While the blockbuster slate for this past spring was somewhat subpar, the independent film slate was anything but. With intriguing concepts and some genuinely great films the spring 2016 season was certainly one to remember for independent films. The first film I was able to watch this spring was Eye in the Sky. The film features an all-star cast and crew, and it’s pretty much everyone involved working at the top of their game. The concept of the film, a drone strike operation from the perspectives of everyone involved, isn’t exactly innovative but it’s the sort of simple concept that would allow the work of every individual within the film to really flourish. Gavin Hood (after a brief and failed stint in blockbuster filmmaking) brings the intensity and his team of editors makes sure every element of the story gets its chance in the spotlight. However, it’s the strong acting that really makes this film work. Helen Mirren gets top billing as the closest thing to a villain in this film. As an extremely militaristic colonel that will do anything to get her way, Mirren delivers a fiery performance that feels unlike anything she has done before. The supporting cast also sees some strong performances from Aaron Paul, the late Alan Rickman and Monica Dolan (who more than holds her own against Rickman).
Earlier this spring I was also able to see Jeff Nichols’ latest film Midnight Special. Jeff Nichols has quietly become one of America’s stronger directors and 2016 is a huge opportunity for him to have a breakout year (with both this and Loving, which just debuted at the Cannes Film Festival). Midnight Special is unfortunately the weakest of the three Nichols films I have seen (the others being Take Shelter and Mud). A lot of the film deals with supernatural occurrences that happen around a young boy, and the plot is just constantly referred to by the characters through pronouns. As such the mystery just becomes annoying rather than intriguing. However, once the big reveal happens it does raise some interesting questions about who we are as humans and what are place is in the world. Like Take Shelter, the ending that Nichols delivers is ambiguous in all the right ways. Once again Nichols also gets a knockout performance from Michael Shannon who has quickly become his muse. Nichols just has a way of tapping into Shannon’s lovable nature and the ferocity that always seems to be hiding just behind his face, and here this combination delivers a performance that matches the rest of the film for both the better and the worse. Midnight Special is definitely an infuriating film but the ending is good enough to make what becomes before it worth it.
The third indie film of the spring that I saw was easily the most distinct of the set. Hardcore Henry is definitely one of the most unique cinematic experiences that has come to a theater in recent memory. Love or hate the plot (which tends to be a little weak but is for the most part a genuine and solid adaptation of a video game plot), the concept of the entire film being shot in the first person is something that hasn’t really happened before (sure a lot of Enter the Void is shot in the first person but that film will never get the audience that this film can). Director Ilya Naishuller and his team of cinematographers make the most of the concept and deliver a visually stunning film that features numerous memorable action sequences. As mentioned above, I can definitely see many people believing that the barebones plot fails this film, but to me it makes it feel more like a video game (once again the mixing of formats may make some uncomfortable). The only real problem I have with this film is that Naishuller really struggles to direct his actors. Everyone is just overacting and that’s really annoying when Danila Kozlovsky is onscreen as the villain or Tim Roth shows up for an odd cameo. However, Naishuller’s freestyle relationship with his actors does allow serial overactor Sharlto Copley to really go for it. And he REALLY goes for it as Copley delivers a bonkers performance that is hard to forget.
The final indie film I was able to see this spring was by far the best of the bunch. Everybody Wants Some!! certainly seems like a much more minor film than Richard Linklater’s last two films, but it is just as good. Linklater’s take on college during the 80s is another amazing coming of age tale from the acclaimed director and screenwriter. Linklater is able to capture a fun style throughout the film, and the film’s emphasis on the style in the first half of the film may make this film seem minor. However, there is some great philosophical dialogue (the type of stuff that Linklater is a master at) in the later half of the film that really makes this film great. It also helps that Linklater once again shows there is no director better than him at making you feel like you were dropped into a real life world filled with real people. Linklater is just able to capture realness in a way that hasn’t been done on film before. While Linklater’s ability to get good performances out of unknowns wasn’t really noteworthy in Boyhood (Ellar Coltrane would have really struggled in that film if he wasn’t able to play off of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke), it is here as Blake Jenner is able to make the most out of an audience cipher role (the type of role that rarely generates a good performance) and Zoey Deutch is quite charming as the main love interest. With Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater has quietly delivered the best string of films by a director since Christopher Nolan’s 1-2-3-4 of Batman Begins-The Prestige-The Dark Knight-Inception.
Eye in the Sky = 8/10
Midnight Special = 7/10
Hardcore Henry = 8/10
Everybody Wants Some = 9.5/10