Ten great indies you may have missed

So my movie-watching in this Covid cocoon is drastically spotty — I have yet to see Korean-American family drama “Minari” or Anthony Hopkins as “The Father,” both Oscar winners — and I find myself returning to favorite films, classics new (“John Wick”) and old (“The Thin Man”). 

What’s stuck with me of late is a passel of small newish movies, from “The Rider” to “Eighth Grade,” that could easily be missed by casual viewers, despite the pictures’ celebrated exceptionalism. 

I’ve culled 10 semi-obscure indie pearls from the past several years, 2013 to 2020, a few of which I’ve gushed about before, and many coincidentally released by A24, the hot independent distributor that’s crushing the competition with curatorial savvy. 

I’ve seen the following titles at least twice, except for “Uncut Gems,” whose mad, relentless intensity has, two years later, left me spent. It’s a bruiser. And a winner.

Onward. These are 10 great indie films highly worth your time, in order of release:

  • “Locke” (2013) — A desperate everyman (the brilliantly intense Tom Hardy) is in the driver’s seat, literally, for the movie’s entire 85 minutes. Yes, he’s driving the whole time. The camera never leaves him as he negotiates via smart phone personal tumults on the winding highway of life. It sounds grueling, claustrophobic and static. It’s not. It’s gripping, hypnotic, and exhilarating.
  • “The Witch” (2015) — The smartest, creepiest, most stylish horror picture in years, Robert Eggers’ frightfully immersive period chiller lands us in woodsy 1630 New England, where a family is torn apart by the disappearance of one of its children. Suspicions target eldest daughter Thomasin (wide-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Queen’s Gambit”), who may have flirted with the dark arts. Then there’s that menacing dancing goat, who’s not quickly shaken. Beware Black Phillip
  • “Tangerine” (2015) — Oh, is she pissed. When transgender hooker Sin Dee hears that her boyfriend and pimp cheated on her while she was in jail, she pops with glorious fury, tracking down him and his new lover and exacting a kind of sassy L.A. revenge that includes an inordinate amount of hair pulling. Move over, she’s stomping the sidewalk in teetering heels, cracking wise and hunting heedlessly. Sean Baker shot this scruffy, no-fi, Day-Glo gem on an iPhone, with stunning results. Raunchy and hilarious, it shimmers like a smoggy SoCal sunset.  
  • “Good Time” (2017) — With flickers of the young Pacino and De Niro, Robert Pattinson is revelatory as a scrappy, dangerous two-bit criminal who’s on the lam after a comically/tragically botched bank robbery. The feisty film, by the gifted Safdie brothers, pulls you on a rousing run-for-your-life tumble through nocturnal Queens that’s at once loose-limbed and sweatily taut. A raw portrait of redemption and ruin, pocked with ground-level authenticity, it thrills as it harrows.
  • “The Rider” (2017) — Chloé Zhao’s understated drama moves at the painstaking clip of everyday life, much like her recent Oscar-winner “Nomadland.” But little is everyday here: Brady (non-actor Brady Jandreau) is a rock star of rodeo bronc riding, until an accident in the ring leaves him slightly brain damaged. He’s forced to give up the only life he knows, outside of breaking colts, which he does with a calm, tough-love Jedi mastery. The film is a fine-grained portrait of the pains of getting back on your feet after life-altering disappointment, about rebuilding your spirit after it’s been body-slammed and shattered. Easily the most moving film of 2017, “The Rider” is pure distilled emotion, beautifully shot on the Dakota prairie.
  • “Eighth Grade” (2018) — Her chin and forehead dappled with islands of acne, 13-year-old Kayla is stuck in the excruciating pangs of adolescent metamorphoses. A smidge pudgy, she is awkwardly pretty, a butterfly half-jammed in her chrysalis, squirming to soar. Her two front teeth, jumbly and bucky, will break your heart. Played by the perfect Elsie Fisher, Kayla is the magnetic lead in Bo Burnham’s indie wonder. She’s an arpeggio of teen neuroses, a raw nerve that keeps getting pinged. It’s about today’s kids, glued to their phones, glazed in technology, and forging one’s individuality amid willful clones who gussy up their insecurities in narcotizing conformity. Kayla, a hero for the times, lives by her words, the dictums she professes on the videos she so bravely records on her phone. It doesn’t always work out, but watch her grow mightier upon each posting.
  • “Los Reyes” (2019) — In this inadvertently poetic, profoundly affecting doc from Chile, the camera veers from the skateboarding youth who cruise sinuous bowls to examine the laidback lives of BFFs (best furballs forever): Football, the elder, creaky-jointed cur, and Chola, the frisky female chocolate Lab mix that occasionally tries to hump a large pillow. Dispensing with anthropomorphic cutes, this astonishingly patient film relies on the dogs’ alternately mirthful and mournful antics, quizzical gazes, the way they doze unfazed among the rackety-clackety skaters, or a simple shot of Chola standing statue-still in the rain, getting soaked with the patience of a penitent.
  • “Uncut Gems” (2019) — Adam Sandler is off the hook, and it’s enthralling, like a buzzsaw to the head. In full serio-comic mode — he’s funny and foredoomed — Sandler plays a blingy, dingy New York jeweler who sees dollar signs even when there aren’t any. When he makes a reckless, big bucks bet that could set him up for life, he gets ensnared in a web of business buds, family and foes who all want a piece. Writers-directors the Safdie brothers (of the above “Good Time”) sustain such a frenetic frenzy in this chamber dramedy, you may feel wrecked.  
  • “My Octopus Teacher” (2020) — The octopus cautiously unfurls a tentacle like a flower blooming in a time-lapse photo to the human hand before her. It glances the hand then suddenly sucks it, gently pulling it toward her. The moment carries the pitter-patter of courtship. Could this be love? “That’s when you know there’s full trust,” says the owner of the suction-cupped hand, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster, in his rare doc. A viral smash, the film won this year’s best documentary Oscar. It’s something else: a simple tale about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery cephalopod in the swaying kelp forests of South Africa. Quietly instructive, it goes from lush nature doc to poignant octo-poetry.
  • “Saint Maud” (2020) — Poor innocent Maud. A reclusive nurse seeking Christian devotion after a vague trauma, she becomes the caretaker of an aging dancer dying of cancer. Detecting weakness, and death, Maud (a pretty, pallid Morfydd Clark) kicks into high gear, striving to save her ward’s soul from hellfire with an eerie resolve straddling the sacred and profane. Supernatural phenomena unfurl with a tang of Christian creepiness. Nothing is obvious in Rose Glass’ weird spiritual thriller, especially an amazing climax that will leave you snickering in squirmy, baffled awe.

