Watchlist This! Our September 2023 selection of under-the-radar gems

This month’s round-up of some of the best under-the-radar releases includes full-frontal meta comedy, lycanthrope love and a fashion doc on the icon Bethann Hardison.


Fall festival season is in full swing, and we’ve been queuing up next to Letterboxd members in Telluride, Venice and Toronto to check out Yorgos Lanthimos and Emma Stone madness in Poor Things, Hayao Miyazaki’s latest (never say final!) film The Boy and the Heron, Andrew Haigh’s new heartbreaker All of Us Strangers and plenty more from all over the globe. The multiplexes have, as ever, remained in full swing thanks to dangerous Denzel in The Equalizer 3 and Michelle Yeoh meeting Hercule Poirot in A Haunting in Venice.

But listen up, besties: there’s still more cinema out there to adore. A treasure trove, in fact. So, if you’re not in the middle of planning a trip to NYFF or Fantastic Fest, nor are you filling up the gas tank to enter Jigsaw’s latest death trap in Saw X, we are here once again with some lower-key gems that might have escaped your watchlists, ready and waiting in arthouse cinemas and on streaming services for your eager eyes and hearts.

Rotting in the Sun

Directed by Sebastián Silva, written by Silva and Pedro Peirano.
In limited US theaters now and streaming on MUBI.

Your prayers have been answered and we finally have the “Uncut Gems for suicidal Grindr users” that we’ve been waiting for. Shot in a chaotic, quasi-documentary style, the line between fact and fiction is mocked as Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva stars as, well, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva, struggling to get his latest projects off the ground and considering the easy way out (a dose of the dog poison phenobarbital, apparently easier to access in Mexico). Between spats with his nervous housekeeper, he begins a love-hate collaboration with social media star Jordan Firstman (again, playing a fictionalized version of himself), whom he meets on a gay nudist beach.

Yeah, Rotting in the Sun is indeed “not for the faint of dick”. A rare sight in American cinema these days (as Zach notes, let’s keep this out of reach of the puriteens) with lots of unsimulated sex on-screen, mostly in quick cuts as if from Silva’s character’s own shy glances. Matt gives us the distinction: “There’s Queer cinema, then there’s F–g cinema, and this is an incredible entry in the latter.” But that’s not all—there’s a turn in the second half of the story that sends Jordan on an unexpected hunt for the truth about his new friend—and sends the film over the edge.

By now, you’ll likely know if Sebastián Silva is one for you, especially after his run of acerbic comedies through the 2010s like Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and Nasty Baby, starring Michael Cera and Kristen Wiig in subversive roles. He’s never been quite as esoteric and self-deprecating as he is here for Rotting in the Sun. Wasteoftaste sums it up: “Filthy, disgusting, hilarious, alive. A movie made entirely out of parts that would be sanded off by studio and streaming executives to make a product more palatable.” JM

My Animal

Directed by Jacqueline Castel, written by Jae Matthews.
Now playing in select US theaters and streaming on VOD.
Photon Films and Paramount Global

Nine months after premiering to a toasty reception at chilly Sundance, My Animal is now being unleashed unto audiences. The feature debut of filmmaker Jacqueline Castel—who cut her teeth directing music videos and a short documentary about the Danish punk scene—is a Canadian-set coming-of-age horror-romance, including a healthy dose of lycanthropy and ice hockey. The animal in question is Heather (Bobbi Salvör Menuez), a teenage werewolf struggling with her budding attraction to new-in-town figure skater Jonny (Amandla Stenberg).

Castel’s ’80s-inspired film screened at Fantasia International Film Festival last month, where we deemed it one of the best of the Montreal-based genre fest. That’s where Letterboxd member Lynn caught it, too, with her review recommending the supernatural love story for fans of Ginger Snaps, Twilight and Twin Peaks.

Meanwhile, Deathy says My Animal is “queer horror at its peak wrapped in the most Canadian form ever,” while Ivy declares it “an important entry in the werewolf as metaphor for a teenage girl’s self-discovery canon.” Memebag concurs: “There are a lot of Young People Wrestling With Desire For Sex And Human Flesh (YPWWDFSAHF) movies,” they write. “Do we really need more? Yes, if they’re as well done as this one.” MLV

River Wild

Directed by Ben Ketai, written by Ketai and Mike Nguyen Le.
Now streaming on Netflix, and available to own on Blu-ray and DVD.
Universal Pictures

Devotees of Curtis Hanson’s 1994 white-water rapid thriller The River Wild, fret not. This new River Wild isn’t quite a remake of that Meryl Streep, David Straitharn and Kevin Bacon classic. Taking the basic premise of a group of people out on the rocky waters where not all of them turn out to be morally sound and thus a battle of life and death ensues, director Ben Ketai and his co-writer Mike Nguyen Le set out on their raft to make some new waves with this utterly visceral picture that never lets its foot off the gas.

