Great independent film. In the open air. On a rooftop. In New York City. What could be better? Here are our top picks for the films to see in the 2014 edition of the series. For tickets and full lineup, go to their website here.
Sometimes a film need not totally work in order to win you over. Case in point: Appropriate Behavior, which heralds the arrival of a fresh talent in the form of multi-hyphenate Desiree Akhavan. Reminiscent of Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein’s Lola Versus, starring Greta Gerwig, Appropriate Behavior will draw some barbs as just another single-girl-in-the-city comedy, but it puts a wry spin on gender politics and Persian-American assimilation. Akhavan stars as Shirin, a closeted bisexual Iranian-American who, fresh off a breakup with Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), stumbles through some dubious personal decisions and gets roped into teaching a Park Slope film class for unruly 5-year-olds. As a cogent whole, Appropriate Behavior can’t quite decide what story it wants to tell. It jumps back and forth in time, which is fine, but is caught between being a story of romantic dissolution, sexual coming out and mordant satire. Still, it crackles scene to scene, with warped meet-cutes (“I find your anger incredibly sexy—I hate so many things, too”) and other off-kilter delights. Akhavan has an observant sense of humor and a great touch with dialogue. Part Sarah Silverman, part Molly Shannon, she’s equally at home with garrulousness and deadpan awkwardness. —Brent Simon
Cold In July
Mickle is on a roll after last year’s We Are What We are, and his Cold in July cast shows it, boasting Michael C. Hall in the lead role, supported by Sam Shepard and Don Johnson, among others. I interviewed Mickle before Sundance but subsequently missed the film there, but it looks to be a fascinating study of images of masculinity. And especially with those three personalities, that’s a promising theme to explore. —Michael Dunaway
Full disclosure—I was on a Sarasota Film Festival jury a couple of years back that gave Miller an award for his first film, Welcome to Pine Hill. So you already know that I’m predisposed to like his films. Five Star is a little less quiet, a little more muscular and just as good. James “Primo” Grant commands the screen from the opening monologue forward. —M.D.
Happy Christmas generates such warmth that you might not mind that one of its principal characters doesn’t always make a lot of sense. Writer-director Joe Swanberg’s latest is agreeably loose-limbed, touching on family and the crucial differences between people in their 20s and their 30s. And although it lacks a great thematic hook like Swanberg’s recent Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas still boasts plenty of modest pleasures thanks to its gentle observations and likable manner. —Tim Grierson
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
A young Japanese woman sees an old VHS version of the Coen Brothers classic Fargo and becomes convinced that she can, and must, find the treasure that Steve Buscemi’s character buries near the end of the film. The Zellner Brothers are known for their loose plots and emphasis on character, but it should be interesting to see what they do with a more linear tale. Great premise, too. —M.D.
“The story of Matthew Stoneman, a white musician in his fifties who learned Spanish in prison and currently lives his life as a mariachi and bolero singer between L.A. and Cuba.” Do you really need any more than that? I don’t. —M.D.
The One I Love
The dark insecurities that reside inside even the happiest of marriages—issues of trust and fading passion—are given playful yet thoughtful treatment in The One I Love, a comedy-drama in which a couple learns more about each other than maybe they should. Strong performances from Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss are the highlight of a movie that may make married people nod in recognition but also shudder a little, too. —T.G.
Ping Pong Summer
This film resides in an unusual twilight zone between homage and parody, asking us to enjoy the references but not to feel superior to them. It’s a difficult feat, one Tully succeeds in executing. But it also has limitations. As massively likable as it is—as smooth as its familiar getting-ready-for-the-big-competition storyline is—Ping Pong Summer feels like an echo, as if it was shot in 1985 and then forgotten, only now being discovered in someone’s closet. I suspect that’s by design, and it’s a funny, nifty trick. But like some memories, this movie is fondly recalled in the moment but then quickly evaporates. Still, its upbeat pleasantness lingers. —T.G.
The Skeleton Twins
Okay, I’ll admit it. I thought the hype around this film coming into Sundance was because everybody loved Saturday Night Live twins Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig so much that they’d overfluff an average movie. What I didn’t notice was that the film was directed (and co-written) by Craig Johnson, the man behind the underrated indie True Adolescents. Even had I realized that, I’m not sure i would have been prepared for what I saw — two fantastic performances from actors who had never really moved me before, a fantastic script that deservedly won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the end of the week, a couple of brilliant supporting turns from Luke Wilson and Ty Burrell, and a film with a heart as big as the moon, about two messed-up people just trying to get by. The characters move into and out of likability, but the movie never does. —M.D.
We Are The Best
“Pussy Riot In Training Bras” was the shorthand description I heard for it at the Sarastoa Film Festival, which likely either horrifies you or shoots this to the top of your to-see list. I think it sounds great. —M.D.