This is usually the part of the column where I do my best to situate this month’s indies into the calendar year, or against what’s happening in the multiplex, or what have you. But I’ll just keep it simple: the three best movies I’ve seen in 2015 all open in November. And there’s plenty more to see besides them.
Release Date: November 4 Director: John Crowley Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Domnhall Gleeson, Michael Zegen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters
Midway through John Crowley’s wonderful adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, recent Irish immigrant Eilis (Ronan, wonderful) asks her boarding house-mate Sheila (Nora-Jane Noone) if she wishes she were married — a roundabout way of asking advice about her own recent proposal. Sheila insists that of course she does, imagining her married life aloud, an unromantic hypothetical that ends with the prediction that “I’ll wish I was back here, talkin’ to you.” In a way, that’s what this wonderful film is about: figuring out one’s place, longing for something new, and then wondering about the life you’ve walked away from. Crowley’s film is a like a warmer, sunnier variation on last year’s tremendous The Immigrant, but it’s neither soft nor easy; it’s a story often told in abstracts, but rarely so personally, or with such emotional intensity.
In Jackson Heights
Release Date: November 4 Director: Frederick Wiseman
Astonishingly diverse and admirably community-minded, Jackson Heights, Queens is a quintessential New York neighborhood — at a time when such a thing is becoming distressingly rare. That’s one of the quiet recurring themes of this portrait from legendary documentarian Wiseman (Titicut Follies), but, as is typical of his style, Wiseman is less interested in agenda than observation. His camera catches everything from big events and community meetings to casual conversations, and he lets those encounters run long; he’s not looking for sound bites, but stories, granting his subjects both his forum and his patience, and in doing so, he gives them agency. It’s a long movie (190 minutes), and without a clean narrative arc, one could argue it could be about half as long. But it’s more accurate to say it could be about twice as long.
Release Date: November 6 Director: Tom McCarthy Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery
This dramatization of how a team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe uncovered the story of sex abuse (and cover-up) in the Catholic Church has earned widespread comparison to All the President’s Men — and not just because they’re both stories about newspaper reporters cracking open a giant scandal. They’re about directness of style, and the room this director gives his film to breathe; his work is taut and forceful, his script (written with Josh Singer) is unfailingly intelligent, and each performance is better than the last. A thrilling, powerful piece of work.
Release Date: November 6 Directors: Samba Gadjigo, Jason Silverman
When Sembene Ousmane, “the father of African cinema,” explained why he made movies, his answer was simple — and sadly timeless. “We need our own heroes,” explained the populist filmmaker whose work was controversial, provocative, and strikingly photographed; his movies were initially shot on loose ends donated by other filmmakers, populated by non-actors, and crewed by friends and family. They were critical of African society, politics, and religion, often banned or ignored until his rediscovery later in life. Directors Gadjigo and Silverman mostly color within the profile bio-doc lines here, but the boilerplate structure matters less when you’re talking about a story this compelling, educating viewers on a scene mostly unknown on our shores.
Release Date: November 13 Director: Ben Palmer Cast: Lake Bell, Simon Pegg, Olivia Williams, Rory Kinnear
Sometimes you just need a really well-crafted example to remind you that a genre doesn’t have to be terrible. The message of Inbetweeners director Ben Palmer’s charmer is that you can do a rom-com, and it can be charming and sweet and funny without having to traffic in all the traditional clichés. Bell and Pegg are two Londoners who connect via a pretty standard Meet Cute — and then screenwriter Tess Morris unexpectedly blows it up, knowing that what’s really interesting is what comes after, as they keep talking, keep pushing, and keep fighting. The leads juice the picture with their considerable chemistry and anything-goes energy, and the film is ultimately critical of but affectionate for its genre, satisfying in many of the same ways, but coming at it from a slightly more sensible angle.
Release Date: November 13 Director: Josh Mond Cast: Christopher Abbott, Cynthia Nixon, Scott Mescudi, Ron Livingston
Late in Josh Mond’s searing drama, there’s an extraordinary scene where the title character (Abbott) tells his mother (Nixon) about the wonderful lives they’ll live, a few years from now. It’s a fiction; she’s dying in his arms. But it’s a powerful moment, a reminder that the troubled young man we’ve seen living out the worst moments of his life for the past 80 minutes is capable of warmth, humor, and love — the final layer of a remarkable performance by Abbott, plumbing emotional depths and bleary-eyed intensity barely hinted at on Girls. Mond keeps his camera up close, his masterful compositions deceptively casual, his jump-cuts nearly invisible yet undeniably effective. And his script is admirably complex — we understand the character’s pain and are still exasperated by him. It helps if you’ve known someone like him. Most of us have. Some of us are that someone.
Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words
Release Date: November 13 Director: Stig Björkman
Director Björkman is a film historian, but this is no dry run through his subject’s impressive filmography; he’s more interested in the person than the career. Accessing a treasure trove of Bergman’s private materials — journals and home movies (she was always shooting, as evidenced by a wonderful montage of her on sets, often in period garb, with still and movie cameras to her eye), alongside rare interviews and previously unseen archival materials (even her screen tests are riveting) — he focuses more on her inconvenient romances and rootless nature than Casablanca or Notorious. Björkman ‘s film is dreamlike and lovely, unfolding like a trip through her photo albums, or perhaps more accurately, a diary of her dream-life.
Release Date: November 13 Director: John S. Rad Cast: Melody Wiggins, Kelay Miller, Carlos Rivas
Released in 2005 after 26 years of production, playing only a handful of theaters to comically low grosses, John S. Rad’s revenge thriller would’ve probably disappeared into the dustbin of history were it not for the brave souls at Drafthouse Films; they’ve made a specialty of rediscovering such forgotten gems as Miami Connection and Roar , bringing them to an audience that can appreciate their otherworldly peculiarity, unabashed sincerity, and uproarious incompetence. And this one’s got all of those in spades — Mr. Rad (the only name in the opening credits, where it pops up six consecutive times) appears to have never seen a movie before, much less made one, yet its nonsense logic, undirected performances, deeply un-erotic sex scenes, incongruent music, nowhere snap zooms, come-and-go sound, visible scripts (no, seriously), and dialogue that sounds like it was translated to English from at least two other languages combine to give it an oddly riveting quality. It’s certainly not a good movie, but it’s one you’re unlikely to ever forget.
Release Date: November 18 Director: Camilla Nielsson
Director Nielsson spent three years in Zimbabwe, documenting the drafting of a new constitution following decades of unrest, corruption, and political protest. She focuses on the two negotiators from the ZANU-PF and MDC-T factions, providing a ground level view of the messy, difficult, and even dangerous business of fixing a country. Unobtrusively yet painstakingly detailing the dirty tricks, negotiations, and violence that unfold, Nielsson deftly demonstrates both the large implications and the personal (sometimes petty) interests that motivate them.
Release Date: November 20 Director: Todd Haynes Cast: Cate Blachett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler
Two sequences bracket Haynes’ latest, both of them dominated by point-of-view camera. In the first, our protagonists Therese (Mara) and Carol (Blachett) glimpse each other across a department store floor, stealing glances and looking away; the cuts are tight yet tentative, afraid of being caught. At the end, one of them moves towards another, across a similarly crowded space, and it’s a far shakier image, but it doesn’t break — the pursuer is frightened, perhaps, but determined. In between those bookending visuals is an uncommonly sensitive and nuanced portrait of forbidden love, circa 1952, desire swirling under the carefully placed and finely polished surfaces. As with his earlier masterpiece Far from Heaven, Haynes doesn’t subvert the tropes of period melodrama so much as he penetrates them, looking past them at the souls underneath, allowing them to say what earlier portraits would only let them think. It’s a marvelous picture, soulful and complex and gorgeous.
Killing Them Safely
Release Date: November 27 Director: Nick Berardini
If you’re like me, the extent of your knowledge about TASERs is probably limited to three things: 1. “Don’t tase me, bro!” 2. Easy comic device in movies like The Hangover; and 3. effective law enforcement tool. Berardini’s complex and insightful documentary takes a good, hard look at the third presumption, examining how “TASER-happy” police and frankly dishonest training and research have resulted over 300 TASER-related deaths. Sifting through promo materials, dash-cam videos, recordings of encounters, unnerving test footage, and (surprisingly riveting) videotaped depositions, Berardini mounts a convincing, thought-provoking case; his film is meticulous, fascinating, and timely as hell.