When was the last time you saw a feminist sci-fi? Jennifer Phang’s “Advantageous,” which won the Special Jury Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, garnered critical acclaim for its ambitious take on a dystopian world that features eerily familiar elements. Told entirely from a female perspective, the film explores the moral quandaries of an aging single mother who, strapped for cash in the midst of an economic crisis, decides to undergo an invasive cosmetic surgery to restore her youth. The film posits that technology and modern values will eventually strip women of their social progress, leaving us with a man’s world that’s indifferent to the unique struggles of womanhood. Like any great sci-fi, “Advantageous” stays intimate and grounds the audience in relatable circumstances that transcend the boundaries of the future space and time. Nods to Martin Scorsese, Kathryn Bigelow, and Atom Egoyan’s sci-fi efforts pepper the narrative; fans of the genre will surely be satisfied. —Emily Buder
Alex Sichel died before the completion of this personal and idiosyncratic portrait of her experiences with cancer, but her voice is evident in every scene of the heartfelt project. Completed by Elizabeth Giamatti (who accepted a directing prize for the project at this year’s SXSW), the movie tracks Sichel’s existential questions as she prepares to face the inevitable. Additionally, Sichel compliments details from her own experience with a scene from a scripted project starring Lili Taylor as a woman in a similar situation. While Sichel endures good and bad days alike, Taylor’s character represents the filmmaker’s spiritual ideal — open to her imminent death and endlessly curious about the feelings it calls up. The resulting project is equal parts candid diary film and a meditation on mortality. Despite the downbeat vibes, however, “A Woman Like Me” is ultimately galvanizing in its ability to confront a topic all too frequently relegated to whispers. To that end, its triumphant qualities should speak widely to anyone facing similar hurdles — or afraid that they one day might. —Eric Kohn
In the midst of the heated 1968 presidential race, conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. faced off against liberal Gore Vidal in a series of nationally televised debates hosted by ABC. The resulting fiery showdowns not only epitomized the national divide; they also provided a window into the future of American media, for better or worse, with its tendency to play up sharply partisan views under circus-like conditions. Directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon revisit the alternately riveting and cringe-inducing debates through a sharp mixture of archival footage and contemporary recollections that puts both divisive figures in context. Without taking a side, “Best of Enemies” shows how no amount of political grandstanding can distract from the personal investment that both men brought to their endeavor — and the lasting effects it had on the rest of their careers. To that end, irrespective of its bigger themes, “Best of Enemies” is ultimately a touching account of two men pushed to the brink of their abilities as tastemakers in one of the greatest duels of the 20th century. —EK
The seventh grade members of heavy metal band Unlocking the Truth received national acclaim after the young African American musicians’ skilled performances went viral on YouTube. The overnight fame ultimately led the trio to a widely publicized $1.8 million deal with Sony Music for five albums. Director Luke Meyer (“Darkon”) captures the group’s quixotic journey with remarkable access to backroom dealings as the kids gradually develop a deeper understanding of the business tactics threatening to consume them from every direction. Meyer’s camera uncovers numerous contrasts, including one meeting with scheming white executives who present the band with a binding contract while one of them dolefully plays games on his phone. Later, they receive professional instruction from a coach who attempts to smooth out the vocals and refine the band’s style — essentially commercializing their sound.
