Indies: Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen

Opinion by Pete Tubbs, Editor in Chief Images courtesy of Paramount, RLJE, Magnolia, and Bleeker St.

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 Although 2017 had its fair share of massive blockbusters, it’s the smaller films that packed the most punch. You probably saw “Thor Ragnarok,” “Logan,” “Wonder Woman,” “Spiderman: Homecoming,” etc., but several independent films had more entertainment per ounce than the mega-budgeted studio movies. 

Let’s start with my number one favorite movie of the year, “The Lost City of Z.” Directed by James Gray of “We Own the Night” and “The Immigrant,” “Z” tells the story of Percy Fawcett, an explorer whose lifelong goal is to find an ages-old city in the Amazon. 

The film’s leading man, Charlie Hunnam, may not ring a bell at first glance. However, he was the star of FX’s biker drama “Sons of Anarchy” and was the lead in Guillermo del Toro’s films “Pacific Rim” and “Crimson Peak.” 

Hunnam’s co-star is the one you’ll probably recognize right off the bat, Robert Pattinson. He was, of course, Edward in the maligned “Twilight” films. Sienna Miller also appears as Fawcett’s beleaguered wife, and Tom Holland (the new Spiderman) plays his son. 

I was reluctant to see the film at first. I wondered who in their right mind would hire the “Pacific Rim” guy and the “Twilight” guy to head up a period piece about the discovery of new lands. I was happily surprised to have my question answered when the credits rolled. 

Both Hunnam and Pattinson were fantastic, as were Holland and Miller. The acting is just the icing on the cake, however, as the pure brilliance comes from the script, cinematography, and direction. 

The film takes its time introducing the characters and letting them grow throughout the film. Mr. Fawcett doesn’t start the movie as an intrepid explorer. It’s an arc that forms itself over decades. 

“The Lost City of Z” doesn’t feel slow, though, quite the opposite. It bolts from year to year, getting to what we want to see and sparing the clunky exposition that may have hindered a lesser screenwriter and director. 

It puts you in a trance and doesn’t let you out until the credits roll. The films final twenty minutes are unforgettable and feature some haunting scenes that won’t leave my mind anytime soon. I loved it, and I can’t wait to see what Gray does next. 

The next film I’d recommend is Mike White’s “Brad’s Status.” The Ben Stiller starrer follows a middle-aged man who is going through a midlife crisis while talking his son on a tour of colleges. 

For starters, this is one of the best performances that Stiller has ever given. Throughout the film, you go back and forth between loving and hating him. 

At first glance, “Brad’s Status” may seem like a white privilege/ first world problems film about a reasonably successful man who feels overshadowed by his college friend’s lives of opulence and fame. However, as the film rolls along, you begin to relate to him and see that you’ve probably had many of the same feelings Brad has.

If you’re looking for a challenging and emotional night in, “Brad’s Status” is an excellent choice. 

The supporting cast includes Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Jermaine Clement, and Luke Wilson. It’s directed by Mike White who’s written things such as “Orange County,” “The Good Girl,” “Chuck and Buck,” and “School of Rock.” 

This is a meditative film that has a purposefully relaxed and drab feel to it. We’re meant to feel like we’re going through this with Brad, and that makes it all the more affecting. If you’re looking for a challenging and emotional night in, “Brad’s Status” is a great choice. 

Segueing from independent drama to something a bit more intense, my next suggestion is “Brawl in Cell Block 99”. The thriller/ exploitation film follows VInce Vaughn as Bradley Thomas, a man who goes to prison and is forced to fight his way to cell block 99 for a violent rendezvous. 

 

 You may think that Vince Vaughn may not be the right choice to head up a brutally violent crime drama, but trust me, his performance is incredible. In fact, he’s never been better. 

Director S. Craig Zahler’s first film, 2015’s equally brutal “Bone Tomahawk,” showcased his deliberate and sometimes darkly comic style of filmmaking in a wholly original horror western. This time, he transfers the same method over to a hard-hitting prison tale of revenge and redemption. 

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I will give a warning; if you’re not used to incredibly brutal violence, this isn’t the film for you. There were times, especially towards the end, I almost had to look away from the screen. 

That is part of “Brawl in Cell Block 99’s” charm, though. There hasn’t been a movie like this in a long time, and I don’t think there will be another one until Zahler’s next outing. “Brawl in Cell Block 99” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. 

Last year, the film world lost one of its greatest stars in Harry Dean Stanton. The 91-year-old starred in such classics as “Cool Hand Luke,” “Alien,” “Escape from New York,” “Repo Man,” “The Green Mile,” and “Pretty in Pink.” He was an unspoken film legend. 

His final starring role in John Carroll Lynch’s “Lucky” is one of, if not his best, performances. The film follows a ninety-year-old atheist who comes face to face with mortality and doesn’t quite know how to handle it. 

It’s a profound film that never feels like it’s pretentious, which is rare for movies of this breed. “Lucky” feels like you are watching real life unfold before your eyes. 

The performances are all spot on, not just from Stanton, but from an incredible supporting cast that includes David Lynch, Ron Livingston, Ed Begley Jr., and Tom Skerritt. 

I don’t think that Stanton could’ve asked for a more life-affirming swan song. “Lucky” doesn’t just speak to the elderly, it speaks to everyone who has ever wondered if they’ve lived their life to the fullest. 

This is unmistakably one of the greatest films of the year and one of the most excellent performances of the year. Harry Dean Stanton is mesmerizing. It’s so sad to see him go, but his death only makes “Lucky” all the more critical. 

Alexander Payne’s newest film “Downsizing” is one of the most underrated movies I’ve seen in a decade. It follows Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife (Kristen Wiig) as they undergo an operation that shrinks themselves to five inches tall. 

Payne has never made a bad film. In fact, with movies such as “Election,” “Sideways,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways,” “The Descendants,” and one of my all-time favorites, “Nebraska,” he’s one of the greatest directors currently living. 

“Downsizing” is a modern-day parable on climate change and the human condition. When one gets downsized, they are saving the planet by consuming much less, but they are also becoming rich beyond their dreams as they can afford to consume much more on such a small scale. 

This movie is the most unabashedly original films of the past several years, and it’s also not afraid to show its heart. Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz are spectacular, but the absolute highlight of the movie is Vietnam native Hong Chau. 

Chau plays one legged Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who was downsized against her wishes and came to America illegally in a tv box. Yep, I told you it was original. 

If you want to see something that will make you laugh, cry, and just generally want to be a better person, go see “Downsizing.” 

These movies aren’t for everyone, but they each have charm for days. If you get out of your comfort zone and seek out some movies you may not have heard of, you may find a gem that you won’t soon forget.