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Indie Focus: Growing into the new year with 'Anomalisa' and 'The Revenant'

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen, and welcome to your weekly field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.


This is our first newsletter of 2016, so let us perhaps be among the last to wish you all a happy new year. Things are moving fast at this point in the awards season, with nominations and wins happening at a startling pace. This has been an unusually topsy-turvy year, with lots of changes in momentum and favor.

My colleague Rebecca Keegan and I recently hosted a series of conversations among actors, actresses and directors that will air on the Ovation TV channel starting in mid-January. Our discussion with directors Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle, Todd Haynes, Tom McCarthy and Tom Hooper was particularly lively. An edited transcript and clips can be found here.

And we’ll be back with more screenings and Q&As soon as well. As always, check back to events.latimes.com to keep up on everything that’s happening. Nonstop movies. Movies nonstop.

‘Anomalisa’

Written by Charlie Kaufman and co-directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, “Anomalisa” was among the very last films to open in 2015 and has been expanding around the country in the first weeks of the new year. Created with a painstaking stop-motion animation technique, the film is something of the passion of the everyman, set against a customer service convention in Cincinnati and finding two lonely, lost people sharing in something brief and beautiful. The voice performances by David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh are arguably among the most emotionally resonant of the year.

In his review for The Times, Michael Phillips called “Anomalisa” “the wittiest film of the year” and lauds Johnson and Kaufman for their ability to “transform the comedy of quiet desperation into an occasion for serious pleasure.” In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis said, “Mr. Kaufman’s gift for quotidian horror remains startling; he’s a whiz at minor miseries.”

“Anomalisa's” melancholy characters strive for a connection. (Paramount Pictures)

“There’s something fragile and human about it,” Kaufman said to Rebecca Keegan in her detailed story on the making of the film. “You know humans made it, because it’s imperfect.”

Actor Tom Noonan plays more than 40 voices in the film — “Even I can’t tell if it’s me sometimes,” he said in an interview with Steve Zeitchik. “I mean, I recognize the voice, but I’m not sure where it came from.”

It speaks to the power of the movie that even reviews that are essentially pans still engage deeply with it. Time magazine critic Stephanie Zacharek said, “Once you start reckoning with ‘Anomalisa’s’ obsession with self-absorption, the novelty of this one-man pity party begins to wear off. A little puppet pain goes a long way.” And in The New Yorker, Richard Brody calls the film “narrow, lachrymose, and stereotyped, looking askance at Michael’s ego cloud only to coax viewers further into contentment with their own humble lives.”

The release of “Anomalisa” has meant a terrific round of interviews with Kaufman. Among the best is his conversation with Adam Sternbergh for New York Magazine. In it, Kaufman talks about his connection to the characters: “I find myself emotional about it, which is weird because I was involved in the movie and I still feel like Michael and Lisa exist somehow.”

‘The Revenant’

Another film that has expanded following a limited release at the holiday is Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant.” A bloody, bold and full-bodied tale of survival in the 19th century wilderness, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a man on a fur-trapping expedition seeking revenge against the man who left him for dead.

Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant." (Kimberley French / 20th Century Fox)

Times critic Kenneth Turan called the film’s rough-and-tumble survival tale with spiritual filigree “a classic B picture fortified with all manner of Grade A resources.” In the New York Times, Dargis called the film “an American foundation story, by turns soaring and overblown.”

“This is a film about adventure, and it’s man against man and man against nature, and a bear against a man and a man against a mountain,” Iñárritu said to the Times. “And the only way to really show that was to live it.”

I recently moderated an Envelope Screening Series Q&A with Iñárritu, DiCaprio and actors Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck and Domhnall Gleeson. Among other topics was the film’s now-infamous bear-attack sequence and the challenges of the limited shooting hours faced by the production.

‘Lamb’

An adaptation of the novel by Bonnie Nadzam, “Lamb” — not to be confused with the recent Ethiopian film of the same name — is about a middle-aged man, disaffected with his life, who finds himself unexpectedly entangled in a relationship with an 11-year-old girl. The film stars director and screenwriter Ross Partridge and Oona Laurence, also recently seen in “Southpaw,” with supporting performances by Jess Weixler, Lindsay Pulsipher and Scoot McNairy.

Oona Laurence and Ross Partridge’s characters become friends in “Lamb.” (Nathan Miller / Orchard)

In his review for The Times, Robert Abele called the film “a relationship movie that at times grips you with the fear that it’s the wrong kind of relationship you’re watching unfold. That it does so while offering a consistency of tone, and an abiding sympathy toward lost creatures and bad decisions, is something of a quietly humane achievement for its director and star, Ross Partridge.”

Speaking recently to Times writer Susan King, producer Mel Eslyn recalled when she first read Partridge’s adaptation, saying, “I don’t know about what is going on here. I don’t know how to feel about the decisions that characters are making. I can’t stop thinking about it. And that means I have to do it.”

Or as Partridge himself recalled of when he first read the novel, “I couldn’t figure out where it was going. It forced me to actually look closer rather than be creeped out by the situation.”

‘The Final Girls’ at midnight

You may be saying to yourself, “Didn’t I read about ‘The Final Girls’ here a few months ago?” And you would be correct. But the movie is getting a new push with a midnight showing at L.A.’s Nuart Theatre on Jan. 15. If the film does well there, it could pick up midnight shows all across the country. And there may be no better way to see a film that is an affectionate homage to the kind of low-rent, low-budget filmmaking that was once the mainstay of the midnight-movie circuit than as a new-fangled version of the same.

As I said here previously, the film was one of the most pleasant surprises of last year’s SXSW Film Festival. Directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson and written by Joshua John Miller and M.A. Fortin, in the film, a young woman, Max (Taissa Farmiga), goes to a screening of a 1980s horror movie in which her deceased mother (Malin Akerman) had starred. A series of events leads to the girl and her friends trapped inside the movie and trying to simultaneously find a way out and survive the summer camp killer of the movie’s story. The cast, who look to be having great fun, includes Thomas Middleditch, Adam DeVine, Alia Shawkat, Nina Dobrev, Alexander Ludwig, Angela Trimbur and Tory Thompson.

The cast of "The Final Girls" attends the film's world premiere at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas. (Michael Buckner / Getty Images for SXSW)

In his review in the New York Times, Neil Genzlinger called the film “a horror comedy that proves that with the right actors, you can make an amusing movie even if a lot of your ideas are borrowed.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter @IndieFocus.

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