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Reflection on Philip Seymour Hoffman and Indie Films to Look Out for in 2014

After Sundance 2014, I was ready to discuss my favorite films I had the pleasure of seeing and share my overall views on the festival, like usual. As my time in Park City, Utah, drew to a close, I’d begun compiling a list of movies I wanted to recommend to our FBC community.  It all seemed pretty straightforward.

Shortly thereafter, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away. My overall experience of the festival and the films I saw there, in particular the two he starred in (A Most Wanted Man and God’s Pocket), films that I watched alongside him in the theater, has now changed considerably.

It wasn’t that I suddenly loved either film more than I had before. It’s simply that he was very present at the festival, and, after hearing he died, there was a hole and emptiness now tied to the event.

Seeing his work and his affable presence at the Q&As following the screenings, I was reminded of some of my favorite films he worked on (Boogie Nights, Red Dragon, Capote). He’s a great example of a character actor who surpassed genre and affected audiences globally. He was someone who appeared to be doing what he loved and who was serious about his craft. It’s always refreshing to see those kinds of individuals at festivals or, quite frankly, in life. It rejuvenates the creative spirit and reminds us to keep pushing towards our goals. It reminds me why I love what I do. 

So, it hits hard when we lose a member of that creative community. For many of us, we think of our own struggle with anyone close to us who has experienced darker times in their lives. We see tragedy through our own personal lens.

There’s nothing particularly notable that Hoffman said at Sundance that I can now quote for this article. He answered questions without a lot of flair and often passed the mic so actors like Willem Dafoe could tell anecdotes, like how Dafoe found a successful banker in Hamburg who had the same background as the character he played in A Most Wanted Man and had him read all of his lines into a tape recorder, to help Dafoe with the accent.

After reflection on the festival and the films I saw, I’m left with a feeling of thankfulness instead of emptiness. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a creative inspiration and his work is there for us, if we wish to view it, dissect it, extol it, criticize it, and learn from it. He’s left an indelible mark on film.

Below, I’ll highlight A Most Wanted Man and God’s Pocket, the two films Hoffman starred in that premiered at Sundance that I watched with him in one of his last public appearances, as well as my other 2014 indie recommendations so far.


An Irish dark comedy from the same writer and director of 2011’s The Guard, Calvary tells the story of Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), a small town priest with a good heart who tries his best to counsel the eccentric townsfolk in a bitterly agnostic town in the countryside, but finds himself in over his head when an unidentified man enters his confessional and threatens his life. Over the course of the following week, Father James examines his own successes and failures while going about his business, counseling his peers, and playing host to his daughter (who’s dealing with issues of her own), all the while trying to unravel his own impending murder mystery.    

The Bottom Line

Rich. Witty. Troublesome. Poetic. Profound. Calvary is superbly written and acted. It’s the kind of film you can really sink your teeth into, and rarely does a film speak as well on the human condition as this one does. Part bleak humor, part devastating drama, and part existential journey, Calvary gives the viewer a lot to think about long after the credits roll.

Don’t miss Calvary in theaters on August 1st!

Five Irish Priests out of Five

A Most Wanted Man

Based on the espionage novel by John le Carré, this slow burn thriller is a methodical journey through the complexities of the modern international war on terror. A Chechen ex-prisoner and newly converted Muslim illegally enters Germany and tries to recover funds left by his father in a private bank, and the government suspects he may use it to fund violent organizations. Conflicting agencies with different agendas zero in on the ex-prisoner, and their cross-purposes affect the search for the man and the investigation into his motives.  Gunter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) runs an anti-terrorist group (that doesn’t officially exist) that tries to tail the Chechen and use him to fight actual terrorism before he becomes just another hooded prisoner sent to Guantanamo. The cast is rounded off by a young human rights attorney (Rachel McAdams) and Willem Dafoe, who plays the head of the bank in question. 

The Bottom Line

Well paced. Well acted. Smartly executed. This film may not have all the shoot-em-up action scenes some spy movies are now expected to have, but A Most Wanted Man has an air of authenticity and realism that makes it a solid film.

A Most Wanted Man has an upcoming release date of July 24, 2014.

Four Herbal Cigarettes out of Five

God’s Pocket

God’s Pocket has an interesting premise and a great cast. Parents Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) and Mickey (Philip Seymour Hoffman) live a humble life in God’s Pocket, a mostly working class town in Massachusetts. Their lives are torn apart when their delinquent son is killed at his factory job. The complications created by a small town murder plot are left behind for a protracted character study with little narrative that matters. Although the story lacked, God’s Pocket is a great stage for Hoffman and the rest of the cast to invoke meaning through performance from material that might otherwise be lacking it.

