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The best online movies to watch this weekend
Feel like you've seen everything? Then this list is for you.
 

1. Starred Up (Directed by David Mackenzie. Starring Jack O'Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend)

For fans of: Bronson, Hunger, gritty prison dramas
How to watch it: Now available iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $3.99

Starred Up begins as Eric Love (Jack O'Connell) arrives in prison. But Eric is no stranger to life behind bars; having been "starred up" — transferred from a juvenile facility into an adult one — he knows exactly how the system works, and the first thing he does is create a shiv out of a toothbrush and a razor blade. David Mackenzie's brilliant and visceral new drama follows Eric as he navigates prison politics in his new home. With breathtaking performances and an intense style, Starred Up is a bleak revelation of a film.

Eric quickly ends up under the influence of two older men: Oliver (Rupert Friend), a counselor who wants Eric to attend regular sessions in a last-ditch attempt at rehabilitation, and Neville (Ben Mendelsohn), one of the prison's most feared inmates, who also happens to be Eric's father. The prison administration doesn't believe that Eric can better himself and change his path, but through Oliver's patience, Eric reluctantly agrees to attend group therapy. Slowly, Eric begins to open up, but the genuine camaraderie that develops among the group rubs Neville the wrong way.

The film's authenticity is buoyed by Jonathan Asser's unflinching script, which he based on his real-life experiences as a volunteer prison counselor. Between Mackenzie's nuanced direction and the gruff, naturalistic performances by O'Connell, Friend, and Mendelsohn, Starred Up isn't just one of the most intense films of the year. It's one of the best.

2. Frank (Directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Starring Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllanhaal)

For fans of: Once, quirky indie comedies
How to watch it: Now available iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

The relationship between music and mental illness has a long (and sometimes tragic) history. Plenty of musical geniuses have coped with inner anguish through lyrics and music, and — in the best of times — converted their pain into a kind of creative fuel. Lenny Abrahamson's oddball comedy-drama Frank explores the relationship between mental illness and music through the story of a struggling songwriter who joins an enigmatic indie rock band fronted by the peculiar, charismatic Frank.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Jon, a spry, naive musician still living with his parents in a bleak English suburb. Jon has aspirations of becoming a famous songwriter, but he struggles to find inspiration to write something meaningful. His world is transformed when he happens upon a quirky indie band, called Soronprfbs, playing in his town. After their keyboard player goes mad, they invite him to fill in for their gig that night and, a few days later, invite him to join the band to record a new album.

The band is fronted by Frank (Michael Fassbender) who wears a giant papier-mâché head that he never takes off. The band — which includes a seething French-speaking couple, the grim, unfriendly Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and manager Don (Scoot McNairy) — collectively abscond to a cabin in the Irish countryside to write and record. Plagued by each member's collective madness and myriad mental issues, the record takes more than a year (and all of Jon's inheritance) to make. All the while, Jon is secretly filming the process and uploading the videos to YouTube, turning Frank and the rest of the band into viral stars. The band is subsequently invited to play SXSW, where the hype for the enigmatic group causes everyone to spiral toward a full mental breakdown.

Frank offers a deeply felt meditation on mental illness and disillusionment wrapped in a quirky, indie music-centric narrative. That outer shell is sometimes a little too quirky for its own good — but a strong, sentimental third act and a wholly committed cast saves Frank from turning into an extended Portlandia-esque punchline.

3. At The Devil's Door (Directed by Nicholas McCarthy. Starring Catalina Sandino Moreno, Naya Rivera)

For fans of: The House of the Devil, The Pact, indie horror
How to watch it: Now available iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

Making any movie on a tight budget is tough — but when it comes to horror, low funds can be a secret weapon. Rather than blow all the budget on slick special effects and grotesque makeup, low-budget horror directors are forced to focus on creating a sense of dread and unease through atmosphere. Writer/director Nicholas McCarthy is a master of this, and his latest feature — the unbearably creepy At The Devil's Door further demonstrates his mastery at creating a haunting movie through pacing and tone.

At the Devil's Door opens as a girl makes out with a boy she just met. She tells him she loves him, and he tells her she can make $500 simply by playing a game. He takes her to a trailer in the middle of the desert, where an old man asks her to simply play a shell game for the money. After correctly guessing all three times, he tells her she's been chosen and says she needs to go down to the road and say her name, "so he knows her name when he calls for her." The evening does not end well.

From there, the film jumps ahead nearly 20 years, as real estate agent Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno) tries to sell the ill-fated house where the film began. Unfortunately, time has not dulled the effects of the past, and the supernatural occurrences follow Leigh as she stays in the house while she preps it to go back on the market. Plagued by visions of the girl from the prologue, Leigh attempts to unravel the insidious mystery of what happened.

Like some of the best indie horror flicks of the past decade, At The Devil's Door succeeds on suspense, leaving audiences in a state of constant anxiety as they wait for the next big scare to hit. If only McCarthy's script was as focused; once the third act hits, it feels as though he's grasping at straws to wrap things up. Still, At The Devil's Door is one of the stronger indie horrors to come out this year, and well worth checking out.

Previous picks:

The Zero Theorem (Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Mélanie Thierry, Matt Damon)

For fans of: 12 Monkeys, Brazil, dystopian sci-fi
How to watch it: Now available iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

In 1985, Terry Gilliam kicked off his so-called "Orwellian triptych" with the classic dystopian satire Brazil. Ten years later, he returned to those themes with the trippy time-traveling thriller 12 Monkeys. Now, finally, he's capping the series off with The Zero Theorem.

Fans of Brazil will quickly see stylistic and narrative connections to the 1985 classic. Christoph Waltz stars as Qohen Leth, a neurotic programmer who works for a conglomerate called Mancom. The exact nature of Mancom is murky, but Qohen is one of dozens of programmers who "crunches entities" into the company's super computer. Qohen isn't a happy man — he's plagued by an existential crisis, believing that he accidentally hung up on a mysterious phone call years ago by a person who said he was going to tell him what his purpose in life is. Qohen now spends every free minute sitting by his phone at home, waiting for that person to call back.

At a party, Qohen meets the mysterious boss of Mancom — known only as "management" (Matt Damon) — who eventually agrees to let Qohen work from home on a special project trying to crack the "Zero Theorem," a purportedly unsolvable mathematical equation. As he's leaving the party, Qohen has a chance encounter with the beautiful Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who aggressively comes on to him despite his neurotic, unusual demeanor.

At home, he works tirelessly to crack the "Zero Theorem." His relationship with Bainsley grows as she invites him to interact with her through virtual reality, where they're transported to an idyllic island setting as they get to know each other. But nothing is as it seems, and as Qohen's obsessions take hold, his world slowly begins to unravel.

Like most of Gilliam's work, The Zero Theorem is wildly original and inventive, and Waltz's kooky, unhinged performance anchors the quirkiness of the film. The film has big goals, and plays with large existential ideas that aren't always clearly defined — but Gilliam manages to draw out the substance in the material.


