BAMcinemaFest Opts to Be Unlikable and Thought-Provoking


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Elisabeth Moss in “Queen of Earth,” at BAMcinemaFest.

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IFC Films

At six years old, BAMcinemaFest is less encumbered by hype and expectation than other, more established festivals. It shares independent-film DNA (and a few high-profile films) with Sundance, but it doesn’t inspire the same level of hand-wringing about the State of Indie. Nor does it mimic the busyness and buzz — or the corporate slickness — of Tribeca. Even though its native turf in Brooklyn is highly contested, newly glamorous cultural space, the festival is defined by an aesthetic of intellectual curiosity, understated ambition and easygoing eclecticism. You go to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, see some movies, and wander into Fort Greene afterward, looking for a pint of craft beer and a place to sit and talk about what you saw.

This time around you are likely to have witnessed a fair amount of sitting and talking, not all of it pleasant and relaxed. If a dominant mood could be detected from the 23 features that make up the program beginning on Wednesday, it might be claustrophobic intimacy. People have a way of getting stuck in one another’s company, and the results are variously awkward, painful, terrifying and funny, sometimes all at once.

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Trailer: BAMCinemaFest

A preview for the festival.


By Brooklyn Academy of Music on Publish Date June 16, 2015.


Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley are ideological antagonists yoked by the political skirmishes of the 1960s in “Best of Enemies,” a documentary by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville that is one of several selections with a literary bent. The transgender streetwalkers in “Tangerine” — Sean Baker’s remarkable feature, shot entirely with an iPhone — are friends joined in the search for an unfaithful lover during a supremely hectic Los Angeles day. The characters in “The Invitation,” directed by Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight,” “Jennifer’s Body”), are trapped at a dinner party that starts out weird, grows wildly inappropriate and then seems to be headed for a blood bath. Through it all, the guests try to stick to accepted codes of behavior, even when they can’t figure out what those are or whether they still apply.

A less extreme version of that predicament afflicts the two main characters in the opening film, James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour,” which throws Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel together as two writers named David, both of them real people. Mr. Eisenberg is David Lipsky, whose Rolling Stone assignment to profile Mr. Segel’s David — the novelist David Foster Wallace, that is — is the basis of the film. Its scale is small and specific: While Mr. Ponsoldt explores themes as large and abstract as the logic of literary fame and the nature of novelistic truth, he is focused on the details of the strange dynamic that emerges between a journalist and his subject.

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Trailer: ‘Tangerine’

A working girl tears through Tinseltown on Christmas Eve searching for the pimp who broke her heart.


By Magnolia Pictures on Publish Date May 6, 2015.


Photo by Magnolia Pictures.

And I’ve rarely seen a writer portrayed with the kind of painstaking empathy Mr. Segel brings to his role. I’ll leave it to those who knew Wallace personally (he died in 2008) to gauge the accuracy of the portrait, and I’ll leave the work of evaluating its color and texture to a later review. But I can only admire a movie so interested in writing and reading, and in the exploration of a hugely talented writer’s mind and sensibility.

Another famous interview is the subject of Stephen Winter’s “Jason and Shirley,” a movie that attaches itself to a host film — Shirley Clarke’s 1967 documentary “Portrait of Jason” — like an exceptionally benevolent and loving parasite. Clarke’s documentary is one of the great character studies in American cinema, an extended visit with Jason Holliday, a 42-year-old African-American gay hustler whose candor, charm and volatility are unforgettable. Mr. Winter reconstructs the shooting of “Jason and Shirley,” casting the writer Sarah Schulman as Clarke and the remarkable Jack Waters as her interlocutor. The result is a fascinating hybrid. It’s self-contained drama that feels like a documentary, and a historical re-enactment that seems to be happening in the present even as it offers astute commentary on the past.

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Jack Waters in “Jason and Shirley,” which reconstructs the shooting of a 1967 documentary.

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Courtesy of the filmmaker

Immediacy is not everything — craft and detachment have their place in the arsenal of filmmaking techniques — but it is central to the BAMcinemaFest aesthetic. “Realism” is an inadequate term for a style that insists on the abrasiveness of experience. Alex Ross Perry, whose second feature, “The Color Wheel,” was a provocative standout here four years ago, is hardly a realist. His sense of satire is too mischievous and his absorption of influences too overt and self-conscious. “Listen Up Philip,” his pocket epic of literary bad manners, was one of last year’s most inspiring unpleasant releases. He has followed it with “Queen of Earth,” a psychological drama about disintegrating friendship that plays like a horror movie.

Set in a quiet country house near a lake, “Queen of Earth” stars Katherine Waterston and Elisabeth Moss (who also appeared in “Listen Up Philip”) as old friends locked in a passive-aggressive battle of wills. Catherine, Ms. Moss’s character, has just endured a humiliating breakup, and her personality seems to have fractured along with her heart. The sound design, the musical score and the camera movements conjure an atmosphere of paranoia. The dread of something terrible — violence, monsters, ghosts — lurks in every shot.

The source of this terror will be an interesting topic of discussion. Is Catherine losing her mind? Is her friend, Ginny (Ms. Waterston), driving her nuts on purpose? Is Ginny the crazy one? And — if I can switch movies — what about Krisha? She’s the title character (played with unnerving zest and deep pain by Krisha Fairchild) in Trey Edward Shults’s simultaneously loose-jointed and suffocating observation of a stressful Thanksgiving.

The family-dysfunction holiday drama may not be the freshest genre, but “Krisha” has its own special vortex of chaos and miscommunication. Mr. Shults sucks you into it slowly, and after a while escaping feels to you, as it does to the members of the film’s extended family, both necessary and unthinkable.

It’s a movie that hooks you by setting off your flight reflex. I mean that as praise, and also as an observation about an interesting tendency in independent filmmaking. The movies at BAMcinemaFest are not interested in luring or soothing or seducing an audience. They don’t place much of a premium on the likability of characters of the accessibility of themes. At their best, they dare you to keep watching, and they give you plenty to talk about over that beer.



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