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Flavorwire's November Indie Movie Guide

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We’re closing in on the end of the year, and this month’s indie offerings are about what you’d expect: a lot (and I mean a lot) of documentaries, a couple of obscurities, a few high-profile titles with awards aspirations, and plenty of Adam Driver. It’s a hell of a crop, featuring some of the best films your correspondent has seen this year, so mark up that calendar:

'American Dharma'

Utopia on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 1

DIRECTOR: Errol Morris

CAST: Documentary

The great Errol Morris profiles right-wing ideologue Steve Bannon in what amounts to the third part of a trilogy of Morris’ conversations with divisive political influencers, following his 2003 The Fog of War (with Robert McNamara) and the 2013 The Unknown Known (with Donald Rumsfeld). He occasionally pushes back against Bannon, in a way he didn’t in the earlier films, and sort of has to – if Dharma suffers in comparison, it’s because it’s telling a story that’s still in progress. This would be a very different movie in a few years, one presumes, and perhaps a better one. But it’s nevertheless effective, particularly as a formal achievement; he spends the first chunk of the picture allowing us to see Bannon as he sees himself, as the field general, the happy warrior, the mastermind. And then slowly but surely, over the course of the film, he chips away at that iconography to reveal what he really is: a small-minded, racist, buzzword-spouting arsonist.

'17 Blocks'

ZFF Zurich Film Festival on YouTube

This story of trouble and tragedy focuses on the Sanford family, who were given a video camera in 1999 and spent the next twenty years recording their lives – which sometimes dodge expectation, and often do not. Director Rothbart and editor Jennifer Tiexiera perceptively arrange the footage not as a dirge but as a story of coming to terms with one’s past and its repercussions on the future; it painstakingly details how this family fell into a cycle of heartbreak, abuse, and desperation, and yet somehow finds, at its conclusion, a sliver of hope. “I’m tired of living this way,” a key participant says at the end, and by that point in this deeply moving film, you know exactly what he means.

'Marriage Story'

Netflix on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 6

DIRECTOR: Noah Baumbach

CAST: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern

Noah Baumbach tends to keep his movies tight, always clocking in at less than two hours, and often at around 90 minutes. His latest runs a leisurely 136, and is steeped in the feeling that he’s letting himself go, leaving it all in, even the stuff that’s painful and/or embarrassing. More than that, he seems to let his characters go long, with moments of self-reflection and confession that turn the corner from Big Scenes and into the kind of wandering yet penetrating analysis more often seen on the stage than screen. It’s a wonderful movie, loaded with moments of tiny truth and emotional devastation, and this is probably the best work we’ve seen yet from Johansson and Driver.

'Honey Boy'

Amazon Studios on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 8

DIRECTOR: Alma Har'el

CAST: Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe

“The only thing my father gave me that was of any value was pain,” the young actor (Hedges) demands of his therapist, “and now you wanna take that away?” And indeed she does – by asking him to revisit a childhood so traumatic that it’s left him with something akin to PTSD, which might be why he keeps getting plastered and wrecking cars. The script is by Shia LaBeouf, who based it upon his own experiences as a child actor with an emotionally and sometimes physically abusive dad; he also co-stars as the father, doing his best acting work to date as a man who is perpetually like a time bomb you’re waiting to go off. The director is the great hybrid artist Alma Har’el, and while this is the most conventional movie she’s made, it’s still full of her marvelous trills, flourishes, and experiments.

'The Apollo'

HBO on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 8 (New York)

DIRECTOR: Roger Ross Williams

CAST: Documentary

Director Roger Ross Williams (Life, Animated) covers quite a lot of ground in this look at the past, present, and future of the legendary Harlem cultural center, and he sometimes has trouble finding the through-line that connects it all. But viewed as an act of oral history – capturing the legends and folklore of that venerable venue, and supplementing them with incredible archival footage – it’s invaluable, a celebration of African-American culture, history, and perseverance.

'A Fish in the Bathtub'

Cohen Media Group on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 8 (New York)

DIRECTOR: Joan Micklin Silver

CAST: Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Mark Ruffalo

This 1998 comedy, newly restored and running at New York’s Quad Cinema, is the final theatrical feature to date from the great Ms. Silver, though it is, to be polite, closer to Loverboy than Crossing Delancey - a broad, sometimes cartoonish comedy, with a cast (not only Stiller and Meara but such TV standbys as Doris Roberts, Bob Dishy, and Paul Benedict) that nudges it even further into sitcom territory. That said, it’s a fun to watch a very young Ruffalo (as a frazzled yuppie son) bounce off these old pros, and Silver coaxes moving moments out of her stars; Stiller’s vulnerable reaction to his friend’s death is some of the best serious acting he’s done, while (real-life couple) Stiller and Meara’s inevitable reunion scene has the kind of warmth and tenderness you just can’t fake.