Dinosaur 13 (Directed by Todd Douglas Miller)

For fans of: The Cove, Blackfish, journalistic and investigative documentaries
How to watch it: Now available iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

In 1990, a group of amateur paleontologists, led by Pete and Neal Larson, set out to dig for dinosaur fossils in the badlands of South Dakota. It was an area that they'd frequented often, with modest success. But on one fateful day they made the discovery of a lifetime: the skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex that turned out to be the largest and most complete T. Rex skeleton ever unearthed. Todd Douglas Miller's thrilling, journalistic, and occasionally tragic Dinosaur 13 is an in-depth look into the Larson's historic discovery, which led to a legal battle with the FBI, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the owner of the land over the T. Rex's ownership

Miller's film opens with archival footage and the Larsons digging in the South Dakota badlands. They're digging on the land of Maurice Williams — whom they paid only a couple thousand dollars — with the contingency that whatever they dig up is theirs to keep. The T. Rex they eventually find — nicknamed "Sue," after paleontologist Susan Hendrickson — turns out to be nearly 80 percent complete. No other T. Rex skeleton is more than 40 percent.

After about two years of quietly working on the skeleton, the Black Hills Institute is suddenly swarmed by hundreds of FBI agents and the National Guard, who claim that Sue was stolen from private federal property, and spend several days seizing her. Things get messier when it turns out that the exact location Sue was unearthed was so close to the border of Native American land, federal land, and Maurice Williams' property that no one can be positive about who she truly belongs to.

Miller's engrossing, surprisingly heartfelt film has the punch of a legal thriller turn as he depicts the 10-year legal battle for Sue, which packs a surprising number of dramatic twists and turns.


The Dog (Directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren. Starring John Wojtowicz)

For fans of: Dog Day Afternoon, behind-the-scenes documentaries
How to watch it: Now available iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

Now considered one of the best crime-drama films ever made, Sydney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon stars Al Pacino in one of his most iconic roles: Sonny Wortzik, a lively bank robber who ends up in a tense hostage situation when his plans go awry. It's an undisputed classic — but what's less well-known is the film's real-life origins: the life of Brooklyn native John Wojtowicz, who tried to rob a Brooklyn bank in 1972 to pay for his lover's sex change operation.

Wojtowicz's life story is told in Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren's fascinating new documentary, The Dog. Though Wojtowicz died of cancer in 2006, Berg and Keraudren did most of their filming nearly a decade ago when he was still healthy, and extensive interviews with him propel most of the film.

Wojtowicz is as lively and charismatic as Pacino's portrayal indicated. He walks us through the early years of his life, growing up in the '60s and taking pride in his perverse and unyielding sexual libido. He talks about taking tons of lovers — both men and women — before finally settling down and marrying a woman in his early twenties. Of course, the marriage didn't last and Wojtowicz's increasing sexual appetite for men led him to cheat on his wife before separating from her and becoming increasingly involved in the LGBT movement in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Eventually, Wojtowicz met and fell in love with Ernest Aron, and quickly married her in a public ceremony in 1971. Aron (who was born male, but identified as female) didn't have the money to pay for a sex change operation. In August of 1972, Wojtowicz, along with his friends Salvatore Naturale and Robert Westenberg, attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn to pay for Aron's operation. What was supposed to be a quick in-and-out job turned into a 14-hour hostage situation, which turned into a national ordeal when the TV news media picked it up. Wojtowicz was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison. (He eventually served six.)

While The Dog offers a lively profile of Wojtowicz, it doubles as a fascinating snapshot of the LGBT movement of the 1970s. Through Wojtowicz, we get a snapshot of the struggles that many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual people faced in a time where tolerance wasn't high for minorities. Wojtowicz, in particular, was a prominent LGBT activist who led many demonstrations and organized awareness events. While Dog Day Afternoon provides the hook, it's the overall story that really makes The Dog worth watching.


The One I Love (Directed by Charlie McDowell. Starring Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss)

For fans of: Charlie Kaufman, The Twilight Zone
How to watch it: Now available iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

It takes a brave filmmaker to put an entire movie on the shoulders of two actors. Fortunately, Charlie McDowell found the perfect pair to carry off his quirky two-hander: mumblecore staple Mark Duplass and Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, who spring the film's head-scratching premise off the page and onto the screen. Offering a cross between the metaphysical mindscapes of Charlie Kaufman and the terse, rhythmic theatrical style of Neil LaBute, The One I Love is a bizarre and sometimes bitingly funny comedy-drama with sci-fi sensibilities.

Ethan (Duplass) and Sophie's (Moss) marriage is on the rocks, and at the behest of their therapist (Ted Danson) they agree to a romantic weekend at a secluded vacation house in Northern California. At first, things are going really well — the time alone is bringing them together and reminding them of why they fell in love in the first place. But things take a turn for the weird when they both begin referencing things that happened just hours earlier — and neither has any idea what the other is talking about. As they try to discover what's really happening, it turns out that the quiet retreat in the secluded countryside isn't just an opportunity to face their problems — it's a chance to face themselves.

The One I Love offers a darkly comic reckoning of a relationship on the rocks that draws from both The Twilight Zone and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Unfortunately, the script loses steam in the third act, which unnecessarily attempts to resolve many of the film's most intriguing ambiguities — but despite that step backwards, this is one of the most original and intriguing rom-coms released in 2014.


Rich Hill (Directed by Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos)

For fans of: Hide Your Smiling Faces, George Washington, thoughtful portrait documentaries
How to watch it: Now available iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

Much has been written about the difficulties facing blue-collar Americans, but few filmmakers have taken a close look. By zeroing in on the lives of three adolescents in rural Missouri, Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos' Rich Hill offers a sincere and fascinating portrait of a small town crippled by economic hardships.

Rich Hill follows three boys in their early teens. Their personalities couldn't be more different, but they're all poor and they're all stuck in the same small town. There's the spry, bright, and motivated 13-year-old Andrew, who doesn't let his family's extreme poverty get in the way of his dreams. His parents are constantly on the move so his dad can outrun debt collectors, and his mom is a shut-in — but he doesn't let that bring him down.

For 12-year-old Appachey, however, his family's situation is the source of his problems and frustrations. Appachey suffers from severe ADHD, which his mom often doesn't have the patience to deal with. Despite him being a smart and ambitious kid who dreams about moving to China to teach art, he's been forced to repeat the sixth grade.

Finally, there's 15-year-old Harley, who lives with his grandma and a house full of relatives because his mom is in prison. He's deeply emotional and misses his mother dearly, constantly on the phone with her or writing her letters. While he has his outlets to deal with the pain — generally cigarettes and music — he never lets his family see it, and constantly strives to be the one to light up the room.

By the end of Rich Hill, you're bound to care deeply for all three boys, as the film makes the numbing effect of a monthly unemployment report into something heartbreakingly personal. There's not a hint of exploitation in Rich Hill — just a sensitive and moving portrait of three young lives.

The Calling (Directed by Jason Stone. Starring Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace, Gil Bellows, Christopher Heyerdahl)

For fans of: True Detective, Seven, The Silence of the Lambs
How to watch it: Now available iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

Stop me if you've heard this one before: An aging, alcoholic cop in a small, isolated town attempts to solve a series of bizarre, gruesome murders. That's the basic premise of Jason Stone's feature film debut The Calling. But while the familiar premise doesn't win it any originality points, Stone's restrained, careful direction gives it a fascinating edge and wholly creepy tone. It occasionally falls victim to serial killer film cliches, but at its best, The Calling gives us a snapshot of what a more coherent, female-led season of True Detective could look like.

Earlier this summer, Susan Sarandon starred along Melissa McCarthy in the road trip comedy Tammy, giving her an opportunity to flex her underutilized comedic muscles. In The Calling, Sarandon once again proves her versatility and range as Hazel, an alcoholic, over-the-hill detective in a sleepy Canadian town. The town is scarred when Hazel pays a visit to one of the community's elderly women and finds that she's been brutally and meticulously murdered — the town's first homicide in four years. Pretty soon, more bodies begin popping up and Hazel starts to suspect it's the work of a serial killer.

