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The 12 Indie Films You Must See This December

The 12 Indie Films You Must See This December

Inherent Vice” (Dec 12) 

(Film Page)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Martin Short, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Criticwire Average: B+
Why is it a “Must See”? Although “Inherent Vice” has the backing of a major motion picture studio, its release is arguably the most anticipated title of December for indie cinephiles considering the involvement of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. Two years after the crushing dramatic weight of “The Master,” Anderson loosens things up entirely with “Vice,” an LA surfer noir about a drug-fueled detective investigating the disappearance of an ex-girlfriend. Like an intoxicating stoner high, “Vice” is a deliriously comic experience, one that follows in the grand tradition of discursive storytelling as seen in “The Big Sleep,” “The Long Goodbye,” and “The Big Lebowski.” The plot barely adds up, but the unpredictable energy scene-to-scene and the pitch-perfect ensemble cannot be missed. “Vice” may be miles away from the more character-specific fare of “The Master” and “There Will Be Blood,” but it’s another Anderson masterwork that proves he has the auteurist shades of Robert Altman.

A Most Violent Year” (Dec 31)

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Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Catalina Sandino Moreno
Distributor: A24
Criticwire Average: A-
Why is it a “Must See”? Writer-director J.C. Chandor has only made three features, but there’s no mistaking his vision. His trio of confident dramas explore the plights of men pitted against invisible foes: In the recession-era “Margin Call,” the threat was the economy; in the wordless survival-at-sea opus “All is Lost,” Robert Redford faced off with nature; now, with his assured study of crime and business ethics “A Most Violent Year,” Oscar Isaac plays a conflicted antihero at odds with his own moral code. While it lacks the same ambition of his other movies, its elegant setting, focused narrative and thematic consistency confirm Chandor’s place as one of the most promising American directors to emerge this decade. Throw in strong performances from Isaac and Jessica Chastain, plus assured cinematography from sure-to-be superstar Bradford Young (see “Selma” below), and “Violent Year” looks to be another critical and commercial winner for distributor A24.

Mr. Turner” (Dec 19)

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Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Timothy Spall, Dorothy Atkinson, Lesley Manville, Martin Savage, Ruth Sheen, Joshua McGuire, Roger Ashton-Griffiths
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Criticwire Average: B+
Why is it a “Must See”? Watching “Mr. Turner,” one gets the sense that only a film artist like writer-director Mike Leigh could apply such elegance to the uneasy state of another creative mind. The biopic represents a first-rate match of director and subject. Less an explication of the man’s genius than an immersion into its essence, Turner is marked by persistent unhappiness and physical discomfort. But the persistence of his talent provides a constant source of catharsis, resulting in a bittersweet experience that mirrors the artist’s own peculiar state of mind. Aided by the lush palettes of cinematographer Dick Pope, Leigh crafts an environment that conveys the ebb and flow of Turner’s life, from his most successful period in the 1830s through the decline of public interest in the years leading up to his death in 1851. Considering star Timothy Spall won the Best Actor prize at Cannes earlier this year and is heavily in contention for an Oscar nomination, “Mr. Turner” is one awards contender you won’t want to miss this month.

“Selma” (Dec 25)

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Director: Ava DuVernay
Cast: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Carmen Ejogo, Alessandro Nivola, Oprah Winfrey, Giovanni Ribisi, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Criticwire Average: B-
Why is it a “Must See”? Following a rapturously well-received premiere at the AFI Film Festival, “Selma” shot straight into the heart of many of this year’s most competitive Oscar categories, including Best Picture, Best Actor for David Oyelowo’s riveting portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr. and Best Director, where Ava DuVarnay could make history by becoming the first African American female to ever earn a nomination for the prize. Somehow this history re-defining nomination seems appropriate given the important historic revisions that resulted from the voting marches in which the film takes as its subject matter. Less a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic and more a study of the crucial events that led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, “Selma” turns what could be seen as a two-hour history lesson into an impassioned personal fight for freedom. You won’t just learn about the marches, you’ll feel the visceral sensation of actually being in them.

