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by Dan Nuxoll
January 23rd, 2011

Ok, to start, some roundup:

1. Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, which we awarded the Rooftop Films 2010 Edgeworx Post Production Grant to, has been getting consistently strong reviews, and is definitely one of the buzziest films at the fest so far. Check out Eric Kohn’s review here. Elizabeth Olsen has been getting amazing reviews. Raise your hand if you predicted that the Olsen clan would produce a critically acclaimed indie-film star.
2. Fellow Rooftop alums Dee Rees (Pariah) and Miranda July (The Future) premiered their films to RAVE reviews. Mark wrote about Pariah, and indieWire is loving The Future.
3. Generally speaking, the mood is high, critics have been happy and buyer interest has been strong. A year ago most people were talking economic gloom and doom, critics were skewering the mediocrity of the NEXT section, and there was alarmist talk about the end of the indie-film era. This year people are talking about an indie renaissance and distribution crisis talk has given way to hope and talk of fair deals for filmmakers. I am not saying the optimism will last, I am just saying that people seem to be in a better mood.
4. Morgan Spurlock sells out, gives out a shitload of schwag and it is funny.

My screenings:
Yesterday was all about surprises. Today featured fewer unexpected delights, but the day was still very satisfying in a different way. I started the day with Joe Swanberg’s Uncle Kent and I thought it was strong and honest, and very much of a piece with his previous works. It doesn’t necessarily tread new ground, but Swanberg continues to mine 30-something indecision for genuine moments and fine, naturalistic performances, this time most notably by comedian Kent Osborne. It’s on VOD now, for those of you with cable, so give it a chance, especially if you like watching people like yourself have an awkward–but still sexy–threesome.

Next up was Knuckle, Ian Palmer’s doc about rivals clans in the Irish Traveler community who settle inter-family disputes by staging bare-fisted boxing matches on country lanes. The film is undeniably intense, featuring dozens of brutal battles, and after spending 90 minutes watching the films my face and hands felt a bit tender out of sympathy for the bloodied subjects. The film has gotten a good degree of buzz to this point in the fest, with studios circling, hoping to snatch up remake rights. But personally I felt the film lacked direction and story arc, and Palmer never seemed to tap into inner demons or selfish interests that motivate the fighters to continue to battle through the decades. Clearly the Travelers are reticent to express their personal feelings with an outsider, but Palmer shot footage of the community for more than twelve years and given the sheer quantity of footage I felt that he should have figured out a way to communicate something more psychologically complex about his subjects.

Considerably more successful was Philip Cox’s The Bengali Detective, a genuinely bizarre yet well-executed documentary about a team of detectives fighting crimes and misdemeanors in the sprawling Indian metropolis of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Kolkata’s police force clearly can not adequately address the needs of the city as the population explodes and international crime spreads through the streets, so many business and citizens turn to private detectives to solve crimes, settle disputes, and crack down on shops and businessmen who peddle counterfeit hair oil to their customers. Cox bites off a bit more than he can chew by attempting to incorporate three separate investigations into the already dense story, and I think that he hoped the film would play a bit more like a classic Hollywood detective story than it does in the end. But the film undeniably works wonderfully as a document of the city and a record of the hopes and sometimes misguided and naive dreams of its inhabitants. Often quite funny and occasionally convincingly tender, The Bengali Detective is an ambitious and entertaining film, and it succeeds on many more levels than it falls short.

After that I check out Paddy Considine’s Tyrannosaur, which seemed to divide audiences right down the middle. I think that everyone would agree that Peter Mullan’s performance is nuanced and often quite powerful, but those I spoke to disagreed quite strongly about the script. If I were to make a generalization based on the extremely small sample of opinions I have overheard to date, I would say that people from the UK really thought the story was great and my friends from the U.S. thought that the story was dreadfully held back by far too many ridiculously absurd yet still somehow cliche plot devices. I couldn’t really tell you why it broke down that way, and I won’t say too much about how I felt about the film, but I will say that I felt quite American as I walked out of the theater.

I closed out the evening with two poignant, personal, and well executed docs about individuals who are thrust into momentous political situations. David Weissman’s We Were Here tells the story of the onset and decline of the AIDS crisis through the recollections of five individuals who experienced the worst of it in San Francisco in the early 80’s and lived to tell the tale. The film consists almost entirely of interviews with the main subjects and archival photos and video from the era, yet–despite the simplicity of the stricture–Weissman manages to bring the time to life and all in attendance seemed to agree that the final product is genuinely affecting and powerful.

Marshall Curry is best known for directing Street Fight, his extraordinary documentary about Corey Booker’s first (unsuccessful) attempt to unseat Sharpe James as mayor of the embattled city of Newark. His newest film, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front is not quite as immediately impactful as his last work, but it is still quite an interesting and engrossing film, and with this film Curry firmly establishes himself as one of America’s most intelligent and graceful craftsmen of political documentaries. As the Sundance website says, “Focusing on Oregon-based activist Daniel McGowan, Curry relates the tale of a mild-mannered, middle-class citizen driven to extremes and brought to trial on charges of terrorism for his participation in ELF-related arson plots.” Curry ably conveys the rage of the environmental activists of the late 90’s and the thrill they felt as they took matters into their own hands and began their assault on the lumber industry of the Pacific Northwest, but the film really gets interesting when it pulls back to the current day and we hear how everyone involved–the activists, the “terrorists,” the FBI agents and the lawyers–have come to see that the issues involved are much more complicated than they perhaps realized at the time.

OK, off to sleep. I start again in 2 hours, assuming my cell phone alarm can get me out of bed.

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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