As per the genre's usual, Hazel has a tough time convincing her superiors. The victims don't appear to fit any sort of profile and the killings aren't explicitly linked together. But Hazel eventually discovers a hidden religious nature to the killings and goes rogue to pursue leads and try and track down the person responsible.

Following in the footsteps of classic serial killer thrillers like Seven, The Silence of the Lambs, and Insomnia, The Calling often feels like it's a beat-by-beat retelling of a well-trafficked formula. But thanks to a performance by Sarandon, and a supporting cast that includes Topher Grace, Donald Sutherland, Ellen Burstyn, and Christopher Heyerdahl, The Calling is a movie fans of the genre will enjoy — even if it should have pushed it a little further.

The Congress (Directed by Ari Folman. Starring Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Jon Hamm)

For fans of: Heavy Metal, A Scanner Darkly
How to watch it: Now available iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

If there were an Academy Award for "Trippiest Film," you'd be hard-pressed to find something more deserving in 2014 than Ari Folman's The Congress. The part-live-action/part-animated dystopian sci-fi flick blends a heady premise with some spectacularly psychedelic animation to create one of the most unique films released in ages. Think Naked Lunch meets Being John Malkovich by way of Heavy Metal, and you'll be in the right ballpark.

The Congress stars Robin Wright as a fictionalized version of herself. In this universe, after her breakthrough roles in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, her career tanked as she developed a reputation for being particularly fickle and hard to work with. Nearing 45, she can't seem land any roles — and to make matters worse, her son is suffering from a rare illness that will eventually take away his sight and hearing.

Robin's agent sets up a meeting with Miramount Studio, which offers her a unique opportunity: if she signs a contract, they'll digitally scan her entire body, personality, and emotions into a system that will computer-generate her likeness for future roles. The one stipulation is that she can never act again. Robin reluctantly agrees — but as she gradually realizes how much control of her own life she has suddenly given away, she realizes how much she has truly lost.

The Congress' experimental nature pegs it as a future cult classic. But while the typical midnight-movie audience will get a kick out of it, The Congress is much more than a film for stoners. It's a unique and unflinching criticism of consumerism and the Hollywood system that's thoughtful without ever becoming too heavy-handed.

A Brony Tale (Directed by Brent Hodge. Starring Ashleigh Ball, Bronies)

For fans of: Trekkies, The People vs. George Lucas, My Little Pony
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $3.99

The revolution of cult fandom is neither new nor undocumented. Roger Nygard's 1997 documentary Trekkies, which explored the devoted fandom of Star Trek, is the Citizen Kane of fanboy documentaries, but there have been plenty since, from The People vs. George Lucas to Best Worst Movie. The genre might be well-trafficked, but A Brony Tale — Brent Hodge's exploration of the cult phenomenon of adult men obsessed with My Little Pony — is another.

A large group of mostly adult males obsessed with a TV show made for little girls justifiably sets off a few red flags, but A Brony Tale aims to set the record straight. As the film takes great pains to show, Bronies aren't creepy perverts or misguided man-children; they're normal adult men who just happen to love My Little Pony. Hodge frames his film through the recollections of voice actress Ashleigh Ball, who voices several characters in the modern iteration of the show, Friendship is Magic. Ball's story is intercut with interviews of self-proclaimed Bronies — the collective term for bros who like My Little Pony — as they explain what it is about the show that attracts them so much.

Eventually, Ball learns about the cult fandom surrounding the show and receives a cordial invitation to be a guest at Bronycon, a massive Brony convention in New York City. She's hesitant, and skeptical of the whole Brony community, so she sets out to meet them for herself.

Hodge deserves credit for assembling a fascinatingly diverse group of men: the world's "manliest" Brony, members of a college Brony "fraternity," and even military Bronies, who get characters from the show engraved on their weapons. A Brony Tale isn't exactly a groundbreaking documentary, but its open-minded exploration into what it means to be a modern man makes it a compelling case study of a particular cult fandom.


Jodorowsky's Dune (Directed by Frank Pavich. Starring Alejandro Jodorowsky.)

For fans of: Dune, Alejandro Jodorowsky films
How to watch it: Now available iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $3.99

David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel Dune was both a box-office failure and a critical bomb: Roger Ebert's initial review called it "an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time." But a decade before Lynch butchered the novel, cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky began a long and ultimately fruitless quest to adapt Dune. With names like Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali in the cast, Pink Floyd writing the score, and H.R. Giger heading up set and character design, Jodorowsky's Dune might have been the greatest sci-fi epic the world had ever seen — if it had actually been made.

The closest we'll ever get to witnessing Jodorowsky's grand vision is Jodorowsky's Dune, Frank Pavich's highly entertaining documentary chronicling the nearly three years Jodorowsky spent in pre-production trying to make his vision come to life.

Pavich uses several long interviews with Jodorowsky to guide the film's narrative. With Jodorowsky as our guide, Pavich takes us back in time to explore how the film took shape. Using loads of archival material — mostly collected in an encyclopedia-sized book Jodorowsky owns — Pavich paints a picture of a young Jodorowsky, fresh of the success of his trippy art-house films and eager to tackle a big project. Two years after film producer Arthur P. Jacobs bought the rights to Dune, he died, and Jodorowsky acquired them. With Frank Herbert's blessing, an eager Jodorowsky began piecing together his dream team to make the movie a reality. But after several years and $2 million dollars spent on pre-production — and a script that would have required a 14-hour film — the film eventually lost funding, as no studio could afford to pay what Jodorowsky felt he needed to make his masterpiece.

The story is entertaining, but the real hook comes in learning the cultural impact of a film that was never even made. Parts of Jodorowsky's script, alongside its concept art, went on to inspire films like Star Wars and Alien. Jodorowsky's Dune might have been another huge failure like Lynch's, or it may have been the greatest sci-fi film ever made. We'll never know— but, thanks to Pavich's terrific documentary, the complete record of one of cinema's greatest what-if stories won't be lost forever.

Snowpiercer (Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Jamie Bell)

For fans of: The Raid, The Host, post-apocalyptic sci-fi films
How to watch it: Available Friday on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

What does it say about the state of cinema in 2014 when the summer's best blockbuster was initially released on just eight screens, followed by a VOD rollout only a couple of weeks later? It says a lot, but in the particular case of Snowpiercer — the English-language debut of South Korean writer-director Bong Joon-ho — the odd rollout has to do with a dispute between Bong and the film's distributor, The Weinstein Company. Originally, The Weinstein Company's head honcho Harvey Weinstein wanted Bong to cut down 25 minutes of the film for its North American release (the film had a different international distributor), but Bong refused. Eventually, Weinstein conceded and the full cut was released, but not without repercussions — hence the limited release and VOD rollout. Still, that says something significant about the state of cinema in 2014, as Snowpiercer is, thus far, the best sci-fi/action film released during the peak season for those kinds of films.

Based of the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand, and Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer takes place in a post-apocalyptic future, wherein an experiment to help prevent global warming backfired, causing Earth to enter into another ice age. The remaining population lives within a massive, trans-global train powered by an eternal, perpetual-motion engine. It's not such a bad deal if you're one of the elite few who snagged a spot in the ritzy front end of the train. But for the rest of the population crammed in horrid, filthy conditions in the rear, it's hell.

