Your correspondent’s affection for the Tallgrass Film Festival out of Wichita, Kansas (which just wrapped its 13th annual festivities) is easy enough to explain: it’s my hometown film festival, a revelatory occasion for Midwestern movie-makers and movie buffs, who are stuck with the customary mainstream multiplex picks for the other 51 weeks of the year. After moving away from Kansas and spending a fair amount of time at Big-Time Film Festivals™ like Sundance, NYFF, and SXSW, I’ve only grown to appreciate the comparatively modest Tallgrass even more—because in many ways, its intentions are pure. The festivities in Park City, Toronto, Telluride, and the like are a blast; they’re also part of the machine, where hype and buzz and (God help us) award possibilities are as much on minds and tongues as the quality of the work.
But at a festival like Tallgrass, people are there to see and celebrate movies, full stop. Their ambitious slate gives Kansans the opportunity to see distributed indies that’d never make their way to Wichita theaters (this year, those titles included “Tangerine,” “Best of Enemies,” and “Phoenix”); buzzed titles that are making the festival rounds (“Hitchcock/Truffaut,” “Mavis!,” “Killing Them Safely”); and smaller pictures hoping to make some noise amidst the fall-fest hubbub. These are the best films I saw there, along with some thoughts on the rest.
10. “Double Digits: The Story of a Neighborhood Movie Star”
The "Internet art films" of Wichita director R.G. Miller are like bizarre found objects: cheeseball effects, incoherent stories, errant captions, misspelled credits, compositions and edits that defy any notion of film vocabulary. But he’s an irresistibly likable guy, making movies with whatever limited materials he could scrape together since he was a teenager (that’s going on four decades now), and what he lacks in budget and sophistication, he makes up for in sheer can-do enthusiasm. Director Justin Johnson follows Miller through the production of his low-fi DIY superhero movie “The Mask Man,” telling his story and detailing how his work is so propelled by the joy of creating that the final product is damn near irrelevant. It’s a charming love letter to moviemaking, an obviously a real crowd-pleaser for a festival audience like this one.
A white guy living abroad and an Asian girl on a visit Meet Cute in a Hong Kong bar; he’s escaping a birthday party, she’s looking for directions. He shows her the way and they feel a spark—which is complicated, since he’s otherwise engaged. A year later, they meet up again, spend another evening wandering the streets, and have to decide what (if anything) to do about their attraction. You know what you’re in for from the description (“Before Sunrise” by way of “Lost in Translation”), but it plays: stars Jamie Chung and Bryan Greenberg have ace chemistry, the photography is casually picturesque, and the dialogue is witty but not too witty. It’s a slight movie, likable and charming, floating off the considerable charisma of its leads.
8. “The Ever After”
It’s kind of an easy/lazy comparison to make, but few filmmakers are exploring the razor’s edge where Cassavetes perched, between cinematic fiction and raw emotional truth, as adroitly as writer/director/actor Mark Webber. His latest co-stars and is co-written by his wife Teresa Palmer; they meet, fall in love, and get married before the title drops, and then we skip ahead to a marriage that’s rapidly unraveling. The storytelling is loose and casual, less about high points than moments overheard and moods conveyed—in fact, when they get to a big plot point, it’s a dark turn that the movie can’t really sustain. "The Ever After" is a movie that works best between the lines, in moments when nothing (and yet everything) is happening.
7. “Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler”
Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir’s comic documentary is a kind of spiritual sequel to “The King of Kong,” even featuring a few of the same figures in the world of competitive arcade gaming. And like that one, this is a tale that spans all the way back to the golden age, to 16-year-old Tim McVey (no relation, everyone mentions) and his 1984 billion-point score on the little-known arcade game Nibbler, the result of two days of marathon play. A quarter century later, with nagging questions of an unverified score from Italy and competition from “bad boy of gaming” Dwayne Richmond, McVey decides to reach for his record once again—a multi-year, multi-shot mission that becomes less about a video game score and more about never giving up. It’s a fundamentally silly movie (sometimes crossing the line from laughing with its subjects to laughing at them), yet a slyly inspiring one.
"I’ll stop singin’ when I have nothin’ left to say," insists Mavis Staples early in Jessica Edwards‘ delightful documentary, and by all indications, that won’t happen anytime soon. She’s been doing it for over six decades, as part of the Staple Singers and on her own, riding a tide from gospel to folk to soul to rock to "Americana," and that journey is the primary concern here; her personal life is given rather short shrift, but that’s a minor complaint for a film as high-spirited and good humored as this one. Staples is a wonderful storyteller (with killer comic timing), and her remembrances are supplemented by observers, home movies, and killer archival footage. She’s a force of nature—a remarkable artist, paid appropriate due by this moving and entertaining picture.
