The strangest summer in recent memory draws to a close with the multiplexes again reopening — to those who want to take the risk of spending two hours indoors laughing and eating alongside strangers. The rest of us will remain in front of our televisions and laptops, facing down a seemingly dwindling number of streaming options. But not to worry; we’ve again combed through the back stacks of your virtual movie library to offer up a few titles that might have escaped your notice.
‘Knife + Heart’
The wildest of this month’s recommendations is this gleefully provocative and unapologetically graphic story of a gay-adult filmmaker (Vanessa Paradis) in late-’70s Paris whose cast and crew are being sliced up, one by one, by a vicious serial killer. The writer and director Yann Gonzalez draws on influences that range from Italian giallo to American exploitation, while inventively intercutting “real” events and their pornographic reimagining. But Gonzalez can’t keep up that frantic pace and seems to know it; the picture takes a mellow turn in its second act, cruising into a conclusion that’s both ingenious and unexpectedly heartbreaking.
The writing and directing duo of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz conceived this gentle comedy-drama to showcase the talents of Zack Gottsagen, a young actor with Down syndrome, playing a character with the same disorder. His is a journey of discovery and self-realization, a “Huck Finn”-style downriver trip alongside a fisherman (Shia LaBeouf) with troubles of his own, rendered with charming humanity and picturesque beauty. The supporting cast is stuffed, but Dakota Johnson is the standout as the young man’s caretaker, and the fisherman’s potential romantic interest.
Sasheer Zamata, too often underused on “Saturday Night Live,” gets a showcase of her own in this wise and witty 2019 romantic comedy from the writer and director Stella Meghie, who would go on to craft this year’s lovely “The Photograph.” The setup sounds broad (borderline sitcom-ish, even), with Zamata as a cynical stand-up comic who heads out for a relaxing country weekend at her mother’s inn with her ex-boyfriend — and his current flame. But Meghie’s grounded, low-key approach renders the out-there scenario credible, while Zamata creates a genuine rooting interest for her wry (and blisteringly honest) heroine.
‘I Will Follow’
Ava DuVernay is a one-woman cottage industry these days, with multiple projects at any given moment across the realm of film, television and streaming. But even a mogul starts modestly, and DuVernay did that with this 2010 drama, which was the publicist-turned-filmmaker’s narrative directorial debut. DuVernay shot it in two weeks on a microscopic $50,000 budget, but what she had to offer didn’t require a blank check; this story of an artist (Salli Richardson-Whitfield) unpacking her life thus far is an uncommonly insightful and honest character study, with the kind of complex portraiture too rarely afforded to women of color onscreen.
Azazel Jacobs isn’t a household name, but he should be. Though his filmography is somewhat slender, his characters are dizzyingly complicated, his dialogue is deftly telling and his direction brings out the best of his stellar casts. His latest, “French Exit,” was recently announced as the closing selection of this fall’s New York Film Festival, and that’s as good an excuse as any to queue up this marvelous serio-comic drama from 2011, with Jacob Wysocki as a teen outcast and John C. Reilly as the high school principal who tries, perhaps a bit too hard, to bring him out of his shell.
‘We the Animals’
This portrait of economic instability and free-floating domestic dread from the director Jeremiah Zagar is a work of fiction — an adaptation of Justin Torres’s novel, specifically — but the specificity with which Zagar dramatizes three young brothers’ poverty and paranoia feels ripped from real life. Which is not to imply that the picture is some sort of miserable dirge, either; Zagar (who co-wrote the adaptation with Daniel Kitrosser) also displays a keen understanding of how the fertile childhood imagination can provide a reliable escape hatch from the harshest of realities.
‘Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists’
“These guys were like superstars,” Spike Lee says of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, a dynamic duo of New York tabloid newspaper columnists. The sometimes colleagues and sometimes competitors wrote what the journalist John Avlon dubs “literature, in real time, on deadline.” Hamill’s recent passing is reason enough to queue up this made-for-HBO documentary, which revisits some of the writers’ biggest stories and controversies. It’s a bio-doc that both honors their lives and, through them, crafts a mini-history of New York newspapers and media — and, to some extent, contemporary America itself.
The filmmaker Susanna Nicchiarelli brilliantly sidesteps the conventions of the musical biopic with this unorthodox portrait of the German singer Christa Päffgen — better known to the world as Nico, the onetime Velvet Underground vocalist and mainstay of Andy Warhol’s Factory. But Nicchiarelli introduces us to Päffgen long after those years, and honors the singer’s wish not to revisit them, instead focusing on her difficult final days and the constant inconvenience of that legacy. It’s a giant risk that pays off, thanks in no small part to Trine Dyrholm’s mesmerizing lead performance, which manages to channel the singer’s dark charisma without lapsing into anything so pedestrian as mere imitation.
This 2016 biopic from the director Antonio Campos takes a similarly internalized approach, dramatizing the mental health struggles of Christine Chubbuck, the Florida television news personality who committed suicide, live on the air, in 1974. What was, for years, a grisly footnote in television history is here rendered as a wrenching snapshot of depression, thanks to Craig Shilowich’s sensitive screenplay and Rebecca Hall’s stunning work as Chubbuck, a deeply felt turn in which every harsh word and casual slight lands like a body blow.
Bruce Springsteen’s first crack at feature directing (alongside Thom Zimny) came and went without much fanfare late last year, perhaps because moviegoers weren’t quite sure what it was. It’s best described as a visual album, accompanying the “13-song meditation on the struggle between individual freedom and communal life” of the same title, which the Boss and Zimny flesh out with elements of autobiography and mythmaking. Those numbers are performed in Springsteen’s barn (“a space filled with the best kinds of ghosts and spirits”) between gorgeously photographed interludes, vamping on the themes of these songs, and many he sang before them. As ever, the music is lifted by Springsteen’s sheer joy of performance, but the cinematic component lends “Western Stars” extra poignancy. The lines of his face are like those of an aging screen actor, a Robert Duvall or Gene Hackman — a man who’s seen some things and, try as he might, can’t forget them.