Alright folks, it’s time to buckle in – the end of the year is rapidly approaching, and distributors are bringing out their big guns. So we’ve got a jam-packed release schedule this month, with provocative documentaries and heart-wrenching dramas, and, um, heart-wrenching documentaries and provocative dramas. Take a look, and mark up your calendar, because this is a good one.
The Florida Project
RELEASE DATE: October 6 DIRECTOR: Sean Baker CAST: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite
Director Baker’s follow-up to the heartfelt, funny, and fabulous Tangerine focuses on a handful of wild, goofy kids, spending the summer at a Disney World-adjacent cheapo motel – getting by, hustling, and making their own fun. Little Brooklynn Prince is staggeringly good as Moonee, the spirited little girl at the story’s center, while newcomer Vinaite deftly navigates the tricky morality of Moonee’s mom. But the stand-out performer here is Dafoe, at the top of his game as the motel manager, a good-hearted, live-and-let-live type who is ultimately just looking out for these kids. It’s funny and high-spirited, but not as rudderless at it seems; it sneaks up on you, this movie, and its closing passages are emotionally wrecking.
RELEASE DATE: October 6 DIRECTOR: Benedict Andrews CAST: Ben Mendelsohn, Rooney Mara, Riz Ahmed
“I was never one of them,” Ray (Mendelsohn) insists, and he says it so firmly, you almost believe him. By “them” he means pedophiles, and he is one; years ago, he had sex with a 13-year-old neighbor, and she thought it was love. And now here she is, an adult (played, with her remarkable combination of poise and brittleness, by Mara), showing up at the place where he works – under a new name – to make him answer for what he did back then, and the life she’s lived since. Throw in that this is a theatrical adaptation, and you can see how easily it could’ve gone wrong: staginess, melodrama, clumsy handling of sensitive subject matter. And yet somehow, it doesn’t; the rendering is cinematic, the staging is clever, and the performances are stunning.
RELEASE DATE: October 6 DIRECTORS: Agnès Varda, JR CAST: Documentary
The idea is simple: legendary documentarian Varda and hip young artist JR team up to make a film together, wherein they’ll “make images, together but separately,” JR explains. They don’t really have a plan at first – “Chance has always been my best assistant,” she shrugs – but they end up roaming the French countryside, stopping in little villages to take oversized photos of the people they meet, then hanging them around town to see what happens. The work is fun and the reactions are often priceless, but the loveliest discovery is the sense of community they find in these places they land. Faces Places is a kind-hearted movie, both cheerful and melancholy; everyone is aware, by this point in Varda’s career, that any film could be her last. But here, they turn that subtext into text; “You’re playing the wise grandma,” JR notes, to which she replies, “And you’re playing the spirited young man.” (“You can send all penalties and fines to Agnes Varda,” he tells a policeman in an earlier scene.) It’s a charming little film, and it includes Ms. Varda carpool-karaokeing “Ring My Bell,” so I’m not sure how much more of a sales job you need.
The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
RELEASE DATE: October 6 DIRECTOR: David France CAST: Documentary
“They’re yelling out for justice from their graves,” says Victoria Cruz, of the victims of anti-trans violence she investigates for the NYC Anti-Violence Project, and one seems to yell louder than any other: Marsha P. Johnson, the beloved trans activist (and one of the instigators of the Stonewall uprising) who died 25 years ago under mysterious circumstances. This compelling documentary from director France (How to Survive a Plague) examines that death from all possible angles, and it’s a fascinating mystery. Yet its solution ultimately doesn’t seem that important, because there’s so much more to this story: the history of the movement, the specific struggles of trans women then and now, and Cruz’s own past. Tough, emotional, and powerful, this is first-rate non-fiction filmmaking.
The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
RELEASE DATE: October 13 DIRECTOR: Noah Baumbach CAST: Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel
Late in Baumbach’s latest portrait of familial dysfunction, Sandler muses that he wishes there was “one big thing” he could hate their father for. But there’s not; it’s a matter of a million paper cuts, an accumulation of a lifetime of slights and jabs and irritations. It’s not just that he’s been terrible to Sandler – he’s been terrible to all of his children, each in a way that’s unique to them. That damage is the subject of Meyerowitz, a movie with a lot of pain and a lot of truth, wickedly smart and occasionally heartbreaking, yet prone to playfulness in content and in style (Baumbach has this great new trick where he hard cuts out of scenes, in mid-sentence or even mid-word, and it sounds simple, but you won’t believe how funny and effective it is). Honesty isn’t always easy, to speak or to hear; watch the scene where sister Jean (Marvel) confesses to her brothers, “I like hanging out with you guys,” pay close attention to their wonderfully awkward attempt to seal that intimacy with an embrace, and marvel at how efficiently Baumbach and his actors can put across a lifetime of emotional clumsiness.
RELEASE DATE: October 13 DIRECTOR: Alexandre O. Philippe CAST: Documentary
Full disclosure: you’d have a hard time coming up with a film more directly relevant to my interests than a feature-length documentary in which filmmakers, writers, academics, and actors break down the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho. So, ya know, your mileage may vary here. But if you’re in the target audience, it is Christmas morning: meticulous, intelligent, well-organized, and full of great stories, fascinating trivia, and little details and echoes that even this avowed Hitchcock freak wasn’t aware of. It’s a cinephile’s dream movie, and even more casual viewers will find elements to latch on to.
