Brooklyn and beyond: BAMcinemaFest 2011

The academy's third annual in-house festival balances indies and oddities like a charm.

We're a little spoiled, us Gotham moviegoers, by the sheer amount of film festivals that take place in our fair city over the course of any given year. For every major event—New York Film Festival, Tribeca—there are close to a half-dozen second-tier smorgasbords (Film Comment Selects, New Directors/New Films), national-to-regional surveys (Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, New York Asian Film Festival, Open Roads) and specialty roundups (NewFest, DOC NYC, Migrating Forms) competing for entries and bleary eyeballs. That doesn't even take into account the smaller ongoing celebrations of subcultures and sub-subcultures that dot listings sections every week, or the notion that new NYC film fests have breeding rates equivalent to bunnies and cockroaches. When we joke that some fresh cinematic hoedown will probably be born before you've finished reading this paragraph, we're only half kidding.

The abundance of choices has also, admittedly, left us a little jaded. So much so that when the indispensable Brooklyn Academy of Music announced in 2009 that it was initiating its own annual moving-picture party—BAMcinemaFest—even the enthusiastic responses were laced with skepticism. "There are a lot of festivals here, to be sure," says BAMcinmatek program director Florence Almozini. "I understood that people might say, 'Another one? Really?!?' But I'd felt there wasn't a New York festival that was giving American independent films the spotlight they deserved; ND/NF includes a handful mixed in with the international titles, and that's about it. Even with venues like reRun filling that gap a bit, there's still a lot of great indie movies on the fest circuit that get passed by. We simply wanted to share these films we'd fallen in love with."

Two years after first blessing the outer borough with a brand-new calendar marker, BAMcinemaFest has carved out a nice niche for itself. Given that the series was a continuation of sorts from the organization's long and fruitful collaboration with the Sundance Film Festival, it was no surprise its inaugural lineup leaned heavily on borrowed Park City titles. In 2010, the focus shifted toward the micro-indies of SXSW; other than Aaron Katz's mumble-mystery Cold Weather, the bounty was scarce. The third edition (which kicks off Thu 16), however, seems to be the charm: With a stronger-than-usual mix from both fests and top-notch strays from other big-name events, 2011 could be the year this Brooklyn festival finds its footing.

Take, for example, two extraordinary documentaries culled from this year's Sundance: The Redemption of General Butt Naked and Senna. The first follows a notoriously brutal Liberian warlord, now a born-again Christian evangelist, returning to the scenes of his crimes in the hope that he can make amends. The more time filmmakers Daniele Anastasion and Eric Strauss spend with the former monster on his missions of mercy, the more complex such notions of postgenocide forgiveness and letting go of the past become. As for Senna, a stunning look at Formula One racing legend Ayrton Senna, British-Indian director Asif Kapadia immediately distinguishes his profile from the ESPN-hagiography pack by utilizing only vintage footage of the Brazilian speed demon. Interviews, contemporary or otherwise, are relegated to audio tracks playing over driver-seat POVs, press conferences and pole-positioning coverage—making the man and his mythic accomplishments on the track indistinguishable. Both docs mix the personal and the historical in unique, thrilling ways; you simply won't see better vrit this year.

Similarly, for all of this edition's low-budget, lo-fi picks that play like parodies of Amerindie noodling (The Woods, Surrogate Valentine, Green, Jess + Moss, The Color Wheel), the festival is also smart enough to include Septien, a Southern-fried domestic nightmare about a stoic sports hustler (writer-director Michael Tully, who—full disclosure—is an acquaintance) returning home to his eccentric brothers after a long absence. A secret lies at the center of this fucked-up beardo's wandering years, uncovered via quiet poetic-ruralism flourishes, peculiar acting out, the sudden appearance of a Randall Flagg--like messiah and the single most icky male-on-male suckling scene ever. It's equally disturbing and moving, with an oddball sensibility that's leagues apart from the usual hi-def hipster dross.

If you're looking for a festival MVP, however, the hands-down winner would be Tourne, Mathieu Amalric's trs funky road movie about an American neoburlesque troupe on an atrophying European tour. Playing the group's Barnumesque manager busily wrangling va-va-voom dancers and booking last-minute gigs, Amalric turns his pencil-mustached slickster into someone who's equal parts sympathetic and sleazy; as a director, he easily invokes a seamy side of showbiz and raw '70s cinema as a celebration of DIY spirit. (Attention to anyone thinking about mounting a Killing of a Chinese Bookie homage: This is how you do it right.) The film's win of the Best Director prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival was more than well deserved. It's inclusion in this year's BAMcinemaFest as a New York premiere is a nice feather in the event's cap, as well as proof (along with the fest's addition of the rarely revived 1961 British psychodrama Whistle Down the Wind, also a don't-miss) that its curators are willing to look beyond the Austin--Park City pale for something singularly sensational. Keep this up, BAM, and the majority of those other NYC fests will be left choking on your dust.

Four more to catch:

Last Days Here Mention the '70s band Pentagram around a certain subset of metalheads, and you'll see the biggest fit of fanboyish drooling this side of a Comic-Con event. A doomy American counterpart to Black Sabbath, this Vermont group benefited from frontman Bobby Liebling's charismatic yowling. The band could have been big, had Liebling not fallen down a wormhole of drugs and self-destructive behavior. Documentarian Don Argott (The Art of the Steal) and codirector Demian Fenton catch up with the middle-aged singer, as he tries to kick addiction and get his band back together for one last brass-ring shot. Imagine This Is Spinal Tap as a tragedy instead of a parody, and you're halfway there.

Letters from the Big Man Having made a name for himself as an indie filmmaker to watch with The Hours and Times (1991) and The Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day (1996), Christopher Munch proceeded to find his atmospheric sensibility relegated to the periphery of the Sundance nation, and to lose his way overall. This oddball take on a naturalist (Lily Rabe) surveying the local woods and the Sasquatch who silently surveys her shows Munch returning to form in a big way; its deadpan take on mythic creatures and the messy business of love harkens back to the days before outside-the-studio moviemaking became the province of pop-culture referencing hit men and twee twentysomethings. See it.

Stranger Things She (Bridget Collins) is a withdrawn young woman who's putting her recently deceased mother's things in order; he (Four Lions' Adeel Akhtar) is a homeless man living in the late woman's garden shed. That the two will eventually bond is a given, but it's the way this British indie lets its kindness-of-strangers narrative develop slowly through long silences, small glances and the gentlest of exchanges sets that sets it apart from the usual two-handers. And casting agents need to take serious notice of Akhtar stat.

Terri Folks may have thought Azazel Jacobs's 2008 Momma's Man was semiautobiographical, but the follow-up surprisingly feels even more personal; there's an evenhandedness in how the movie treats its titular misfit kid (Jacob Wysocki) that suggests the filmmaker truly gets how unique and fucking weird his heavyset high-school outcast is. Casting John C. Reilly as the school's well-meaning principal is Terri's big coup: Could any other actor sell a line like "Cool Breeze Club—members only, buddy" so beautifully? No, they could not.