"Go For Sisters"
For decades now, John Sayles has written and directed movies rooted first and foremost in sharply conceived characters. More recently, even as his scrappy, self-financed productions have varied in quality, this central aspect has remained in place. "GO FOR SISTERS," like the filmmaker's previous features "Amigo" and "Honeydripper," sustains a feeble premise with richly defined characters and strong performances, yielding an underwhelming but nonetheless sustainable viewing experience. Read more here.
"The Punk Singer"
For some 15 years, feminist punk rocker Kathleen Hanna carried the torch of a movement seemingly defined by her furious investment in the cause and the artistry that brought it to national attention. As the energetic frontwoman for Bikini Kill throughout the nineties, followed by the hugely popular dance group Le Tigre, Hanna was an unstoppable presence both onstage and off. Her impact is effectively explored in Sini Anderson's documentary portrait "The Punk Singer," which relies on interviews and robust footage from over the years to create an involving look at Hanna's determination -- as well as the forces that nearly toppled it. Read more here.
Filmmaker Zach Clark's first two features, the scrappy nurse-turned-dominatrix comedy "Modern Love Is Automatic" and the wicked beach party noir "Vacation!," paired restless formalism with Clark's penchant for deadpan humor. By contrast, his touching Christmas tale "White Reindeer" funnels Clark's darker sensibilities and erotic themes into a decidedly more complicated vision of suburban unrest. With a mixture of pathos and dry wit, Clark delivers a solemn twist on the holiday movie formula that simultaneously inhabits the genre and turns it inside out. Read more here.
"Swim Little Fish Swim"
"Swim Little Fish Swim," the confident debut feature from writing-directing duo Lola Bessis and Ruben Amar, provides a gentler alternative to a familiar mold. Though less of a crowdpleaser than it may first appear, that's the key strength that makes this admittedly uneven first feature stand out. The filmmakers juxtapose their character's struggles against an older couple facing the practical issues of their livelihood, establishing a thoughtful examination of the harsher challenges styming the blind idealism of youth. Read more here.
Director Todd Sklar's short film, brazenly titled "'92 Skybox Alonso Mourning Rookie Card," followed a pair of estranged brothers drawn together by the untimely passing of their father. At less than 13 minutes, it managed to economically set up two aimless characters and let them run wild to comic effect, culminating with a kitchen food fight for the ages. Before either their crude personalities or the relentless virile jokes grew tiresome, it was over. No such luck with "Awful Nice," Sklar's feature-length treatment of the material, which resembles the short in spirit but takes its puerile energy to a tedious extreme. Read more here.
"William and the Windmill"
The story of Malawian teenager William Kamkwamba is candy for the Western imagination: In 2001, the 14-year-old Kamkwamba dropped out of school and picked up a library book about harnessing electricity, then built a windmill from scratch, effectively powering his subsistence farmer family and saving them from the debilitating effects of a famine. Kamkwamba's scientific achievement speaks for itself, but the attention he received in its wake is a thornier issue that Ben Nabors turns into a fascinating look at the tricky balancing act of third world activism. Transformed into a media darling and public cause, Kamkwamba was either rescued, exploited or -- as Nabors implies -- something in between. Read more here.
"Short Term 12"
There is undoubtedly a potential bad version of "Short Term 12" that writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton ("I Am Not a Hipster"), fortunately, didn't make. The movie, which follows the experiences of staff and patients at the eponymous foster care home for at-risk teens, contains a series of sentimental hooks without overplaying any of them. Cretton's screenplay pulls off a tricky balance of imbuing its story with emotional weight while not coming across as cloying in the process. The situation is inherently dramatic, but the filmmaker complicates it with characters worth rooting for. Read more here.
Savagely assaulting the desperation of a blue collar family man, the comedic thriller "Cheap Thrills" establishes a ridiculous premise early on and takes it to various extremes, again and again, until you just have to accept the crazy venture on its own terms or simply give up. That's also the situation for its dazed leading man, Craig (Pat Healy), a broke father newly unemployed when he comes across the affluent Colin (David Koechner) in a bar and plays along with a series of increasingly deranged bets in exchange for monetary rewards. The metaphoric weight to the scenario is immediately evident, but "Cheap Thrills" basically uses that starting point to mess around. Read more here.
The first two entries in Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead" trilogy -- released in 1981 and 1987, respectively -- delivered such delightfully inventive takes on the horror genre, uniting the disparate traditions of suspense and slapstick, that no remake could possibly match their originality. Respectably enough, with his snazzy redressing of the first movie, director Fede Alvarez doesn't even try. Instead, "Evil Dead," a studio-produced take on the demon possession mayhem at a now-iconic cabin in the woods, delivers a slick and undeniably wild ride by repurposing the original premise in body horror terms. With simpler aims and oodles of blood, the new movie is a watered down scare-fest that works in spite of its formula by constantly frightening audiences into submission. Read more here.
"12 O'Clock Boys"
The first time we see the group of mostly young adult dirt bikers cruising down the streets of lower class Baltimore neighborhoods in "12 O'Clock Boys," the speed and intensity of their risky, unauthorized stunt work has been translated into poetry: Pitching backwards in slo-mo as they point to the sky, the riders take on the elegance of Olympic champions. Yet Lotfy Nathan's contemplative portrait pits this lyrical dimension against the life-threatening dangers of the act and the root causes for such extreme antics, delivering an astute look at how social conditions can lead to an audacious form of rebellion that, in spite of its elegance, makes matters worse. Read more here.
In eight years of features, Joe Swanberg has developed a substantial body of minor works, but "Drinking Buddies" proves it had a direction. Swanberg's unabashedly scrappy profiles tend to focus on perpetually inelegant people in search of meaning in their lives as they often struggle to find romantic satisfaction. "Drinking Buddies" is no exception, but with its steadier production values and uniformly strong performances, it continues the director's observational approach while improving on the most promising ingredients found throughout his filmography. Read more here.
"Good Ol' Freda"
There are two main ingredients that make "Good Ol' Freda," a documentary about The Beatles secretary Freda Kelly, stand out from countless other takes on the rise of the world's most iconic band: First of all, having worked for the group during its initial decade of existence but remained largely in the shadows, Kelly held a unique ringside seat to their rise without directly being a part of it. Additionally, perhaps because of her ongoing fidelity to the band, Kelly has remained secretive about her experiences prior to this project, directed by Ryan White and mostly told from Kelly's point of view. It's less exposé than curiosity, adding little new information to The Beatles' expansive mythology, but rather one more perspective on their initial days of fame that does the legacy proud. Read more here.
Austin-based filmmaker Bryan Poyser's first two features, "Dear Pillow" and "Lovers of Hate," explored relationship problems by dealing in unconventionally frank ways with sex. Working on a microbudget scale, the movies had little in common with larger and considerably tamer comedy-dramas about similar issues. "The Bounceback," a step up in scale for the director, bears a closer resemblance to a studio-produced romcom, and suffers to some degree by comparison to his rowdier, unpredictable earlier works. However, compared to the current mainstream standards for the genre, the movie is a smart, refreshing cut above that channels the intelligence found in Poyser's other movies into a more common mold. Read more here.