This year and every year — but this year especially — there has been a lot of chatter about the ways in which the movie world has contracted, with big budget genre blockbusters (usually superhero movies) taking over local movie theatres almost entirely, pushing out nearly everything else. This isn’t good. Superhero tentpoles are great — just ask Paul Thomas Anderson! — but even the most dedicated Marvel fan is going to wind up craving a more varied diet.
The economic factors facing modern movie studios and theatres are real, but they also reflect an incomplete picture: Smaller independent theatres still exist, even if they’re increasingly rare. A new way of “indie majors” like A24 and NEON have arisen to replace the likes of Miramax and Fox Searchlight, once great studios undone by corporate shenanigans. Just as importantly, streaming and VOD services have brought a world of cinema within easy reach. Your options aren’t nearly as limited as they might seem.
Independent film being what it is, some of the indie films of 2021 movies were produced a year or two before they received any sort of wide release. Regardless, they each had their American debuts over the course of the last year. Any of them will keep you more than entertained while you wait for Spider-Man to reappear at your local AMC.
It was inevitable that we’d eventually get a movie adaptation of a Twitter thread, and we’ve actually already had more than one. But what’s surprising is that this one is so good. Riley Keogh plays Stefani, who meets sex worker Zola in a restaurant and strikes up a friendship that leads to the two of them setting off on a road trip to Tampa, Florida. Director Janicza Bravo brings wild energy and style to the story (more than not neglecting Twitter as a framing device, she infuses the omnipresent notification pings of other moden tech throughout the film), while Keogh and Taylour Paige’s Zola sell the hell out of the stranger-than-fiction, true(-ish) story. Deservedly, Zola has been nominated for 7 Independent Spirit Awards, including best picture and best director.
Four refugees wait it out on a Scottish island, hoping for word on the results of their individual asylum claims. Avoiding some of the high drama and tragedy of other refugee narratives, Limbo is a charming and quirky character portrait — uplifting and humane, with stunning cinematography.
Nella Larson’s searing, eye-opening portrait of a light-skinned Black woman in 1920s Harlem has received the adaptation it deserves in Rebecca Hall’s film. Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson are brilliant as old friends put at odds by their respective degrees of skin tone, with the film eschewing over-the-top drama in favour of a more subdued, subtle, but still pointed, approach.
The morning after her sexual assault, Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and her boyfriend Evan (Will Brill) seek out a rape kit, and run into roadblocks at every turn. Backed by a couple of terrific lead performances, the movie has a lot to say about the bureaucratic structures that dehumanize and minimise issues related to women’s health, particularly when we’re talking about women of colour. An Independent Spirit Award nominee for Best First Feature, this one is worth seeking out.
CODA would probably be worth watching just for being a family story involving deaf people that doesn’t pander or minimise, neither over-dramatizing the story of Ruby Rossi (Emilia James), the hearing daughter of deaf parents with a dream to attend a prestigious music school, nor minimising the real challenges faced by a family with a single hearing child. It’s not an entirely flawless bit of representation, but its portrayal of self-sufficient deaf people (and exploration of deaf culture) is a big step forward. It’s also a charming, thoughtful coming-of-age drama with a great all-around cast (including Marlee Matlin, probably the most famous deaf actor in history) and a breakout performance from Emilia James.
The ancient and the modern collide in Chaitanya Tamhane’s Marathi-language feature starring Aditya Modak as a young student of North Indian classical music determined to achieve greatness as a vocalist in the jazz-like, improvised, Hindustani style. Against the jarring backdrop of modern Mumbai, he struggles with his dreams and comes to question whether or not he’s meant to succeed, and whether there’s anything else for him if he fails. Alfonso Cuarón is an executive producer.
Vivid and carnal, Ema opens with the image of the movie’s titular protagonist, a Reggaeton dancer, setting a stoplight on fire on the streets of Valparaíso, Chile via a flamethrower strapped to her back. Earlier, Ema and her then-husband, Gaston, had adopted a child who they felt compelled to return to the orphanage, destroying their marriage and sending Ema into a downward spiral…at least until she decides to stop playing by anyone else’s rules. The movie’s narrative sometimes plays out almost like a music video, which doesn’t always work, but there’s an undeniable power and exuberance in its best moments.
Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
The feature documentary from Questlove explores the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a centrepiece event of the late 1960s that’s often been ignored by pop culture historians. Mixing interviews with footage of the six-week event, the film consider the events of the festival itself, its ties to the present, and the reasons why a major festival with performers like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight, and many others, never got the press it deserved.
Night of the Kings
With shades of Arabian Nights and Lord of the Flies, director Philippe Lacôte’s film is a poetic, dreamy ode to the power of storytelling in a violent world of masculine power. Sent to a Côte d’Ivoire prison run by its inmates, an unnamed young man (Bakary Koné) is thrust into the strange traditions of the prison: he’s been designated as the new Roman, a sort of storyteller. His task is to tell story that will last the night, with the penalty for failure his life.
Winston Duke gives a powerful, restrained performance as a bureaucrat in an isolated desert, tasked with determining the worthiness of souls to inhabit living bodies via a nine-day process, and examining the lives of those he’s previously selected. Any movie with such lofty ambitions — no less than examining the purpose of life itself — is likely doomed to fail, but Nine Days movingly succeeds thanks to its performances (from Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, and Bill Skarsgård), and its gentleness.