbott settle instead for clunky, portentous dialogue and a slasher-film approach to the material. Everyone here is one-dimensional, from the interchangeable students (played by Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan, among others) to Crudup’s Zimbardo, whose own detailed motivations for conducting the experiment are largely cast off here, making him seem like a psychopathic villain. As the repetitious conflict between the sadistic guards and passive prisoners runs its course, the movie gets longer and smaller until it just peters out — yes, like a failed experiment.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Boulevard (out now in limited release)

This film from director Dito Montiel (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) marks the final onscreen appearance from the late Robin Williams, and it’s difficult to watch the melancholy character he plays without reflecting on the sad circumstances of the actor’s death. Williams’ Nolan seems utterly uninterested in his own life, living with a wife (Kathy Baker) who is more like a roommate, not particularly excited about a possible big promotion at work, and generally in the grip of a deep malaise. All that is changed, however, when Nolan meets a troubled young man named Leo (Roberto Aguire) — a meeting that finally awakens Nolan once and for all.

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The biggest problem with Boulevard is that Nolan’s general inertia seems to infect the entire film, which slowly parses out what we begin to guess early on. The scenario that Montiel and writer Douglas Soesbe build around Nolan seems increasingly unrealistic as well. But the supporting cast is generally strong and Williams gives a sensitive, compassionate performance that makes his loss only more acute. Boulevard is not very good, but on one level it’s good enough.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

See previous weeks’ reviews below:

Infinitely Polar Bear (June 19, limited release)

Mark Ruffalo stars as a father and husband suffering from bipolar disorder who is tasked with watching over his two young daughters while his wife (Zoe Saldana) goes to work in writer/director Maya Forbes’ terribly titled autobiographical drama. Following a breakdown and hospital stay, Ruffalo’s Cameron is unable to work and his spouse Maggie has to become the breadwinner while also attending business school in New York, forcing the unpredictable Cameron to be a stay-at-home dad. The period details (it’s set in Boston in the ‘70s) are sharp but the movie is episodic and meandering, bouncing from the standard “quirky” comedic moments to scenes of drama and potential trauma without establishing a real momentum.

It’s helped considerably by a strong cast, even if one tires of the repetitive scenes of Cameron and his two little girls (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide, both charismatic) screaming at each other. Ruffalo skillfully manages to grab hold of a role that is ill-defined on the screen: it feels like the sharper edges of Cameron’s illness have been softened to make the character — whose old money background is also kind of fuzzy — more palatable to audiences, but the actor’s immense empathy goes a long way toward selling it. Best of all is Saldana, and I wish the movie’s focus was more squarely on her: as a young black mother trying to make ends meet and raise her family out of poverty, her frustration, love and exhaustion are all palpable and real, unlike large stretches of the film. 

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Felt (June 26, limited release)

Director Jason Banker’s angry film, part feminist drama and part horror outing, is appropriately difficult to watch but, less effectively, also troublesome to find a way into. Amy Everson (who also co-wrote the movie with Banker, based on her own experiences) stars as a fictionalized version of herself, a badly damaged young woman still coming to terms with an undisclosed sexual trauma in her past while navigating the traps of a male-dominated rape culture. She works at a menial job, has a rather potty sense of humor and hangs out with a few friends, but her real passion is creating grotesque costumes based on distorted male imagery that she occasionally dons. The arrival of a new, seemingly decent man in her life finally allows her to crack open the rough armor she’s encased herself in, but the movie leads the relationship to a conclusion that is as predictable and unsatisfactory as it is abrupt.

Everson has no previous acting experience and it shows, while Banker gambles with a slow pace that skirts dangerously toward tedium at several points. The message of what women have to go through on a daily basis is a sound and sadly accurate one, but the film offers no real context or exploration of it beyond that every man is an asshole.  Unfortunately, Amy kind of comes across as one too through a lot of her actions, so that the eventual payoff doesn’t come across as powerfully as it could. There is potential in Felt, but it’s never truly realized.

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Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (June 12, limited release)

This Sundance breakout from director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (American Horror Story) follows high school loner Greg (Thomas Mann, Project X) as he is badgered by his mother into visiting a local girl named Rachel (Olivia Cooke, Bates Motel) who is stricken with leukemia. At first he can’t be bothered and neither can she, but gradually — with some nudging from Greg’s lifelong “associate” Earl (RJ Cyler) — a friendship is formed, and Greg begins to realize that life is too precious to hold people at a distance. Self-consciously quirky at first, the film walks an unsteady line between whimsy and irritation until finally settling down as the relationship between Greg and Rachel becomes more bittersweet (and refreshingly remains platonic).

The three leads are all excellent with Cyler in particular making a knockout screen debut. They’re ably supported by Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman and especially Jon Bernthal, dropping his tough-guy persona to play a teacher that Greg likes to hang around with. Gomez-Rejon brings the story to life through unusual compositions and the use of claymation and other formats, giving Me and Earl and the Dying Girl a fresh feel even if some of the emotional beats seem similar to other recent YA material.  

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Hungry Hearts (available on VOD; opens in Los Angeles on June 12)

Bizarre and unsettling, Hungry Hearts begins with perhaps the strangest “meet cute” sequence ever as Jude (Adam Driver, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Mina (Alba Rohrwacher, I Am Love) are accidentally locked in a restaurant restroom together that Jude’s upset stomach has just made near-uninhabitable. We then flash forward through their blooming romance and eventually the birth of their son, only to come to a disturbing turn of events: Mina, obsessed with keeping the baby’s body “pure,” may be inhibiting his growth and effectively starving him to death.

After the somewhat jarring shift from romantic comedy to psychological horror in the first act, writer/director Saverio Costanzo keeps the movie on track for most of the rest of its running time and sustains a tone of stark unease. Driver and Rohrwacher are both excellent, although there are points where you wonder why Jude remains so subservient to his wife’s regimen for so long. The recent anti-vaccination lunacy gives the movie added relevance, but the tension and conflict between the couple and the escalating horror of the situation are undermined by a contrived ending that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the material.

Rating: 3 and a Half out of 5 Stars

Love and Mercy (out now in limited release, expanding this weekend)

Two critical periods in the life of Beach Boys co-founder and main songwriter/visionary Brian Wilson are chronicled in this outstanding biopic from director Bill Pohlad, a longtime producer getting behind the camera for just the second time. In a risky move, Pohlad has Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) playing Wilson in his earlier years and Cusack portraying him years later. It feels uncertain at first, but the two men somehow work in sync to create a poignant portrait of a man who truly did walk the thin line between genius and madness.

Dano is outstanding as the younger Wilson, whose mind and relationships are beginning to crumble just as he is creating his masterpieces, Pet Sounds and the never-completed (until years later) Smile; Cusack, meanwhile, gives his best performance in quite some time as a heavily medicated, older Wilson who is living under the control of the megalomanical therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) until a woman named Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) enters his life. The scenes of Dano in the studio are electrifying and the emotional payoffs in the later Cusack sequences are satisfying and moving. One of the best films of the year so far. 

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