Done with summer blockbusters? Here are some independent movies -- all graded B+ or better by Entertainment Weekly's critics -- to check out before they disappear

By EW Staff
Updated July 29, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT
Riding Giants: Erik Aeder

The indie movies to catch before they’re gone

While moviegoers were stampeding to see the latest exploits of Spidey and Shrek this summer, some smaller movies opened quietly across the country — many of them as thrilling as the big-budget blockbusters. Take, for instance, ”Riding Giants” (above), a documentary about surfing that Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum called ”so mellow and cant-free that it may take willpower not to run directly from the theater down to the nearest shoreline.” Luckily, it’s not too late to catch this wave — ”Giants” and other acclaimed independent films are still riding out the summer at arthouses. Read on for reviews of the movies we recommend you see before the season’s end.

SO NOT A HAND-IN-THE-PANTS KIND OF BANK One sly rogue sets the apartheid elite apart from their loot

We expect the exploits of bank-robbing folk heroes to be preserved on screen in amber — Butch Cassidy’s actual stickups softened with dollops of American charm from Paul Newman, Ned Kelly’s historical outback outrage romanticized with Aussie allure from Heath Ledger. But Andre Stander, the conflicted South African antihero played with disciplined bravado by ”The Punisher”’s Tom Jane in the riveting true-life drama Stander, robbed banks too recently to qualify for sepia treatment. Besides, the South Africa of his day was too wrenched by the racist policies of apartheid to pass for golden: Stander repeatedly held up Johannesburg-area establishments with audacious brio (and much to the delight of the downtrodden) from 1977 to 1984.

It should be noted that when he began his unlawful career, he was also one of the youngest captains in the Johannesburg police force — and sometimes the robber returned as cop to investigate the scene of his own crime. Directed by Bronwen Hughes (”Harriet the Spy”) with striking verve, ”Stander” efficiently conveys the anarchic ironies of the situation: Jane slips mischievously into and out of disguises, eventually joined by Dexter Fletcher and David Patrick O’Hara, playing Stander’s partners in sticking it to the system. But the sly escapades and intimate interludes with Deborah Kara Unger as wife Bekkie are layered over a passionate, tough, journalistic feel for the country that shaped the man.

The naturalistic script, written by Bima Stagg, suggests that the first crack in Stander’s internal barrier dividing lawfulness and chaos appeared in 1976, while he was a cop on riot patrol involved in the indiscriminate killing of a black protester. The chilling, ”Bloody Sunday”-like re-creation of that uprising (shot, as the whole picture was, on location in South Africa) is its own gripping distillation of all-too-current history — a history that benefits from being examined through the eyes of the villains as well as the heroes.

WHO’S THAT ‘STRANGER’? Never underestimate the allure of a tax accountant

In the half-Hitchcockian French love thriller Intimate Strangers, an unhappy woman (”La Cérémonie”’s alluringly grave Sandrine Bonnaire) begins recounting her marital woes in an office she mistakes for that of a psychiatrist. But she doesn’t stop, even when she discovers that her confidant (Fabrice Luchini) is no shrink, just a mild, bachelor tax accountant stunned into obsession by the erotic restlessness that has blown his way. Patrice Leconte (”The Man on the Train”) claims that this slight but satisfyingly slinky tale may be his last love story. Let’s hope it isn’t, since the director of ”Monsieur Hire” (which also starred Bonnaire) is such a dependable connoisseur of oddballs who complete one another.

BURNED BRIDGES Tragedy drives a tormented husband (Bridges) and wife (Basinger) to an emotional impasse in ”Door”

Jeff Bridges has always been the most soulful beach boy in American movies. An alluring intelligence underlies his floppy-haired nonchalance, yet what has made him a singular actor is the look of faraway hope in his eyes — the sense that he’s dreaming of something just around the corner from the present. In The Door in the Floor, Bridges plays Ted Cole, a famous author-illustrator of children’s books who lives in the tony beach village of East Hampton, N.Y. At 54, Bridges, with a salt-and-pepper beard, knows how to embody a randy, hard-drinking local literary star so that you see the slightly debauched arrogance of his charm yet like him a lot anyway.

