Flavorwire’s Guide to Indie Movies You Need to See in December

'Jackie,' 'I Am Not Your Negro,' 'La La Land,' '20th Century Women,' 'Paterson,' and more of this month's must-see art-house fare.

Well folks, it’s the home stretch – the end of the calendar year, and thus the end of awards eligibility season, so studios and indie distributors alike are bringing out their big guns. This month’s art-house titles of note include sensations from the Telluride, Toronto, New York, and Venice film festivals (along with a few stragglers from Sundance, Cannes, and SXSW), with showcase performances by marquee names and gifted filmmakers doing their best stuff. These are some of the year’s best movies, in other words, so let’s see what we’ve got.


Jackie

Release date: Out now
Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig

When this snapshot sketch of Jacqueline Kennedy first flashes back to the assassination of her husband, director Larraín (No) doesn’t show us the Zapruder film or Dealey Plaza or any of the familiar iconography. Instead, we see an uncomfortably tight close-up of her eyes as she wipes her husband’s blood from her face, sobbing. That image, and the approach that leads to it, says much about this fascinating film, which takes place in the week or so following that earth-shattering event, but unspools like a fever dream, intercutting and interlocking her private and public moments with scorching intensity. And that description goes double for Portman’s starring turn, which sees her as an enigma, a performer, and a figure of unimaginable pain, all at once. It’s not the biopic you might expect, but it’s better than any we could hope for.

Things to Come

Release date: Out now
Director: Mia Hansen-Løve
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, André Marcon, Roman Kolinka

Writer/director Hansen-Løve takes some real risks in her latest, a character driven, seriocomic drama, because she lets her audience spend so much of its first hour or so wander where the hell it’s going. It’s so slice-of-life as to seem almost inert, but never boring; no film is boring when its frames are filled with Isabelle Huppert, here playing a schoolteacher and writer whose life is messy, but manageable. And then Hansen-Løve ‘s script upends all of that, with a series of quietly devastating yet totally natural developments that cause Huppert’s character to reevaluate herself, and find the satisfaction of solace. It’s a movie that sneaks up on you; you’re not sure what it’s doing until it’s done.

The Eyes of My Mother

Release date: Out now
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Cast: Kika Magalhaes, Will Brill, Olivia Bond

It’s tough to think of a recent film that more beautifully captures so many deeply unsettling events as this dramatic horror effort from writer/director Pesce, who uses stunning cinematography and stirring compositions to capture some deeply unsettling images and ideas. What first seems a standard story of home invasion turns into something far harsher and more disturbing, as a young woman’s encounter with violence burrows deep inside her, and then emerges back into the world. By the mid-point, it’s become a series of sinking feelings for the viewer — seeing how these scenes are going to go south, and fear for exactly how. Unnerving, scary, disturbing viewing, but done with the kind of artistry rarely afforded to such material.

I Am Not Your Negro

Release date: December 9 (preview run before February limited release)
Director: Raoul Peck
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson

America, James Baldwin wrote, is “a very complex country which insists on being narrow-minded.” Raoul Peck’s overwhelming essay film takes the leftover notes of Baldwin’s last, unfinished project – a history of the country, framed by the lives and deaths of Malcolm, Martin, and Medgar – and turns them into a commentary on race relations both past and present. His words (given voice by Samuel L. Jackson, in what is, no exaggeration, one of his finest performances) remain as vital as ever; there’s no rust on them, no insight that’s grown inaccurate or remotely insignificant. Peck draws from a wide variety of sources, often showing a moment in history or culture, followed by Baldwin deconstructing it. In these moments, he gives us an invaluable gift: he helps us to see the world as Baldwin did. Vital, pressing, powerful filmmaking.

La La Land

Release date: December 9 (limited); December 16 (wide)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend

The problem with most modern musical films is the degree to which they fetishize their form, treating the musical — which used to be among the most common of film genres — as a gimmick, and congratulating themselves for making one when they’re so far out of vogue. And that might be what’s most wonderful about this romantic musical melodrama from writer/director Chazelle (Whiplash): it doesn’t make a big deal of the format, merely recognizing that there are certain emotions and moments that cannot be properly conveyed except through song and dance. And what songs and dances — bright and busy, sweet and charming, but with a melancholy streak that lands hard. It’ll make you grin, and it’ll break your heart.

Frank & Lola

Release date: December 9
Director: Matthew Ross
Cast: Imogen Poots, Michael Shannon, Justin Long

Shannon and Poots are separated by more than a few years, but they’re evenly matched in this romantic thriller — they both invest their roles with an improvisational spirit, a sense that they’re capable of taking a scene to any nutty place. That’s a good fit for the story first-time writer/director Ross is telling here, which turns on a dime from boy-meets-girl into boy’s-jealousy-gets-the-best-of him-and-bad-things-happen. Ross manages to cultivate a tone where any of this might or might not be on the level, and his curveball-laced script gets into some good, risky territory, turning the norms of these relationships (and the genre films they tend to inhabit) on their head. And no matter where he goes, his stars plumb the emotional honesty at its core. A wildly unpredictable movie, and a rewarding one.

Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, & America

Release date: December 9
Director: Matthew Ornstein
Cast: Documentary

“One day, the leader of the Klan called me.” So begins the extraordinary story of Daryl Davis, a black DC-area musician who became famous for his sit-downs (and even friendships) with members of the KKK, the American Socialist Movement, and other hate groups — conversations that transformed some of those members’ lives. Ornstein’s documentary observes some of those chats, which delve into real issues and difficult questions, with moments of levity and emotion along the way. But Davis also isn’t an easy protagonist; questioned on his effectiveness and motives by Black Lives Matters activists, in a charged and upsetting scene, Davis gets unreasonably defensive, and his comments there put everything that follows into a more complicated light. The results are prickly and fascinating; this is a rare documentary that ends up delivering far more nuance than it seems to promise.

