But it was the films that genuinely stood out this season. I wasn’t able to see as many as I would have liked—I missed, alas, audience favorites Other People and Captain Fantastic—but following are notes on several of the screenings I attended.
Let’s begin with Birbiglia’s sophomore feature Don’t Think Twice. I’m a big fan of Birbiglia’s work on This American Life and elsewhere, but I was modestly disappointed in Sleepwalk With Me, his first film as writer/director. Don’t Think Twice is definitely a step forward. The story of a modestly successful improv comedy troupe that is pulled apart when one of its members (Keegan-Michael Key) is offered a job on a big, SNL-like sketch show, the film is nicely structured, gently witty, and it boasts an excellent cast (also including Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci, and Tami Sagher). I had a chance to talk with Birbiglia about the film and his plans for the future, and I hope to get that conversation online soon.
I try to make a point of seeing Rachel Weisz films, not specifically because I love her performances (although I often do), but because she has an exceptionally good eye for choosing worthy projects. In Complete Unknown, she plays a mysterious woman who infiltrates the birthday party of an agricultural technocrat (Michael Shannon). It turns out that the two had been lovers long ago, when she went by a different name, and that she has spent the intervening years inventing and shedding new identities as she moves through life. It’s a cunning premise, and it keeps the moving humming for a time, with Shannon delivering his customary slow-burn intensity. But in its latter half the film, co-written and directed by Joshua Marston (Maria Full of Grace), gradually runs out of ideas, and out of steam.
Miss Stevens, the directorial debut of Julia Hart (she had previously written the script for The Keeping Room), is a small but likable film about a teacher (Lily Rabe) who takes three of her students on a weekend road trip to a state drama competition. The students fall into “types” a bit more than one might prefer, and the ending is a tad tidy. But Hart, who was a high-school teacher herself for many years, offers moments of real insight, and Rabe is excellent in the central role. The true standout, however, is Timothee Chalamet, who plays the most troubled of the teacher’s charges. The young actor had small roles in Men, Women & Children and Interstellar, but here he is really given an opportunity to shine. Keep an eye out: We’ll be seeing more of him.
Little Men offered another early glimpse of a talented young performer. The latest film from director Ira Sachs (Married Life, Love Is Strange), it concerns the friendship between two 13-year-old boys—a friendship complicated by the fact the boho parents of one (Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Ehle) find themselves the landlords of the below-market-rate dress shop run by the mother of the other (Paulina Garcia). As a referendum on gentrification in Brooklyn, the movie can occasionally be a bit tedious. But the entire cast is strong, especially Michael Barbieri, who plays one of the two boys with the panache and intensity of a (very, very) young Al Pacino. We’ll be seeing more of him, too: He’s set to appear in The Dark Tower and Spider-Man: Homecoming next year.