Meanwhile, garrulous agent Alan Sacks (who discovered the Jonas Brothers) positions himself as a paternal guide to the group even as his own objectives are called into question. “I’m not stupid, Allan,” says vocalist Malcolm Brickhouse, and with news that the band has left Sony and plans to sue the label, it’s clear that their process of awakening continues to take new turns. Whatever happens next, “Breaking a Monster” captures a fascinating chapter in the group’s troubled history — and provides a savvy perspective on the dangers of the entertainment industry at large. —EK
In the tradition of the timeless flaneur, New York-based filmmaker Jem Cohen (“Museum Hours”) has set out to capture the essence of the metropolis. We travel from New York to Moscow to Istanbul to Sharjah to observe the tapestry of humanity that lines the streets of every city, awash in the poetic glow of images and themes that may or may not be connected. Cohen endeavors to offer a rare vision of contemporary life: Look up from your smartphone, Cohen suggests, and you might just observe something beautiful. —EB
Few were lucky enough to be privy to the mind of enigmatic literary genius David Foster Wallace. A year after the publication of “Infinite Jest” and a decade before Wallace’s suicide, David Lipsky, a Rolling Stone journalist, was granted a five-day interview with the author. James Ponsoldt’s acclaimed Sundance debut “The End of the Tour” — which opens BAMCinemaFest on Wednesday — is based the complex relationship that evolved between the interviewer and his reluctant subject. Jesse Eisenberg is in anxious peak form as the wily journalist, while Jason Segel embodies Wallace with empathy in what critics are saying is his role of a lifetime (as well as his first serious dramatic turn). By all measures, “The End of the Tour” could have been a disaster — Wallace famously stated that he never wanted to be portrayed onscreen. Instead, Ponsoldt has been praised for creating something of an anti-biopic that revels in human imperfection, steering clear of gratuitous attempts at personification. Long-time Wallace readers will find much to parse, as the film details the writer’s existential dread and his uncanny insight into the duplicitous nature of human interaction. But even those unfamiliar with Wallace’s work are likely to be riveted by the raw wisdom here. —EB
“The Grief of Others”
Grief isn’t tangible. It exists in the realm of the unspoken, the deeply subjective experience that cannot be translated. Patrick Wang, whose 2011 debut “In the Family” moved audiences to tears, strives to capture this quiet, personal essence of grief in his latest effort. “The Grief of Others” is a fragmented portrait of the inner life of a grieving family as its members reel from the death of a newborn child. Despite dramatic narrative turns, Wang is unconcerned with histrionics; he relishes in small, subtle moments, allowing a static long shot to absorb nuances in character. The result has been deemed a haunting autopsy of grief that nearly borders on the experimental as it dissects the flesh of loss. Read our review here. —EB
“Jason and Shirley”
Stephen Winter broke onto the filmmaking scene in 1997 with his male prostitute documentary “Private Shows” and his narrative feature debut, “Chocolate Babies.” Eighteen years later, Winter is combining his love for fiction and non-fiction storytelling in his extremely lo-fi new drama, “Jason and Shirley.” Starring author Sarah Schulman as avant-garde filmmaker Shirley Clarke and theater star Jack Waters as hustler Jason Holliday, the film recreates Clarke’s 1967 interview film, “Portrait of Jason,” while imagining the interactions that took place between the pair when the cameras stopped rolling. Considering just how reckless the inebriated Holliday became on Clarke’s set all those years ago, Winter’s dramatization has plenty of material to play with as it finds new truths in Clarke’s filmmaking process. —Zack Sharff
More than once in writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ grimly fascinating drama “Krisha” (which won the Grand Jury Prize for best narrative feature at this year’s SXSW Film Festival), the camera slowly closes on the title character’s troubled face. With her wizened features, sunken eyes and unkept white hair, Krisha (Krisha Fairchild, the filmmaker’s aunt) wears the beaten down look of a woman baffled by a world that has slipped beyond her grasp. Shults’ dizzying filmmaking technique compliments that distant gaze, as he chronicles the alcoholic woman’s attempt to convince her estranged relatives that she has managed to stabilize her life over the course of a Thanksgiving dinner that careens into chaos. It’s no surprise that things don’t go as planned, but “Krisha” derives an extraordinary sense of mystery around the nature of the character’s problems — and whether she indeed possesses the ability to control them. Read the full review here. —EK
Sebastian Silva, a Sundance regular whose “The Maid” and “Old Cats” were terrific black comedies about domestic lives gone awry, returns to form following the uneven Michael Cera vehicles “Crystal Fairy” and “Magic Magic.” Those movies, which both landed at Sundance two years ago, showed two sides of the director’s tendencies: loopy comedy and a mysterious sense of dread surrounding human behavior. “Nasty Baby” brilliantly combines those two qualities to offer a wry examination of urban life and privilege from the inside out.
