Fall is officially here, and the movie slate is heating up – at both the multiplex and the art house, where this month’s offerings include historical epics, heartfelt dramas, gut-wrenching documentaries, genre riffs, and oddball comedies. Here are just a few of the highlights:
The Birth of a Nation
Release Date: October 7 Director: Nate Parker Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Dwight Henry, Gabrielle Union
Others have made their arguments, and passionately, as to whether they’ll see Nate Parker’s dramatization of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in light of troubling revelations about Mr. Parker’s past, and it’s everyone’s own call to make. But for whatever it’s worth, his film is stirring and emotionally wrecking – and important. Parker plays Turner, a charismatic preacher and leader who begins to consider exactly what it means to be a man of God, who finally decides he has seen enough injustice, and cannot see any more. The visceral power of the rebellion is undeniable, but Parker doesn’t just settle on this momentary victory and inspiration; he underscores the fallout as well, and understands how this story from 1831 remains relevant to this day. Suitably epic filmmaking, yet bursting with life and power.
Release Date: October 7 Director: Kim A. Snyder Cast: Documentary
On December 14, 2012, a man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary school and murdered twenty-six people – six adults and 20 children, all 6 and 7 years old. That’s a fact, and we can look at it, and nod and shrug, and move on hopelessly. What’s harder to look away from is the height chart, in a suburban doorway, of one of those murdered children, cut ruthlessly short; somewhere above the top mark, in his brother’s handwriting, are the words “would be here.” Kim A. Snyder’s achingly personal documentary is full of heart-wrenching moments like that, as parents, siblings, teachers, and community members — all of them survivors, all of them, in a way, victims — talk with wrenching candor and agonizing honesty about what they saw, what they feel, and what they’ve become. Those stories images are not only helpful but necessary in a discussion where the slaughter of children has somehow become a political issue. It’s not; it’s a humanitarian one, and this unforgettable film is a welcome corrective.
The Alchemist Cookbook
Release Date: October 7 Director: Joel Potrykus Cast: Ty Hickson, Amari Cheatom, Fiji
This mash-up of psychological study and into-the-woods horror from writer/director Potrykus (Buzzard) is probably more fun to think about than to actually watch, but it certainly offers plenty of food for thought. The film is mostly one guy, all alone in a middle-of-nowhere trailer, going more than a little crazy, and to Potrykus’s credit, he keeps finding different spins and angles for that idea, burrowing into this guy’s head and trying new ways of disturbing the viewer. Its premise gets stretched thin, and Hickson’s initially impressive performance gets shadier as he goes crazier, relying on familiar tics and affectations. But it’s an unpredictable and often unsettling piece of work.
Release Date: October 12 Director: Keith Maitland Cast: Documentary
Director Maitland tells the story of a tragedy – of the first mass school shooting in America, the 1966 sniper attack from atop the University of Texas clock tower – but he also tells the story of a community, one that came together that day and has mourned together since. He present-tenses the long-ago event cleverly, via reenacted events and interviews, animated and intermingled with archival footage and sound, and his unexpected style and tight sense of montage makes it feel more immediate, urgent, and scary. As a tick-tock of that horrible day, it’s gripping; as a portrait of grieving and wrestling with guilt, it’s haunting. An innovative telling of a powerful story.
Release Date: October 14 Director: Kelly Reichardt Cast: Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Laura Dern
A lawyer who can’t get through to a stubborn client. An impatient type-A wife and mother. A rancher harboring a crush she can’t imagine admitting. These are the “certain women” of Kelly Reichardt’s challenging adaptation of three Maile Meloy short stories – and they feel very much like short stories, less interested in telling grand narratives than in capturing tiny, keenly felt moments, and living in them. Impatient viewers need not apply (this is not the film where Reichardt’s decided to get all fast-paced and commercial); everyone else will marvel at the absorbing performances and sublime details. It’s a small movie, but one that expands the more you consider it.
Release Date: October 14 Director: Antonio Campos Cast: Rebecca Hall, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts
It’s not easy to watch someone unravel, and director Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer) purposefully amps up the discomfort in his dramatization of the final months of Christine Chubbuck (Hall, amazing), the Florida television anchorwoman who shot herself on live television in 1974. That bizarre and horrifying event is given its proper weight – the closing scenes are truly chilling – but Campos seems more interested in the tiny slights and bobbled moments that got her there, when she was unable to make real connections or cultivate relationships. Tragedies like this don’t come out of nowhere, and Campos’s approach (and Hall’s tremendous performance) underscores that notion by taking a patient, nuanced approach, all the while noting that, in the end, this character was reduced to just another strange story on the evening news.
