As you know, our overriding mission here at Hammer to Nail is to get readers excited about movies that aren’t recognized or acknowledged in more mainstream outlets. Which is why we’re such big fans of Filmmaker Magazine‘s annual Best Film Not Playing At A Theater Near You series. In conjunction with IFP and MoMA’s Department of Film, several members of Filmmaker‘s editorial staff (Scott Macaulay, Jason Guerrasio, HTN contributor Brandon Harris, Ray Pride, Alicia Van Couvering), as well as curators Livia Bloom and Joshua Siegel, convene every year to select five new films that they feel are deserving of the backhanded compliment that the series title implies. But the sweet irony here is that by merely being nominated—the winner will be named at the Gotham Awards on November 29th—for one special weekend, these films are playing in a theater near you (if you live in New York City, that is, but let’s not get nitpicky about that). In this way, every nominee wins.
I’ve only seen two of this year’s entries, though I would vouch quite heartily for both. I hope to see the rest of them this weekend so that I can make my own decision. I also welcome anyone who partakes in the festivities at MoMA this weekend to hand out their own personal Gotham Award in the comments section here. And now, the nominees (presented in no particular order!)…
Kati With An I — Kati is director Robert Greene’s much younger half-sister and he has been shooting footage of her since she was a little girl. In this über-intimate portrait, a very “small story” indeed, Greene captures Kati, a teenager about to graduate high school and already engaged to her childhood sweetheart whom she plans to marry “in five years,” over the course of three emotional days. Her future, in many ways, is set in this vivacious girl’s mind—she has it all planned out in the way we, as little girls, used to do when we could describe in minute detail our dream wedding day. The problem is, little boys dream of other things, even while professing undying love and devotion, wailing romantic songs along with the radio behind the wheels of pickups in the dopey earnest way teenagers do. We see many of Kati’s dreams disintegrate as she encounters the irrevocable onslaught of young adulthood, its expectations and endless responsibilities, which come way, way too soon. Greene’s and Sean Price Williams’s cinematography is a revelation, lush and sensuous. And Greene’s editing is both sophisticated and visceral, enhancing the deeply emotional journey of their young subject with all of the pain-filled splendor she can muster for the camera. Remarkable that they made a feature film this nuanced and fulgent with just 14 hours of footage. (Pamela Cohn)
Summer Pasture — To not confess upfront my predisposition to loving a film like Summer Pasture would be an unprofessional, irresponsible thing to (not) do. So there you have it. Yet in the case of this documentary by Lynn True, Nelson Walker, and Tsering Perlo, that personal bias is met with an equally hearty objective measure of appreciation. Summer Pasture is a loving, yet never fawning, portrait of a nomad family struggling to make ends meet in the downtrodden community of Dzachukha (Eastern Tibet, Sichuan Province, China). If the names Tulpan, Sweetgrass, Old Partner, and The Story of the Weeping Camel set your hearts aflutter, then get ready to be smitten once again. Read my full review here.
Littlerock — During a pilgrimage to the Manzanar internment camps, where thousands of Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II, a Japanese brother and sister find themselves stranded in Littlerock, California. They spend the night drinking beer at a motel with some local kids, communicating in broken English and silent gestures, and with a tender and humorous awkwardness. Featured at more than fifteen international film festivals, from San Francisco to Egypt to Reykjavik (where it won the Audience Prize), Littlerock marks Ott as a filmmaker to watch and Okatsuka as a wonderful new screenwriter and actress. (this is the official program description)
The Wolf Knife — Following on the critical success of her debut feature Stay the Same Never Change, one of the highlights of New Directors/New Films 2009, Laurel Nakadate expands upon her substantial work in video and photography with a boldly subversive second film that toys with our voyeuristic impulses. A transient teenage girl flees the stifling confines of Florida to find her father in Nashville, with her best girlfriend in tow. Amid lurid settings and feverish lights, their encounters along the way are charged with a queasy, ominous eroticism. (this is the official program description)
On Coal River — In this gripping documentary, made in the tradition of Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, a group of West Virginians fight a coal company whose toxic waste facility is poisoning their local elementary school. Cavanaugh and Wood’s inspirational David and Goliath tale is a passionate, nuanced look at community activism and its limitations, and a moving portrait of a hardscrabble community facing tough economic times. (this is the official program description)
If you aren’t in NYC this weekend, that’s okay. Why not instead make your own mini-festival of past winners, which can now be watched on a TV screen near you, wherever you happen to live:
2009 — You Won’t Miss Me (Coming Soon From Factory 25)