BAMcinemaFest 2012 — An Overview

If you like movies and you live in New York City, by golly are you in for a treat, as BAMcinemaFest is back in action from June 20th-July 1st, 2012. With their latest installment, the BAM powers-that-be show and prove once again that when it comes to American independent cinema, they are completely in tune with the most ambitious, exciting, and adventurous work of the very moment. As the program is carefully curated with a lineup of only 30 or so features, it makes it refreshingly easy to recommend just about everything. Which is basically what this post is here to do. Be sure to see as many movies as you can and support NYC’s most important festival for low-budget cinema. Don’t ever change, BAMcinemaFest, you hear us? Don’t ever change…

***Opening Night*** Wednesday June 20

Sleepwalk With Me (Mike Birbiglia, USA, 81m, 7:30pm) — (Note: I wrote the following in my post-Sundance wrap-up, and I would have to say that my last line has already proven to be quite accurate, as this film was picked up for distribution by Sundance Selects shortly after its Sundance premiere and has landed this year’s coveted opening night slot at BAMcinemaFest.) Birbiglia’s feature directorial debut is a pretty damn assured one for a first timer. As I hadn’t read the book upon which this film was based, it made for a refreshingly pleasant ride (no expectations to check at the door, thank you very much). As soon as it started, I knew right away that this would win the NEXT section’s Audience Award at Sundance, but in this case, I don’t mean that as a pejorative. Birbiglia’s voice is personal and distinct, yet it is affable in the best way possible. You will be hearing much more about Sleepwalk With Me throughout the year, there’s no question about that. (Michael Tully)

Thursday June 21

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, USA, 91m, 7pm) — My bar was raised as high as it could possibly be raised for this years-in-the-making Court 13 production, and, somehow, it still managed to deliver on its promise. Scrappy homegrown ambition pushed to the max, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a landmark achievement in modern American independent cinema. Though they are very different creatures, the way I felt walking out of the Eccles after seeing Beasts at Sundance was comparable to how I felt after watching Take Shelter the year prior. As in: I kinda felt like we had seen all we had to see here and that we’d be better off packing up and heading back home. One hopes that Fox Searchlight will work its marketing magic and Beasts will become a genuine summer hit, but even if the forces don’t conspire to make that happen, this triumphant, special film will remain. (MT)

Tchoupitoulas (Bill and Turner Ross, USA, 80m, 9:30pm) — After flooring my world with their landmark achievement 45365, the Ross Brothers have returned to point their cameras at the city where they spent some memorable summers as youngsters. While many films blur the line between fiction and nonfiction, Tchoupitoulas fully erases it. One evening, three young brothers take the Algiers ferry into New Orleans proper for a night of discovery. As they bob and weave through the crowded streets, the Ross Brothers’ camera sidetracks into bars and dance clubs and park benches to provide a fuller portrait of this sleepless town. When the kids miss the last ferry home, the night culminates with an impromptu excursion into an abandoned ship, at which point the film crosses over into a magical realm. An Oscilloscope Pictures release of a film that world premiered at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival. (MT)

Friday June 22

Francine (Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy, USA, 74m, 7pm) — Man, oh man, what to say about this film! Cassidy and Shatzky’s first narrative feature finds Melissa Leo playing an upstate NY woman who has just been released from prison and is forced to adjust to life on the outside. What makes Francine so head-spinningly strange is that it is captured with a flawless documentary-like naturalism, yet the behavior of Francine has no earthly grounding whatsoever. Everything she does feels like an act of pure primal instinct on the part of the filmmakers themselves. While this will likely frighten many viewers away, it left me wide-eyed and grinning with dismay and admiration for Cassidy and Shatzky’s ballsy vision. Aside from Lodge Kerrigan and a few straggling others, no one makes movies like this. (MT)

Gayby (Jonathan Lisecki, USA, 88m, 9:15pm) — The short that inspired this feature was a real crowd-pleaser, and while I never doubted Lisecki’s ability to extend the story to a near-90-minute run time, I was nonetheless extremely jazzed to discover just how much fun this movie is (I first saw it when it world premiered at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival). While not formally groundbreaking, Lisecki and his collaborators have nonetheless managed to make an actually funny independent film, which is kinda groundbreaking, come to think of it. Gayby will likely continue to make the rounds on the festival circuit—and not just the gay festival circuit—before its upcoming theatrical run through Wolfe Releasing. See it when you can. (MT)

Saturday June 23

Take Me To The Balloony Bin! (2pm) — Josh and Benny Safdie have curated a program of classic, balloon-themed shorts appropriate for all ages that complement their latest scrappy work of staggering invention. Included in this program are: The Black Balloon (Josh and Benny Safdie, 2012, 21m), The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse, 1956, France, 34m), The Balloonatic (Buster Keaton, 1923, USA, 22min), Balloon Land (The Pincushion Man) (1935, USA, 6min) (MT)

