The summer that promised a return to movie theaters certainly made up for lost time, with last year’s scheduled releases such as F9, Black Widow, A Quiet Place: Part II, and Jungle Cruise finally making their way to screens. Not every tentpole lived up to the hype (Snake Eyes bombed so badly it was dropped on home video after four weeks), and audiences may have chosen to watch the excellent The Suicide Squad and In the Heights at home on HBO Max instead of in theaters.
However, beyond the blockbuster fare the summer was filled with a terrific slate of smaller gems. While the upcoming fall festival titles will likely dominate awards seasons, generally a few summer films can sneak into the top categories. Whether they only contend for critics’ prizes and the Indie Spirit Awards or find themselves in the major Oscar races, these seven independent films shouldn’t be left out of the awards discussion.
The Green Knight
David Lowery’s gorgeous medieval fantasy has the makings of a future classic. Both a sweeping fantasy adventure and a thoughtful meditation on mortality, The Green Knight is a gorgeous technical and emotional achievement. In a just world Lowery’s retooling of the “Sir Gawain” epic fable would make its way into the Best Adapted Screenplay category and Dev Patel’s sensitive turn as the impulsive hero would be in the Best Actor conversation, but The Green Knight may have a legitimate shot in the technical categories. A24 surprisingly took home a Best Visual Effects win for Ex Machina and could see similar recognition for The Green Knight’s impressive mix of digital and practical. The film’s immaculate period detail should hopefully earn it nods for Best Cinematography, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design, and Best Sound.
In a year stacked with movie musicals, Annette is certainly a darker, subversive alternative to crowd pleasers like In the Heights and the upcoming Dear Evan Hansen and West Side Story. Leos Carax’s sensibilities may be too weird for the Academy, even if Adam Driver’s tour de force performance as a self-destructive comedian is one of his greatest roles to date and Simon Helberg’s sensitive accompanist would be a welcome contender in the Best Supporting Actor race. However, Annette’s terrific original soundtrack by Sparks has more than a few standout numbers worthy of Best Original Song consideration; is there a better way to kick off an Oscars ceremony than a rendition of “So May We Start”?
If we’re talking about standout moments tailor-made to be “Oscar clips,” Winston Duke’s final monologue during the closing scene of Nine Days is about as perfect as you can get. In the mythological drama, Duke stars as a mythological arbiter who determines prospective souls’ worthiness to take a physical form on Earth. His quiet, restrained performance as a procedural employee removed from the inherent emotion of his task is one of the year’s best, and would be a welcome addition to the Best Actor race. Summer indies generally have a better shot in the Best Original Screenplay category, and if more experimental arthouse fare like First Reformed and The Lobster managed to slip in, perhaps Edson Oda’s thoughtful story can too.
Riders of Justice
Denmark is coming off of a Best International Film win for Another Round and would be apt to campaign another film starring Mads Mikkelsen in the category during this year’s selection process. Riders of Justice has a lot in common with Thomas Vinterberg’s Oscar winner; both are heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure, and both subvert familiar genres with shocking plot twists and morally ambiguous characters. While Riders of Justice may technically fall in the action-comedy realm, it’s a surprisingly sensitive depiction of masculinity from director Anders Thomas Jensen, a previous winner in the Best Short Film category. Perhaps Jensen could leap into the Best Director race following Vinterberg’s breakthrough nomination last year.
The British indie Limbo actually had a brief awards run last year at the BAFTA and British Independent Spirit Awards, but the film didn’t reach U.S. viewers until this summer. The added attention benefits Limbo’s visibility, and the impressive directorial debut from Ben Sharrok certainly tackles timely subject material. The brittle dramedy follows a group of refugees who live “in limbo” on a desolate Scottish isle waiting for updates on their asylum status. While Sharrok’s screenplay and the remarkable lead performance from newcomer Amir El-Masry may have a better shot at critics’ circle groups, the elegant cinematography from Nick Cooke does a terrific job highlighting the characters’ isolation.
The Sparks Brothers
The Oscars have recently awarded music documentaries like Amy and 20 Feet From Stardom, and they also gravitate towards heartwarming crowd pleasers like Free Solo and My Octopus Teacher. Edgar Wright’s extensive documentation of the offbeat musical duo Sparks fulfills both inclinations. Wright cleverly incorporates creative animated segments with extensive archive footage for an engaging spotlight on the influential pair, and the theme of artistic integrity in the face of setbacks may resonate with voters. The Sparks Brothers would be a fun contender within the Best Documentary Feature race. Wright really should have an Oscar nomination by now, and perhaps with the backing of Focus Features for this and the upcoming Last Night in Soho, it will be his breakthrough year.
Under the previously more selective membership of the Academy, a film as outrageous as Zola would never have touched the awards discussion, but perhaps a more open-minded body that awarded subversive genre stories like Get Out and Promising Young Woman will appreciate this raunchy stripper saga. Zola is undoubtedly one of the funniest and most shocking films of the year so far, but first time filmmaker Janicza Bravo inventively incorporates the viral Twitter as a framing device for the wild story. Bravo would be an inspired choice for Best Director, as would supporting nods for Riley Keough’s untrustworthy exotic dancer and Colman Domingo’s wacky, yet terrifying drug dealer.
Shinji’s journey in the final Evangelion movie resonated with me because it felt like a reflection of the last year of my own life.
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