After a resoundingly successful first year, BAMcinemaFEST is back to reaffirm its status as one of the premiere showcases in New York City for the freshest and brightest cinema of the current calendar year. While the BAMcinemaFEST program is most heavily loaded with work in the fiction and nonfiction American independent realms, programmers Florence Almozini and Jake Perlin have their sites set on a more wide-ranging palette. In addition to a foreign film or two, you’ll also encounter rare screenings of lost/forgotten work (this year’s standout is the 1971 Australian thriller Wake In Fright), as well as old favorites of foreign auteurs who will be in town to present their picks (world cinema heavyweights Olivier Assayas and Nicolas Winding Refn are on board for 2010). And yes, don’t worry, there are two shorts programs to scratch that pesky itch.
BAMcinemaFEST 2010 runs from Wednesday, June 9, through Sunday, June 20. Tickets are available right now. In order to keep you guys coming back for more this year, we’re going to update this post daily with capsules of that particular day’s screenings. So be sure to check back often, and be sure to visit BAM more often than that. If you care about movies in general, and especially American independent cinema, BAMcinemaFEST is a godsend and an invaluable resource to keep you up-to-speed.
***Opening Night*** Wednesday June 9
Cyrus (Jay and Mark Duplass, USA, 92m, 7:30pm) — The Fox Searchlight logo appears… John C. Reilly shows up on screen… alongside Catherine Keener… here comes Marisa Tomei… and, wait a minute, is that Jonah Hill? Yet why does this movie not feel like a Hollywood movie? Why does it have a mellower vibe than most? That’s because it was made by none other than Jay and Mark Duplass, the low-key/bro-key duo responsible for inspiring a generation of micro-budget filmmakers with their debut feature The Puffy Chair (though, for my money, their 15-minute short film The Intervention is their true breakout). In their leap to a seven-figure production starring actual movie stars, the Duplass Brothers have managed to retain their casual, nuanced approach, which combines naturalistic performances with dramatically heightened premises. Even on this scale, Cyrus plays more like a home movie than a big-budget Hollywood comedy. That is a very good thing. This time around, the Duplasses set their sites on an awkward love triangle between a divorced nerd (Reilly), the beautiful woman who loves him (Tomei), and her potentially psychopathic son (Hill). If the Duplass Brothers don’t go for the jugular in the climax—this is no Chuck & Buck or The Hand That Rocks The Cradle—that’s to be expected, and, dare I say, applauded. Cyrus hits closer to home for exhibiting restraint when it could have tumbled off the plausible cliff. More than that, it is just so incredibly nice to see John C. Reilly giving a full-blooded performance once again. (official website)
Thursday June 10
How To Fold A Flag (Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, USA, 85m, 6:50pm) — Unfortunately, this is one of the very few films in this year’s BAMcinemaFEST program that I still haven’t seen. Yet based on its film festival pedigree alone, it sounds like a must-see (Toronto, Hamptons, True/False, SXSW, Full Frame, etc.). Epperlein and Tucker’s fourth film dealing with war sets its sights on a side of combat that we rarely acknowledge: soldiers returning home. This probably isn’t the feel-good movie of the festival, but it sounds like one of the more vital. (official website)
Mars (Geoff Marslett, USA, 83m, 9:30pm) — Though Marslett’s deadpan animated adventure takes place in outer space, it never abandons its slow Austin groove (we’re far closer to Waking Life territory here than 2001). This is due in large part to the voices of Mark Duplass, who even as a cartoon figure exudes likability and charm, and fellow space-traveler Paul Gordon, whose droll delivery gives Steven Wright a run for his money. The third astronaut in the equation is Zoe Simpson, a bouncy Brit who helps Duplass’s character come to terms with the real purpose of their risky mission. I have never advised pulling tubes before watching a movie, but in the case of Mars, that might not be a bad idea. (official website)
Friday June 11
Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, USA, 98m, 6:50pm) — Dunham’s follow-up to Creative Nonfiction isn’t just a major leap forward. It’s like a rocket launch to a bigger and brighter planet. For those of you who have been pining away for Whit Stillman’s return, Dunham—another Hammer to Nail contributor, thank you very much—is here to scratch that itch in a major way. Aspiring romantic comedy makers, please study this film. Dunham’s first brilliant stroke was to work with last year’s Silver Nail winner Jody Lee Lipes, who shot this film on the Canon 7D—a consumer-grade still camera—but has somehow made it look like The Graduate. But removing that vital element from the equation, Dunham delivers a sharply written comedy that uses pop culture references in a way that is never overly hip or gratingly snappy. This is dangerous terrain, to be sure, but Tiny Furniture is a reminder that, if done appropriately, this genre can be artistically invigorating. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival, Tiny Furniture is the very real deal. (Read an interview with Dunham and see images from the production here, and also be sure check out her official website to read her hilarious personal blog.)
