September, as everyone is aware, begins what we know as “good movie season” – the post-summer period in which the studios break out their prestige pictures and the indies give a big push to the ones they think could make some noise at the awards ceremonies and on the year-end lists. But most of those begin their rollout at the big fall festivals, at Telluride and Toronto, so the indies that hit theaters this month are the quieter ones, titles that most likely paid spring fests and may or may not find an audience in this sink-or-swim month. Well, here’s a documentary-heavy handful of the ones we think are worth your time.
‘Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins’
RELEASE DATE: September 6
DIRECTOR: Janice Engel
This profile of the unapologetically partisan and profane Texas columnist is one of the funniest movies of the year – and, finally, a real superhero origin story. Ivins wrote so much and spoke so frequently (the film is filled with great stuff from the C-SPAN archives, a sentence that few people have ever typed before) that Engel is able to mostly let Ivins tell her own story, and it’s a good one: her travels and travails, her personal and health battles, her alcoholism and depression, and her political theories and warnings, which haven’t gathered an inch of dust since her death in 2007. It’s a rollicking good time – and surprisingly moving and inspirational to boot.
‘Say Amen, Somebody’
RELEASE DATE: September 6
DIRECTOR: George T. Nierenberg
If I may get personal: finally seeing this 1982 gospel music documentary (recently restored and out this month in a theatrical re-release) was like the fulfillment of a decades-long mission, as it was a mainstay of Roger Ebert’s annual home video companions, his four-star review promising “one of the most joyful movies I’ve ever seen… also one of the best musicals and one of the most interesting documentaries. And it’s a terrific good time.” Uncle Roger did not oversell it. Say Amen focuses on Thomas Dorsey and Willie Mae Ford Smith, two lifelong gospel performers who spend their golden years barnstorming to small churches and congregations, where they perform, spread the gospel, revisit their old stomping grounds, and tell their war stories. They’re both so old and fragile that the film seems not just informative but poignant – you get a sense that Nierenberg wanted to record these stories before it was too late. And then there is the music, of course, the music, which is joyful and heartfelt and moving; even atheists will find themselves swept up. This is a long-lost treasure of a movie, and I for one am elated by its revival.
RELEASE DATE: September 13
DIRECTOR: Stella Meghie
CAST: Sasheer Zamata, Tone Bell, DeWanda Wise
“You have a really interesting dynamic going on,” Aubrey observes, and he doesn’t know the half of it; the weekend at Queenie’s Country Bed and Breakfast involves an arrangement of former flames and new loves that are bound do combust. It’s an awkward situation (the only serious flaw in Stella Meghie’s other wise fine script is that it’s hard to imagine anyone voluntarily putting themselves into it), and the discomfort escalates as the days pass. The Weekendis am entertaining slice of comedy-of-awkwardness, but the main draw is the warm and winning lead performance by SNL’s Zamata, who is uproariously funny and has a smile sogenuine, it fills the screen. If there’s any justice, The Weekend will make her a movie star; even if it doesn’t, it’s an awfully good time.
RELEASE DATE: September 18
DIRECTOR: Hassan Fazili
“This is the story of a journey to the edge of hell.” So begins this harrowing and heart-wrenching documentary from Afghan filmmaker Fazili, who found himself in the crosshairs of the Taliban after making a critical film. So he packed up his family, a wife and two daughters, and headed for the border, beginning a three-year, multi-country journey in which they were chased, captured, separated, and strained – and greeted, as so many refugees are, with something less than open arms in the countries they sought asylum. A powerful work of genuine bravery and beauty.
‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’
RELEASE DATE: September 20
DIRECTOR: Matt Tyrnauer
The broad strokes of the life of Roy Cohn – the legendarily powerful and corrupt lawyer who sat by McCarthy’s side, defended members of New York’s organized crime families, and mentored Donald Trump – are more than familiar. But it turns out the devil (literally) is in the details. Director Tyrauner specializes in hedonism and secret-keeping (his previous films include Studio 54 and Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood), and the strength of his approach is that he’s just as interested in psychology as history; he’s fascinated by Cohn’s many contradictions, by the wide gulf between who he was and how he tried to present himself. The biggest contradiction was his sexuality, living his life in the closet, dying of AIDS-related illness, denying both and choosing to remain a liar and hypocrite until the bitter end. He was a bad guy, to put it mildly, but this is a razor-sharp documentary, digging deep into the crime, corruption, and self-deception of this figure whose influence remains sadly inescapable.