Welcome to Pine Hill (Keith Miller, USA, 80m, 4:30pm) — Welcome to Pine Hill is a quiet visual exploration of race, class and daily experience conveyed with an intensity born from lead actor Shannon Harper and writer/director Miller’s full understanding of the film medium’s true potential. One of the aspects of cinema that I most appreciate is its ability to compress and expand narrative time as well as its unique ability through acting to meld both amateur and professional techniques to create an experience that is both a familiar yet transformative representation of our own lives. When the theater darkens and a movie begins, our typical time markers should be erased and we should be immersed into an experience of time, character and space, which then becomes its own narrative. Welcome To Pine Hill does have plot points, which I won’t give away here, but they alone are not the explanation for why this film is so transporting. It’s the filmmaker’s ability to master the passage of narrative and screen time in such a way that we are reminded that there is only one real story that we are all part of: the countdown of our own biological clocks. (MSR) *Read The Full HTN Review*

Nobody Walks (Ry Russo-Young, USA, 85m, 6:50pm) — Despite its conventional veneer, Russo-Young’s film is one of the more insightful looks at desire and the differences between the sexes that we have seen from a woman writer/director in a long while. Olivia Thirlby is terrific as a willfully oblivious flirtatious free–spirit who steps into a typical ready-for-prime-time family headed by harried wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and complacent husband (John Krasinski). Like Terence Stamp in Pasolini’s Teorema, Thirlby disrupts the family unit by shapeshifting between her role as eager pupil, confidante, and lover, to eventually land as detached, confused witness. The script (co-written by Lena Dunham) raises some very loaded questions about accountability. Is Thirlby’s character guilty for flirting with a frustrated married man? Or, are Krasinski and the other male rake, the Italian tutor, simply at fault for letting lust confuse their ability to respond responsibly to a desire for youth and freedom? Or, does the title point to the relativist concept that it always takes two to tango? Fantastic lensing by Chris Blauvelt (Meek’s Cutoff) captures the light of LA through well-composed shots that reveals Thirlby’s East Coast perspective on this strange territory, and it is in those wandering excursions that we find the film’s cinematic heart. (MSR)

The Comedy (Rick Alverson, USA, 96m, 9:30pm) —With The Comedy, Rick Alverson has held up a mirror to a culture terrified of its own reflection. Alverson uses the raw material of privileged, disaffected white males under 40 as the canvas on which to paint a pungent portrait that is hideous yet forbids us to look away. Reactions to the film thus far have ranged from a near public outcry to gushing personal affirmations of Alverson’s uncompromising vision. Like the bravest art, it has sparked fury and fawning in equal measure. Swanson (played by Tim Heidecker) is the man in the mirror. In this dramatic lead role, Heidecker becomes the Mr. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll persona on Adult Swim‘s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (which is its own Mr. Hyde to just about anything else). Swanson is about to inherit his father’s estate, but you wouldn’t know it to look at him; his numbed indifference is absolute. He sits in a huge wooded room bathed in sunlight, not by his father’s bedside but 20 feet away, sipping expensive whiskey and eating cream-filled cookies. Instead of offering assistance to the male nurse, he verbally assaults him, dismantling him piece-by-piece like a piece of furniture. To Swanson, all people are objects, playthings. Swanson’s endgame is satiety through stimulation, but this satisfaction is near impossible. What do you give to the boy who has everything? (Jesse Klein) *Read The Full HTN Review*

Sunday June 24

Crazy and Thief (Cory McAbee, USA, 52m, 2pm) / CatCam (Seth Keal, USA, 15m) — Unwatched By The HTN Team But I Personally Really, Really Want To See This Thing! (MT)

*Special Screening* Jerry and Me (Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, USA, 2012, 38m) / The Disorderly Orderly (Jerry Lewis, 1964, USA, 89m, 4pm)

The Imposter (Bart Layton, UK, 95m, 7pm) — This formally innovative documentary has as many layers as the bizarre true story on which it’s based. French-Algerian impersonator Frédéric Bourdin, known as The Chameleon, assumes the identity of a missing teenager from Texas named Nicholas Barclay. The seasoned criminal improbably dupes diplomats, FBI investigators, and reporters with his bizarre tale, made legit when the Barclay family claims Bourdin as their long-lost son. Director Bart Layton plays with the notion of truth and memory by weaving interviews with the Barclay family and with Bourdin—a notoriously unreliable narrator—into stylish reenactments (shot by Tyrannosaur and Submarine cinematographer Erik Wilson). But just when the polished film threatens to lag under its own weight, the story takes several noir-ish twists, and our sympathies are cleverly undermined and exposed. An astonishing and disturbing American Gothic. (Susanna Locascio)