Dirty Pictures (Etienne Sauret, USA, 90m, 9:30pm) — Dirty Pictures is a fascinating portrait of Dr. Sasha Shulgin, a rogue chemist who discovered and tested the mind altering effects of MDMA (ecstasy). The film is less a tale about crazy ex-hippie acid freaks and more about the relationship of science to to illicit chemical drugs like MDMA, LSD and Psilocybin. It explores the relationship between brain chemistry and psychology through interviews with young doctors working in labs today studying the effects of drugs on mood regulation. Sasha’s wife, a therapist, also talks about how the drug experience can help the taker get in touch with their ’shadow self’. Another aspect of Dirty Pictures has to do with the failure of the DEA. A retired DEA officer, who first got to know Sasha in 1969, talks about how the government completely missed the opportunity to explore the drug’s potential by criminalizing it, which in turn led to further lack of understanding. If you need to rationalize an excuse to take LSD again, this is the film for you. — Mike S. Ryan (official website)
Saturday June 12
Freedom Riders (Stanley Nelson, USA, 113m, 12:30pm) — With his latest documentary, Nelson reaffirms his status as a master storyteller who, with seemingly effortless grace, is able to bring distant-to-recent historical events to visceral, immediate life. Nelson’s method—weaving a stirring cavalcade of archival footage into present-day interviews with many of those faces that we see in the past— is on full display here. Freedom Riders is a stirring tribute to the 1961 movement in which brave souls, both black and white, risked life and limb to ride Greyhound buses into the racist South and helped further break down racial divides. On a selfish note, watching Freedom Riders made me feel even worse about my own personal lack of bravery and inaction in the face of so many modern injustices, but that’s not Nelson’s fault. All he’s done is produced another thunderously powerful, historically vital work.
Rejoice and Shout (Don McGlynn, USA, 115m, 3:30pm) — Don McGlynn’s treatise on the history and evolution of gospel music feels more like a TV movie than a made-for-the-big-screen experience, yet it remains a fittingly rousing celebration. The film opens with an absolute bang, as a tiny tot of a girl belts out a chill-inducing spiritual number, setting the tone for what’s to come. While McGlynn interviews many experts in the field who provide an engaging, scholarly lesson in the evolution of this musical form, the star of the show is, without question, the archival footage, in which we get to feel this music’s power. It is in these clips when the idea of watching this film in a dark theater with an engaged audience actually sounds like a pretty great idea after all.
Cold Weather (Aaron Katz, USA, 96m, 6:15pm) — It’s only been a few months since its world premiere at SXSW, but the New York City premiere of Katz’s audacious genre-bender somehow feels long overdue. Reuniting with Quiet City‘s Cris Lankeneau, Katz and his team (Brendan McFadden, Ben Stambler) return to the Pacific Northwest environs of his debut feature, Dance Party USA, to tell the story of a brother-sister reunion that begins as a subtle character study but unexpectedly morphs into a full-on detective thriller. Working once again with cinematographer Andrew Reed, who maximizes the potential of the Red camera here, Katz uses a muted color palette, a slow-moving camera, and his own sharp editing to create a rising air of tension that boils over into the second half’s action-packed sequences. Cold Weather is a deft, original addition to the noir genre and is another impressive creative statement by the uber-talented Katz. (official website)
Valhalla Rising (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark/UK, 100m, 9pm) — Walking out of Valhalla Rising, it struck me: Nicolas Winding Refn, Lars von Trier, and Gaspar Noe really need to get it over with and start their own European Auteurs Fight Club. While I knew full well what I was getting into with this thing, Refn still managed to outdo himself. Which is to say that he almost went too bloody far. While Refn’s Nordic death march starts with a genuine bang—and by “bang” I mean a huge title card reading “NICOLAS WINDING REFN PRESENTS”—by the time the third act rolls around and he starts resorting almost exclusively to super-slow-motion, it borders on self-parody (I’ve heard that if you play Valhalla Rising on 45rpm, it’s actually only eleven minutes long). Midway through the film, I started jotting down a list of my own alternate titles: Severed Bronson, Lord of the Nords, Legends of the Fjord, and my own personal favorite: Heart (Pulled Out of Chest) Of Darkness. To be honest, I still think Melissa Auf der Mar and Tony Stone’s Out of Our Minds is a more genuinely butt-kicking experience, but that film doesn’t have the commanding presence of Mads Mikkelsen.
