The 10 Best Movies in Theaters (September 2016)

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The 10 Best Movies in Theaters (September 2016)

For all of the at-home movie-watching options available to today’s audiences, none quite compare to the communal experience of going out to catch a film in a theater. Paste’s monthly guides for Netflix and HBO and Amazon and Showtime and Redbox cover the best of what’s out there if you’re a diehard couch potato, but we also want to recommend the best of what’s in theaters right now, from indie films playing the local arthouse to blockbusters running on multiple megaplex screens. (Some may be easier to find in your city than others.) Remember: Great films are worth the effort.

Here are the 10 best movies out in September:

10. The Lovers and the Despot

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Release Date: September 23, 2016
Directors: Ross Adam, Robert Cannan
When put in extreme situations, people imitate what they see in movies.” This theory is presented to viewers partway through The Lovers and the Despot, Ross Adam’s and Robert Cannan’s stranger-than-fiction documentary about the 1978 abductions of Shin Sang-ok and his ex-wife, Choi Eun-hee. It applies as much to its subjects as to its own structure: If you couldn’t prove it for yourself, would you believe a movie about a kidnapping plot hatched by Kim Jong-il, who snatched both Shin and Choi and forced them to serve as his private filmmaking team in a vain attempt at raising the reputation and profile of North Korea’s film industry? Maybe not. But you can’t make stuff like this up. The Lovers and the Despot’s plot is the kind that most directors wish they could conjure on their own, one so bizarre and bleak that it outweighs its presentation: Adam and Cannan structure the film around footage of Shin’s own movies, plus talking head interviews with film critics, former North Korean court poets, government agents, and Shin’s and Choi’s family members, hewing to convention and letting their material speak for itself. —Andy Crump


9. Hell or High Water

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Release Date: August 12, 2016
Director: David Mackenzie
The film builds up to a finale that thankfully goes not for a mindlessly violent showdown, but for a tension-filled dialogue-based confrontation which plays like a meeting of minds between characters who have more sympathy toward each other than they perhaps realized. Even as two of the main characters reach a kind of truce, however, Mackenzie comes up with an even more devastating image with which to end his film: He simply moves the camera from high in the air down to a batch of grass. It’s as if Mackenzie wanted to contextualize these human dramas for us—we all end up in the ground, ultimately. Here, in Hell or High Water, is a sterling example of genre craftsmanship at its intelligent and unexpectedly affecting best. —Kenji Fujishima / Full Review


8. Snowden

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Release Date: September 16, 2016
Director: Oliver Stone
Gordon-Levitt’s performance is key to Snowden’s place in Stone’s oeuvre as another exceptional take on the nature of heroism. It’s every bit as complicated and ambiguous as Stone’s previous films on the subject, but the complexity is all internal—from Stone’s point of view, there’s no real questioning the fact that Snowden is a patriot and a hero. The questioning comes from within, as Snowden becomes less a film about heroism than about the physical and psychic costs of heroism—and whether or not they’re worth it. Stone and his actors (not just Gordon-Levitt, but Shailene Woodley, superb in an essential role as the woman Snowden loves) mine this material so thoroughly that when Snowden does allow itself moments of triumph they’re completely earned.

This may be Stone’s most genuinely inspiring film since Born on the Fourth of July and his most poignant and romantic next to World Trade Center. Yet it’s also, at times, his bleakest work, a chilling horror film about the surveillance state under which we all live. That all of these tones—and a wide array in between—can exist coherently in the same film is indicative of Snowden’s success. It’s one of the best movies Stone has ever made—and easily one of the best of the year. —Jim Hemphill / Full Review


7. Kubo and the Two Strings

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Release Date: August 19, 2016
Director: Travis Knight
Most parents give their kids a curfew, but most kids aren’t related to kabuki-masked wraiths and heartless lunar gods who want to murder them, either. Seems like good incentive for Kubo (Art Parkinson) to listen to his mother, which he does until he doesn’t. The minute he breaks mom’s number one rule, Kubo endures the world’s most unfortunate family reunion and undertakes the quest for his birthright, guarded along the way by an ill-tempered monkey and a flaky man-beetle-warrior, named, respectively, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). Yes, fine, Kubo and the Two Strings doesn’t go deep in the tank for character names. Big deal. The film funnels imagination into an Erlenmeyer flask where narrative reacts with aesthetic. It’s a stunningly rendered adventure that treats style and substance as one and the same. —AC / Full Review


