‘Stan & Ollie’ (2018)
It’s no surprise that a biopic of the classic comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy didn’t exactly set the box office on fire eight decades after their heyday; their work has been all but forgotten in this what’s-new-and-is-it-streaming era. But the director Jon S. Baird — focusing on the pair’s tour of English music halls in the twilight of their careers — presents a compelling (if somewhat fictionalized) portrait of their affection, resentments and codependence, while Steve Coogan as Laurel and John C. Reilly as Hardy engagingly recreate the comedians’ old routines and characterizations. They’re fun to watch (and to watch together), and the pathos at the picture’s end is genuine, and earned.
‘Welcome to Me’ (2015)
Kristen Wiig is at the center of this peculiar and risky character study as Alice Klieg, a perpetually luckless unemployed woman with borderline personality disorder who wins the California lottery and uses her newfound financial windfall to fund her own bizarre daytime talk show. The director Shira Piven and the screenwriter Eliot Laurence could have easily told this story as a broad comedy or a depressing chamber piece. They pull off something trickier, positioning the picture as a serious-minded but frequently uproarious tragicomedy, and it mostly works — thanks in no small part to Wiig, whose characterization is equal parts keenly observed, deeply disturbed and breezily funny.
You might assume this is yet another of Liam Neeson’s late-career thrillers, considering it concerns an ordinary man out to avenge the death of his son. But there’s a grim joylessness to this man and his mission, and “Cold Pursuit” gradually reveals itself as a deconstruction of these movies, willing to grapple with the bleakness of death and revenge. Neeson’s snowplow driver just keeps pounding these guys for names, then moves up to the next one, methodically searching for the responsible party. It gets broader (and more obviously “Fargo”-influenced) as it goes, which is unfortunate. But the subtext is fascinating, and Neeson seems to revel in the opportunity to do some honest-to-goodness acting in one of these things.
‘Cry Macho’ (2021)
Clint Eastwood had just entered his ninth decade on earth when he directed and starred in this adaptation of N. Richard Nash’s novel, and he looks every day of it onscreen; this isn’t the robust Clint of “In the Line of Fire” or even “Million Dollar Baby,” but a fragile, aged man with a croak of a voice. Yet Eastwood the director has always known how to play up the strengths of Eastwood the actor, and the many miles of road behind him give extra gravitas to the wisdom his character, a onetime rodeo rider, imparts on the young man (Eduardo Minett) he’s been sent to Mexico to retrieve.
Rebecca Hall crafts an astonishing portrait of a woman in the grip of unceasing trauma in this horror-tinged drama from the writer and director Andrew Semans. Hall is the very picture of fierce independence as Margaret, a driven career woman whose carefully calculated life starts careening out of her grasp when a mysterious figure from her past (a devilish Tim Roth) reappears. The genre affectations are effective — particularly the jaw-dropping finale — but the real draw here is Hall’s showcase monologue, an emotionally devastating explanation of exactly who Roth is, and what he did to her.
‘Strawberry Mansion’ (2022)
Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney wrote, directed and edited this delightfully demented comic fantasy — a true indie with a look, sound and feel quite unlike anything else on this or any other list. Audley is also the deadpan leading man, a government auditor in a not too distant future, where citizens are taxed for the extravagancies of their dreams. It’s a digital process, so he meets a considerable challenge in the form of the batty Bella (Penny Fuller), whose dreams are still analog, leaving him with thousands of videotapes to watch and log. And that’s when things start getting really weird. Audley and Birney’s wild screenplay adroitly captures the touch-and-go intricacies of dream logic, the special effects are impressively D.I.Y. and the humor is deliriously cockeyed throughout.
‘Love Is Strange’ (2014)
The youthful subjects and ratings-busting sexuality of the recent cause célèbre “Passages” make it feel like the work of a newbie hotshot, but its co-writer and director, Ira Sachs, has been making thoughtful, poignant indies for years. This is one of the best, the tender and sometimes tense story of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), who have loved each other and lived together for decades, only to find that finally making their marriage legal turns their entire lives upside down. Sachs’s portrayal of the frustrations of Manhattan real estate rings loud and true, and his entire cast is sturdy. But the real draws here are Lithgow and Molina, who invest their onscreen relationship with a lived-in authenticity.
‘It’s Quieter in the Twilight’ (2023)
NASA launched the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts in 1977, with the goal of gathering data from the orbits of the four outermost planets before continuing beyond our solar system. More than 1,000 people were involved in the project; when the director Billy Miossi shot this documentary about the mission between 2019 and 2021, that number had dwindled down to about a dozen lifers, many of them postponing retirement or declining other opportunities to instead stay with the Voyagers. Miossi’s film is modest, especially considering the grand ambitions of the mission, yet it’s a captivating portrait of these dedicated professionals, their inspiring work and the challenges of aging technology.