1. Don’t Think Twice
Don’t Think Twice is Mike Birbiglia’s second venture as a director, and it’s really one of the best and most heartachey films about comedians ever made. The showbiz world is one Birbiglia knows well — he’s a stand-up comedian himself, and his autobiographical 2012 directorial debut Sleepwalk With Me dealt in part with learning to open up on stage. Don’t Think Twice is about an improv troupe called the Commune that’s New York famous, and that’s served as a launching pad for members to go on to bigger things, like Weekend Live, a thinly disguised stand-in for SNL. But when the theater they’ve performed at for years is sold, the six members of the Commune have to figure out not only if they want to keep the group going, but if they want to keep struggling in this career path in general.
Among the film’s lovable collection of comedic performers is Birbiglia himself as the group’s why-am-I-not-famous-yet die-hard, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher. But it’s Keegan-Michael Key and Gillian Jacobs who steal the show. The two play a couple whose relationship stretches and shows signs of stress after one of them gets a big break, providing a reminder that success isn’t a guarantee of happiness, and that celebrity isn’t everyone’s end goal. Don’t Think Twice is a movie about funny people, but it’s ultimately a drama, one about accepting that people don’t always achieve their grandest dreams, and that it’s possible to accept that and go on to be just fine.
How to see it: Don’t Think Twice is now playing in theaters in limited release — you can check locations here.
There is a scene in the documentary Gleason in which its subject, pro footballer–turned–ALS spokesperson Steve Gleason, talks about the unexpected path his life took five years ago when he was diagnosed with the disease around the time his wife, Michel, became pregnant with their child, Rivers. “People will say, ‘Oh, it’s such a sad tragic story.’ It is sad, so they’re right, but it’s not all sad. I think there’s more in my future than in my past. I believe my future is bigger than my past — so that’s uplifting, that’s inspiring.”
Gleason, which is directed by Clay Tweel, is, without question, a four-hanky weepie that follows the former New Orleans Saints player and his family as they adjust to a degenerative disorder that gradually takes away Gleason’s ability to walk, to move, and to speak. But it’s not a film that wallows in misery — instead, it’s infused with that combination of tragedy and uplift that he speaks of, as he fights through increasingly difficult circumstances to record videos for his son, to bring resources to others with ALS, to reconcile with the father he’s sometimes at odds with, and to spend time with the wife who’s tirelessly at his side. The film is an earthy, lovely, and, yes, inspiring ode to soaking up the life you’re given.
How to see it: Gleason is now playing in limited release — check out a list of theaters here.
3. Mountains May Depart
Mountains May Depart takes place over three time periods — two in China, in 1999 and 2014, and one in a just slightly sci-fi Australia in 2025. With each time period, the horizons expand, the aspect ratio widening as the characters rush toward the promise of tomorrow, and with each time period, those characters seem more lost, more distant from a sense of identity and belonging. Mountains May Depart is the latest and maybe the finest work from Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, the foremost chronicler of his country’s explosive growth and globalization, and of the people left swirling in the wake of all this change.
The new movie is about Tao (played by a luminous Zhao Tao, who’s also Jia’s wife), a girl from Fenyang trying to choose between the romantic attentions of her two best male friends. But it’s also about how one of those men becomes an ultimately miserable member of China’s nouveau riche while the other struggles as a migrant worker. And then it’s about Tao’s son, growing up abroad with all the advantages she wished for him and none of the connection, a young man adrift without a country. Mountains May Depart is a supremely bittersweet film about Chinese diaspora and about generations being flung, with all the best intentions, toward the future like lonely satellites. Also worth noting: This movie’s spectacular use of a Pet Shop Boys song.
How to see it: Mountains May Depart is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and for digital rental and purchase. It’s also now streaming on Netflix.
4. Pervert Park
Pervert Park is a documentary that offers no answers, but poses some incredibly challenging questions. It was filmed at a Florida trailer park that’s home to more than 100 sex offenders, which was started by the mother of a sex offender after her son had trouble finding a place to go, seeing as it’s illegal for anyone convicted to live within 1,000 feet of a place in which children gather, including schools, playground, and day care centers. The film features interview after extremely troubling interview with the park’s heavily monitored residents, who’ve effectively been permanently branded as outcasts and monsters.
Aside from the college student who was caught in an internet sting, there’s no question about the crimes the documentary’s subjects have committed, crimes they relay in frank (and triggering) detail. But the perpetrators are often victims of childhood sexual abuse themselves, part of a self-perpetuating cycle that’s difficult to grapple with. Directors Frida Barkfors and Lasse Barkfors are Swedish and Danish, respectively, and bring a measured outsider’s eye to a tough topic, treating their subjects with empathy while never flinching from the terrible realities of what they did to end up where they are.
How to see it: An hour-length version of Pervert Park is streaming on PBS’s POV Films site.
5. Phantom Boy
The most charming part of the French animated film Phantom Boy is its version of New York, a Gallic-inflected place shaped by cop shows and blockbusters. The movie is directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol, the team responsible for the Oscar-nominated 2010 A Cat in Paris, and it’s another whimsical crime story. Or maybe it’s more of a superhero story, since the main character, a hospital-bound 11-year-old boy named Leo, certainly has an exceptional power. When Leo concentrates, he’s able to leave his body and dart, ghost-like and unseen, around the city. Soon he’s enlisted by an infirm and disgraced cop to help take down a mysterious villain holding New York hostage.
There’s a blustery chief of police, there are fumbling henchmen with a small but surly dog, and there’s an intrepid (and stylish) reporter; but it’s Leo who gives the story a hint of poignance in addition to the save-the-city momentum, a wistful kid who figures out a means of freedom his ailing body isn’t able to offer him, flying between building and perching on the Statue of Liberty. Phantom Boy has a fine French voice cast that includes Audrey Tautou, but the English-speaking actors are just as impressive, among them Fred Armisen, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Jared Padalecki.
How to see it: Phantom Boy is now playing in limited release — check out a list of theaters here.
6. The Seventh Fire
One of the main characters in the documentary The Seventh Fire is a teenage boy, and the other is the con who takes the young man under his wing. Halfway through the film, one of the two fathers a son, and it’s hard not to think of the three men as potentially occupying different stops in the same circular life. Time has a nebulous quality in The Seventh Fire, which is both a stylistic choice and one that reflects life on the Minnesota Ojibwe reservation in which the doc is set. It’s a place that feels cut off from the world.
The Seventh Fire, from director Jack Pettibone Riccobono and executive producer Terrence Malick, takes in the poverty, substance abuse, and gang activity that shape life on the reservation, pulling its subjects in even after they vow to make a change. “I haven’t been law-abiding lately,” one says ruefully, and soon, he’s on his way back to prison. But what makes the film linger, beside its glimpse into an area of the country not often put on screen, is the poetry with which it approaches its subject, from the sunny brightness of a local parade to the car on fire in the middle of a field. It’s an urgent work, but also a beautiful one.
How to see it: The Seventh Fire is now in limited release — check out a list of theaters here.