“BAMcinemaFest, an annual series presented by BAMcinématek, is the city’s leading showcase for American independent films,” begins the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “But with competition for New York premières rising from other venues, such as the small but ambitious La Di Da Film Festival, the New Directors/New Films series, and the Tribeca Film Festival, this year’s lineup doesn’t have quite the consistency of artistic quality that has marked its recent editions. Nonetheless, its best offerings are, by any standard, remarkable—world-class films by young directors whose work deserves wide recognition.”
“BAM’s shrewd curatorial strategy, cherry-picking highlights from the indiscriminate sprawl of early festivals like Sundance and True/False, offers advantages over the approach preferred by festivals more inclined to snatch up world premieres,” writes Calum Marsh in the Voice. “Critical opinion has in most cases already been registered, leaving BAM with enviable lineups composed of the festival circuit’s all-stars.” And he picks out “a few standouts among the standouts.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn writes up “5 Must-See Gems,” and you’ll find more recommendations from BlackBook, Joe Reid (Atlantic), Sarah Salovaara (Filmmaker). On Filmwax Radio, Adam Schartoff interviews “the entire programming team behind BAMcinématek including Ryan Werner, Gabriele Caroti, Nellie Killian and David Reilly.” BAM’s own Andrew Chan talks with the team as well.
BAMcinemaFest 2014 opens tonight with Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood, and I posted first impressions and links to further reviews that had appeared since the Sundance premiere when I saw it at the Berlinale. I’m fairly sure another entry is forthcoming.
The festival closes on June 29 with a 25th anniversary screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, kicking off “a 12-day retrospective, looking back on three decades of remarkable Spike Lee Joints and commemorating the 15th anniversary of BAMcinématek, which launched in 1999 with a survey of Lee’s career.” And there’ll be a Q&A with Lee, Danny Aiello, Ricky Aiello, Rosie Perez, Bill Nunn, editor Barry Alexander Brown and production designer Wynn Thomas.
Tomorrow sees free screenings of three films by Les Blank in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980), The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1970) and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980). Later this year, BAMcinématek will stage a full Les Blank retrospective.
This year’s Centerpiece is Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. The first entry on this one appeared last summer, and I followed up with a few notes and more links when it screened in Berlin. For Steve Macfarlane at the L, it “lacks the tightness of his 2006 kaiju epic breakthrough The Host but should still be recognized as a fascinating—if maddening—attempt to make a truly international blockbuster without losing political gravitas.”
The Spotlight happens on Monday when David Wain, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler will be present for a screening of their rom-com parody, They Came Together. I’ll be posting an entry on this one relatively soon.
June 27 sees a special screening of a new restoration of the 1981 documentary Stations of the Elevated. Says BAM: “The first ever filmed document of graffiti, Manfred Kirchheimer’s richly chromatic 16mm tone poem sets images of the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn to a soundtrack that interweaves ambient city noises with the gutbucket gospel sound of jazz titan Charles Mingus.” Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “Just as Edward Bland‘s The Cry of Jazz gave a neglected genre its proper due in 1959, Stations of the Elevated makes a compassionate plea to appreciate the unequivocal beauty of street art.”
So here’s a guide to what critics have been saying about the other films in the lineup.
Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley. Dispatching to the House Next Door from True/False in March, Clayton Dillard called it a film which seeks less to understand the psychology of convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky than Penn State’s fervid devotion to sports culture.” Reviews from Sundance: Sam Adams (Philadelphia City Paper), Justin Chang (Variety), John DeFore (Hollywood Reporter), Eric Kohn (Indiewire), Jeff Labrecque (EW) and Nathan Rabin (Dissolve).
Joe Callander’s Life After Death. Here’s a “work of a gifted filmmaker with a laid-back, observational sense of humor,” writes Nick Pinkerton for Sight & Sound. “The film looks at the relationship between [Suzette and Dave Munson of the Texas company Saddleback Leather] and Kwasa, a Rwandan street kid orphaned by the 1994 genocide, whom they’ve adopted and converted. Scenes of Kwasa and his friend Fils kicking around the city of Kigali have the gentle, lackadaisical quality of Hal Roach comedy, while Callender deftly manoeuvres into the Munsons’ own self-awareness blind spots. While singling out what’s absurd about both parties, Callender reduces neither to simplistic figures of fun, and this affectionate approach proves efficacious in exploring the complexities of what Dickens called ‘telescopic charity’ in its modern form.”
Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Richard Brody in February: “Working with her actors, Decker doesn’t seem to observe behavior but to invent it: the characters bring a glint of whimsy, a lilt of pain, and an undertone of seething erotic power to the seemingly most ordinary activities. The images by the cinematographer, Ashley Connor (who also shot Butter on the Latch), exalt bodies and movement, light and texture into frenzies of vertiginous possibility. The subject of the images is time, in exactly the same way that a writer can describe a single moment of feeling, an instant of vision, or a flicker of memory through the course of sentences and paragraphs.”
Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s The Notorious Mr. Bout. When the Dissolve‘s Noel Murray caught it at Sundance, he knew it was “not going to be easy to shake off.” It’s “about arms-trafficker Viktor Bout, the ‘merchant of death’ fictionalized by Nic Cage in the movie Lord of War. The movie consists almost entirely of Bout’s own videocam footage, shot around the world, painting a self-portrait of a garrulous businessman who built a shipping business from scratch by being willing to move cargo—any cargo—into dangerous places. In other words: not a supervillain, just an amoral capitalist who became a big target post-9/11.” In Variety, Dennis Harvey calls it “a somewhat grotesquely comic, in its way even sympathetic, portrait of a man whose guilt in enabling war crimes is crystal-clear to everyone save himself.” More from Eric Ortiz Garcia (Twitch) and Jordan M. Smith (Ioncinema, 3.5/5). And BAM‘s got a few questions for Gerber.
Paul Harrill’s Something, Anything. In April, Darren Hughes spoke with Harrill for the Notebook and wrote: “In an era when ‘contemplative’ filmmakers tend to evoke Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Malick, and the Dardennes, Harrill’s style is decidedly conventional—old-fashioned, even…. The cutting is standard continuity, and the pace, though slower than most multiplex fare, will feel familiar to viewers of classical Hollywood. Finally, though, Something, Anything has the soul of a Bergman film—if not its style—remaining agnostic on questions of God and putting its faith, instead, in human affection. A film about a woman of few words who swallows her emotions and fends off despair, Something, Anything manages, in its final moments, to capture two minor miracles, both of them earth-bound and sublime.” J. J. Murphy notes that it “concerns a kind of spiritual journey by a straight, young middle-class protagonist, Peggy (Ashley Shelton), who transforms into a very different person (Margaret) during the course of the film. Harrill’s sensitive and engaging character study reminds me of two other indie films, Hal Hartley’s Trust (1991) and Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), in how Peggy’s life seems to be going along smoothly and then suddenly falls apart in ways that prove both deeply moving and sad.”
“Harrill’s writing and directing is sensitive in the best way possible, highlighting small details of behavior sharply but unfussily,” writes Glenn Kenny. “And Shelton’s performance has a steady intensity that gives off a soft but beautiful light throughout.”
Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s L for Leisure. For Calum Marsh, it’s a “sublime comedy [that] takes all manner of idleness very seriously, and one of its most refreshing qualities is how it makes chilling out look guiltlessly appealing.”
John Magary’s The Mend. “A convincing and refreshingly indirect examination of handed-down emotional flaws,” writes John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter. The film “observes the latest in a lifelong series of fights and reunions between two brothers. As the prodigal who dips in and out of his settled sibling’s life unpredictably, Josh Lucas offers one of his strongest performances to date; the comparably unknown Stephen Plunkett, though not the film’s main focus, makes an excellent foil.” More from Dan Gentile (Austin Chronicle) and Rodrigo Perez (Playlist, D+). For Glenn Kenny, The Mend “is not just a staggering debut feature, it’s a staggering movie full stop…. The movie is never not profanely hilarious, but it’s also almost nerve-wrackingly tense throughout.” BlackBook‘s Hillary Weston interviews Magary.
Carlos Marques-Marcet’s 10.000KM. Sarah Salovaara for Filmmaker: “You may have heard that the film opens with a 23-minute one-take (kudos to d.p. Dagmar Weaver-Madsen), which serves to illustrate the last moment of unbroken proximity Alex and Sergi will share as a couple. But 10.000KM doesn’t really take off until the two are begrudgingly Skyping across the titular divide from Los Angeles to Barcelona. In a stunning jaunt, related through a series of photographs, Marques-Marcet takes his female protagonist to Silicon Valley. As Alex considers the concrete slabs and abandoned parking lots that are home to modern technology’s pre-eminent puppet masters, Marques-Marcet accomplishes what so many contemporaries neglect to do by situating personal strife in a macro context. This is low-budget filmmaking at its most economical and inventive: two apartments, two actors, two computers, and, despite the odds, it is endlessly engrossing.”
