Yep, it’s time to get serious about movies again. Though this column typically keeps listmaking to 10 choices for films to check out every month, we can’t deny that October is absolutely jam-packed. There’s a lot to be excited about this month: already highly-praised works from auteurs, plenty of titles from this year’s festivals, the occasional horror movie (hopefully one of them is at least scary, but that’s a rarity), and potential Oscar nominees and winners. So we stretched the list this time out.
Regardless of how various awards pan out this year, we’re glad we get to see these movies sooner rather than later, especially after our exhaustive festival coverage during September (Toronto International Film Festival / Telluride Film Festival / Venice Film Festival) in which most of The Playlist staff were left on the sidelines and forced to read about all the cool movies being discovered and discussed. But the time is now, dear reader. Plenty to see and talk about at the movies this month. Let us know if we missed anything worth checking out.
Synopsis: The disappearance of Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife sets off a media circus, in which he becomes a suspect.
What You Need To Know: David Fincher, doing what he does (maybe) best. The preeminent director in terms of turning pure B-movie pulp into high-gloss prestige pictures tackles another popular bestseller. This film sees Gillian Flynn adapting her own book for the screenplay, and by most accounts, Fincher is in top form, adding his sleek, high definition sheen to a twisty, complex story. Also worth noting, according to Kevin Jagernauth’s mostly positive review, it’s pretty damn silly: “Often undone by the wildly swinging, almost lunatic nature of the story itself… this might just be the most minor entry in the filmmaker’s catalog so far. But it says something about Fincher’s storytelling skills, his ability to wrap viewers completely around his finger, that ‘Gone Girl’ is still, at times, genuinely edge-of-your-seat involving and even astonishing.” If you subscribe to the every-other-film rule for Fincher (starting with “Se7en,” one of his best, every other film he’s made has been great, while the inbetweeners are either serviceable, entertaining or at least interesting), that would make “Gone Girl” the next truly great addition to his oeuvre. Though its roots in another airport novel adaptation, a.k.a. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, possibly runs counter to that theory. Thankfully, you don’t have to wait too long to find out.
Release Date: October 3rd
Synopsis: Crazy ambition meets crazy mentorship when a promising drummer enrolls at a competitive New York music school with dreams of becoming one of the greats.
What You Need To Know: It went over like gangbusters for the crowd at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, walking away with the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. Writer/director Damien Chazelle —his barely-seen but utterly charming lo-fi 2009 musical, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” is well worth seeking out— should go on to do some great things. He also has a natural skill for elevating the music in his films with visceral editing, cinematography and performances from his actors. So he lands smack dab in the Playlist wheelhouse. Four of the last five Sundance Grand Jury Prize winners has either gone on to win Oscars, to gain financial or critical glory, and in some cases all three (save for the quickly forgotten “happythankyoumoreplease”). “Whiplash” is an impressive enough mix of edgy pragmatism, filmmaking verve, crowd-pleasing, and strong acting from its two leads (Miles Teller and the always great J.K. Simmons) to achieve that rare indie slot in the awards race. In fact, there’s so much blood coursing through this film’s veins (and on drum kits) that spontaneous combustion is the only plausible outcome for the energy captured onscreen.
Release Date: October 10th
Synopsis: A young boy whose parents just divorced finds an unlikely mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran who lives next door.
What You Need To Know: Bill Murray, just doing his thing, being awesome. This role looks like one he could perform in his sleep, but since most of us would be happy watching 90 minutes of Murray tossing and turning, that’ll do just fine. Our positive yet restrained review out of TIFF this year described the part as such: “Imagine Herman Blume from ‘Rushmore‘ if he were even crankier, broke, drunker and even more irresponsible, and that’s Vincent, played with ease by Murray… it seems like the role he’s been gearing up to play ever since his career was given an energy boost in Wes Anderson‘s aforementioned film.” On our recent fall festival podcast, we discussed the film, saying its Oscar chances are plausible (it was one of the big crowd pleasers at TIFF), but the movie may be too formulaic, too Sundance-by-numbers to really cross over. Melissa McCarthy also stars as the boy’s mother, and Naomi Watts plays a Russian stripper. So perhaps the comparisons to “Little Miss Sunshine” are fair, then? But as our review also states, “it’s still hard to deny that the charms of ‘St. Vincent’ work even if you clearly can see the narrative machinery moving.”
Release Date: October 10th
Synopsis: World War II is nearing its end. A battle-hardened army sergeant named Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and a five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Outnumbered, outgunned and with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.