Class order is kept under control by the dictatorial Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), who ensures the tail end knows their place and won't try to revolt — often through violent tactics. However, a revolution is brewing. Led by the charismatic everyman Curtis (Chris Evans), who, along with Edgar (Jamie Bell), the elder Gilliam (John Hurt), and the rest of his tail end comrades, organizes and executes a swift revolt. Their goal is to reach the engine room, controlled by the mysterious, deity-like architect of the train, Wilford (Ed Harris). Take control of the engine, they believe, and they'll take control of the train.

On the surface, Snowpiercer is a cleverly simple film: a group of oppressed people slowly fight their way to freedom, one train car at a time. But the film is much more than that; it's a sly political commentary and philosophical treatise on the nature of humanity and class order. Bong does a superb job directing; seamlessly blending intense, wonderfully choreographed action sequences with a complex, twisty narrative. Evans, already a proven leading man, heads up a stellar ensemble cast that gives the gritty film a robust backbone.

On one hand, it's a shame Snowpiercer's release got shafted, as it's the rare summer action film that is as awe-inspiringly thought-provoking as it is thrilling. But, on the other, perhaps strong VOD numbers will teach The Weinstein Company a valuable lesson.



Happy Christmas (Directed by Joe Swanberg. Starring Joe Swanberg, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Lena Dunham)

For fans of: Drinking Buddies, subtle indie dramedies
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

Part of what makes prolific indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg such a distinct auteur is his ability to coax such naturalistic performances from his actors. So much so that his films feel less like a cinematic story and more like dramatic retellings of actual experiences. There's no catastrophic plot twists nor grandiose revelations from his characters; instead, his characters only hint that they've grown in some way by the end of the film. Working with his biggest budget and highest profile cast since last summer's Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas is another slight character-driven drama that finds its characters stuck in various crossroads in their lives.

The film opens as young married couple Jeff (Swanberg) and his novelist wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) await the arrival of his 20-something younger sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick), who is moving back to Chicago to live with them. As Jeff's work like picks up and Kelly is eager to write her second novel, they want someone to be around to help take care of their 2 year old. What better solution than to let Jenny live in their basement and help out, right? A lot, as it turns out.

Jenny spends the first night in her new residence out partying so hard that Jeff gets a middle-of-the-night wake-up call to come pick up a passed out Jenny from a stranger's party. She "doesn't normally do that kind of thing," Jenny swears, but Kelly still doesn't trust her to babysit her kid. Eventually, however, the two begin to hang out more and develop a strong bond. Jenny helps Kelly loosen up and inspires her to get back into writing, while Kelly encourages Jenny to clean up her act a little and be more responsible.

Those seeking a salacious character drama in Happy Christmas will probably leave bored and yawning. At his best, Swanberg channels the great French New Wave auteur Eric Rohmer, wherein his characters have ambitious, emotive goals, but often fail themselves and the others around them. Swanberg's craft is to create complex character portraits that only reveal itself one scene at a time, and he's a master at it. Swanberg is subtle cinema at its subtlest.



Life Itself (Directed by Steve James. Starring Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert)

For fans of: Cinema, life
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

You can't talk about the history of cinema without talking about Roger Ebert. The longtime Chicago Sun-Times film critic was probably the most famous American film critic of all time, thanks in part to his long-running review show with co-host Gene Siskel, At The Movies With Siskel & Ebert. The latest documentary from Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), Life Itself, is the life story of Ebert—how he got into film criticism, his rise to fame in the medium, how he met and fell in love, and the devastating illness that took away his ability to speak and, ultimately, his life. Ebert is a beloved figure and it'd be hard to turn any film about him into a dull experience, but what makes Life Itself unique is how James films Ebert in the last days of his life. Ebert died in the middle of filming and Life Itself chronicles his last few days as he reflects on life, love, and, of course, the movies.

Loosely following the structure of Ebert's memoir of the same name, Life Itself opens as Ebert is entering the hospital for the umpteenth time: He's suffered a fracture in his hip that is going to take some time to heal. Juxtaposing home videos and vintage pictures with Ebert's narration from the hospital, James paints a portrait of his early life: an avid newspaperman from his schoolboy years, to his college days, where he was the fierce editor-in-chief for his school's paper, The Daily Illini.

The film examines the milestones in his life — becoming the film critic at the Sun-Times, winning a Pulitzer Prize, getting his own show with Gene Siskel — along with the dark times he had, like his battle with alcoholism that eventually led him to sobriety in 1979. But at the heart of Life Itself is his marriage to Chaz at age 50. Through Ebert's narration and the footage James captured before the end of his life, it's clear that the romance between Roger and Chaz is on par with the greatest love stories.

It's nearly an impossible task to objectively rate and review a documentary about Roger Ebert's life because, really, it's like reviewing part of the history of cinema. To quote The Onion, in their brief but pitch-perfect obituary of Ebert, Life Itself is like his life, "at times brutally sad, yet surprisingly funny, and always completely honest," if "a little on the long side." But, since I do have to rate it, it obviously gets two thumbs up.

Ping Pong Summer (Directed by Michael Tully. Starring Marcello Conte, Myles Massey, Susan Sarandon)

For fans of: Adventureland, The Way, Way Back
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

Michael Tully's Ping Pong Summer offers a familiar-sounding story about an awkward teenage boy who discovers friendship, love, and "himself" by playing ping pong during his family's summer vacation in a beach town. It might sound derivative, but Ping Pong Summer stand out because of Tully's clear nostalgia for a very specific time and place: Ocean City, Maryland in the 1980s. The story sometimes falls flat, and the acting (from a largely unknown cast) isn't always strong. But there's a sincerity to Ping Pong Summer that makes it a light charmer for anyone who's in the market for a coming-of-age film.

Ping Pong Summer follows the painfully awkward Radley (Marcello Conte) — a loner who spends his days alone in his parents' garage, happily listening to hip hop, working on his dance moves, and hitting a ping pong ball against a wall. His routine is interrupted when his parents decide they'll all spend their summer in the crummy beach town of Ocean City. Radley soon befriends Teddy (Myles Massey), another loner, and they decide to spend their time (and all their money) at the local arcade. Soon enough, Radley falls for the local teen beauty (Emmi Shockley), and resolves to win her heart by beating some local bullies in a ping pong match.

Ping Pong Summer is boilerplate coming-of-age fodder; at times, you begin to wonder if Tully cobbled the screenplay together using some sort of indie teen dramedy Mad Libs. But there's enough fun in the premise and a few forgotten retro cultural markers — from fashion to dance moves — that dish up some great gags. Like the '80s, there's a lot of fun to be had in Ping Pong Summer — even if it spends a little too much time retreading the past.


All Cheerleaders Die (Directed by Lucky McKee and Chris Sivertson. Starring Caitlin Stasey, Tom Williamson, Sianoa Smit-McPhee)

For fans of: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Jennifer's Body, The Craft, Bring It On
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

All Cheerleaders Die feels it should've been released 15 years ago, when risqué teen horror comedies were at their apex — and in a way, it was. In the new film, directors McKee and Sivertson are actually remaking their own 2001 low budget teen horror comedy, in which a group of cheerleaders are killed by their misogynistic jock counterparts and brought back to life through a Wiccan spell. The new All Cheerleaders Die features, most noticeably, a beefed-up budget, but the genre-busting intelligence has thankfully remained intact. A simple premise shouldn't feel so subversive, but All Cheerleaders Die manages to put a sly feminist twist on a tired genre.

