MONTHLY HIGHLIGHTS: April 2014

Here we are in April, where the standard, or at least the ambition of output seems to decrease substantially. There are no Noah sized gambles, no Grand Budapest Hotel style formal delights, and nothing provocative to the point of Nymphomaniac, though that’s admittedly an unfair bar to reach. All that said, I can still muster at least ten films worth seeking out, at least one (perhaps only one) of which will almost certainly be on our minds year round. I even had one or two films I regretted leaving off, though not for feelings of anticipation or fondness. Rio 2 looks like a harmless little charmer (though “harmless” films are harmful in their own way) and while I’m not blown over by Only Lovers Left Alive, I’m sure that one will earn many advocates, perhaps even among my colleagues.

Top 10 Films to See in April

The German Doctor10. The German Doctor (Limited Release; April 25th)

In the category of “stories we didn’t know existed, but are in hindsight irresistible”, I’ve never been particularly familiar with Nazi physician Joseph Mengele or his work. Neither did I realize he escaped capture for his crimes, so the idea of approaching him from that perspective is maybe not as interesting as approaching the horrific work he did during the war. It’s nonetheless a perspective we’ve not seen, of a Nazi criminal starting fresh and perhaps crucially evading any sense of guilt, because how could we expect monsters to change? The plot and approach to the film itself seems a tad conventional, but it looks like a captivating enough character drama. (Trailer)

Ilo Ilo9. Ilo Ilo (Limited Release; April 4th)

Another Foreign Oscar entry from last year, this one is a less historically complicated one than The German Doctor, but perhaps benefits from greater emotional conflict. Focusing on an economically struggling family that’s eroding at the seams, Ilo Ilo creates the impetus for change in the form of a maid whose relationship with the unruly child, weary father and unsympathetic mother gives rise to the distance that already existed between them.It’s simple, polite drama, but honest and affecting in a way that merits its inclusion, though perhaps not its praise. (Trailer)

Manakamana8. Manakamana (Limited Release; April 18th)

Among the films I saw at New York Film Festival that I didn’t have much to say about, I can’t exactly call Manakamana a disappointment, but it wasn’t quite the entrancing thing Leviathan was. It wasn’t trying to be, very clearly going its own way in depicting a Nepal community through the cable car that brings them to the Manakamana temple, gradually revealing information but more crucially revealing human details of the individuals who inhabit each 11 minutes long take. Some prove more meaningful than others. The entrance of two musicians offers a welcome and entertaining jam break, while three punk tourists provide even more entertainment for inexplicably bringing a kitten up with them. Its themes of static and movement, spirituality and mechanics, all come through directly. It’s not what Leviathan is, but any audience shouldn’t judge it for being anything but itself. (Trailer)

Captain America - The Winter Soldier7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Wide Release; April 4th)

I’ve conditioned myself to not care about superhero movies in general, which for the most part includes Marvel movies. I got my hopes up for Thor: The Dark World, and that turned out rather turgid. I have a eerie suspicion Guardians of the Galaxy could inflate to Dreamworks levels of backfired irony and sarcasm. So why even be remotely interested in Captain America: The Winter Soldier? It has nothing to do with the trailers, which sell the movie as dully efficiently as could be expected. It’s simply because this looks like the most fun a Marvel movie as we’re likely to get this phase. Scarlett Johansson is pretty much the MVP of the Marvel universe at this stage. Steve Rogers seems like the only character remotely capable of questioning his own belief system in a world of overconfident men. And on a note that could amount to nothing at all, bringing on regular Community directors Joe and Anthony Russo to direct feels like a quirky enough decision to work. (Trailer)

Young & Beautiful6. Young & Beautiful (Limited Release; April 25th)

How exactly does one describe Francois Ozon’s work as a whole? Sexuality is often in play, most often in tandem with farcical representations. The former is present in Young & Beautiful, but I’m reluctant to say this is a farcical approach to the matter of teen sexuality. The story seems a bit more straightforward and less twisty than Ozon’s last film, the impish delight In the House, but the drama is an appealing, if simple centerpiece. This doesn’t seem to be so much of a physical examination than the a conventional narrative one, but Ozon’s made it clear how deftly he can handle that intimate drama, and I wouldn’t preclude sensual images, since Ozon’s work always finds a way to portray sexuality. (the introductory shot of Claude Garcia in In the House contains all the sexual context one needs of the young boy.) (Trailer)