6. Chronic

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Release Date: September 23, 2016
Director: Michael Franco
Tim Roth anchors this supremely withholding character piece, playing a home care nurse who becomes involved in his patients’ lives. Chronic doesn’t tell us much of anything about this quiet man, preferring to let viewers glean what they can from his actions and behavior. If that sounds frustrating, writer-director Michel Franco instead makes it an intriguing game of interpretation, asking us to consider how many assumptions we make about people based on the flimsiest of information. Roth’s best-known roles have involved him demonstrating his violent side, but here, he’s an enigma of sensitive selflessness—or is he? Chronic never stops wondering whether the caregiver is hiding some sort of ulterior motive. Along the way, the film also packs a punch about the frighteningly thin line between life and death. —Tim Grierson


5. Little Men

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Release Date: August 5, 2016
Director: Ira Sachs
In its gentle, compassionate way, the unassuming drama Little Men says as much about self-preservation and mistrust as any hand-wringing, message-based movie. Director and cowriter Ira Sachs uses a simple story about the friendship between two teen boys as a springboard to address the myriad obstacles that keep people from different walks of life from seeing eye-to-eye. Never smug in its observations and always fair to all its characters, Little Men leaves us moved in an offhand, almost accidental manner. It adeptly pinpoints the poisonous self-interest that cuts us off from others, examining how being pragmatic and looking out for ourselves undermines communities. The film has all the breeziness of an ordinary day, albeit one with gray clouds on the horizon. —TG / Full Review


4. Demon

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Release Date: September 9, 2016
Director: Marcin Wrona
Horror snobs may feel inclined to evict Demon from the genre for its absence of scares. Wrona doesn’t hide in cabinets and jump out at us while screaming, “Boo,” flailing his arms. He includes no unearned jump beats, nothing to startle us the way that horror cinema has taught us to anticipate throughout its annals. What he pulls off instead is a good deal trickier, thanks in large part to expectation and custom. Demon gets under the skin, distorting perception while corrupting bliss at the same time, and even with a plate that full the film finds room for pitch black humor and a slice of nationalism. Toward the narrative’s climax, one character, totally blotto, rants aloud about the good old days, when everyone was Polish and no one freaked out when strangers talked to ghosts. —AC / Full Review


3. Cameraperson

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Release Date: September 9, 2016
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Cameraperson. Kirsten Johnson’s title for her latest documentary feature could not be any more nondescript. And yet, the anonymity of that title points to perhaps the most remarkable aspect about this film: its maker’s sheer selflessness, her devotion to her craft and her subjects, her seemingly complete lack of ego. The film is pieced together from outtakes from the long-time documentary filmmaker/cinematographer’s extensive body of work, but beyond occasionally hearing her voice behind the camera (and one shot towards the end in which we finally see her face as she points the camera toward herself), Johnson forgoes the safety net of voiceover narration to tie all this footage together. The footage speaks for itself, and for her.” —KF / Full Review


2. White Girl

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Release Date: September 2, 2016
Director: Elizabeth Wood
The title of Elizabeth Wood’s lean, vicious, black comic act of autobiography is a loaded phrase: It references the powdery stimulant that greases the film’s dramatic wheels, it’s a nod to Wood’s subject-cum-protagonist-cum-screen avatar, and it’s a two-word curse, the film’s “Khan!”, an abject expression of repulsion. White Girl holds nothing back, frontloading its narrative with graphic sex sequences and even more graphic white privilege sequences, where young Leah (Morgan Saylor), recently relocated from her Midwestern home to attend college in NYC, recklessly indulges her every whim without a thought to the cost her abandon incurs for both her and the people around her. That’s the point, of course: She doesn’t have to think about consequences. She’s White Girl™, a super-powered force of entitlement. Wood’s film might make you laugh, or it might make you tear out your hair. No matter where your reaction to White Girl on the spectrum falls, though, you won’t soon forget it. —AC


1. American Honey

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Release Date: September 30, 2016
Director: Andrea Arnold
Utterly absorbing and intensely moving, writer-director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is one of those big, bold, swing-for-the-fences societal portraits that few filmmakers dare attempt. There’s good reason: Try for a definitive snapshot of a country or a generation, and you risk overreaching or succumbing to pretension. Running nearly three hours, American Honey doesn’t let those concerns get in its way, and the result is the sort of electric audacity that paves over the movie’s occasional wobbles. With Red Road and Fish Tank, Arnold has looked closely at poverty, youth and desperation in her native England. With American Honey, she turns her attention to the United States, and what she finds is a vibrant, troubled, mesmerizing land. —TG / Full Review

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