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The Ten Must See Films of the IFFBoston

By Dustin Rowles | Industry | April 19, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Industry | April 19, 2010 |

The Independent Film Festival of Boston kicks off on Wednesday. If you’re in the New England area, this is the best film festival around, having supplanted the fall Boston Film Festival as the one to be at after less than a decade of existence. It offers a great opportunity to see a lot of great independent films, a few of which are premieres, and several of which played earlier at Sundance or at South by Southwest. IFFBoston, however, offers a more low-key opportunity to see those same movies without having to deal with the massive crowds or the lengthy lines. Even two days before the festival begins, you can still purchase tickets and walk up, half an hour before showtime, and get a seat. Most of the films play in Davis Square (in Somerville), which is the second best neighborhood in metro Boston, save for Brookline (where some of the other films will be showing, in the amazing Coolidge Corner Theater).

If you’re in the area, do check it out. TK and I will be there most of the weekend. You can find out more about it, check out the full schedule, and purchase tickets online at the IFFBoston website. If you do decide to go, here are the ten must-see films of the IFFBoston, some of which have already played at previous festivals (and for which we have reviews).

The Extra Man (Opening Night Film)

In this quirky comedy directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (AMERICAN SPLENDOR) and based on the novel by Jonathan Ames (creator of the HBO series “Bored to Death”), Louis Ives (Paul Dano) leaves his job teaching high school English after an embarrassing situation prompts his departure. He aspires to start anew by becoming a writer in New York City.

Scouring the classifieds, Louis secures a room on the Upper East Side in the dilapidated apartment of an eccentric, long-struggling playwright, Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline, 2010 recipient of IFFBoston’s Career Achievement Award). Soon, Louis learns that Henry earns his keep by being an “extra man” — an escort to wealthy dowagers. Intrigued, he begins learning from Henry how to be one, too.

Louis and Henry develop a deep connection as they weave their way through a number of indelible, amusingly oddball, and distinctly urban encounters with characters played by an ensemble cast that includes John C. Reilly, Katie Holmes, and Patti D’Arbanville. Dano’s quiet, genuinely sweet-tempered performance is a perfect pairing with the élan with which Kline embodies Henry Harrison.

The Freebie (Read our review)

Annie and Darren have a close, loving, companionate marriage. They are each other’s best friends, they have no secrets, and they laugh together all the time. There’s only one problem: They can’t even remember the last time they had sex. Hoping to recapture their earlier spark and to quell their curiosity about the flings they never had, they agree to have one “unmarried” night to do anything they want, with no consequences. The plan is either so crazy it could work, or the biggest mistake of their lives.

Actress Katie Aselton (THE PUFFY CHAIR, IFFBoston 2006) makes a self-assured directorial debut with this understated relationship drama about modern morality. As Annie and Darren, Aselton and Dax Shepherd (“Parenthood”) are believable and charismatic, while Aselton’s dialogue never rings false, even as the characters delve into uncharted territory. The film’s structure, which is subtly nonlinear, revisits the scene of the couple’s pact, mimicking the way we tend to return, in our minds, to the moment of an important decision. Why do we make the choices we do? How far can trust between two people reach? What happens when we introduce secrecy where all was openness before? THE FREEBIE explores these questions with elegance and a delicate understanding of real relationships.

Cyrus (Read our Review)

Languishing in loneliness, John (John C. Reilly, also seen in our opening night film, THE EXTRA MAN) is urged by his ex-wife and closest friend, Jamie (Catherine Keener, THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN), to meet someone new. Seven years after the dissolution of their marriage, Jamie is now on the brink of remarrying; she recommends that John begin his search by attending a party with her and her new fiancé. John grudgingly agrees. After various drunken and stalled interactions, he encounters Molly (Marisa Tomei, THE WRESTLER), who disarms him with both her physical beauty and spirited nature. Despite the mutual affection that instantly develops between them, Molly is reticent about seeing John for more than a brief time or even to invite him to her home. Growing suspicious, he follows her to her abode and discovers, to his astonishment, that she has a 21 year-old son named Cyrus (Jonah Hill, SUPERBAD).

Coddled and lacking another male presence for the majority of his existence, Cyrus shares an unconventionally close bond with his mother. Suddenly threatened by John’s intrusion on his once idyllic and exclusive relationship with Molly, he begins a passive-aggressive assault on John. As Cyrus schemes to squelch the burgeoning relationship, John unwittingly finds himself engaged in ever more graceless skirmishes with him, fighting to maintain the affection of the woman it took him so long to find.

