10 Must-See Movies at the 2016 BAMcinemaFest

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BAMcinemaFest begins tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Ira Sachs’s new film Little Men, kicking off a 10-day collection of some of the year’s most promising and powerful independent films. Collecting several of the buzziest titles from Sundance, SXSW, Berlin, and elsewhere, the comparatively young festival (this is its eighth year) has become an essential destination for New York moviegoers; these are a few of our recommendations for if you’re headed that way (or if you’re headed to the art house this summer and fall).

In a Valley of Violence (June 18)

Gifted genre classicist Ti West (The House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) turns his talents from horror to Western – Spaghetti Western specifically, managing to recapture not only the look and sound of those pictures, but the unsparing nastiness at their center. Ethan Hawke is a desert rider and strong silent type; he rarely utters more than a few syllables at a time, except to his faithful canine companion. His path to the Mexican border leads him through the troubled (and all but deserted) town of Denton, ruled by a matter-of-fact marshal (John Travolta, doing his best film work in years) and his oily bully of a son, played by James Ransone as a bratty kid who’s used to having daddy clean up his messes. The plotting is no more complicated than it needs to be –it’s not about the story, but the telling. West settles in to this mythology with high style and discernible affection.

Author: The JT Leroy Story (June 17)

The tale of JT Leroy, the 17-year-old HIV-positive homeless hustler whose scorching fiction and harrowing backstory captivated the literary scene for a good decade before he was unmasked as an invention of thirty-something writer and fabulist Laura Albert, is fascinating enough to make for a first-class A-to-Z documentary. But writer/director Jeff Feuerzeig creates something closer to a psychological mystery, less interested in how Albert pulled off this deception than why. It was, in fact, the accumulation of a lifetime of struggling with identity, character, abuse, and persona, which is ingeniously intercut in parallel with Leroy’s impressive rise and swift fall. It’s a cinematic page-turner – the deception keeps widening and intensifying, while the question of reliability (it’s primarily told by Albert) provides a powerful backbeat. A sensational but unsensationalistic telling of a riveting story.

Joshy (June 22)

There’s something sort of invigorating about a filmmaker willing to bank their entire film on one moment, and that’s what happens in Jeff Baena’s comedy/drama, set during what was intended to be the title character’s bachelor party weekend, until his fiancé offed herself a few months earlier. Thanks to the cast (including Thomas Middleditch, Adam Pally, Jenny Slate, Nick Kroll, and Alex Ross Perry) and Baena’s witty screenplay, it offers up funny characters, dialogue, and situations, but with an undeniable (and understandable) sense of melancholy vibrating underneath; they’re having a “wild time,” but they’re also playing roles and going through paces, until Josh has a moment of such raw vulnerability and genuine humanity that it exposes the artifice of their earlier transactions, and cracks them. Ace performances all around, each perching on the razor’s edge between comedy and tragedy, and falling freely from one side to the other.

The Childhood of a Leader (June 23)

Actor-turned-director Brady Corbett shoots and cuts in a style that’s almost obstructively classical – his film is painterly, precise, ornate, and paced deliberately enough to turn off less indulgent art-house patrons. But it’s full of remarkable compositions and gorgeous imagery, and if the early sections seem untethered, faith and patience pay off. He spends 100 or so minutes coiling his film tightly, before letting it explode in psychological warfare and horrible violence. A challenging picture, to be sure, but a powerful one.

Little Sister (June 17)

What’s initially most striking about Zach Clark’s story of a young Brooklyn nun on the verge of her first vows is how he takes her, and what she’s doing, seriously; there are no cheap shots at her faith, but more curiosity about how she became this person, and who she was previously. Those questions come to pass during an unexpected trip back to her family home, to see her badly-burned war-hero brother, a trip in which she has to go back to her former self to reach him in his current state. Addison Timlin crafts an admirably flexible lead performance, always hinting but never telling, and while the movie could use a bit more of her focus (it’s got three or four too many endings), it’s held aloft by its tiny moments of truth. (Jack Dunphy’s bonus short Chekhov is also a marvel, conveying years of familial conflicts and backstories within a five-minute telephone conversation.)

