2015’s been a fairly monumental year so far, as far as I’m concerned. Cinema is in good shape, and September only bolsters it with a wealth intriguing, distinct works, some of which have redemptive potential for their filmmakers, others of which look to put exciting new talent on the map. The focus does lean towards limited releases, but one need only look far enough for the year’s hidden treasures.
Top 15 Films to See in September 2015
No filmmaker has had quite the peculiar career trajectory that M. Night Shyamalan’s had. After hitting a distinct and publicly rhythm and style with The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs, his critical returns have been rampantly declining over the past decade. The Village has its defenders, and even The Happening can be appreciated as mildly unnerving, B-movie sci-fi horror, but The Last Airbender and After Earth felt miles away from him. If he’s recently seemed like a shell of the filmmaker he used to be, The Visit may represent, if not quite a return to form, at least a return home. A domestic horror film that sees two kids fending for themselves against their increasingly demented grandparents, The Visit may be no more than a ludicrous, campy treat, but with D.P. Maryse Alberti on hand, one hopes Shyamalan is getting in touch with his formal and compositional senses again.
You may remember one of my first reviews here deriding Headland’s previous film, Bachelorette. For my sake, I hope you don’t, as that film has since grown on me for its bold hilarity. At the time it was criticized as a Bridesmaids knockoff, but it may ultimately have more lasting value for how unsympathetic its characterizations are. Headland’s at it again with Sleeping with Other People, a romantic comedy utilizing the typical “will they?-won’t they?” dynamic in approaching two sex addicts. It’s also a subject that’s been recently traversed in 2013’s Thanks for Sharing, but one hopes that Headland will lend it newfound warmth and wit and that its stars, Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis, will offer intriguing twists on their caricatures.
Ramin Bahrani’s proven himself very capable at finding compelling, yet unexpected, character drama amidst America’s financial crisis. After pulling moving turns from Zac Efron, Dennis Quaid and Kim Dickens in heartland piece At Any Price, he moves into more rurally challenged territory. Andrew Garfield plays a young father who gets evicted with his mom and child, and soon afterwords finds employment with the man who took his home, played by Michael Shannon. Moral queries feel destined to emerge, which promises the kind of exciting performance we haven’t seen from Andrew Garfield since his was carted away from indie filmmaking in a Spider-Man straightjacket. It’s very socio-politically promising material, and though it’s been sitting on the shelf since its Venice premiere a year ago, don’t expect this to be an easy-to-ignore featherweight.
Denis Villeneuve has had a surprisingly upwards trajectory after the turgid Foreign-Language Film nominee Incendies, with his transition to English-language filmmaking feeling like a full stylistic realization. Now he takes a turn to the topical after venturing into procedural and psychological genre thriller territory with Prisoners and Enemy, respectively. Sicario is not necessarily not a genre film, though. Starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent who finds herself in dicey moral and political territory when assigned to a task force to take down leaders of the Mexican cartel, it may just have the stylistic and political weight to make a dent in the awards season conversation the same way Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic did in 2000. Beyond that, it’s heartening to see Blunt continue to command roles for women in typically male-dominated action territory.
My reasons for anticipating Black Mass are very personal, to say the least. To say more, it’s a film about the man who arranged the murder of my mom’s uncle, Roger Wheeler, who is himself a character in the film, played by David De Beck. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume I’ll see the murder of a family member dramatized here, and that gives the film some personal sense of urgency. Furthermore, Black Mass digs into the corruption that kept James ‘Whitey’ Bulger free from punishment for so long. Masanobu Takayanagi is an incredible atmospheric photographer, and Scott Cooper is certainly not afraid to wade into dark, grimy waters, even if he has trouble giving women as meaty roles as his men. It’s a portrait I’m fascinated to see of a man whose extreme acts of violence shaped many families’ histories to the present day.
In spite the pre-release uproar the film’s elicited, I’m still anticipating Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall without a hint of irony. Emmerich has long displayed exciting formal qualities amidst his chaotic action pictures, and White House Down felt like an apex in terms of conceptual tightness and lunacy. This, admittedly, is something else entirely, but not necessarily beyond his skillset. Emmerich’s shown exciting period chops with 2011’s Shakespeare-speculation romp Anonymous, and the look he’s applying to this story of the Stonewall protests looks rich and sumptuous, if noticeably white-washed. If it’s to come in for a bashing, though, let’s decide that after we’ve let the film make its own case.
9. Welcome to Leith (Dir. Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker)
Limited Release | September 9th
At first glimpse September doesn’t appear to be an abundant month for topical documentaries, but with one notable, disconcerting exception. Welcome to Leith is more of a horror film disguised as a doc, focusing on the attempted takeover of a North Dakota town by volatile white supremacists, led by notorious Craig Cobb. These days we’ve learned to accept that such hateful subcultures still exist today – the devastating racially motivated crimes of this past summer indicate that they, sadly, don’t seem to be going away. One hopes Welcome to Leith brings some attention and insight to how these ideologies thrive,to what degrees a community pushes back against it, and what that says about that community.
