My favorite four films from Independent Film Festival Boston 2013, in alphabetical order:
The Act of Killing Mass murderers from Indonesian death squads set out to make a film about their defense of the nation from communists, but it turns into something completely different. One of the toughest things to watch since Once Were Warriors — my legs were literally shaky as I left the theatre. Moments of shocking candor from the killers — their comfort with director Joshua Oppenheimer is astounding, completely-off-the-charts levels of cognitive dissonance, leavened by a certain weird grotesque beauty in the increasingly surreal film the gangsters are making. Days later thoughts about it are still swirling around in my head.
The Dirties This film about two persecuted high school students making a movie about their fantasies of getting revenge on their bullies is provocative, compelling, and very, very funny. Heart-in-mouth through the final sequence. Extraordinary performances from director Matthew Johnson and co-star Owen Williams.
Much Ado About Nothing Bias disclosure: I’m a fan of several of Whedon’s projects, but not at the Joss-can-do-no-wrong level. I had fairly high expectations for this modern-dress version with many of Whedon’s usual suspects, and it exceeded them, partly due to some very smart staging decisions, the gorgeous sets (the film is at least partly a lovenote to Whedon’s own home, which deserves lovenotes) but mostly due to breakout performances from Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker, showing off, respectively, a gift for broad physical comedy and emotional intensity that I hadn’t seen from them before.
Sightseers A demented, blackly hilarious and veddy, veddy British roadtrip flick, perhaps a bit like The League of Gentlemen set free to terrorize the general populace. Director Ben Wheatley displays gleeful unflinchingness, but it was the chemistry between writer/stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram that commanded my sympathies through some very odd turns.
Other films from Independent Film Festival Boston 2013, that I really liked, in alphabetical order:
Exit Elena Nathan Silver’s loose, largely improvised family comedy/drama is much enlivened by Kia Davis’s title role performance of a nurse who’s less stable than she initially appears. Quirky, but not cutesy.
Houston Bastion Gunther’s increasingly surreal story of a German businessman (Ulrich Tukur) losing himself in Houston and in alcohol is characterized by deliberate pacing, gorgeous, somewhat chilly, cinematography, leavened a bit by the just-shy-of-over-the-top obnoxiousness of Garret Dillahunt as Tukur’s American foil Robert (”like the actor!”) Wagner, and ably supported by a cannily chosen soundtrack (plenty of Neu!).
In a World. . . I know writer/director/star Lake Bell from Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital, which has mutated from a funny-but-obvious parody of medical dramas and soap operas into a meta-comedy that takes more chances than Community. In a World. . . doesn’t offer a feature-length swatch of Children’s Hospital-level insanity; it has a far more conventional plot arc. But it explores professional rivalry in a domain that hasn’t been done to death (or at all, as far as I’m aware), displays a penchant for simultaneous conversation that rivals Lynn Shelton, has some very funny cameo bits, and a solid, unambiguous, but not shrill, feminist core. I liked it very much.
Our Nixon Found footage emerged as a theme in IFFB 2013, and this unusual documentary was the strangest instance of that: the found footage comprises Super 8 reels shot by H.R. Haldeman, John Erlichman, and (lesser-known Nixon aide) Dwight Chapin. The footage is juxtaposed with audio from Nixon’s tapes. Director Penny Lane chose not to shoot or record any additional material. Our Nixon is a bravura triumph both of archival research and editing.
The Punk Singer Sini Anderson’s biography of Kathleen Hanna, co-founder of the Riot Grrl and leader of Bikini Kill, one of the movement’s most emblematic bands, features recent interviews with Hanna and her husband Adam Horovitz, the voices of a generous sampling of Hanna’s peers as well as trailblazers like Kim Gordon and Joan Jett, and some pretty terrific performance footage.
Remote Area Medical Directors Farihah Zaman and Jeff Reichert steer clear of explicit politics in their examination of a pop-up clinic’s weekend-long stay in Bristol Tennessee, but I can’t imagine watching this film and not concluding that our medical care infrastructure is fundamentally failing a lot of people. The film is so effective at conveying its message that most of the Q&A session after the film was about RAM and its work — I thought that was a bit of a shame, since it overshadowed the impressive editing (and logistical) accomplishments of these two young filmmakers.
The Spectacular Now I spent the first act or so of this film wanting life to punch underachieving Sutter Keely in his smug face, but Miles Teller’s performance (and Scott Neustatder and Michael Weber’s nuanced script) eventually won me over. Director James Ponsoldt said he didn’t see it as a story of addiction, just an attempt to tell a realistic story about teens, but it’s hard for me not to see booze as the third point in the triangle between Keely and Aimee Finicky (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants). Regardless, I thought it was good. Quibble: There is one moment where most of the audience seemed a little unclear on what had happened, and if I were the studio, I’d urge a pickup shot to explain it a bit better.
Willow Creek Bobcat Goldthwait’s loveletter to bigfoot lore is not a scary/funny movie, it’s a funny movie that abruptly turns into a serious scary movie, and when it does, it’s often seriously scary. There were a few moments where I had to remind myself it was only a movie. On balance I liked the funny part better, in part because once the film commits to horror it becomes a bit more conventional (although there are some very smart touches that I can’t discuss without being spoilery, but definitely appreciated). And I thought the chemistry between principals Bryce Johnson as bigfoot-obsessed Jim and Alexie Gilmore as skeptical-but-game girlfriend Kelly was terrific.