What You Need To Know: Seeing Brad Pitt with pretty much the same hairdo as Shia LaBeouf in “Lawless” (who also stars in “Fury”… coincidence? Probably) just proves yet again the megastar can pull off just about any hairstyle. Though the trailers for “Fury” have been damn good, we have reservations as to its actual award possibilities. The film has always seemed to us (and certainly looks) like a serious action movie more than an Oscar nominee. But since this picture from writer/director David Ayer (“End of Watch”) is being touted as such, we’ll just have to wait and see until the reviews start flooding in, no doubt declaring in an instant whether or not it will be a surefire Best Picture nomination. Reductive and misguided declarations aside, we have high hopes for it, especially since Ayer looks to be moving out of his typical L.A. cops and criminals milieu and into something potentially new. Not a bad movie to release after he already put out an Arnold Schwarzenegger stinker this year (“Sabotage”).
Release Date: October 17th
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Synopsis: A washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.
What You Need To Know: Alejandro González Iñárritu making a dark comedy wherein (Burton’s) Batman, Michael Keaton, plays what looks like a very twisted, highly-meta version of himself? Uh, damn, who saw that one coming? The Mexican filmmaker is not exactly known for his sense of humor, at least judging from his first four features, which each proffer to varying levels of success the kind of arthouse miserablism that will wear down even the most ardent of cinephiles. There’s still no doubt that “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel” are all heads and shoulders above the fare pitched to cineastes. Maybe Iñárritu believed that “depressing” amounted to “important,” but even though his last film, “Biutiful” with Javier Bardem was nominated for two Oscars and beloved by several Playlist staffers, I couldn’t help but feel it was a sign that he was treading water creatively and was in desperate need of a change. ‘Birdman’ looks like just what the doctor ordered, and Jessica Kiang said as much in her effusively glowing review out of Venice, stating “as full as it is of sound and fury (and joy and jokes), it signifies a great deal, largely about the painful, thrilling and dangerous prospect of rebirth. Which is appropriate, because with ‘Birdman’, Iñárritu, Keaton, and our own faith in the limitless possibilities of cinema, are reborn.”
Release Date: October 17th
“Listen Up Philip”
Synopsis: As a writer awaits the publication of his second book, his anger is directed towards his city, his girlfriend and his own indifference to promoting the novel. His mentor and idol invites him to his summer home as a refuge where he can focus on his favorite subject: himself.
What You Need To Know: Writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s very low budget 2011 indie “The Color Wheel” got some critical love and even made a few respected critics’ year-end top ten lists. It was highly divisive around these parts, with some of us liking the very droll comedy and others finding it gross and even hacky. It came packed with a shocker ending, the kind of bold moment that understandably tends to divide audiences. “Listen Up Philip” has no such transgressions, but it is a pretty massive step forward for Perry, a former video store clerk in New York City. Here he works with much, much better actors and steps up his visual approach, shooting on gorgeous super 16mm and blowing up to add that sexy filmic grain we movie nerds tend to get all mushy about. Rodrigo Perez’s A- Sundance review of the picture called it a “deeply misanthropic portrait of narcissism, the brittle nature of artistic talent and the struggles of living in New York City… to reuse the [Noah] Baumbach parallel, if ‘The Color Wheel’ was Alex Ross Perry’s ‘Kicking And Screaming’, then ‘Listen Up Phillip’ fast-forwards straight to ‘The Squid & The Whale’; we don’t have to wait a picture or two for the one where Perry has truly found his voice and fulfilled the promise of his enormous potential. He’s already made it.”
Release Date: October 17th
“The Tale of Princess Kaguya”
Synopsis: Based on Japanese folklore, this film finds a bamboo cutter discovering one magical glowing stalk, which splits open to reveal a tiny creature. He takes it home to his wife, at which point it turns into a human-looking baby. Immediately nicknamed ‘Princess’ by the childless couple, eventually she grows to a woman and catches the fancy of the Emperor.
What You Need To Know: Oli Lyttelton saw the film at Cannes this year and fell pretty hard for it, citing it as one of his favorites of the fest. Of utmost importance is that this film sees the return of the other, much-less ballyhooed Studio Ghibli master, Isao Takahata, whose last film was “My Friends the Yamadas” in 1999 (though IMDB does list an untranslated film from 2010 amongst his credits). Takahata’s films are often realistic, relatively speaking, and are quite somber and bizarre. “Grave of the Fireflies” will destroy you emotionally, while “Pom Poko” will weird you out even though it’s so much fun. He also likes to experiment with animation styles. Whereas the two aforementioned titles are pretty traditionally Ghibli-animated, ‘Yamadas’ and by all accounts his latest, ‘Kaguya’ employ an almost watercolor effect. Oli gushed about the look in his review, calling it a “remarkably gorgeous piece of work, even by Ghibli’s high standards” and claimed that “not being a brand name in the same way, Takahata’s film won’t reach the same kind of audience as ‘The Wind Rises’, but animation fans, and basically anyone else, will find something rich and rewarding if they do check it out.”
