While the Gothams are the first major film awards ceremony in the Oscar season, there are a lot more movies that qualify for consideration at the IFP-hosted ceremony. This is particularly clear with “Best Film Not Playing a Theater Near You,” a category selected by the editors of Filmmaker magazine. This year’s nominees are an especially diverse bunch. While none have landed distribution, the winner will receive a one-week theatrical run next year, and all are screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in a series that starts today and runs through Monday.
Given the Gothams category singling them out, it’s no surprise that these aren’t films made for commercial reasons. Visions of sad, lonely people trapped by conundrums only they can fully understand, they maintain an unflattering intimacy with their subjects — which, in two cases, are blatant autobiographical creations. The films either twist genre conventions to reach more audacious thematic heights or defy any easy categorization altogether. Here’s an overview of the contenders.
Terrence Nance’s innovative romantic drama, a partly animated film-within-a-film experiment about the director’s relationship woes, initially screened in Sundance’s New Frontiers section. That’s an apt home for Nance’s narrative approach, which drifts between first-person observation, ironic voiceover and delicately crafted animated digressions. Nance’s structure begins by sampling his short film “How Would You Feel?” before dovetailing into his recollection of a failed opportunity and then zooming out to observe his inspiration behind the project. A poetic diary that gives the impression of emerging directly from its protagonist’s consciousness, it has the magical capacity to clarify Nance’s emotional turmoil without forcing it into formula. Criticwire grade: B+
Austin-based filmmakers the Zellner brothers are masters of eccentric comedy both visually audacious and hypnotically strange. Their last feature, “Goliath,” culminated in slapstick mayhem, but “Kid-Thing” takes the Zellner brand in a more surreal direction. Angst-riddled 10-year-old Annie (newcomer Sidney Aguirre) spends her days hanging around the outskirts of Austin, wasting her days away with her goat-farmer dad (Nathan Zellner) and his goofball friend (David Zellner). Annie finds an outlet in random acts of social rebellion, chucking flotsam at passing cars, wielding a paint gun at the food mart and hurtling through the forest with aimless energy. And then she happens upon a mysterious hole in the ground near her home, where she hears an old woman’s voice (Susan Tyrell) calling for help down below. What happens next is simultaneously creepy and engrossing for the dreamlike mystery surrounding each scene. While the young star’s performance dominates, the Zellners are the true stars here, assembling a narrative that’s as curiously whimsical as its protagonist. Criticwire grade: B
If you don’t know him as the director of “Woodpecker” or the recent thriller “Rubberneck,” maybe you saw him in recent festival hits like “Supporting Characters” and “Gayby.” Then again, you’re more likely to have seen him as the perceptive Ray on HBO’s “Girls,” a role he landed after co-starring in Lena Dunham’s “Tiny Furniture.” That’s the thing about Karpovsky: He’s everywhere. How does the guy do it? “Red Flag,” his brilliantly unnerving road trip comedy, goes great lengths to show how the filmmaker’s investment in his quasi-professional life has the power to consume him. Shot while touring the country for screenings of “Woodpecker,” the neurotic story features a fictionalized version of Karpovsky traveling around in a vain attempt to get over an inevitable breakup. Chaos ensues at every stop along the way and never dissipates — just when it seems like he can’t sink any deeper, Karpovsky keeps digging. “Red Flag” veers toward a climactic schoolyard brawl and subsequent finale that creates an odd feeling of uplift without truly resolving anything. While “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is the obvious antecedent for this type of uneasy comedy, Karpovsky’s quirks as a struggling filmmaker coping with vanity and ego echo the kind of messy antiheroes typically found in the films of Korean director Hong Sang-soo. Mainly, though, Karpovsky excels at turning his flaws into a grand joke. Criticwire grade: A-
“Sun Don’t Shine”
Amy Seimetz’s directorial debut is a vivid, suspenseful noir set against a sweltering backdrop of a barebones Florida crime saga. “Two-Lane Blacktop” by way of “Bonnie and Clyde,” Seimetz’s pulpy tale follows lovers Crystal and Leo (perennial character actress Kate Lyn Sheil and microbudget filmmaker Kentucker Audley) on the lam for mysterious reasons only vaguely made clear near the end of the first act, but even then much of the drama remains deeply ambiguous. Sheil’s performance, all scowls and muffled shrieks, provides the ideal counterpoint to Audley’s muted delivery. From the shock of its opening shot to the tension of its closing moments, “Sun Don’t Shine” conveys mood so eloquently that it’s easy to get lost in the proceedings without realizing that so little has happened. It’s one of the most impressive debut features to come along in years. Criticwire grade: A-
“Tiger Tail in Blue”
Even more than his excessively prolific colleague Joe Swanberg, director Frank V. Ross is a true American independent: His chatty, meandering films are blatantly low-cost affairs with a precise style that reflects the filmmaker’s control. While essentially character studies, Ross draws you into the flow of behavior with an observational technique that recalls Robert Altman; the narrative emerges from watching people go about their often-frantic lives. “Tiger Tail in Blue,” which until its MoMA screening has only been viewed online (it premiered on the website No Budget), presents the finest qualities of Ross’ perceptive approach to familiar dramas. Ross stars as Christopher, a struggling writer whose nights are consumed by a deadbeat waiter gig, preventing him from spending anything but a few hours with his high school teacher wife (Rebecca Spence). As a result, he latches onto the flirtatious advances of his co-worker (Megan Mercier). Alternating between these settings, “Tiger Tail in Blue” benefits greatly from John Medeski and Chris Speed’s expressive soundtrack, which ekes out emotions that Ross’ characters never fully verbalize. The movie is delicately scripted to give the perception of building up to some kind of climax, to the point where even when it arrives at an obvious twist, the subtlety of reactions infuse the material with surprising depth. While Christopher constantly attempts to joke his way out of difficult situations, Ross keenly shows the limitation of humor to mask deep-seated insecurities. Criticwire grade: A
“Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” begins today at MoMA and continues through November 19. For screening times and other information, go here.