“There’s no better barometer of the climate of independent filmmaking in America than BAMcinemaFest,” announces Calum Marsh in the Voice. “BAMcinemaFest, with its manageably small slate and emphasis, honed across each iteration, on quality over quantity and proven excellence over coveted premieres, offers something of an ideal cross-section of the American independent film. To take in this program is to glimpse, reliably, our indie cinema at its most essential and vibrant.”
The festival opens today and runs through June 28, and my goal here will be to round up coverage of each film in separate, delineated sections. See, too, the overview from curators Nellie Killian, David Reilly, Ryan Werner and Gabriele Caroti.
For Marsh, to “begin with the best of the best,” is to begin with the festival’s Centerpiece, Alex Ross Perry‘s Queen of Earth: “Its thrills, conceived in the Polanski mold, are highly concentrated and deftly realized, registered on a heady pitch somewhere between Jacob’s Ladder and Knife in the Water. Largely a chamber piece for two women—Katherine Waterston and Elisabeth Moss, both excellent in hugely demanding roles—the film also welcomes, and indeed earns, Persona comparisons. This is vigorous, frightening, electrifying stuff.”
Queen of Earth currently has a 83/100 rating at Critics Round Up, where James Kang’s been rounding up reviews, my own quick take included.
Update, 6/19: The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody: “Perry knows how to make nothing happen furiously—to turn passing moments and near-incidental interactions into secret living nightmares.”
In the New York Times, A.O. Scott admires the opener, James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour, “which throws Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel together as two writers named David, both of them real people. Mr. Eisenberg is David Lipsky, whose Rolling Stone assignment to profile Mr. Segel’s David—the novelist David Foster Wallace, that is—is the basis of the film. Its scale is small and specific: While Mr. Ponsoldt explores themes as large and abstract as the logic of literary fame and the nature of novelistic truth, he is focused on the details of the strange dynamic that emerges between a journalist and his subject. And I’ve rarely seen a writer portrayed with the kind of painstaking empathy Mr. Segel brings to his role. I’ll leave it to those who knew Wallace personally (he died in 2008) to gauge the accuracy of the portrait, and I’ll leave the work of evaluating its color and texture to a later review. But I can only admire a movie so interested in writing and reading, and in the exploration of a hugely talented writer’s mind and sensibility.”
CRU rating: 86. Daily roundup. Update, 6/18: “Segal has insisted his performance is not an impression,” notes Susanna Locascio at Hammer to Nail, “but when I watched some videos of Wallace I couldn’t believe how fully Segal seems to have embodied the writer.”
Update, 6/19: “Segel delivers the finest performance of his career to date,” agrees Christopher Bourne at Twitch. “Eisenberg matches him note for note, nicely conveying how Lipsky’s interactions with Wallace both inspire him and force him to recognize some uncomfortable truths about himself. The beautifully rendered wintry Midwestern atmosphere, and an unusually moody, melancholy Danny Elfman score complete this impressive package.”
Writing for Artforum, Melissa Anderson recommends Sean Baker’s Tangerine, “the trashily buoyant BAMcinemaFest closer; its stars, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor, both making their feature-film debut, are equally charismatic in their roles as transgender prosties. Set during Christmas Eve in the seedier intersections of Hollywood, Baker’s film tracks Sin-Dee (Rodriquez) as she storms down Santa Monica Boulevard in search of her cheating pimp boyfriend, her bestie Alexandra (Taylor) reluctantly aiding the motor-mouthed wronged woman in her enraged quest. As in his previous movie, Starlet (2012), a tale of an improbable intergenerational friendship between an aspiring XXX actress and an octogenarian widow, Baker again evinces genuine admiration for his unconventional heroines, his warmth never curdling into mawkishness. Enhanced with anamorphic adapters, the smartphones that Baker used to shoot Tangerine proved extremely versatile, enabling both widescreen visions of shapely, fishnet-stockinged legs furiously in motion and more intimate two-shots of extreme acrimony in doughnut shops or tender reconciliations in laundromats.”