Maniac (William Lustig, USA, 87m, midnight) — I haven’t seen this underground 1980 classic from William Lustig, yet it seems like an appropriate choice for Refn to present. The fact that it’s screening at midnight, directly after Valhalla Rising, makes it, without question, one of the more butt-kicking double-features imaginable. You have been warned (and firmly pointed in its direction).
Sunday June 13
Shorts Program 1 (12pm) — Films include: Happy Face (Franklin P. Laviola, 15m); Last Address (Ira Sachs, 9m); My Mom Smokes Weed (Clay Liford, 17m); The Fence (Rory Kennedy, 36m); One Square Mile Of Earth (Jeff Drew, 13m); Sketches From Great Gull (Nicholas Laviola, 7m); Wagah (Supriyo Sen and Najaf Bilgrami, 13m)
Shorts Program 2 (3pm) — Films include: Billy and Aaron (Rodney Evans, 10m); Blood Magic (Sonya Goddy, 17m); Dock Ellis & The LSD No-No (James Blagden, 5m); The Feast of Stephen (James Franco, 4m); Iowa Mixtape (Jessica Wolfson and Paul Lovelace, 15m); Man-Made Things (Nick Nehez, 30m); Open Air (Laurence Vannicelli, 12m); Photograph of Jesus (Laurie Hill, 7m); The S From Hell (Rodney Ascher, 9m)
Passenger Pigeons (Martha Stephens, USA, 107m, 5:45pm) — North Carolina School of the Arts graduate Stephens (seriously, what is in the water at that school?) shows an impressive amount of ambition in her feature-length debut. Passenger Pigeons is a multi-character portrait of a small mining town in Eastern Kentucky that is coming to terms with the death of a young miner. While the stories might not fuse into a rhythmically flowing tapestry, there is much to admire in this effort, which shuns navel-gazing and pokes into the heart of deeper American matters.
Putty Hill (Matthew Porterfield, USA, 87m, 8:45pm) — With Putty Hill, Porterfield has made good on all the promises of Hamilton, creating a film that is at once more redolent and reticent, but that also takes his narrative experimentation another step forward. Returning once more to Baltimore, Porterfield this time explores a group of characters that have all been affected by the death of a young man, Cory, who never appears in the film expect for a photograph at his wake. Up until the penultimate scene, the characters are all shown individually, an effective narrative strategy that underscores the deep sense of isolation that runs throughout the picture. But as much as Cory is the element that binds the characters together, the story is less about him than it is the people that he knew. Each successive scene adds a little bit of pigment to the canvas, but the portrait of Cory remains incomplete. His enigma, however, serves a double purpose. On the one hand, it reminds everyone of their own transience (which seems to last forever, evoking a similar feeling as in Hamilton), but Cory’s mystery also comes to represent the limits of understanding, for both the characters and the audience. Just as his friends silently struggle to grasp his motivation, so do the vague suggestions of addiction and capitulation make Cory seem more real than any concrete facts. In this way, Porterfield also avoids any preachy messages and shows the utmost respect for the characters of Putty Hill. By not presuming to “know” them, he lets them live a little, and allows that their lives are bigger than the hour and a half run time. (Read the rest of Cullen Gallagher’s official HTN review here.) (official website)
Tiny Furniture (Lena Dunham, USA, 98m, 9pm) — Tiny Furniture (description above) is an excellent selection for this year’s BAMcinemaFEST outdoor screening—in the Mark Morris Parking Lot, adjacent to BAM—presented in collaboration with the super cool dudes at Rooftop Films.
