BAMcinemaFest has a reputation for presenting New York audiences with the most notable new works of independent American cinema. It began ten years ago as a collaborative effort between the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Sundance Film Festival, and that legacy is immediately apparent to anyone shooting a first glance at this year’s lineup, as all five big nights are presentations of films that saw their world premieres in Park City this past January.
Rapper-turned-filmmaker Boots Riley will introduce tonight’s opening night screening of his directorial debut, Sorry to Bother You. Lakeith Stanfield (Atlanta) plays a struggling telemarketer who discovers the secret to success: Using his “white voice.” For Vulture’s Emily Yoshida, “this is ultraprogressive, radical storytelling that manages to stay totally joyful and inventive throughout.” While others have expressed a few reservations—see the reviews gathered during Sundance—overall, critics have welcomed Riley as a new and vital filmmaker.
BAMcinemaFest 2018 will wrap on July 1, but the closing night film, Josephine Decker’s outstanding Madeline’s Madeline (reviews), will screen the night before, with Decker taking part in a Q&A. The film introduces the captivating Helena Howard, whose performance as a possibly unstable teenage actress is buttressed by strong turns from Miranda July as her mother and Molly Parker as a manipulative theater director. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody argues that the film “dispels the shibboleth that movies spotlighting strong and original performances differ from ones that innovate at the level of cinematic style. Madeline’s Madeline does both, with equal intensity.” Decker, by the way, is currently working on an adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel Shirley, a thriller that centers on a young woman’s relationship with the writer Shirley Jackson. Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg are slated to star.
Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik will be on hand for the centerpiece presentation of Leave No Trace (reviews), the story of a veteran struggling with PTSD hiding in an Oregon forest with his teenage daughter. The A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd calls it “blessedly bullshit-free—a drama that takes no false steps tracking the shifts in its central relationship.”
And there’ll be two spotlights, Stephen Maing’s Crime + Punishment, a deep dive into the New York City Police Department that won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Social Impact at Sundance, and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (reviews), which critics have hailed as an honest portrait of that most awkward year in just about anyone’s life. Mike D’Angelo grants that he tends “to resist films that solicit my sympathy this aggressively, but Elsie Fisher’s raw wound of a performance gradually wore me down.”
Three films in the program saw their premieres at the SXSW Film Festival and, as it happens, I caught all three when I was in Austin in March. The clear standout is Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls, a day-in-the-life story built around Regina Hall’s exceptional performance as Lisa, the manager of Double Whammies, a Hooters-like bar and grill wearily propped up alongside a Texas highway. Even as her personal life cries out for overdue attention, Lisa devotes every waking moment to keeping the dive above water and protecting her waitresses from a seemingly endless parade of abusive men. Rolling Stone’s David Fear finds that “what Bujalski has done here is create an oasis of sisterly love in a pit of toxic masculinity.”
A friend in Austin told me not to eat before seeing Joel Potrykus’s Relaxer, and now I pass that advice along to you. Most of the ninety-one-minute running time is spent with a panicky couch-bound gamer trying to beat the all-time high score in Pac Man on the eve of Y2K. Other than the fact that the fate of the planet may or may not hinge on the outcome of the game, Relaxer is a refreshingly odd portrait of a wasted life, even if it tries a little too hard to be just that.
Sticklers for period authenticity or just plain subtlety might find the comedy of Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily overly broad, but those willing to play along may enjoy Molly Shannon’s performance as an Emily Dickinson who bears no resemblance whatsoever to Cynthia Nixon’s in Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion. The premise here is that history has covered up Dickinson’s ferocious affair with her sister-in-law, leading to farcical, occasionally even slapstick, sequences of coverups and stolen pleasures.
Overviews and Recommendations
Previewing the festival for the Village Voice, Calum Marsh has a clear favorite, Leigh Ledare’s The Task. Ledare, an artist known for his daring work in photography and collage, gathers twenty-eight strangers and ten psychologists in a room to discuss some of the most contentious topics of the moment and then cross-examine their interactions with each other. It’s an “audacious, incendiary nonfiction social experiment,” finds Marsh, “a documentary experience more intense and provocative than any in recent memory.”
Contributors to Screen Slate have so far written capsule previews of fifteen films in the lineup, including Michael Koresky, Jeff Reichert, and Farihah Zaman’s Feast of the Epiphany, which sees its world premiere at BAMcinemaFest. There are essentially two distinct parts to the film that blends fiction and nonfiction and begins with a young woman preparing for a dinner party before opening out onto an entirely different story. Danielle Burgos finds that this “hybrid’s reach may outpace its final form, but the filmmakers’ courage to take a risk is still laudable.”
And there are two more world premieres in the lineup. In Aaron Schimberg’s Chained for Life, Jess Weixler (Teeth) and Adam Pearson (Under the Skin) play the lead actors in a genre film which, as Henry Stewart points out at The House Next Door, has undertones of Tod Browning’s Freaks. “Schimberg's cast is prone to just sitting around the set” and “gently interrogating cultural concepts of beauty,” notes Stewart. “Chained for Life isn't much of an argument, just a provocative discussion.” At Vague Visages, Tanner Tafelski finds that “Chained for Life recalls Robert Altman and his ensemble films, especially in the way that the intricate sound mixing and design reveals snatches of dialogue here and there.”
The third world premiere is Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s Two Plains & a Fancy, in which three New Yorkers head out to Colorado desert in 1893 to look for the famed hot springs. Brace yourself, suggests IndieWire’s David Ehrlich: “What sounds like a perfect recipe for survival horror soon veers into Jarmusch territory, as Horn and Kalman confront their characters with everything from sex ghosts to spirit cats, staking their own singular claim in the wilds of 21st century surrealism.” For more on all three world premieres, see Vikram Murthi at RogerEbert.com. And at Flavorwire, Jason Bailey picks out ten titles to see.
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