1. Finders Keepers
I dare you to find a better movie this year about two men fighting over a preserved human limb. Finders Keepers starts off as the too-strange-not-to-be-true story of North Carolinian Shannon Whisnant, who bought a barbecue smoker at a storage auction and found, to his surprise and delight, that there was a mummified severed foot inside it. The body part in question turned out to belong to John Wood, who had to have it amputated after a plane crash and who decided, for reasons he does eventually explain, to hold on to it. Despite having lost track of it for a while, he would like it back — but Whisnant, a man with an enterprising spirit and an admirable sense of shamelessness, sees his find as a path toward local fame and fortune.
If this all seems like the stuff of a "redneck reality" show, well, it sort of was — a ruling on the dispute was ultimately made by television's own Judge Greg Mathis. But for all of its slickness, this documentary by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel isn't content to be merely quirky. Instead, the film looks past the outrageous argument between the two men to examine the addiction, poverty, and loss in their personal histories, revealing them to be far more than the caricatures they're initially drawn as (and in Whisnant's case, that he plays into) on the news.
Where to see it: Finders Keepers is now playing in limited release (here's a list of theaters) and will be available for rent on iTunes and on VOD after Oct. 1.
2. Mississippi Grind
Ben Mendelsohn, the crumple-faced Aussie actor who provided the fascinatingly dark heart of the first season of Netflix's drama Bloodline, is just as unsettlingly good in this more genial gambling movie from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the writer/director team behind Half Nelson. Mendelsohn plays Gerry, who leaves his shambles of a life in Iowa behind with alarming but maybe understandable ease after befriending a charismatic drifter named Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) at a casino.
The two are perfect for each other, which means they're also heartachingly terrible for each other, enabling each other's vices as they travel south and pit their luck and too much money on games of chance. Both are determined to see the other as at least a little magic, but Mississippi Grind never fails to let the shabby desperation of their reality shine through. It's an easygoing road movie always teetering on disaster, even if it never quite gets there, and in pairing up with Mendelsohn, Reynolds does some of his best work, using his considerable charm to only sometimes successfully mask his character's uncertainty and emptiness.
Where to see it: Mississippi Grind is now playing in limited release (here's a list of theaters), premieres on VOD on Oct. 13 and will come out on Blu-ray and DVD in Dec. 1.
3. The Nightmare
The freakiest thing about The Nightmare is the similarities that keep popping up in the night-terror visions experienced by total strangers. There's apparently something primal and universal about the idea of a dark figure coming through the door and approaching your bed as you lie there, unable to get away — it's something featured in many of the otherwise varied stories told by the interviewees in this documentary.
Yup — this film from director Rodney Ascher, who made The Shining fan theory doc Room 237, is the rare horror doc, and it's absolutely, unexpectedly creepy, thanks to the reenactments that accompany the testimonials of its subjects, all of whom wrestled or continue to wrestle with sleep paralysis. The reenactments are a little silly and a little shabby, which makes them more effective — they capture the fuzziness of dream logic, and make the awfulness of the phenomenon they're depicting so real it's easy to start fearing it's contagious. The Nightmare does get repetitive in its insistence on keepings its focus narrow and experiential, but it's a unique and haunting experience.
Where to see it: The Nightmare is now streaming on Netflix and is available for digital rental.
4. 99 Homes
99 Homes is a Wall Street for now and for the 99%. Instead of New York in the greed-is-good '80s, it's set in Orlando in the survival-of-the-fittest period post subprime mortgage crisis. And instead of a swaggering Michael Douglas as its Mephistopheles, it has a fabulously callous Michael Shannon as Rick Carver, a real estate wheeler-dealer getting rich off the city's many foreclosures. When Rick shows up at the house Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) shares with his mother (Laura Dern) and his young child, he's not interested in listening to Dennis's tale of misunderstandings with the banks — he has his men move their stuff to the sidewalk and takes Dennis's childhood home without blinking.
Rick, see, has a system, and he's hiring, and Dennis finds himself seduced into the man's employ, finding lucrative work evicting families and scamming the government. 99 Homes, which comes from Man Push Cart director Ramin Bahrani, relies on a certain amount of contrivance, and the movie gets so caught up in the details of Rick's opportunistic middle-manning that the actual role the banks play in this disaster becomes secondary. But there's a powerful queasiness to its story about choosing to take advantage of the devastation of others in order to feed and house your own family, and Shannon and Garfield are potent as mentor and reluctant mentee, warming their hands over a world set aflame.
Where to see it: 99 Homes is now playing in limited release (here's a list of theaters).
5. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
It's not easy to describe A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the third in a loose trilogy of unique movies about life, death, and the most deadpan of comedies from Swedish director Roy Andersson that are really like nothing else. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence doesn't follow a story so much as it moves through a series of sometimes-linked vignettes involving a sprawl of characters. The camera's static as each individual scene plays out, but every one is immaculately framed and staged and usually unfolds in a long take. Everyone's morose and pale — are they in purgatory? Or are we?
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence's settings are aggressively mundane and drained of color — a ship's cafeteria, a cramped rooming house, a stretch of gray sidewalk — but moments of fantasy creep in, like the sequence in which King Charles XII rides into a present-day bar on his horse with his army to have a drink and flirt with the bartender. Two unsmiling salesmen try unsuccessfully to peddle novelty items to "help people have fun," characters in various rooms keep having the same phone conversation ("I'm happy to hear you're doing fine," they all say), and a dream sequence hauntingly evokes a colonialist past. There's mordant humor and wrenching profundity, and sometimes both at the same time.
Where to see it: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is still playing in limited release (here's a list of theaters), and it will be available on VOD and for digital rental on Oct. 6.
6. When Marnie Was There
Like any good Studio Ghibli movie, When Marnie Was There is determined to make your heart ache, and turns out to be more than capable of doing so, again and again. The film's a tale of friendship, loss, and loneliness, with a main character, Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the English version), who's grown up in foster care seeing herself as alone and disconnected from other people. Sent to the seaside for health reasons, she's drawn to a decrepit house out in the marshes where, she discovers, a mysterious blonde girl named Marnie (Kiernan Shipka) lives.
When Marnie Was There is a ghost story, but it's also one about feeling unseen and unloved, and in Anna, it offers a sophisticated, empathetic portrait of isolation and depression. It's adapted from a 1967 novel by British author Joan G. Robinson, and while the story's transfer to Hokkaido isn't seamless, it's interesting and richly animated. The film's directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who became Ghibli's youngest director with 2010's The Secret World of Arrietty. With the future of the legendary studio uncertain following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, its every release deserves to be savored.
Where to see it: When Marnie Was There comes out in DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 6.