5. Win It All
Joe Swanberg and Jake Johnson have had a lively director/actor relationship with films like Digging for Fire and Drinking Buddies, and the two produced another hilarious and uplifting story with Win It All. Johnson stars as Eddie Garrett, a gambling addict who gets in over his head when a local thug tasks him with protecting $10,000 in cash while he’s in prison. Of course, Eddie immediately loses the money on a bad bet, forcing him to rethink his priorities and plot a course to repay his debts.
The film is best when it coasts off of Johnson’s charisma; while it’s entertaining to watch Eddie’s escapades and adventures, Johnson gets the audience to invest in seeing him grow into a more responsible person. Like Swanberg’s past films, it’s relatively low key and relaxing, but the final gambling sequence becomes surprisingly gripping. A strong and emotional character piece that doesn’t go for cheap laughs, Win It All is the type of indie film that should get more attention.
Barry isn’t the first film to deal with the life of America’s 44th President, as he was also portrayed by Parker Sawyers in Southside With You, but it has a different approach on the man’s life. The film follows Barack Obama as a young man coming of age at Columbia University in 1981, and explores how social and political factors came to shape his identity and beliefs. While it wrestles with history and the nature of a changing country, Barry is more focused on the educational sphere and telling a coming of age story.
As Obama, Devon Terrell gives a breakout performance, and he’s able to find hints of uncertainty and conflict within a character who is used to projecting an image of confidence. The vast ensemble, which includes Anya-Taylor Joy, Jason Mitchell, and Ellar Coltrane among others, all give Terrell different perspectives to bounce off of. Cleverly interweaving history and speculation, Barry is an exciting way of engaging with biopic movie clichés.
3. A Futile and Stupid Gesture
Instead of trying to replicate the life of National Lampoon founder Douglas Kenney in a traditional way, A Futile and Stupid Gesture uses the spirit of National Lampoon to tell a similarly inspiring story about outsiders fighting against the system. Kenny is portrayed by Will Forte, and while the real Kenney died at the age of 27, the film also includes narration by a fictional older Kenney (Martin Mull), something that fits perfectly for the cheeky, self-aware style of examining the history of comedy that the film is going for.
The style is fast and funny, covering years of comedy history and featuring cameos from many figures of today’s comedy scene as icons of the 70s and 80s, featuring inspired casting like Joel McHale as Chevy Chase and Seth Green as Christopher Guest. It’s interesting to see the behind the scenes chaos that produced Caddyshack and Animal House, but the heart of the story lies in the dynamic relationship between Kenney and his longtime creative partner Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson), and the two great actors have terrific chemistry. The film ends on a note that is both shockingly funny and surprisingly sincere.
2. Gerald’s Game
Had Gerald’s Game been marketed properly and seen by enough contemporary cinephiles, it would likely be considered a future classic and one of the best Stephen King adaptations of all-time. Unfortunately, the film has seemingly been forgotten, although its director Mike Flanagan has gone on to become one of the best horror directors of his generation with The Haunting of Hill House, Doctor Sleep, and Hush. Gerald’s Game is a hypnotic and twisted look at intimacy and trauma, taking King’s visceral language and transforming it into a deeply uncomfortable and restrained thriller.
Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) are a married couple that travel to a secluded cabin for a romantic weekend, but in the midst of their attempt to rekindle their relationship, Gerald dies of a heart attack, leaving Jessie trapped chained to a bed. As Jessie’s memories flood in, the film plays on her anxieties as she attempts to escape. Gugino gives the performance of her career, capturing Jessie’s trauma as she uncovers the sinister forces at play.
1. The Discovery
A bold and imaginative science fiction film with fascinating ideas about life and death, The Discovery is the type of film that can be rewatched just to soak in all the details of the story. The film imagines a version of the future where scientific proof of the afterlife has been proven by researcher Thomas Harbour (Robert Redford); this discovery results in an epidemic of suicides throughout the world, and two years later Harbour’s son Will (Jason Segal) journeys to his father’s mansion and meets an enigmatic woman Ilsa (Rooney Mara).
The high concept ideas don’t distract from the central relationships; both Will and Ilsa are struggling with deep feelings of regret, and Will’s strained relationship with his father helps to drive the mystery as he looks to uncover his father’s real motivations. The film’s twists are earned, and though the tone is often somber, it’s the type of film that is sure to provoke serious discussion and analysis. There has certainly been a phenomenon of bold and original science fiction films over the past decade, and The Discovery shouldn’t be left out when talking about imaginative sci-fi films that take serious risks.