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.

One magnificent mollusk

Coiled near its rocky den, the octopus slowly 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, of holding hands for the first time. 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 remarkable documentary “My Octopus Teacher.” A viral smash, the Netflix film has been shortlisted for the best documentary Academy Award. Really, it deserves a special accolade, say, Best Buddy Picture Between Man and Mollusk. The movie is something else: devastating octo-poetry. 

A simple story about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery cephalopod in the swaying kelp forests of South Africa, the film depicts the burly, soft-spoken Foster as a dedicated student of the ocean who is truly moved by the relationship he forges over a year with the sea animal that remains unnamed. (I suggest Octavia.)

Part of his lesson is noticing the striking similarities between us and these “alien” creatures, the way connection, interspecies or not, is essential and a well of bracing contentment. “It does give you this strange level of octopus joy,” notes Foster, saying words that have likely never been uttered before.

As a pupil, Foster is a keen observer, learning by watching his silent friend do what she does: hunt, hide, jet, crawl, swim and, sometimes, walk on two legs on the ocean floor. That trippy spectacle, both funny and boggling, is one of many scene-stealers.

She’s a gelatinous chameleon, enacting stunning physical transformations with her bulbous head, serpentine legs and polka-dot suckers to blend seamlessly into the Day-Glo surroundings. Her effortless shape-shifting is part of the movie’s multi-pronged magic.

“My Octopus Teacher” reminds me of many oceany things, like the charmingly odd adopt an octopus campaign at the World Wildlife Fund, where for a $55 donation you get a plush stuffed octopus, a photo, an adoption certificate and other tentacular goodies. It never occurred to me that octopi were endangered, but WWF says they’re “vulnerable to toxins and pollution,” yet doesn’t that cover just about everything? (Please send me $55. I am endangered. My plush doll is amazing.) 

As much as I love watching the delightful octopus in the movie, I love even more putting octopus in my mouth. Almost unavoidable on midscale restaurant menus — perhaps another reason they’re endangered — grilled octopus is hot stuff, up there with bone marrow and short ribs. Both chewy and silky, the meat has a mild sea-foody flavor complemented by a good fiery sear. Here’s a spectacular piece I scarfed in Barcelona:

I don’t want to eat the movie’s affable octopus. She’s a darling — adorably clever, wily and pretty, much like the picture itself, which is also fairly wrenching (brace for some drama). 

It’s an elemental tale rife with homey pleasures: the hand holding, the snuggling, the mutual respect. The bond is inexplicable but palpable, right there on screen, like when Foster’s new BFF seems to be tailing him through the sea.

“That’s one of the most incredible feelings,” he beams, “to be followed by an octopus.”

It’s fantastic, and it almost breaks your heart.

Turning the page, in literature and life

These days, I seem to only get high on the fumes — the thick, inebriating perfume — of words. I just read a fine passage in my current book and it brushed the orgasmic. To write like that, to make literary music, is the best thing, the very best thing. It matches, maybe surpasses, love.

Too much? Too loopy? Probably. But great art does that — it makes you dizzy. During the pandemic captivity, I’m reading with fiendish greed, in oceanic gulps. I’m buying with crazy zeal. And you probably can’t get that book you want at the library because I already checked it out. Terribly sorry.

More than ever, I grab the written word for solace, inspiration and spiritual nutrition. Yet while I crack mounds of books, I don’t always finish them. I am a notorious book-slammer, shunting aside titles that don’t rivet me by page 50 or so. Mediocrity won’t cut it. I’ve had enough meh, oof and blah. Especially this year.

These are grim days — both of my parents died in the past year; the Covid terror seethes; the Trump shit-show blunders on; some personal turmoil has body-slammed me; pick your catastrophe — and lots of us look to art for escape, empathy and temporary amnesia. 

Art extends beyond the written word, of course, so I’m still listening to music, watching films and TV shows and streaming all manner of streamy abundance. 

Stuff that stands out: the wise, tartly funny Pamela Adlon comedy “Better Things,” in which Adlon plays a frazzled single mother of three offbeat daughters and simply tries to, well, cope; the bizzaro “Pen15,” a cringe comedy starring two 30-something women playing seventh graders with boggling juvenile verisimilitude; and “The Crown,” that tea-time telenovela about British royalty that entrances, despite me caring less about the real Royals than I do about carbuncles.

“Pen15” (yes, these ‘girls’ are really in their thirties)

I always have to nitpick at year’s end, too. Always. If the just-fine though room temperature chess drama “The Queen’s Gambit” missed the sublime, it ably outclassed other hot streamers, like the broad, shrill “Schitt’s Creek” and the animated “BoJack Horseman,” whose mordant mopiness was mistaken for hip profundity. (Speaking of adult animation, does anybody still watch “Archer,” the subversive, devilishly clever cartoon on FX? Join me.)  

Thanks to Covid-contorted release formats, I’m behind on new movies, especially presumptive Oscar contenders. I did try to watch David Fincher’s tediously diffuse “Mank” but couldn’t finish it, and, yes, I can tick-off all of its esoteric Hollywood references. I’m skipping Spike Lee’s Vietnam fantasia “Da 5 Bloods” for two reasons: It doesn’t look very good and Lee’s track record of great films is plain disheartening. (I will also be skipping “Wonder Woman 1984,” grumbled grandpa.)

This is what kind of year it’s been: Mere weeks ago I watched and can recall almost nothing about the admired indie “First Cow” by Kelly Reichardt, one of my favorite minimalist filmmakers, except that some guys make yummy biscuits. I’m renting the scruffy period piece again to see what I’m blanking on.

Movies I’m looking forward to include the adaptation of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”; Frances McDormand in “Nomadland” (by the director of 2017’s extraordinary “The Rider”); the viral documentary “My Octopus Teacher,” about a grown man befriending a gorgeously slithery mollusk; and Frederick Wiseman’s typically sprawling doc “City Hall.”

“My Octopus Teacher”

And yet for all that — let’s swoop back to the start of this entry — books are my sweet spot right now. In the past few tumultuous months I’ve savored “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay,” the ravishing third novel in Elena Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan series; Jess Walter’s jaunty period saga “The Cold Millions”; and “Leave the World Behind,” Rumaan Alam’s quiet thriller about race, class, marriage and other thorny things.

But what’s providing the most satisfying literary kicks are titles from the New York Review Books Classics series, an eclectic spread of fiction and nonfiction from the past, each book a minimally designed paperback that bespeaks worldly elegance. Called “discoveries” by the publisher, the books are “established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected and unheard of.”

I now own 13 terrific novels from the series, with another  — Leonard Gardner’s gritty boxing drama “Fat City” — on the way. Today I’m reading the noirish “Nightmare Alley” by William Lindsay Gresham (midgets, mediums, mendacity). Before that was the twisty, eerily timely crime thriller “The Expendable Man” by Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote cult classic “In a Lonely Place,” part of the series I also devoured. 

My NYRB Classics collection

What’s getting me is the power of words, the emotional and psychic heft, the sheer salve of art, and the attendant awe. I’ve always loved books and any words on paper (and screen), but I seem to love them more in the rotten times, a stretch so shitty, I haven’t touched this blog in over three months. I hadn’t the urge nor the heart. Fall, my favorite season, gone wasted. 

Maybe I’m uncoiling from a prolonged flinch. I don’t know. But this, now, during some of the very bleakest days, is where I’m at. Turning the page in another chapter.