Five Overlooked Indie Films for the Post-Blockbuster, Pre-Oscar Season

five-indies

Your Planet of the Apes has Dawned and your Galaxy’s been Guarded. Your Days of Future have passed, and maybe your Zillas were even Godded to varying degrees of satisfaction. (I pray you were smart enough to avoid any Ages of Extinction.) Now, as we close in on Labor Day, the season of big loud movies to judiciously avoid seeing in 3D is drawing to an end. Unfortunately, we’re still a few weeks off from shifting gears into Oscar season, where grown ups get to argue over which Important Serious Movies they think will go on to win Important Movie Awards. Nor have we quite arrived at blockbuster gaming season where we get to push the buttons that cause the big loud explosions. Football hasn’t even started yet. Gross.

As a wasteland for those craving stimulation, the transitional August-September stretch is the perfect time to go back and catch up on some of the smaller-scale movies that may have been drowned out in the noise. Here are five I’d recommend, all of which you can watch tonight from the comfort of your home via the VOD service of your choice. They’re all such a pleasure to watch, and so different from the summer movie formula, you’ll continue not caring what’s playing at the local multiplex this weekend. More fun, more originality, more complex themes, less radioactive adolescent amphibian martial artists (sorry Antuan).

For added convenience, I’ve arranged them in descending order of nerdiness, so we start with straight-up genre excellence and move into the more personal and introspective indie stuff (i.e. movies that made me feel feelings I wasn’t expecting.) Watch this list over a weekend and have about the best movie marathon possible in 2014.

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COHERENCE

Remember when Cabin in the Woods came out? All the snobs who saw it early shouted, “You HAVE to see this movie! But the less you know going in, the more fun it is, so I won’t say anything else.” Well, let the snobbery begin: You HAVE to see this movie! Coherence has that same magic, and gave me that same “Holy Shit, this is a fucking movie! Where did this come from?” feeling. I haven’t been as riveted by such a small-scale film in ages.

So how does one recommend something highly while saying as little as possible? I will say it’s not a horror-comedy like Cabin, but a sci-fi-thriller-drama. Instead of a fun ride full of wild surprises, this is a strange phenomenon wrapped around an existential puzzle. And unlike Cabin in the Woods, which reaches for a big profound truth about humanity’s lust for blood and goes out in a blaze of glory, Coherence raises a more personal, troubling question about how the decisions we make reverberate through our lives, and to some degree the world around us. It’s not a perfect movie (maybe a couple too many convenient epiphanies at just the right moment); but it’s certainly a great movie. Plus, it features Xander from Buffy discussing Schrodinger’s Cat, which is like nerdy double word score. It’s a thriller with something to say, and a mystery that asks big questions. Everyone please see this movie so we can all have the great conversation that’s sure to ensue.

**Note: every single other person who talks about this movie also compares it to Primer, which I just wanted to give myself credit for avoiding.

Coherence is available to rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, etc., or you can buy/download it direct from the film’s website for only $9.99.

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YOU’RE NEXT

I don’t watch a lot of horror movies, but I do see a lot of horror movie ads on TV. Boy, am I sick of seeing the apparently only horror premise beaten to death: people arrive at location, weird things happen behind people, gruesome demon/ghost/monster/other vaguely horrific entity systematically murders people. Want some originality? Spin the wheel for various side effects of possession, inventive new forms of impalement, or which dark-colored-mystery-goo comes from which orifice in what quantity. Oh, and there’s also gonna be a scene with a scary thing in a mirror. Terrifying!

You’re Next sticks closer to the classic slasher movie formula: there’s a mysterious person or people (actual humans!) bent on murder, and the fun is in how the victims run for their lives, try to fight back, and slowly realize why these darn strangers are feeling so darn murdery. But in this case, the movie benefits from a few great twists on the tradition. For one, the star is not the typical rugged-but-knowledgable male hero, but a surprisingly tough and cunning woman. Instead of running and screaming, she takes the strangers head on. Also, You’re Next doesn’t try to be psychological, supernatural, haunted, or any other goofy suspension-of-disbelief trick. There are crazy murderers that want these people dead, and although it’s tense and scary, it’s actually fun. You root for the heroine. When I saw this movie at a film fest earlier this year, people gasped at some points, and cheered at others. It’s so energizing to watch a horror movie you can cheer at! Plus, by the end, there’s a satisfying resolution that doesn’t try to set up a goddamn franchise. As a bonus, it touches on a relevant, modern theme around class tension and privilege, so it doesn’t even your intelligence. What a treat. For a great time, check this one out.