Early on, Ted informs his wife, the beautiful but saddened Marion (Kim Basinger), that he wants a trial separation, and that he’s planning to hire an assistant for the summer. He implies that the two actions are linked, and when the assistant, Eddie (Jon Foster), all virginal gawks and stammers, shows up and starts to sleep with Marion, it’s not quite the clandestine tryst it appears to be. There’s every indication that Ted, in effect, has set the two of them up.

”The Door in the Floor” is based on the first third of the 1998 John Irving novel ”A Widow for One Year,” and, as adapted (and updated from the ’50s) by writer- director Tod Williams, who made the Garp-ish ”The Adventures of Sebastian Cole,” it’s easily the most robust and compelling movie ever spun off from Irving’s work. (True confession: I’ve hated all the rest of them.) Ted hasn’t separated from Marion by caprice. They are both in a state of suspended mourning due to the death of their two teenage sons; that tragedy is the film’s central mystery. When Ted, who has lost his driver’s license because of his drinking, has Eddie chauffeur him around town, notably to the house of a socialite (Mimi Rogers) he’s sketching in the nude, the farcical sex play has a desperate undercurrent — it’s Ted’s denial of darkness. With its mood of summer limbo blanched by marital discord and death, ”The Door in the Floor” held me to the end, yet it bears the fingerprints of an overly symmetrical literary design. Everything in the movie — family demons, May-December sex, the lessons of writing — ties together with pinpoint precision. That’s a pleasure, to be sure, and a limitation, too.

Image credit: Metallica: Some Kind of Monster: Annamaria DiSanto GOOD KIND OF ‘MONSTER’ Hetfield works on the rock of aged

Rock & roll, even at its most primal, taps a great many states of feeling — joy, rage, lust, despair — but Metallica: Some Kind of Monster is driven by one that has never been on display, at least to this degree, in a rock documentary: fear. Early in 2001, the members of Metallica, the most successful heavy metal band of its time (90 million albums sold since 1983), dragged their guitars, drums, and recording equipment into a makeshift studio at the old Presidio military post in San Francisco. They were out to create their first album in five years, and they agreed to let directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (whose 1996 doc ”Paradise Lost” featured Metallica’s music) film the process. What might have been a glorified MTV special, at least had the recording sessions gone more smoothly, turns out instead to be a headbanger’s ”Let It Be.” An unprecedented caught-on-the-fly look at the creative fire, arduous labor, and thorny power dynamics that drive a veteran band, ”Some Kind of Monster” is one of the most revelatory rock portraits ever made.

The Metallica sound, a fast and thrumming doomsday rush, isn’t exactly good-time party music — it’s metal to thrash your demons by — and before the sessions even begin, a sense of dread hovers in the air. The band’s bass player has left to join a new group, and Metallica’s two leaders, guitarist and singer James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich, are no longer the scruffy bad boys they once were. They’re both 40 years old, with lives and families and a short-fused history of collaboration and rivalry. Hetfield, with his acne scars, punkish dab of beard, and respectable haircut, is a walking oxymoron — a handsome and articulate but visibly tormented man, his sonorous speaking voice counterbalanced by the mad-dog howl of his lyrics and singing. Ulrich, by contrast, is as baby-faced as the young Paul McCartney, with a cheerful manner that masks a prickly ego of insecurity and anger. (He changes his hair more often than Hillary Clinton did in 1994.)

To ease the collective anxiety, the band has hired a therapist — mild, bespectacled Phil Towle, who generally oversees group counseling for sports teams. The prospect of rock’s fastest, fiercest, and most brooding metal band learning to embrace the healing homilies of group therapy may sound like a joke out of Spi¨al Tap, but ”Some Kind of Monster,” while it has plenty of laughs, takes Metallica just as seriously as the band takes itself. In the middle of a fight, Hetfield stalks out, slams the door, and enters a rehab program for alcoholism and ”other” addictions. When he returns close to a year later, he’s like an ex?outlaw biker in search of his soul, yet there’s a deeper drama at work than one man’s recovery from addiction. Can Hetfield abandon the rock & roll lifestyle — and still make great rock & roll?

In its 2 hours and 20 minutes, ”Some Kind of Monster” takes more than its share of digressive detours. Some are hilarious, like Ulrich’s auctioning off of his Basquiat-centered art collection, and some are touching, like Hetfield’s trip to his daughter’s ballet class. What ties each moment together is the fascinating and emotional tale of rock and its heroes growing up yet trying, against the odds, to stay genuine. In the end, ”Metallica” does. The surprise is how much of yourself you may see in their journey.