The Unspeakable Act (Dan Sallitt, USA, 91m, 9:30pm) — From the description of this film, you might be thinking that it’s going to be a twisted Happiness-esque exploration of brother-and-sister incest. But Sallitt merely uses the premise of a sister who is in love with her brother to thoughtfully—and, to this viewer, very, very strangely, I might add—explore sibling dynamics and broader themes of growing up and letting go of one’s childhood worldview. At least that was how I chose to read this uniquely voiced film. Maybe that wasn’t Sallitt’s point at all. But that’s what makes it so interesting. (MT)

Monday June 25

The Patron Saints (Melanie Shatzky and Brian M. Cassidy, USA, 71m, 7pm) — If you’ve lost an elderly family member in recent weeks or months, Shatzky and Cassidy’s second BAMcinemaFest entry of the 2012 fest might not be the best idea, for their depiction of depleting life in a nursing home is as crushingly frank as it comes. That said, the sheer artistry on display elevates the subject matter and difficult to watch footage beyond mere shockumentary status and spins the material into some sort of warped poetic lullaby. The Patron Saints left my stomach unsteady for days. This is one of those films that you can’t recommend highly enough, but that you also feel really strange “recommending.” (MT)

*Special Screening* The Machine That Kills Bad People/La macchina ammazzacattivi (Roberto Rossellini, 1952, Italy, 80m, 9:15pm)

Tuesday June 26

Radio Unnameable (Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson, USA, 91m, 7pm) — If you’ve never heard the name Bob Fass before, this documentary will right that wrong in a jiffy. Fass is the legendary radio personality at Manhattan’s WBAI whose radio show has entertained and invigorated audiences for the past five decades. In the 1960s, Fass was more than a mere entertainer. His studio was a hub for some of the most influential American artists of that era (do the names Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, and Yoko Ono ring a bell?), and his show was responsible for uniting listeners in a way that could never have been done otherwise. Lovelace and Wolfson incorporate a staggering amount of archival footage into their film, which is equal parts vital history lesson and touching love letter to an unheralded American hero. (MT)

The International Sign For Choking (Zach Weintraub, USA, 79m, 9:30pm) — Not-inaccurately described by Robert Koehler for Variety as ‘hipster Ozu,’ Weintraub’s second feature does indeed display a sense of stylistic formalism not entirely common in your average American-indie love story. Maybe that’s because the movie’s not really American: shot in Buenos Aires (though we never see much of the city, in a welcome break from the Woody Allen ‘film-as-travelogue’ style), the film beautifully captures the sad and aimless sense of confusion which arises from being more or less alone in a foreign city. Weintraub and indie-starlet-MVP Sophia Takal (full disclosure: a very close friend) play displaced Americans who amble through confusion both linguistic and romantic, delicately framed by often-panning, anticipatory and assured camerawork by Green cinematographer Nandan Rao. (Alex Ross Perry)

Wednesday June 27

Walk Away Renee (Jonathan Caouette, USA, 88m, 7pm) — I was one of the few people who was not a Tarnation fan. Though the story of a young man having to carry the burden of caring for his mentally ill mother while struggling to establish his own identity is compelling, I resented the reliance on intertitles to convey most of the film’s actual content. Walk Away Renee, for me, is a much better film than Tarnation. While it still has an MTV-like reliance on unnecessary titles (you could easily lose 80% of them), most of the story is conveyed with actual dramatic documentary scenes as well as colorful excursions into abstract computer-generated imagery. Here, the same story of a son struggling to care for his ailing aging mother mixes old footage with current footage, and the toll of Caouette’s uncompromising love is powerfully rendered through scenes in which we watch him in action saving his mother from the void of institutional internment. It’s a heroic, epic struggle made all the more dramatic by the span of years and the unflappable strength of Caouette’s persistence and singular love for his mother. (MSR)

The Comedy (see above, *Outdoor Screening*, 9pm)

Detropia (Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, USA, 90m, 9:30pm) — Detroit is f**ked. While Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady don’t pussyfoot around that cold, hard fact, and though they do reveal how the once thriving city is on the verge of outright economic collapse, they also manage to point their cameras at several of the city’s intelligent, resilient residents, who help to inject the film with a desperately needed jolt of humor and spirit. But still, man: Detroit is f**king f**ked. (MT)