The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody: “In one of this year’s finest offerings, Stephen Winter goes behind the scenes of a classic independent film—Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason—with Jason and Shirley (screening June 18), an ingeniously conceived and acted docudrama about the night, in 1966, when Clarke filmed Jason Holliday, a gay black hustler and aspiring cabaret artist, in her room in the Chelsea Hotel. Winter convened a prominent artist and a novelist—Jack Waters and Sarah Schulman—to play Holliday and Clarke, and to co-write the script with him. The result, filmed like an archival video, is a meticulously detailed imagining of the shoot, especially in Waters’s uncanny, electrifying impersonation of Holliday, as well as a complex and anguished view of the power relations, societal conflicts, and cruel sacrifices from which Clarke’s film arose.”
Updates, 6/18: “Whatever Jason and Shirley risks losing in veracity, it more than makes up for with its psychological ambition and sheer narrative force,” writes Steve Macfarlane, introducing his interview with Winter for Filmmaker. “While centering exclusively on a cluster of people trapped in a Chelsea Hotel room by their lights and cameras, the film moves nonetheless.” Adam Schartoff talks with Winter as well—on Filmwax Radio.
Update, 6/19: Amy Heller and Dennis Doros of Milestone Films: “While we are absolute believers in freedom of speech and artistic expression and do not dispute that the producers, writers and stars of Jason and Shirley have every right to make their ‘re-vision’ of the making of Shirley Clarke’s great documentary Portrait of Jason, we feel we must go on the record about the film’s inaccurate and simplistic portrayals of a brilliant filmmaker and her charismatic subject.”
“As one of the most interesting young filmmakers working today, Nathan Silver has reached a new high with his latest film, Stinking Heaven,” writes BlackBook‘s Hillary Weston. “Silver’s latest comes off the critical success of his last two movies, Uncertain Terms and Soft in the Head. With Stinking Heaven, Silver once again revisits his affinity for stories that explore the claustrophobic and emotionally fraught experience of familial structures and shared living. Whereas his last film took place in a secluded home for pregnant teenagers, here Silver gives us a raw portrait of a suburban safe house for recovering addicts…. Through Silver’s neurotic and chaotic lens, we’re given a unique and visceral film that’s as intelligently crafted as it is playful and risk-taking.”
CRU: 88. Daily. Updates, 6/18: Craig Hubert at Artinfo: “Shot on smeared and ugly-looking video, as if the movie was a home-video found in a dumpster after sitting out in the sun for too long, Silver’s misanthropic tale of a sober-living house in suburban New Jersey gone awry is filled with such composed chaos and vicious junkie-bad-vibes that it will leave you feeling a little jittery by the end.” And Adam Cook interviews Silver here at Keyframe.
Update, 6/19: “In effect, Stinking Heaven is a film about filmmaking,” argues the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “Silver assembles an extraordinary cast—an all-star team of young performers that includes Hannah Gross, Deragh Campbell, Eleonore Hendricks, and Tallie Medel, and some unfamiliar but mighty elders (notably, Henri Douvry, Lawrence Novak, and Jason Grisell), and gives them plenty of leeway without ever leaving them slack. The tension between directorial authority and the performers’ inner imperatives is palpable throughout, and is dramatized all the more jaggedly in the videos-within-the-film, as outbursts threaten the very texture of the narrative exactly as they disrupt the lives of the house’s residents.” And BlackBook‘s Hillary Weston interviews Silver.
“More than once in writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s grimly fascinating drama Krisha, the camera slowly closes on the title character’s troubled face,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “With her wizened features, sunken eyes and unkept white hair, Krisha (Krisha Fairchild, the filmmaker’s aunt) wears the beaten down look of a woman baffled by a world that has slipped beyond her grasp. Shults’s dizzying filmmaking technique compliments that distant gaze, as he chronicles the alcoholic woman’s attempt to convince her estranged relatives that she has managed to stabilize her life over the course of a Thanksgiving dinner that careens into chaos.”
“The deft direction—it’s hard to believe this is his first film—is fully supported by Drew Daniels’s cinematography, as well as Brian McOmber’s eerie score and Tim Rakoczy’s haunting sound design,” writes Howard Feinstein at Filmmaker. “Krisha opens up further the possibilities of family as both source and screen material.”