5. “Forbidden Films”
“ACCESS FORBIDDEN,” warns the signs outside the building where dozens of Nazi-era German propaganda films are housed in storage “cells”—and the prison language is appropriate. Over 300 of them were banned in the years following WWII, and with 40 still restricted from general consumption. Director Felix Moeller looks at these films, which are both literally (due to their high nitrate content) and figuratively explosive: anti-British, anti-Russian, anti-French, anti-Polish, anti-Weimer, anti-art, and above all, anti-Semitic. The conclusions are somewhat surprising, with the crudity of the messaging and stunning audacity of disinformation often blunted by the skill of the filmmaking. The history is fascinating, but that’s not all director Felix Moeller is interested in; he enters the complex debate of puzzling out if (and if so, how) to show them now, a lively and difficult discussion that delves into all sorts of questions about context, awareness, and fear of what other people (of lesser intellect, it’s always implied) “might think.” Moeller doesn’t take a stand, and doesn’t simplify for easy consumption—it’s a tricky issue, as are many of those connected to this troubling time in world cinema.
4. “They Look Like People”
Writer/director Perry Blackshear’s portrait of apocalyptic paranoia is exhilaratingly bracing in its strangeness, working in an expressionistic style that uses erratic cutting patterns, visceral audio, and bizarre imagery to put us in its characters’ sketchy headspace. There are traditional elements at play here—romance, bromance, sci-fi, thriller—but it unfolds with the grim inevitability and willy-nilly logic of a nightmare, all the while refusing to take the sanity of anyone (the protagonist, the antagonist, or the audience) for granted.
3. “Pervert Park”
The Palace Mobile Home Park in St. Petersburg houses a community of sex offenders on probation, working their way back into society via a program called Florida Justice Transitions. It was started by the mother of a sex offender, who turns up near the end of Frida and Lasse Barkfors’ documentary. "Do you have a son?" she asks him. "Do you think he’s perfect?" That question lies at the heart of this anthropological film, which is neither accusation nor advocacy; it observes these people, and listens dispassionately to their stories. They are often two-parters: first comes the sad story of their own tragedies and victimhood, and then the stomach-churning stories of how they continued a cycle of sexual violence. "There’s no healing in this system," notes the therapist who leads their classes and sessions, but "Pervert Park" offers up, at the very least, the notion of understanding: no one makes excuses for their crimes, but no one crime exists in a vacuum.
It’s rare that you find yourself complaining a movie wasn’t long enough. But seriously, I could’ve spent another 90 minutes with Kent Jones’ exploration of the seminal interview volume, which works on several levels simultaneously: it’s a film about the book (how it came together, what it tried to accomplish, and how it influenced, and continues to influence, filmmakers around the world), a film about its subjects (the British master of suspense who was seen as an entertainer but not much of an artist, and the French critic-turned-filmmaker who helped alter that misconception), and a film that does what the book did, explaining how a cinematic genius manipulated the form, shook up expectations, and changed movies forever.
1. “Band of Robbers”
Truth be told, it sounds like a terrible idea: writer/directors Aaron and Adam Nee intermingle and update “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn,” turning Tom and Huck into irresponsible adults and incompetent criminals, resulting in something like “Mark Twain’s Bottle Rocket.” The mind reels imagining how an origin story/reboot-obsessed studio production would mangle such a concept; thankfully, in the hands of these quirky, gifted filmmakers, it results in a miraculous balancing act of broad humor, homage, and heart, pivoting nimbly into from slapstick to serious crime bits to genuine emotion, a high-wire act that shouldn’t stay aloft, yet somehow does.
Just missing the top ten is Valerie Weiss’ “A Light Beneath Their Feet,” which has a couple of dead-end subplots and leans a bit too heavily on its soundtrack, but nonetheless evocatively captures that specific moment just before high graduation, when it feels like anything is possible—and yet nothing is. Performances are top-notch, with Taryn Manning playing her big and small breakdowns sensitively, while Madison Davenport puts across the character’s longing and desperation with gusto; the movie knows their mother/daughter relationship inside out, and so do these fine actors. Also worth a look is “Bounce: How the Ball Taught the World to Play,” in which director Jerome Thelia calls on sociologists, anthropologists, zoologists, and sports historians to explain the desire and purpose of “play,” its relation to the animal kingdom and our earliest ancestors, ancient traditions and current ones (and their overlaps), religious aspects, and the evolution of modern sport. But his film is more freewheeling than academic, covering a lot of ground without seeming to wander or scrimp.
Less noteworthy: “In the Dark,” writer/director David Spatro’s paranormal thriller, which looks good and is decently acted, but is hamstrung by a paint-by-numbers script, full of musty conflicts and shopworn dialogue, short on scares but long on chit-chat; director Mortiz Rechenberg‘s Latino gang story “I Am Gangster,” which has ambition and authenticity to burn, but is somehow both over- and under-written, populating itself with too many characters and too many subplots, busy without going much of anywhere; and Eshom and Ian Nelms’s “Waffle Street,” a kind of reverse "Pursuit of Happyness" whose occasional charms and likability can’t salvage its “Hallmark Hall of Fame” aesthetic and overall shrug-worthiness—it’s a movie you forget before it’s even over.
But that’s the exception to the general rule at Tallgrass, which has raised its profile considerably in its first 13 years—not by courting big names or titles, but by seeking out offbeat indies, and putting them in front of an audience that’s starving for new voices and stories. Imagine that.