It’s an odd time of year at the cinema — with fall studio movies rolling out and Oscar Season™ in full swing, the multiplex is presumably filled with the kind of smart, adult-minded fare we usually head to the art-house to see. But don’t be fooled; there’s bound to be some wolves in sheep’s clothing out there, and the indies have got you covered this month just in case, with the help of several sharp documentaries, terrific new movies from the likes of Lynn Shelton, Gregg Araki, and Alex Ross Perry, and the smartest social satire in many a moon. Here are the indie movies you can’t miss this month.
Nas: Time Is Illmatic Release Date: October 1 (on demand October 3) Director: One9
This look at Nas’ seminal album is timed to its 20th anniversary, but has a far wider scope than you might expect from that description, examining the artist’s family history, the socioeconomics of housing projects, and the neighborhood wars between Queens and the Bronx that raged on wax in the 1980s. Director One9 lays it all out via candid interviews and wonderful archival footage, as well as vintage and current performance clips (with relevant rhymes open-captioned on screen, a cleaver touch). The film doesn’t have anything to prove, but it quietly reiterates what hip hop really is, and why it matters; more importantly, it captures the urgency of being young and creative, of finding a voice, chasing a dream, and snatching it.
Last Hijack Release Date: October 3 (iTunes October 7, on demand October 15) Directors: Tommy Pallotta, Femke Wolting
Filling in the blanks left by Captain Phillips and A Hijacking, this compelling and quietly powerful documentary looks at Somali pirates, then and now. It’s equal parts procedural and exploration, detailing how these crews of self-proclaimed “warriors” operate, the realities and practicalities of their lives, the appeal of this dangerous gig (aside from the obvious, economic one), and how that lifestyle impacts not just those who choose it, but everyone around them. The interviews and observational scenes are eye-opening, and directors Pallotta and Wolting’s use of animated sequences as both flashback and metaphor is ingenious.
Whiplash Release Date: October 10 Director: Damien Chazelle Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Countless movies have told the story of an abusive hard-case teacher/coach/commander whose unconventional methodology and tough love are ultimately redeemed by his results. Whiplash is not as simple a film as that; it’s a thorny, thoughtful movie that asks provocative questions and isn’t cocky enough to boast of knowing the answers. But it’s also not some dry meditation on the nature of teaching and the power of reinforcement; it’s a breathtakingly paced, staggeringly visceral movie, nerve-wracking but ultimately rewarding viewing that leaves as much blood on the skins as its protagonist. (Full review here.)
Evolution of a Criminal Release Date: October 10 (New York); October 17 (Los Angeles) Director: Darius Clark Monroe
Filmmaker Monroe painstakingly recalls and reenacts a teenage bank robbery that landed him in prison, returning to his hometown, retracing his steps, talking with friends, family, and victims. Its title is apt — this is a methodical, thoughtful, and detailed explanation of how he became who he was, beginning with a childhood infected by the anxiety of always being just a little bit short financially. The emotions are real, raw, and true, and because of that, the message of redemption, forgiveness, and realignment lands with grace. It’s a film with the ultimate happy ending — because its creator has become a gifted, skilled filmmaker.
The Overnighters Release Date: October 10 Director: Jesse Moss
Jesse Moss’ quiet, thoughtful documentary tells the story of Pastor Jay Reinke, whose Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota becomes a way station for waves of men flooding into their town looking for work in the flourishing oil industry. The church offers them help and temporary housing — but their presence causes tension with neighbors and the community, who are wary of these out-of-towners (particularly when a local newspaper uncovers a worrisome number of sex offenders in their midst). Moss’ camera captures some extraordinarily candid moments, up to and including a closing bombshell that reframes much of what’s come before. But it’s not just voyeurism; the picture carefully considers, in a way that’s seldom seen in American film, exactly what it is to be a Christian — not just to say it, but to be it — and the implications of living one’s life accordingly.
Dear White People Release Date: October 17 Director: Justin Simien Cast: Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris
Writer/director Simien takes on race relations in the Ivy League with this dagger-sharp satire, a film filled end-to-end with tiny sticks of dynamite, each lit carefully with a gleeful smirk. If such violent metaphors contradict the generally tongue-in-cheek tone, it speaks mostly to the combustible quality of the topics here; like Network or Putney Swope, it feels dangerous, sparked by the charge of secrets told above a whisper. Simien is a righteous filmmaker, but his bitterness is exhilarating, and at its best, Dear White People vibrates with the visceral thrill of watching a gifted new voice get away with something.
Listen Up Philip Release Date: October 17 (on demand October 21) Director: Alex Ross Perry Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Elisabeth Moss, Krysten Ritter, Jonathan Pryce
“Misanthrope” seems too polite a description for the protagonist of Alex Ross Perry’s comedy/drama; this guy (well played by Jason Schwartzman) makes Roger Greenberg look like George Bailey. Self-centered, smug, and selfish, he’s a young New York novelist, and is doing his best to play the part. The influences are clear (the tone is Deconstructing Harry Jr., while even the title font echoes Philip Roth), but they’re not just window dressing; Ross adopts a refreshingly bold novelistic structure, spinning off with supporting characters for long stretches and allowing supporting players like Elisabeth Moss (quietly great), Krysten Ritter, and Jonathan Pryce to flex. The pace is a little punchy and the rough, in-tight photography is occasionally too, too much. But it’s got a rough grace, wickedly smart and entertainingly nasty.
Laggies Release Date: October 24 Director: Lynn Shelton Cast: Keira Knightley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell, Jeff Garlin, Ellie Kemper
Keira Knightley strikes up an unlikely friendship with teenager Chloe Grace Moretz, and it’s a tricky relationship, but you believe the characters (and how they would come to value each other). And Sam Rockwell brings his signature funkiness to a familiar type, giving an odd spark to the character of Moretz’s dad, and pretty much stealing the picture in the process. It’s the first film Shelton’s directed and not written, but it’s inhabited by the warmth and intelligence of her best work, and this may well be the loosest and most enjoyable performance we’ve yet seen from Ms. Knightley.
Force Majeure Release Date: October 24 Director: Ruben Östlund Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren
A Swedish family goes on a skiing holiday in the French Alps. On the second day, while eating lunch, they hear a distant rumble. “Isn’t that an avalanche?” asks the mother. What happens — and does not happen — next is the focus of Östlund’s discomforting domestic drama, which turns into something like Scenes from a Marriage Vacation. In Östlund’s elegantly composed, locked-down frames, a mother and father turn on each other with subtly escalating emotional violence, a single moment calling their entire marriage (their entire beings, really) into question, twisting up not only their relationships, but of those unfortunate enough to wander into their orbit. Östlund’s screenplay keeps taking unexpected left turns, but the real draw here is the dialogue; he has an uncanny ear for how couples can push each other’s buttons, and pick at each other’s scars. Intelligent, haunting, powerful filmmaking.
White Bird in a Blizzard Release Date: October 24 (on demand now) Director: Gregg Araki Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni
The narrative engine for Gregg Araki’s adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s novel is the mysterious disappearance of Eve Connor (Green) when her daughter Kat (Woodley) is 17, but the window dressing is what’s really interesting here. With the help of yet another staggeringly sincere Woodley performance, it becomes a vivid portrait of the uncertainty and anxiety of trying to figure out one’s own sexuality, and the awkwardness of hanging on to a relationship that’s well past its expiration date. Green’s performance is too campy by half, and some of the dialogue is strained, but Araki’s attentiveness to detail and firm command of mood more than cover those occasional lapses.