That’s the other binding quality of this year’s IFFBoston lineup: authenticity. That’s an easy goal when documentaries outnumber the narrative features, but even among those there’s a clear emphasis on reality. Some of them (Diego Ongaro’s Bob and the Trees, notably) feel downright neorealist, while genre offerings borrow from history and from contemporary human struggles to form their backgrounds. The festival is now halfway finished, and the sheer volume and variety of films that have graced the screens of the beloved Somerville and Brattle Theatres are close to staggering. The downside to every festival, from SXSW to TIFF, is that invariably there will be movies you must miss in order to see the ones that already have you on tenterhooks thanks to previews and reputation. Here are the films we’ve seen that have impressed us thus far:
Director: John MacLean
When a tree falls in the woods, nobody hears it—except when the tree falls in John MacLean’s Slow West. Here, the person who cut the tree down hears it just as its trunk crushes them to death upon the forest grounds, where their bones lie until come upon by Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), two men heading westward ho. Silas is an outlaw who more or less strong-arms Jay into hiring him as a bodyguard. Jay is an effete but well-intentioned boy who has followed his lady love (Caren Pistorious) from Scotland after she goes on the lam. Slow West runs on a well-worn genre engine, but MacLean is too much of an imp to play his film as a straightforward Western. Visual gags and punchlines litter his landscape of colorful backdrops and even more colorful characters. One, a German traveler bent on cataloging the unsettled American frontier, laments that the era will inevitably be romanticized through art, but he couldn’t have meant Slow West. MacLean might have his tongue stapled to his cheek, but his wonderfully eccentric portrait of violence and suffering, dreams and toil is anything but romantic.
7 Chinese Brothers
Director: Bob Byington
Think of Bob Byington’s 7 Chinese Brothers as a decidedly gentler alternative to Listen Up, Philip, last year’s wanton celebration of male literary narcissism. Both films star Jason Schwartzman in his mode of narcissistic self-destruction; both of them feature the talents of Alex Ross Perry, though here he’s merely content to show up and punch Schwartzman in the face. As drunken sad-slacker Larry, Schwartzman is obnoxious but not acerbic enough to earn our enmity. He might be a pain in the ass—to his new crush/boss (Eleanor Pienta), to his best friend (Tunde Adebimpe), to his own grandmother (Olympia Dukakis)—but he’s less a virulent misanthrope and more a misbehaving puppy. You want to smack him on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper, and then maybe pat him on the head. Byington’s movie is mopey but frothy, and it weighs about as much as a bag of Popchips. It’s satisfying for as long as its minute running time allows, and as soon as it ends, you’ll feel like moving on to something more substantial.
Director: Geoffrey Cowper
A byproduct of lean, muscular genre stories of hard-nosed male ennui, Day Release does a lot with quite a little. It’s a manly movie about manly men doing manly things, but director Geoffrey Cowper and co-writer/star Jesús Lloveras suffuse their badass pursuits with sociopolitical background elements (like the Spanish housing crisis) that quietly fuel the plot. Lloveras plays Mark, a man out on weekend parole for the first time in the five years he’s spent in jail. His misdeeds remain unspecified until later in the film, but for a hardened criminal, he has a surprisingly strong sense of justice. Mark witnesses an armed robbery in broad daylight that leaves two security guards dead. Emboldened, he follows the perpetrators’ getaway car. Most of us would be happy to leave the heavy lifting of law enforcement to the police, but Mark is a man in desperate need of redemption. Day Release (aka Tercer Grado) is a fine display of scrappy D.I.Y. filmmaking, introducing microbursts of violence with economy as the plot unfolds and Mark’s quest draws him closer to the catharsis he seeks.
Director: Crystal Moselle
IFFBoston’s documentary section is loaded with movies that focus on subjects with inexplicable, magnetic charisma and varying degrees of goodness. In The Wolfpack, Crystal Moselle chronicles the Angulo family, ostensibly led by patriarch Oscar, a Peruvian Hare Krishna devotee whose wife Susanne bore him seven children, whom he locked up in their Lower East Side apartment for the better part of their young lives. They’re only able to connect with the world beyond their door through cinema: The Angulos possess a massive home library of movies ranging from Reservoir Dogs to The Dark Knight, each of which the kids (six boys and one girl) study in depth before staging reproductions of them in-house. Their efforts are impressive, to say the least, but Moselle is mostly interested in these recreations in context with the Angulos’ sheltered existence. Most of us go to the movies to escape, but we take that escape for granted. If anything, The Wolfpack might just make jaded cinephiles check their privilege alongside their priorities. The movie could have used more Oscar—he’s a fascinating figure who is as much a captive of his fears and anxieties as his family—but this is a compelling tale about the transporting power of film in the face of human insularity.
Director: Marah Strauch
What could possibly motivate a person to leap from any sky-piercing object with naught but a parachute to ensure their safety? Sunshine Superman gamely tries to answer that question, though try as she might Marah Strauch can’t quite arrive at any hard conclusion. That’s not her fault, really, as much as it’s indicative of the late Carl Boenish’s ineffability. Boenish is remembered as the father of BASE (Building Antenna Span & Earth) jumping, but Strauch’s film commemorates his humanity more than his accomplishments as a pioneer in the field of inadvisably hurling oneself off of tall stuff. If heights weren’t your bag, the loquacious, endlessly likable Boenish could probably have convinced you to suit up and take a swan dive out of an airplane, or off of a mountain, without much more than his infectious enthusiasm for adrenaline-fueled risk. There are points where the film feels repetitive—we see an awful lot of footage of people hurtling through the air and landing on the ground—but these are moments of grand awe that suck us into the reverie of free fall.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.