By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 8, 2023)
Ah, Summertime …when the livin’ is easy and the movin’- pitcher Pickens are Slim:
Now, I have no personal beef against crowd-pleasing spectacles featuring transformers, superheroes, archeologists, little mermaids, teenage krakens, or grown-up conspiracy theorists who battle fantasy villains in alternate universes; but if you are in the mood for something more off the beaten path that, you know …isn’t primarily targeting 15 year-old males-summer movie season can be exasperating.
If you are of like mind, no worries. I’ve been covering film festivals for Hullabaloo since 2006. So if you’d rather pass on Indy Jones and satisfy your “indie” Jones instead, I’ve combed the archives and curated a “Best of the Festivals Festival” that you can program from the comfort of your living room (since its acronym is BOFF, I thought it best not to use that as a header).
These 15 fine selections are all available via various platforms. Add popcorn and enjoy!
Another Earth (USA, 2011) – Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles. After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue.
Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention. Prepare to have your mind blown. (Rent on Prime Video)
Bad Black (Uganda, 2016) – Some films defy description. This is one of them. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks. (Streaming free on tubi)
Becoming Who I Was (South Korea, 2016) – Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu.
Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness. (Rent on Prime Video)
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (USA, 2012) – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatle-esque Big Star was a musical anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was only the first of many hurdles this talented band was to face during their brief, tumultuous career. Now considered one of the seminal influences on the power pop genre, the band was largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone).
Then, in the mid-1980s, a cult following steadily began to build around the long-defunct outfit after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements began lauding them as an inspiration. In this fine rockumentary, director Drew DeNicola also tracks the lives of the four members beyond the 1974 breakup, which is the most riveting (and heart wrenching) part of the tale. Pure nirvana for power-pop aficionados. (Streaming free on YouTube)
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (USA, 2021) – It’s been a long, strange trip for Beach Boys founder/primary songwriter Brian Wilson. After a 2-year streak of hit singles about sun, surf, cars and girls (beginning with the 1963 release of “Surfin’ U.S.A.”), Wilson hit a wall. The pressures of touring, coupled with his experimentation with LSD and his increasing difficulty reconciling the heavenly voices in his head led to a full scale nervous breakdown (first in a series).
Still, he managed to hold the creeping madness at bay long enough to produce the most innovative work of his career (Pet Sounds, in 1966). Wilson’s roller coaster ride was only beginning, with a number of well-documented ups and downs (personal and professional); but his unique creative faculties remained intact. Considering what he has been through, it is amazing Wilson is even alive to tell the tale.
Brent Wilson’s documentary borrows the “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” concept, following Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine and Brian Wilson as they cruise around L.A., listening to Beach Boys tunes. Fine gently prompts Wilson to reminisce about the personal significance of various stops along the way. Most locales prompt fond memories; others clearly bring Wilson’s psyche back to dark places he’d sooner forget. What keeps the film from feeling exploitative is the fact that Wilson demonstratively trusts Fine (they are longtime friends). A sometimes sad, but ultimately moving portrait. (Streaming free on PBS
Drunken Birds (Canada, 2021) – Ivan Grbovic’s languidly paced, beautifully photographed culture clash/class war drama (Canada’s 2022 Oscar submission) concerns a Mexican cartel worker who finds migrant work in Quebec while seeking a long-lost love. Grbovic co-wrote with Sara Mishara. Mishara pulls double duty as DP; her painterly cinematography adds to the echoes of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It also reminded me of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm; a network narrative about people desperately seeking emotional connection amid a minefield of miscommunication. (Rent on Prime Video)
Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song (USA/Canada, 2021) – Several years ago, I saw Tom Jones at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Naturally, he did his cavalcade of singalong hits, but an unexpected moment occurred mid-set, when he launched into Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”. Jones’ performance felt so intimate, confessional and emotionally resonant that you’d think Cohen had tailored it just for him. When Jones sang, I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice, I “got” it. Why shouldn’t Tom Jones cover a Cohen song? I later learned “Tower of Song” has also been covered by the likes of U2, Nick Cave, and The Jesus and Mary Chain.
A truly great song tends to transcend its composer, taking on a life of its own. The reasons why can be as enigmatic as the act of creation itself. In an archival clip in Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s beautifully constructed documentary, the late Cohen muses, “If I knew where songs came from, I’d go there more often.” Using the backstory of his beloved composition “Hallelujah” as a catalyst, the filmmakers take us “there”, rendering a moving, spiritual portrait of a poet, a singer-songwriter, and a seeker. (Available on Netflix)
he Integrity of Joseph Chambers (USA, 2022) – This psychological thriller has a slow burn, but really gets under your skin. Early one morning, a white-collar father of two (Clayne Crawford) rolls out of his warm bed and readies himself to go deer hunting. His half-awake (and concerned) wife reminds him he has never gone hunting by himself and has limited experience with firearms. Undeterred, he insists that the best way to get experience is to “just go out and do it.” After stopping at a friend’s house to borrow his pickup truck (and a rifle), he heads for the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Anchored by Crawford’s intense performance, writer-director Robert Machoian has fashioned a riveting tale infused with a dash of Dostoevsky and a dollop of Deliverance. (Rent on Google Play)
The Last Film Show (India, 2021) – Child actor Bhavin Rabari gives an extraordinary performance in writer-director Pan Nalin’s moving drama. Set in contemporary India in 2010, the story centers on Samay, a cinema-obsessed 9-year-old boy who lives with his parents and younger sister. He is frequently beaten by his father, who is embittered by having to support his family as a railway station “tea boy” after losing his cattle farm. He forbids Samay to watch movies unless they are “religious” in nature.