Release Date: October 17th
“Dear White People”
Synopsis: The lives of four black students at an Ivy League college converge after controversy breaks out due to the ill-conceived theme of the campus humor magazine’s annual Halloween party.
What You Need To Know: Written and directed by Justin Simien, ‘Dear White People’ had our critic at Sundance buzzing about how it impressively pulls off a great many things: “It’s an American film that talks about race with strong feeling, common sense and good humor; it’s an indie screenwriting-directing debut as polished as it is provocative; it’s a satire that also lets its characters be people; it’s a showcase of clever craft and direction as well as whip-smart comedic writing brought to life by a dedicated, charismatic cast that also conveys real ideas and emotion. It’s precisely the kind of first film you want to see at Sundance —brash, bold, beautiful, and where the few minor flaws can’t overwhelm your appreciation of this film or stop your enthusiasm for the prospect of the next one.” Simien apparently used to work publicity at Paramount, but he “clearly actually loves movies as well. Based on the strength and wit [of this film], it’s not hard to envision a point in the near future where he’s working for Paramount or any other major as a director.”
Release Date: October 17th
Synopsis: In the not so distant future, a catastrophic drought has turned the US into an arid dystopian wasteland. While citizens have migrated away from the most heavily affected and devastated areas, some of the more hard-bitten and prideful survivors have refused to leave their lands, clinging to barren plots and drying water wells in the hopes that rains will come again and replenish the parched landscape. Amidst all this, a family tries to survive their harsh reality.
What You Need To Know: Looks like a nice “District 9” style lower budgeted sci-fi tale. The cast is stellar (Michael Shannon, Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee), the small scale effects look good and the world looks fully realized. We just hope director Jake Paltrow has the chops to pull off what looks to be an ambitious early career feature. Rodrigo Perez at Sundance graded it a B+, comparing elements of the film to Spielberg and even Robert Bresson’s “Au Hazard Balthazar.” He added that the film’s “serious, bone-dry approach won’t be for everyone. The picture is languidly paced, but its ideas, moods and tones strike many thought-provoking chords” that stayed with him throughout the busy festival schedule. We’re hoping for a similar experience, because this film looks to be great.
Release Date: October 17th
Synopsis: When Russian mobsters kill his beloved dog, retired hit man John Wick returns to the game he played best —and brings bloody vengeance with him.
What You Need To Know: So… House of Pain’s Put On Your Shit Kickers: The Movie, then? Crime/revenge movies don’t get more rote than that plot description, but the reason for the protagonist’s revenge here is a little different. We guess Russian gangsters killing your dog is good a reason as any to go on a kill-crazy rampage, and with Keanu Reeves doing the heavy lifting in the directorial debut of former stunt and second unit directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, we can see why Drew Taylor at Fantastic Fest found a lot to enjoy from the movie’s pure B-grade thrills. In particular, he was quite generous to Reeves, stating that “in his nimble hands, it becomes a much more joyous experience. It’s a comic book fantasy of how the criminal underworld works, anchored mostly by Reeves’ raw charisma. In the end, there are enough pleasures going on in ‘John Wick’ to elevate it above just another dumb action movie… But as an actioner with a solid delivery, style and even grace, it possesses all the right kind of B-movie pleasures,” Drew concluded. Sounds like fun to us.
Release Date: October 24th
Synopsis: A man who’s hard up for a job falls into the seedy world of freelance crime journalism.
What You Need To Know: Jake Gyllenhaal is at a very interesting point in his career. He’s appears to be out to challenge himself, and thus he’s working with smart filmmakers providing him with roles that bring out the talent evident even before his excellent (and now iconic) turn in “Donnie Darko.” As our man at TIFF pointed out in his very positive review, the best thing to ever happen to the young actor was the failure of “The Prince of Persia.” “Following years of auditioning for big budget projects, the sting of ‘Persia’ made the young actor finally realize Hollywood was trying to square peg him into cookie-cutter leading man roles.” He’s since sought out the kind of artistic riches that lead to respectability and good/interesting films. This rejuvenation, the review elaborates, is becoming a “full-blown renaissance, and it flowers impressively in ‘Nightcrawler’, writer/director Dan Gilroy’s [brother to Tony] terrific and electric debut thriller.”
Release Date: October 31st
Synopsis: A family on a ski holiday in the French Alps find themselves staring down an avalanche during lunch one day; in the aftermath, their dynamic has been shaken to its core, with a question mark hanging over their patriarch in particular.
