It seems even more apparent, in retrospect, that BAMcinemafest’s fifth anniversary in 2013 represented something of a grand slam for American film programming, tapping into the vanguard of contemporary cinema and boasting some of the most exciting independent features to premiere in New York all year. It should come as no surprise, then, that the festival returns this week in its sixth iteration offering more of the same. What accounts for this consistency? BAM’s shrewd curatorial strategy, cherry-picking highlights from the indiscriminate sprawl of early festivals like Sundance and True/False, offers advantages over the approach preferred by festivals more inclined to snatch up world premieres: Critical opinion has in most cases already been registered, leaving BAM with enviable lineups composed of the festival circuit’s all-stars. Here are a few standouts among the standouts.
This is perhaps the closest a contemporary film has come to replicating the unbridled jubilance of a classic screwball comedy, thanks as much to a sharply written script as to the exquisite performances of the two leads, who have created here a truly great screen romance. Noah (Lawrence Michael Levine) and Barri (Sophia Takal) live together in an apartment in Brooklyn, where somebody, Barri suspects, has murdered their elderly neighbor. So it is that the newly engaged pair become amateur detectives out to charm and bicker their way through a homegrown homicide case, alternately sleuthing and wisecracking with comic panache in the tradition of The Thin Man‘s Nick and Nora Charles. The joke at the heart of Wild Canaries is that it’s easier to solve crimes than relationship problems, a point that resonates all the more deeply when you consider that Takal and Levine are married in real life. (He wrote and directed; she produced.) If this were the 1930s, the world would soon be clamoring for these two to star together in another picture. The least we can hope for is a sequel.
L for Leisure
There’s much to be said for the fine art of repose, even if we’re trained from working age to regard rest and relaxation as indulgences. Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn’s sublime comedy L For Leisure takes all manner of idleness very seriously, and one of its most refreshing qualities is how it makes chilling out look guiltlessly appealing. “Mellowness” is the concept invoked most often here, perhaps not so much a physical state as a way of life, and the film is quick to help induce the feeling, sinking us lazily into a world of high-noon cocktails and perpetual beachside luminosity set, fittingly, in the halcyon slacker days of the early 1990s. It’s all quite irresistible. Kalman and Horn, no less laid-back themselves, are not particularly interested in telling a story, and so their film prefers to drift, lingeringly, from one episode of casual intellectualism to the next; the effect is a bit like cycling through Whit Stillman movies over drinks. Their approach affords them plenty of time for aesthetic pleasures: from shimmering Californian vistas to patio-bound three-shots in the woods, this is a film with no shortage of beauty. Soak it in at your leisure.
Approaching the Elephant
At the Teddy McArdle Free School in Little Falls, New Jersey, the children do more or less as they please, while the teachers flail in private agony as they learn the ropes of education. Madness? Perhaps, but also a social experiment worthy of study, and it is to rather extraordinary effect in Amanda Rose Wilder’s debut feature. Wilder, armed only with a camera and a penchant for self-effacement, embedded herself within the McArdle School to chronicle its tumultuous inaugural year, and the result is so intense a portrait of disorder and power among adolescents that it often feels like a suburban riff on Lord of the Flies (replete with a makeshift conch). The McArdle take on nontraditional schooling emphasizes personal freedom, and, in the school’s early days, students are found enjoying the luxury of learning without restraint or structure. But it isn’t long before freedom curdles into chaos, and it’s from this turbulence that the film derives much of its visceral power. Wilder remains on the frontlines through it all, quietly observing, wisely leaving us to measure the success of this exercise in alternative education without explicit editorial judgment. We never once hear her voice. The silence is deafening.
The Heart Machine
It’s rather too tempting, given its emphasis on Skype, smartphones, and social media, to frame Zachary Wigon’s The Heart Machine merely in terms of what it has to say about our relationship with technology. (Writer-director Wigon is a Village Voice contributor.) True, the framework of the story seems resolutely modern: Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) conduct their transcontinental romance exclusively online until the former, perhaps a bit of a paranoiac, begins to suspect that their relationship isn’t quite so long distance after all. But its concerns are deeper, and more richly psychological, than merely trendy probings of the zeitgeist. The Heart Machine, at its best, is a remarkably elegant genre film, a Pakulian thriller amply charged by anxiety and unease. Scrutinizing recorded conversations and Facebook photos like a millennial Harry Caul from The Conversation, Cody finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy that may, Wigon suggests, be at least partly of his own design (a descent into delusion made credible, crucially, by Gallagher, who proves excellent as a twentysomething driven nearly mad by Google-fueled suspicion).
Also strongly recommended: The intriguing and elusive picaresque Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, about a woman’s quest to find the prop cash from Fargo; John Magary’s blistering comic-drama The Mend, a punch to the gut that’s brawny, sprawling, and appealingly overzealous; Happy Valley, a refreshingly measured look at the Joe Paterno scandal that probes America’s aversion to nuance; Jennifer Reeder’s singular short feature A Million Miles Away, a cross between a feminist rock opera and the fever dreams of Inland Empire; and the provocative Evolution of a Criminal, in which filmmaker Darius Clark Monroe confronts the fallout of a bank robbery he committed 10 years earlier.
credit: Images courtesy bam.org
cutline: Wild Canaries‘ Alia Shawkat and Sophia Takal make like a tree. Inset: L for Leisure