The best movies of 2019

1. “Honeyland” — In this gorgeously observant documentary, weathered Hatidze lives in the rocky Macedonian mountains, where she cares for her ailing mother and tends to several beehives that produce honey for a tenuous livelihood. A large, rowdy family moves next door and decides to try beekeeping, but without expertise, they flail and almost comically get stung more than they harvest the sweet goo. Tensions arise between the neighbors, but this achingly humanistic look at an exotic if seriously impoverished way of life is mostly a portrait of Hatidze, a steely, lonely woman who has as much soul as those mountains can contain.

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2. “Booksmart” — Barreling forth with raunchy vigor and unbridled zest, this coming-of-age comedy screams fun. Almost literally: There’s a lot of screaming — in surprise, horror and explosive joy. An amplified spin on school-days greats — “Dazed and Confused” to John Hughes — “Booksmart” piles on twists with a sharp, knowing eye that zooms in on the timely and topical, from female power and LGBTQs, to bullying and the corrosive effects of cliques, and, yah, the liberating if daunting pull of sexual exploration. Starring a terrific Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as boundary-pushing besties, who learn, in a fleeting haze, that maybe bongs are as fun as books.

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3. “Pain and Glory” — Antonio Banderas, broken-in yet handsomely fit, plays an aging, ailing film director re-encountering figures from his past: his disapproving mother and a former lover, to an actor in one of his most famous movies. Pedro Almodóvar’s lavish drama, revealing the artist in peak form, brimming with soul, pinballs through time for a richly felt reflection on life, love, art and mortality.  

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4. “The Chambermaid” — Ghostly quiet and meticulously observant, this narratively spare but humanely complex Mexican drama follows a hotel maid on her monotonous rounds, evincing stark lines of class. What slowly unfurls is an unsparing character study that’s as hermetic as it is riveting. 

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5. “American Factory” — When a Chinese company takes over a closed General Motors factory in Ohio, an epic culture clash erupts in this fascinating and timely documentary. A Chinese billionaire opens a glass factory in the empty GM facility, hiring two thousand blue-collar Americans. Things seem good until they don’t, and the stark differences between high-tech China and working-class America are exposed for explosive tension and real-life drama. 

