As the 11th year of Independent Film Festival Boston kicked off on the night of April 24, the city of Boston was still reflecting on a quiet act of renewal from earlier in the day. That morning, the city’s famed Boylston Street officially reopened, nine days after terrorist bombs tore through the avenue, killing and maiming innocent people, and stunting the communal happiness that comes from the Boston Marathon, the beginning of spring, and a hopeful new Red Sox season. For a proud city that embraces its cultural touchstones and revels in its arts, the IFFB had never been so wonderfully welcome.
The IFFB’s super-helpful staff, once again, barely let on that they’re all volunteers (and the festival, non-profit). The festival’s lineup, modest in numbers by many standards, delivered plenty of East Coast premieres, some titles that had made their mark at Sundance or South by Southwest, and even a notable world premiere.
There were movies about the elderly, the outcasts, the darkness and, yes, the quirky. It is an independent festival, after all. My personal viewing, in order of preference…
Here’s a love story for those who appreciate serene settings, cute dogs, and the occasional crushed skull. While feeling out their new relationship on a romantic RV tour, two seemingly low-key Brits discover their deep-seated mean streaks, leaving a trail of dead travelers in their wake. Stars Alice Lowe and Steve Oram wrote the script for Down Terrace director Ben Wheatley, slaying (quite literally) everyone from litterbugs to the egomaniacal. Fantastically timed dark humor, with a taste of 1982’s Eating Raoul and just a touch of tenderness.
If two high schoolers made a movie about killing their enemies, it would probably feel crude, derivative, and even childish. And The Dirties does, but with an ingenious layering of realities. Director Matthew Johnson and co-star Owen Williams play Matt and Owen, guys making a documentary about the making of their film “The Dirties,” a sophomoric testosterone dream about killing their school’s bullies. The “fake” movie is full of third-rate barbaric dialogue and hilarious performances. The “real” one references Gaspar Noe, Quentin Tarantino, Spike Jonze — to name a few — with Johnson examining how a teenager could slide into sociopathy. This is smart, meta mayhem, with a brilliant end-credit sequence devoted to every pop movie fan.
About a decade after a mini-glut of Internet boom documentaries, Alex Winter bests them all, looking beyond the ether-filled start-ups to chronicle a real player: Napster. Winter (the guy from the Bill and Ted movies) delivers an unfiltered chronological breakdown of the speedy growth and death of the powerhouse file-sharing website. Includes revealing interviews, insight from founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, a sublime DJ Spooky soundtrack, and some well-placed nostalgia. Remember MTV News?
Thomas Vinterberg’s latest is a tight, heartbreaking study of the ways a small community crumbles when a local man (Cannes Best Actor winner Mads Mikkelsen) is wrongly accused of exposing himself to one of his kindergarten students. Co-screenwriters Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm (whose A Hijacking also appeared at the IFFB) choose their words carefully, knowing language is the very weapon that drives their characters to extremes. As the teacher’s psyche unravels, Vinterberg retains the film’s muted tension beyond expectations.
Best Kept Secret
The festival’s standout world premiere, this winning documentary even attracted Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to its Saturday night screening. The title refers to Newark, New Jersey’s JFK school, an institution that educates the severely autistic up to age 21… but it more accurately describes Janet Mino, a dynamic, spectacularly dedicated teacher who insists that others properly integrate her alumni into society. Quite unwittingly, she becomes a source of inspiration the likes of which is rarely seen in film — or in life. You just want to embrace her and the young adults that this fine movie puts front and center. Secret is more buoyant than tough, with no intentions to define autism or the families it affects.
Here’s a film that takes on the schizophrenic attributes of its mentally ill lead character: it’s loud, unpredictable, mysterious, and surprisingly, overly literal. Star Alev Aydin gives a strong, exhausting performance from his own script, thumbing his nose at subtlety as his troubled Franky battles some dangerous — and very materialized — demons. The film’s love story is sincere and sweet, with an air of contrivance, helping to blur the lines of Franky’s reality. For him and us.
Persistence of Vision
An absolute must-see documentary for animation fans, director Kevin Schreck focuses on vanguard filmmaker Richard Williams and his decades-long attempt to create the greatest animated film ever made. Despite some stylistic inconsistencies, Persistence astounds with a now-infamous, ridiculously complex animation sequence from Williams’ ill-fated project. Schreck is a solid storyteller, if not a bit long-winded, but man, that single scene is worth a thousand words.
Tiny: A Story about Living Small
Eh, the title of this documentary is a bit of an overpromise — there’s not much of a story. But there really could’ve been. A guy in the process of figuring out his future decides to build himself a tiny home, 100 to 200 square feet in total. His girlfriend records it. There are a few enjoyable visits with other tiny home owners (the home’s small, not the people), but Tiny just skims the surface of the trend and doesn’t delve too deeply into why our guy is doing this. Pretty photography, appropriately short running time.
IFFB 2013 Award-winners
Grand Jury Prizes: Narrative: This Is Martin Bonner; Documentary: Dirty Wars
Special Jury Prizes: Narrative: Houston; Documentary: Remote Area Medical
Audience Awards: Narrative: Much Ado About Nothing; Documentary: Best Kept Secret