In the battle for what will be the premier streaming home for current independent film, Amazon Prime is showing signs that it could top Netflix, FilmStruck, and MUBI. Between funding auteur-driven Amazon originals like Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden,” Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea,” and their exclusive deal with A24 (“American Honey,” “Lobster,” “Swiss Army Man,” and “Moonlight” which arrives 5/21), Prime has a good percentage of the best titles.
What often gets lost in Amazon’s suboptimal browsing interface is the number of recent lower-profile indies on the service that feature some of the most exciting filmmaking of the last year. Here are seven recent gems you shouldn’t miss.
You have never seen anything like this film. Sure, it looks like a late-era technicolor film — shot on 35mm, with deliciously saturated production and costume design — but this isn’t nostalgic kitsch. Instead, writer-director Anna Biller seems almost ahead of her time, inviting the audience to enter a violent female gaze as playful as it is deadly serious. Samantha Robinson is incredible as Elaine, who comes to a small coastal California town on the prowl for a new husband after killing her last one. It’s both a celebration of the gorgeous surfaces movies create, while deconstructing them from a piercing feminist perspective that might change how you watch movies.
The term “visually striking” is often a cliché, but in the case of director Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” there simply is no other way to describe the haunting images of his black-and-white “Heart of Darkness” journey down the Amazon river. The film has two parallel stories, set 40 years apart, about two scientists’ desperate quest for a sacred healing plant. The result is a trippy, engaging fable that rips apart the way we talk about “progress” and “civilization” when discussing the collision of native cultures and the white western world. There’s a rich cinematic history of Amazon jungle films and “Serpent” absolutely belongs alongside Werner Herzog’s jungle survival masterpieces, as well as “Big River Man,” and James Gray’s recent effort “The Lost City of Z.”
Benjamin Dickinson’s Brooklyn is a recognizable near future that explores the morally dangerous side of augmented reality. The black-and-white world that Dickinson created with limited funds is one of the most visually exciting and inventive independent films in recent memory, with the comparisons to a young Kubrick not being entirely without merit. Dickinson stars as a tech exec tasked with figuring out how to market “Augmento” glasses, while using them to pursue his obsession with his friend’s girlfriend.
Nonfiction filmmaking is at point of explosion with so many great works being made that defy the narrow boundaries of what is expected of the form. But anyone attending a recent documentary film festival knows that a vast majority of the work is so heavy, capturing a world in crisis, that after two or three movies you need a trip to the bar. Penny Lane is on a mission to show that documentaries can have an artistic point of view and be poignant, but also incredibly funny and fun. The story of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, who created many empires – dominating both the medical and radio industries – is an amazing yarn about huckster who claimed to cure male reproduction difficulties by implanting them with goat testicles. Using Brinkley’s own words and animation, Lane let’s the audience fall under Brinkley’s spell so that we can fully comprehend how this 100-year-old tale is hardly dated.
So many American indies are coming-of-age stories that it’s almost become a genre, but Anna Rose Holmer defies convention in her narrative feature directorial debut to create a film that finds meaning in movement and creates a work that is akin to watching a visual memory. Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an 11-year-old who boxes at the after school rec center with the boys, but is entranced by the older girls in the competitive dance troupe. Slowly, “The Fits” descends into an unexpected horror film, as the girls start experiencing unexplained seizures and violent fits.
Pablo Larraín had three movies released in 2016 that catapulted him into the ranks of one of the more exciting international filmmakers to watch. And while his two great genre-bending bio-pics “Jackie” and “Neruda” generated plenty of fall festival and awards season chatter, it was this little-seen film about a Chilean seaside house for disgraced Catholic priests set the stage for the other films in fine form. The chamber piece is a biting satire with a morally sophisticated perspective that demonstrated why Larraín has become one of the more challenging political voices to come to cinema in awhile.
There is a moment in “The Innocents,” when a C-section birth is performed on a nun, that is so incredibly powerful that – like the characters – it leaves the viewer in a stunned state. The film, by French director Anne Fontaine, explores seven nuns struggling with being pregnant as a result of a horrific event that happened at the end of WWII. Fontaine’s deliberate, delicate touch – combined with cinematographer Caroline Champetier’s gorgeously muted color palette – is pitch-perfect for a film that explores the shame and contradictions of these women’s lives, and is told like a slowly unfolding mystery.