1. April and the Extraordinary World
Twin Eiffel Towers stand above the sooty skyline of the alt-history version of 1941 Paris in which April and the Extraordinary World takes place. A Staten Island Ferry–sized cable car runs through the towers and it will get you from the French capital to Berlin in a mere 82 hours, a steampunk version of high-speed travel.
In this retro-futuristic animated epic, the planet has become an environmentally devastated place that's permanently at war and runs on charcoal, the important scientists having all mysteriously disappeared before they could help usher in helpful developments like oil-fueled engines and electricity.
April and the Extraordinary World, directed by Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci and adapted from a Jacques Tardi graphic novel, is a sci-fi adventure with an divinely Gallic slant. It zooms in on a family of chemists, some of the few left, who are in hiding, working on a serum with the potential to save, or maybe destroy, the Earth. When the police pound down their door, they get scattered, leaving daughter April to fend for herself, with only the company of her talking cat, Darwin, and a determination to continue the work that her parents started.
While the film, which is composed of appropriately old-school cel animation, tells a rollicking, sometimes barbed story about oppressive governments, secret labs, selfishness, and the point where science meets ethics, it's the world-building that really delights. April and the Extraordinary World is set in a universe in which a house can roll down armor and walk into the Seine, and rats can be loaded up with cameras and used as spies. While the English-language dub of the film features the voice talents of Susan Sarandon, J.K. Simmons, Paul Giamatti, and Tony Hale, if you opt for the original French (both versions are being released), you'll get Marion Cotillard voicing April and Jean Rochefort as her grandfather.
Where to see it: April and the Extraordinary World is now playing in select theaters — you can find a list of the places it's playing here.
Part art film slow burn and part extreme splatterfest, Baskin is best enjoyed as a movie that features the memorable image of a man gouging out someone's eyeball with a knife and then French-kissing the bloody socket. Even though it does not, perhaps, add up to a coherent whole, Baskin, the feature debut of filmmaker Can Evrenol, certainly operates according to its own rhythms.
In the opening scene of this rare horror movie from Turkey, a group of cops sit around an otherwise empty restaurant betting on football and exchanging anecdotes about encountering unanticipated penises on the sex workers they've hired. Meanwhile, the owner of the place and his son prepare a meal from mystery meat delivered, ominously, in a bucket. Long takes and moody lighting stoke dread long before anything spooky happens in Baskin — they're just five swinging dicks telling dirty stories and menacing the waitstaff. It's like the opening scene in Reservoir Dogs, if you felt like the characters could be hacked to death by a mysterious hooded figure at any time during their monologues on Madonna or tipping.
And then the policemen go off to answer a call in the middle of nowhere and find themselves in a nightmarish scenario involving dark rituals, dismemberment, and frogs, and all their swagger quickly dissolves.
Evrenol digs his gore, which arrives with a real Silent Hill vibe, but it's the skillfulness of his filmmaking that sets Baskin apart, especially in the way the youngest of the cops, Arda (Gorkem Kasal), keeps slipping back into memories of a recurring nightmare he's had since childhood. The expressionist weirdness of the dream seems to slowly infect everything that follows, until the tenuous reality of the movie trembles and collapses.
Where to see it: Baskin is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It's also available on VOD.
3. Everything Is Copy
There's a moment toward the end of Everything Is Copy in which the film deals with the fact that its subject, writer and filmmaker and rom-com icon Nora Ephron, kept the leukemia that would eventually kill her a secret from most of her friends. Some of the interviewees, a formidable group that includes Meryl Streep and Amy Pascal, clearly still feel a bit stung by this decision, and all of them are sad. And right in the middle, legendary magazine writer Gay Talese notes that he felt he, at least, was close enough to Ephron to be allowed to visit her in the hospital. "What the hell's Richard Cohen doing there? is what I thought!" he snits, and then laughs at himself. "That doesn't sound very generous, does it?"
As tributes go, Everything Is Copy is as loving and as well-behaved as you might expect of a doc directed by its subject's son — journalist Jacob Bernstein — to be. But if it doesn't dig as deeply into its thesis — that there are downs as well as ups to treating everything that happens to you as material — as much as it could, it offers a deliciously warm, gossipy peek into an era of New York writerly and showbiz life. Barbara Walters, Rob Reiner, Mike Nichols, David Geffen, Rosie O'Donnell, and more appear among the talking heads, as does as Bernstein himself, sometimes in conversation with his father, Carl Bernstein, and Ephron's sisters Delia and Amy. These interviews can get as tartly honest as Ephron herself was, right until her illness, but they also sometimes are as funny as Talese, in the midst of mourning, wondering if Ephron considered Richard Cohen a closer friend.
Where to see it: Everything Is Copy is on HBO Go and HBO Now.