The Bottom Line

A stunning cast helps make this a character piece worth seeing, but the narrative the film so readily abandons is sorely missed by the final act.

Two and a Half Small Town Pubs out of Five


David Cross’ film, Hits, has many storylines and many moments of clever humor, and while the film is a clear satire of modern fame in an internet-dominated society, it ultimately falls a little flat.  Municipal worker Dave (Matt Walsh) becomes an overnight viral video celebrity much to the chagrin of his celebrity-obsessed daughter (Meredith Hagner). The supporting cast shines, namely James Adomian (Comedy Bang! Bang!, Maron in Space) and Wyatt Cenac (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart). Jason Ritter also gives a memorable performance.

The Bottom Line

Hipsters. Easy fame. Modern satire. If you are a David Cross fan, this film is worth a viewing. Many moments of humor pepper the film, but some sort of glue is missing from the mosaic storylines. It appears there is a missing clear main character; Dave, the man supposedly at the center of this story, is more of a centerpiece for the characters to revolve around. The film ends up feeling a bit bland and outlandish at the same time. 

Two and a Half Hit Records out of Five


Frank stars a mostly unrecognizable Michael Fassbender as the infamous Frank, a musician who performs, and lives, with a giant, fake, papier-mâché head. This kooky premise is matched by an eclectic cast, including Maggie Gyllenhaal and About Time’s Domhnall Gleeson. Frank is a study of fringe outsider artists, those who stay true to their own form of expression and remain on the outskirts of popularity. The film feels like an average indie dramedy that manages to be unique enough to stand out.

The Bottom Line

It is a quirky and emotional story that mostly entertains, but may bore those who don’t love the genre.  

Two and a Half Papier-mâché Heads out of Five

The Double

The Double is based on the novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon and James, two different men who come to work at the same Orwellian government agency. Simon, quiet and unsure of himself, lives his workaday life without much purpose and without the ability to get the attention of his boss with any of his ideas. He’s also nursing a crush on co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) who barely notices that he’s there. Everything changes when a charismatic man named James begins his new job at the same company. James is everything Simon is not, but James looks just like Simon.

The Bottom Line

Atmospheric. Artistic. Darkly humorous. The Double is a fairly faithful adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s exploration on the concept of doppelgangers and identity. Ultimately, this film is flawed, and the story ends up meandering and the plot twists do not come together in a satisfying, cohesive way. That being said, if you are a fan of the book or Richard Ayoade’s strange admixture of mumblecore and surrealist comedy, you should see this film. If you’re looking for something different, this character piece may also be worth your time.

Two and a Half Doppelgängers out of Five

Dinosaur 13

A documentary about Sue, the most complete T-Rex skeleton ever found. Greed and dubious, outdated laws devour well-meaning and educated paleontologists who want to preserve and share Sue with the world in a story that is at once harrowing and heart wrenching.  Paleontologist Peter Larson received a standing ovation after the Sundance Film Festival premiere, a rare occurrence at any festival.

The Bottom Line

Already being compared to Blackfish, this controversial science docu-thriller is entertaining and visceral, exploring a worthwhile topic with exuberance, sadness, and the bittersweet tinge of injustice. 

Four T-Rex Skeletons out of Five

Fishing Without Nets

Abdi, a poor fisherman living in a tiny, trash-ridden Somali village, wants the best for his wife and infant son. With very few opportunities afforded to him, Abdi makes the difficult decision to use what money he has to try and smuggle his loved ones to Yemen, where there is a slightly bigger chance for them to have a decent life. Facing loneliness and fear for his family now separated from him, he makes the decision to join a band of Somali pirates plotting to hold a tanker and its occupants hostage for ransom.

The Bottom Line

Fast. Gorgeously shot. Wonderfully acted. A personal and immediate account of the desperate in extraordinary circumstances in a final bid to free themselves from the terrible life they’ve been dealt. Don’t be mistaken, although there are other movies that have covered this topic, Fishing Without Nets has a fresh perspective. It is a harrowing film worth viewing.

Four Inflatable Life Boats out of Five


Elementary school students become infected by a virus that turns them into pint-sized, fleshing-eating monsters. A strong ensemble cast keeps the energy up (including Elijah Wood and Alison Pill), and Rainn Wilson gives a standout performance as a hot-headed, out-of-shape gym teacher.

The Bottom Line

Fun. Outrageous. Satirical. Yet fairly simple. It’s a fun indie romp through a horror film, and if you’re a fan of the genre, it’s sure to please.

Three and A Half Germ-Infested Chicken Nuggets out of Five


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