The film kicks off with a gruesome opening in which a cheerleader dies in a nasty accident. Three years later, her best friend Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) resolves to get back at the cheerleader and football jock clique that she feels contributed to her friend's death — especially her ex-boyfriend, Terry (Tom Williamson), who began sleeping around almost immediately after.

Maddy's revenge plot eventually goes supernatural when her Wiccan ex-girlfriend pulls the bodies of some dead cheerleaders out of the water, and revives them using a Wiccan spell. They're back, but with a caveat: they now have super-human strength, and can only survive by drinking human blood.

It's not hard to tell where the plot of All Cheerleaders Die is going, but McKee and Sivertson's sly script positions the Maddy and her cheerleader friends as the unlikely protagonists of the film and — instead of the usual objectification — allows them to take revenge on the misogynists who wronged them. With shades of Bring It On, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Jennifer's Body, and the '90s teen-witch classic The Craft, All Cheerleaders Die marks another enjoyable entry in the feminist horror canon.


Lucky Them (Directed by Megan Griffiths. Starring Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church)

For fans of: Indie romcoms, High Fidelity
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

Lucky Them begins as a typical indie rom-com, following a woman (Toni Collette) who sets out to find a long-lost love but eventually realizes she's on a journey of self-discovery. It's not exactly groundbreaking, but Lucky Them doubles as a charming rock movie. Imagine a female-driven spiritual successor to High Fidelity, and you wouldn't be too far off.

Collette stars as Ellie Klug, a long-time music critic for a revered but struggling music magazine. It's the 10th anniversary of the sole record by the legendary singer-songwriter Matthew Smith, and Ellie's editor wants her to do a feature on it. Unfortunately, no one has seen or heard from Matthew in years, and he's long since been presumed dead. That last bit of info is especially painful to Ellie, as she was Smith's longtime girlfriend — but she begrudgingly accepts the assignment, and enlists the help of a peculiar ex-boyfriend (Thomas Haden Church).

Eventually, Ellie realizes that the search for Matthew Smith isn't really about him — it's about her, and getting over elements of her past that she's never really learned how to deal with. At times, Lucky Them's screenplay feels like a typical Hollywood rom-com instead of the smart indie dramedy it's trying to pass itself off as. Fortunately, Collette and Church are strong enough performers to nail the sweetly somber tone that elevates the material they're delivering.

Cold In July (Directed by Jim Mickle. Starring Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson)

For fans of: True Detective, early John Carpenter
How to watch it: Available May 23 on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD

Cold in July has a lot going for it — razor-sharp writing, dreary cinematography, tight direction — but it's the consistently surprising script that makes this one of the better genre films to be released this year. It's just so refreshing to see a film with a familiar-sounding premise take brave, unexpected narrative twists and turns.

Set in a rural Texas town in 1989, the film kicks off with a simple but powerful scene: Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) and his wife (Vinessa Shaw) wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of an intruder in their house. Nervous and scared, Richard grabs a pistol hidden away in a shoebox to go investigate. There, he discovers a masked burglar, who he accidentally shoots and kills after getting spooked by his wife. When the police come, the killing is written off as self-defense. The sheriff explains that the burglar was a petty low-life whose only family is a father locked up in prison somewhere. Not long after the incident, the father, Ben (Sam Shepard), is released from prison and comes after Richard and his family, seeking revenge.

This might be the point at which you're zoning out, thinking you've seen this movie a thousand times before — but trust me, you haven't. I won't spoil Cold in July's various twists and turns, but by the end, the movie has evolved into something as dark, insidious, and morally ambiguous as a classic noir.

Proxy (Directed by Zack Parker. Starring Alexia Rasmussen, Joe Swanberg, Alexa Havins)

For fans of: Alfred Hitchcock, Lars von Trier, psychosexual thrillers
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

In the brutal opening scene of Zack Parker's Proxy, a young woman weeks away from going into labor is viciously assaulted in an alley on her way home from an OB/GYN appointment. She awakens in the hospital to discover that her assailant didn't take anything, but bashed her stomach in with a brick, killing her unborn child. It's a brutal opening sequence to stomach — but it's only the entry point to the twisted psychological ethos of Parker's film. Proxy is shocking and graphic at times, but it's the restrained, subtle reveal of its characters' psychological nature that makes it as impressive as it is disturbing.

When a social worker at the hospital asks the victim of the assault, Esther (Alexia Rasmussen), who she can call to help her recover, she says there's no one. We soon learn that Esther lives a fairly solitary life — she claims to have become pregnant through artificial insemination — but Parker slowly lifts her façade to reveal that she's far more psychologically tormented than we could ever imagine. After attending a support group meeting for people who have lost children, quiet, shy Esther befriends the cheery, talkative Melanie (Alexa Havins), who says she lost her husband and three-year-old son in a car accident. Esther becomes infatuated with Melanie — and when her phone calls aren't promptly returned, she begins to follow her.

Proxy's disturbing narrative slowly reveals itself through a series of semi-ludicrous developments, but Parker's classical filmmaking style never falters. His greatest asset is his ability to slowly build a gnawing sense of dread, while occasionally delivering jaw-dropping scenes of graphic violence that never come off as schlocky. Coupled with passable (if not uneven) performances by Rasmussen, Havins, Kristina Klebe, and omnipresent indie stalwart Joe Swanberg, Proxy is highly recommended viewing for those who can stomach it.


The Double (Directed by Richard Ayoade. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska)

For fans of: The films of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

Writer/director Richard Ayoade's 2011 debut Submarine was a charmingly off-kilter, quirky coming-of-age film, but it suffered from its close resemblance to its obvious influences: Harold & Maude and the early work of Wes Anderson. In his new film The Double, Ayoade's quirky inventiveness is once again on display — but unfortunately, so are his influences. The Double feels like the offspring of Terry Gilliam and early Jean-Pierre Jeunet, combining absurdist surrealism with a distinctly industrial mise-en-scène.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a skittish, shy loner who casually drifts through his meaningless existence unnoticed: work, home, sleep, visits to his cruel mother, and relentless pining over his office crush, Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). He's such a non-presence that even the security guard of the office he's worked at for seven years asks if he's a visitor every time he shows up without his ID.

Simon's life is thrown for a loop when his boss introduces a new hire, James Simon, who is exactly identical to Simon in every way (though strangely, no one seems to notice besides Simon and James). James may be Simon's double — but personality-wise, they are polar opposites. At first, they team up, working together to help Simon get closer to Hannah and James get acquainted to his new job. But Simon soon realizes that James' charismatic playboy double might have darker and more self-centered long-term goals.

While Ayoade manages to keep the tone bleak but playful, the script feels a little too mechanical for its own good. Still, it's a solid sophomore effort from Ayoade, who has real cinematic style. That, along with a fantastic — ahem — double performance from Eisenberg makes The Double as fascinating a film to look at as it is to think about.


Blue Ruin (Directed by Jeremy Saulnier. Starring Macon Blair, Devin Ratray)

For fans of: Blood Simple, revenge thrillers
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

By offering a minimalist take on the revenge thriller genre and tossing in a strong Coen Brothers influence, Jeremy Saulnier's terrifically grim Blue Ruin takes a familiar formula but breathes new life into it.

Most notable is its unexpected leading man. First, picture Liam Neeson in one of those movies in which someone he holds dear has been "taken": gruff, intense, and highly skilled in taking out baddies. Now picture the opposite. That's Blue Ruin's Dwight (Macon Blair), the film's gangly protagonist, who will stop at nothing to get revenge on the family responsible for his parents' death.

