‘Mistress America’ (2015)
“Barbie” is the current commercial and critical triumph of the screenwriting (and real-life) partners Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, and “Frances Ha” is their origin story. But comparatively little ink is spilled these days on their middle feature (which Baumbach directed), a delightfully funny comedy that turns the tropes of the college coming-of-age movie and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl on their heads. Lola Kirke stars as Tracy, a college freshman new to New York City who gets a whirlwind introduction to the city via her soon-to-be-stepsister Brooke (Gerwig). Gerwig and Baumbach’s wise screenplay delicately dramatizes how Brooke first seems like Tracy’s platonic ideal of the young urban woman, then slowly reveals herself as messy in a multitude of ways. Gerwig’s multilayered performance is one of her best, while Baumbach orchestrates the picture’s shifts from character drama to door-slamming farce with bouncy ease.
Adam Leon is a New York filmmaker of the old school; like his contemporaries, the Safdie brothers, he’s working in the Cassavetes mold, telling ground-level stories about hustlers and grinders who can take whatever the city throws at them (though not without some complaint). He followed up his acclaimed feature debut “Gimme the Loot” with this scrappy, playful story of two strangers (Callum Turner and Grace Van Patten) on a seemingly simple criminal errand who screw it up and have to make it right. Turner and Van Patten’s chemistry is off the charts, the supporting cast is entertaining (particularly the comedian Mike Birbiglia as a perpetually harried middleman), and Leon’s direction is economical and enchanting.
The gifted genre director Ti West writes and directs this giddy, gory cross between “Boogie Nights” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” in which a group of DIY filmmakers and exotic dancers trek out to the backwoods of the Lone Star state to make a low-budget porn movie. Little do they know, the older couple in the nearby farmhouse are a bit more spry — and murderous — than they might imagine. West’s script and direction are marvelously film-literate, filling the frame and soundtrack with sly in-jokes and references, and his cast is delightfully game; the “Wednesday” star Jenna Ortega is a sublime scream queen, Brittany Snow revels in the opportunity to send up her typical persona and Mia Goth is pitch-perfect as both the final girl and (under heavy makeup) another key player. It’s not for all tastes, but if you’d like a little sex and violence on your holiday viewing menu, both are in plentiful supply here.
‘All My Puny Sorrows’ (2022)
Alison Pill is one of those actors who should, by all rights, be a major star — she’s charismatic and credible in every role, and can execute comedy and drama with equal aplomb — but rarely gets a role that properly showcases her considerable skills. She gets one in Michael McGowan’s adaptation of a Miriam Toews novel, as Yoli, a writer whose sister Elf (Sarah Gadon) is a famous concert pianist. Elf has also recently attempted to end her own life, not for the first time and, per her assurances, not for the last; she wants her sister’s help traveling to Switzerland for an assisted suicide. It’s not the cheeriest topic for a motion picture, and the cinematography and Canadian settings are properly dour. But Pill and Gadon are excellent, vividly conveying a familial bond of warmth, empathy and exasperation in equal doses.
Terry Gilliam’s later work hasn’t met with the same critical or commercial adoration as earlier efforts like “The Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys.” But his customary visual inventiveness and narrative ingenuity are on full display in this futuristic tale of a computer operator (Christoph Waltz) enlisted to mathematically prove the nothingness of existence. The cast is loaded with familiar faces (including Matt Damon, Lucas Hedges, Tilda Swinton and David Thewlis) but Gilliam is, as ever, the real star here, loading his frames with outdated technology and dystopian signifiers, crafting a world that’s both familiar and foreign, fascinating and terrifying.
‘Love to Love You, Donna Summer’ (2023)
Roger Ross Williams opens his bio-documentary of the “Queen of Disco” with the original vocal tracks of the title song, which are aggressively and unapologetically sexual, and reminds us of what a revelation her sound was at that particular moment (in the music industry, and in our culture in general). “Love to Love You” spends a fair amount of its running time in that kind of micro-exploration of her biggest hits, and how she built them. But Williams is more interested in her enigmatic inner life (Brooklyn Sudano, one of Summers’s daughters and the film’s co-director, can only describe her as “complicated”). Drawing on home video footage, archival interviews and audio recordings, Williams and Sudano attempt to not only encapsulate Summers’s life but understand it — a much more difficult task.
The documentary filmmaker Chris Smith (“American Movie”) adopts a similar approach to his portrait of the English ’80s hit machine, mostly eschewing contemporary talking head interviews in favor of an archive-heavy approach, primarily to give equal voice and weight to the memories of George Michael. The music is fizzy and the videos retain their period kitsch, but Smith stays firmly centered on the friendship between Michael and his bandmate Andrew Ridgeley — specifically, what becoming international superstars did to that friendship. “Wham!” moves at lightning speed while telling their story with impressive depth, particularly Michael’s difficulties balancing his sexuality with the image he had to present in that wildly homophobic era. It’s an irresistible doc, cheery and charming and warmly affectionate toward its subjects.