September is a weird, weird time at the movies. The summer is over, and the studios have buried the movies they don’t want to deal with in mid-to-late August (hi there, We Are Your Friends ). In theory, the fall movie season is underway — but the serious awards contenders are being held for the big festivals (Toronto, Telluride, and New York), which means the mainstream releases are an odd brew of movies the studios think grown-ups will like, but aren’t willing to bank on. And the art house has a similar timing issue, but there, we have an upside: an eclectic mix of ace documentaries and offbeat surprises.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
Release Date: September 2 Director: Stanley Nelson
While not exactly a groundbreaker stylistically, it’s tough to criticize Vanguard for leaning too heavily on PBS-style crutches (talking head/archival footage/another talking head/another talking head/more archival footage) when it is, in fact, produced by PBS; once we’re clear on exactly what it is, we can praise how well it does what it does. Director Nelson gathers scores of voices from the era and digs up remarkable tapes and footage to tell the story of the Panthers’ quick rise to national prominence; more importantly, he offers a detailed blow-by-blow of exactly how and why personality clashes and political schisms drove the group apart. It’s the kind of documentary that’s easy to view as distant history, except that so many of the issues the Panthers took up (police brutality, systemic poverty, healthcare, feeding children) are, sadly, not history at all.
Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine
Release Date: September 4 Director: Alex Gibney
Director Gibney ( Going Clear ), fascinated by the rather disproportionate public grieving for Apple mastermind Steve Jobs, set about to unravel the man and his many contradictions in this piercing, searching, and provocative documentary. His attempt to question the mythology occasionally borders on mean-spirited, but the picture is ultimately a long overdue reminder to the cult of Mac that this oddly elevated saint was, in fact, a man — a salesman and a businessman whose walk often didn’t match his “corporate values” talk.
Time Out of Mind
Release Date: September 9 Director: Oren Moverman Cast: Richard Gere, Ben Vereen, Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi
Gere is simply dazzling as a homeless wanderer, years lost to booze and self-destructiveness, circumstances only hinted at in passing; the best explanation is his simple “I’m no good right now,” conveyed not with self-pity, but as a statement of fact. Writer/director Moverman (The Messenger) employs a loose, freewheeling structure that’s less about plot than about the particulars of this man’s routines. Most impressively, he captures the textures and sounds of his New York City locations; there’s an observed and overheard quality to the picture, its soundtrack dominated by unrelated phone calls and conversations, the compositions framed by windows and doorways. The style underscores the idea that lives like this are unfolding all the time, all around us, all but unnoticed.
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films
Release Date: September 17 (select Landmark theaters, one night only); September 23 (select Alamo Drafthouse locations, one night only) Director: Mark Hartley
The latest from trash cinema documentary ace Hartley (Not Quite Hollywood, Machete Maidens Unleashed!) dives into the rich story of the notorious mini-studio run by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus — home of countless disposable Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson vehicles, but also funding the ‘80s works of filmmakers like Godard and Cassavetes. It is, as per usual for Hartley, a giddy, lightning-paced celebration of cheerfully terrible movies, lousy with great clips and hilarious trailers, as well as countless legendary stories about their productions. And it’s not just a museum piece, either; between the lines, it’s a sly commentary on how the cousins’ ostensibly vulgar methodology has, in many ways, become the Hollywood norm. (Playing select special engagements in advance of its September 29 home video release.)
The New Girlfriend
Release Date: September 18 Director: François Ozon Cast: Romain Duris, Anaïs Demoustier, Raphaël Personnaz, Isild Le Besco
French master Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women) exhibits his usual flair for melodrama and keen interest in desire and identity, with a timely dose of trans-focused storytelling to boot. The death of young Laura (Le Besco) leaves husband David (Duris) devastated — and desperate for a connection to their baby girl, which he finds by dressing in Laura’s clothes and indulging his repressed femininity. Her best friend Claire (Demoustier) is first shocked, but then supportive of “Virginia,” and the budding friendship between them brings up both the complicated questions of his sexuality and her unresolved feelings for her deceased friend. At its core, it’s a funny, sweet, and kind movie about acceptance — but with the stickiness and complexity of Ozon’s best work.
