It’s October, and that means the art house is getting crowded. The 13 recommendations herein — Netflix indies, historical documentaries, character-driven dramas, and much more — include some contenders for the year-end best-of lists, yet they barely scratch the surface of what’s available to discerning moviegoers this month. Enjoy them while you can, folks. January will be here sooner than you think.
RELEASE DATE: October 5 DIRECTOR: Tamara Jenkins CAST: Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, Molly Shannon
Tamara Jenkins’ portrait of a marriage (and the stress it undergoes in the difficult process of later-than-usual conception and pregnancy) is so carefully written and savvily directed that it probably could’ve worked with any number of fine actors. But Jenkins got Giamatti and Hahn, and they’ve rarely been better — both crafting performances that live in her masterful dialogue, but breathe in the spaces between it. Watch the scene when he takes her hits, pauses, and keeps coming in to comfort her. Look at the things she’s doing with her face and voice when they get the big phone call. And witness what they’re saying to each other, without a word of dialogue, in the closing scene. That, friends, is what great movie acting is all about.
RELEASE DATE: October 5 DIRECTOR: Matt Tyrnauer CAST: Documentary
Ace documentarian Tyrauner (Valentino: The Last Emperor) tells the coke-dusted rise-and-fall tale of Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager’s tres chic discotheque, which ruled Manhattan’s night life for 33 months in the late 1970s before tumbling down in a spectacular wave of scandals and criminal convictions. Tyrauner digs deeper and pushes past the usual tsk-tsking and/or hagiography, leaving in the uncomfortable questions and awkward answers. But more importantly, he understands and conveys exactly why the club connected, at that particular moment — how it was fueled by the ying/yang, introvert/extrovert dynamic of its co-owners, and how its potent dance floor cocktail of personalities, classes, and sexualities offered up to its patrons escapism, inclusion, acceptance, and access. A bewitching story, briskly and wittily told.
The Great Buster: A Celebration
RELEASE DATE: October 5 DIRECTOR: Peter Bogdanovich CAST: Documentary
The definitive Buster Keaton documentary remains Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, but it also had twice as much time and is increasingly hard to track down, so Bogdanovich’s new tribute will do just fine. Some of his choices are dodgy — he opens with an archival clip of himself, talking about Keaton on The Dick Cavett Show — but his construction in ingenious, knocking out the conventional bio-doc stuff in about an hour to spend the rest of the running time on up-close analysis of Keaton’s 10 big features (made, incredibly, over five years), a wonderful section that feels less like a documentary and more like a seminar with a particularly astute film professor with a keen eye for craft. The film doesn’t offer a tremendous amount of new information, but the subtitle is appropriate; this is, indeed, a celebration, of one of cinema’s true honest-to-goodness geniuses.
RELEASE DATE: October 10 DIRECTOR: Paul Greengrass CAST: Jonas Strand Gravli, Anders Danielsen Lie, Jon Øigarden, Thorbjørn Harr
After the blazing miscalculation that was his return to the Bourne series, writer/director Paul Greengrass takes another shot at his other mode — you-are-there docu-drama chronicler of national tragedies, a la Bloody Sunday and United 93. This time he tackles the 2011 terror attacks in Oslo, in which a federal building bombing was used to create the chaos for a summer camp shooting; the right-wing extremist behind it killed 77 and injured over 200. Unlike the earlier films, only the first 30 minutes are spent on the event itself (thank God, it’s so assaultive and terrifying); the rest is a thoughtful exploration of his trial — with timely considerations of the merits of handing him a megaphone — and on the emotional and physical fallout of the survivors. Sharp, haunting, and immediate, and Lie’s work as the shooter is one of the more effective recent onscreen embodiments of genuine, unapologetic evil.
RELEASE DATE: October 12 DIRECTOR: Jim Cummings CAST: Jim Cummings, Kendal Farr, Nican Robinson
The slyly funny and utterly heartbreaking eulogy that opens writer/director/star Jim Cummings’ expansion of his 2016 short is an extraordinary balancing act of comedy and tragedy that properly sets the stage for the extraordinary film that follows, which is a difficult yet invigorating account of a man slowly falling apart. Cummings, a terrific actor with a sprung, Owen-Wilson-ish way of delivering a line, finds the humor in his Squaresville character without turning him into a caricature; he’s the kind of guy who starts talking and just can’t stop himself, even as he’s digging a deeper hole. I’ve rarely seen a film pivot so quickly and so frequently between comedy and pathos, in a way that neither devalues the drama nor blunts the humor. It’s kind of a miracle, frankly.
RELEASE DATE: October 17 DIRECTOR: Marilyn Ness CAST: Documentary
Midway through Marilyn Ness’ observational documentary about the epidemic of crime and violence in Baltimore, she puts an astonishing statistic up on screen: by the early 2000s, 50 percent of the city’s young black men were in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole. To tell the story of what it takes to tackle that problem, she adopts a multi-pronged, Wire-style approach, observing the work of cops, politicians, and community leaders (most of them people of color), with a keen understanding of the tensions that keep them from pursing their common goals. Intricately assembled and morally complex, Charm City is thoughtful enough to offer up small solutions — and realistic enough to know that they’re just not enough.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
RELEASE DATE: October 19 DIRECTOR: Marielle Heller CAST: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin
The latest from Marielle Heller (Diary of A Teenage Girl) tells the true story of how celebrity biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), unable to land a book deal or keep a job, became a forger — writing fake letters from famous writers, and selling them to collectors for big money. “I’ll have you know,” she insists, “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!” Drawn from Israel’s confessional memoir, Forgive Me gets into the fascinating details of exactly how she did it (and, for a time, got away with it), and viscerally conveys the horrible sinking feeling of knowing the jig is up. But beyond all that, this is McCarthy’s best screen work to date, crafting an unapologetically unlikable protagonist, and somehow building sympathy for her anyway.
