Aside from the chill in the air and the Christmas songs on the store PAs (c’mon, it’s November 1st, for the love of God), there’s one easy way to tell the year is coming to a close: the theatrical release schedule is jam-freaking-packed. So this month’s thirteen indie movie recommendations include a fair amount that are gunning for year-end awards and best-of-list consideration, plus a healthy dose of thoughtful dramas, sharp documentaries, and even a comedy or two.
RELEASE DATE: November 3 DIRECTOR: Greta Gerwig CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet
“We’re afraid that we will never escape the past, and we’re afraid of what the future will bring.” So says a sermonizing priest in the opening credit sequence of Greta Gerwig’s sublime directorial debut – a bit of offhand color that’s also the mission statement of the movie, and an early indication of the skill with which Gerwig does two things at once. She’s telling the story of a high school senior (the divine Ms. Ronan), who’s brassy and funny and awesome, and also a pain in the ass – particularly to her mother (Metcalf, never better). Gerwig’s elegant script and her peerless performers vividly capture the tricky dynamic between parents and children of that age, in both single lines disarming in their simplicity and truth (“Of course you love me. But do you like me?”), and in the things they choose not to say, but let fester. Witty and wise, hopeful and heartbreaking, this is one of the year’s very best films.
My Friend Dahmer
RELEASE DATE: November 3 DIRECTOR: Marc Meyers CAST: Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche, Vincent Kartheiser
If Freaks and Geeks had a serial killer in it, it might look something like Marc Meyers’s adaptation of the graphic novel by John “Derf” Backderf, who attended high school with “Jeff” Dahmer and crafted this odd, affecting, tragicomic tale of youthful alienation with a decidedly unhappy ending. Dahmer captures the specific desperation and loneliness of this age, and slowly ratchets it up; the tricky tone manages to dodge both exploitation and pure anthropology, and maneuvers its fast turns with admirable skill. Ross Lynch is superb as the title character, while Anne Heche, as his mom, is the stand-out in support – she starts out on the edge with nowhere to go but over, and there’s a scary authenticity to her work here. The late-‘70s setting gives it a pop-kitsch look and feel, but there’s nothing winking about this disturbing super-villain origin story; it’s haunting, chilling, and tough to shake.
Most Beautiful Island
RELEASE DATE: November 3 DIRECTOR: Ana Asensio CAST: Ana Asensio, Natasha Romanova, Larry Fessenden
“Here, you have so many options,” Luciana’s friend Olga tells her. “Anything is possible.” It’s our old friend the American Dream, and Luciana (a Spanish immigrant) and Olga (likewise, but Russian) are particularly susceptible to it. And because her rent is late and she can’t afford medication and there are literally cockroaches pouring out of her walls, Luciana is open to the opportunity Olga brings her: Two thousand dollars for one night’s work, nothing illegal, just to “go to a party.” It sounds too good to be true. It is too good to be true. Writer/director/star Asensio threads the needle of what’s waiting for Luciana patiently, as the night of unexplained work veers from sketchy to scary, a slow boil of unexplained actions, ominous sounds from the next room, and thick silence in this one. It’s a tense movie, made both more personal and more unnerving by Asensio’s insistence on staying with her protagonist, as the tension of her situation works us into a lather.
A Gray State
RELEASE DATE: November 3 DIRECTOR: Erik Nelson CAST: Documentary
The crime was horrifying: a Christmas Day murder/suicide, in which veteran-turned-filmmaker David Crowley killed his wife, their five-year-old daughter, and himself. Erik Nelson’s upsetting but powerful documentary is something of a psychological detective story, sifting through his biography in an attempt to understand how the unthinkable could’ve happened – however it may have happened. The answer, of course, is that there is no one answer, but using home movies, production footage, and private recordings, Nelson carefully examines how his precarious psychological state, the toxicity of his relationships, and his (perhaps cynical) libertarian leanings led Crowley to the point of no return.
RELEASE DATE: November 3 DIRECTOR: Neil Berkeley CAST: Documentary
Screeching vulgarian Gilbert Gottfried isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s a more thoughtful and sensitive guy than you might think, though Neil Berkeley’s documentary profile spares us the usual clichés about the sad clowns and all that. His film is mostly valuable as a portrait of a working comedian (“It could go at any second,” Gottfried shrugs of his sorta-fame), so we see his successes, his failures, and his current grind-it-out existence (as well as his notorious cheapness – but unlike, say, Jack Benny, it’s not a joke, as he rides the Megabus to gigs, and hoards shampoos and soaps acquired on the road). It’s a funny yet introspective film – “I wish I could enjoy things fully,” he says of his seemingly happy family life – with little fourth-wall breaks and other flashes of self-awareness to keep it from getting too serious about the Business of Comedy.
Along for the Ride
RELEASE DATE: November 3 DIRECTOR: Nick Ebeling CAST: Documentary
This moody documentary spotlights the 47-year friendship between actor/director Dennis Hopper and Satya de la Manitou, his “el hombre indivisible,” whom he met on the troubled set of The Last Movie – a production that gets the blow-by-blow treatment, through shooting, cutting, partying, and battles – and spent the rest of his life hanging out with. “I’m only a minor character,” Manitou insists, which is true. But he’s a minor character who is also a good storyteller, and an ideal tour guide for this startling and unusual life. The snazzy, stylish black and white photography is not only appropriately expressionistic for the dips and valleys of Hopper’s career; it gives the film a sense of visual personality that’s often sorely lacking in bio-docs.
