1. Author: The JT LeRoy Story
In the late ’90s and early ’00s, a San Francisco woman named Laura Albert pulled off the kind of fame more associated with being a rock star than an author. But an author she was — from a novel, a short story collection, and a novella, Albert became a favorite of celebrities like Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Billy Corgan, and Asia Argento, who’d support her and call her and fill in for her at readings when she claimed extreme reticence. The rub was, she did this by lying — grandly and spectacularly. Albert was publishing her work under the pseudonym and persona of JT LeRoy, a twentysomething man from West Virginia who claimed to be drawing from real, troubling experiences of underage sex work, abuse, and addiction. When the excuse of shyness no longer cut it, Albert recruited her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to put on a wig and sunglasses and play LeRoy in public — a gambit that, astonishingly, worked, until it didn’t.
It’s a hell of a tale, and documentarian Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston) lets Albert tell it, ethical queasiness and all. It’s an approach that feels, at first, like giving a fraud an unearned platform on which to defend herself, unchallenged. But the more Albert talks, the more her quicksilver ability to build herself up as the tragic hero, offer up trauma as a narrative spine, and demand empathy pulls you in. She is, huckster or not, an incredible storyteller. You may not come around to her side, but you definitely understand why she was able to fool so many people with such outrageous prevarications and such a cunning positioning of pain as proof of artistic authenticity. Author: The JT LeRoy is an unsettling watch, but it’s also the kind of thing you can’t get out of your head. —Alison Willmore
Where to see it: Author: The JT LeRoy Story is available for rent and purchase online, as well as on DVD/Blu-ray.
Kirsten Johnson is a cinematographer who’s worked with all sorts of big names in the documentary world — like Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), Kirby Dick (This Film Is Not Yet Rated), and Michael Moore (Captain Mike Across America). She had been the woman operating the camera in situations around the world, dangerous, intimate, intense, and scenic. Johnson calls Cameraperson, which she directed and cut together out of outtakes, extra footage, and home movies from across her career, a “memoir.” It’s a label that feels at once accurate and like it falls short — Johnson has created a montage of moments that give insight into her experiences while providing constant reminders that there is nothing objective about the recording of images.
An interview with a young woman getting an abortion, which focuses on her hands to preserve her anonymity, breaks so that the subject can be reassured that she’s not a bad person. A child plays with an ax while Johnson audibly frets over safety, but keeps filming. Footage of Johnson’s mother, in the throes of Alzheimer’s, raises questions about consent but also about the power of the camera to preserve a moment in someone’s life as their sense of self continues to slip away. Johnson weaves her argument so deftly and subtly that it’s only until halfway through her unusual film that you realize she’s making one at all. —A.W.
Where to see it: Cameraperson is still in a few theaters. It’ll be released by the Criterion Collection on DVD/Blu-ray on Feb. 7.
Laurie Sparham / Bleecker Street
A sadly timely film given our current political climate, Denial focuses on a 1996 court case where self-appointed Nazi expert David Irving (Timothy Spall) sued Holocaust studies professor Deborah E. Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for libel after she called him a Holocaust denier in one of her books.
The film is fascinating because I, for one, had never heard of this seemingly insane court case (turns out in England, the burden of proof lies with the defendant! WHAT?) and boasts tremendous performances from Weisz, Spall, and Tom Wilkinson as the head of Lipstadt’s legal team. —Jarett Wieselman
Where to see it: Denial is available for purchase online, and will be out on Blu-Ray, DVD, and On Demand on Jan. 3.
4. Don’t Think Twice
The Film Arcade
Don’t Think Twice is a drama about comedians. In his second film, standup-turned-director Mike Birbiglia stars as a member of a New York–based improv troupe called The Commune. Its members are famous and credible in a hyperlocal and extremely poverty-stricken way that Birbiglia understands with unwavering accuracy — his deep knowledge of the New York comedy scene and the people in it gives the film a startling melancholy.
The Commune’s members are played by Birbiglia, Chris Gethard, Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher, a group of talented goofballs slowly having to come to terms with the fact that they’re not all going to make it into fame and fortune, and that fame and fortune may not be the secret to happiness anyway. There’s an SNL-type show called Weekend Live that everyone yearns to join, there are relationships stretched by uneven success, and there’s a palpable sense of staying too long at the party. Don’t Think Twice is a sweetly sad film about realizing that it may be time to revamp your dreams. —A.W.
Where to see it: Don’t Think Twice is available for purchase online, and it’s also on DVD/Blu-ray.
5. Green Room
Even before his tragic death, every Anton Yelchin performance felt like a gift. He was one of the most talented actors of his generation and consistently chose increasingly fascinating projects. Since Yelchin’s untimely death in June, the small handful of his films yet to be released have felt even more precious. So if you missed Green Room in theaters when it was released in April, brace yourself for an unrelenting thrill ride.
The film follows four members of a punk band (Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner) who unknowingly agree to perform at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar in the middle of the deep woods. Then, following an incendiary yet surprisingly successful set, the foursome find themselves locked in the venue’s green room with a dead body, cut off from the outside world, and surrounded by a horde of malicious men determined to keep them from reporting the crime to the cops. It’s an incredibly tense cat-and-mouse game with some of the grizzliest special effects seen all year. There’s a sterling turn from Patrick Stewart as the neo-Nazi leader who might actually be a potential ally, but Green Room belongs to the deeply human character Yelchin conjures up. —J.W.
Where to see it: Green Room is streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s also available for rent and purchase online.
