It’s October, which means that prestige movie season is in full swing, and there are plenty of big, potential Oscar contenders slated for release this month: Argo, Cloud Atlas, um, Here Comes the Boom, maybe? Point is, the art houses are all but overflowing with terrific offerings this month, from dramas and documentaries to comedy and horror; our picks for the month’s dozen best bets are after the jump.
Butter RELEASE: October 5 DIRECTOR: Jim Field Smith CAST: Jennifer Garner, Olivia Wilde, Ty Burrell, Rob Corddry, Ashley Greene, Alicia Silverstone, Hugh Jackman, Kristen Schaal, Yara Shahidi
This broad comedy takes on the multi-narrative style and politically-tinged subtext of Election without nailing that film’s sense of wit and insight — they’re taking on some pretty easy targets here, and not always with finesse. But it’s a fast-paced, amusing, and frequently sexy picture, and one that juggles the bitter and the sweet with surprising skill, generating some real affection for its characters (the sympathetic ones, at least) the further it goes into the cutthroat world of Iowa competitive butter carving. Jennifer Garner’s Palin/Bachmann hybrid is a pretty easy mark (“I believe in America… I believe that we are number one, and I won’t apologize for that”), but it’s well done; the breakout performer here is Rob Corddry, as the foster father of Garner’s competitor (the wonderful Yara Shahidi); he’s warm and funny and very, very good with his young co-star.
The Oranges RELEASE: October 5 DIRECTOR: Julian Farino CAST: Hugh Laurie, Leighton Meester, Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Allison Janney, Adam Brody, Alia Shawkat
This suburban comedy of manners is something of a hit-and-miss affair, but it’s got a witty script and one of the fall’s best ensemble casts. Laurie and Keener are a rich couple whose marriage is in the dumps, Platt and Janney are their best friends across the street, and Meester is their flighty daughter — whose sudden affair with Laurie turns the block upside down. Somewhat predictable shenanigans ensue, but Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss’ script has a stillness and melancholy at its center, and the portrayal of the May-December romance rings true: the pair are cute enough together, but the relationship isn’t about chemistry anyway. It’s about desperation and despair and desire and the need to stir up trouble, and all sorts of other outside agitators. The Oranges understands that, and finds the truth beyond it. Plus, Shawkat’s arid-dry delivery hasn’t been this well used since Arrested Development.
Wake in Fright RELEASE: October 5 DIRECTOR: Ted Kotcheff CAST: Donald Pleasance, Gary Bond, Chips Rafferty, Sylvia Kay, Jack Thompson
The story behind this Australian film is nearly as intriguing as the picture itself: originally released in 1971 to great acclaim, it somehow fell out of circulation, and was considered lost until a print was discovered in Philadelphia back in 2009. Championed by Martin Scorsese and Nick Cave, it’s a gripping bit of vintage Oz-ploitation that’s something of an Aussie Straw Dogs (there’s even a shot of the intellectual hero’s cracked eyeglasses) — truly a parallel production, as both pictures appeared in the same year. Telling the story of an Outback schoolteacher stuck in a nowhere town of roughnecks nicknamed “the Yabba” (“a friendly place!” his cab driver assures him), director Kotcheff — who would create a filmography diverse enough to include both First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s — puts the viewer in a state of uneasy anticipation, slowly boiling his soup of warm beer and dripping sweat to a point of feverish tension. Alternately nightmarish and hung-over, it’s a movie about the time between blackouts, where what’s not shown is often more disturbing than what is.
V/H/S RELEASE: October 5 DIRECTORS: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, and Radio Silence CAST: Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, Helen Rogers, Chad Villella, Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes, Adam Wingard
This indie anthology of “found footage” horror shorts is less interesting in its use of that style than for the the influence of another, not unconnected phenomenon: the rise of amateur (and faux-amateur) porn. The six segments all concern grisly acts of violence captured on video; nearly all of them preface that with some attempt to capture sex on video, from a forced flashing to a webcam stripping to a horny husband trying to talk his wife into a motel room sex tape. (Few things in this life are sadder than the pleas of a would-be sex tape auteur.) This is nothing new; sex and violence have always been all tangled up in horror films, intrinsically linked from the afternoon delight of Psycho to the promiscuous babysitters of Halloween and camp counselors of Friday the 13th. But digital video and broadband Internet have changed the way we think about sex, and the way we look at it (especially when we’re alone). V/H/S reflects those changes, fascinatingly. It’s also creepy as hell — brutal, gory, ghoulishly effective, and thoroughly unnerving scary-movie filmmaking.
Wuthering Heights RELEASE: October 5 DIRECTOR: Andrea Arnold CAST: Kaya Scodelario, James Howson, Lee Shaw, Shannon Beer, Solomon Glave
Andrea Arnold’s wholly unpretentious and surprisingly modest adaptation of Brontë’s classic is shot in an intimate, closed-in, handheld style that (combined with the direction and the playing) creates a stripped-down quality that lays bare the intense (and often troublesome) emotions at the story’s center. It’s a faithful literary adaptation that is not updated, but modernized, and the results are wonderfully unpredictable and emotionally combustible.
