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

A round-up of the best of the month’s new releases that are sitting just under the radar. This edition includes a barf-bag-worthy horror, Kishi Bashi’s empathetic song film, a daring escape from North Korea, and a lost dog.

FEATURING: We Grown Now; When Evil Lurks; Omoiyari; The Persian Version; Beyond Utopia; /andragogy./; Hangdog.

With the London and New York film festivals just wrapped, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour banking insane box office bucks, horror fans having a Totally Killer month and Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon just days from entering cinemas, we are truly in the business end of the year.

As always, and more now than ever, we’re paying close attention to pictures that might slip out of the daylight and into the blank space between promotional spots, which indie filmmakers know all too well. So while the blockbusters enjoy their champagne problems, get your watchlists open for this month’s selection of gems, hand-picked by our Journal crew… Ready for it? 

We Grown Now

Written and directed by Minhal Baig.
Screening at AFI Fest October 26 and 28.
Sony Pictures Classics

Coming-of-age fans, it’s time to open up your hearts a little wider as Minhal Baig’s wondrous sophomore feature We Grown Now is here. The film received its world premiere at TIFF this year, where it won the Changemaker Award as selected by the Next Wave committee. “The entire time I had a bubble in my throat and that bubble burst during the last scene,” writes Letterboxd member AJ in a 4.5-star review—a feeling I wholly echo for this deeply felt movie.

Baig remembers how joyous making We Grown Now was, as the sweet young actors Blake Cameron James and Gian Knight Ramirez, playing Malik and Eric respectively, held the keys to the castle. “It was so much fun to come to set every day and realize that two ten-year-olds were my boss. They got to tell me what to do,” the director says. “They were so ready to live in this world. They were the light of the movie.” We follow these two best friends as they navigate their changing world as lifelong residents of the Cabrini-Green public housing complex in 1992 Chicago—an enormous story for these growing boys.

“We had this process of taking off the coat of the character at the end of day,” Baig explains. “I wanted them to preserve themselves in the process and separate themselves from the heavy and dramatic scenes.” Still, there is light and beauty: We Grown Now nods to Spike Lee’s Crooklyn and much of Paolo Sorrentino’s work in the emotional and visual sensibilities of working with child actors and a sense of home. The filmmaker summarizes the emotional maximalism beautifully: “I wanted to just make the world feel big like it does for these kids at that age.” EK


When Evil Lurks (Cuando acecha la maldad)

Written and directed by Demián Rugna.
In select US theaters now and streaming on Shudder October 27.
IFC Films/Shudder

For those of you squeamish about violence towards children and/or animals, be forewarned: When Evil Lurks is not for the faint of heart. This Argentinian horror from Terrified director Demián Rugna wastes no time in making you pull out the barf bags when two farmer brothers in a remote village come upon a pus-leaking, boil-covered man they describe as a “rotten” and hastily decide to dispose of him. The evil contained in this possessed entity won’t rest that easily, and those who have been in his proximity begin to experience one atrocity after the next.

Part of the genius of When Evil Lurks is its clever doling out of just enough knowledge to the audience to scare us out of our minds while not spending too much time on the how and the why to the point of demystifying the terror. “A Fulci-esque descent into nightmare with an elaborate mythology just out of reach,” FakeRobHunter writes, “and while I would love a follow-up digging into things even more, the film is perfect as is.”

Justine describes the film as being “about personal responsibility and the myriad ways humanity is deluded into believing we are above or somehow outside of the brutality of the natural world,” hitting on the underlying, primal concept that we’re all doomed and all these characters are doing is staving off the inevitable. As Tasha says, “the characters don’t have a hope, innocence won’t save anyone, and God is presumed to be dead,” and if that sounds like the kind of relentlessly bleak nihilism that you love having keep you up at night, When Evil Lurks is sure to satisfy your appetite. MB


Directed by Kishi Bashi and Justin Taylor Smith.
In limited US theaters October 6.
MTV Documentary Films

Kishi Bashi, one-time member of the band Of Montreal and a talented solo artist in his own right, is one to watch and one to listen to. The ‘Song Film’ began as improvisational violin performances by Kishi Bashi while visiting landmark incarceration camps around the US that were established by Executive Order 9066, which persecuted Japanese-Americans following the Pearl Harbor attacks in WWII. Out of those performances grew his fourth album (of the same title, released in 2019) and now a passion-project feature documentary co-directed by Justin Taylor Smith.