This of course drives Samay to play hooky from school and sneak into the local theater whenever possible. Eventually he befriends the projectionist, who takes Samay on as a kind of protégé, in exchange for the delicious school lunches that Samay’s mother packs for him.
There are obvious parallels with Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but Nalin puts his own unique stamp on a familiar narrative. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, this is a colorful and poetic love letter to the movies. (Rent on Prime Video; free to Prime members)
Love Spreads (USA/UK, 2020) – I’m a sucker for stories about the creative process, because as far as I’m concerned, that’s what separates us from the animals (even if my “inner Douglas Adams” persists in raising the possibility that “there’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.”). Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams’ dramedy is right in that wheelhouse.
“Glass Heart” is an all-female rock band who have holed up Led Zep style in an isolated country cottage to record a follow-up to their well-received debut album. Everyone is raring to go, the record company is bankrolling the sessions, and the only thing missing is…some new songs. The pressure has fallen on lead singer and primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawcat) to cough them up, pronto.
Unfortunately, the dreaded “sophomore curse” has landed squarely on her shoulders, and she is completely blocked. The inevitable tensions and ego clashes arise as her three band mates and manager struggle to stay sane as Kelly awaits the Muse. It’s a little bit This is Spinal Tap, with a dash of Love and Mercy-bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and catchy original songs. (Streaming via Showtime on demand)
Monkey Warfare (Canada, 2006) – Written and directed by Reginald Harkema, Monkey Warfare is a nice little cinematic bong hit of low-key political anarchy. The film stars Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (the Hepburn and Tracy of quirky Canadian cinema) as a longtime couple who are former lefty radical activists-turned “off the grid” Toronto slackers.
When McKellar loans the couple’s free-spirited young pot dealer and budding anarchist (Nadia Litz) his treasured “mint copy” of a book about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, he unintentionally triggers a chain of events that will reawaken long dormant passions between the couple (amorous and political) and profoundly affect the lives of all three protagonists.
Monkey Warfare is not exactly a comedy, but Harkema’s script is awash in trenchant humor. If you liked Jeremy Kagan’s 1978 dramedy The Big Fix and/or Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty, I think this film should be right in your wheelhouse. Full review (Rent on Apple TV)
Nowhere Boy (UK, 2009) – There’s nary a tricksy or false note in this little gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teenage John Lennon. The story focuses on a specific, crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his first meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”.
The story is not so much about the Fabs, however, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas (one of the best actresses strolling the planet) handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood. (Rent on Prime Video)
Polisse (France, 2011) – Now here’s a thinking person’s alternative to the current (and dubiously tabulated) box office “hit” Sound of Freedom (which Digby wrote about earlier this week). Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011, this is a docudrama-style police procedural in the tradition of Jules Dassin’s Naked City. You do have to pay very close attention, however, because it seems like there are about 8 million stories (and just as many characters) crammed into the 127 minutes of French director Maiwenn’s complex film.
Using a clever “hall of mirrors” device, the director casts herself in the role of a “fly on the wall” photojournalist, and it is through this character’s lens that we observe the dedicated men and women who work in the Child Protective Unit arm of the French police. As you can imagine, these folks are dealing with the absolute lowest of the already lowest criminal element of society, day in and day out, and it does take its psychic toll on them.
Still, there’s a surprising amount of levity sprinkled throughout Maiwenn’s dense screenplay (co-written by Emmanuelle Bercot), which helps temper the heartbreak of seeing children in situations that they would never have to suffer through in a just world. The film fizzles a bit at the end, and keeping track of all the story lines is challenging, but it’s worthwhile, with remarkable performances from the ensemble. (Rent on Google Play).
Settlers (UK, 2021) – Writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller’s sci-fi drama is Once Upon a Time in the West on Mars. The story centers on 9-year-old Remmy (Brooklyn Prince), who lives with her settler parents (Sofia Boutella and Jonny Lee Miller) at a remote homestead. Following an attack by hostile parties and subsequent arrival of a drifter who claims that the homestead rightfully belongs to him, Sofia’s life (as well as the family’s dynamic) changes drastically. The story takes place over a 9-year period; with Nell Tiger Free playing 18-year-old Remmy. Not wholly original, but smartly written and well-acted, with great production design and cinematography (exteriors were filmed in South Africa). (Streaming on Hulu)
Trollhunter (Norway, 2010) – Like previous entries in the “found footage” sub-genre, Trollhunter features an unremarkable, no-name cast; but then again you don’t really require the services of an Olivier when most of the dialog is along the lines of “Where ARE you!?”, “Jesus, look at the size of that fucking thing!”, “RUN!!!” or the ever popular “AieEEE!”.
Seriously, though- what I like about Andre Ovredal’s film (aside from the surprisingly convincing monsters) is the way he cleverly weaves wry commentary on religion and politics into his narrative. The story concerns three Norwegian film students who initially set off to do an expose on illegal bear poaching, but become embroiled with a clandestine government program to rid Norway of some nasty trolls who have been terrorizing the remote areas of the country (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief as to how the government has been able to “cover up” 200 foot tall monsters rampaging about). The “trollhunter” himself is quite a character. Not your typical creature feature! (Streaming free on YouTube)