Sinister RELEASE: October 12 DIRECTOR: Scott Derrickson CAST: Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, James Ransone, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson
Sometimes we can intellectualize our scary movies, dress them up with all kinds of theorizing and film studies babble in order to lend them a sheen of respectability. And that can all be done with Sinister, but it boils down to one simple point: this movie scared the bejesus out of me. Director Derrickson establishes a tone of total dread from the opening frames and never lets up, telling the creepy tale of a true-crime writer who discovers a box of horrifying super 8 movies in a box in his attic — placed there, almost as if someone wants him to find them. It’s a very film-savvy horror movie, with our protagonist (well played by Ethan Hawke) obsessing over backgrounds and incidentals in the best Blow-Up/Blow Out style, but also in throwaway lines that function as in-jokes for those who’ve seen a horror picture or two. “It’s not gonna go sour,” says Hawke early on, and we all chuckle; it’s totally going to go sour, and we know it, and the movie does too.
Middle of Nowhere RELEASE: October 12 DIRECTOR: Ava DuVernay CAST: Emayatzy Corinealdi, David Oyelowo, Omari Hardwick, Sharon Lawrence, Donde Whitfield, Lorraine Toussaint
This Sundance entry gives us a story seldom told — of a promising and intelligent young woman (the astonishingly talented Corinealdi) who has pinned all of her hopes on a husband (Hardwick) who is behind bars. Writer/director DuVernay could easily have spun this into soapy melodrama, but she has an eye for detail and an ear for nuance; her characters are sympathetic (even when their actions aren’t) and she manages to build urgency into everyday interactions. It’s a quiet, modest picture, but endlessly compelling.
Seven Psychopaths RELEASE: October 12 DIRECTOR: Martin McDonagh CAST: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits, Gabourey Sidibe
In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh’s latest, like its predecessor, comes advertised as a watered-down Tarantino riff — but, again, he’s got more on his mind than that. “I don’t want it to be one more film about guys with guns in their hands,” remarks Farrell, as a screenwriter who is named “Marty,” as if it’s not clear enough that he’s our McDonagh surrogate. This Martin (the one in the script) is an alcoholic screenwriter who gets his best buddy (the invaluable Rockwell) to help him with his new script about psychotic criminals, and ends up getting more than he bargained for. Farrell (who is becoming a master of incredulous defensiveness) and Rockwell make a great two-act, while Christopher Walken’s turn as a philosophical, cravat-sporting dog-napper is, well, very Christopher Walken. (This is a compliment.) McDonagh does the meta-movie thing by being clever without being cute, and even without those fanciful elements, it’s a funny, chatty, brainily satisfying picture.
Nobody Walks RELEASE: October 19 (on demand now) DIRECTOR: Ry Russo-Young CAST: Olivia Thirlby, John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt, Justin Kirk, Dylan McDermott
Director Russo-Young and Girls creator Lena Dunham co-wrote this small-scale relationship drama about smart, attractive people making all sorts of terrible decisions. Like much of Dunham’s work, Nobody Walks seems to take an almost perverse delight in transforming comic situations ever-so-slightly into awful ones, and vice versa; Russo-Young brings an intimacy and directness, photographing these personal moments from an often uncomfortable (but unquestionably effective) close proximity. Some at Sundance found it aimless or navel-gazing, but this is a refreshingly honest and often heartbreaking film.
The Sessions RELEASE: October 19 DIRECTOR: Ben Lewin CAST: John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Adam Arkin
The Sessions sounds like the kind of movie that could fail in a million different ways: the story of a polio sufferer, confined to an iron lung, who decides he wants to lose his virginity, it could easily be played as either a sniggering freakshow or a maudlin mess about the power of human contact. It is neither; this is a smart, frank, and surprisingly funny drama featuring game (and brave) performances by Hunt and the great character actor Hawkes, who’s about a million miles away from his terrifying turns in Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene. And it’s got a wonderfully juicy supporting role for William H. Macy, as Hawkes’ priest and confidante. It’s a film of great sadness and humor, and its leads are as locked for Oscar nominations as anyone this side of Daniel Day-Lewis.
Head Games RELEASE: Now playing in New York, L.A., Chicago, and on demand; expanding in October DIRECTOR: Steve James CAST: Documentary
The latest from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) zeroes in on a specific and worrisome trend: the rise of post-concussive dementia, Alzheimer’s, and even suicide among players of high-impact sports. James focuses on Christopher Nowinski, a Harvard football player turned WWE wrestler who helped bring the issue into the spotlight. The first half or so focuses mainly on football, the most high-profile (and obvious) of targets, but James also looks at the rise in concussions and head injuries in hockey, women’s soccer, and — most distressingly — youth sports. James gets the mix of information/explainers and heartbreaking human interest stories just right, and his interview subjects are thankfully willing to go beyond scaring people and talk solutions. But it’s not a lecture, nor is it simplistic; the closing scene says everything about why these risks are taken, without hitting us over the head with it (if you’ll pardon the expression).
The Master RELEASE: Out now DIRECTOR: Paul Thomas Anderson CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Wait, you haven’t seen The Master yet? Oh, come on. Get on it.
Those are our recommendations for October — what movies are you looking forward to?