by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks
Gabrielle Demeestere’s Yosemite (US), based on two short stories written by James Franco, not only fits perfectly alongside last year’s Palo Alto by Gia Coppola, but surpasses that film in its subtle portrayal of Northern California youth in the 1980s. Following three young boys—Chris, Joe and Ted—in their day to day confusions, it brought up my own melancholic memories of films like Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983).
Director Demeestere brings a beautiful sense of restraint to the storytelling, and eloquently creates a slice of life that I immediately want to experience again. For those of you who continue to struggle with accepting James Franco as a genuine artistic treasure, take a chance with Yosemite . It’s a film that will sneak up on you.
Ben Patterson’s Sweet Micky for President (US/Haiti/Canada) swept both the Audience Award and the Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature. The unbelievable story of Haitian pop star Michel Martelly running for presidency in 2010 is chock-full of extraordinary in-the-moment footage from beginning to end. Making time for an intriguing personal feud between the Fugees’ Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel (with even Sean Penn and Bill Clinton getting caught up in the mix), this gripping doc should have immense crossover appeal to all kinds of audiences. Ironically, for me it even rustled up an unlikely comparison to Woody Allen’s slapstick satire Bananas (1971). When it’s screened here in the Bay Area, perhaps a panel discussion can take on the problematic complexities of this surreal story.
Winner of the top Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature, Britni West’s Tired Moonlight (US) is a spectacle beyond belief. This atmospheric excursion into Kalispell, Montana (filmed on luscious Super 16mm Kodak stock) allows characters to weave in and out of moments that bring to light the happy accidents of growing up in rural America—Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997) and David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) are likely comparisons. West has directed (and written and edited) a stunning debut feature that should be remembered later this year at the Independent Spirit Awards. With mumblecore actor Alex Karpovsky popping up every so often on screen, perhaps a wider audience will find this American treasure. Either way, it’s easily one of the best independent films of 2015. Go see it at the Roxie on February 6 or 9 as part of SF Indiefest.
Patrick Ryan’s Darkness on the Edge of Town (US) sported some of the most striking cinematography, by Tommy Fitzgerald, at Park City this year. This self-proclaimed neo-noir western most definitely emphasizes that style is the substance. The murder of Cleo’s sister is revealed to the audience in the film’s first moments, enabling our journey with Cleo to become an inevitable descent. These two technicians—Ryan and Fitzgerald—have an eye for cinema, and this debut feature has me chomping at the bit for their follow-up, Black River . SF Indiefest is screening Darkness on the Edge of Town at the Roxie on February 8 and 9.
You have to root for the offbeat audacity of Jiyoung Lee’s Female Pervert (US). Jennifer Kim’s deadpan performance as Phoebe, the female pervert, should inspire a spin-off web series. The film itself is a series of clunky, awkward, and even raunchy would-be one-night stands that may hit “too close to home” for many. There are moments of true genius (Murakami book club arguments; the presentation on how corporate companies distract millennials), and Lee has hit upon something. This film was made for narcoleptic laptop viewing.
Steven Richtar’s Birds of Neptune (US) follows a pair of sisters in a Portland, Oregon suburb as they attempt to get through their fragile nights and days. One makes fuzzed-out experimental music in her room, while the other has discovered burlesque dancing. As hypnotized boys begin to hover around their haunted house, this slow-burning delight gradually reveals an Oregon culture that isn’t as cliché as some TV shows make it out to be. In fact, it’s quite terrifying. Director Steven Richtar is someone to keep an eye on, and an ear out for—his movie sports what was easily one of the best soundtracks in Park City this year, by Erik Blood and Kevin O’Connor (Talkdemonic).
On the first day of the 21st Annual Slamdance Film Festival, Julia Roberts announced that she’ll be adapting—producing and starring in—a dramatic version of Dana Nachman’s crowd-pleasing documentary Batkid Begins: The Wish Around the World (US). This type of high-profile buzz is exactly what Slamdance deserves after more than two decades of offering truly independent cinema at the top of Park City’s main street. Nachman’s doc delivers all the expected goods for anyone who didn’t live in the Bay Area last year when all of SF went viral, transforming itself into one child’s ultimate Make-a-Wish request. The 87-minute film uncovers how the story reached nearly a billion people worldwide, though it only slightly addresses the dilemma that it was arguably being dismissed as an All-American “Bratkid” phenomenon. (Impressively, one couple donated more than $100K for all of the day’s expenditures.) I do look forward to seeing the Hollywood version of this Y2Teens extravaganza.
Another crowd-pleaser this year was Gary Walkow’s emotional rollercoaster The Trouble with Dot & Harry (US). Walkow won the Grand Prize Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1987 with The Trouble With Dick (US). Sadly, the distributor went bankrupt, leaving Walkow’s debut without an outlet or audience for years. (You can watch it on Vimeo here!) Now, close to thirty years later, he has returned, casting his two young daughters as the leads in something akin to Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (2010). As their grumpy middle-aged babysitter journeys them across England tasting the best coffee in the land, these precocious kids will truly melt your selfish, egotistical heart, in the type of film that used to define Sundance. Thank goodness Slamdance is here to pick up the ball.
TOP FIVE FICKS’ PICKS AT THE 21ST ANNUAL SLAMDANCE
- Tired Moonlight (Britni West, US)
- Yosemite (Gabrielle Demeestere, US)
- The Trouble with Dot & Harry (Gary Walkow, US)
- Birds of Neptune (Steven Richtar, US)
- Darkness on the End of Town (Patrick Ryan, US)
Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and curator/host of MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, a film series at the Castro Theatre which showcases underrated, overlooked and dismissed cinema in a neo-sincere manner. You can read Ficks’ picks from this year’s Sundance Film Festival at Fandor.