RELEASE DATE: October 13 DIRECTOR: Natalia Leite CAST: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins Jr., Michael Welch
The inciting incident of Leite’s tough dramatic thriller is a scene of sexual assault so unflinching, so terrifying, so fast, and so callous that it feels horrifyingly authentic – a rape with none of the prurient overtones and cheap thrills such scenes too often pack. Thus it’s no surprise that this is a film both written and directed by women, a story told from the inside out, inextricably bound to the campus rape culture it explores and explodes. Francesca Eastwood is a revelation in the leading role – every step of her arc feels authentic and nuanced – and though the filmmakers paint themselves into a corner in the third act, M.F.A.‘s closing words feel like a manifesto: “Dare to make the world uncomfortable with your honesty, because you will be better for it. The world will be better for it.”
RELEASE DATE: October 13 DIRECTOR: Lana Wilson CAST: Documentary
In the remarkable first sequence of this intimate documentary from director Wilson (After Tiller), the Buddhist priest Ittetsu Nemoto, conducting one of his suicide prevention retreats, gives his students a simple instruction: write down the things that they love about their lives, the things they’d still like to do, and so on. And then he instructs them to tear up each of those slips, one by one. “We find things that would be hard to lose, and we focus on treasuring them,” he explains, a simple yet effective approach, but one that’s tested when Nemoto’s health woes bring his own mortality into sharp focus. Along the way, he tells the remarkable story of his strange journey to monk-hood, and allows Wilson’s camera to eavesdrop on his candid talks with the vulnerable souls he assists. Though concerned with a grim subject matter – and it certainly doesn’t soft-soap the topic – Wilson’s film is ultimately a life-affirming work, and a deeply moving one as well.
RELEASE DATE: October 20 DIRECTOR: Todd Haynes CAST: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds
Mr. Haynes, working at the top of his craft, adapts Brian Selznick’s novel into a charming, delicate, and inventive dual narrative, in which two deaf children separated by 50 years make their way to New York City to find someone important to them, and discover something important about themselves. An earlier Selznick novel became Scorsese’s Hugo, and like that film, this is a family movie for grown-up movie lovers, with Haynes shooting in both the style of silent cinema and ‘70s New York drama (though neither is done as merely a gimmick). And eventually they intersect, with an emotional force that’s simply overwhelming. What a beautiful, elegant, and ingenious movie.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
RELEASE DATE: October 20 DIRECTOR: Yorgos Lanthimos CAST: Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Alicia Silverstone
“Do you understand, it’s a metaphor,” Martin (Barry Keoghan) explains, late in the newest nihilistic dirge from director Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster), and by that point, with two dying children upstairs and rifle-waving father in his face, it’s safe to say we understand. This story of class, guilt, and suburban terror is the blackest of black comedies – it makes Heathers look like Clueless. We’ve discovered, with the Lanthimos oeuvre thus far, that he’s rather a divisive filmmaker, and if you hated his earlier movies, you’re really gonna hate this one. But there’s no denying the skill of his craft, as he expertly wields creeping camerawork and assaultive sound design to make even the most mundane interactions straight-up menacing.
RELEASE DATE: October 20 DIRECTOR: Jairus McLeary CAST: Documentary
“I wanna be vulnerable,” Dark Cloud says, at the beginning of the intense four-day group therapy session at Folsom State Prison. “And I don’t wanna be scared to be vulnerable.” This extraordinary documentary explores those impulses – the need to show emotion, and the fear of displaying it – with genuine power and often discomforting proximity; I keep thinking of one moment of challenge and acceptance in which two men embrace so tightly, you can hear the thumps of their heartbeats in their lavalier microphones. This is emotionally brutal and viscerally powerful filmmaking, unflinching in its truths, but not without hope. It’s about not giving up, not giving in to despair, and it is also quietly, sneakily, perhaps the most powerful film I’ve seen about the toxicity of masculinity – and the power of conquering it. A must-see.
RELEASE DATE: October 27 DIRECTOR: Ruben Östlund CAST: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West
Director Östlund can be as much a sociologist (or, frankly, anthropologist) as a filmmaker; he delights in placing his characters in uncomfortable social situations, and watching them squirm (or not). His latest centers on the curator of a contemporary and modern art museum, who’s a bit of a twit and yet oddly sympathetic. But it’s about more than that one character; Östlund is fascinated by the lies that we tell ourselves every day, and the discomfort of telling them to others who aren’t hearing them. So yeah, it’s a comedy – one of bare provocation and deadpan wit.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold
RELEASE DATE: October 27 DIRECTOR: Griffin Dunne CAST: Documentary
Joan Didion is a brilliant writer who also benefited from very good timing – she started writing this very specific thing, her “essays of social criticism,” just when it felt like the country was really falling apart, and thus there was much for her to say. The Center Will Not Hold is a biographical documentary (directed by her nephew, actor/producer/director Dunne) that achieves the tricky balancing act of profiling not only the person – which is easy – but the work, and it influence, which is quite a bit harder. Dunne goes book by book, touchstone by touchstone, as she transitions from essays to novels to screenplays to politics, all of it tough and smart and challenging, (Great, little moment: Hilton Als remembering the mere anticipation of waiting for her to write about the Central Park jogger case.) Dunne’s style is deceptively breezy – he finesses you with the quotable prose and movie-star name-drops, while sneaking in an emotional undercurrent that’s ultimately clobbering – and if there’s any real complaint, it’s that the film could sustain a much longer running time than its slender 94 Minutes. When was the last time you heard that about a movie?