Release Date: October 14 Director: Zach Clark Cast: Addison Timlin, Ally Sheedy, Keith Poulson
A young woman on the path to becoming a nun returns home for a forced and awkward reconnection with her estranged family in this keenly observed seriocomic drama from writer/director Zach Clark. He’s got a firm sense of exactly how much to tell us — withholding the specifics of what drove his character away, but putting across the jist in loaded lines like “I’m on medicine now, did you know that?” The family dynamics are immediately clear: dad is the peacemaker, all signals and smoothing, and mom is trying so hard, and just barely containing the frustration and rage that entails. The handheld camerawork wears out its welcome quickly, and some of the supporting performances are a tad too broad, but Ally Sheedy is smashing as the mom, and Timlin’s leading turn is rich and refreshingly unpredictable.
Release Date: October 21 Director: Barry Jenkins Cast: Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, André Holland, Trevante Rhodes
There’s a scene at the end of the first section of writer/director Jenkins’s remarkable portrait of black masculinity, in which three characters sit at a dining room table and talk to each other, simply and directly. A young man asks questions about his life and the people around him; an older man and woman answer, as honestly as they can. This doesn’t sound like a riveting scene, but it is; the honest and openness is astonishing not only for these characters, but for an American independent film about their experiences, circa 2016. And it’s a microcosm for this entire, extraordinary film, which spotlights the kind of life our cinema (and our world) too often leaves unexamined – and does so with vibrancy, humor, virtuosity, and love. God, what a movie this is.
Release Date: October 21 Director: Park Chan-wook Cast: Min-hee Kim, Kim Tae-ri, Jung-woo Ha
Director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker) is in top, feverish form in this period romantic thriller, set in Korea during the period of Japanese occupation. He tells the story of an heiress, her handmaiden, the man who wants her riches, and… on second thought, scratch that, the less you know about this plot, which twists and turns and reverses and re-plays earlier scenes with motivations re-cast, the better. What’s important is that is visually overwhelming, a film of fluttering movement and sumptuous eroticism, somehow both unlike anything Chan-wook has done before, and the culmination of everything he’s ever made. Fiendish, sexy, funny, and magnificent, it’s one of the great films of the year.
In a Valley of Violence
Release Date: October 21 Director: Ti West Cast: Ethan Hawke, John Travolta, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan
A lonesome deserter (Hawke) and his faithful dog, headed for the Mexican border, try to pass quietly through an all-but-abandoned mining town, but trouble comes their way – awakening a killing impulse he tried to but behind him. You’ve seen this story before, and director West (The House of the Devil) knows it; his affection for the throwback genres he inhabits burns through every frame. He’s not just doing a Spaghetti Western homage. He gets these movies – their approach, their simplicity, their rough violence, their outright nihilism, their pitch-black comedy. He doesn’t just hit the beats he’s supposed to; he expands those moments, luxuriates in them, and pulls you in.
Into the Inferno
Release Date: October 28 Director: Werner Herzog Cast: Documentary
Director Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer travel the world – to Indonesia, Iceland, North Korea, and beyond – to explore not only the world’s most visibly active volcanoes, but to understand the cultures that pop up around them, and center on them. They come up with gorgeous visuals, wry voice-overs, a fascination with colorful characters, rituals, and disappearing ways of life. But more than that, it’s a film of unexpected connections to topics you might not predict, taking a free-form approach that follows whatever trails might appear. So in other words, it’s a pretty typical Werner Herzog movie.
Release Date: October 28 Director: Jim Jarmusch Cast: Documentary
The Stooges came up fast and imploded with equal speed, and in its best stretches, Jim Jarmusch’s biographical documentary about the band feeds off the energy and tempo of their best recordings, and rides them out. Drawing on interviews with Iggy Pop – one of our finest purveyors of great rock stories – and the rest of the surviving members, he captures the spirit of those long-ago times, offsetting the names and places yielded like talismans with a welcome perspective of deconstructionism (Iggy still gets a kick out of conspiratorially assuring us that the times weren’t what they seemed). But Jarmusch takes a strangely reverential approach to not only the subject but the conventions of the form; you wish he’d have been as interested in formal experimentation as the band he’s profiling.