Film

Kiss Kiss Bam Bam: Fall in Love With America’s Most Quietly Prestigious Film Festival

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BAMcinemaFest, the unassuming independent film festival, is now in its eighth year, and over the course of that near-decade has become quietly, even improbably, illustrious. It’s hardly a star-graced red-carpet affair. It’s never enjoyed French Riviera glamour or voguish world premieres. There are no black-tie galas or paparazzi photocalls or rafts of complimentary Champagne. But conferred upon the BAMcinemaFest’s yearly program is a degree of prestige that can pluck the gifted from obscurity or parlay promise into a career. For eight years the festival has afforded New York a glimpse of the best the American cinema has to offer. To simply be programmed here means a great deal.

The cachet has a lot to do with pedigree. Some of the finest, most celebrated films in recent memory, American or otherwise, were introduced to me at BAMcinemaFest: Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess, John Magary’s The Mend, Sean Baker’s Tangerine, Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel and Queen of Earth. By now BAM’s curatorial acumen is trustworthy enough that any screening promises at least to be interesting. Our official recommendation? See everything, if you can afford to. If nothing else, you’ll be comprehensively acquainted with the state of independent film.

But narrow things down we must. Not to be missed, particularly on the big screen, is The Love Witch, by the rather formidably multitalented Anna Biller — who not merely wrote, directed, and produced the film, but also edited it, composed its score, decorated its sets, designed its costumes, and managed its art direction and production design, all of which she’s overseen with the meticulousness and rigor of Wes Anderson. The Love Witch is a sort of retro throwback modeled on the stylized European exploitation films of the 1960s. Biller shot it, ravishingly, on 35mm and furnished every frame with uncanny precision; the result really could pass as a relic of the era. That it’s quite funny and charming seems almost beside the point. I’m keen to watch it again just to luxuriate in it.

Less sumptuous, perhaps, though no less fine, is the chamber piece A Woman, a Part, the narrative feature debut of much-acclaimed interdisciplinarian Elisabeth Subrin, known mainly for her conceptual art and video installations. You might expect a figure from the avant-garde to bring an experimental sensibility to bear on a fiction feature, but A Woman, a Part is quite straightforward: It concerns the star of a mildly popular television series — Maggie Siff, of Mad Men and Billions — in the throes of an identity crisis and career-jeopardizing depression. Fed up with a success that looks to her increasingly like mediocrity, she flees Los Angeles and returns to New York, and to the friends — Cara Seymour and John Ortiz — who in her rise to fame she left behind. Subrin proves a gifted director of actors, and the film, in its small-scale theatrical vigor, is an excellent showcase for its leads.

Acting is the subject — one of many — of Robert Greene’s beguiling Kate Plays Christine. Greene has done more than any modern filmmaker to interrogate the documentary form, and it will come as no surprise to admirers of his previous feature, Actress, that Kate Plays Christine is as challenging as it is elusive. The topic here can’t help but intrigue: Christine Chubbuck, an obscure newscaster in Florida, shot and killed herself live on air one morning in 1974 — an event this film investigates, scrutinizes, and methodically reinterprets. What to conclude? For an hour I was fairly certain I was watching the greatest nonfiction film I’d seen in many years. By the end I wasn’t sure what to think at all. In any case I have been contemplating it, and talking about it, nearly constantly for several weeks, and I don’t expect the arguments to abate anytime soon. Don’t deprive yourself of the experience.

At the zenith of this year’s festival is Little Sister, an eccentric, earnest, blackly comic family screwball from Zach Clark — and the best new movie I’ve seen this year. Clark’s last feature, a wonderfully antisentimental Christmas picture called White Reindeer, was a surprise highlight of BAMcinemaFest 2013 and announced him as a rare clear voice amid the mumblecore cacophony — a fan of punchy, stylized comedies at a time when the fashion tended toward the understated and drab. Little Sister finds Clark’s signature brio refined and amplified. Colleen (Addison Timlin, excellent) is an aspiring young nun with twenty years of goth gear and Gwar shows in her past. She’s happily estranged from her dysfunctional family in North Carolina, but when she learns that her brother, a veteran seriously disfigured in Iraq, has returned home and is in a bad way, she heads back to help — a job which proves rather more demanding than her customary relief efforts. Clark is one of the most profoundly empathetic filmmakers to ever point his camera at the delinquent and underserved, and his portrait of communion among the weird, equal parts heartfelt and volatile, excludes no one, whether burnout or crust-punk, sister or stoner. This is just the sort of discreetly radical vision that is the bread and butter of BAMcinemaFest. It’s where the low-profile meets the sublime.

Also recommended: Ti West’s cheapie spaghetti western In a Valley of Violence, featuring Ethan Hawke and the always great James Ransone, who hams it up gloriously as the petulant small-town bully with a six-shooter; The Alchemist Cookbook, a lean and mean curio by Buzzard director Joel Potrykus; and Kim A. Snyder’s documentary Newtown, exactly as devastating as you’d expect, given the subject.

BAMcinemaFest

June 15–26, BAM