Two Days, One Night” (Dec 24)

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Director: Jean Pierre & Luc Dardenne
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione, Pili Groyne, Simon Caudry
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Criticwire Average: A-
Why is it a “Must See”? With “Two Days, One Night,” the award-winning Dardenne brothers have crafted a topical, powerhouse morality play built entirely on the existentialism behind modern economic decline. Belgium’s official submission for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, “Two Days” stars a stripped and unnervingly delicate Marion Cotillard as Sandra, a depressed mother who spends a weekend trying to get her co-workers to reject a pay raise so that she may keep her factory job. The plot here is audaciously simple in many ways, but the fact Sandra’s entire existence rides on the results of these conversations makes each one have the weight and anxiety of a dramatic thriller. The tension is only heightened by the Dardenne’s well-executed single shots, which force the actors into their lived-in roles and give a breathless sense of immediacy to the proceedings. Whether or not Oscar-winner Cotillard finds herself back in the awards race based on her work here can’t overshadow the quiet devastation and burgeoning resiliency of her masterful performance. Cotillard is a knockout.

Wild” (Dec 5)

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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffman, Brian Van Holt, Charles Baker
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Criticwire Average: B+
Why is it a “Must See”? There’s a moment in “Wild” when downtrodden hiker Cheryl Strayed (played by Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon in a career best performance) assumes a male tractor worker offering her help might be a seedy rapist. To Cheryl’s surprise, the man ends up being a loving husband with a weakness for Twizzlers. Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of Strayed’s bestselling memoir plays out in the same vein as this misconception. Similar to his award-winning “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild” finds director Vallée taking what could have been an emotionally manipulative story and exposing the grounded, layered humanity underneath it. The result is a drama film that feels more stripped than over-sentimental, more cerebral than spelled-out. Bolstered by two resonant performances from Witherspoon and Laura Dern, “Wild” is a spiritual trek of self-discovery that should have no problem getting its stars to the Dolby Theater in 2015.

Top Five” (Dec 5)

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Director: Chris Rock
Cast: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, J.B. Smoove, Gabrielle Union, Kevin Hart, Cedric The Entertainer, Sherri Shepherd, Whoopi Goldberg
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Criticwire Average: A-
Why is it a Must See? It was the distribution deal heard around the world, or at least the streets of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. After Chris Rock’s semi-autobiographical “Top Five” blew audiences away during its premiere, Paramount Pictures stepped up with a $12.5 million offer, and luckily Rock’s best directorial effort to date deserves such a prestigious purchase. Starring Rock as a successful New York comedian struggling to gain serious clout, “Top Five” is a lively, polished comedy where the writer-director’s savage wit comes through in the wry screenplay, which is loaded with topicality as it pokes fun at subjects ranging from Tyler Perry movies to Angry Birds. Cheeky celebrity cameos include Tracy Morgan, Whoopi Goldberg and Jerry Seinfeld, and it contains plenty of zippy one-liners that, alongside the famous faces, will be quite the infectious surprise for unknowing viewers. But the truly clever gamble of “Top Five” is that the movie manages to comment on its own commercial prospects. In essence, Rock has made his version of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” series by way of the humorous self-reflection found on “Louie,” scripting a tale of midlife crisis discussed in detail by a man and woman as they roam around over the course of a single day. The humor is simple but not insubstantial, so expect it to be the crowd-pleasing comedy of the month.

Still Alice” (Dec 5)

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Director: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Cast: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Criticwire Average: B+
Why is it a “Must See”? Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who starts to forget words. When she receives the devastating diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Alice and her family find their bonds tested as she fights to stay connected to who she once was. Moore has long been an actress who excels at bringing her characters to life with as much nuance as possible, and here she is absolutely shattering in a role that is looking to finally garner the actress her long overdue Oscar win for Best Actress. But don’t assume a win has more to do with Moore’s career than solely her performance in “Still Alice,” because her frightening and heartbreaking turn truly is one of the year’s most soul rattling performances. Even when Alice can no longer remember who she is, the lost humanity in Moore’s eyes will break you to pieces. This is one performance you absolutely cannot miss.

