For six years, the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAMcinemaFest has emerged as one of New York's greatest moviegoing events, a welcome opportunity to showcase some of the best achievements in American independent cinema of the past year. This year, the lineup offers plenty of veterans still operating at their height of their powers, starting with Richard Linklater, whose 12-years-in-the-making "Boyhood" opens the festival on Wednesday. Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho makes his foray into English language with the wonderfully batty "Snowpiercer," the centerpiece selection, and David Wain's meta-romantic comedy "They Came Together" receives a spotlight slot. The festival closes with a 25th anniversary screening of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing."
But the majority of the BAMcinemaFest program showcases younger filmmakers and hidden gems of the film festival world that offer a welcome alternative to the summer blockbuster season. These are the best of them.
"Approaching the Elephant"
The anarchist notion of a "free school," in which the children call the shots, emerged out of Spanish attempts in the nineteenth century; needless to say, the idea never gained much traction in the United States, but there have been plenty of attempts. Amando Rose Wilder's alternately hilarious and horrifying black-and-white vérité portrait captures one such effort, by New Jersey's Teddy McArdle Free School over the course of its comically unproductive first year. While the teachers encourage their gradeschoolers to call meetings and set their own rules, mainly they run wild, bicker and lose focus—as kids are apt to do. As the teachers share rambling convictions about their efforts and the students make awkward attempts to echo their adults' perspectives, "Approaching the Elephant" is at once a treatise on education and a cautionary tale about its fragility. Aptly compared to the work of master documentarian Frederick Wiseman as well as "Lord of the Flies," Wilder's movie is also a remarkable deadpan comedy about the travails of classroom dynamics taken to the extremes of a black comedy. (To that end, it's the best of its kind since Laurent Cantet's "The Class.") Building toward a climax involving the potential expulsion of a wayward student, "Approaching the Elephant" should figure into national conversations about the state of the education system in America—merely by providing a reminder of why we have it in the first place.
"For the Plasma"
You're unlikely to see a more peculiar debut than co-directors Bingham Bryan and Kyle Molzan's sneakily cryptic "For the Plasma," the only world premiere at BAMcinemaFest this year. Set in a solitary lakeside cabin in Maine and its surrounding forests, this strange, muted science fiction story suggests Jacques Rivette's "Celine and Julie Go Boating" by way of David Lynch. The story finds a pair of old friends (Anabelle LeMieux and Rosalie Lowe, both excellent and subdued) working together to monitor CCTV of various isolated regions of the forest, a meditational practice that one of them figures out how to use to predict the stock market. Meanwhile, there are inexplicable power outages possibly attributed to ghosts, meandering camping trips to monitor the footage up close, and bizarre encounters with a creepy older neighbor who delivers his lines in eerie deadpan. The dialogue features abrupt references to Proust and other existential musings that emphasize the movie's otherworldly quality, but it never loses the overarching serenity of its environment. Sort through the pieces or just glide through its dreamlike state: "For the Plasma" offers many pleasures, but no single interpretation, and that open-ended state is a liberating alternative to anything else in recent American cinema.
"Kumiko the Treasure Hunter"
Austin-based sibling directors David and Nathan Zellner have been cranking out offbeat, surrealist comedy features and shorts that have gained a minor cult following on the film festival circuit for over a decade, but the profoundly engaging "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" (still inexplicably without U.S. distribution months after its Sundance premiere) successfully broadens their sensibilities. Anchored by the sensitive presence of lead actress Rinko Kikuchi in every scene, the Zellners' elegant portrait of an alienated Japanese woman intent on discovering the fictional buried treasure from "Fargo" elevates its zany premise to lyrical heights. But make no mistake: This weirdly touching and ultimately sad character study echoes previous Zellner outings "Goliath" and "Kid-Thing" with its focus on interminably solitary individuals led down the rabbit hole of their absurd quests — only in this case, the outlandish aspects of the plot have been carefully embedded in the believable pathos of its delusional star. The brothers' strongest emotional achievement, "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter" pushes their style to a new level of sophistication. Co-produced by Alexander Payne and featuring an undeniably appealing hook, "Kumiko" is one of those nutty achievements operating under a more accessible surface that could very well bring the Zellners the largest audience of their career. And they deserve it.
Tim Sutton’s directorial debut "Pavilion" offered a stunning vision of alienated young with virtually no plot but tremendous visual prowess. "Memphis" is only slightly more narrative-based in its meandering but never less than fascinating portrait of Tennessee-based singer Willis Earl Beal, loosely playing himself while supplying the moody, bluesy soundtrack. While drifting from place to place, talking to old friends, lovers and a priest as he tries to reconcile his former successes with a world that has seemingly abandoned him, Beal remains a persistently insightful presence — and the film follows suit. Similar in tone to Matthew Porterfield’s breakout sophomore feature "Putty Hill," Sutton’s second effort is filled with soul while foregrounding its inventive formalism. “Life is artifice,” Beal says in a television interview at the beginning. By retaining an otherworldly quality while also tapping into the nuances of everyday life, “Memphis” proves he’s right.
"Stations of the Elevated"
Before documentaries like "Style Wars" brought graffiti art to the masses, Manfred Kirchheimer's little-seen 16mm portrait of New York City subway graffiti captured the medium in its natural habitat. Newly resurrected by Artists Public Domain/Cinema Conservancy, this stunning 45-minute collage finds the poetry in urban grime. Beginning with a prolonged montage of vibrantly colored trains traversing the New York landscape, "Stations of the Elevated" slowly introduces the faces and voices from riders and pedestrians (but no prolonged conversations) that give the art its distinct organic environment. By turns set to gospel jazz rhythms by Charles Mingus and the on-location sounds of nature and machinery, "Stations of the Elevated" makes a case for a greater appreciation of underground and otherwise marginalized creativity by placing it in context: With time, the subway cars take on the dimensions of moving picture frames barreling through a museum set on tracks. Just as Edward Bland's "The Cry of Jazz" gave a neglected genre its proper due in 1959, "Stations of the Elevated" makes a compassionate plea to appreciate the unequivocal beauty of street art. Having made its case so well, the movie literally ends with a glorious ride into the sunset.