When we meet Dwight, he's king derelict: scraggly-bearded, dirty, living out of a beat-up Pontiac near Rehoboth Beach, and sneaking in and out of unoccupied residences to clean himself up and find supplies. But his bohemian lifestyle is abruptly interrupted when a cop tracks him down to inform him that Will Cleland, the murderer of his parents, is about to be released. Fueled by rage and a primal sense of revenge, Dwight promptly takes to the road, quickly hunts down Will, and brutally murders him during his homecoming party while no one's around.

But there are consequences for his actions; Dwight soon realizes that, instead of calling the cops, the Cleland family plans to take their own extralegal revenge, and everyone he knows is in danger.

Blue Ruin's simplicity benefits enormously from the daring juxtaposition between a classic macho man narrative played and such an unexpected protagonist. Dwight is utterly ill-equipped to go on a bloody revenge-fueled rampage, but is so blinded by his determination, he's able to keep his wits about him, no matter how darkly silly his faults sometimes are. Much credit is owed to Blair, who plays the character with a determined, calculated earnestness.

Coupled with Saulnier's stark cinematography and a sparse screenplay that tells you just what you need to know and nothing more, Blue Ruin is an excellent exercise in genre filmmaking, and one of the best films currently streaming on VOD.


The Sacrament (Directed by Ti West. Starring A.J. Bowen, Joe Swanberg, Amy Seimetz)

For fans of: Found-footage horror films, The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

There's a key scene in The Sacrament House of The Devil director Ti West's latest exercise in slow-burn tension and terror — in which documentarian Sam (A.J. Bowen) is conducting a live interview with "Father," the enigmatic leader of a secluded commune. The interview starts fine, but ultimately deteriorates as Father accuses Sam of sensationalizing the interview for the documentary his crew is going to make. The scene is an apt and telling snapshot of what makes West such a master of his craft, and what separates his horror movies from the rest of the pack: his ability to slowly build a visceral sense of dread.

For The Sacrament, West employs the found-footage technique, telling the story of three multimedia journalists working for VICE who travel to an unknown country to visit a secluded utopian commune. Patrick (Kentucker Audley), a fashion photographer, hasn't heard from his troubled sister for a while until he receives an invitation to visit her at the commune. His VICE buddies, Sam and Jake (Joe Swanberg), are intrigued by the invitation and think it could make for a good piece, so they convince Patrick to let them tag along, cameras in tow.

Upon arriving at the commune, all is not what it seems: they're greeted by armed men shouting that it was only supposed to be Patrick visiting. Things are smoothed over and the trio is allowed in the commune, able to film whatever they like. Talking to residents, everyone seems happy, living harmoniously in the perfect utopia. But after Sam's interview, the facade of the commune slowly begins to decay, revealing the place for what it really is: a cult led by a maniacal leader who won't let anyone leave.

Unfortunately, the film falls victim to a number of cliches that makes the third act hit with a dull thud instead of a deafening crash. The Sacrament is based not so loosely on the Jonestown mass murder and suicide of 1978, and West fails to skirt the predictability The Sacrament's denouement. Still, there's no denying that West is one of the best directors in the horror genre today, and The Sacrament is necessary viewing for any fan of his work — even if it doesn't live up to his previous films.


Joe (Directed by David Gordon Green. Starring Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan)

For fans of: David Gordon Green, Jeff Nichols, Mud
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

There was a brief period in which it seemed like indie darling David Gordon Green — the man behind powerful film festival favorites George Washington and Snow Angels — had sold out for good, trading in lush cinematography and loaded imagery for fart jokes and one-liners in films like Pineapple Express and The Sitter. But last summer Green had a pseudo-return to form with the peculiar and thoughtful comedy-drama Prince Avalanche. That step in the right direction seems to have put him back on track; his latest, Joe, is a total return to form, exploring rural America and the dark side of human nature through a dreamy, stylistic narrative about an unlikely friendship between a troubled boy and an ex-con.

The titular Joe (played graciously and expertly by Nicolas Cage) is a grizzled ex-con who has spent years trying to put his troubled past behind him, and he's doing a pretty good job. He makes a living with his tree removal business, where he oversees a group of blue collar-types as they poison trees marked for removal. At night, he numbs the pain of his past through a steady diet of alcohol and prostitutes, all while trying to keep to himself and hold his enemies at bay.

Joe's life is shaken up when he meets Gary (Tye Sheridan), a spunky 15-year-old who's the product of an abusive alcoholic father and an indifferent mother. Gary hangs around until Joe gives him a job and the two quickly strike up an unusual but sincere friendship. But Joe's turbulent past catches up with him, and he finds himself slowly slipping back into old habits while developing a fondness for Gary, who quickly sees Joe as a father figure.

Joe is David Gordon Green's best film in years, and heartening evidence that the years he spent as Hollywood's de facto stoner-comedy director haven't soured his delicate and poetic sensibilities.

A Field in England (Directed by Ben Wheatley. Starring Reece Shearsmith, Ryan Pope, Michael Smiley)

For fans of: Berberian Sound Studio, Kill List, experimental indie thrillers
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $3.99

It's the rare film that begins with a health alert warning viewers of "flashing images and stroboscopic sequences" — but believe it or not, that's not the strangest thing about Ben Wheatley's surreal, visceral period piece A Field In England. In his short career, Wheatley has developed a knack for sly genre-bending films, which cleverly disguise themselves as one kind of film before suddenly revealing them to be something different entirely. Take, for instance, 2011's Kill List, which plays like a crime thriller with darkly comedic undertones before boldly morphing into supernatural horror film about a satanic cult.

These same devices are at play in A Field In England, in which Wheatley tackles the mid-17th century English Civil War. Everything from the gritty black-and-white cinematography to the nuanced costume designs screams "period piece." The film's plot centers on Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), a cowardly alchemist's assistant on the run from a nasty military commander. Whitehead is quickly saved by Cutler (Ryan Pope) and the pair meet up with two other deserters, Jacob (Peter Ferdinando) and Friend (Richard Glover).

Though the script, written by Amy Jump, is plump with needless conversations and absurd back-and-forths between the group, the plot is pretty simple: They're just looking for an alehouse to unwind. But things get complicated when they come across O'Neill (Michael Smiley), an insidious alchemist who informs them of treasure buried nearby and forces them to search for it at musketpoint. It's at this point that A Field in England takes a turn for the surreal: the group accidentally feeds on some hallucinogenic mushrooms and the film, like its characters, slowly slips into a lucid state of nightmarish imagery.

There are several betrayals and some ever-escalating violence, but it's hard to tell what's actually happening and what's a hallucination. The film slips further and further into incomprehensibility as Wheatley employs rapid editing, flashing images, and other surreal imagery — and once again, we're left with a film that's totally different than how it began. There's much to admire in A Field In England, but it's mostly stylistic — a trippy visual journey into the visceral. Those looking for an authentic plot-driven period piece should steer clear, but those looking for a unique experience shouldn't hesitate.


Stage Fright (Directed by Jerome Sable. Starring Allie MacDonald, Douglas Smith, Meat Loaf, Minnie Driver)

For fans of: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Phantom of the Paradise, musical-horror films
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

When it comes to horror-musicals, it's hard to top The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Nearly 40 years after its release, you can still assume that every single weekend, there's at least one theater somewhere in the country packed full of Rocky Horror diehards dressed as their favorite characters and belting out their favorite tunes. You'd think that the success Rocky Horror has seen over the years would have spawned more imitators. There have been several high-profile horror musicals since Rocky HorrorSweeney Todd, Little Shop of Horrors — but none have really achieved the adoration Sharman's film has.