Release Date: September 18 (New York); September 25 (Los Angeles) Director: Amy Berg
From her Oscar-nominated Deliver Us From Evil to the recent An Open Secret, filmmaker Berg has made something of a specialty of exposing how corrupt systems protect monsters. Her latest is well within that tradition, a detailed look at the FLDS church, and how it was used by “prophet” Warren Jeffs to molest and marry multiple underage girls. It’s a tough sit, and the film’s middle section threatens to capsize under the complicated series of overlapping investigations and charges. But Berg wisely returns to the personal anguish of those whom Jeffs and his faithful have harmed — and continue to harm. (Premieres on Showtime October 10.)
Release Date: September 25 Director: Rahmin Bahrani Cast: Michael Shannon, Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern
Shannon has never been better (which is saying something) as a gangster real estate broker in this urgent topical drama from Bahrani (Man Push Cart). Garfield is a desperate construction guy who loses his family home to Shannon before they form an uneasy, unexpected alliance — a deal with the devil, really. Bahrani beautifully dramatizes the conflict: our “hero” does terrible work for incredible reward, and the filmmaker ends up slyly testing the entire concept of empathy for the protagonist. Garfield is very good, reminding us there’s a fine actor hiding under the Spidey suit. But it’s Shannon’s show all the way, particularly in his killer “America doesn’t bail out the losers” speech, which is good drama, good writing, good commentary, and great performance, all at once. Some of the storytelling is overly coincidental and the ending’s a bit too tidy, but overall, this is sharp, intelligent, and infuriating filmmaking.
Finders Keepers Release Date: September 25 Directors: Bryan Carberry, J. Clay Tweel
In the late summer of 2005, a man named Shannon Whisnant bought a grill from an abandoned storage unit in North Carolina. Inside, he found the foot of John Wood, and that’s when, in the words of one observer, the “fuckery and shenanigans” began. The battle over custody of that foot, between the man who’d lost it and the man who somehow thought it was his ticket to worldwide fame, became a worldwide human interest story, the kind of giggling-at-the-hillbillies business that closes out local newscasts. But in this fascinating documentary, directors Carberry and Tweel start from those caricatures and then peel them back to reveal their trials, tragedies, rivalry, and resentments. Some of the filmmaking is a little dodgy (the music cues are way too on-the-nose), but this is nonetheless a riveting story, and a surprisingly insightful examination of the American Dream of fame and fortune.
The Keeping Room
Release Date: September 25 Director: Daniel Barber Cast: Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld, Muna Otaru, Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller
Harrowing, tense, and emotionally (and often physically) brutal, this feminist Western with echoes of Straw Dogs is, make no mistake, a bit of an ordeal. But it’s also a thrilling and powerful work, in which a trio of women left behind in the Civil War South are stalked and hunted by a pair of Yankee “boomers” gone rogue. One is played by Worthington, who, come to find out, isn’t a leading man after all; he’s a villain, and a good one. But he’s no match for Marling, who’s simply tremendous as the strongest of the trio (all three women get a chance to shine, and all three step up). Playing long spells without dialogue — including a riveting opening stretch — director Daniel Barber impresses with the elegance and efficiency of his visual storytelling, and the sheer poetry of his images.
Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
Release Date: September 25 Director: Douglas Tirola
The glory years of the influential humor magazine, and of its key founder Doug Kenney, are highlighted in this informative documentary, which goes from the rag’s modest beginnings and unsteady early issues to its years of acclaim, spinoffs on radio and stage (featuring such soon-to-be-stars as John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, and Bill Murray), and conquering of Hollywood. Director Tirola missteps here and there; the film doesn’t even mention the brand’s degeneration in recent years, and acknowledges some of the more offensive elements of the work without really engaging with it. But if you’re a comedy nerd — and who’s going to see this but comedy nerds? — there’s enough rare footage (videotapes of Lemmings, Radio Hour recording sessions, rehearsals for the stage show) and wisdom from comic legends to make it worth your time.