It’s been a decent year for independent film, what with such gems (and likely Oscar contenders) as The Way, Way Back, Inside Llewyn Davis and Fruitvale Station on the roster, but today I’d like to focus on two others that have received far less publicity but surely deserve their moment in the spotlight.
First up is the best horror flick of 2013. You’re Next hit theaters in August between the year’s two big budget horror films The Conjuring and Insidious Chapter 2, though I’m sure it grossed far less in the box office, which is a damned shame because it is a nearly perfect example of a film that may not reinvent its genre – the premise isn’t anything new or original – but excels so much in its execution that it stands out as a shining success among its peers. In other words: Finally! an example of a horror flick done right! It begins with some actual character development, not merely introducing the Davison family but really showing the dynamics between them at play. They’re a wealthy family celebrating mom and dad’s anniversary in their large, rural home. Within the first 15 or 20 minutes, we learn a great deal about them, but not more than we need in order for the stage to be set. Once all the adult children arrive with their significant others, tension builds, fingers are pointed and right at the peak of a rather heated argument, a living nightmare begins with an arrow shot through the dining room window and into one of the dinner guests. The inept family descends into confusion and futility as more arrows fly into the house, killing some, wounding others, but revealing them all as targets of the murderous intruders lurking outside. It seems they won’t stop until they’re ALL dead.
There’s only one wildcard yet to be played and she is the girlfriend of one of the sons, an Aussie named Erin, superbly played by Sharni Vinson. While the others practically flail about, clueless to what’s happening or why and entirely unprepared to deal with it, Erin immediately responds with practical, useful and effective ideas of not only how to protect themselves and each other, but also to fight back. You read that right: not only do we get a character who kicks ass (and well), but – bonus! – she’s female! She is the stand-out here, acting not as a scared little girl trying to find her inner strength but as a strong and capable woman who reacts intelligently from the initial sign of danger, determined to survive and using every available tool around her. And, boy, is she creative. From here, the flick is perfectly executed with enough violence and suspense to truly scare its audience without ever overdoing it. It is a slasher flick, which means there is a fair amount of blood, but it never feels excessive or gratuitous. And there are several clever and well-placed props which are later used as weapons but they aren’t forced; they actually serve the story.
Bottom line: you won’t find anything groundbreaking or genre-defining in You’re Next but what you will see is a well-written, well-acted and damned well-executed hack ’em up intruder movie.
The other is a little ditty called Drinking Buddies. I’m hesitant to call it a romantic comedy because, while it does have the feel of the genre, it fails to follow its basic structure as well as avoids its numerous traps. It centers around Luke (Jake Johnson, aka, my new crush) and Kate (Olivia Wilde giving her best performance to date), two buddies who work together at a brewery. The two have intense chemistry and as the story progresses we see they’re basically two versions of the same person. Luke is in a long-term relationship with the lovely Jill (the always charming Anna Kendrick) and Kate is less seriously involved with Chris (Ron Livingston), who, admittedly, seems an odd fit for her. The four take a camping trip and the two couples’ dynamics come more into focus while the dynamics between Luke & Kate and Jill & Chris further develop as well. This isn’t the story of two mismatched couples trading spouses, however, but more an exploration of a scenario: how an attraction that is further enhanced by alcohol can disrupt an otherwise healthy and stable relationship. Throughout nearly the whole of the film, Luke faces the choice between a woman he loves and another he knows he could love and Jake Johnson plays the role with such genuine feeling, the audience can’t help but feel his dilemma with him. In another actor’s hands, Luke could easily have become an unlikable character. But Johnson has the perfect blend of easy charm and real heart, making the audience sympathize with his situation instead of judging it.
I read online that there was no real script for Drinking Buddies, merely an outline, when they started shooting. Which means that almost all of the dialogue is improv. I can’t imagine making or acting in a movie without a script but somehow, it served Drinking Buddies well. Because it forced each actor to behave as though the situation was real. What that gives us is a genuine and truly authentic look at a scenario that very well could be real. Combine that with the charm and charisma of the actors and their lively chemistry with one another and what you’ve got is one enjoyable, often funny and entirely relatable film.