Darius Clark Monroe’s Evolution of a Criminal. Richard Brody saw it last month at the Maryland Film Festival and wrote that it “stands out as a work that undermined some of my fundamental notions about filmmaking.” BAM notes that “Monroe revisits his journey from honors student to convicted bank robber at the age of 16.” Brody: “Yet there’s nothing in the film that labels it as a documentary…. Its images, its shape, its tone, and its implications make it a terrific movie, as well as the birth of an artist.” Monroe is a guest on Adam Schartoff‘s Filmwax Radio.
Madeleine Olnek’s The Foxy Merkins. “The droll comic inspiration that made 2011’s Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same a delight flags somewhat with The Foxy Merkins, which reunites director Madeleine Olnek and star/co-scribe Lisa Haas,” wrote Dennis Harvey in Variety from Sundance. “This equally absurdist exercise gets off to a good start portraying an unlikely Manhattan prostitution trade in homeless but well-educated females serving closeted lesbian socialites. Then the bright ideas begin to thin out, and the pic never quite recovers its footing.” Interviews: Indiewire and Danielle Lurie (Filmmaker). Melissa Anderson for Artforum: “Merkins sends up both male-hustler movies (Midnight Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho in particular) and the upscale, conservative daughters of Gomorrah with unerring goofiness.”
Jeff Preiss’s Low Down. It’s “an adaptation of Amy Albany’s memoir about growing up in squalid mid-1970s Hollywood with her heroin-addicted jazz pianist father,” as Noel Murray describes it at the Dissolve. “Elle Fanning plays Amy, while John Hawkes plays the junkie, and though Preiss nails the atmosphere of a dingy apartment complex, populated by prostitutes and castoffs, the film plays like a string of ‘Here’s how shitty my childhood was’ anecdotes, always cycling back through the same pattern of things-may-be-looking-up-no-wait-I’m-on-drugs-again. Charitably, I could say the movie is like jazz in that way, noodling around a single motif.” More from Scott Foundas (Variety) and Rodrigo Perez (Playlist, D+).
Zachary Wigon’s The Heart Machine. Notes from SXSW. Calum Marsh: “Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) conduct their transcontinental romance exclusively online until the former, perhaps a bit of a paranoiac, begins to suspect that their relationship isn’t quite so long distance after all. But its concerns are deeper, and more richly psychological, than merely trendy probings of the zeitgeist. The Heart Machine, at its best, is a remarkably elegant genre film, a Pakulian thriller amply charged by anxiety and unease.”
Updates, 6/19: For the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott, there’s “something very Brooklyn about this whole thing. I’ve lived here for more than 20 years, and I’m not quite sure of the rules. Am I allowed to mention Lena Dunham? Am I allowed not to? Ms. Dunham is actually in one of the festival selections—Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas—but the influence of her work (Tiny Furniture as well as Girls) feels nearly ubiquitous, an example either to be imitated or avoided…. One theme that threads through the selections—from Carlos Marques-Marcet’s long-distance-relationship tale 10.000KM through Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s sun-kissed, Whit Stillmanesque L for Leisure to Paul Harrill’s melancholy Something, Anything—is the tendency for conversation and communication to move in very different directions. If I may risk a generalization, a lot of young filmmakers are less interested in the expository function of dialogue than in its expressive potential. People in these films don’t talk to advance the story, but rather to provoke and manipulate one another, to fill the silence and pass the time.”
Henry Stewart talks with a good number of the filmmakers for Brooklyn Magazine.
For Jeremy Polacek, writing at Hyperallergic, Evolution of a Criminal “is the most compelling and revealing work” in the lineup.
Update, 6/20: At Twitch, Christopher Bourne offers brief reviews of a dozen features.
Updates, 6/21: Katie Positerry has a terrific post on the BAM design team’s creation of the visual identity of this year’s festival. And BAM talks with Young Jean Lee about her short, Here Come the Girls.
Meantime, for the Financial Times, Damon Wise talks with Bong Joon-ho about Snowpiercer.
Updates, 6/27: Alan Scherstuhl in the Voice: “Lumbering, skronking, and wondrously paint-bombed, Manfred Kirchheimer’s Stations of the Elevated (1981) is a 45-minute proto-hip-hop bliss-out, a masterpiece of train- and tag-spotting dedicated to memorializing the extravagant graffiti on its era’s MTA trains and how those trains rumbled across Brooklyn and the Bronx, bearing not just exhausted New Yorkers but gifted artists’ urgent personal expression.” More from Dan Sullivan in the L.
And BAM’s been talking with more of filmmakers behind some of the films it’s screening: Jason Giamprieto (