Initially, the movie focuses on Brooklyn performance artist Freddy (Silva) who desperately wants to have a baby with his best friend (Kristen Wiig) and his partner (Tunde Adebimpe). At the same time, Freddy plans an absurdly over-the-top installation piece involving nudity and baby sounds to express the topic on his mind. It’s all a bit grating in its straightforward, blithe depiction of self-involved city dwellers until a shocking third act twist that calls into question the stability of everything leading up to it. Silva is one step ahead of his audience — and in the process manages to enlighten them with a thrilling climax that illustrates the pratfalls of taking anything for granted. —EK
Writer-director Alex Ross Perry follows up last year’s acerbic New York comedy “Listen Up Philip” with a very different kind of story: “Queen of Earth” stars Elisabeth Moss as a haunted young woman reeling from her father’s recent death who attempts to find solace at the remote cabin owned by her friend (Katherine Waterson). Needless to say, it’s not much comfort, as Moss’ character struggles to confront her past and grows increasingly out of sync with the present. The haunting movie, which relies on tense closeups and an eerie sound design, gives both actresses some of their most effective roles to date. A “janglingly unsettling, darkly comic psychological drama” — per Neil Young’s Indiewire review — it niftily channels the likes of Roman Polanski and Robert Altman’s “Images,” even as it develops a haunting atmosphere of its own making. In the post-“Mad Men” era, “Queen of Earth” could be just the ticket for fans of the show eager to see what else Olsen can do. —EK
The lasting effects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster still reverberate in modern Ukraine. But that tragedy receives a fresh context in “The Russian Woodpecker,” director Chad Gracia’s portrait of Ukranian artist Fedor Alexandrovich’s quest to understand the catastrophe. The winner of Sundance’s world cinema documentary jury prize, the movie follows Alexandrovich as he questions former Ukranian officials about the enigmatic Duga, an antennae that broadcast the titular signal for mysterious reasons. Using hidden cameras as he digs deeper into the past, Alexandrovich is a fascinating guide whose wide-eyed, unkempt appearance pushes beyond the formal boundaries of modern Soviet history to gain a more clear-eyed look at the murkier dimensions of the past that haunts his generation — not to mention our collective understanding of the Cold War. —EK
Prolific microbudget director Nathan Silver follows up last year’s well-acted ensemble “Uncertain Terms” — which centered on a home for young, pregnant women — with another intimate look at a gathering place for people living on the margins of society. In this case, the focus is far more unsettling. The early-nineties plot finds a group of recovering drug addicts gathered together in a safe house, where various tensions involving their past lives together come into play. Shot on grainy video that both draws out the period setting and heightens the gritty atmosphere, “Stinking Heaven” is an unofficial companion piece to this year’s other unsettling tale of New York drug addiction, “Heaven Knows What.”
But while that movie found urban junkies wandering the metropolitan landscape in search of shelter, “Stinking Heaven” focuses on the process that unfolds once said shelter is found — and it’s not pretty: Even when two characters (played by Henri Douvry and Eleonore Hendricks) seem to find solace in love, their disparate ages are only one of several complicating factors that no amount of communal support can resolve. Silver’s intricately tattered portrait of broken lives doesn’t go down easy, but it captures a series of emotionally charged moments with a heightened sense of realism that speaks to this emerging filmmaker’s developing skill. —EK
Writer-director Sean Baker has explored the lives of marginalized American characters in an ever-fascinating series of unorthodox projects. These have ranged from hustling lower class immigrants in “Take Out” and “Prince of Broadway” to the travails of a meandering porn actress in “Starlet,” for which Baker brought the same nuanced approach to an unlikely target. His latest movie “Tangerine” — the closing night selection of this year’s BAMCinemaFest — feels more in tune with the two earlier features, which is a very good thing: In this ramshackle and wildly entertaining romp, as two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles endure various dramas on Christmas eve, Baker once again manages to match underrepresented faces in American cinema with material that lets their personalities shine. Writer-director Sean Baker has explored the lives of marginalized American characters in an ever-fascinating series of unorthodox projects. These have ranged from hustling lower class immigrants in “Take Out” and “Prince of Broadway” to the travails of a meandering porn actress in “Starlet,” for which Baker brought the same nuanced approach to an unlikely target. His latest movie “Tangerine” feels more in tune with the two earlier features, which is a very good thing: In this ramshackle and wildly entertaining romp, as two transgender prostitutes in Los Angeles endure various dramas on Christmas eve, Baker once again manages to match underrepresented faces in American cinema with material that lets their personalities shine. Read the full review here. —EK
“Uncle Kent 2”
At first, “Uncle Kent 2” presents itself as a prolonged inside joke on the micro-budget American film scene — the kind of referential conceit with the capacity to please the same limited crowd familiar with the movies in question. But that barely gets to the essence of this deliriously strange and hilarious stoner comedy, which delivers one innovative dose of absurdity after another with a liberating energy that never slows down. In its relentless silliness, “Uncle Kent 2” provides the ultimate rebuke to formulaic storytelling, but it’s less heady than pure head trip. The story of animator Osborne’s peculiar attempts to make a sequel to Joe Swanberg’s 2011 comedy about Osborne’s life, “Uncle Kent 2” finds the character suffering from a strange condition in which he hears music in his head. Later, he heads to Comic Con, where the world literally falls apart all around him. Or something like that. Above all else, with a goofy, disorienting style, director Todd Rohal delivers a uniformly satisfying look at creative frustration. While not the most obvious commercial bet, “Uncle Kent 2” offers so much wacky fun its potential as a cult classic is undeniable. Read the full review here.
For tickets and showtimes, visit the site for BAMCinemaFest.