The core trio here consists of former teen soap heartthrobs Leighton Meester and Adam Brody, alongside Saturday Night Live vet Taran Killam, which might not be the first names that come to mind when you think of a blood-pumping, bone-crunching adventure. Yet each brings a unique flavor that fully immerses you in the death-defying tale. Brendan calls attention to just this fact, stating “I’m not sure how they build a cast like this but I’d kill for more summer thrillers starring various underutilized stars,” while Bert notes “it’s Blair Waldorf and Seth Cohen on a river battling it out, can’t complain too much.”

River Wild dropped a bit unceremoniously on Netflix late in the summer and could be an easy one to miss, but I’d urge folks who might, like me, yearn for the kind of ’90s programmers you’d catch late at night on TV to seek it out. It’s a lean and nasty bit of fun without an ounce of fat on it, and Ketai and Nguyen Le’s script brings unexpectedly dynamic character work to go along with the heart-in-throat action. Zubats shouts out the unexpected rawness of the film, saying “a lot of the decisions that were made were very human (albeit frustrating) which gave this film a layer of realism in a genre that loves to suspend disbelief.” One of the best surprises of the year, River Wild will have you squirming and screaming the entire time. MB


Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, written by El Arbi, Fallah, Kevin Meul and Jan Van Dyck.
Now playing in select US theaters.
Yellow Veil Pictures

Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are two to watch. Off the heels of their ill-fated Batgirl—which was fully completed then unjustly axed by Warner Bros. for tax write-off purposes—the Belgian-Moroccan filmmakers make their triumphant return with Rebel. Batgirl wasn’t their first run at big studio filmmaking, however. After getting their break with crime-dramas Black and Gangsta, the pair branched out worldwide, helming the third installment of the Bad Boys franchise, Bad Boys for Life, in 2020—which would remain the highest-grossing film at the domestic box-office that (unconventional) year.

Two years later, they premiered Rebel at Cannes, where Letterboxd member Jules deemed it their personal Palme d’Or winner. Adil and Bilall’s action-packed—and, occasionally, musical— epic then screened theatrically around Europe; another year (plus four months) later, and their labor of love is finally seeing the light of a US release.

The plot concerns Kamal (Aboubakr Bensaïhi), a Belgian rapper from Morocco who leaves for the Syrian city of Raqqe to help victims of war. When an armed militia forces Kamal to join them against his will, his younger brother (Amir El Arbi) back in Belgium is lured by Islamic State recruiters with false promises of reuniting the siblings. “A musical and lyrical odyssey through one of the world’s darkest chapters throughout history—which is still ongoing and therefore even more vital,” writes Robbe, who goes on to call Rebel “a feat for Belgian cinema as a whole.” It’s the kind of humanist filmmaking with genre flare that makes you wonder what this duo could do with, say, a movie about Batgirl. MLV


Invisible Beauty

Written and directed by Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng.
In limited US theaters now.
Magnolia Pictures

Bethann Hardison is here and ready to tell her life story. Model, agent, activist—Hardison is the godmother of fashion, influencing the careers of fellow icons Iman, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and Zendaya. She laid the foundation for bringing diversity to the runway, breaking those barriers in the early 1970s and reinforcing to the industry that Black is beautiful. As she begins the process of writing her long-belated memoir—a duty she doesn’t take lightly—she also co-authors Invisible Beauty alongside French documentarian Frédéric Tcheng, known for his other peeks behind the curtains of fashion houses Dior and I and Halston.

The documentary largely operates as a straightforward review of the progress made for models of color in the late 20th century, as well as those gains lost through the 2000s—that is unless Hardison is personally in the room as a formidable force of advocacy (paired with her charismatic dry wit). Growing up in segregation in the South, her philosophy is one of radical integration, to bluntly educate and challenge the white status quo. Her groundbreaking management agency formed in 1984 made a huge statement on the state of diversity with mixed-race models, not only spotlighting Black women but all people of color, in a mission to break down the illusion of competition created by the fashion industry and band together to fight discrimination.

“Exhilarating yet thoughtful… comprehensive yet sprawling... very funny yet sobering,” Lyvie writes after the film’s Sundance 2023 premiere screening. Even if Invisible Beauty winds up being your introduction to the legacy of Bethann Hardison, it’s never too late to be welcomed to the community as she’s keen to pass the baton to the next generation of activists. Vivian gets it: “I knew she was a legend when I saw she had the entire Twilight Saga on her bookshelf”. JM


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