It’s always hard to tell whether a given festival has had a down year based on the sliver of available films one manages to cram into a viewing schedule. It’s true that this year’s headliners were less than inspired: opening-night film Chef is a vanity project from Jon Favreau with a Hollywood heart, and big draw Veronica Mars is little more than moderately entertaining fan service for devotees of a long-extinct TV show. Still, this year’s lineup offered at least a few gems to look out for at your local art house or on-demand service.
Richard Linklater’s one-of-a-kind film was shot for a few days at a time over a period of twelve years in order to follow the life of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from first grade to the verge of college. What could easily have been a gimmicky, disjointed mess is instead a seamless whole and a staggering achievement. A little luck was certainly involved, as there was no way the director of Slacker and Dazed and Confused could have known when he cast a six-year-old actor that he would grow up to embody such a distinctive Linklater character. But Linklater deserves the credit for avoiding all the usual “coming of age” cliches in favor of slice-of-life naturalism. Spanning the state of Texas from Houston to Big Bend, this is an intimate story that plays like an epic.
As a nonfiction writer, Jon Ronson has specialized in ferreting out the quirkiest of real-life characters in books like Them and The Men Who Stare at Goats. With his first screenwriting effort, Ronson fictionalizes an episode from his own life: As a young man, he lucked into a gig playing keyboards for “Frank Sidebottom,” a musician who performed while wearing a gigantic fake head. In this movie directed by Lenny Abrahamson, Frank (played by Michael Fassbender) is an outsider artist in the vein of Daniel Johnston, and is never seen without his false face. The character Ronson has based on himself, Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), joins the band as a starry-eyed kid but is soon trying to shape their music into something more “likable” and commercial. Frank balances absurdist humor with a melancholy ode to the vagaries of the creative process and the fine line between genius and madness.
Space Station 76
Jack Plotnick’s directorial debut is something of a mismatch between style and substance, but that’s what keeps it from being a one-note visual joke. A triumph of witty production design, Space Station 76 imagines a future combining the retro sci-fi look of the pre-Star Wars era with actual ‘70s rec room trappings. Robots roam corridors lined with wood paneling and garish wallpaper designs, while the crew members of the titular space station deal with interpersonal dramas bearing little resemblance to traditional science fiction conflicts. Instead, such hot button ‘70s issues as closet homosexuality, absentee parenting, and run-of-the-mill affairs are explored. The conclusion seems to be that the suburbs are not so much a place as a state of mind: even far from our home planet, we can’t escape our earthbound problems.
No-No: A Dockumentary
The “no-no” of the title refers to the no-hitter Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis threw on June 12, 1970. What made this achievement unique in baseball history is that Ellis was on LSD when he pitched his masterpiece. Over the years, this bit of trivia has reduced Ellis to something of a punchline, but this documentary directed by Jeff Radice serves as a corrective, demonstrating through interviews and vintage clips that there was much more to Ellis, both good and bad, than one acid-fueled outing. An outspoken civil rights activist, a sometimes violent drunk, and above all, a classic baseball character during one of the sport’s most flamboyant eras, Ellis has a story well worth telling, and Radice tells it well.
You’ve seen Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips; now take a look at the other side of the Somali pirate problem courtesy of this innovative documentary from co-directors Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting. While never trying to excuse the act of piracy, Last Hijack does attempt to put it in context, focusing on one former pirate torn between the lure of domestic life and the promise of one big score. Somalia is a land of few options for Mohamed, whose previous exploits in piracy play out in animated sequences. But while pirates were once viewed as Robin Hood-type heroes in Somalia, the populace has turned against them in recent years. Last Hijack is rough around the edges, but it sheds light on a world Hollywood had little interest in illuminating.