Entering its fifth year, Brooklyn-based BAMcinemaFest plays a crucial role on the crowded North American festival circuit. BAM’s programmers sift through the massive crop of new American cinema that arrives at festivals like Sundance and SXSW to provide a cleaner window into some of the best national offerings of the year so far. The 25 features selected for the lineup reflect a shrewd eye for curatorial balance: Several movies that have gathered buzz and widespread acclaim fill the Special Screening section while many other narrative and documentaries in the program have yet to receive quite the same degree of exposure. This is their real chance to shine.
The latest edition is no exception. Opening night selection “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” David Lowery’s evocative, southern-fried outlaw drama co-starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, has rightfully found supportive audiences from Sundance to Cannes ahead of its August release. Closing night selection “Short Term 12,” which won the grand jury prize at SXSW, provides an incredibly moving and sharply written tale of a halfway house for teens and the complex young people who work there. Together these titles illuminate a startling audacity among young American filmmakers willing to reckon with old-fashioned, sentimental narratives and transform them into wholly immersive and surprising new experiences. But that’s not all, folks. Here’s a look at some of the other BAMcinemaFest titles that may not have generated as much attention, but still deserve singling out. Go HERE for the full lineup.
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Keith Poulson (“Somebody Up There Likes Me”) stars in this satiric jab at the New York art scene directed by Michael Bilandic — whose last feature, the Abel Ferrara-produced “Happy Life,” was a similar deadpan urban comedy. At 75 minutes, the wacky premise of “Hellaware” (the only world premiere at BAMcinemaFest 2013) has the feel of a caustic jab to the ribs. Poulson plays aspiring photographer Nate, a frustrated 25-year-old desperate to come up with a plan to land his own show. When he discovers an absurd online video for the teen Insane Clown Posse knock-off band Young Torture Killaz — whose godawful single centers around the recurring lyrics “I’ll cut yaw dick off” — Nick tracks down the kids with his eye-rolling pal (Sophia Takal) and convinces them to let him document their vulgar exploits. His wannabe Diane Arbus images provoke the interest of a skeezy gallery owner, but also run the risk of angering his subjects, a tension that climaxes in the amusingly chaotic finale. With the same mixture of scrappiness and silly energy of the underground art world it sends up, “Hellaware” suggests what might happen if Jim Jarmusch directed an episode of “Girls.” Despite its buoyancy, there’s a lot more commentary encoded in the plot for “Hellaware” than in Nick’s photographs, and the concluding punchline is a gleefully cynical twist on expectations of a happy ending.
Eliza Hittman’s debut feature, which premiered in January at Sundance, is a restrained, disturbing work. Set deep in the shadows of lower class Brooklyn neighborhoods, it turns the tropes of a coming-of-age drama into something close to visceral horror: The story involves 14-year-old Lila (Gina Piersanti in a breakthrough performance) attempting to sleep with an older guy she meets around town named Sammy (Ronen Rubenstein) and facing graphically unsettling ramifications for her actions. Hittman generates a constant state of dread over Lila’s possible fate. The petite woman wants to lose her virginity and Sammy has no interest in fulfilling that desire, leading her to take a series of desperate actions that constantly threaten to backfire. Much of the unnerving qualities of Hittman’s narrative are derived from the unspoken nature of Lila’s urges. The mixture of solemn isolation and longing on her face turns her grim odyssey into an expressionistic nightmare. This might be the freakiest New York sex drama since “Kids.”
To date, Jem Cohen has made intimate non-fiction diary films rooted in an attentiveness to atmosphere and riddled with small observations rendered in profound terms. While his new feature “Museum Hours” is technically his first narrative effort, with a pair of amateur performances and the backbone of a fictional story, its constant introspection and remarkable sense of place provide a fluid connection to the earlier work. On the one hand a sad, poignant character study, “Museum Hours” is also a treatise on art history and a love letter to architectural wonder. Predominantly set in Vienna’s grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, the trim story involves middle-aged museum guard Johann (Robert Sommer, making a gently affecting onscreen debut), whose quiet gig has allowed him to fade into his surroundings and observe the visitors in much the same way they peer at the artwork. It’s here that he encounters the distant Anne (Canadian songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara), a woman of the same generation in town to deal with her cousin’s debilitating illness. Sensing Anne’s isolation in the big city, a physically overwhelming sensation that reflects her inner turmoil, Johann quickly forms a bond with the woman and keeps her company around town. Whether seeking meaning in paintings or their lives, their faces reach artistic heights worthy of the same scrutiny allotted to the museum’s collection.
The flaws of the United States healthcare system have been tackled in countless documentaries, but “Remote Area Medical” takes the subject out of the realm of rote polemics and talking heads to deliver a thoroughly cinematic look at efforts to combat its shortcomings. The title refers to the non-profit, volunteer-based organization that has provided various forms of health care for uninsured Americans since 1985. Though its efforts began in third world countries, Remote Area Medical currently fills deficiencies in American society that the movie documents with intimate detail. Directed with poetic eloquence by Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reichert (“Gerrymandering”), “Remote Area Medical” takes place over the course of three days during which the organization sets up shot in Bristol, Tennessee. As volunteers scramble to meet the needs of countless under-served Americans desperate to receive medical assistance, the filmmakers’ unobtrusive vérité approach allows the profound nature of the activism to come alive alongside the problems that gave rise to its existence. With hundreds of people in need of assistance waiting for hours to receive treatment, the resources can’t possibly satisfy the demand. The resulting collage of encounters is both a fascinating paean to altruism and a mournful portrait of troubled people in need of more than just a grassroots solution.
Underground filmmaker Zach Clark (“Modern Love is Automatic”) complicates his sensibilities with this touching Christmas tale. The story funnels Clark’s darker sensibilities and erotic themes into a decidedly more complicated vision of suburban unrest. With a mixture of pathos and dry wit, Clark delivers a solemn twist on the holiday movie formula that simultaneously inhabits the genre and turns it inside out. At first, “White Reindeer” looks like the set up for a routine studio comedy, with giddy real estate agent Suzanne Barrington (a superb Anna Margaret Hollyman) in good spirits as she closes a major deal and celebrates her weatherman husband’s upcoming new gig in Hawaii just in time for the holidays. In a safer movie, things might go awry with the couple in their new surroundings; instead, Clark traps them in their existing environment, in one case for good. Arriving home to discover her husband murdered by a nighttime invader, Suzanne finds herself abruptly single and stuck in her boring town with nothing to do but grieve. From here, Clark develops an unexpectedly somber and curiously witty narrative about the process of emotional recovery that’s ironically in tune with the Christmas spirit it picks apart.