RELEASE DATE: October 19 DIRECTOR: Paul Dano CAST: Carey Mulligan, Bill Camp, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould
In the last shot (I’m not spoiling, I promise) of Paul Dano’s adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel, a family takes a photo. It’s a graceful, elegant conclusion to this period drama, because so much of what the movie is about is loaded into that image — i.e., how little the simple pictures we see tell us about the complicated lives of their inhabitants. Carey Mulligan is brilliant as a young mother whose husband’s life crisis prompts a bit of a breakdown of her own; she’s trying so hard, and smiling so wide, but there’s shame and misery just underneath. Jake Gyllenhaal has less screen time but makes no less of an impact as the father, a role that takes advantage of the actor’s ability to form his face into a passive mask, and push us to look into his eyes for guidance. Dano’s compositions are crisp and his command of mood is impressive; it’s the kind of movie where people rarely raise their voices, but are clearly roaring inside.
RELEASE DATE: October 19 DIRECTOR: Gustav Möller CAST: Jakob Cedergren, Jessica Dinnage, Omar Shargawi
The “call to the 911 operator” thriller has been done so badly, so many times (if you don’t believe me, rent The Call), it’s sort of alarming that Danish director Möller does it with such concentration and style. His success is partially due to his focus; the film never leaves the side of ethically dubious dispatcher Asger (Cedergren), and he never leaves the confines of the call center. Möller not only squeezes that single location like a vice — as you’d expect — but uses the limitations of what his protagonist (and thus, his audience) sees to inform some genuinely thrilling storytelling flourishes. See it now, before they do an English-language remake and screw it all up.
On Her Shoulders
RELEASE DATE: October 19 DIRECTOR: Alexandria Bombach CAST: Documentary
Nadia Murad’s story is one of rising from the ashes — in her case, from the ISIS massacre in the Sinjar region of Iraq, in which her family was killed and she was kidnapped, raped, and traded as a sex slave. But she escaped, and spends her time traveling to the U.N. and foreign countries, giving impassioned speeches about how “the world is silent and mute about us,” and thus, “Europe is finishing the genocide started by ISIS.” Alexandria Bombach’s tough, powerful documentary glimpses into her seemingly bottomless well of compassion and dedication, and conveys some glimmer of what to must be like to carry this burden throughout one’s life. It’s not an easy movie. But it’s an invaluable one.
RELEASE DATE: October 19 DIRECTOR: Jonah Hill CAST: Sunny Suljic, Lucas Hedges, Na-Kel Smith, Katherine Waterston
Jonah Hill’s directorial debut is, more than anything, a victim of bad timing — arriving as it does the summer after Eighth Grade, another look at the woes of being 13, and Skate Kitchen, another dive into the dynamics of teen skater punks. His version, set (wouldn’t ya know) in the mid-‘90s, is hampered by some of the unavoidable and unfortunate facts of those kids at that time (warning: there’s a fair amount of derogatory terms for LGBT individuals and people with special needs in the dialogue), and the sense of story we’ve been told, then and now. But credit where due: he pulls relaxed, naturalistic performances out of his cast of mostly unknowns, the 16mm photography apes the vibe of the period’s indie films nicely, and he gets at something timeless and true about the strange feeling of discovering the coolest people you know are as much of a mess as you are.
RELEASE DATE: October 26 DIRECTOR: Lee Chang-dong CAST: Yoo Ah-In, Steven Yeun, Jeon Jong-seo
Lee (Ah-In) is an aimless would-be novelist who bumps into an old schoolmate (Jong-seo) and finds real chemistry, until she returns from a trip abroad with a new beau (The Walking Dead’s Yeun). This guy’s a real piece of work, but Lee likes her so much he’ll suffer through the new guy to spend time with her — except, one day, she just vanishes, so Lee finds himself visiting old haunts, seeking out clues, and harboring some suspicions. Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong pivots gracefully from character-driven relationship drama to obsessive mystery, evoking the horrible feeling of just knowing that someone’s up to no good, and also being aware that knowing isn’t enough. Chang-dong’s leisurely approach gives the early stretches a feeling of aimlessness, but he’s working towards something — when she disappears, it matters, and gives Lee’s subsequent actions the proper weight.
RELEASE DATE: October 26 DIRECTOR: Frederick Wiseman CAST: Documentary
Frederick Wiseman makes himself at home in a small town in Indiana, taking his camera into the centers of that community: school gym, hair salon, church, coffee shop, liquor store, gun shop. As usual, he eschews narration or talking heads, instead eavesdropping on lives lived, and noting the wonderful little details (my favorite: the girl in the front row of the high school classroom straight-up yawning during the basketball history lesson). His portraiture seems a tad idyllic — the sexist, threatening decals and bumper stickers at a town festival are the only indication of the darkness under this town’s psychological surface — but that complaint aside, this is an immersive, thoughtful, and subtly philosophical look at small towns and the people who fill them.