In August 2017, Brett Story, the nonfiction filmmaker best known for her award-winning feature The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016), set out to explore New York City’s five boroughs with cinematographer Derek Howard. Pairing the vignettes and interviews they captured with voice-over readings by actress Clare Coulter—excerpts from Zadie Smith, Karl Marx, and Annie Dillard—The Hottest August is one of the highlights of this year’s BAMcinemaFest. The eleventh edition of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s showcase of new independent cinema opens today and runs through June 23.
The Hottest August, “an essayistic documentary made in the intellectually vagrant spirit of Chris Marker,” as Carson Lund noted at Slant last month, is “one of the more trenchant New York-set films of recent memory.” Writing for the Film Stage, Mark Asch sees and hears “an echo of the more anthropological conceit of Rouch and Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer. In that film, shot in the summer of 1960, the filmmakers asked a cross-section of Parisians: Are you happy? Here, the casual voice coming from behind the camera frequently inquires, Are you worried about the future? And the responses—offered up two years ago now, a time that already seems subtly different from our own, when the hell was fresher, its ground softer and outlines fuzzier—evoke angst over economic opportunity, racial tension, and, most of all, climate change.” For Kelli Weston at Hyperallergic, The Hottest August “becomes a sophisticated exercise in science horror. There’s an intricate sensory layer to the storytelling that evokes the rainy summer and its flitting breezes, a creeping shadow of the uncanny cast over its beauty.”
This year’s BAMcinemaFest opens with Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, featuring rapper Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) as a New York writer who returns to her hometown in China for a wedding celebration that’s being staged so that the family can see their beloved grandmother one last time. When the film premiered at Sundance in January, Vulture’s Emily Yoshida wrote that Wang “transcends the hooky premise with confidence and subtlety.” A24, which has snapped up worldwide rights, has paired Awkwafina with comedian Ramy Youssef for the latest edition of its podcast.
Writing for Artforum, Kristen Yoonsoo Kim calls Jong Ougie Pak’s “breezy but bittersweet” Sunrise/Sunset an “excellent companion piece to The Farewell that has neither the star power of Awkwafina nor the distributor influence of A24.” The fifty-minute black-and-white film centering on a Korean man in his twenties who visits his long-distance girlfriend in New York after failing his university entrance exams “wears the markings of a low-budget picture from a new director—small cast, few indoor locations—but it’s still quite affecting about the in-limbo phase of a young person,” writes Kim. Sunrise/Sunset screens on Tuesday with Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window, a chronicle of a failure to document 2016’s Art Basel in Hong Kong. “Though the Siri voice narration gives the film a veneer of robotic remove,” writes Kim, “the detours in director Andrew Hevia’s documentation turn personal and heartbreaking.”
Along with The Farewell, a good number of titles in this year’s lineup premiered at Sundance in January:
- According to the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, Kirill Mikhanovsky’s Give Me Liberty, the festival’s centerpiece presentation, is a “wonderfully anarchic dark comedy” about a medical transport driver in Milwaukee.
- Rooney finds that Michael Tyburski’s The Sound of Silence, with Peter Sarsgaard as a musicologist obsessed with the effects of sound on people’s mental and emotional well-being, “deftly balances the cerebral with the soulful in a story of transfixing originality.”
- In her documentary Jawline, Liza Mandelup portrays influencer culture as “a pyramid scheme of positivity,” writes Amy Nicholson for Variety.
- Nicholson finds that Tayarisha Poe’s Selah and The Spades, driven by the rivalries between competing cliques at an exclusive prep school in Pennsylvania, “has more style than plot, but that style is terrific.”
- Benjamin Berman’s The Amazing Johnathan Documentary is “about the comedian-magician-grossout-artist” that “becomes its own piece of documentary-filmmaking-as-performance-art gonzo stunt,” writes Victor Morton for the Salt Lake City Weekly.
- The Hollywood Reporter’s Jon Frosch calls Rashaad Ernesto Green’s Premature with Zora Howard “a modest, lovely slice of New York City naturalism about a black teen and her steamy summer fling with a slightly older man.”
BAMcinemaFest 2019 is presenting one world premiere, and it’s the closing night film. In Diana Peralta’s De Lo Mio, two sisters leave New York for the Dominican Republic, where they meet up with their brother to clean up their deceased grandparents’ home. “Peralta’s light, breezy touch lingers on bittersweet moments—a cleaning session that becomes a dance party stands out—while allowing the tougher emotional processes to sneak in,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “As a narrative, De Lo Mio takes no shocking turns; as a rumination on the subtle psychological hurdles of growing up and letting go of the past, it’s a profound snapshot.”
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