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6. “Ford v Ferrari” — A gas. This based-on-a-true-story traces how the Ford company chased, literally, Ferrari in the pursuit of engineering the fastest racing car possible. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are at their charismatic peaks as driving rivals slash pals who ping off each other, willing pawns in the big contest. 

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7. “Non-Fiction” — Olivier Assayas’ French dramedy is a tireless, tonic gabfest that had me speed-reading the flurry of subtitles more than drinking in the faces and colors of the bustling scenes. That’s no complaint. The profusion of words — intelligent, eloquent, biting — brim with ideas, humor, pain and pathos, for an enveloping artful experience. You want to know the fork-tongued characters, led by an enchanting Juliette Binoche, because of the literary, arty cosmos in which these writers, editors and actors orbit.

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8. “Parasite” — A totally implausible class fantasy set in South Korea, Bong Joon Ho’s comic-horror parable is a bit too on-the-nose meditation on wealth vs. poverty. Yet it soars with a warped originality and off-kilter atmosphere that never quite lets on where it’s going. There will be blood. 

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9. “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” — At once arty, elegiac, poetic and tough-minded, this is a tale, a beautiful reverie, that strikes on topics of race and class and gentrification with sparks and lyricism and primary-color Spike Lee sizzle. It’s something singular, and it slowly intoxicates with its emotional and sociological depths.

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10. “Her Smell” — Elisabeth Moss’ performance in this shambolic punk-rock portrait is as athletically interior as it is exterior, spiked with physical fits and childish spasms. In my favorite performance of the year, Moss plays Becky, volatile front-woman of a female punk band she’s struggling to keep together between coke binges and flame-throwing hissy fits. The actress stirs up a cackling, hand-flinging cauldron of Courtney Love, Blanche DuBois and Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” It’s all raw nerve, and Moss commits to her anti-heroine in a self-immolating blaze.

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The rest (in alphabetical order):

  • “Atlantics” — In Senegal, an engaged woman, Ada, is in love with another man, Suleiman, who takes to the ocean with co-workers for better job prospects. The men seem to vanish in the sea and a distraught Ada seeks signs of her lover everywhere. What begins as a linear romance morphs into an unpredictable drama of workers’ rights and supernatural mysteries. If it doesn’t wholly congeal, Mati Diop’s film is a uniquely promising debut.  

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  • “Climax” — With the head-spinning, hallucinogenic swirl of body (and camera) movement that is “Climax,” Gaspar Noé takes his visual and thematic tics past the edge of woozy chaos. When a talented dance troupe’s party is ruined by a bowl of LSD-spiked punch, hell uncorks. What was a glorious pageant of writhing bodies becomes a descent into a violent nightmare of screeching, thrashing individuals trying to relocate reality. It’s vintage Noé. 

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  • “Gloria Bell” — A glowing Julianne Moore — is there a more radiant actress? — assumes the title role in this sweet, ebullient, slightly melancholic snapshot of a middle-aged divorced woman seeking love and connection in modern Los Angeles. Deeply heartfelt and human. 

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  • “Los Reyes” — A near-silent documentary following the tales, and tails, of two stray dogs — one old, one young — getting by in a Chilean skate park. The movie, dispensing with music, narration and anthropomorphic cutes, is astonishingly patient, relying on the dogs’ alternately mirthful and mournful antics, quizzical gazes, the way they doze unfazed among the rackety-clackety skaters and how they find joy in chasing balls up and down the concrete. 

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  • “Memory: The Origins of ‘Alien’” — Let’s cut to the chest: Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece “Alien” is forever remembered for one indelible scene: the chest-burster, when a gore-slimed serpent chews its way out of the torso of a hapless John Hurt. Great detail and respect are granted the monumental moment in this dizzyingly in-depth, intellectually exhaustive documentary. But the film’s focus stays mostly on the mythology behind the influential classic, and the obsessive density of it all is both boggling and breathtaking.

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  • “The Mustang” — Breaking a horse is a bitch. Triple the challenge if it’s a rearing, snorting wild desert mustang. That’s what Roman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is tasked with as a violent criminal in a Nevada prison program in which convicts break mustangs for auction, preparing them for work in law enforcement. If Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s feature debut falls into a formulaic groove, the film doesn’t flinch from bursts of gritty violence and chewy realism.