Neruda

Release date: December 16
Director: Pablo Larraín
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Luis Gnecco, Alfredo Castro

Larraín (who also helmed Jackie, so he’s having a moment) frames this true story of Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as a pair of character studies. The first is, of course, the title character, a politician and Communist activist who’s deemed a public menace, and decides he might as well act like one. The second is the police detective who is pursuing him, the son of a legendary lawman looking to prove himself. Each fancies himself the star of the story, and in a way, they’re both right – and the way Larraín reveals what he’s up to, and revels in it, makes for an unexpectedly funny and nimble bit of portraiture. He overdoes it a bit at the end, making the point well past its successful delivery, and the nature of this approach ends up keeping the viewer at arm’s length. But it’s hard to complain much about a picture as pleasurable as this one.

Julieta

Release date: December 21
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Emma Suárez, Adriana Ugarte, Daniel Grao

Throughout his remarkable career, Almodóvar has repeatedly pulled off the juggling act of kidding the broad indicators and soapy inclinations of melodrama, while simultaneously making maximum use of them. There’s less of the really big stuff this time around (the source material is a trio of Alice Munro stories), and it turns out he doesn’t need most of it anyway; playing it (mostly) straight, he cooks up a morally challenging and emotionally tricky story of guilt, heartbreak, forgiveness, and healing. It’s not the Almodóvar we’ve come to expect — but it reveals a filmmaker still insistent on trying new things, and that’s almost as exciting.

I, Daniel Blake

Release date: December 23
Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy

There’s a scene, about midway through Ken Loach’s portrait of a recent widower trying to navigate his way through Britain’s social safety net, where the title character (Johns) has to sell off all his belongings just to keep going a few more days. A few scenes later, a single mother (Sauires) goes to a bar to talk to a woman about working as an escort. What’s striking about these scenes isn’t their extremity; it’s that Loach doesn’t give us the obligatory wide shot of the man’s empty apartment, and he only shows us the barest introductory sliver of the conversation in the bar. It’s not that he’s afraid of these moments. It’s that he doesn’t want to intrude on them, or on the dignity of the people to whom they’re happening. That approach says much about this very fine film, which sees these characters clearly, but without sentimentality or easy pathos; these are good people, in a tough spot. Loach gives them their space, but knows their stories must be told.

A Monster Calls

Release date: December 23
Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall

Adapted from Patrick Ness’s novel, this is a family film in the truest sense — not so much for kids as for parents and offspring that are, like its protagonist, “Too old to be a kid, too young to be a man.” And that’s not just because of the adult themes, which include bullying, divorce, and disease; they’re dealing in the complex emotions those events wring from us, and in coming to terms with the force of those emotions. Good performances all around, particularly from Weaver as a grandmother trying to compartmentalize, and Jones, who plays the bleary-eyed sad/sick mum without descending into mawkishness.

20th Century Women

Release date: December 25
Director: Mike Mills
Cast: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, Lucas Jade Zumann

Beginners writer/director Mills crafts one of the year’s funniest movies — and it’s the best kind, a film that’s not reaching for comedy, but finding it. Those discoveries are made within the loose, makeshift family of boarders and friends that flow in and out of the house occupied by Dorothea (Bening) and her son Jamie (Zumann). The film, which spends a few months with them in the summer of 1979, is a coming-of-age story, but unlike most such movies, it’s not just about the teenage boy; everyone in it is growing older, has some growing up to do, and comes out a little wiser and a little stronger. All of this makes 20th Century Women sound far too schematic; it’s a movie brimming over with the vibrancy of life, and all of its surprises.

Toni Erdmann

Release date: December 25
Director: Maren Ade
Cast: Peter Simonischek, Sandra Hüller, Michael Wittenborn

There’s a particular tension between family members who can’t figure each other out anymore, a fumbling awkwardness and subsequent frustration — and writer/director Ade nails it scene after scene in this keenly observed and often very funny picture. Winfried (Simonischek) thinks it’d be fun to spontaneously visit his careerist daughter Ines (Hüller); she’s considerably less keen on the idea, and the visit is an uncomfortable disaster until he adopts a silly alter ego, and they both realize they can interact better as strangers than family. The way they each decide to just keep it going, and the manners in which they challenge and one-up the bit to each other, are among the many pleasures of Ade’s script, which takes what could’ve been the flattest of sitcom set-ups and plays it out with precision, wit, and wisdom.

Paterson

Release date: December 28
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast: Adam Driver, Golshifteh Farahani, Barry Shabaka Henley

Movies about creative people tend to focus on breakthroughs, stardom, and comebacks. But the vast majority of writers, artists, filmmakers, and the like are toiling away in obscurity, working day jobs to pay their bills and indulging their passions in the few free hours they’re allowed. Jim Jarmusch’s warm, lovely new drama is about a person like that, a bus driver (Adam Driver, perfection) who carries around a little notebook and spends his lunch hours and off moments jotting down evocative poems of everyday observation. Jarmusch obviously feels a kinship with this character — both tells their stories in the same modest style — and the director’s affection shows in the space he gives the character, and the patience with which he dramatizes his daily routines, tiny irritations, and flashes of escape.