Monday June 14
Zodiac: The Director’s Cut (David Fincher, USA, 162m, 7pm) — The first of two films that Olivier Assayas is presenting at this year’s BAMcinemaFEST—titled, rather aptly, “Assayas Picks”—is one of Hollywood’s most exceptional achievements of this young century. In revisiting the never-to-be-solved Zodiac killings that tormented the Bay Area in the late 1960s, Fincher doesn’t just produce a first-rate thriller. At the same time, he unleashes a meticulous case study in the dangerous power of obsession and how fragile our minds can be when trying to make sense out of senselessness. If getting to see Fincher’s Director’s Cut on the big screen isn’t a good enough reason to buy a ticket, a post-screening discussion with Assayas and critic/programmer/writer Kent Jones seals the deal. Don’t miss this special event.
Tuesday June 15
Wah Do Dem (Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner, USA, 75m, 6:50pm) — Chace and Fleischner’s scrappy narrative drama—winner of the Target Award at the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival—follows a Williamsburg hipster, Max (musician Sean Bones), who is ditched by his girlfriend (superstar musician Norah Jones) just before setting sail on a Caribbean cruise. Unable to find a traveling buddy, Max is forced to go it alone. When the cheesy, confining cruise ship finally docks in Jamaica (a scene stealing Kevin Bewersdorf makes one wish he had joined Max on land), his romantic notions of this culture are quickly tested. Chace and Fleischner’s most impressive trick with their brisk low-budget affair is how they manage to cross off a predictable checklist of situations while making them still feel fresh and natural. While Wah Do Dem might not reach the social realist heights of Sean Baker (Prince of Broadway, Take Out), it remains an engaging portrait of a spoiled young American who is forced to step outside of his comfort zone, learning some humility in the process. (official website)
We Won’t Grow Old Together (Micheline Pialat, France, 102m, 1972, 9:30pm) — I have not seen the second Olivier Assayas pick in this year’s festival, which gives me even more of a reason to head out to BAM tonight. Assayas will be introducing the film, though it doesn’t appear as if he’ll be doing a post-film discussion.
Wednesday June 16
Cane Toads: The Conquest in 3D (Mark Lewis, Australia, 90m, 6:50/9:30pm) — (Note: shame on me for posting this one day late, but hopefully you’ll have the chance to catch this movie at some point in the very near future!) Though I haven’t seen Lewis’s original upon which this refashioned, 3D-ified spectacle is based, I nonetheless had a blast watching it (perhaps my experience was aided by it being so completely fresh?). I don’t know if I should admit this publicly, but all this time—and even while watching it just days ago, in fact—I had always thought Cane Toads was just another fictional creation from a warped Aussie mind, only to discover, after the fact, that it’s true?! Take that, Avatar.
Thursday June 17
Lovers of Hate (Bryan Poyser, USA, 90m, 6:50pm) — Bryan Poyser showed an obscene amount of talent as a writer/director with 2004’s Dear Pillow, and he proves it once again with Lovers of Hate (or as I jokingly like to call it, Sex, Lies and The Shining). Chris Doubek and Alex Karpovsky star as brothers who find themselves in a love triangle with Heather Kafka that spirals into unexpected places—in sharply written tales such as these, the less revealed, the better. If the acerbic-yet-sweet work of Bobcat Goldthwait is up your alley, Lovers of Hate is the movie for you. Either way, this is an example of low-budget storytelling of the highest order and is one of 2010’s true gems. (official website)
Cold Weather (Aaron Katz, USA, 96m, 9:30pm) — See Saturday June 12 description above.
Friday June 18
The Canal Street Madam (Cameron Yates, USA, 91m, 6:50pm) — Yates has certainly found himself a subject worthy of the feature-length documentary treatment in Jeanette Maier, a New Orleans madam whose operation was shut down in the early 2000s and who is still fighting to reclaim her dignity years later. For obvious reasons, the authorities made a one-way street out of her case, ignoring the other guilty parties in the process (many of whom Maier assures us, not surprisingly, were high-ranking government and law enforcement officials). Yates’s film is most powerful when the sadness surrounding Maier’s life reveals itself naturally, in her complicated relationship with her daughter and in her stubborn attempts to be taken seriously. When it becomes an outright cheerleader for her cause, that sentiment tends to get in the way.