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  • “The Nightingale” — This bloody revenge thriller from Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook”) is as unflinching as it is affecting. Set in 1825, in a British penal colony in today’s Tasmania, the drama ignites when a young female convict is raped as her family is murdered. Dazed and enraged, the woman, Clare, hops a horse, hires an Aboriginal tracker and sets her sights on sweet, savage revenge. It’s a complex tale of frontier justice, love, death, friendship, betrayal, with an emotionally cathartic core that almost buffers the rattling violence.

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  • “Rocketman”Parts “Tommy,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Dexter Fletcher’s bedazzling, beguiling, Broadway-esque biopic of Elton John is vaulting rock opera, fire-hosed in glitter and gold, stars and sequins. The facts of John’s life — born Reginald Dwight, he was a timid piano prodigy who exploded to pop megastardom with lyricist and co-writer Bernie Taupin — are embroidered with lush fantasy that makes the perfect soundtrack (in spite of cornball “Crocodile Rock”) even more infectious. 

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(Acclaimed movies I have yet to see: “Little Women, “Uncut Gems, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire, “The Lighthouse, “Queen & Slim,” “Varda by Agnès.” One that conspicuously didn’t make the cut, Noah Baumbach’s both flat and histrionic “Marriage Story.)

* Bonus fun — Gaseous, over-worshipped disappointments by auteur royalty:

  • “The Irishman” — Scorsese’s plodding, punishingly overlong true-crime saga is historically engaging but rarely entertaining. Baggy and monochrome, the 3½-hour epic misses the color and snap of “Goodfellas,” which it badly wants to be. With geriatric turns by Pacino, Pesci and De Niro, it should be called “Oldfellas,” including the palsied vision behind the camera. Scorsese has recently griped about superhero movies repeating themselves with the same tropes and plots. At the height of hypocrisy, he cannibalizes his own oeuvre with diminishing returns.

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  • “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” — A kaleidoscopic catastrophe, Tarantino’s blundering ode to ‘60s movies, music, television and celebrity is an indulgent sprawl; a brutal, unfunny mess; an embarrassing cartoon scrawled by an ego-drunk adolescent. The film is self-smitten, wearing a slap-worthy smirk, and at times, like the last half-hour, is downright despicable. onceheader.jpeg

Poignant pups in a barky, bittersweet doc

A peculiar joy is had watching the yelping delight two stray dogs derive from the simple actions of a bouncing soccer ball or a hurled tennis ball. Prancing, dancing, they are elated, gamboling across the nail-clicky concrete of Los Reyes, the oldest skatepark in Santiago, Chile, and, in a way, we are too.
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In Chilean duo Ivan Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut’s almost inadvertently poetic, profoundly moving “Los Reyes,” the camera veers from the skateboarding youth who cruise sinuous bowls to examine the laidback lives of BFFs (best furballs forever) — Football, the elder, creaky-jointed cur that resembles a mangy male lion, and Chola, the frisky female chocolate Lab mix that occasionally tries to hump a large pillow. 
 
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The filmmakers set out to document the skaters but located more compelling subjects in the park’s two permanent residents, who have little direct contact with their human visitors, save for the sporadic ball toss. Shot over two years, the doc can’t totally avoid the skaters, and it shouldn’t. Creatively hiding their identities, it captures them in snippets, mostly arty images of their hands, bodily shadows, long shots of them skating and idle voice-over chatter detailing the troubles and trivialities of their hardscrabble lives, from drugs to home and school dramas.
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Dispensing with music, narration and anthropomorphic cutes, this is an astonishingly patient film, relying on the dogs’ alternately mirthful and mournful antics, quizzical gazes, the way they doze unfazed among the rackety-clackety skaters, or a simple shot of Chola standing statue-still in the rain, getting soaked with the patience of a penitent.
Despite their companionship, the mutts are essentially loners and there’s an aching desolation in their struggle-filled lives. Poetry blossoms from extreme close-ups of a long, panting tongue or rapidly fluttering nostrils, flies nipping at their flesh or a pair of scraggly paws at rest.
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In this, “Los Reyes” is deceptively shapeless, so willfully hands-off, the 75-minute movie often plays like a lyrical and lovely Terrence Malick fugue. And then scruffy old Football will put something in his mouth, be it a Coke can, a pack of discarded cigarettes or a gigantic rock, and the pensive mood melts again. And so do we.
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In select theaters. Watch the trailer HERE.