What You Need To Know: A disaster movie setup that isn’t a disaster movie. Instead, it uses an avalanche to explore and satirize upper class values and how ill-equipped most of us would be when confronted with such a scary event. Reading Jessica Kiang’s review out of Cannes, I was reminded of a similar moral fallout and exploration of male anti-heroism in a movie that more people should see called “The Loneliest Planet.” All that aside, “Force Majeure” (translates to “Turist”) has been gaining more steam with every festival it screens at. “[Director Ruben] Ostlund may be Swedish but he’s not Bergman, and there’s little compassion for the characters here. And that’s not a criticism, it’s just the type of film this is, cerebral rather than visceral, ruthless rather than emotive.”
Release Date: October 24th
Synopsis: A woman stuck in permanent adolescence lies to her fiancé about going on a retreat and spends the time hanging out with friends instead.
What You Need To Know: Director Lynn Shelton is a Playlist favorite (I especially love “Your Sister’s Sister” and “Humpday”), and even though we were lukewarm on the film when we caught it at Sundance and graded it a C+, we’ll always be ready to check out the latest from the Seattle indie filmmaker: “While Lynn Shelton films are usually a little messily drawn, they’re often that way because they’re charting emotionally complex people with complicated lives. That sure applies to ‘Laggies’ as well, but its patchy tone, plot, characters and sympathies make for a film that’s difficult to wholeheartedly endorse. Here’s hoping Shelton can get the mix right next time.” And with her prolific output, that’s sure to happen soon. Either way, we still want to support a good filmmaker.
Release Date: October 24th
“Goodbye to Language 3D”
Synopsis: Jean-Luc Godard tries out 3D in a 70-minute movie concerning a couple and a dog. She wears clothes only very rarely, he likes to talk about shit while taking a shit, and the dog is drawn to the water, seemingly hearing its voice. There are more elements: some kind of murder by a fountain, a boat coming into dock, glimpses of iPhones and televisions (showing clips including “The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari“), a brief riff on Mary Shelley‘s creation of “Frankenstein” near the end.
What You Need To Know: Our critic found much to appreciate when he saw this film from the stalwart French New Wave iconoclast. Late career Godard has become even more esoteric and alienating to audiences, and we’re sure that’s just the way he likes it. There are things that annoyed Oli that he mentions in his review out of Cannes this year. But he found a lot more to praise, especially the director’s innovative use of the stereo look: “Godard’s full length take on 3D is bold, brilliant and exactly what the format needed —taking it and making it his own, and almost every time he frames a shot in three dimensions, from opening credits to the final moments, there’s something attention-grabbing going on.” Sounds like this could actually reach beyond the die-hards, but, yeah, Oli did mention that “fans will certainly be in seventh heaven. And even for the skeptics, there’s clearly such a density of ideas and images, even over the brief 70 minutes it runs, that there’s reason to return for more (and more and more).”
Release Date: October 29th
Honorable Mentions & More:
October being the overstuffed month for movies it is, there’s still plenty else to look out for. We thought “Nas: Time Is Illmatic” was alright when we caught it at Tribeca. “The Overnighters” won the special jury prize for documentary at this year’s Sundance, and our reviewer was perhaps even more taken with this Drafthouse Films release. We also named it one of the best documentaries of the year so far.
If you haven’t given a Sion Sono film a chance yet, might we politely point you towards “Why Don’t You Play In Hell?” No worries if you miss it: he’s as prolific as Takashi Miike and has several other new films coming soon. But you gotta give him a shot, because sometimes the man is just brilliant.
There’s more from the genre front. A few horror titles worth your time: ‘Conjuring‘ spin-off “Annabelle,” a sequel almost nobody asked for “ABCs of Death 2,” and Alex Aja has fun turning Harry Potter evil in “Horns.” If “Young Ones” doesn’t satisfy your “District 9” style sci-fi fix, we’re certainly curious about “Automata.” And from the makers of the very good “Infernal Affairs,” which of course was remade into the Best Picture-winning Scorsese flick “The Departed,” there’s “Revenge of the Green Dragons,” a crime epic produced by Scorsese (and the circle is now complete).
Looking at odds and ends, but mostly in the dramatic department, is “Blue Room,” Jason Reitman’s latest “Men, Woman & Children,” Robert Downey, Jr. in “The Judge,” Jeremy Renner in “Kill the Messenger,” Kristen Stewart apparently shines in “Camp X-Ray” and Gregg Araki fans probably already know about his latest, “White Bird in a Blizzard,” but maybe you should too.
Happy movie watching folks!