BAMcinemaFest is an indispensable annual moviegoing tradition. Its twelve-day program, drawn largely from early-year world-premiere free-for-alls such as the Berlinale, Sundance, and South by Southwest, favors excellence over abundance and even obscurity over fame — it’s a sort of Best Of compilation for the glut of the festival circuit. Its reputation remains unassailable: Now celebrating its ninth year, this modest yet prestigious festival, so shrewdly curated, so reliably comprehensive a treasury of contemporary American independent cinema, has become filmgoers’ most exhilarating annual opportunity for discovery, a glimpse of what’s really happening on the vanguard of the country’s movie screens.
As it nears the end of its first decade, the festival seems in conversation with its own history: Once-amateur filmmakers who have graced previous BAM lineups with shorts or debut features now return with seasoned and matured works — an occasion to reflect not only on the progress of individual talents but on the state of the American indie at large. It is always heartening to witness artists realizing their ambition and promise, and in addition to its customary array of under-the-radar curiosities, the 2017 edition of BAMcinemaFest happily affords precisely that.
Consider, for instance, Aaron Katz. The 35-year-old director, based in Portland, Oregon, made a name for himself in his early twenties with the pair of microbudget dramatic comedies he willed together in the mid-2000s, Quiet City and Dance Party USA, which are often credited, alongside Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha and Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth, as the genesis of mumblecore. But it was Katz’s third feature, Cold Weather — a linchpin of the inaugural BAMcinemaFest in 2010 — that established his distinctive style: the mumblecore mystery. His latest, Gemini, once again tells the story of an ordinary nobody (Lola Kirke, marvelous) pitched without warning into a pulpy, lurid whodunit, a larger-than-life noir teeming delightfully with hardboiled detectives, unseemly paparazzi, and double-crossing femmes fatales. An uncanny, exquisite synthesis of naturalism and genre, the film is a heady cocktail of high style and lo-fi whose sum effect is irresistible.
Stephen Cone charmed greatly with queer coming-of-age picture Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, a memorable constituent of the BAMcinemaFest lineup in 2015. This year he returns with a film ever more winning and agreeable: Princess Cyd, an endearing, full-hearted comedy of self-discovery and mentorship and love. Sporty, uninhibited teenager Cyd (Jessie Pinnick, from whom Cone coaxes a performance of yawning truth), a strain on her widowed single dad, descends for several summer weeks on the home of her rather more cerebral aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence), a novelist living in the suburbs of Chicago who is not especially familiar with the habits and whims of adolescent girls. The drama arises from clashes in the duo’s odd-couple sensibilities, but Cone, a deeply empathetic writer, cares too much for these characters to reduce them to sparring generational clichés; they feel like real people. I can think of no higher compliment than that the film’s warmth and generosity reminded me of the late Jonathan Demme.
Documentarian Nanfu Wang is new to BAMcinemaFest, but the festival has caught her on the rise: Her film Hooligan Sparrow, which premiered to rapturous praise at Sundance last January, went on to make the Academy Award shortlist for Best Documentary in 2016 and won a Peabody this April — not bad for a twentysomething film student at NYU. I Am Another You, her follow-up, seems bound for similarly effusive acclaim. The film begins as a kind of immersive nonfiction profile: Wang happens by chance upon a subject who interests her, a young drifter named Dylan — free-spirited and “homeless by choice,” he insists — and she chooses to live for several weeks with him on the streets, recording a life lived in obstinate defiance of social convention. But as Wang probes further, challenging her assumptions (and our own), she finds in Dylan not a charismatic vagabond but an addict in the throes of untreated mental illness. It’s a canny bit of human-interest reportage and criticism of the form at once.
Alex Ross Perry has been a fixture for rather a long while. His first feature, a very loose adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow staged and shot in the woods on 16mm and bearing the title Impolex, heralded the arrival of a serious, uncompromising voice — one that over the intervening years has continued to deepen. Perry’s gifts were confirmed by his second film, The Color Wheel, which screened in New York at BAMcinemaFest in 2012; his fourth, Queen of Earth, was BAM’s Centerpiece in 2015. Both films are terrific. Neither is anywhere near as good as Golden Exits, Perry’s fifth and best picture. This rapier-sharp, rock-heavy drama, a bravura portrait of marriage in mundane crisis, quakes with such urgency, such conviction, that it seems capable of no less than changing lives — its insights into matters of the heart are so astute and provocative that it might rent your own relationship asunder. Its wit and wisdom cannot be overstated. It is Perry’s masterpiece, and one of the finest American films I’ve seen in many years.
Lastly, a film by a director known not for his shorts or features, but for his video essays: Columbus, by kogonada — nom de guerre, styled all in lowercase, of the artist behind such beloved epics as Stanley Kubrick and One-Point Perspective and What Is Neorealism? for the Criterion Collection and the BFI. Columbus finds the essayist having graduated to filmmaking proper, though little about this robust indie drama, part Sixties Antonioni and part Garden State, suggests the work of a man who cuts together sizzle reels for a living. Columbus’s merits are visual and dramatic: kogonada proves a highly skilled director of actors (stars John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson both deliver superlative performances, rich in nuance and feeling) and a stylist with an exceptional eye (his laser-precise compositions, framed around the modernist architecture for which Columbia, Indiana, is renowned, are positively stunning). This is just the sort of film you expect to find at BAMcinemaFest — in other words, something not merely impressive, but in every respect a surprise.
BAMcinemaFest runs June 14–25.