When Krisha won best narrative feature from both the jury and audiences at SXSW, I gathered a first round of reviews. Update, 6/18: “This crazy, fascinating feature debut plays like Vinterberg’s The Celebration set at a Texas Thanksgiving,” writes Susanna Locascio at Hammer to Nail. Krisha “threatens but never tips over into melodrama.”
“Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies recounts the ten debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal that served as the linchpin of ABC’s coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 1968,” writes Melissa Anderson at Artforum. “Both forty-two at the time of the debates, their orotund speech a product of their Brahmin upbringing, these class-consonant, politically discordant public intellectuals make no attempt to conceal their mutual animosity, infamously reaching its lowest point when Buckley, who had just been branded a ‘crypto-Nazi’ by his opponent, retorts by calling Vidal a ‘queer’ and threatening, ‘I’ll sock you in the goddamn face.’ But even this potent moment in network news is diluted by the excess of commenters dissecting the fracas, which Best of Enemies then rushes to proclaim as a harbinger of today’s nonstop bloviating.”
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn on Breaking a Monster: “The seventh grade members of heavy metal band Unlocking the Truth received national acclaim after the young African American musicians’ skilled performances went viral on YouTube. The overnight fame ultimately led the trio to a widely publicized $1.8 million deal with Sony Music for five albums. Director Luke Meyer (Darkon) captures the group’s quixotic journey with remarkable access to backroom dealings as the kids gradually develop a deeper understanding of the business tactics threatening to consume them from every direction.” Update, 6/19: “[I]mmensely entertaining and revealing,” finds Christopher Bourne at Twitch.
From Time Out New York: “A cinematic sucker punch in sheep’s clothing, the latest from the endearingly restless Sebastián Silva‘s latest,” Nasty Baby, “only starts as a sweet, low-key charmer. The loosely told story of a Brooklynite (Kristen Wiig) who’s acting as a surrogate for her best friend (Silva) and his partner (TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe), this warm and weird little movie lulls you into a false sense of indie security before abruptly illustrating just how fragile the good life can be.”
Back to Calum Marsh: “I’m sure many people saw, and even quite liked, Joe Swanberg‘s Uncle Kent, a chronicle of the banal life of animator and Adventure Time writer Kent Osborne—but were its fans clamoring for a sequel? Perhaps not, and yet here’s Osborne and Swanberg with Uncle Kent 2. But this is no mere follow-up. It’s a profound expansion of, and meta meditation on, an unabashedly obscure film, zooming out from mumblecore’s characteristic solipsism to take the long view on independent cinema, modern technology, and the drab expanse of the slacker life…. Swanberg is swapped out for Todd Rohal, and a familiarly low-key, naturalistic New York indie mutates into something keyed-up and ludicrously over-the-top. Scarcely are sequels so ambitious—or so original.”
As for Jon Nealon and Jenny Raskin’s Here Come the Videofreex, I’ll have reviews when they come in. For now, the trailer:
Screening with Dan Schoenbrun’s short, The School is Watching.
Update, 6/18: For Craig Hubert at Artinfo, this is “a charming documentary about the trailblazing and largely unknown video-documentary collective who, after forming in New York City in the late 1960s, eventually moved to upstate New York and started their own guerilla television station. The Videofreex continuously did their own thing, and when the money came knocking at their door, they took it. But when it didn’t work out they refused to succumb. The group moved out to the woods and kept working. Fiercely individualistic, oblivious, and even resistant to the channels of mainstream culture, their sprit hovers over independent cinema—both in what it has lost and how it can be found.”
“When was the last time you saw a feminist sci-fi?” asks Emily Buder at Indiewire. “Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, which won the Special Jury Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, garnered critical acclaim for its ambitious take on a dystopian world that features eerily familiar elements. Told entirely from a female perspective, the film explores the moral quandaries of an aging single mother who, strapped for cash in the midst of an economic crisis, decides to undergo an invasive cosmetic surgery to restore her youth. The film posits that technology and modern values will eventually strip women of their social progress, leaving us with a man’s world that’s indifferent to the unique struggles of womanhood.”
