Watchlist This! Our November 2023 picks of the best new bubbling-under films

A roundup of the month’s best new under-the-radar releases. This edition includes a BDSM sub’s daily life, a spurned sexologist, a delicious Frederick Wiseman doc and a look into the life of Albert Brooks.

FEATURING: The Feeling that the Time for Doing Something Has Passed, Albert Brooks: Defending My LifeThe Disappearance of Shere Hite, Fallen Leaves, Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros, Waikiki.

America’s largest documentary festival, DOC NYC, is on (and online) right now, so it is only fair to pay our respects in this month’s particularly doc-friendly edition of the column. Get to know the full DOC NYC lineup thanks to Gary Tranc’s list of all screening titles, and read all about one of the Winners’ Circle selections in this interview with In the Rearview filmmaker Maciek Hamela. 

For now, we have docs aplenty (Albert Brooks! Shere Hite!) and we’re shouting out a couple of more-than-deserving fiction features, too—casting our minds back, for a moment, to Cannes with Aki Kaurismäki’s latest, but also Toronto, with Letterboxd member and actor-writer-filmmaker Joanna Arnow, who has opinions about the phrase “cringe comedy”. Plus: The feeling that the time for watching something has definitely not passed.

The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed

Written and directed by Joanna Arnow.
Seen at TIFF, NYFF, Montclair Film Festival.
Available for distribution

The best movie of 2023 about a thirty-something searching for meaning at work (amidst passive-aggressive office politics), home (as a member of a chaotic Jewish family) and play (she is a BDSM sub), Joanna Arnow’s The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed is “droll, fragmented, and full of life,” in the words of BeBraveMorvern. That’s a Letterboxd review Arnow has read—she reads them all, good and not-good, she tells us at TIFF, because “people don’t care about your feelings and are just saying what they actually think. I’m always trying to think about how the scenes work for people. So I just see it as a real learning opportunity to hear everything. Sometimes they’re really funny, too.”

Short story writers such as Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore and Carmen Maria Machado inspire Arnow, along with “the absurd, off-kilter humor” in Tsai Ming-Liang films like Vive L’Amour. She builds vignette-based comedy with a locked-off camera, letting her characters do the work. It’s a minimalist technique with the aim of desensitizing the viewer, so that a simple line or wild moment hits harder, and funnier. “Letting it play out in real, uninterrupted time and seeing the context of the world as it does adds to the humor, makes it more powerful,” she says, “especially for a deadpan-type style.”

Joanna Arnow, photographed in Toronto for Letterboxd. — Credit… Gemma Gracewood
Joanna Arnow, photographed in Toronto for Letterboxd. Credit… Gemma Gracewood

Just don’t say the words “cringe” and “comedy” in the same breath around her. “I just feel like it’s somehow coded about women. I don’t feel like men get referred to as cringe comedians. It’s like, ‘Oh, because it’s, like, a woman talking about sexuality or putting themselves out there, that’s the word’. Cringe, millennial and raw are all words that I never say myself, and I cringe when people say that about my work.”

Arnow is also not down for being told she’s “brave” for being naked in so much of the film. “We all sort of wrestle with how to be, in some shape or form, and this is about a character wrestling with sexuality, self, relationships. And I feel like when you say it’s cringe or you say it’s brave, it feels like distancing, whereas I’m hoping that a film invites people in.” Like my colleague Mia, who felt very much invited in by “the 45-second scene where the failgirl lead is arguing with her dinner date about musicals and insists Les Mis is the best! ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’? ‘A Heart Full of Love’? ‘Bring Him Home’? ‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’?!?!” GG

Albert Brooks: Defending My Life

Directed by Rob Reiner.
Streaming now on Max.
HBO Documentary Films

“Albert was a shining god of comedy,” director Rob Reiner says in his new documentary focused on the writer, director and actor known for films including Lost in America, Broadcast News and Drive. Playfully named as a reference to Brooks’s 1991 afterlife comedy, the bulk of Reiner’s feature Albert Brooks: Defending My Life is a My Dinner with Andre-style conversation in a restaurant between the duo, best friends who go back sixty years. Ben’s Letterboxd review gives you the primer: “An endearing and well crafted retrospective of a comedy and filmmaking legend that just so happens to be directed by his best friend… who is ALSO a comedy and filmmaking legend.”

