Opening tonight with the New York premiere of Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s highly anticipated coming-of-age tale, the sixth incarnation of BAMcinemaFest finds the festival itself approaching maturity. Boasting a strong slate of new and emerging independent films — Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer as that new type of indie feature, the summertime heavyweight — programmers have generously peppered the fest with some welcome backward looks: a 25th anniversary screening of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, a mini Les Blank retrospective, and a new restoration of the graffiti documentary cum elegy, Stations of the Elevated.
Blank, who passed away last April from bladder cancer, was an outstanding, unorthodox chronicler of American quintessence and the off-beat: blues, food, flower children, Cajun country, and, of course, Werner Herzog. In addition to Burden of Dreams, his behind-the-scenes documentary of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (and one of the the greatest filmed mediations on artistic struggle), Blank also captured the German filmmaker gladly owning up to a lost bet made to Errol Morris: Morris made his seminal Gates of Heaven and Herzog ate his shoe. Unambiguously titled, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe is one-third of a trio of trenchant, quirky films screening for free Thursday night (June 19), which also includes a portrait of Texas bluesman, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and another of garlic, that favorite of pungent spices — a nice little appetizer to wipe up some interest for BAMcinématek’s forthcoming, much desired Les Blank retrospective later this year.
As for new releases, upon which BAMcinemaFest really earns its reputation as a superior, if still slightly intimate film festival, there are a number of exciting and curious new efforts — all of them New York premieres.
Boyhood and Snowpiercer, already indie darlings by this point, lead the way, but beyond them a host of films, many of which will may not enjoy such high profile screenings again, will reward the fest goer who looks beyond the big names.
Coming out in the same year as a celebrated television adaptation of Fargo, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, uses the source material in a utterly different, surprising manner. It’s a closely watched profile of unhinged obsession in the case of Kumiko, an office worker- turned-adventurer who drops everything to seek out the briefcase of money left in the Midwest snow in the Coen Brothers’ classic. Funny and majestic, Kumiko is led by an astounding turn by Rinko Kikuchi as the movie’s titular, preternaturally driven character.
And what independent fest these days would be complete without an appearance from indie and mumblecore maven Joe Swanberg, who not only does double duty, directing and starring in his own Happy Christmas, but also plays the lead in Josephine Decker’s Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. Lena Dunham, whose own breakout film, Tiny Furniture, graced a BAMcinemaFest of the past, joins Swanberg and Anna Kendrick in Happy Christmas’s well-acted and mature take on familial disorder. WhereasThou Wast Mild and Lovely trades the city for the farm, mining a similar but decidedly more erotic, portentous bedrock of interpersonal relationships.
Two debut feature films offer interesting, new introductions: Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s (Roger Ebert’s hand picked choice for a revived edition of At the Movies) Ellie Lumme. Both featuring 20-something female leads, most of their similarities end about there, with Desiree Akhavan starring in her deadpan comedy as a bisexual Iranian-American in the lurch mentally and geographically (taking place in a bewildering Brooklyn) following a painful breakup. Ellie Lumme is, by contrast, a knotty psychological tale, an almost supernatural story of the relationship between Ellie and a slightly order, stranger man.
Rounding out the fest is a solid set of documentaries examining violence, identity, race, and myth. The Notorious Mr. Bout follows the so-called “Merchant of Death,” international gun runner Viktor Bout. Concerning Violence is Göran Hugo Olsson’s follow-up to his archival-musical-essay,The Black Power Mixtape 1967—1975, succeeding that documentary’s candid, clear-eyed, music laden review of the Black Power movement in America with a broad survey of African decolonization and revolution, this time set to tune of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. Even among such company, Darius Clark Monroe’s Evolution of a Criminal is the most compelling and revealing work. Convicted of robbery at 16, Monroe revisits his past—using his interviews with victims and friends as an avenue to explore, apologize, and confront his past decisions and the wide-reaching efforts they bore on his and an entire community’s history.
The Monday, June 23 screening of Evolution of a Criminal will feature a Q&A with the director, as do the majority of films running at BAMcinemaFest 2014, many of which are also preceded by a selected short film. Don’t fret, then, if you can’t see Boyhood, They Came Together, or Do the Right Thing. There’s a slew of other films and filmmakers to discover.
BAMcinemaFest 2014 runs June 18–29 at BAM (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn).