The 2018 BAMcinemaFest, the 10th edition of the annual festival, kicked off Wednesday and runs until Sunday, July 1st. It has, over the last decade, established itself as one of the best, most daringly curated selections of American independent filmmaking that moviegoers could ask for, undoubtedly the borough’s perennial apogee for new cinema. This year’s slate is, unsurprisingly, replete with excellent films from exciting filmmakers, both neophytes and veterans, culling highlights from less consistent smorgasbords like Sundance (Madeline’s Madeline, Sorry to Bother You, Leave No Trace) and South by Southwest (The Gospel of Eureka, Support the Girls, Relaxer), while picking up a few choice cuts from Locarno (Distant Constellation) and Rotterdam (The Pain of Others). Mixed in with these festival season holdovers are a handful of world premieres: The first collaborative feature from three Reverse Shot critics (Feast of the Epiphany); New York-based filmmaker Aaron Schimberg’s second feature (Chained for Life); and a new film from BAM alums Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn (Two Plains & a Fancy). Check out the fest’s full schedule and lineup, and look for our second dispatch next week.
In an independent film scene that too often evinces a paucity of imagination, Feast of the Epiphany — directed by Reverse Shot editors Michael Koresky, Jeff Reichert, and staff writer Farihah Zaman — displays a refreshingly protean ambition. The film leaps from a disorienting blend of actors’ screen tests and dramatic line readings to a domestic gathering sketched in snatches of dialogue and bathed in prismatic light. And that’s just the prelude to the main event: an intimate, Brooklyn-set dinner party (observed from its lavish preparation to its closing emotional swell) that transitions, abruptly and decisively, to the fields of Roxbury Farm, a community agriculture space limned in sensorially rich passages (indicative of Reichert and Zaman’s background in documentary). What’s achieved is a delicate interplay between constituent, subtly connected parts which don’t fuse together so much as vibrate in expectation, creating generative flashes of recognition in the process. The sensation is an elusive but recognizable one, of having grasped onto something that somehow feels greater than it is; of being unable to articulate why, and yet knowing with certainty that it is so. Dig deeper. You don’t know what you may find. Lawrence Garcia
Beware the pseudo-experimental feature film that begins with a declaration that ‘this is a metaphor.’ Madeline’s Madeline is the third feature film directed by Josephine Decker, but you’d never guess it based on how amateurish much of it is; the cinematography is blurry, murky, and wavers in and out of focus for no discernible reason other than to proclaim this is subjective. Long scenes of actors performing experimental theater exercises grow tiresome quickly, and have no formal or narrative value. The entire project feels like hours of coverage ham-fistedly edited together with no grace or rhythm. Decker does better work with actors: Molly Parker and Miranda July give good performances for the material they’ve been given, although neither can quite shape an actual character out of it. As Madeline, newcomer Helena Howard is shockingly good, especially given some of the nonsense she’s required to do. She gives a full-blooded, fearless performance, but the film ultimately fails her hard work, succumbing to easy ‘is this all in her head’ clichés. Decker strives for an epiphany, settles for fake transcendence. Daniel Gorman
Debra Granik‘s new film works best when it doesn’t allow the purity of its empathy to get in the way of its critique of the systems that let down its central pair, the PTSD-suffering war veteran Will (Ben Foster) and his 13 year-old daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). The two endeavor to sustain an existence away from the machinations of society in a forested Portland park, and an early scene of Will being administered a 435-question personality test suggests Granik’s intention to expose the inadequacies of the institutions that this country relies on to reintegrate the disenfranchised. But this becomes merely a marginal theme of Leave No Trace, which is fine if you don’t think a film following the social problems exacerbated by America’s two wars has the responsibility to be more assertively political. As Will’s PTSD takes on a greater presence in the narrative, and as Granik’s survivalist two-hander swells into a fuller portrait of America’s lower class and its alternative economies, the broad strokes of humanism here feel a bit too simplistic. What saves the film, then, is the strength of its two leads, and the intricacies of the relationship between them. Foster in particular does career-best work in a role that gives the actor’s usual tics, and the barely suppressed anxieties governing them, an acute emotional and psychological focus. Sam C. Mac