Omoiyari is a Japanese word that means to have sympathy or compassion for another. For Kishi Bashi, the profound impact of putting himself in the shoes of the detainees brings him to the way history is repeating itself with refugees interned at the US border today. The violent act of government stripped the assimilated Japanese-Americans of their American identities—to the point where Kishi Bashi himself feels distant from his own Japanese and American identity, despite having no relatives at the camp. The documentary acts as an essential piece of education, an urgent amplifier of activism and a reclamation of an artist’s soul.

“[A] quietly devastating dissection of what it means to be a bi-cultural artist, but moreso, a bi-cultural person, in America today,” describes Joshua. In a politicized country where policy is too often driven by emotion and fear, the acknowledgment of history—especially the most difficult-to-take parts—is more important than ever. For those who will be introduced to Kishi Bashi through his debut film, he tells us that he “hope[s] viewers will continue to cultivate empathy for diverse artistic voices. It’s a beautiful world out there!” Omoiyari to all. JM

The Persian Version

Written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz.
In NY and LA theaters from October 20, and nationwide US theaters from November 3.
Sony Pictures Classics

Aside from winning the prize for best Wet Leg needle-drop in a 2023 film (not to mention the US Dramatic Competition Award at Sundance in January), The Persian Version is also winning hearts as a second-gen, Iranian-American comedy-drama framed through non-linear storytelling. Maryam Keshavarz writes, directs and produces a semi-autobiographical story centered on a young queer woman, Leila (Layla Mohammadi), her non-traditional, business-focused mom Shirin (Niousha Noor), and her many, many brothers. A heart transplant and a surprise pregnancy (to a Broadway actor played by Tom Byrne in Hedwig drag) throw several cats among these New York City pigeons, leading to a “gut-wrenchingly beautiful” third act, according to Selin

Keshavarz also won the Waldo Salt screenwriting award at Sundance for a script that has attracted some lower Letterboxd ratings for its flightiness—but fans reckon it is the ideal framework for Iranian family complexity. Corey suggests The Persian Version is “structured in a way that thematically parallels the journey of searching for a story. The first half is sprawling, panicked, cliche, and as the film progresses it becomes focused, specific, and an overall beautiful stream-of-consciousness family legacy drama.”

Marlo agrees, praising Keshavarz’s “joyous” approach: “While I may understand the criticism behind the multiple narratives and time jumps, the overall effect of it works extremely well for me… Keshavarz abstracts the idea of family history, which works particularly well for Persian culture and the secrets we have kept as we fled a dying country.” Several Letterboxd members have been having moments of true recognition: of boyfriends, and cousins among the cast. On that note, there is also an abundance of thirst for one family member in particular: Jerry Habibi (we see you, SixInchBone, VaporwaveVixen and Eminemifhewas). GG

Beyond Utopia

Directed by Madeleine Gavin.
Screening for two nights theatrically across the US on October 23–24 before releasing November 3.
Fathom Events and Roadside Attractions

Another major Sundance winner—of the prized Audience Award, as well as a spot on our best of the fest 2023 round-up—is the unforgettable Beyond Utopia. Offering a rare glimpse into the relatively new country of North Korea, this documentary bravely uncovers unthinkable horror stories that the Kim regime has infamously gone to great lengths to cover up (and in some cases, amplify). It’s difficult enough to acquire footage from within the isolated republic, even more so to sneak it out, so the film’s existence in itself is a revelation. On top of this, director Madeleine Gavin (also an accomplished narrative feature editor) and team have imbued their cinematic wonder with empathy, allowing interviewees to speak for themselves, to show and tell their own harrowing histories.

