If the studios and major indie distributors get serious in the month of October, rolling out the first wave of their big fall prestige picks, the smaller indie handlers, it seems, get weird. This best of this month’s art house films are risky, challenging efforts that tell peculiar stories in unique ways; they’re joined by a handful of more mainstream-leaning titles, looking for a bit of recognition in the serious movie derby. Here’s what’s worth seeking out:
Release Date: October 2 Director: Ariel Kleiman Cast: Vincent Cassel, Jeremy Chabriel, Florence Mezzara
A hypnotically grizzly Cassel stars as the patriarch of what initially seems a charming and cozy commune, but is gradually (and cleverly) revealed to be something far more nefarious. The protagonist is Cassel’s 11-year-old son (Chabriel), who begins to resist his father’s influence and leadership, testing the waters and then pushing back openly. Cassel is masterful — watch him closely as the kid gets under his skin, and he tries and fails to hide it — and co-writer/director Kleiman cultivates an odd, scary, dreamlike atmosphere, while never smothering the warmth that presumably keeps this community alive.
The Forbidden Room
Release Date: October 7 Director: Guy Maddin Cast: Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin, Charlotte Rampling, Maria de Medeiros, Mathieu Amalric
Few directors love film as much as Guy Maddin — and I’m not talking about the art form (though that’s certainly true), but about the physical object, which he delights in manipulating, replicating weathered and beat-up film stocks, juxtaposing and overlapping images, tinkering with saturation (and desaturation), melding and gurgling soundtracks. His latest begins as an educational film about bathing (no, really), before spinning off into a handful of barely connected stories in vaguely familiar genres, filtered through Maddin’s cockeyed lens into something slightly surreal, unquestionably peculiar, and occasionally uproarious. The film runs on a bit, and casual viewers will certainly be put off by its sheer peculiarity. But as Maddin blends his characters and disparate mini-films together at Forbidden Room‘s conclusion (prompted by a character’s discovery of the “Book of Climaxes”), intercutting madly and throwing in a few stories we haven’t even seen (why not?), it’s clear that he’s cooked up a sui generis mash note to the movies, and the bizarre images, fantasies, and fusions they can inspire.
Release Date: October 7 Directors: Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe
Saeed, aka Shariff, doesn’t like to be classified as an FBI informant, explaining, “I consider myself a surveyor/operative.” Whatever the semantics, the former Black Panther and convicted thief is on the government payroll, going undercover in Muslim communities to root out would-be terrorists. He justifies the work by claiming to be a good Muslim protecting the faith, but more often than not, he mentions the money, and if Cabral and Sutcliffe’s fly-on-the-wall documentary were just a personality profile of this endlessly contradictory and frankly delusional man, it would be worth seeing. But it goes further than that in the back half, taking several unexpected turns as the investigation Saeed is conducting goes up in smoke (and becomes something of a metaphor for much of the War on Terror’s dirty business). A truly thoughtful film, and a troubling one.
The Final Girls
Release Date: October 9 Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Adam DeVine, Nina Dobrev, Alia Shawkat, Thomas Middleditch
If Sean S. Cunningham made The Purple Rose of Cairo, he might come up with something along the lines of this funny, inventive horror/comedy, which (much like Scream) kids these movies, and loves them too. Taissa Farmiga stars as a teenage girl whose late mother co-starred in 1986’s Camp Bloodbath, “the grandaddy of all campsite slasher films”; when a fire breaks out at a revival screening, she and some friends try to escape through the screen, and end up inside the movie. Screenwriters M.A. Fortin and Joshua John Miller work out endlessly inventive variations on the dilemma, but also find the thoughtful subtext about horror movies in general and the disposability of the women in them. Energetically directed (Strauss-Schulson has fun with his nutty angles and snap zooms), with some real scares and even a bit of a heart.
In My Father’s House
Release Date: October 9 Directors: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Rapper and writer Che “Rhymefest” Smith and his wife were looking to buy a home in Chicago when they found the house his father — who’d abandoned him as a child — lived in. They bought it, and then discovered (in a twist so neat a screenwriter would be afraid to float it) that his father was homeless. So Smith tracks down his estranged father, who’s a warm guy, a big hugger, and a hopeless drunk, and decides to try and help the old man get his life back together. What follows is complicated and emotionally fraught, with no easy roles; there’s a real tension as you wait for something to go wrong (and, with alcoholics, something always does). And Che isn’t always a model father himself, while seeming at times to push his father to screw up. Directors Stern and Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, The Trials of Daryl Hunt) capture scenes of extraordinary candor and quiet intensity, creating a work of real depth and heartbreaking inevitability.