Enter Stage Fright — a fun (if not spectacular) attempt to create a Rocky Horror for the millennial generation.

Something of a cross between Scream, Sweeney Todd, and Phantom of the Opera, Stage Fright combines graphic violence with catchy show tunes to both horrific and comedic effect. In the film's opening flashback, rising Broadway starlet Kylie Swanson (Minnie Driver) nails her opening night in a musical called The Haunting of the Opera — and is quickly and gruesomely murdered by a killer wearing the mask of the play's villain. Flash forward ten years and Kylie's children, Camilla (Allie MacDonald) and Buddy (Douglas Smith) are living with Kylie's old flame (Meat Loaf) at a prestigious musical theater summer camp in upstate New York.

When Roger announces that this summer's production will be a kabuki version of The Haunting of the Opera — the first time it's been staged since Kylie's slaying — Camilla decides she wants to step out from working in the kitchen and audition for the musical. But things take a turn for the worse when someone dressed as the play's killer starts offing campers for real, and begins to terrorize Camilla after she's given the lead role.

Interspersed with cheeky musical numbers — especially the songs the killer sings, which are more like heavy metal ballads than musical theater numbers — Stage Fright effectively strikes a balance between self-aware humor and classic slasher tropes. The story is hackneyed, retreaded horror film fodder, but writer/director Jerome Sable's clever script and sleek direction that keeps it afloat. Theaters across the nation probably won't end up hosting sing-a-long midnight screenings of Stage Fright for decades to come, but it will hit the sweet spot for both horror and musical aficionados who are looking for something new.


Mistaken For Strangers (Directed by Tom Berninger. Starring Tom Berninger, Matt Berninger, The National)

For fans of: Spinal Tap, American Movie, Exit Through The Gift Shop, music documentaries
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

There's a scene toward the end of rock documentary Mistaken For Strangers in which director Tom Berninger sits in his brother's guest room, surrounded by hundreds of editing notes taped to his wall, and breaks down. He knows that there's a good film buried within the hundreds of hours he shot; he just doesn't know how to cut it together. It's a surprisingly poignant and honest moment in a documentary that often feels farcical and fake. But Mistaken For Strangers isn't a Spinal Tap-esque mockumentary — it's an honest, hilarious, and surprisingly touching examination of two brothers and their often strenuous relationship. The only difference is that one of the brothers is a famous musician.

Director Tom Berninger is the younger brother of Matt Berninger, lead singer of alt-rock band The National. But while Matt has experienced international success, Tom has lived in his shadows. The thirty-something still lives at home with their parents, but decides he wants to make something of himself and goes on a year-long tour with his brother's band to film a documentary.

His brother agrees on the condition that he pitches in as a stagehand when he's not filming the band. To say that Matt is bumbling is an understatement. His interviews with The National's members are amateurish at best, and he's constantly being yelled at by the tour manager for screwing up. In one of the film's funniest scenes, he loses the guest list for the band's show in Los Angeles, which includes celebs like the cast of Lost and Werner Herzog. (To rectify the situation, he asks his brother to just go out there and "point them out" to him). It would be easy to laugh at Mistaken For Strangers, but the soul emerges as Tom Berninger he wasn't making a film about The National at all — but a film about his relationship with his brother.

Like a cross between American Movie and Exit Through The Gift Shop — but with a touch of Christopher Guest milieu — Mistaken For Strangers is funny, heartfelt, and fascinating.

Nymphomaniac: Volume II (Directed by Lars von Trier. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, Shia LaBeouf, Willem Dafoe, and Jamie Bell)

For fans of: Antichrist, Melancholia, sexually explicit dramas
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

In the second part of his self-described "sex epic," writer/director Lars von Trier doesn't hold back. (Read my review of Nymphomaniac: Volume I below.) If you found Nymphomaniac: Volume I to be even remotely tame, then Volume II will certainly satisfy. But like Volume I, Volume II isn't concerned with the act of sex — it's concerned with the morality of it.

Of course, it's still full of explicit sex. Taking place right where Volume I left off, Nymphomaniac: Volume II finds heroine Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult and Stacy Martin as a teen) reunited with Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), the man who took her virginity. Despite her previous declaration of polygamy, Joe finds herself in a place of domesticity with Jerôme, but things aren't that sunny: She can no longer achieve orgasm. While she challenges Jerôme to please her sexually and more aggressively, it's clear that she's craving something more.

This leads to a series of bizarre sexual encounters that can best be described as von Trier-esque: bleak, perverted, but somehow darkly funny. She attempts a threesome with two African immigrants who don't speak a lick of English, only to have it go wrong because they can't stop arguing. Eventually, she hooks up with "K" (Jamie Bell), a mysterious sadomasochist — but when the relationship begins to cause problems in her day-to-day life, Volume II takes an intriguing shift.

All the while, the narrative periodically cuts back to the present, where Joe is telling her story to the bookwormish Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). But where Volume I had Seligman vindicating her actions, he pays attention to Joe in Volume II with a more ominous agenda. Nymphomaniac: Volume II raises the bar that the first chapter set, and together, this might be the boldest, bleakest, funniest, and best film of Lars von Trier's career. It's also perhaps the hardest to stomach. But with a film called Nymphomaniac — and a track record like von Trier's — did you really expect this to be an easy watch?

Hide Your Smiling Faces (Directed by Daniel Patrick Carbone. Starring Nathan Varnson and Ryan Jones)

For fans of: George Washington, Stand By Me, Terrence Malick
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

Daniel Patrick Carbone's Hide Your Smiling Faces is less a film than it is a poetic meditation on nature, friendship, adolescence, and death. The dream-like, loose narrative of the film follows two young boys one summer in rural America as a tragic event forces them to confront their own mortality. But Hide Your Smiling Faces isn't a rumination on the loss of innocence; it's an exploration of the things that make up youthful innocence in the first place. With a thoughtful script and gorgeous, naturalistic cinematography, Hide Your Smiling Faces is a beautiful, inquisitive, philosophical film for the Terrence Malick fan in all of us.

It's another sticky, aimless summer for 14-year-old Eric (Nathan Varnson) and his 9-year-old brother Tommy (Ryan Jones). They spend their days riding around on bikes throughout their nameless rural town in New Jersey, exploring the woods, and rough-housing with the other neighborhood boys. Things get dark, however, when Eric peers down from a steep bridge and notices the body of a kid lying motionless by the water. He and a friend go down to explore and discover the lifeless body of a neighborhood kid, who turns out to be one of Tommy's friends.

The discovery shakes the town and forces both Eric and Tommy to confront the big questions of life in their own distinct ways. Hide Your Smiling Faces features minimal dialogue, but there's a distinct coming-of-age vibe that evokes the curiosity and unhinged burst of emotions that comes with adolescence.

Some will find Hide Your Smiling Faces' minimalism to be a somber slog, and those turned off by movies that aren't heavy on plot should certainly steer clear. But if you like a philosophical portrait of adolescence, wherein the heady themes are portrayed through lush visuals, you'll find plenty to ponder and admire in Hide Your Smiling Faces. It's one of the most striking independent films in recent memory.

