5. Robot & Frank
Robot & Frank is a very amusing science fiction buddy comedy, taking a sensitive approach to issues of aging and memory loss. Frank Langella gives one of the best performances of his career as Frank, a retired thief who is gifted a caretaker robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) by his children; Frank is at first resistant to receive any sort of help, but ends up using this new technology to get back into his old life of burglary. While Frank at first intends to use the robot purely for selfish reasons, he ends up finding companionship and compassion from the robot, who is ironically the only person who fully listens to him.
Much of the humor comes from the bluntness of the characters; Frank is unable to communicate with his son Hunter (James Marsden), as he’s unable to cope with his father’s dementia and remains unaware of his criminal intentions. These gaps in Frank’s life are filled by the robot, who in his very nature can remember everything and is willing to do whatever is necessary to help Frank, regardless of its legality. Despite the moral ambiguity of Frank’s character, the film has fun showing the planning of his heists, and is able to find sentimentality within a character who often hides his emotions.
4. Other People
Other People is a quiet, intimate approach to the cancer dramedy that explores all the awkward moments, conversations, and situations that a family would go through when their matriarch faces impending death.
This semi-autobiographical film is by long time Saturday Night Live writer Chris Kelly, who wrote and directed a story loosely based on his life, and follows a fictionalized version of Kelly named David (played by Jesse Plemons) who copes with the declining health of his mother (Molly Shannon). The film wastes no time leaving the audience in suspense, starting off with the painful death of Shannon’s character and then flashing back to the year prior to her death.
The instant reveal of the mother’s death allows the audience to be more appreciative of the character when she’s on screen, and focuses the narrative on how David’s life is further derailed by the loss of the only person who ever accepted him for who he is. Plemons does a great job at making David vulnerable; his conservative family won’t accept his homosexuality and he’s lost his job as a comedy writer, and the family crisis further causes David to believe that he’s been completely ostracized.
Whether he’s stumbling around a grocery store drunk or taking his mother to her former workplace, Plemons is able to find a cathartic bitterness in David’s approach to the world. It’s his mother’s warm presence that gives the film its charm; Shannon assures her son that everyone should be able to laugh at themselves, and it’s this moving message that makes Other People refreshingly personal.
3. Don’t Think Twice
While Don’t Think Twice is not specifically about auditioning for Saturday Night Live, it’s a rather obvious comparison to this story about a group of improv comedy actors who all vie for a shot on the fictional sketch comedy show Weekend Live.
The entire cast is filled with talented comedic actors, including Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Chris Gethard, and Tami Sagher, but the breakout performance is that of Keegan-Michael Key as the group’s ambitious star whose desire for success ends up overshadowing his companions. Key doesn’t play the character as malicious, but he does find himself on an ethical tightrope as he must decide if launching a professional career is worth leaving his friends in the dust.
Writer/director Mike Birbiglia, who also co-stars in the film, clearly understands the type of comradery and competition that would exist within a group of actors. As this is an improv troupe, it’s often real, interpersonal conflicts that inspire their act; one of the strongest scenes in the film is when Key and Jacobs confront their failed relationship through an improv act about being trapped in a wall, allowing themselves to have a conversation they could never have offstage.
While the competitive nature of auditioning for a select number of spots is never lost, the film also never loses the passion that these actors have for their craft, and their individual improv acts on screen are great comedic works in of themselves.
2. The Trust
While Nicolas Cage is often the butt of internet jokes, he’s clearly an incredibly talented and brave actor who has unfortunately not been given material suited for his abilities in quite some time. Although Cage’s best work seems to be behind him, he’s occasionally able to surprise, which is precisely what he does in The Trust. A seedy, violent thriller that centers around Cage and Elijah Wood as two corrupt cops who plan a heist, The Trust effectively depicts the anticipation and anxiety that happen prior to a job, and does a great job showing the meticulous planning that these two put into a plan that is doomed to fail.
What makes The Trust so interesting and humorous is that it is completely aware of Cage’s internet fandom, and allows him to be wacky and over the top by giving him a character that is both of those things. It also helps that Elijah Wood’s character is a more grounded everyman who is able to play things straight and give Cage someone to bounce his crazy line deliveries off of. Neither character is morally upright, making the film’s dark turns rewarding to watch, and the budget constraints make the small scale heist more authentic. Even for those who’ve given up hope that Nicolas Cage will ever return to his former heights, The Trust is a great throwback to the type of performance he used to give.
1. Brigsby Bear
A work of impressive originality, Brigsby Bear is a singular tribute to the power of the creative spirit, no matter what form it takes. The bonkers story follows James (Kyle Mooney), an adult man whose raised in seclusion by his adopted parents in a secret bunker, who is obsessed with a children’s show called Brigsby Bear that his parents created for him. When James is freed from captivity, he struggles to convert to normalcy and decides to create his own Brigsby film.
James’s effort to reclaim the Brigsby narrative for himself allows him to tell a story that no one else could; he’s spent years studying the Brigsby storylines and learning the mythology, and while Brigsby ultimately represents a dark period in James’s life, he’s able to turn it into a positive driving force that unites him with other similarly creative-minded people. Mooney’s performance is one that feels like a scared child caught in a world he doesn’t understand, but once James decides to create his own Brigsby story, the film captures the raw excitement and pathos that exist on a movie set.
Outside of Mooney’s great leading performance, the film has a terrific ensemble of character actors, with Greg Kinnear giving a standout performance as a cop who learns to treat James’s unique situation. The production design, costumes, and visuals are all very unique, and it’s clear that the filmmakers put a lot of effort into designing the Brigsby universe. Despite the inherently odd nature of the story, Brigsby Bear is very sincere in showing the nontraditional ways in which James copes with the lies he’s been fed. It’s a comedy unlike anything else and deserves much more attention than it got.