Transcendence5. Transcendence (Wide Release; April 18th)

Do directorial debuts of accomplished cinematographers look bad? It seems like the answer should be no, but the earliest footage from Christopher Nolan’s regular D.P. Wally Pfister’s Transcendence did not ease tensions. Computer screens are cinematographer’s hell, but the conventional action-thriller plot doesn’t promise the same kind of breakthrough that Nolan made. Still there’s a lot to be intrigued by here. Her plumbed the human depths of Artificial Intelligence, but this is the apocalyptic scenario we all fearfully expect to come of A.I.’s invention. It may even be the anti-Her, with computer intelligence obliterating emotion instead of the other way around, which is a bit familiar and expected, but here’s hoping the film leads with its heart rather than its head. (Trailer)

Blue Ruin4. Blue Ruin (Limited Release; April 25th)

Last year was a rather fine year for blue movies which, if not always a warm color, has consistently been a fiery one. Not to set up Blue Ruin to the standards of intense lead performances like the ones Adele Exarchopoulos, Cate Blanchett and Isaiah Washington deliver. This is admittedly more overtly a stylistic exercise than those were, a pulpy revenge thriller whose lead character is almost quintessentially pathetic, and ain’t that a relief? Stoic, self-confident seekers of vengeance are so boring and played out, and the best violent thrillers aren’t even about such figures. Much rather a Jimmy Stewart than a Kevin Costner. Besides that, though, the style does look compelling, and I always welcome a subtle twist on the typical genre film. (Trailer)

Locke3. Locke (Limited Release; April 25th)

Tom Hardy’s in a car. Pared down to basics, that’s what Locke is. A formal experiment from British thriller director Steven Knight, one worries that’s all Locke is. Then again, similar accusations were lodged against All Is Lost and that film proved to be more than just its gimmick, building a strong following of admirers. This seems to be more of a contained meltdown, tracking its main character’s career and familial collapse over the course of a single car ride. Much is put on Tom Hardy’s shoulders, but few actors of his generation are as physically or vocally adept to holding up such charisma and character definition through such an extended period. This will certainly be one worth keeping an eye on. (Trailer)

The Retrieval2. The Retrieval (Limited Release; April 4)

The smallest film you will probably not see this month, but hopefully not for lack of trying. What’s most surprising about this civil war era drama is how entirely out of the blue it came, playing one miniscule festival after another on its way towards minor key distribution. It’s the kind of film that vouches for the perseverance of smaller film festivals, which too often offer prestige audiences for mediocre properties – after seeing It Felt Like Love at my local fest MonIFF, I felt too sure it’d remain unreleased, though my opinion of it has certainly lightened up. Part of the draw of The Retrieval is the scope it achieves on such a miniscule budget, but it’s also how unconventional the drama looks. This doesn’t look like a property drowning in historicity, but using its period setting to tell a story less of racial prejudice than of universal, sympathetic strife. (Trailer)

Under the Skin1. Under the Skin (Limited Release; April 4th)

There couldn’t possibly be less competition for this month’s #1 film to look out for. Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited Birth follow-up has been at the top of my roster for some time, and not merely for its bizarre alien premise. Few directors are as bravely ambitious with the format’s boundaries as Glazer, with Birth taking a simple fairy-tale predicament and turning it into an disconcertingly tender human drama. Can Glazer take a simple alien story and inflect with avant garde style and piercing human commentary? Can Scarlett Johansson handle intensely ambiguous performance work, far apart from anything she’s done before? Both these questions feel already answered by the incredible mystique surrounding it. (Trailer)

Other Film Things Releasing in April

Only Lovers Left AliveDom Hemingway (April 4)
Draft Day (April 11)
Oculus (April 11)
Rio 2 (April 11)
Only Lovers Left Alive (April 11)
Joe (April 11)
Bears (April 18)
A Haunted House 2 (April 18)
Heaven Is For Real (April 18)
Brick Mansions (April 25)
The Other Woman (April 25)
The Quiet Ones (April 25)

What are your most anticipated films of April?

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  • Already seen Dom Hemingway and Only Lovers Left Alive. Really like the latter one.

    My most anticipated films from this list would be:

    1. Under the Skin
    2. Blue Ruin
    3. Locke
    4. Joe
    5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

  • Calvin Philips

    Only Lovers Left Alive!

  • Hilary Kissinger

    These monthly highlights are so great! Finding them super useful and always interesting.

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