An oddity on the festival circuit, the latest film from Italian filmmaker Asia Argento has all the qualities an alluringly off-kilter coming-of-age story. Following a young girl who ends up brutally shortchanged by her parents’ divorce, to the point of homelessness, one imagines there’s something autobiographical about it given its lead character’s name, Aria. Given how quietly it went through the festival season last year, though, other details remain sparse, but glimpses of it look unconventional and alive. It won’t be a hit, but this may be a surprise delight of the fall.
On the cover, this might simply be an extended music video, or a blend of that into a behind-the-music documentary, but it boasts stylistically ambitious artists and one mammoth of a soundtrack. As a total lover of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, an album that goes into darker, more experimental musical territory than the band’s previous work, I’m as interested in seeing both the process behind that album, but also the processing of it into a visual medium. The short glimpse the trailer offers suggests much more than a routine concert film. With luck the film can prove an exciting and revealing extension of both the album and the band itself.
The sophomore feature by French actress Melanie Laurent is like Blue Is the Warmest Color without the sex or generous interpersonal chemistry, and that absence makes an acidic void. Not in the film, as Laurent’s quite intelligent in framing for psychology and atmosphere. Rather it’s the relationship at its core, a friendship between girls that becomes cripplingly dependent, unsympathetic and toxic as one girl’s intentions become clear. It may indulge an irritating trend in recent French cinema of having queer attraction feel like a phase, but its how desperately the main character wants her desires to be fulfilled, and not denied, that lends this film its tension. Its ending is both utterly devastating, sucking all the air out of the room, and yet eerily cathartic. Terror, shock and fulfillment, all in the space of seconds.
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are back after a bit of a misstep with It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a film whose interest in run-down individuals felt more irritating than enlightening. One hopes Mississippi Grind is closer to Sugar, and the casting of the usually-supporting Ben Mendehlson in the lead sparks hope. Focusing on a gambling addict in debt to nearly everyone he knows, Mississippi Grind certainly has a lively energy to it, but hopefully also a sobering humanism to it. Ryan Gosling continues a better-than-usual year in a supporting role as Mendehlson’s partner/good luck charm, and I’m excited to see what journey this film leads its dead-beat protagonist on, as well as what performance rewards it reaps for its stars.
Present and future parents, proceed with caution. Or, perhaps, don’t. Don’t ever. Goodnight Mommy is bound to make people unsettled about the prospect of having children. Just as We Need to Talk About Kevin raised fears about the unpredictability of parenthood, this film takes a different route in analyzing the uncertainties about family bonds in unsettling ways. It’s about two boys whose mother arrives home after facial reconstruction surgery in bandages, raising suspicions about whether or not she is their mother. Given its root in horror territory, you can suspect things will go frightfully south for one party, and directors Fiala and Franz look to be concocting a truly haunting piece of work with this. The Babadook, you’ve got competition in the mommy-child warfare horror bracket!
One of two acclaimed festival films that have waited so l0ng for distribution, scarcely anyone’s noticing they’re out now. La Jaula de Oro premiered at Cannes two years ago, where its story of teenage immigrants being intercepted and impeded as they journey to America won many plaudits. As anyone who’s heard of the Mexican drug wars or knows the anti-immigration rhetoric of conservative America would suspect, their journey is fraught with threat and likely tragedy, but driven by an unimpeachable optimism. It’s a shame few will turn their heads to something so topical and resonant in this moment, but if you find it at a theater near you, don’t hesitate.
It feels like the western is still enjoying an extended shelf-life, though I wouldn’t necessarily describe The Keeping Room under that banner from its trailers. Set in the dying days of the Civil War, it sees three women left to fend off rogue soldiers as they siege the farm. Brit Marling is the de facto household leader, Hailee Steinfeld is her panicking sister, Muna Otaru is their slave, and Sam Worthington is the man leading the attack on their home. It’s a historical portrait, but I’m most excited for the history-reshaping agency it gives its lead women. “Maybe all the men killed each other and we’re the only ones left.” The apocalyptic and feminist subtext is ripe and ready for picking.
I’d begun to expect Eskil Vogt’s Sundance debut from last year, Blind, would wallow eternally in distribution limbo. And yet here it is, playing at IFC Center, and probably few other places. Minor distribution is still minor, but this inventive film is out in the world for your viewing pleasure. Focusing on a recently blind-woman’s active imagination as she narrates a world beyond her vision and struggles to keep her ability to visualize alive, her space fills of tension and intrigue as her uncertainties start to feel less significant than her unbound desires. Or at least, that’s what I glean from its trailers and descriptions, which are full of abstract and ambiguous imagery. What is certain is how distinct and unique a work this is, not worth being forgotten.
Other Notable September Releases
Even at fifteen slots, I couldn’t cover all this month’s interesting films. Special attention should go towards Time Out of Mind, Oren Moverman’s latest portrait of modern, grizzled American men, Pawn Sacrifice, Ed Zwick’s chess tournament teaming with ace D.P. Bradford Young (Selma, Mother of George), and The New Girlfriend, Francois Ozon’s latest pseudo-Hitchcockian drama with questionable, but intriguing transgender elements.
A Walk in the Woods (September 2nd)
Coming Home (September 11th)
Time Out of Mind (September 11th)
Pawn Sacrifice (September 16th)
About Ray (September 18th)
Everest (September 18th)
The New Girlfriend (September 18th)
em>Prophet’s Prey (September 18th)
Labyrinth of Lies (September 28th)