A sampling of the subjects: a mother in South Korea, desperate to reconnect with her teenage son, who’s gone missing after attempting to join her in Seoul; an author who, after successfully defecting, writes a book about the brainwashing and torture she endured; an elderly woman coming to the realization that the past 80 years of her life have been a carefully constructed lie; a pastor helping a multi-generational North Korean family escape, by way of a perilous ten-hour-long journey through the Laotian mountains.

It’s exactly this explicit focus on the Korean citizens that makes Beyond Utopia so powerful. “One of the most moving [documentaries] I’ve seen this year,” writes Yilin in a five-star review. “A lot of what we hear about North Korea is about Kim Jong Un, his nuclear missiles, that we actually rarely stop and think about the people of North Korea themselves.” Nevaq, who recently caught the doc at MIFF, agrees: “The level of specific intimate detail gives an understanding that no amount of bland geopolitical news stories about the latest threats or tensions, the usual format of engagement with North Korea for a Western audience, can ever convey.” MLV

/andragogy./ (/budi.pekerti/)

Written and directed by Wregas Bhanuteja.
Screening at the inaugural SXSW Sydney as part of the 2023 Features Competition.
Kaninga Pictures

You can’t even queue for a steamed rice cake at your favorite market stall anymore without becoming embroiled in a nationwide social media scandal that puts your job and your family’s reputation on the line. Yes, Lydia Tár fans, /andragogy./ (‘/budi.pekerti/’) is another “cancel culture” film, one firmly rooted in the experiences of the person being canceled: in this case, a kind and smart Indonesian school counselor who is on track for a promotion to Deputy Principal.

Bu Prani (a luminous Sha Ine Febriyanti) is the star of Wregas Bhanuteja’s second feature film—and she’s a star in her students’ lives, too, using a beautiful form of counseling she calls “reflection” rather than punishment. She also holds together a cramped household consisting of her influencer son, activist daughter and bipolar husband. Bu Prani’s life comes undone one day when a quick market visit leads to a discussion about line-skipping, in which a Javanese word is misinterpreted into a slur that spreads fast thanks to bystanders’ mobile phones.

From there, it’s a wholly absorbing drama involving “clarification statements”, indie media, school politics and more. Ryan, who saw the film at TIFF, was enthralled: “For the entire runtime nothing else mattered. My full attention was in this film’s hands, it toyed with my emotions and by the end you just feel exhausted (in a good way).” Zachary also approves: “Seeing how lives can be affected by strangers who don’t know anything about you in this digital age was very powerful. Hopefully this Reflection will help how social media is perceived.” GG


Directed by Matt Cascella, written by Cascella and Jen Cordery.
Currently on the festival circuit.
Big Shins Films

Every now and again, Letterboxd members get to enjoy the sweet secret of being among the first dozen people to log a movie. I’m one of eighteen, at the time of writing, to have seen Hangdog, a low-budget, highly delightful film about a stolen dog, crippling depression and learning to love both yourself and small-town life, from director Matt Cascella and his co-writer, Jen Cordery.

Desmin Borges plays Walt, a depressed advertising creative struggling to adapt to a slower existence after moving with his partner Wendy (Kelly O’Sullivan, Saint Frances) to her hometown in coastal Maine. Wendy still gets to go to the city for work, and trouble comes when Walt is charged with looking after—and definitely not losing—her beloved dog. Tony (the mutt) goes missing during an outing to the local weed shop for a depression cure, and Walt is going to need the help of every local he’s so far tried to avoid getting to know.

“Charming, engrossing and joyful rom-com whodunnit. Set (and shot!) in Portland, Maine with an absolutely fantastic cast,” writes Ian. “It’s chock full of wry humor, quiet wisdom and eloquent gripes on human nature,” according to Corey. With music by Walter Martin of The Walkmen and Jonathan Fire*Eater fame, and the excellent Catherine Curtin and Barbara Rosenblat co-starring as Maine locals, Hangdog is trotting around the regional US film festival circuit (Provincetown, Maine and New Hampshire so far) and worthy of many more woof-loving eyes. Currently available for distribution, let’s hope it’s not on watchlists for too long. GG

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