RELEASE DATE: November 3 DIRECTOR: Antonino D’Ambrosio CAST: Documentary
When he used to go out undercover, Frank Serpico recalls, he would stand in his mirror and give himself a pep talk: “I told myself I was an actor, and I had to sell my role.” Of course, Serpico himself would become a role, for Al Pacino in Sidney Lumet’s 1973 classic; now Serpico himself revisits the locations and walks through the scenes (of the film and his life), which gives this otherwise standard bio-doc a fascinating duality and meta-text. It is, in effect, a documentary remake of the Lumet, but with more detail, a broader scope, and enlightening interviews with his cop contemporaries, friends, and historians. By no means a replacement for the earlier picture, but a pretty good complement to it.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
RELEASE DATE: November 10 DIRECTOR: Martin McDonagh CAST: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish
Nothing’s better than the moment where a good movie becomes a great one, and I can tell you when that moment happens in In Bruges writer/director McDonagh’s latest with pinpoint precision: it’s when we hear a letter Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has written to his wife, which begins as a motivation explainer, and then swims gracefully into straight-up poetry. That he can accomplish that transition, and then pivot into horrifying violence not long after, speaks volumes about McDonagh’s mastery of tone, and Three Billboards takes turns that most filmmakers wouldn’t even attempt, much less sustain. But watching McDonagh pull this off is, in its own way, thrilling; it’s one of those movies that makes you marvel at everything one film can be.
No Stone Unturned
RELEASE DATE: November 10 DIRECTOR: Alex Gibney CAST: Documentary
Going Clear and Zero Days director Alex Gibney goes true crime, investigating a brutal 1994 shooting at the Heights Pub in the tiny village of Loughinisland, Northern Ireland, during the World Cup game, in which UVF terrorists murdered six innocent men. It begins as an elegy, and then becomes an inquiry; why is this case still unsolved, 20 years on? Gibney provides a quick but helpful history of The Troubles, talks to family members, survivors, journalists, and UVF members, and digs up leaked documents and anonymous tips; he lands on questions of collusion between police and terrorists, and the much bigger story of corruption and informants, and the sloppy investigation of them. It’s a gripping story well-told, thanks to the tense, frightening score, the sparse but effective reenactments of the event, and Gibney’s intimate narration, done less as an authority than a partner, or confidant. The director loves to swim in the specifics (at risk of drowning, even), but he is patient, and he is thorough, and he thus ends up with a story jaw-dropping in its details and implications.
RELEASE DATE: November 10 DIRECTOR: Marianna Palka CAST: Marianna Palka, Jason Ritter, Jaime King
Good Dick creator Palka writes, directs, and stars as a frustrated housewife who comes out of a nervous breakdown acting and even looking like a feral, dangerous dog – and leaving her inept husband to pick up the slack, in constant roar of chaos and panic. She’s terrific – the intensity of what she’s doing, without saying a word, is overwhelming – but, surprisingly, the movie’s not about her. It’s about husband Ritter becoming a fuller partner, a better father, husband, and man, all jobs for which he’s utterly ill-equipped (he rages, he drinks, he runs). In other words, despite the bonkers narrative and out-thereness of its style, it’s a good old-fashioned coming-of-age story – albeit one with a woman barking wildly while covered in feces.
RELEASE DATE: November 17 DIRECTOR: Dee Rees CAST: Jason Mitchell, Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige, Jonathan Banks
Director Rees’s previous theatrical feature, the 2011 drama Pariah, was a fairly typical indie breakthrough film – a low-budget, relationship-based character drama. She takes a giant leap, in budget, scope, and ambition, with this adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s WWII-era Southern novel, telling an ensemble story with multiple perspectives in a period setting, and tackling big, important themes. But she never loses the thread that made Pariah so special; it’s moving and angry, lyrical yet terrifying, particularly in the third act’s descent into violence that moves, unexpectedly, to a note of hope. This is an important American film, from a major filmmaker.
Call Me By Your Name
RELEASE DATE: November 24 DIRECTOR: Luca Guadagnino CAST: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg
The first time they make love, they sit on the bed next to each other, and their toes brush against each other on the floor. It’s all so tentative, this little summer fling, and because it’s so tentative, Elio (Chalamet) is as surprised as we are when it ends up carrying so much more emotional heft than any of the flings he’s had before. “We wasted so many days!” he insists, in one of the movie’s many moments of truth. “Why didn’t you give me a sign?” Director Guadagnino has always been a sensualist, and his earlier pictures get at the complexities and ambiguities of love and lust, but he’s never made a movie as pure of heart as Call Me By Your Name; it’s a rare remembrance of love that knows the heartbreak after is just as tied up in the experience as the joy during. More, perhaps.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
RELEASE DATE: November 24 DIRECTOR: Alexandra Dean
“Any girl can look glamorous. All she has to do is stand still and look stupid.” So said the great Hedy Lamarr, who was, yes, a glamorous movie star, but was certainly not stupid. In fact, she was a trailblazer, taking control of her onscreen image, producing her own films, and oh yeah, in her spare time, inventing a method of “frequency hopping” during WWII to help the Allies evade Nazis, a technology that was ultimately repurposed for wifi and Bluetooth and cell phones and all sorts of other stuff. So it was a helluva life, and gets a helluva treatment from director Alexandra Dean, who charts the screen icon’s rise, fall, rise again, and longer fall into the loneliness and solitude of her later years, punctured finally by the rediscovery of her remarkable scientific work decades before. It’s a great story – and one told with real sympathy and respect for its enthralling subject.