Summer movie season has finally drawn to a close, with a rather alarming mix of lower-than-average box office and higher-than-average quality, but we’ve got no time to dwell on that: September is here, and there are lots of movies to see. Studios tend to start rolling out their awards hopefuls this month, which puts the indies – customarily functioning as counter-programming – into an awkward position. So this month’s recommendations are a little more esoteric than usual, running the gamut from broad comedy to foreign thriller to rural drama, plus a handful of truly terrific documentaries.
Goon: Last of the Enforcers
RELEASE DATE: September 1 DIRECTOR: Jay Baruchel CAST: Seann William Scott, Alison Pill, Liev Schreiber, Wyatt Russell, Elisha Cuthbert
Actor/writer Baruchel follows up his 2011 sleeper hit (and takes over directorial duties this time around) with the further adventures of hockey star Doug Glatt (Scott), who is, as a TV commentator puts it, “known for his fists and, frankly, not much else.” This time around, mere moments after his appointment as team captain, he’s put out of commission by a particularly nasty fight; after trying and failing to make it in a “real job,” he attempts to get back in the game with, Rocky III-style, the help of an old rival. And the Rocky comparison is apt, because this is more a boxing movie than a hockey movie – and it hits many of the same beats. Baruchel and Jesse Chabot’s script occasionally swerves into a kind of joyless vulgarity, and the scenes concerning Scott’s marital woes (and impending fatherhood) are not only wheezy, but commit the cardinal sin of wasting Alison Pill. But there is a lot to like here: the funny SportsCenter-style bits with an unhinged (is there any other kind?) T.J. Miller, the way Liev Schreiber says “Good for you, kid,” and Scott’s characterization of Doug, dim but sweet, is a fine anchor for this scrappy little franchise.
The Unknown Girl
RELEASE DATE: September 8 DIRECTORS: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne CAST: Adèle Haenel, Olivier Bonnaud, Jérémie Renier
Late one night, as a young doctor (the wonderful Haenel) and her assistant are closing up shop, a frantic young woman buzzes their buzzer. They’re long after hours, so they don’t let her in – but when the woman turns up dead nearby, the doctor feels a sense of responsibility, and an obligation to at least find out who she was, and how she got there. What first seems an innocuous and even honorable inquiry uncovers something far more sinister, but our investigator isn’t Miss Marple, or even Quincy M.D.; she’s the haunted, tenacious protagonist of a movie by the Dardennes (Two Days, One Night), which means The Unknown Girl rises far above its mystery thriller logline, fusing its genre framework with the thematic preoccupations of these extraordinary filmmakers. The result is unexpectedly effective, a tense whodunit with real stakes.
RELEASE DATE: September 8 DIRECTORS: Christina Clusiau, Shaul Schwarz CAST: Documentary
It opens with a simple image: a father, a son, and gun. “Look at the horns on this guy,” the father exclaims proudly, after his son shoots his first “trophy” buck. “That’s a textbook shot, Jasper!” And then they cut to a scene where a bunch of people tranquilize a rhino and saw his horns off, so yeah, this documentary about the “canned hunting” industry is really upsetting, right off the bat. It’s all, on its face, so simple and immoral – but director Schwarz explores, with intelligence and nuance, the complex issues below the surface of the weird marriage between hunting “expeditions” and conservation, behind the hunting industrial complex and what drives it, and beyond the numbers of dwindling species, and how to most sensibly save them.
RELEASE DATE: September 8 DIRECTORS: Neasa Ní Chianáin, David Rane CAST: Documentary
At the Headfort boarding school in Kells, Ireland, married teachers John and Amanda are long-timers whose careers are coming to an end, and through the course of this engaging documentary, you get a sense both that they’re very good at what they do, and are more than ready to hang it up. But occasionally, they’re given the opportunity to really make a difference, and they seize it. The film is a school-year-in-the-life affair: classes, plays, performances (John runs the school rock band, giving it a non-fiction School of Rock vibe), end of term tests, dances, and teary farewells. Chianáin and Rane adopt a fly on the wall approach, hanging out with these instructors, their colleagues, and their students, observing the relationships, and finding their silences and subtext as informative as their conversations.
Ex Libris: New York Public Library
RELEASE DATE: September 13 DIRECTOR: Frederick Wiseman CAST: Documentary
The legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman has spent the better part of a half-century exploring the ins and outs of worthy institutions, so he’s a natural fit for a peek behind the scenes of the NYPL. But the ideal match of reporter and subject goes beyond that – he seems to be interested in literally everything, and that’s what this library offers. It’s not just a repository for books; it houses art and information, hosts public talks and private events, and functions as a valuable community center in neighborhoods rich and poor. Throughout the (as usual, leisurely) film, there are wonderful cuts that indicate the breadth of what this organization provides, from, for example, a piano recital at the Lincoln Center branch to a jobs expo at the Bronx Library Center. This library wants to provide both of those things to its patrons; Wiseman’s exquisite film sees the value of that mission, and shares it.
RELEASE DATE: September 13 DIRECTOR: Amman Abbasi CAST: Devin Blackmon, Dontrell Bright, Lachion Buckingham
This debut feature from composer-turned-director Abbasi boasts an executive producer credit for David Gordon Green, which makes sense; Dayveon has the found beauty and quiet, lived-in naturalism of Green’s own first film, George Washington. Set in small-town Arkansas over a scorching summer, it’s a street gang story in an atypically rural environment, so the jumpings and robberies are interspersed with crickets and sunsets. But Abbas doesn’t soft-soap the storytelling; the film unfolds with a kind of tense inevitability, even when interrupted by searching moments of sensitivity and self-doubt. Moody, evocative, and tough, with a penultimate sequence that packs a real emotional wallop.
RELEASE DATE: September 20 DIRECTOR: Nathan Silver CAST: Lindsay Burdge, Damien Bonnard, Anjelica Huston
A marvelous leading performance by Ms. Burdge (A Teacher) anchors this story of a widowed flight attendant whose rebound one-nighter on a Paris layover takes, well, a bit of a turn. The guy (Bonnard) is a real piece of work, but she’s blind to it, and Burdge manages to pull off the tricky task of playing the willful misreading and dismissal of countless cues and red flags, yet still garnering our sympathy. It’s her Gena Rowlands performance – we’re watching her wobble over the edge, dramatizing a rapidly accelerating vicious cycle in which desperation leads to rejection, which leads to anxiety, which leads to further desperation, and so on. It’s a full-bodied and textured piece of work, and that goes double for the movie, which reaches for a specific mood of frenetic need, and holds it.
Abundant Acreage Available
RELEASE DATE: September 29 DIRECTOR: Angus MacLachlan CAST: Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail
Amy Ryan’s first great moment in this low-key farm drama comes early, as she and her brother (Kinney, as wonderfully understated as ever) are burying their father in the tobacco fields. “This is where he should be, for eternity,” she insists – and then she breaks, her stern resolve crumbling into a mass of (understandable) emotion. This is an exquisite performance, capturing a resolute woman who finds her entire life upended, and asking questions of herself for, presumably, the first time in years. The film around her doesn’t always match up, but writer/director McLachlan is trying to achieve such a tricky balance here, of tenuous relationships and modest style, that the occasional wobble is both understandable and forgivable.