Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen in “The Two Faces of January.”
Fall movie season is upon us, which means the studios are gearing up for their Oscar campaigns by releasing the kind of thoughtful, intelligent, adult-oriented movies that the indies have been cranking out all damn year. But the art houses aren’t shutting down for the season. Here are just a few of this month’s limited and VOD releases that are worth your time.
Last Days in Vietnam RELEASE DATE: September 5 DIRECTOR: Rory Kennedy CAST: Documentary
This American Experience-funded documentary is highly conventional in its approach: talking heads, archival footage, graphic animations, etc. But that’s the right choice for the film, which exhaustively tick-tocks the oddly forgotten coda to the Vietnam conflict. Full of fascinating details (the 24-hour evacuation, for example, was officially signaled by a specific weather report and the playing of “White Christmas” on Armed Forces Radio), harrowing stories, and heartbreaking images, it’s a workmanlike doc that’s also undeniably intriguing.
No No: A Dockumentary RELEASE DATE: September 5 (On demand September 2) DIRECTOR: Jeff Radice CAST: Documentary
The legend of baseball pitcher Dock Ellis is mostly centered on one game: the no-hitter he pitched against the Padres in June, 1970, a feat he later claimed to have achieved while blasted on LSD. But Jeff Radice’s documentary knows there’s much more to the man that that one (somewhat disputed) incident: Dock was a pivotal figure, outspoken at a time when most African-American players in the game kept their opinions to themselves. And he was (and remained) a very good storyteller, sharing vivid memories of playing in the tense ‘60s, partaking of drugs for both recreation and performance enhancement, and kicking off a controversy over his occasional, unapologetic use of the “beanball.” Crisply assembled with a raucous spirit, and willing to look at the darkness in its subject’s life without descending into cliché.
Memphis RELEASE DATE: September 5 (New York), September 12 (Los Angeles) DIRECTOR: Tim Sutton CAST: Willis Earl Beal
This story of young, throwback bluesman is something of a fusion of narrative and documentary filmmaking, taking an impressionistic and often musical approach to its scenes — circling them and moving in, rather than going at them directly. (Star Beal, himself an accomplished avant-garde musician, takes a similar strategy as an actor; he’s got an interesting way of coming into scenes sideways.) It’s a loose, meandering picture that doesn’t always hold together, but director Sutton is making a legitimate attempt to rewrite some rules here, to bypass conventional storytelling tools and get at something more evocative and lyrical, steeped in a culture, haunted by the ghosts of a particular time and place.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them RELEASE DATE: September 12 DIRECTOR: Ned Benson CAST: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Ciarán Hinds, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Jess Weixler
If you can get past wondering exactly what you’re not seeing (initially conceived and screened as a two-part love story, one from each point of view, it was subsequently edited into this current version), Ned Benson’s romantic drama is a low-key, lived-in, and occasionally devastating look at the dissolution of a seemingly bulletproof relationship. The details of the breakup are unpeeled slowly and carefully; much of the weight is carried by Chastain and McAvoy’s keenly reactive performances, and the sporadic but effective flashbacks to comparatively better times. In their big emotional climax, their voices don’t rise above a whisper — and it’s the kind of movie where they don’t have to.
The Green Prince RELEASE DATE: September 12 DIRECTOR: Nadav Schirman CAST: Documentary
Something of a non-fiction version of this spring’s Bethlehem , director Schirman uses the visual language of a political thriller to tell the riveting twisty spy story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of a top Hamas leader, who became an informant for Israel’s Shin Bet security force. Schirman uses surveillance video, archival footage, and re-enactments to illustrate the story, while interviewing only two men: Yousef himself, and Gonen Ben Yitzhak, the agent who recruited him. Both men are articulate and thoughtful, particularly Yousef , who comes across as simultaneously regretful and pragmatic. And the film thankfully soft-sells its clearest theme: by focusing on the bond (a “bond of truth”) that these two diametrically opposed men shared, The Green Prince underscores this long-standing conflict ultimately boils down to the choices of individuals.
The Skeleton Twins RELEASE DATE: September 12 DIRECTOR: Craig Johnson CAST: Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Ty Burrell, Luke Wilson
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are very good as twins, estranged for years, brought back together by their mutual suicidal tendencies. The siblings are incapable of being anything but honest with each other, which is both helpful and damaging. The former SNL castmates have a mumbly shorthand and a genuine sense of closeness, and each gets plenty of opportunity to shine (as does Luke Wilson, just about perfect as the likeably dim vanilla nice-guy — on purpose, for once). It gets a little turgid by the third act, with several fine scenes failing to merge into a cohesive whole, but individual scenes are dynamite–particularly the Starship lip-sync sequence, which is a YouTube sensation waiting to happen.
Art and Craft RELEASE DATE: September 19 DIRECTORS: Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, Mark Becker CAST: Documentary
For decades, soft-spoken, melancholy, schizophrenic art forger Mark Landis “donated” over 100 works of art to 46 museums in 20 states, sometimes disguised as a priest, occasionally in the name of his deceased mother or fictional sister. He was finally outed by the registrar of one of those museums, Matthew Leininger, and this richly entertaining documentary insightfully situates them as opposite sides of the same coin, pursuing complimentary obsessions with a similar fervor. The picture’s got a crisp pace and a deadpan playfulness, telling a too-good-to-be-true story with humor and empathy, and its climactic sequence (where the key players come face to face at an exhibition of Landis’s work) is funny, sad, and satisfying, all at once.
The Zero Theorem RELEASE DATE: September 19 (available now on demand) DIRECTOR: Terry Gilliam CAST: Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges, David Thewlis, Tilda Swinton, Matt Damon
Those who were waiting for the Gilliam of Doctor Parnassus and The Brothers Grimm to return to form will be relived to hear that his latest is almost bull-headed in that pursuit, from the Brazil-style mish-mashing of old and new technology to the busy, whirring style to the Python-esque humor to a bald dome for Christoph Waltz that recalls Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys. But this is not mere self-homage; Zero Theorem is an inventive, intelligent, and occasionally exhausting examination of technology, paranoia, and emotional stasis. It doesn’t all hold together, but enough does to prompt real celebration of one of our last remaining cinematic visionaries.
The Two Faces of January RELEASE DATE: September 26 (available now on demand) DIRECTOR: Hossein Amini CAST: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac
Con artists, crimes of passion, body disposal, and jealous rages, all in glamour European locales — yes, it’s a Patricia Highsmith adaptation, this time from writer/director Amini (who penned the script to Drive), and it’s a good one. Its three leads, resplendent in their early ‘60s duds, are good and game for a narrative that keeps turning left when you think it’ll go right; Mortensen makes a compelling case that his mug was made to have a cigarette dangling from it, while Dunst’s performance is a model for perfectly controlled sensuality. Amini shows a real flair for elegant suspense, working in a sleek, classical style, while Alberto Iglesias’s terrific score works overtime. It falls apart a bit during the disappointingly generic chase finale, but until then, it’s a wickedly entertaining and enjoyably cool romp.