Indie treasures on the way

Just now, at the end of January, we are getting some of the best-received independent films of last year

Inside Llewyn Davis (photo credit: Courtesy)
Inside Llewyn Davis
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hollywood blockbusters tend to be released on the same day around the world – the studios’ vain attempt to prevent or at least cut down on piracy; but independent and lower-profile films generally make it to Israel weeks or months after they come out in the US and Europe. So it’s just now, at the end of January, that we are getting some of the best-received indies. The good news is that most of them were worth the wait.
The beloved novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak has been adapted for the screen. It tells the story of a bookish adolescent girl in Nazi Germany who is orphaned and then adopted by a gentile couple (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) who are hiding a young Jewish man. It’s the latest in what you might call the subgenre of feel-good Holocaust movies (which started about 15 years ago with Life Is Beautiful and continued with such films as La Rafle, The Reader, Sarah’s Key and a number of others). Tolerance for this kind of film is a personal matter, but The Book Thief is particularly well done and features a fine performance by Sophie Nelisse in the lead.
In another vein, Matthew McConaughey started out his career as a promising actor but then became better known for roles in which he took off his shirt than for his talent. He’s changing all that this year, with his turn as a working-class HIV-positive Texan who becomes an AIDS activist in The Dallas Buyers’ Club, which is based on a true story. He’s been nominated for his first Oscar for the performance and just won a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe for the role.
Philomena is another fact-based drama that has picked up several Oscar nods. Judi Dench gives yet another commanding performance (and has picked up another nomination) as a woman searching for the child she was coerced into giving up decades before when she was an unwed mother.
While the Coen brothers’ latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, received only two Oscar nods (for cinematography and sound mixing), this low-key film about a folk singer in the early 1960s is one of their best. It bears a certain stylistic resemblance to their 2009 film A Serious Man in that it follows the classic hero’s journey structure. Llewyn Davis (portrayed by Oscar Isaac) is a moderately successful folk singer on the New York, Greenwich Village circuit in the early 1960s. He comes alive only when he’s singing, but although he pours his heart out and has cathartic moments when he performs, he’s simply not that good. During a few days in a bitterly cold winter, he confronts this fact, all the while dealing with constant crises. It may sound bleak – and it is – but it’s one of those Coen brothers films that draw you into the story of someone you never thought would interest you. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan are particularly good as a folk-singing duo who are close friends of Llewyn’s, and John Goodman is wonderful in what can only be described as the John Goodman part – a gargantuan, arrogant, heroin-addicted jazz musician with whom Llewyn takes a road trip.
Bleakness is not an unusual quality in indie or human-scale Hollywood films, so it’s not surprising that Nebraska, a black-and-white film starring Bruce Dern, is also a bit somber. Dern was one of the finest character actors in American movies, particularly in the 1970s, when he often played villains (he has the distinction of being one of the few actors to have killed John Wayne on screen). But his star declined in later decades, only to be resurrected with Dern’s outstanding performance as the utterly selfish and malevolent father of the lead character in the recent HBO series Big Love.
In Nebraska, Dern plays a hard-drinking misanthrope (a character not too far removed from the one he played in Big Love) who accompanies his estranged son (Will Forte, best known from his stint on Saturday Night Live and his role as the cross-dressing Paul on 30 Rock) from Montana to Nebraska in order to collect a sweepstakes prize. Dern was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for the movie, which is also up for Best Picture. It’s directed by Alexander Payne, whose first feature film, Citizen Ruth, starred Dern’s daughter Laura.