Release Date: October 16 Director: Lenny Abrahamson Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy
There’s something inherently daring about the structure of Abrahamson’s harrowing drama (adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel): it comes to its emotional climax halfway through, with a visceral and powerful sequence that left this viewer gasping through tears. And then, remarkably enough, it continues — pushing past the easy happy endings to ask what happens next, and pursuing that question and its implications from every possible angle. It’s a risky move, but one that pays rich dividends when the real ending arrives. Larson continues a streak of stunningly nuanced and natural work, and Tremblay (every bit her co-star, and her equal) is a stunningly effective child actor. It’s a tough movie, and a great one.
Release Date: October 16 Director: Michael Almereyda Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo
This dramatization of the life of Dr. Stanley Milgram — the man behind the famed early ’60s experiment on conscience vs. authority — could’ve easily been yet another boilerplate biopic about an important white man and his troubled psyche. So points to writer/director Almereyda for the odd formal experiments and detours (direct address to camera, phony rear projections, bursts of song) that separate it from the pack, and occasionally yield genuine rewards. It’s an odd film, and not always a satisfying one, but it’s a consistently fascinating and thankfully unpredictable look at a familiar subject.
Release Date: October 16 Director: Chris Rossi Cast: Olivia Wilde, Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Elisabeth Moss, Juno Temple, John Leguizamo, Kevin Corrigan, Merritt Wever
There’s a scene a little ways into this overwhelmingly sad drama in which Wilde — her makeup minimal, maximizing the sharp angularity of her face — finds a cookie left in her backseat by her young son, who disappeared a year before. The camera holds on her face as she eats that cookie, savoring it until she realizes there’s nothing else left of him. The movie is about that realization. As a narrative, it’s somewhat shaky — a bit too schematic, perhaps, the broad beats visible long before they cross the horizon. But every performance is a winner (particular credit to Luke Wilson as the suffering-in-silence husband, Elisabeth Moss as a trashy mother, and Giovanni Ribisi as the burnout brother, babbling about “the unconscious mind”), and in the little moments, of unspoken tension and heavily loaded familial transactions, Rossi finds the real story, and tells it well.
I Smile Back
Release Date: October 23 Director: Adam Salky Cast: Sarah Silverman, Josh Charles, Thomas Sadoski
Rehab narratives are a dime a dozen, so you have to have something noteworthy to stick out; director Adam Salky has it in star Sarah Silverman, who turns in an astonishingly raw and unguarded performance as a wife and mother who can no longer hide her penchant for drugs, booze, and day sex with other men. The script (by Amy Koppelman and Paige Dylan, from Koppelman’s novel) offsets its predictability with keenly observed scenes from suburban life, and Silverman fits into them snugly, creating tiny tragedies everywhere she goes, as fragile and tenuous as an open wound. It shouldn’t be a surprise when a great comic actor is a great dramatic actor, but Silverman is nonetheless smashing.
Release Date: October 30 Director: Alice Rohrwacher Cast: Maria Alexandra Lungu, Alba Rohrwacher, Monica Bellucci
Italian director Rohrwacher crafts this modest but keenly felt chronicle of a poor family of beekeepers and the teenage daughter (Lungu) who keeps them together. It’s a coming-of-age movie, but an appropriately miserable one, and Lungo gives the kind of performance that doesn’t really go overboard with the showing and telling, but allows you to project a whole world onto her open face. The Wonders has the style and unhurried pace of the Italian neorealist tradition, but there’s a tense urgency to the family’s poverty and desperation, and an inevitability to the characters and their fate that remains thankfully unspoken.
Release Date: October 30 Director: Natalia Leite Cast: Dianna Agron, Paz de la Huerta, Chris Zylka
Aragon’s best moment in Bare comes late in the picture, talking herself into an escape plan that’s clearly going to go sideways; she manages to convey, all at once, both her own knowledge of the certainty of its outcome, and her decision to push that certainty out of her head. The picture is full of beautifully observed little moments like that, as she and writer/director Leite paint a vivid picture of dusty desperation, and the draw of a change, no matter what that change might be. The narrative doesn’t always hold together (events seem to happen later than they logically should) and de la Huerta’s supporting performance is, to put it mildly, not in the same league as Agron’s. But the film has an offhand naturalism that lingers, and Agron has clearly got the movie star goods.