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Here’s what you should be watching to catch up on the year’s best indies

Peg Aloi Jul 18, 2018 1:00 AM

Sure, you've seen some of this year's runaway blockbusters like Black Panther and Incredibles 2. But maybe you're wondering which arthouse fare you'll be wanting to keep an eye out for in the run up to the year end awards season. 2018 is shaping up to be an outstanding year for cinema. Some recurring themes include corrupt fascist governments, gaslighting psychopaths, health insurance scams, and military veterans who are definitely not doing OK.

Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay doesn't make films very often (her last one was 2011's We Need to Talk About Kevin, a compelling portrait of grief and guilt starring Tilda Swinton), but when she does, it's an incendiary event. This year's offering, You Were Never Really Here, stars Joaquin Phoenix as a mercenary who hunts down child sex traffickers. Phoenix gives his usual inscrutable, complicated performance as Joe, a man with a traumatic military past and a lonely personal life caring for his elderly mother. The film's dreamy lighting and color, urban vistas and closely observed interiors, plus its heart-stoppingly good sound design, form a sturdy frame for this portrait of determined vigilante justice, in what many critics are calling the best film of the year so far.

Hereditary is generating a lot of buzz, and while it can be irritating to see so many hyperbolic claims about how scary a horror film it is, this debut from Ari Aster is indeed spooky and disturbing. The always-outstanding Toni Collette stars as an artist whose grief-torn family starts experiencing some haunting weirdness in their house, where her recently deceased mother seems to have been involved in some extremely creepy social activities. Great cast including Gabriel Byrne, Ann Dowd and some very effectively eerie naked people.

If a rollicking political comedy is more your cup of tea, Armando Ianucci's anachronistic period piece The Death of Stalin is screamingly funny, but occasionally punctuated with moments of dark verisimilitude. Ianucci trades his usual documentary-style camera work (as seen in In the Loop) for a more seamless cinematic style befitting the grandiose historical story presented here. A first-rate cast studded with comic genius (Jeffrey Tambor, Steve Buscemi, Andrea Riseborough, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin) and flawless directing make this a must-see.

Speaking of Andrea Riseborough and Steve Buscemi, check them out in the odd indie gem Nancy, about a young woman who fancies herself a fantasist, and the bad behavior that catches up with her. Another underseen indie about a young woman whose anti-social ways make her a black sheep is Beast, starring the outstanding Irish actress Jessie Buckley. Set in a rural but wealthy village on the Isle of Jersey, this unusual thriller is hauntingly beautiful, erotic and chilling.

My tastes lean towards dark fare, which may be why I found Unsane, Steven Soderbergh's iPhone-shot psychological thriller to be so satisfying. Claire Foy is fabulous as a young business executive who is involuntarily committed to a psych ward after a routine counseling session where she discusses her ongoing trauma brought on by a relentless, mentally ill stalker. There's implausibility galore, but the fear Foy's character feels is horrifyingly realistic. Joshua Leonard also stars as the crafty psychopath.

Leave No Trace is currently playing and well worth seeing on the big screen. Like her breakout indie hit Winter's Bone, Deborah Granik crafts a worlds in which her characters feel at home in, but also at the mercy of, wild nature. Ben Foster, in a stunningly subdued performance, is a traumatized war vet who lives off the grid with his teenage daughter (fantastic newcomer Thomasin McKenzie), on the run from his own demons.

My favorite foreign film so far this year is Loveless, a Russian film from the director of Leviathan. It tells the story of a divorcing couple whose young son goes missing after school one day, and their difficulty reconciling their hatred for one another as they must cooperate in searching for him. The film's straightforward style is both lyric and brutal, its emotional simplicity raw and hard-hitting. You may not be able to shake this one off so easily.