'The Report'

Amazon Prime Video on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 15

DIRECTOR: Scott Z. Burns

CAST: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney

Well, here’s something timely: a whistleblower story. Burns, best known as frequent screenwriter for Steven Soderbergh (he wrote, among others, Contagion, The Informant!, and last month’s The Laundromat), makes his directorial debut in this gripping dramatization of analyst Daniel J. Jones’s creation – and difficulties disseminating – the Sentate Intelligence Committee’s Report on the CIA Detention and Torture Program. His script cleverly toggles timelines, dramatizing what Jones discovers (namely, the repugnant details of these interrogations) as he discovers it. Burns unsurprisingly but wisely embraces an All the President’s Men aesthetic, dwelling in grim, ugly work spaces and underlit conference rooms, sharing his protagonist’s claustrophobia. And Driver (who is having one hell of a fall) crafts a beautifully modulated performance, evolving from a straight-arrow to a furious advocate; we watch his slow fuse turn into a live wire. This is a sharp, complicated movie, and an infuriating one.

'Waves'

A24 on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 15

DIRECTOR: Trey Edward Shults

CAST: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, Lucas Hedges

Trey Edward Shults makes movies that borough under your skin and settle there. The subject matter of his new one is new, but the intention – and methodology – is consistent, using jarringly incongruent images and sound, along with loop-the-loop camerawork, to create a discombulating texture. That’s a good fit for this story of a high school athlete whose promising future is suddenly shifted, darkly and irrevocably; Shultz follows him down a steep, scary spiral, which makes for a visceral experience. He’s lucky to have Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the leading role (and incapable of sounding a false note); Sterling K. Brown is similarly excellent as his hard-pushing father, straddling the thin line between firm hand and toxic masculinity.

'Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project'

ZeitgeistFilms on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 15

DIRECTOR: Matt Wolf

CAST: Documentary

“In her mind, there was a purpose to it all,” Richard the chauffer explains, though it must have been hard to see at the time. Marion Stokes was a Philadelphia woman with a strange, rich past (she was a Communist and activist with an FBI file) who used the wealth of her later years to purchase books, magazines, Apple computers, and most importantly, televisions, VCRs, and tapes, recording multiple channels of television broadcasts continuously for over 30 years, accumulating 70,000 tapes. Fascinated by the power of mass media to influence (and manipulate) public opinion, she ended up with a valuable archive of the late 20th century, as it was happening. Director Matt Wolf’s fascinating film runs on two tracks simultaneously, telling both her history and that which she captured, full of stories we remember – and quite a few we (pointedly) don’t. It makes for thrilling viewing, a psychological profile of both this unique woman and the conventional wisdom she spent her life challenging.

'The Hottest August'

Sheffield Doc/Fest on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 15

DIRECTOR: Brett Story

CAST: Documentary

The set-up for this observational documentary is simplicity itself. Over the course of one month, August of 2017, director Story interviews several New Yorkers about the things that are important to them: family, work, fitness, preservation, dance, investment, and (swear to God) “robot communism.” But these aren’t just snapshots of regular folks; Story and cinematographer Derek Howard are speaking volumes in the way they see and show all of these people, and display a savvy understanding and articulation of exactly what American life is at this particular, peculiar moment.

'Varda by Agnès'

BFI on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 22

DIRECTOR: Agnès Varda

CAST: Documentary

“I’d like to tell you what led me to do this work for all these years.” And with that, the late, great French/Belgian filmmaker embarks on something of a filmed master class, in which she shows some clips and tells some stories from her extraordinary career. It was a career defined by variety; she made so many kinds of films, working in so many contrasting yet overlapping styles, that the film comes off less as self-mythology and more as explainer. It’s helpful to hear, from the source, how she made these leaps, where the lines blurred for her, and why she went into the unexpected, eccentric directions she did. It’s a touch overlong, but what the hell; it’s her last movie, her final dispatch on the way out the door, and there’s nothing wrong with lingering on goodbyes.

'Citizen K '

Greenwich Entertainment on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 22 (Los Angeles)

DIRECTOR: Alex Gibney

CAST: Documentary

The latest from the prolific Mr. Gibney concerns Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a wealthy Russian oligarch whose opposition to Vladamir Putin landed him in a Siberian prison for embezzlement and fraud, and now banished from the country on a dubious accusation of murder. He’s a fascinating and deeply flawed figure, but Gibney’s movie wisely isn’t just about him; he uses Khodorkovsky as a window into the modern history of Russia, offering a streamlined but informative timeline of its transition from the USSR, the aftermath of that transition, its current position on the world stage, and the motivations of its leader. It’s a lot to digest, and gets a bit dry in spots. But Gibney’s user-friendly approach works, and well, it certainly behooves us to soak up this history, don’tcha think?

'Shooting the Mafia'

Cohen Media Group on YouTube

RELEASE DATE: November 22

DIRECTOR: Kim Longinotto

CAST: Documentary

Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia took striking, forceful images, alternating Weegee-style crime photography with portraits of the poverty and grief left in the wake of that crime. Much of it was organized by the Mafia, and Battaglia loved to upset the power dynamic therein; “Mafia men were so arrogant,” she recalls, “imagine how they felt, being photographed by a woman!” Director Longinotto gives equal time to her colorful past (wittily illustrated with old movie clips) and her photographic philosophy; the result is a a thoughtful examination of this legacy of crime, told by an up-close-and-personal observer.