Goodness gracious, this month. With the moviegoing year winding down, distributors large and small are bringing out their big guns – so this month’s indie preview includes hopefuls a-plenty for year-end awards and best-of lists, plus more great documentaries than you can shake a stick at. See them all. Nothin’ else going on, right?
The Disaster Artist
RELEASE DATE: December 1 DIRECTOR: James Franco CAST: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Jacki Weaver
This dramatization of the making of the Bad Movie masterpiece The Room has so many inside jokes, big reveals, and little winks to the source material that it’s hard to know exactly who it’s for; I can’t imagine seeing it without seeing The Room, and its celebrity-testimonials opening sequence aside, not that many people have seen The Room. But the people who have are going to love this. And to be fair, there’s more to it than just the origin story of a particularly inexplicable (yet quotable!) piece of junk; director Franco and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Spectacular Now) slyly explore the artist’s essential need to risk looking stupid and how that confidence can translate to blissfully bad art, but also – audience implication alert! – how the desire to point and laugh at bad art so often does a disservice to all involved.
The Shape of Water
RELEASE DATE: December 1 DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro CAST: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones
Guillermo Del Toro is, in many ways, as much an architect as a storyteller – his films construct magical worlds, and you just want to crawl through the screen and live in them. His latest concerns a merman, a mute janitor, a closeted gay ad man, and a Russian spy whose allegiances are tested by his love of science. Oh, and it has Michael Shannon as a sadistic government agent, telling Biblical stories and ripping off his fingers. In other words, to quote Stefon, this movie has everything – but most of all, it has a heart, telling an honest-to-goodness inter-species love story with grace, charm, and affection. And, like so much of Del Toro’s work, it’s somehow constructed out of popular culture remnants, while taking flight as its own, singular creation.
RELEASE DATE: December 1 (in select cities and on Netflix) DIRECTORS: Myles Kane, Josh Koury CAST: Documentary
Gay Talese got the letter in 1980. It came from a man named Gerald Foos, who confessed that he owned a motel in Colorado where he’d rigged up an “observation deck,” from which he could spy on his guests to fulfill his voyeuristic tendencies. Talese spent the next thirty-plus years chasing the story, only to have it collapse on him at the eleventh hour, and one of the many refreshing angles of Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s documentary is its refusal to lionize the legendary writer – in fact, he comes off pretty poorly, between the casual sexism, inflated ego, and his self-important lectures (even to the filmmakers, of whom he insists, “These guys aren’t even credible journalists!”). But it’s not a hit job, either; this is a valuable post-mortem of a flawed story and a problematic subject, and of how even the greats aren’t immune from occasionally blowing it.
RELEASE DATE: December 1 DIRECTOR: Oren Jacoby CAST: Documentary
In the exploding New York art scene of the early 1980s, Richard Hambleton’s name was often mentioned alongside those of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, but his work doesn’t sell at the record prices of theirs today – partly because he did not die young, which can lead a person to the uncomfortable conclusion that they (or at least their art) is worth more dead than alive. Oren Jacoby’s profile is full of that kind of anxiety and desperation, as Hambleton drops out of the art world, disappears into a “living crime scene” of an apartment, and loses most of his art and half of his nose. Even when he’s rediscovered and revitalized, it’s troubling to note, as one of his advocates does, “This distance between where he is, and where these pieces are going”; we get the sense that Jacoby set out to make a bio-doc, and ended up with a depressing portrait of how the art world chews up its talents and spits them out when they’re no longer manageable.
RELEASE DATE: December 1 (Philadelphia) / December 8 (NYC) DIRECTOR: Jonathan Olshefski CAST: Documentary
Director/cinematographer Olshefski spent eight years, from 2008 to 2015 (the Obama years, in fact; Obama/Biden signs cover the neighborhood early on, and the elections provide useful guideposts to the chronology) with the Raineys, a fairly typical North Philadelphia family that, in that time and before it, face a number of everyday trials and tribulations. There are money troubles and addiction demons, there are tragedies in their pasts and quite nearly one in their present. But they don’t complain and they don’t despair; they carry on, pausing only to be thankful for what they have, and who they are. Epic in scope yet modest in execution, it’s a film with much to say (without ever explicitly saying it) about class and race in America, and about family, and its small miracles.
RELEASE DATE: December 8 DIRECTOR: Craig Gillespie CAST: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan
Craig Gillespie’s dramatization, and reexamination, of one of the biggest tabloid stories of the 1990s is based – per its opening credits – on wildly contrary (and “irony-free”) interviews with the major players in the bonkers story of figure skating rivalry and for-hire knee-capping, particularly skating champ Tonya Harding (a blazingly good Margot Robbie), her physically abusive boyfriend Jeff (Sebastian Stan), and her emotionally abusive mother (Allison Janney, doing her best screen work to date, and yes, that’s a bold statement). It’s a funny movie, mining considerable humor from its hare-brained caper and its own structural cleverness, but there’s genuine social commentary and character drama happening here, and Gillsepie handles that difficult material with even greater finesse.
