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Criticwire Picks: Surveying This Month's Top-Rated Indie Films

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by Steve Greene
March 29, 2013 9:28 AM
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We've talked about "Room 237" a lot on this blog over the past few months. After all, it is about criticism (or some form of it, anyway).

The documentary opens in theaters today and instantly nabs a spot in the top ten on our Best Indies of the Year So Far list. But the rest of March has been a great month for new releases, so here's a list of the other entries that have had recent theatrical openings.

Leviathan (Film Page), directed by Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (2012 Locarno International Film Festival; March theatrical release)

Average Criticwire Rating: A- (37 grades)

As part of our inaugural Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival, Alec Kubas-Meyer wrote about the aforementioned "Shining" doc, but also connected its visual makeup to another offering from that particular festival, the hyper-real fishing boat documentary, "Leviathan."

"Having never been on a fishing boat before, it’s difficult to say whether or not the entire day is made up of the mass slaughtering of fish. According to 'Leviathan,' the answer is yes. Even without dialogue, narration, or any kind of context, this impression could still be seen as subjective. It may appear to be a presentation of things as they exist with no commentary, but the filmmakers chose what made the final cut. Without that context, it’s impossible to know how they feel about what they’re showing. If they are, for example, members of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation, an organization that is 'dedicated exclusively to conserving ocean fish,' that would be a good thing to know. It’s not clear from 'Leviathan' itself why it exists or what its directors’ intentions were. The filming style may give a sense of objectivity, but its content does not."

Leviathan is also no stranger to Criticwire lists, running away with the Best Documentary prize in our post-New York Film Festival poll last October.

It's a Disaster (Film Page), directed by Todd Berger (2012 Los Angeles Film Festival; March 2013 VOD release; April 2013 theatrical release)

Average Criticwire Rating: A- (8 grades)

For a primer on Todd Berger's new film, our installment of VODetails highlights some of the most positive responses from critics. While most of the discussion in the weeks leading up to its on-demand release focused on the film being "released" by Oscilloscope on the Vine platform, the second wave of critical response showed the film was more than the sum of its gimmicks.

Smells Like Screen Spirit's Don Simpson highlighted Berger's ability to play to the strengths of the film's confined-space setup. Ending his rave from last year's Austin Film Festival, Simpson wrote:

"Berger’s film is a sardonically-scribed social commentary on the priorities of privileged white thirtysomethings. By definition, terrorism incites terror; but, the characters of It’s a Disaster diffuse the terror of terrorism by being so damn self-involved. Sure, in due time they all eventually react to the terror that surrounds them; but, one thing can be certain, the characters of 'It’s a Disaster' do not initially react the way the terrorists had hoped."

Spring Breakers (Film Page), directed by Harmony Korine (2012 Venice Film Festival; March 2013 theatrical release)

Average Criticwire Rating: B+ (66 grades)

Oh, you know. Just a little movie that no one's talking about. While at this time last week, the ratio of discussion to actual criticism about Korine's surprise smash may have been a tad skewed, here's hoping that if the love for the film sustains itself through the end of the year, we'll have a few more months to help contextualize it.

War Witch (Film Page), directed by Kim Nguyen (2012 Berlinale; March 2013 VOD/theatrical release)

Average Criticwire Rating: B+ (33 grades)

Going up against the awards season juggernaut of Haneke's latest, the other members of the Foreign Language Film shortlist were at a slight disadvantage. But now, with a theatrical run, audiences can see a film that many critics have praised for its raw portrayal of the plight of child soldiers in Africa. Calum Marsh puts forth an intriguing, tempering alternate view on the morality inherent in an outsider's portrayal. Writing at Slant Magazine, Marsh argues:

"As in most non-indigenous African films, the violence is certainly aestheticized (exploited, even, in the sense that it's heightened for dramatic effect), but the style is more ethereal than might be expected, drifting in and around the most terrible acts themselves with a dreamlike quality far removed from the genre's standard vérité simplicity. The result is a film which more often gives the suggestion of shocking violence than actually showing it in full view, a testament as much to the 'War Witch''s audience-friendly canniness as it is to any pervading sense of modesty or restraint."

I Killed My Mother (Film Page), directed by Xavier Dolan (2009 Cannes; March 2013 theatrical release)
Average Criticwire Rating: B+ (23 grades)

After an almost four-year gap after its initial festival circuit run, Dolan's multifaceted tale about acceptance and family finally makes its way to a larger audience.

Blancanieves (Film Page), directed by Pablo Berger (2012 Toronto International Film Festival; March 2013 theatrical release)
Average Criticwire Rating: B+ (26 grades)

Whether unfair or not, the silent, black-and-white pedigree of "Blancanieves" is drawing the inevitable comparisons to a certain recent Best Picture winner. Come to think of it, the fact that it draws on the traditional Snow White tale makes it an easy target for comparisons to a certain Disney animated feature, too.

In his review, J. Hoberman tackles both of those angles, giving a full picture of the film's triumphs and falterings:

"The movie is less a pastiche than 'The Artist' and, at least initially, it’s not as precious. The expressionist lighting, gothic architecture, and textured look are self-consciously European...Shot with a panoply of overhead angles and close-ups, and an occasional rapid fire montage, the movie is visually lively and ingenious and even affecting, up to a point."

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For the rest of the films on the list of the Best Indie Movies of the Year (So Far), see them all here.

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