Independent Film Festival 2010

The Independent Film Festival Boston wraps up tonight with the late addition closer Micmacs, the new one from the master of the weird/cute Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

I volunteered this festival again this year and thus was given the privilege of seeing as many films as I liked gratis. Here’s a quick run-through of what I saw from most impressive to most blah.

Winter’s Bone

An especially chilly and tense neo-noir set in rural Missouri. Ree Dolly, a level headed 17-year old who has dropped out of school to care for her mentally ill mother and two younger siblings, must find her fugitive Meth manufacturer father or the bail bondsman will take their home. Ree negotiates a tight-lipped underworld for her father (whose non-presence reminded me of a backwoods Harry Lime.) The ensemble acting is uniformly excellent, especially John Hawkes portrayal of Ree’s uncle, a quiet man harboring an undercurrent of extreme violence but also dedication to his family. Winter’s Bone won the Dramatic Grand Jury prize at Sundance.

The Oath

A documentary primarily about Abu Jandal, Osama Bin Laden’s one-time bodyguard (and less so about Jandal’s brother-in-law, Salim Hamdan, a man captured in Afghanistan and the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.) While the documentary itself felt a bit murky about exactly what its focus was the access to and examination of Jandal is endlessly fascinating. A man who personally knew all of the 9/11 hijackers and top Al-Qaida leaders, became a top source for actionable intelligence during the initial Afghan invasion and drives a cab in Yemen. A quite charismatic man whose views on jihad and his own actions are quite complex, I left wishing the filmmaker had excised the Hamdan bits completely and just focused solely on this possibly-reformed radical and his son, who either wants to be a mechanic or a jihadist when he grows up. The Oath won a special Jury award at the festival this year.

Solitary Man

In this blackly comedic drama Michael Douglass plays a 60-year old womanizing, egotistical reformed con man/car dealer must deal with the fact that he’s now old and alone. Another excellent role for Douglas whose D-Fens (Falling Down) and Gordon Gekko rank as some of the my favorite characters in recent cinema history. A tight script and wonderful supporting work by Danny DeVito and Jenna Fischer (good for her leaving the discomfort-comedy ghetto.)

Drones

An uneven office comedy featuring grads from the short lived early Apatow show Freaks and Geeks. Some absolutely hilarious moments of stylized comedy utilizing effective His Girl Friday-style dialogue delivery and a completely original take on the office boss by the criminally under-used James Urbaniak. Directed by some chick who was on Buffy who everyone else in the audience seemed to know but me.

Elephant in the Living Room

A never-boring and occasionally touching documentary about the problems facing exotic animal owners (and their communities) in the US.

The Extra Man

Paul Dano and Kevin Klein star in this buddy comedy about men who befriend and accompany rich widows in NYC high society. Klein is, as usual, scenery devouring and hilarious. Dano is good as the Klein’s straight man roommate/”Extra Man” protégé. Katie Holmes looks like she needs a dozen donuts. John C. Reilley is absurd. The film is light and funny but in the end nothing really sticks with you. Directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer-Berman, the makers of the excellent American Splendor.

9500 Liberty

9500 Liberty is a timely political documentary chronicling the controversy of an immigration enforcement law in suburban Virginia (almost exactly like the one recently passed in Arizona.) Certainly a film with a strong political message, it was unfortunate that the filmmakers became such a big part of the story half-way through, thus limiting their access to the big players on the other side of the debate. However, it’s effective in showing how the emotions and personal relationships between lawmakers and constituients in small communities can add fuel to the fire of fear and distrust.

Colony

Documentary about beekeeping in the US. The filmmakers examine the blight of colony collapse disorder and the effect of the great recession on a highly-religious/traditional beekeeping family business in California. Great cinematography, mediocre otherwise.

Lovers of Hate

A black comedy about a love triangle focusing on the mechinations of a spurned loser husband trying to thwart and get back at his estranged wife and her new lover – his famous young adult novelist brother. Some funny moments. Contains an effective set piece utilizing the enormousness of a mansion on the ski-slopes of Park City, UT. Some mediocre acting and technically deficient camera work but all in all an amusing little film.

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