The Alchemist Cookbook (June 16)

How much further can this thing go? reads one of my later notes on this art film/horror thriller/ character study from writer/director Joel Potrykus, and if the picture doesn’t really hold together, the fact that it prompts such a question is certainly a plus. It finds Sean (Ty Hickson) months into a strange, trailer-in-the-woods existence, where he spends his time working on odd experiments and other projects, the frame cluttered with unexplained injuries, strange samples, and odd equipment. What first seems some sort of slapstick Walden takes a darker turn when his meds run out, and he begins a descent into madness. Potrykus makes the most of the question of how much of this is in his head, as he digs uncomfortably into this fractured psyche; it’s an unsettling film, and not always a successful one (Hickson’s performance is all over the place, and too much of the improvised dialogue feels like, well, improvised dialogue). But you never know where it’s going, and that counts for something. (Bonus: it’s preceded at cinemafest by Jacqueline Castel’s short The Puppet Man, which seems to slam an entire ’80s slasher movie into nine minutes, with the ample assist of both music and a cameo by John Carpenter.)

Dark Night (June 25)

Writer/director Tim Sutton (Memphis) fills this low-key drama with allusions to the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, but it’s only about it in the way Gus Van Sant’s Elephant was about Columbine – it sees the movie theater shooting as something less tied to this specific incident than as a fact of our lives, as they are right now. He tells his story as a series of understated and often disconnected character sketches, with shots and scenes that are less about explanations than a fascination with behavioral details. We know where he’s headed, which allows some agonizing false alarms; he’s toying with our expectation for bloodshed, and, on some level, our hunger for it. It’s a film that says much, but mostly avoids heavy-handedness – though occasionally a television or radio reports on another shooting, or the trial of an earlier one, a reminder that this has all become part of our fabric. Or, worse, part of the background.

Newtown (June 21)

Kim A. Snyder’s emotionally pulverizing documentary opens with images from a parade — a marching band, drum majors, service people, a beauty queen. These tableaux are almost clichéd visions of Americana, and they’re quickly followed by one that’s become equally inescapable: a mass shooting in progress. Twenty children and six adults were murdered on that December day in Newtown, and Snyder’s film is a portrait of grief, as felt by an entire community: parents who spend every day in tears, surviving siblings trying to muster a strength that the world shouldn’t yet require of them, a community that will never be the same, again, ever, not even close. That we’re currently knee-deep in the despair of another such massacre speaks to the way this subject is dominating our collective subconscious. We don’t really talk about this issue, not really; we make it about “rights” and “liberty” because what actually happened to these children and their families is simply unfathomable. But it happened, and attention must be paid, and this powerful film reverberates with the urgency of that need.

Morris From America (June 24)

This story of a young black man (the wonderful Markees Christmas) coming into his own in Germany flirts with familiar territory: fish out of water, coming-of-age, cruelty of other kids, etc. But writer/director Chad Hartigan (This Is Martin Bonner) inserts some welcome ripples, from the shady motives of the girl he falls for to the candid handling of his sexual awakening. Best of all is the relationship with his single dad (Craig Robinson, putting across his considerable warmth and good humor — and in multiple languages), which is handled with far more richness and depth than the typical teenage movie. It’s a charming picture, but it takes no shortcuts to easy happy endings.

Kate Plays Christine (June 18)

Director Robert Greene starts toying with us from the opening title, which reveals itself backwards — and indeed, this is a film about both an actor playing a real woman, and vice versa. The actress is Kate Lyn Sheil (You’re Next, Listen Up Philip); the woman is Christine Chubbuck, the Florida television anchorwoman who shot herself on live television in 1974; the project is a film about Chubbuck… or is it? As Sheil visits Chubbuck’s haunts, talks with friends and locals, and hunts down material, we can’t help but wonder if the film itself even matters, since these rituals of “research” are, in the entertainment journalism/hype sphere, seemingly as important as the resultant performance. And then this film becomes the movie they’re making, albeit not always successfully; many of the straight drama scenes don’t entirely work, or don’t work for the wrong reasons. That said, the results are often devastating, particularly the final moments, which plays like a purposeful indictment of its audience, and itself.