Thursday June 28

Pavilion (Tim Sutton, USA, 70m, 7pm) — In many ways, Tim Sutton’s film—which world premiered at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival—reminded me of the middle section of The Tree of Life, but because this was set in contemporary times I was drawn more to the realization that this is not how kids live their lives anymore. Without having to get nostalgic for the old, pre-computer/cell phone days, I instead focused on what it is that does mark adolescence: the awkwardness of wasting time, the bold realization that it is now, standing in a group under a tree, that will define who you are through what you say or through a stunt you perform or maybe, as in one instance, through a sudden awkward embrace of a friend. The utter futility of trying to define yourself when you are 15 is fully conveyed in Pavilion solely through gesture and blocking. The camera helps guide us through the state of unknowing that is adolescence and provides no easy answers—yet, at the same time, it conveys a sense of the sacred experiential NOW. (MSR) *Read The Full HTN Review*

For Ellen (So Yong Kim, USA, 95m, 9:15pm) — As a serious fan of So Yong Kim’s previous two features, I’m happy to report that For Ellen was one of my favorite narrative films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Kudos to Paul Dano for embodying his character in a way that felt truly lived in and genuine—no actor-schmactor futzing around here. Also, much credit goes to Reed Morano’s cinematography, which transcends mere sturdy handheld naturalism into something more achingly poetic. As for the best scene award, no, it’s not Dano’s pantomiming/dancing to Whitesnake in a dive bar, though that is something to behold; it’s when he takes his daughter shopping at a toy store in a nearby mall. As this scene unfolded in narcoleptic real-time, the daughter inching her way around the store to settle on the toy that she wanted, I couldn’t help myself—I started whisper chanting, “Don’t cut! Don’t cut! Don’t cut!” Of course, Kim does cut, but not before the shot had lasted long enough to fill me with satisfied glee. (Oh yeah, one final note: based on this and Treeless Mountain, I propose that So Yong Kim be hired to direct all child performances for every movie that is ever made from now until evermore.) (MT)

Friday June 29

Compliance (Craig Zobel, USA, 90m, 9:30pm) — In Zobel’s first film since his dramatic look at the song sharking phenomenon in Great World of Sound, a well-documented widespread phone con is dramatized in painful incremental steps within a limited amount of time inside one location. The story of this con was so widespread, at one point I thought it was more of an urban myth, yet the reality is that these unfortunately real incidents were most successful when the victims were minimum wage employees and the business had a multi-tiered layer of middle managers below a single branch manager. Drawn from actual court transcripts, the particular case in Compliance has a faceless ‘police officer’—i.e., a caller on a telephone (Pat Healy)—coercing Sandra (Ann Dowd), a middle-aged branch manager of a ChickWich restaurant, to strip search a low level young female employee, Becky (Dreama Walker), who the ‘cop’ says has stolen money from a customer. The torture escalates as the officer tells several different employees—in this case, all men—to subject the ‘suspect’ to escalating degrees of sexual assault. The question at first becomes: how far will this go? However, it isn’t long before it turns into a wrench: when will this end? (MSR) *Read The Full HTN Review*

Saturday June 30

Mixed Shorts (2pm) — There are a bunch of films I can personally recommend in this wide-ranging program, including the following: Another Bullet Dodged (Landon Zakheim), Rolling On The Floor Laughing (Russell Harbaugh), The Fort (Andrew Renzi), and Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke (Jillian Mayer). The rest of the films: Brief History of John Baldessari (Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman), Tumult (Johnny Barrington), The Maker (Christopher Kezelos), Summer Bummer (Bill Plympton), A Family Man (Rauch Brothers), and Facundo the Great (Rauch Brothers). (MT)

All City Shorts (4:30pm) — Of the films in this program, those that I have seen and can recommend are Matt Lenski’s The Meaning of Robots and Ben Steinbauer’s BRUTE FORCE (runner-up in our April Short Film Contest!). Other titles include: Rockaway (Melanie Schiele), I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard (Matt Wolf), Faro (Sam Fleischner), Of Memory & Los Sures (Laurie Sumiye and Andrew Parsons), Sundays At Rocco’s (Rauch Brothers), and Turning a Corner (David B. Levy). (MT)

*Special Screening* Kicking and Screaming (Noah Baumbach, 1995, USA, 96m, 7pm)

V/H/S (David Bruckner, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, Adam Wingard, USA, 104m, 10pm) — I admit to being skeptical of this anthology film for just about every reason imaginable—namely, that anthology films are incredibly tricky ventures—and while it does run a tad long (granted, I saw it at midnight at Sundance) and doesn’t always hit its mark, V/H/S still manages to pack quite a wallop. Its anthology set-up allows it to play like a cinematic mix tape, preying on our modern-day short attention spans and allowing things to keep tumbling forward before we can ever get too comfortable. (MT)

***Closing Night*** Sunday July 1

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, USA, 65m, 6pm)

Rock ‘n’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen (Don Letts, USA, 90m, 8pm)

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