Zero Motivation” (Dec 3)

(Film Page)
Director: Talya Lavie
Cast: Dana Ivgy, Nelly Tagar, Shani Klein, Heli Twito, Meytal Gal, Tamara Klingon, Yonit Tobi
Criticwire Average: A-
Why is it a “Must See”? Israeli filmmaker Talya Lavie steps into the spotlight with a dark comedy about everyday life for a unit of young female Israeli soldiers, and the result is the country’s answer to Altman’s “MASH,” albeit with more women. An offbeat comedy about several disgruntled female soldiers stationed at a remote human resources office in the middle of the desert, the movie engages with gender imbalance and satirizes the aimlessness of military bureaucracy while retaining a disarmingly personal quality. It’s a softly humorous and sad story about the frustrations of young Israeli women thrust into the military complex who air their grievances with snark. While Lavie doesn’t use any sophisticated filmmaking tricks, the film has a subtle quality to its narrative, which unfolds through a series of interlocking short stories riddled with the characters’ angst. Lavie threads together the fragmented plot with a loose flow that echoes the malaise of her characters’ daily existence. Like “MASH,” it downplays major events in favor of conveying the unseemly environment that provides its leading ladies with their main source of antagonism.

Leviathan” (Dec 31)

(Film Page)
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cast: Aleksey Serebryakov, Roman Madyanov, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Elena Lyadova, Sergey Pokhodaev
Distributor: Sony Pictures ClassicsCriticwire Average: A-
Why is it a “Must See”? Winner of the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival and Russia’s official submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s bleak drama and occasional black comedy “Leviathan” focuses on a family in a remote fishing town trapped by economic and social situations beyond their control. At a meticulously paced 140 minutes, this weighty drama puts its central characters through an emotional ringer as they fight to keep their land from being purchased and destroyed by a madcap politician. Both a searing family drama and a startling look at middle class Russia, “Leviathan” touches on a handful of themes and characters without every committing to the idea that one angle is most important. The result is a sprawling, lifelike epic that only tightens its grip on the viewer with each passing minute. The more you absorb the characters’ predicaments, the more their existential downfalls prove inevitable, making the drama film a heavy meditation on family, faith, and friends in the destructive path of social decline. Punctuated by alluring visuals and an ominously operatic score by Philip Glass, “Leviathan” is a masterpiece that walks the fine line between morality tale and societal fable.

Big Eyes” (Dec 25)

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Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Krysten Ritter, Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Criticwire Average: B+
Why is it a “Must See”? A drama centered on the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s, “Big Eyes” finds director Tim Burton back in character study mode a la “Ed Wood,” which should come as welcome news for the many fans who have grown tired of his recent style-over-substance blockbusters. Contrasting Amy Adams’ gentle, melancholic Margaret with Waltz’s cartoonish Walter, the film works best when fleshing out the ominous qualities lurking behind Walter’s facade. While Margaret’s friend (Krysten Ritter) hints at it early on (“he’s diddled every smock in the art circuit”), the layers of Walter’s con artistry go so deep that Waltz often hijacks the movie with his eerily psychopathic cheer. But once the full mania of his personality is unleashed in the later scenes, the actor throws subtlety to the wind, and so does the movie.

Song of the Sea” (Dec 19)

(Film Page)
Director: Tomm Moore
Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan, David Rawle, Pat Shortt, Jon Kenny, Lisa Hannigan
Distributor: GKIDS
Criticwire Average: B+
Why is it a “Must See”?  Irish animator Tom Moore stunned the word when his debut film, “The Secret of Kells,” earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature opposite such heavyweights as “Up,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Coraline.” But now the director may do it all over again with his gorgeously animated follow-up “Song of the Sea.” Rooted in generational Irish fables, the film centers on siblings Ben and Saoirse, the latter being a child who is the last of the selkies, women in Irish and Scottish legends who transform from seals into people. When they escape from their grandmother’s home to journey to the sea and free fairy creatures trapped in the modern world, the duo embarks on a personal journey to find their voices and overcome their deepest fears. Harkening back to the traditional 2D animation of what seems like ages ago, “Sea” is a heartwarming fantasy perfect for the entire family and an irresistible foreign alternative to the season’s safer efforts such as “The Penguins of Madagascar.”

READ MORE: 2015 Oscar Predictions

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