Robert Greene (Actress, Kate Plays Christine) continues his string of remarkable documentaries with Bisbee ’17, an account of the town of Bisbee, Arizona coming to terms with a 100 year-old trauma. In 1917, the town sheriff oversaw the forced deportation of thousands of copper miners who were trying to organize a workers’ union. Divided into six chapters, Bisbee ’17 starts as a kind of variation on Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s 24 City: Testimonials are given on the town’s history and there are conflicting opinions on how necessary the forced deportation was. As Greene’s film progresses, the focus narrows to Bisbee’s preparations for an official reenactment of the deportation, with townspeople playing versions of their historical ancestors — an event suspended somewhere between celebration and a kind of moral reckoning. Greene intersperses reenactment sequences with voiceovers from the townspeople/actors, who comment on the action as it unfolds in a bold, heightened synthesis of authenticity and deliberate artifice. It’s impossible to watch Bisbee ’17 and not think about our current political landscape: The town of Bisbee itself is a small blue dot in the ocean of red that is Arizona. Perhaps in 100 years, the country as a whole will be willing to wrestle with what’s happening at our borders right now as well. DG
Relaxer sticks to a grim formalist gimmick that exhausts its visual ideas by about the halfway mark, leaving director Joel Potrykus to indulge the worst aspects of his gross-out nihilistic style. Ne’er-do-well/serial quitter Abbie (Joshua Burge) sets himself the “challenge” of beating level 256 in Pac-Man and resolves to not get up from his brother’s couch until this is accomplished. Potrykus, then, confines his film to the space of a studio apartment, where Abbie’s communication with the outside world is limited to the occasional visit from a friend. Relaxer consists mostly of long static takes (and the occasional pan) and means to force viewers to endure the same restrictions as Abbie. But what isn’t present is any sense of the weight or repercussions that might make this story feel connected to a lived reality. By largely cutting Abbie off from others, his actions don’t serve to build any relationships, and instead feel like mundanely strung together vignettes of miserablism. Even Abbie himself comes off as a contrivance, a character given little interiority beyond the physical and psychological pain of his ordeal (mention is made of a possible trauma in his family life, but even that seems to be written off as a cruel joke). The greatest challenge in Relaxer, then, comes not from any diegetic circumstance, but from trying to sit through the film in its entirety. Paul Attard
Bridey Elliott casts her comedian-actress sister (Abby Elliott), her character-actor father (Chris Elliott), and herself as three members of a preening showbiz family. But the title role in Clara’s Ghost is played by the director’s mother (Paula Niedert Elliott), whose character is, like the actress portraying her, not a celebrity. The film plays like a therapy session; the estranged family reunites (to celebrate their dog’s birthday), and what starts as light bickering devolves into near-lunacy. To manifest the extent of Clara’s emotional distress within this dynamic, Elliott often resorts to obvious jabs at the toxic vanity of celebrity culture. That perspective seems justified in the context of this meta-experiment of a film, but it also hampers a sense of emotional resonance — and makes for frustratingly blunt humor. What elevates Elliott’s film are some occasional aesthetic flourishes: In an early scene, a montage of Clara dancing abruptly changes its tone by silencing the film’s score, and turning what was an energized montage into a pathetic expression of loneliness. Generally, Clara’s Ghost doesn’t imbue its ideas with enough nuance, but there’s still a refreshing authenticity and understanding to the dynamic being explored — even despite the obnoxious, bound-to-embody-the-pitfalls-of-fame family-tribe at the film’s center. Jason Ooi
Morgellons is a mysterious illness whose sufferers claim causes horrible breakouts, hair loss, and most curiously, the growth of strange, multi-colored fibers that protrude from the skin. It’s very painful and its victims unsurprisingly often manifest severe anxiety and depression. It’s also very likely entirely psychosomatic. The Pain of Others, a fascinating documentary from director Penny Lane, is comprised almost entirely of homemade testimonials and video blogs from four women who are afflicted by this syndrome. The film makes no attempt to solve the mystery of Morgellons, or to offer any evidence for or against the diagnoses of its subjects; their pain is completely apparent, no matter if the source is bacterial or an allergic reaction, or some mental illness, or even out-and-out narcissism (all of which are quietly, but never unequivocally, suggested). Lane merely sees people whose pain demands a response. Matt Lynch