6. Everybody Wants Some!!
Van Redin / Paramount Pictures
Few of us have gotten to experience the charmed life of a swaggering star athlete in the ’80s, but courtesy of Everybody Wants Some!!, it’s a lifestyle we can slip on like a worn-in T-shirt. Richard Linklater’s spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused, Everybody Wants Some!! is really a testament to the filmmaker’s incredible gift with hangout comedies. He manages to make a movie about a group of testosteroned-out jocks getting loaded and getting laid into something not just downright lovable but crazily rewatchable.
It might have something to do with the charms of his charismatic, easy-on-the-eyes cast, which includes Blake Jenner, Ryan Guzman, Tyler Hoechlin, Wyatt Russell, and a scene-stealing Glen Powell. Or it might have to do with Linklater’s abiding faith in the transformative powers of college to open the eyes of even a group of dudes as comfortably settled in their identities as his baseballers. Long stretches of shooting the shit with new people in Everybody Wants Some!! have the potential to expand the most unmotivated of horizons. —A.W.
Where to see it: Everybody Wants Some!! is available for rent and purchase online, and is also on DVD/Blu-ray.
7. The Fits
Writer-director Anna Rose Holmer’s fable about adolescence unfolds with haunting dreaminess within the seemingly mundane confines of a community center in Cincinnati. That’s where 11-year-old Toni (Royalty Hightower) has been hanging out and training with her brother, and it’s where she starts to feel the creeping in of adulthood in the gender divide that appears among the older kids: The girls all drift toward the dance team, while the boys do boxing.
Toni gamely joins her assigned side, but doesn’t find dancing easy going, especially when what’s either an epidemic or an instance of mass hysteria hits the girls, sending them one by one into ecstatic fits. It’s maybe a metaphor for the milestone that is menstruation, but The Fits is better left unparsed — that’s how eerily and elegantly it renders the mysteries of growing up. —A.W.
Where to see it: The Fits is streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s also available on DVD/Blu-ray.
8. The Handmaiden
There’s nothing quite like a Park Chan-wook movie. From Oldboy and Lady Vengeance to Stoker and Snowpiercer, the South Korean auteur has developed a singular sense of storytelling and a visual flair that continually surprises, confounds, and delights. His latest is no exception. The Handmaiden takes place in Japanese-occupied Korea during the early 1900s and charts a young con woman’s journey as she conspires with a con man to rob an heiress of her fortune.
If only it were that simple. One of The Handmaiden’s greatest joys is discovering the boundary-pushing twists and turns for yourself. So go in knowing as little as possible and brace yourself for one of the year’s most gorgeous, erotic, hilarious, and satisfying films. —J.W.
Where to see it: The Handmaiden is still in theaters.
9. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
One of 2016’s most joyous performances came from Julian Dennison, the now 14-year-old star of director Taika Waititi’s charming comedy. Dennison plays Ricky, a juvenile delinquent whom social services places with the loving Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her cantankerous husband Hec (Sam Neill). Bella and Ricky develop a quick love for each other, so when she suddenly dies, Ricky flees, fearing he’ll be put back into the system.
Unable to let the boy wither and die in the harsh New Zealand wilderness, Hec sets out to find him, which he easily does because Ricky is woefully unequipped to rough it. But their adventure is unexpectedly extended when Hec injures his leg, forcing them to camp out for weeks and forcing Ricky to become a truly competent caretaker. While Hec recoups, the authorities mistake the trip for an abduction and a series of unfortunate events lead them to believe Hec is a pedophile. Soon, the two become the focus of a national manhunt that culminates in some genuinely hilarious, deeply touching, and adrenaline-pumping scenes. —J.W.
Where to see it: Hunt for the Wilderpeople is streaming on Hulu. It’s also available for rent and purchase online, as well as on DVD/Blu-ray.
10. The Invitation
As someone who has watched a lot — A LOT — of thrillers over his 35 years, it takes a truly inventive screenplay to surprise me. So when I say that The Invitation genuinely had me guessing right up until its big final act revelation(s), trust in that.
The film opens on Will (Logan Marshall-Green) making his way to a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard, in one of the year’s most unnerving performances), who basically disappeared following the accidental death of their son, which fueled their split. Eden reemerges to introduce Will and their friends to her enigmatic new husband, David (Michiel Huisman).
The night has a dark energy coursing through it seeing as it’s the first time Will has returned to the house where his son died — but more than that, he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something wrong with Eden, a fear that gains more and more credibility as the night goes on. But is the setting clouding his judgment or has Will tapped into something more sinister at play with his ex and her new husband?
I won’t go any further for fear of spoiling one of the year’s most exhilarating guessing games, but I will add that a script and performances are only as good as the eye behind the camera, and The Invitation’s greatest strength is that Karyn Kusama is calling the shots. —J.W.
Where to see it: The Invitation is streaming on Netflix. It’s also available for rent or purchase online, and on DVD/Blu-ray.
11. Kate Plays Christine
Kate Plays Christine is one of two movies that happened to come out in 2016 about Christine Chubbuck, the TV news reporter who killed herself during a live broadcast in 1974, and who became a grim, sad after-the-fact symbol of a year in which media seemed to implode. While Antonio Campos’ Christine had Rebecca Hall in the role of Chubbuck in a more straightforward biopic, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine tries something more experimental and more provocative.
It follows actor Kate Lyn Sheil (House of Cards) as she goes through preparations to play Chubbuck herself, researching the late woman’s life in Florida, rehearsing, and going through costuming. The result is a testament to acting as a form of detective work, as well as an interrogation of why someone would want to make a film about Chubbuck in the first place, using her depression and loneliness as uneasy symbols of something larger. —A.W.
Where to see it: Kate Plays Christine is available for rent and purchase online.
12. King Cobra