Wake In Fright (Ted Kotcheff, Australia, 114m, 1971, 9:30pm) — I wish I had held off and watched this recently uncovered classic on the big screen for the first time, but I wanted to be able to plug it in case it did deliver on its disturbing promise. Now that I’ve seen it, all I can say is consider disturbing promise delivered and consider it plugged. John Grant (Gary Bond) is a schoolteacher in the middle of the Australian Outback who has a brief respite and plans to head back to Sydney, but a stop-off in an edgy town leads him into a downward spiral that will test the humanity of this otherwise civilized man. Featuring an appropriately unhinged performance by Donald Pleasance,Wake In Fright is an icky, grimy film (think Straw Dogs).
Saturday June 19
12th and Delaware (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, USA, 90m,12:30pm) — Grady and Ewing’s documentaries have always provided fodder for those on both sides of the political/religious/ethical divide. 12th and Delaware upholds that tradition. This time, the setting is Florida (of course it is), where in reaction to an abortion clinic, a group of pro-lifers have set up shop directly across the street in order to try to convince confused mothers-to-be that mothers is what they must be. For the first half of 12th and Delaware, we don’t venture inside the abortion clinic, instead focusing on “Anne,” the leader of the pro-life center (which isn’t outwardly advertised as such to more easily recruit potential mothers). I’m not a psychic, but I’m not an idiot either. I would bet my own personal sperm count that Anne’s real problem is that she is unable to have children herself and has yet to come to terms with that dilemma head on. Instead, she has repressed her personal sorrow and is pouring all of her energy into this dangerously misguided cause. (If I’m wrong, Anne, write me and I’ll post a formal apology. Just be sure to attach a PDF of your medical reports, please!) Ultimately, the real power of this riveting film is that it remains so even-handed and balanced enough that viewers on both sides of the divide will be able to wield it as an exhibit for their prosecution and/or defense.
His & Hers (Ken Wardrop, Ireland, 80m, 3:30pm) — With His & Hers, Wardrop has done the impossible. He’s made cute Irish ladies… even cuter! Wardrop takes an artful, experimental approach to his film, yet the result is utterly charming and wholly accessible. His & Hers consists of interviews with over sixty females, from infancy to near death, as they share their thoughts on the men in their lives, in addition to more mundane matters. At first, this might appear too cringingly sweet, but by the time the credits roll, the collection of voices becomes something heartwarming without ever feeling cheesy. His & Hers is a touching, universal love letter that will make you smile.
Teenage Paparazzo (Adrien Grenier, USA, 94m, 6pm) — This is one of the selections in the program that I haven’t seen either, though the reaction of those who have watched it can be described as a case of low expectations producing a positive result. No offense to Entourage heartthrob Grenier, who dabbles as often behind the camera as he does in front of it, but in his position, he’s going to have work even harder to prove himself as a director. From the reaction to Teenage Paparazzo, he’s headed in the right direction.
*** Am I Black Enough For You (Goran Hugo Olsson, Sweden, 87m, 9pm) — The true discovery of this year’s festival comes from a Swedish director who shot his documentary on celluloid? In the 21st century? While I was only vaguely familiar with Philly soul legend Billy Paul before sitting down to watch this film, Olsson covers so much ground and Paul is such a charismatic presence that by the time the credits roll, you’ll feel like you’ve just reconnected with your favorite uncle. And while the film meanders, it does so in a good way, veering from insightful historical document to probing exploration of racial identity to warm-hearted tribute to an unfairly overlooked talent. *MAJOR BONUS: Paul will be in attendance for a Q&A, which I am 98% certain is going to lead to a standing ovation. DO NOT MISS THIS!
Sunday June 20
Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, Germany, 115m, 1929, 4:30/8pm) — This year’s closing night film is yet another classic that I haven’t seen—I realize you’re as tired of that confession as I am—featuring live music by 3epkano. Live music or no live music, Louise Brooks on the big screen is a good enough reason for me to close this year’s festival out.