FIRED UP Horror without gore — as only the Europeans can do it

The world doesn’t end in the harrowing apocalyptic parable Time of the Wolf, but it does grind to a halt; it doesn’t happen with a bang but with a fog; and it takes place not so much in the future as in an unspecified present undone by a kind of Western European anarchy that’s just this side of fascism. In other words, we’re in the favored territory of Austrian master of anxiety Michael Haneke, who last challenged the unshockable by putting Isabelle Huppert through masochistic finger exercises in ”The Piano Teacher.”

This time Huppert is unmutilated but unprepared as Anne, a mother whose life (husband, kids, sleek automobile, country home nestled in pretty woods) unravels in the first five minutes: The house is occupied by strangers; animals in the field are dead and charred; a kind of psychic plague has settled over the world Anne knows; and for reasons never explained, this turns neighbor against neighbor. There are no zombies out of ”28 Days Later” to alleviate the slow creep of realistic doom in this chilly, tense corker.

Image credit: Riding Giants: Doug Acton SWELL DOCU A moment of surf silence for a fallen brother

Even those challenged by wading pools are bound to be caught up in the surfing fever that surges through Riding Giants. This seductive love-of-the-sport documentary from ”Dogtown and Z-Boys” director Stacy Peralta — one of the founding daddy-o’s of modern skateboarding and thus a kind of surf king himself — is so mellow and cant-free that it may take willpower not to run directly from the theater down to the nearest shoreline, just for a whiff of whatever saltwater magic sauce the big-wave stars featured in Peralta’s vibrant docu are on.

”Riding Giants” traces the sport to its Polynesian beginnings, then zooms in on the genesis of 20th- century Southern California surf culture — the boards, the bikinis, the laid-back cowabunga. And that’s when the movie really starts cooking — I mean, gets gnarly — in good part because the present-day interviews are so disarming and the archival footage of shimmering-wet guys (and a few gals) is just so rad. In the late ’50s, just as Gidget was commodifying the experience, pioneers like Greg Noll were running out to meet Hawaiian waves thought too fearsome for all but the cockiest sumbitch to tackle. And cameras, it seems, were always there. Jeff Clark remembers riding Maverick’s (Northern California’s death-defying reef break) in the 1970s, when no one paid attention. Laird Hamilton — widely considered the best big-wave rider, bar none — describes his humbling mastery of a perfect, and perfectly colossal, wave off the southern coast of Tahiti in 2000. (Video footage confirms the jaw-dropping feat.)

Of course, other movies, from ”The Endless Summer” to ”Blue Crush,” have conveyed surfing’s dangerous beauty and sexy mythology. But in focusing on a handful of weather-beaten surfers who were there before Abercrombie & Fitch fetishized all that useless beauty, and in letting a few regret-free veterans tell what it felt like when waves were waves and life was simpler, ”Riding Giants” does more than just goggle at a specialized sport. Watching historical clips of the barrel-chested Noll triumphing over big surf with a grin, then cutting to the present-day man, a tangy raconteur in a retiree’s eyeglasses and Hawaiian shirt, we’re invited, each of us, to imagine our own biggest wave, in whatever form, and encouraged to, oh, what the heck, just ride it.

NO CORPORATE SPEAK ”The Corporation” contends U.S. law encourages big-business to follow its worst impulses

The Corporation has better manners and a longer fuse than ”Fahrenheit 9/11.” But the acerbic, sardonically illuminating Canadian documentary shares with its American cousin a certain bleak leftist glee in pursuit of its cause. The thesis of the film, based on Joel Bakan’s book ”The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power,” written by Bakan, and directed by Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott, is succinct: Ever since corporations were granted the same legal status as individual persons — with few of the same responsibilities as individual citizens — these Frankensteinian ”alive” entities have gone amorally, greedily, pathologically mad in their pursuit of almighty profit.

The film is longer than a time-efficiency consultant would allow, and it’s tricked out with narrative gimmicks a communications VP would nix. What sticks are the persuasive examples of corporate psychosis driven home by a parade of interviewees, including CEOs, flacks, whistle-blowers, one bigwig in the world of industrial carpets born again as an ecological crusader, and, yes, Michael Moore himself as secular swami of activism. The case studies of corporate amorality are presented with such passion and clarity that the Canadian-grade snark is easily ignored in this damning annual report.