We take a journey through Brooks’s career, beginning as a stand-up and variety performer who would go on in front of a live audience with an act that he had never rehearsed before. There’s plenty of reflection on his illustrious cinema career in front and behind the camera, including the prescience of his first directed feature Real Life, which depicted reality television before reality television even existed, and Modern Romance, which Stanley Kubrick said was the movie about jealousy he wished he had made. Reflects Thomas in his review of the documentary, “Albert Brooks has always made me feel like it’s beautiful to be the most vulnerable and belligerent parts of yourself.”

Along the way, we get talking heads from Brooks’s collaborators and contemporaries discussing what his work has meant to them. Jon Stewart describes Brooks as “the first alternative comic”, while Sharon Stone calls him “the caviar of comedy”. For Steven Spielberg, he’s a “comedic tornado”, and Judd Apatow does them all one better by declaring Brooks “the funniest man in the world”. As any admirer of his can expect, the documentary is rife with Brooks’s trademark wry humor, with him joking at one point that “it took this to finally hear a compliment. Can’t wait till I’m dead!” It’s certainly a success for fans like Barton, who says, “I love Albert Brooks so much I could have watched eight hours of this. Anyone who worships this man’s comedy is going to be in heaven.” MB

The Disappearance of Shere Hite

Directed by Nicole Newnham.
In select US theaters November 17.
IFC Films and Sapan Studios

Although we previously highlighted The Disappearance of Shere Hite in our Best of Sundance 2023 roundup last February, the groundbreaking work of the titular feminist author cannot be emphasized, championed and—sadly—mourned enough. In Nicole Newnham’s latest documentary (she previously co-directed the acclaimed Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution), Dakota Johnson narrates the story of Shere Hite, a woman whose rigorous sexology research spawned her 638-page book, The Hite Report on Female Sexuality, in 1976.

Hite went on to write several more nonfiction books on similar topics, but the United States’s conservative atmosphere of the 1980s began to stymie her spirit—Newnham details the misogynistic backlash with an acute empathy for Hite that the culture at the time cruelly did not afford her. As such, Hite renounced her US citizenship in 1995 and disappeared herself to Germany. Almost thirty years later, her tale is finally told through a cogent combination of textured archival footage, personal correspondence and infuriating scenes of Hite being lambasted in bad faith by men on national television.

According to Letterboxd reviews, the spurned sexologist’s efforts are thankfully beginning to be acknowledged by a new generation of feminists, with Alejandra Martinez calling the doc “especially poignant in a post-Roe v. Wade world hellbent on keeping progress at bay.” Meanwhile, Panaceaa says, “So glad this documentary came out so I could finally learn about someone so monumental. Why I didn’t learn about Shere Hite while going to a mostly women’s university is beyond me.” The Reappearance of Shere Hite is upon us! MLV

Fallen Leaves

Written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki.
In select US theaters November 17.

Finnish softie Aki Kaurismäki has a template for his movies. An odd coupling to match his odd tone. Scenes with silence, deadpan line deliveries, and often two blue collar people in their own thoughts, barely in conversation with each other. The settings are dive bars, small apartments with mid-century furniture to die for, or a karaoke bar. Chuckles are had throughout a short runtime and then suddenly you find your heart broken or your heart lifted by the end. He is a quirky, reliable, and singular filmmaker and Fallen Leaves is his newest. In it, Alma Pöysti is a service industry worker struggling to get hours and Jussi Vatanen is a construction worker with a drinking problem. They go on a date to a movie you’d never guess, and their potential coupling has ups and downs over the 81-minute runtime.

