There’s no better barometer of the climate of independent filmmaking in America than BAMcinemaFest. And there’s no better time for it than now. Many were surprised to learn recently that the New York Times, doubtless weary of the glorified home movies and feature-length vanity projects snapping up print real estate, had revised its traditional policy of reviewing every theatrical release in the city. (The Voice, too, now only reviews most new films.) It shouldn’t seem so surprising. A change was necessary: With more than a thousand features opening in New York every year, there are simply too many films. It’s easier than ever for the great ones to get lost in the deluge of notices.
The appeal of BAMcinemaFest has always been its curatorial acumen. The festival, now in its seventh year, trawls the glut and holds aloft the gleaming treasures — the rare films, the exemplars, whose brilliance makes the deluge worthwhile. It’s easy for moviegoers to resign themselves to mediocrity. (Think of Wallace Shawn’s diagnosis, in My Dinner With Andre, of the modern theater: The form has been “redefined in such a trivial way” that even the likably superficial is applauded as “pretty good.”) But greatness can be galvanizing: It can restore the faith. BAMcinemaFest, with its manageably small slate and emphasis, honed across each iteration, on quality over quantity and proven excellence over coveted premieres, offers something of an ideal cross-section of the American independent film. To take in this program is to glimpse, reliably, our indie cinema at its most essential and vibrant.
So let’s begin with the best of the best. With customary judiciousness, BAM’s programmers have reserved the honor of a centerpiece screening for the North American premiere of the festival’s best film, the startling, razor-sharp thriller Queen of Earth. Alex Ross Perry has a strong claim on being the most skillful young writer-director working in the United States today. Last year brought the clinching argument for the case, the sprawling, Roth-indebted masterpiece Listen Up Philip, but it was three years earlier, in 2011, that the talent was resoundingly announced: That was the year of his exquisite road comedy The Color Wheel — which played at BAMcinemaFest.
Queen of Earth, a genre film and what you might call an exercise in form, is a more marginal work than Philip. But even minor Perry outclasses most contemporary majors. Its thrills, conceived in the Polanski mold, are highly concentrated and deftly realized, registered on a heady pitch somewhere between Jacob’s Ladder and Knife in the Water. Largely a chamber piece for two women — Katherine Waterston and Elisabeth Moss, both excellent in hugely demanding roles — the film also welcomes, and indeed earns, Persona comparisons. This is vigorous, frightening, electrifying stuff.
As it happens, Queen of Earth isn’t the festival’s only top-notch thriller — hardly the most common mode for indie filmmakers. Karyn Kusama, director of Jennifer’s Body and, less memorably, Æon Flux, returns in triumph with The Invitation, a dinner-party mystery so sweat-inducingly tense that I could only watch it through laced fingers. The less revealed here about its inexhaustibly intriguing, slow-burn plot the better — and Kusama proves withholding to great effect — but suffice it to say that what begins as a somewhat ominous middle-class soiree soon transforms, irresistibly, into something rather more severe. Kusama gets exceptional mileage out of a narrow premise and one simple, almost theatrical set. And from her star, Logan Marshall-Green, she coaxes a performance of surprising depth.
Another strong performance is at the heart of Sebastián Silva’s beguiling thriller-hybrid Nasty Baby — and it happens to be Silva’s own. The Chilean filmmaker, whose wonderful drug comedy Crystal Fairy screened at BAMcinemaFest in 2013, wrote, directed, and stars in his latest effort. At first glance Nasty Baby seems only to be about a young man (Silva) helping to inseminate a single friend (Kristen Wiig) eager to get pregnant. Then it morphs into something else entirely: an eerie, fevered horror picture that, like several of Silva’s earlier features, has smart, serious things to say about class, race, and the ways we think about mental illness. It isn’t always clear what Silva is up to. But I certainly like it.
I’m sure many people saw, and even quite liked, Joe Swanberg’s Uncle Kent, a chronicle of the banal life of animator and Adventure Time writer Kent Osborne — but were its fans clamoring for a sequel? Perhaps not, and yet here’s Osborne and Swanberg with Uncle Kent 2. But this is no mere follow-up. It’s a profound expansion of, and meta meditation on, an unabashedly obscure film, zooming out from mumblecore’s characteristic solipsism to take the long view on independent cinema, modern technology, and the drab expanse of the slacker life. It starts with Osborne, once again under Swanberg’s direction, musing, joint in hand, on a concept for the very film we’re watching. But after twelve minutes (as a witty title card informs us), Swanberg is swapped out for Todd Rohal, and a familiarly low-key, naturalistic New York indie mutates into something keyed-up and ludicrously over-the-top. Scarcely are sequels so ambitious — or so original.
Sean Baker’s Tangerine closes the festival. With Starlet, from 2012, Baker told the story of a porn star without any of the judgment or thinly veiled condescension filmmakers typically bring to the subject. That same generosity is the defining feature of Tangerine, which marches into the representational minefield of a transgender sex-worker comedy and emerges on the other side proudly unscathed. The heroes are Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who set out on Christmas Eve on a fervid (if ridiculous) manhunt across Santa Monica Boulevard for Chester (James Ransone), the pimp boyfriend Sin-Dee learns has been cheating. Baker stages the chase as a breezy, farcical adventure, and the energy and vitality of the film, cranked to the max from beginning to end, is completely infectious.
June 17–28, BAM