Though we’re in the midst of fall and the serious award contenders should presumably fill the theaters, the slate of big studio releases looks more like summer than Oscar season: this month’s big contenders include another Thor, another Hunger Games, a new Disney flick, and a Vince Vaughn sperm donor comedy. So, as usual, the independent filmmakers and distributors are picking up the slack; here’s our overview of the month’s best and most promising indie flicks.
Release: November 1 Director: Giulio Paradisi Cast: John Huston, Shelley Winters, Glenn Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Lance Henricksen
The distribution arm of the burgeoning Drafthouse empire is apparently looking to make a specialty of discovering, restoring, and re-releasing long-forgotten cheese from bygone eras; last year, they gave us the hilariously inept and oddly wonderful Miami Connection , and now they’re unleashing this 1979 oddity, a dead-solemn yet inescapably goofy sci-fi epic shot in cruddy, TV-movie style. Unapologetically swiping elements of The Omen, The Birds, Carrie, The Exorcist, Close Encounters, and maybe even Ice Castles, featuring acting turns by John Huston and Sam Peckinpah (suggeting a hope the film would end up well directed merely by osmosis), and including Shelly Winters at her scenery-chewing, kid-slapping, “Shortnin’ Bread”-singing finest, it’s the kind of movie that can only be explained by Hollywood’s rampant cocaine use at the time it was made. Forget Sharknado — The Visitor is utterly serious, and awesomely entertaining in its total badness.
Release: November 1 Director: Tom Donahue Cast: Documentary
This documentary history and appreciation of motion picture casting directors (which ran on HBO but is doing a theatrical run for awards consideration) may sound too inside-baseball for casual moviegoers, but it’s got a hero (Marion Dougherty, the casting director who revolutionized the profession), a villain (DGA President, maker of mediocre films, and general smug prick Taylor Hackford), a compelling story of a trailblazing original, and delicious footage of countless stars when they were impossibly young up-and-comers. It’s educational and surprisingly persuasive, but more than that, it’s a lot of fun.
The Armstrong Lie
Release: November 8 Director: Alex Gibney Cast: Documentary
The great (and prolific) documentarian Alex Gibney is stirring it up again, this time with an up-close look at Lance Armstong’s doping revelations, which were disclosed while Gibney had already made (with insider’s access) what was intended to be a straightforward and positive profile film. The filmmaker had been lied to as well — so he started over, this time taking on the scandal and the fragile nature of truth itself.
Release: November 15 Director: Laurie Collyer Cast: Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus, Tess Harper
Giant swaths of our population live paycheck to paycheck, renting rooms in cheap hotels because they can’t scrape together a security deposit, crossing their fingers that the gas tank has enough fumes to last until payday. Their stories aren’t told often in American movies, and writer/director Laurie Collyer deserves credit for doing so — particularly in such a modest, muted, unsensational way. But her story starts out depressing and only descends into greater misery, which makes it a tough slog, as do some lapses in directorial judgment (the generic soft-rock score is a real problem, particularly when it transforms a scene of raw physical intimacy into Cinemax After Dark fare). But it’s a film worth seeing, with outstanding, lived-in performances by Naomi Watts and Matt Dillon.
Release: November 22 Director: Alexander Payne Cast: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk, Stacey Keach
Sideways director Alexander Payne crafts this moody yet funny story of familial dysfunction, and in the process, provides ‘70s legend Bruce Dern and character actress June Squibb the roles of their lifetimes. What seems at first a minor, slight work ends up growing on you; its characters become familiar as you settle into their rhythms and understand their flaws, and their running jokes become yours. It’s an endlessly funny picture, but there’s a melancholy at its center, never overcooked, but quietly simmering. (Full review here.)
Weekend of a Champion
Release: November 22 Directors: Frank Simon, Roman Polanski Cast: Documentary
Give Brett Ratner credit where due: the man may be a terrible director, but he’s a helluva fine archaeologist/producer of film-based documentaries. Following up the wonderful I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale and Woody Allen: A Documentary, Ratner dug up this long-forgotten 1972 film, never before released in America, in which Roman Polanski profiles Formula 1 champion Jackie Stewart.
Release: November 22 Director: Stephen Frears Cast: Steve Coogan, Judi Dench, Mare Winningham
Stephen Frears doesn’t have the kind of name recognition you’d expect for the guy who directed High Fidelity, The Queen, The Grifters, and Dangerous Liasons. And to be sure, not all of his films are masterpieces (his last one, Lay the Favorite, was especially odious) — but hey, whose are? His latest picture looks especially promising, since it not only stars Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (and Mare Winningham, St. Elmo’s Fire 4EVER), but is co-written by the talented Mr. Coogan.
The Punk Singer
Release: November 29 Director: Sini Anderson Cast: Documentary
Sini Anderson’s fast, funny, electrifying documentary is a portrait of Kathleen Hanna, the Bikini Kill/Le Tigre/Julie Ruin lead singer who combustibly fused punk rock and feminism, and started a movement in the process. Anderson pulls off the always-tricky balancing act of considering the personal subject and the historical context in roughly proportional terms; we feel like we not only know her, but why she was so vital. (And the performance footage is amazing.)