BAMcinemaFest, which kicks off its tenth year tonight, has become a real money- and time-saver for New Yorkers – it saves you the expense of traveling to the spring film festivals, instead bringing the best of those fests to Brooklyn. This year’s slate includes the New York premieres of new films from the directors of Winter’s Bone and The Wolfpack, plus a dizzying array of four-star indies from Sundance, SXSW, Full Frame, and True/False. It all starts tonight with the bonkers opening night movie Sorry to Bother You (our Sundance review is here) and continues through July 1st; here are a few titles we heartily recommend.
Leave No Trace (Centerpiece)
Will (Ben Foster) and daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) have been living off the grid for longer than we know, and the fascinating early sections of the new drama by Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik are mostly concerned with their rituals and routines: how they live in the woods, dependent only on each other, running occasional discovery “drills” that amount to games of hide and seek, but with much higher stakes. One day, inevitably, it’s not a drill – and after a period of separation, they find themselves living a life of something like normalcy. It punctures their bond, ever so slightly but irrevocably, and the push-pull of retreat vs. adaptation provides Granik with her juicy central conflict. Foster’s performance is a model of control (he spends much of the film totally reserved, yet right on the edge of panic) and McKenzie is an extraordinary discovery, carrying the picture’s trickiest moments, as the only person in the relationship capable of articulating its delicate truths.
Madeline’s Madeline (Closing Night)
Newcomer Helena Howard is astonishingly good in the leading role of Josephine Decker’s risky, experimental drama, which spelunks through the chaotic psyche of a young woman whose smallest interactions are a struggle. It’s a visceral experience – Decker’s blurry, focus-shifting visual style, jumpy camerawork, and purposefully disorienting editing strategy put you right there in Madeline’s headspace. Some viewers may find it too nerve-jangling, and it’s hard to blame them. But it’s a must-see for risk-takers.
Crystal Moselle’s narrative follow-up to the The Wolfpack is cut from the same cloth – she hangs out with, and eavesdrops on, her protagonists with a documentarian’s eye for detail – while also positioning itself as an updated, gender-swapped Kids, a doc-style snapshot of NYC skater kids with no illusions about the world they inhabit. Her focus is Camille (Rachelle Vinberg, excellent), a Long Island teen who starts hanging out with the skater girls she follows on Instagram and finds a community, just as she’s growing apart from her single mom. She’s a complicated protagonist, mostly because the film is about the process of figuring herself out, and Moselle dramatizes that process with clever edits and casually lovely cinematography. But most importantly, her intimate style deftly captures the end-of-the-world intensity of teenage relationships.
Wild Nights with Emily
The premise and the title – Molly Shannon as the “wild” Emily Dickinson – makes Madeleine Olnek’s comedy/drama sounds like a satire of A Quiet Passion, and there are moments here that send up the conventions of the contemporary biopic. But Olnek isn’t taking cheap shots; her portrait moves freely from silliness to sincerity, taking on the conventional impression of the poet as a “spinster old maid who was afraid to leave her room or publish her work” and burrowing in to find a story that’s far deeper and more tender. Shannon is quite good, particularly in the (still potent and relevant) scenes of her struggle for publication and recognition, while Amy Seimitz’s masterfully embodies (and mercilessly skewers) post-mortem legacy-keepers. It’s not just an accidental companion piece to A Quiet Passion; it’s every bit that picture’s equal.
There’s a scene midway through Clara’s Ghost where a family sings “Happy Birthday.” But they’re a show-biz family, so they can’t just sing “Happy Birthday”; everyone has to show off, throwing in harmony, trills, and elaborate runs, and it’s a small moment with so much truth, it pierces. Bridey Elliot (from Fort Tilden) writes, directs, and co-stars, alongside Chris Elliot, Abby Elliot, and Paula Niedert Elliot – her actual father, sister, and mother, playing those roles through a looking glass of familial dysfunction and deadpan supernatural tension. It’s a very strange and very funny film, and Elliot (Bridey, that is) shows a real gift for not only sustaining discomfort, but digging out variations within it.
Leigh Ledare’s provocative documentary is something of a puzzle – it puts us in the middle of its central scenario without any particular explanation, parachuting into an event in progress. A group of “participants” and counselors, a cross-section of races, genders, classes and nationalities, are involved in something like an intensive group therapy session, though the aim is unclear; the most we get are vague platitudes like “The task is to examine your actions in the here and now.” But the specifics don’t matter. They’re hashing out common experiences, prejudices, and reactions , working through elemental conflicts within the American experience, circa 2018. The series of escalations, conflicts, breakdowns, and escapes can make for an uncomfortable experience – but a riveting one, as these people say things aloud that are often left unsaid, while seeming to suppress even more upsetting observations.
Robert Greene opens his account of the 1917 Bisbee Deportation with his quote from Colin Dickey: “Cities that are haunted… seem to straddle past and present as though two versions of the same city are overlaid on top of each other.” Greene takes the idea quite literally, using his customary documentary/narrative hybrid style to put the city’s past and present into conversation; he stages re-enactments of the events surrounding this exile of laborers and immigrants in front of the city’s modern cars and current facades, with armed men charging into contemporary homes and dragging people out – one city, in other words, on top of the other. The results are astonishing, particularly as the dispute becomes conflated with patriotism and nationalism, and observers insist, “In today’s world, this is not how you handle your issues. Those were ‘then’ values, and the world’s changed a lot since then.” Uh huh.
When Diego Levas leaves his menial service industry job in the tourist haven of Puerto Vallarta to help his brother Ro care for their 93-year-old grandmother América, it’s an obligation. But this gentle, observational documentary by Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside acutely observes how these detours can come to define us – how the demands and frustrations can give way to a real sense of purpose. None of it’s easy; the picture pulls few punches about the demands of this kind of care (Sample line: “We need her to shit by herself”). And the friction it causes between the two brothers – and a third, Bruno, who joins them later – is so palpable, when they finally come to blows, it’s mostly a relief. By that point, we’re fully involved in their conflict, because Stoll and Whiteside pull off the simplest yet most elusive goal of the direct-cinemamaker: we forget we’re watching a movie, and they forget they’re making one.
The films of Joel Potrykus (which also include Buzzard and The Alchemist Cookbook) are something of an all-or-nothing proposition, and I’ll admit to having trouble syncing up with their heartbeat. But there’s something undeniably affecting about his latest, an art-house gross-out movie set on the eve of Y2K, in which a do-nothing is challenged by his brother to remain on their couch until he can beat a Nintendo Pac-Man game. It’s a bit of a challenge to the audience as well, testing their endurance through the sweat and grime of the scenario. But Potrykus is uniquely himself, and he gets a real assist from long-suffering star Joshua Burge, whose resemblance to Buster Keaton is surely not a coincidence here.
Chained for Life
Writer/director Aaron Shimberg’s slightly absurd making-of-a-movie tale is dryly funny and gleefully peculiar, focusing on a young director (Charlie Korsmo, clearly channeling Herzog) and the actress (the wonderful Jess Weixler) he puts through the wringer. The parodic elements totally work (the inanities of her interview with a visiting journalist ring particularly true), and Shimberg gets the most of out the hard cuts from fantasy to reality, and the process of retaking. The strange variations of its third act aren’t as successful, and if the whole thing doesn’t quite hold, I nonetheless found myself admiring what it’s attempting.