Fallen Leaves is perfectly autumnal and wintery in its isolation and yearning. Weaved into the story are news reports and color schemes that reinforce the war in Ukraine. Reminding viewers that Finland borders Russia. The current events of fall 2023 only heighten those fictionalized broadcasts as global attention on Ukraine has started to wane.

Kaurismäki films are simple and unique, once you’re hooked, David Sims calls them the “best medicine for whatever ails ya.” If you’ve not seen one of his films yet, many Letterboxd members are giving handy comparisons. ANNBNNY calls Fallen Leaves, “Before Sunrise for the working class.” Maxime labels it “La La Fin-Land.” And Fran Hoepfner references Blink-182 with her summary, “work sucks, I know.” That smörgåsbord of comps should be all you need to watchlist Fallen Leaves. BF

Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros

Directed by Frederick Wiseman.
In select US theaters beginning November 22 at Film Forum.
Zipporah Films

Acclaimed documentarian Frederick Wiseman has been one to watch since before most of our readers were born. His first documentary Titicut Follies was released in 1967, and 43 documentaries later (with six total in our official top docs list) at the age of 93, Wiseman gives us Menus-Plaisirs Les Troisgros. He typically makes super-sized, fly-on-the-wall studies of institutions, and the approach to Menus Plaisir is little different from his norm—including its four-hour runtime—but the institution here is the Troisgros patriarchy and the business is the art of cuisine at its Michelin star-worthy restaurants in France.

Structured as though a single day of service, Wiseman is most interested in the care of attention to granular detail, exploring the culinary world from markets to foraging, from farm to plate. This is no Boiling Point or The Menu: the zen-like focus of the chefs illuminated by splendid natural light brings a timeless, tranquil atmosphere. Expect little drama, except for when a dish needs more salt or less spice. The exact science of food has been refined for centuries and the film emphasizes passing that knowledge to the next generation. Fine dining is always peaking, so greater techniques are always on the way.

“There are conversations in this film that I will never have and would never think to have yet will be lodged in the creases of my brain for the foreseeable future,” writes Chris Cabin on the numerous debates between the restaurateurs who are able to conceptualize entire menus without tasting the delectable combinations. The food porn made David Hiltscher hungry, as he notes: “If there ever was a movie that screams for a food pairing it’s this one. Given the movie’s length there’d be time enough for a nine course meal at least.” Above all, we can live in peace knowing that Wiseman’s production had the best craft services in film history. JM


Written and directed by Christopher Kahunahana.
Screening in cinemas in Hawaii and Los Angeles.
Level 33 Entertainment

“[Being] Native Hawaiian influences your life and how you see the world,” writer and director Christopher Kahunahana tells Letterboxd. “Spiritual people, people who see between worlds, [are] often categorized as having a disorder. [However], in some cultures like Hawaiians and Polynesian cultures or Native cultures, those people are thought of as gifted.”

Kahunahana’s debut feature, Waikiki, is “unlike any other film that we’ve seen before that’s about or takes place in Hawaii,” according to Scope 240. Instead of the usual lū’au-and-hibiscus view of life in a tourist-trap, Kahunahana’s surrealistic story explores the tiring, hardscrabble lives of Natives who can no longer afford to exist in their own homelands. The tale pivots around Kea (played by Danielle Zalopany of Hawaii Five-O fame), a woman holding down several jobs—two focused on serving foreign tourists, the third on bringing a Hawaiian world view into elementary education—while living out of her van.

As she descends into a kind of madness fueled by the colonialist-capitalist world around her, she is shadowed by Wo, a fellow houseless local whose meaning in her life unfolds slowly. Waikiki shares the same, grungy magical realism feel of Kahunahana’s successful short, Lahaina Noon (now included in the Criterion Collection). The film had its festival run in the online-only Covid years, which is why you’re only just hearing about it now that it’s reached (some) cinemas. LK

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