Cheap Thrills (Directed by E.L. Katz. Starring Pat Healy, David Koechner, Ethan Embry, and Sara Paxton)

For fans of: Dark comedies, midnight movies, John Waters
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

When John Waters set out to make his notorious cult classic film Pink Flamingos, he did it with a very specific mission: Creating one of the most filthy, vile, degrading films imaginable. In the film's crowning scene, the main character, Divine, eats a real piece of dog feces, becoming "not only the filthiest person in the world, but... also the world's filthiest actress." Mission accomplished.

E.L. Katz's wildly entertaining pitch black comedy Cheap Thrills doesn't exactly have the same sense of gritty realism — but it does have the same deranged spirit. There's an ebb and flow to the film's narrative vileness, as its characters desperately try to raise the bar in the degenerate acts they commit. But unlike Pink Flamingos, Cheap Thrills doesn't exist merely to make you gag; there's an interesting story here, and Katz's assured direction makes it a sometimes bitingly funny, viscerally unsettling film.

Craig (Pat Healy) is a downtrodden everyman on the verge of losing it all. His family is facing eviction and he doesn't have the money to pay his landlord what he owes. To make matters worse, he gets fired from his job as a car mechanic. Scared to face his wife, Craig heads to the bar to drink his troubles away when he runs into an old high school buddy, Vince (Ethan Embry). While they catch up and Craig tells him about his recent woes, a rich, boisterous man (David Koechner), and his wife (Sara Paxton) buddy up with Craig and Vince, buying them drinks and giving them cash for completing petty, immature bets.

The bets start out innocent enough: $50 for whoever can drink a shot of tequila first, $200 for the guy who can get a woman at the bar to slap him. But when the party moves to the couple's house, Colin ups the ante in cash reward, and the challenges become far more violent and gross, with far greater consequences.

Veronica Mars (Directed by Rob Thomas. Starring Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Krysten Ritter, Percy Daggs III, and Chris Lowell)

For fans of: Veronica Mars (the TV show), and probably no one else
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $6.99

Let's get this out of the way: If you've never seen an episode of the TV show Veronica Mars, there's probably no reason for you to watch this movie. The cult TV series followed the exploits of teen private detective Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), who lives in the fictional, economically divided town of Neptune, California. Throughout the show's original run, Veronica helped solve cases involving murder, infidelity, theft, drugs, and more while balancing life as a high school girl and all the social anxieties that came with it. (Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The O.C. and you're not far off.)

Fast forward ten years and you arrive at the beginning of the Veronica Mars movie. Veronica has long since left both the private detective game and Neptune behind. She's a soon-to-be lawyer in New York City living with her boyfriend, Piz (Chris Lowell), whom she first met in college (during the show's third season). All is well in Veronica's life until she learns that Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) — her celebrity ex-beau, with whom she shares an epic history — has been accused of killing his pop-star ex-girlfriend. Against her better judgment, Veronica returns to Neptune to help solve the case and clear Logan of his name.

As an accessible, mainstream movie, Veronica Mars doesn't quite hold together. Fortunately, that's irrelevant; it doesn't really need to. This film was demanded by fans, paid for by fans (in a $5.7 million Kickstarter campaign), and in turn, tailor-made for preexisting fans of the show. It feels less like a cinematic film than it does a made-for-TV movie — but again, that's not necessarily a bad thing. For Veronica Mars fans this is certainly an enjoyable, satisfying experience: Signature characters return, the show's trademark wit and humor is back, and all the little nuances and niche elements that made the show so special aren't lost in the adaptation. For the viewers who waited seven years for this movie, that's probably good enough.

Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 (Directed by Lars von Trier. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, and Shia LaBeouf)

For fans of: Antichrist, Melancholia, sexually explicit dramas
How to watch it: Now available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD for $9.99

Director Lars von Trier has earned a reputation for his bleak, provocative films like Antichrist and Melancholia. His latest work is no different: Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 has been described by von Trier as a two-part "sex epic" — but as it turns out, it's less about the physical act of sex than the morals of it. Is someone a bad person simply because of their heightened sexuality? Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 has plenty of attention for both its graphic nature and the recent off-screen antics of star Shia LaBeouf. But looking beyond the controversy and hype, viewers will find a genuinely fascinating tale of sexuality, morality, and the blurry line that separates the two.

Nymphomaniac: Volume I kicks off with a gorgeous slow-motion tracking shot of a young woman lying bruised and beaten in a dimly lit alley way. The woman, Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult and Stacy Martin in her younger years), is found by a curious passerby, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). He takes her in, cleans her up, and offers to get her help, but Joe isn't having any of it: She claims to have deserved whatever happened to her and insists to Seligman that she's a bad person because she's a self-described nymphomaniac. Broken up into five chapters, the film's narrative is presented as a dialogue between Joe and Seligman as Joe explains how her tumultuous history with men and sex has led her to the present situation.

Most of Volume I depicts Joe's sexual history from high school through early adulthood, showing her evolution in an episodic nature: She loses her virginity to a scruffy local stud named Jerôme (LaBeouf) in her early teens; partakes in a contest with a high school bestie to see who can sleep with the most men in a given train ride; and forms an anti-love, pro-sex club in college, wherein members cannot sleep with the same guy twice. As Joe enters into early adulthood, she balances sexual relationships with as many as 10 men at a time, carefully parsing her schedule to make time for all the hookups. The film repeatedly cuts back to the present day, as Joe and Seligman volley back and forth as to whether Joe is a good person.

Nymphomaniac: Volume I's fascinating central narrative feels like an inner dialogue von Trier is having with himself about his own moralistic insecurities, offering a balanced, raw exploration of mankind's most primal desires. It's a graphic film, and at times it's hard to stomach, but its frank sexual depictions are never just for spectacle; they're just the impetus for the stark, thoughtful questions at the heart of the film.

The Machine (Directed by Caradog James. Starring Toby Stephens and Caity Lotz)

For fans of: Blade Runner, The Terminator, dark indie sci-fi
How to watch it: Available March 21 on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VOD

Part of what makes The Machine so great is its simplicity: The film takes place almost entirely in a single military compound, and it uses its single-setting location to establish its dark, stylish mise-en-scène. The Machine's central narrative might sound conventional — a scientist invents an artificial intelligence that blurs the line between man and machine — but there's a lot more going on than your average sci-fi potboiler.

The Machine takes place in a not-too-distant dystopian future in which Great Britain is in the midst of a Cold War with China. Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is a scientist working for the British army on a new secret weapon that could potentially be a game-changer in the war: An android programmed to think and act on its own. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to integrate the artificial intelligence into severely wounded veterans, Vincent finds success after his newly hired assistant Ava (Caity Lotz) is killed by a Chinese spy.

Vincent uses software developed by Ava before she died to develop a fully functional, free-thinking android that's physically modeled after Ava. Vincent's daughter is suffering from a mentally debilitating illness that's slowly killing her, and he's optimistic that his recent breakthrough can also be used to save her. But the military general (Denis Lawson) overseeing the project has other plans for The Machine, and when it begins developing its own sentience — inheriting much of the same compassion and reluctance toward violence that Ava had — The Machine ends up at the center of a philosophical battle for the future of technology.

The Machine's third act veers into quite familiar territory — especially for those raised on sci-fi classics like The Terminator and Blade Runner — but its impressive visuals, moody tone, and throwback synth-heavy score puts its own stamp on the genre. For sci-fi fans, this is an absolute must-see.

 
Matt is an arts journalist and freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written about film, music, and pop culture for publications including Washington City Paper, The American Interest, Slant Magazine, DCist.com, and others.

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