Update, 6/18: The L‘s Mark Asch has a terrific exchange with Phang, who tells him that the “sci-fi films and series I’ve loved and binge-watched all have an emotional component to them that inspired my own sensibilities. In Ghost in the Shell, Battlestar Galactica, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Blade Runner, you spend time with characters who have human concerns in spite of their manufactured bodies.” And “my intent from the beginning with the short was to make a cerebral and dramatic film, influenced by period dramas and films with chamber piece sensibilities like The Age of Innocence—just two or three people in a room talking about surviving and maneuvering in the socioeconomic strata to move up the ladder.”
Updates, 6/26: “The film’s third act centers on an upsetting surprise, a trick of casting certain to shake the audience, a twist that demands we consider just how much beauty-minded societies demand of women,” writes the Voice‘s Alan Scherstuhl. “Structurally, this guarantees that the film fails to satisfy according to the terms of conventional movie storytelling. Challenging viewers this way—denying clean resolutions, chucking out the urgent drama of the first hour of movie—is bound to alienate some audiences. But from its arresting first scenes, Phang’s film is as much about why? as it is what next?“
Stephen Saito interviews Phang.
Update, 6/29: “Advantageous is the first science fiction film I’ve seen that really grasps something I think is core to the experience of us young people who are on the bleeding edge of the troubling trend of Machines Taking Our Jobs Away,” writes Arthur Chu at Salon.
“In Cop Car, the title character is found abandoned in a field by two 10-year-old boys, whose exhilaration at such a discovery can hardly be overstated,” writes Eric D. Snider at GeekNation. “They take it for a spin. In their childlike enthusiasm, they don’t stop to consider that a functioning police vehicle, even one found in an unusual place, doesn’t go missing without someone coming to look for it. That’s where Kevin Bacon comes in.” Cop Car is “a surprisingly rich comedy, with an unexpected dash of tension and Coen Bros.-style crime fiction…. Directed by Jon Watts (an Onion News Network pro) and written by him and Christopher D. Ford (Robot & Frank), the film doesn’t have ‘twists,’ per se, but it does establish a dark, suspenseful tone.”
At the Film Stage, Dan Mecca gives Cop Car a C. Update, 6/19: “The simplicity of the setup, initially an asset, becomes a liability in the later stretches when the minimal premise struggles to sustain itself,” finds Christopher Bourne at Twitch.
Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn on A Woman Like Me: “Alex Sichel died before the completion of this personal and idiosyncratic portrait of her experiences with cancer, but her voice is evident in every scene of the heartfelt project. Completed by Elizabeth Giamatti (who accepted a directing prize for the project at this year’s SXSW), the movie tracks Sichel’s existential questions as she prepares to face the inevitable.” The doc is “ultimately galvanizing in its ability to confront a topic all too frequently relegated to whispers.”
In POV Magazine, Patrick Mullen agrees that “A Woman Like Me is one of the most freeing and cathartic experiences a filmmaker could ever make about death.”
Kris Swanberg’s Unexpected stars Cobie Smulders as Samantha, “a Chicago Public Schools science teacher facing a school closing, unemployment and a little something extra,” notes the Tribune‘s Michael Phillips. “She and her live-in boyfriend (Anders Holm, who could be the doppelganger of Swanberg’s filmmaker husband, Joe Swanberg) find themselves pregnant. So is Jasmine, Samantha’s most promising graduating senior. She’s played by the excellent Gail Bean. The storyline, simple and clean, follows how these two women navigate their respective pregnancies and become friends.”
“Small-scale and warmhearted in the best ways, this is an accomplished piece of work,” finds Geoff Berkshire in Variety.
“If writer-director Patrick Wang hadn’t already made a fine, little-seen drama a few years ago called In the Family, the title would have been just as well suited to his sophomore feature, The Grief of Others, a delicate, elliptically structured portrait of six wounded souls coping with the aftermath of tragedy.” Variety‘s Justin Chang: “More experimental in form and wobbly in execution than its predecessor, this searching adaptation of Leah Hager Cohen’s 2011 novel nonetheless evokes a family’s fragile inner life in ineffably moving fashion, capturing how distant and isolated parents and children can feel from one another even when living under the same roof.”
“A step up in terms of complexity, with more subplots and a