OWEN IN THE WIND Clive sweetens a pungent British criminal odyssey

There’s a special tradition of nastiness in English gangster films: It’s as if the Brits, given the opportunity to get violent, enjoy spitting with extra relish on their own civility. In Mike Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Malcolm McDowell, as a London kingpin, decides to tamp down an underworld dabbler (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who has been strutting around town selling drugs on the side, and the punishment isn’t pretty: McDowell rapes him. An act of ”discipline” that would look only mildly shocking in prison attains a singular brute ugliness.

I don’t want to reveal much more of what happens in ”I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” except to say that the punishment has an effect even worse than intended. That’s why Clive Owen, as the kid’s older brother, a former gangster who has had some sort of breakdown and has been hiding out in the country for three years, must return to London to set things right. Hodges, whose appetite for sleaze is matched by his insistence on honor among scoundrels, perfected this sort of thing more than 30 years ago in the great Michael Caine thriller ”Get Carter,” and now, at 72, he still knows how to unspool a mystery with a hypnotic pace of sadistic intrigue. There’s a squeamish strain of homophobia in the way that ”I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” plays out, yet the film is held together by Clive Owen, who spends most of his time on screen hidden beneath matted hair and a scruffy beard but still has more aura than any actor around.

GONE FISHIN’ Nothing unites a town like lies and desperation

In Jean-François Pouliot’s internationally charming, award-laden comedy Seducing Doctor Lewis, a guppy-size French Canadian fishing village in need of a resident doctor welcomes a smooth Montreal plastic surgeon offering a month’s medical services to expunge a minor drug charge — very ”Northern Exposure.” But while Dr. Christopher Lewis (David Boutin) plans a short stay, the citizenry, led by the town’s wily mayor (Raymond Bouchard), scheme to ensure longer-term commitment: They reinvent themselves as an irresistible, quaintly authentic Eden built on lies — very ”Waking Ned Devine.” There’s shrewd wit to Pouliot’s gentle, no-bull farce.

ONE FINE PIECE OF ASH A doc about a writer who found success by living to excess

Charles Bukowski had a pitted, ravaged face that made him look like a pound of hamburger sculpted into a skid-row bulldog. At the beginning of Bukowski: Born Into This, we see the Los Angeles writer, who churned out prose and poetry from the ’40s up through his death in 1994, in all his cussed, lecherous, alcoholic glory. Facing down the crowd at a public reading, he demands a second bottle of wine before he even gets started, and we hear descriptions of his notorious bad behavior, like the time he pulled a knife on the maître d’ of the Polo Lounge. All of this is amusingly semiscandalous — like that face, it’s part of the cult myth of Bukowski, the unholy derelict who brawled and guzzled and fornicated as hard as he wrote. The power of ”Born Into This,” which has been beautifully assembled by director John Dullaghan out of conversations with Bukowski recorded mostly for European television docs — as well as new interviews with his editor, girlfriends, and former colleagues at an L.A. post office (a place he worked at, and loathed, for 16 years) — is that it reveals Bukowski to be a far grander artist than his bum’s armor would suggest. His voice, a wily purr, expresses an astonishing gentleness of spirit (Mickey Rourke, it turns out, got it wrong in Barfly), and there are noble echoes of Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, and Harvey Pekar in the tale of how Bukowski, after surviving a horrific childhood, spent years in the gutter of obscurity only to win a worshipful audience by filling page after page with the roar of himself.

YES, THEY DO CRY So says a film that likes the humpty-humps

This much of The Story of the Weeping Camel is true: When a camel rejects her colt following a difficult birth, traditional Mongolian nomads really do turn to a musical ritual that frequently causes the mother camel to ”weep” in the course of bonding with her offspring — the source of the tears a mystery, of course, to humans who don’t speak Bactrian. The National Geographic imprimatur on this lilting documentary-style narrative by filmmakers Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni affirms the film’s thoughtful attention to national geography and the barren grandeur of the Gobi Desert. But the vivid fictional specifics, and the simple loveliness of the artless performances by nonactor Mongolian nomads, attest to the filmmakers’ abundant artistry.