The Rape of Recy Taylor
RELEASE DATE: December 8 (Los Angeles) / December 15 (NYC) DIRECTOR: Nancy Buirski CAST: Documentary
In the small town of Abbeville, Alabama, late one night in 1944, a 24-year-old black woman named Recy Taylor – a wife, mother, and avid churchgoer – was brutally raped by six young white men. They were from the community, everyone knew who they were, and no one intended to do anything about it. But Recy did. This searing documentary from director Nancy Buirski (The Loving Story) expertly interweaves race films, vintage footage, home movies, and the memories of Taylor’s family, who still speak of the event in veiled terms (“That night, when that happened to her”). Most of all, Buirski calls upon Recy’s own raspy voice, describing this horrible ordeal, which is placed within the context of sexual abuse and life under Jim Crow. It’s a powerful story on its own terms, but the appearance of Rosa Parks (ten years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott) and the organizing and protests she prompts amount to the early stirrings of a movement.
RELEASE DATE: December 15 (in select cities and on Netflix) DIRECTOR: Errol Morris CAST: Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Blake Nelson, Molly Parker
Errol Morris’s six-part Netflix series is so good, the streaming service is offering audiences in select cities the chance to see it in a theater, as a massive documentary film with one intermission – and if your city has been selected, you should take them up on it. Morris expertly fuses new interviews, archival footage, reenactments, and dramatizations to tell the story of a CIA-employed scientist who, according to the record, “fell or jumped” from the 13th floor window of his Manhattan hotel room in 1952 – and how his son spent his entire life trying to figure out exactly what happened there. Morris treats the mystery like a giant puzzle, mesmerizingly rearranging the pieces, flipping them over and tossing them from the table, and asking not only if “truth” is too elusive, but if, ultimately, we’d rather have it that way.
RELEASE DATE: December 22 DIRECTOR: Scott Cooper CAST: Christian Bale, Rosamund Pike, Peter Mullen, Timothée Chalamet, Ben Foster
This late Western from director Cooper (Crazy Heart) opens with a tough, unforgiving sequence in which a frontier wife and mother watches marauding Comanches murder her husband and children, barely escaping with her own life; it’s bloody, brutal, and scary, and the movie spends most of its time inhabiting the same dark spirit. But if you don’t mind that tone (and the, politely put, deliberate pacing) there’s much to admire here: a Christian Bale turn of real skill, a Rosamund Pike performance of utter heartbreak, and a surprise third-quarter appearance by Foster, an imprisoned former officer who spits an uncomfortable truth: “We’re all guilty of something.”
RELEASE DATE: December 25 DIRECTOR: Aaron Sorkin CAST: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera
The greatest pleasure of Aaron Sorkin’s scripts is the screwball snap of his dialogue, full of repetitions and interruptions and jazzy rhythms, and his directorial debut has that same charge – while simultaneously finding the visual equivalent to his words in short, staccato bursts of image and sound. He’s telling the true story of the savvy young woman who ran a private poker game for very high rollers, crafting it into a deliciously twisty narrative that’s told from the inside – both in Molly’s card games (she notes, of one regular, “He was playing poker, and the others were gambling,” and it’s a movie that knows the difference) and her drug problem (which Sorkin seems to connect to his own). The bloom has come off Sorkin’s rose a bit in recent years, often for good reason. But this chatty, snazzy, savvy picture is a welcome reminder of what he does well.
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
RELEASE DATE: December 29 DIRECTOR: Paul McGuigan CAST: Jamie Bell, Annette Bening, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Walters
It’s sort of telling that Annette Bening keeps getting cast as aging actors – it’s as if the only thing they think an actress over 50 can play is another one. But she also manages to get at something indelible in these characters, something both tragic and tough. There is, for example, a scene in Film Stars in which Bening, as Gloria Graeme, sings one of her old numbers into a mirror – a scene that tiptoes right up to the edge of sentimental pap, yet the actor’s quiet dignity sells it. As Graeme, who appeared in It’s a Wonderful Life and In A Lonely Place (among others), Bening takes on a whispier vocal inflection, which allows her to sound like Graeme without stooping to anything so craven as “doing an impression.” The film that surrounds her is pretty pro forma – it’s better than the strikingly similar My Week With Marilyn, but not by much – yet it’s so full of untouchable Bening moments, it’s still a must-see.