You’re Next was recently added to Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video, so you shouldn’t even have to pay to see it, and have no excuse not to.

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THEY CAME TOGETHER

Some great movies aren’t great movies as a whole; their genius comes from all the small moments. Cram enough of those brilliant little details into a film, and the whole becomes less important that the stand-out bits that stick in your brain. Lots of legendary comedies work this way. Does anyone really care about the character development in Caddyshack? Do you remember the emotional journey of Anchorman or the plot details of Airplane? The joy is in all the weird little moments, the absurd choices in dialogue, unexpected interactions, even tiny things like background action or facial expressions.

This was especially true of the cult classic Wet Hot American Summer, the bizarro summer camp movie from the creators of The State and Stella, and directed by David Wain. Just a bunch of funny people in a bunch of strange, hilarious scenes — and it worked! No one loves that movie for its plot, or for its incisiveness in taking down a genre. It’s just a ton of fun. In They Came Together, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler star in a silly but laugh-out-loud romantic comedy parody. It’s a loose, messy collection of scenes less concerned with story than with getting laughs. This is not a “fresh take” on romantic comedy; it’s not actually very romantic at all. But that’s more than made up for by skewering all kinds of classic genre cliches, while packing every scene with odd, funny bits that kept me struggling between cracking up and trying not to miss all the gags. And where other “spoof” movies seem mean, lazy, or cynical, this one has a kind of warmth and joy that makes its craziness welcome, not groan-worthy. Everyone in it seems to be having fun, and I was happy to join them.

They Came Together is available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, etc., and available for purchase/on Blu-ray September 2nd.

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CHEAP THRILLS

How many times in your life have you asked, or been asked, “Would you do it for 20 bucks?” Or $50? Or $100? Cheap Thrills, the most emotionally intense pick on this list, is part bar bet, part black comedy (and we’re talking deep, dark abyss kind of black, as far as comedies go), part psychological experiment. How far would you go for money? How much farther if it’s to help your family? How does the math change when you’re not just doing it for them, but hurting your friends in the process?

Those lines get drawn, then crossed, then redrawn over the course of Cheap Thrills. As things escalate, it’s hard to take your eyes away, just as it’s hard to imagine what you might do — or be capable doing — in the same situation. Disturbing and mesmerizing, I spent this whole film leaning toward the screen, alternately laughing, screaming, or trying (and failing) to just walk away.

(Bonus points: Ethan Embry (where has this guy been?), gives an impressively forceful Brad Pitt-in-Fight-Club performance here, and a rare chance to see Dave Koechner in a role that’s both funny and menacing.)

Cheap Thrills is available to rent on iTunes, Amazon, etc, as well as for purchase digitally or on Blu-ray.

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THE ONE I LOVE

I started the post with a genre-bending sci-fi dinner party mystery, and now I’ll end it with a relationship comedy trapped in a Twilight Zone episode. I told you this list was going to be fun!

Since this is another one where discovery is part of the pleasure, I’ll offer another soft sell by talking themes, not details. In any relationship, there’s the version of our partners we wish for, the version we dream about, the one we remember falling in love with — and the version we end up with. Things fall apart when we can’t reconcile the two. Some of us can, some of us can’t, but rarely do we get the kind of opportunity to examine those feelings in the way the two characters in this film do.

It’s surprising and funny, strange and brain-bending and sentimental all in one package. It’s made simply in one location, centers totally around two people and a weekend, and yet what it does with a great story and an interesting premise challenges the idea that we need special effects or set pieces to keep people on the edge of their seats. Watch it with your special lady or man, not just because it has something for everyone, but also because you might look at them differently afterward.

The One I Love is available to rent/buy on iTunes, Amazon, etc., and is currently rolling out to theaters in select cities.

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