In H., Robin Bartlett and Rebecca Dayan play women who are both named Helen and who both live, fittingly, in Troy — that would be the Troy in upstate New York, not the Troy in ancient Greece. Still, this mesmerizing film from directors Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia is filled with images that suggest connections to myth — like the head of a giant classical statue that's shown floating, impossible, down the Hudson River.
Helen the older (Bartlett) lives with her husband, Roy (Julian Gamble), a man who seems ready to crawl out of his skin to escape her. Maybe they've just been together too long, or maybe he's creeped out by her fixation on her eerily realistic infant doll, which she bathes and feeds like a real newborn, scheduling regular meet-ups with a group of likeminded owners. Helen the younger (Dayan) is pregnant, though there's also trouble in her relationship with her artistic and life partner Alex (Will Janowitz), who's cheated on her in the past.
Into these dramas comes a meteor strike that tilts the universe of the film on its axis. Gravity starts acting strange, a black horse runs through the street, and people in town start to abandon their cars and walk into the woods or stare, entranced, at blank walls. Maybe it's the end of the world, or maybe it's mass hysteria — H. doesn't offer a straightforward read, even as these strange events start changing the lives of its main characters. But behind its surreal imagery are some lurking fears about abandonment and children. The mythical Helen of Troy was a figure of absolute desirability, the kind of beauty so irresistible that wars were fought over her. The Helens of Troy, New York, either fear or are on the verge of being left, the ties to the men in their lives frayed and uncertain. When the younger Helen tells her husband she estimates she'll have five years after giving birth before he leaves her, she's trying to hurt him, but she's also trying to express a real fear. Hacking out a life together can be its own sort of war.
Where to see it: H. is now playing in New York and will get a VOD release later in the year.
5. River of Grass
Cozy (Lisa Bowman) is a housewife who finds her suburban Florida Everglades existence so stultifying that when Lee (Larry Fessenden) nearly runs her over in his car on the way to a bar, she mistakes his carelessness for dynamism. He was "looking so much like a guy on his way to somewhere," she muses later in River of Grass, in voiceover, after she realizes how wrong she was. Jobless and living with his much-abused grandmother until she changes the locks, Lee isn't headed anywhere at all. He's adrift and Cozy's stuck, and when they run off together after a boozy accident convinces them they killed someone, they don't even make it out of town; they find themselves holed up at a local motel instead.
Kelly Reichardt's directorial debut first came out in 1994 — this is a restored re-release. It took Reichardt more than a decade to make her follow-up, the acclaimed Old Joy, which became the first in a string of films set in the American West. Those movies have made Reichardt a festival darling, the most recent being the Montana triptych Certain Women, which premiered at Sundance a few months ago.
But River of Grass stands apart from those later movies, which lean hard into intimate understatement. It's not exactly action-filled, but its main character is explicit about what's on her mind and how deep-seated her desire to escape is. Bowman's dreamy voiceover makes the whole affair feel like Badlands if the characters were so dazed with inertia they never actually got around to the murder spree. Lee is nearly 30 and Cozy is a mother of two, and yet they both feel like children waiting for something to happen to them. And they're briefly delighted when it seems like something has.
Where to see it: River of Grass is now in select theaters — see a list here. It'll be out on DVD and Blu-ray on April 26.
6. The Winter
Niko Gounaras (Theo Albanis) is an aspiring writer living, or rather barely eking out an existence, in London. Bedraggledly handsome, with a lip piercing and a top hat, he looks like he stepped out of another era — he even prefers a typewriter, though it's possible he just can't afford a computer. Niko has managed to get himself into a very contemporary sort of debt, with banks constantly blowing up his cell phone. In hopes of escaping, he leaves to camp out in his late father's old house in a small mountain town in Greece, a ramshackle building with questionable water, no electricity, and more than the recommended number of ghosts.
The Winter is the directorial debut of Konstantinos Koutsoliotas, a visual effects artist who's worked on big productions like Guardians of the Galaxy and 300: Rise of an Empire. The Winter is comparatively minuscule, but Koutsoliotas brings his VFX talents to it, expanding his story from one about a failed novelist limping home to lick his wounds into one in which fantastical touches bubble up all around. It's still a compact production, shot mostly in Koutsoliotas' family's home, but it looks and feels grander when a shadow puppet story comes to life in animation, a demon camps out on Niko's chest as an embodiment of sleep paralysis, and we cut back to scenes showing us the slow deterioration of Niko's father. Is he being haunted by something? Is Niko? Or are they both dealing with something more prosaic, depression or mental illness made worst by isolation and economic woes? The Winter keeps these questions open while completing its own raggedly poetic journey in which Niko is in danger of becoming a ghost himself.
Where to see it: The Winter is now available on DVD, and is also streaming on IndiePix Unlimited.