We’re fast approaching the end of the year. And that means studios are flooding theaters (and, if they bother, streaming services) with movies that they want to convince you are must-sees. Some of them probably are. If you’re any kind of moviegoer, you’ll probably check them out. But as studios make a brisk return to theaters now that everyone’s agreed to return to normalcy, don’t forget that the calendar year comprises more than just the movies whose producers declare them awards-worthy. Frankly, the smaller movies that don’t have that juice are often just as deserving of your attention. And in many cases they deserve it more.
November’s a good time for gratitude, and while we’re all grateful that theaters are, relatively speaking, safe again, it’s also a good time to catch up on smaller movies that don’t have the same advertising power behind them. 2021 is a solid year for unique visions in independent filmmaking. Here’s a selection of 8 underrated moves for you to sink your teeth into.
One morning our galaxy woke, blinked, saw the Earth lacked dames, and willed Julia Fox, the contemporary embodiment of the dame archetype, into existence. First, she dazzled in the Safdi brothers’ Uncut Gems. Here, in Ben Hozie’s PVT CHAT, she dominates as Scarlet, a San Francisco cam girl and the digital crush of gambling addict Jack (Peter Vack). He lives on the opposite coast, dreaming of Scarlet’s embrace, when lo and behold he sees her in Chinatown and his crush turns into obsession. Hozie shoots in a similar style as the Safdis, with grainy realism and unaffected scenery. It’s all the better for letting Fox and Vack consume each other – and the screen.
If you’re sick of reading about gaslighting in culture commentary, media coverage, and on Twitter, then Knocking, a movie that’s fundamentally about gaslighting, may turn you off with its logline. Molly (Cecilia Milocco), having achieved something like recovery after suffering a nervous breakdown, departs the psych ward she’s called home and returns to her real home, where an incessant and increasingly desperate knocking sound arrests her attention. Is she hearing things? Is someone trapped in the building, truly in danger? Her neighbors claim not to hear the noise. Are they lying? Director Frida Kempff creates horror in doubt and paranoia, using audio cues to make her audience question their own intuition as Molly unravels. Tight, tense, and suffocating filmmaking make this an 80-minute exercise in anxiety.
Imagine all the mythological beings you learned about from reading Edith Hamilton books – hydras and dragons, unicorns, and the Pegasus – were real, and that Jane Goodall relocated them all to a private sanctuary for their safety. Now imagine she’s a globetrotting figure who, like Indiana Jones, matches knowledge with physical prowess, freeing these creatures from captivity and defying poachers. That’s Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo, where the coarse, hand-drawn animation invites viewers to see cryptids and other fantastical beings in a variety of shades, tones, and lines, a reminder that none of them, and none of us, look or feel the same. This is a lurching, idiosyncratic film, a rare example of animation specifically aimed at adult audiences, where Shaw’s creativity roams free and bleeds into philosophical conversations about where capitalism and activism collide.
College student Danielle (Rachel Sennott) goes to a funeral. She meets up with her folks, Joel (Fred Melamed) and Debbie (Polly Draper). She also bumps into Max (Danny Deferrari), her sugar daddy, and his wife Kim (Diana Agron), and their infant, and also her ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon). If Shiva Baby isn’t a perfect encapsulation of a Jewish funeral in all of its cringing, awkward, stifling glory, nothing is. Emma Seligman didn’t cast a Jewish woman as her lead, but she directs Sennott toward Jewish realizations with a bitter sense of humor and a horror film’s gnawing tension. Don’t mistake Shiva Baby as genre cinema. Take it as an uncomfortable emotional and spiritual awakening over the bumps and bruises of unmoored 20-something life. (If you can, check out Utopia’s recent Blu-ray release over streaming.)
Tom (Joel McHale) and Janet (Kerry Bishé) can’t keep their hands off each other. They’re the couple sneaking off to closets and bathrooms at friends’ houses during parties to make passionate love. If you don’t know a couple like that, it stands to reason you also don’t know the intense jealousy that comes with their acquaintance. After 14 years, married couples are supposed to hate each other. Right? BenDavid Grabinski’s Happily argues no, they shouldn’t, and the cultural expectation that they should is trash. There’s a reason Tom and Janet can’t stop knocking boots. But you won’t see it coming, even when you think you do see it coming. Grabinski takes a turn. Then he takes another turn. But as many turns as the movie takes, it never feels like it’s messing with us. The constant shifting of goalposts is a pleasure. If this is Grabinski’s first movie, think of what he might do with his second.
Riders of Justice
Mads Mikkelsen is one of our greatest screen actors, and the one-two combination of last year’s Another Round and this year’s Riders of Justice should prove it once and for all, assuming anyone’s left to doubt it. In this, his latest collaboration with Anders Thomas Jensen (see: 2015’s Men & Chicken), Mikkelsen plays Markus, a war vet called home from service in Afghanistan when his wife dies in a shocking train accident. The accident is no accident; Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, another regular in Jensen’s stable), a statistician, discovers the “accident” was an assassination plot planned by white supremacists, and Markus goes forth on a vengeful rampage. Riders of Justice follows a familiar blueprint with considerably more emphasis on character, which both sustains the story and gives the spurts of bloody gun violence layers. The shootouts are pretty rad, but they’re also horrific, and deeply, deeply melancholic all at the same time.
The Spine of Night
Philip Gelatt and Morgan Galen King brought a heavy metal album to life using rotoscope animation and borrowing the papery, soothing voice of Richard E. Grant. There’s more to The Spine of Night, of course, much more, including Grant’s co-lead, Lucy Lawless, a gargantuan supporting cast ranging from Patton Oswalt, Larry Fessenden, and Joe Manganiello to Betty Gabriel, Abigail Savage, and Jordan Douglas Smith. Movies like The Spine of Night, much as with Cryptozoo, come along only once in a while, so it’s a true gift we’ve gotten two of them in the same year. Gelatt and King embrace the aesthetics and narrative traditions of Heavy Metal and Son of the White Mare, and make their own magic from their influences.
The Paper Tigers
Dads rock. Martial art phenom dads rock even more. Danny (Alain Uy) could be one of those dads. In his teenage years, he was known as Danny 8-Hands, student of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan), alongside his fellow pupils and brothers, Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins). As an adult, he’s divorced, addicted to work, and incapable of showing up on time to pick up his son, Ed (Joziah Lagonoy), and yet he’s still full of himself, which only amplifies the shame of what he grew up to be. Quoc Bao Tran has made an original kung-fu flick with sharp comic timing to match crisp fight scenes, and dad jokes lock fists with, well, fists. For any martial arts fan, The Paper Tigers is essential viewing.