This third feature from brothers Mark and Jay Duplass (BAGHEAD; THE PUFFY CHAIR, IFFBoston 2006) deftly and fearlessly addresses the awkwardness of interpersonal politics. The delightful chemistry between John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill yields some of their richest work in this comedy about resolving issues of arrested development.

Winter’s Bone (Read our review)

“Never ask for what ought to be offered,” 17-year-old Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) advises her two younger siblings. However, Ree could use some help from her clannish Missouri Ozark woods community, and few of its members seem willing to offer much. Her crystal meth-dealing father has disappeared after selling their house as a jail bond, and her mother is mentally ill and nearly catatonic — so it’s up to Ree to find her father in order to save her family’s home. She contacts friends, relatives, and other shadowy figures, only to meet with evasiveness, hostility, and an encroaching dread that suggests certain people close to Ree know where her father is and would prefer she never found him.

WINTER’S BONE expresses a vivid sense of place, right from the beautifully simple opening shots of Ree and her siblings playing and doing chores around their dilapidated log-cabin house against a lone voice solemnly singing “The Missouri Waltz.” That out-of-time voice, alternating on the soundtrack with an ambient, gauzy score, perfectly complements the film’s harsh, sparse landscape of gray skies and bare trees. Ree emerges as an uncommonly intricate heroine, thanks to Lawrence’s terrific, confident performance — she balances a calm, self-sufficient exterior with a vulnerability that even the most mature teenager could not fully mask. With a strong ensemble — including John Hawkes (“Deadwood,” “Lost”) as Teardrop, Ree’s violent, weathered uncle — Debra Granik’s stark but affecting film presents a world that may seem foreign to most viewers, but feels thoroughly authentic in its depiction.

Down Terrace

Poor Bill’s (Robert Hill) best-laid plans just keep getting derailed. First, all he wanted to do was write poetry and explore the heights of his consciousness with copious amounts of LSD. But thanks to capitalistic society and the pressures of supporting a family, he had no choice but to adopt a life of crime. Now, all he wants to do is groove on his Gibson guitar, enjoy the fruits of his illegal labor, and track down the unidentified squealer who betrayed him to the police. But his disappointing son Karl (co-writer Robin Hill) is distracted by some crazy notion of quitting the family business to raise his soon-to-be-born child. To top off this insult, Karl’s pregnant girlfriend Valda (Kerry Peacock) has the nerve to question Bill’s own approach to parenting.

If Bill and Karl are to get to the bottom of the leak in their inner circle, they’ll need help from the old crowd — but who can they trust? And how best to neutralize the threat when they find it? Bill’s long-suffering wife Maggie (Julia Deakin) once made a deal with him. They could live their lives below the law, but under one condition: no drama. Well, far too late for that now.

DOWN TERRACE, co-written by director Ben Wheatley, won the Raindance Award at the 2009 British Independent Film Awards

Tiny Furniture (Audience Award Winner — SXSW)

Aura graduates from film school in Ohio, returns home to New York, and…well, she’s not really sure what to do next. Her mother is a successful artist in her own right, and her younger sister is an overachiever. Aura deals with this by getting a low-paying job as a restaurant hostess while she plans her next move.

Part of the plan is to reconnect with Charlotte, her spoiled high school friend, who acts as the devil on Aura’s shoulder — leaving us hoping Aura can instead find her angel. Maybe he will come in the form of Jed (Alex Karpovsky; BEESWAX, IFFBoston 2009), the “little-bit-famous” YouTube artist she meets at a party. Or maybe he will come in the form of the flirty chef at the restaurant. But does Jed want anything more than a place to crash? And does the chef want more than a one-night stand? More important, when will Aura figure out what she wants?

Lena Dunham’s (CREATIVE NONFICTION) second feature shows a lot of confidence and more than a little bravado. Not only does she star, she has cast her real-life mother and sister as versions of themselves, and has set much of the film in her mother’s actual home. Braver still, she’s not afraid to paint her character as petulant and melodramatic at times. But Aura is also aware of these flaws, and her overly confident front is softened by a truly funny, self-deprecating wit that hearkens back to early Woody Allen.

The Killer Inside Me

Based on the legendary novel by pulp writer Jim Thompson, THE KILLER INSIDE ME tells the story of a handsome, charming, unassuming small-town sheriff’s deputy named Lou Ford (Casey Affleck, GONE BABY GONE). Directed by Michael Winterbottom (A MIGHTY HEART, 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE), the film takes place in an idyllic West Texas town in the early 1950s. A lifelong resident, Ford has difficulty juggling his long-term girlfriend Amy (Kate Hudson, ALMOST FAMOUS), a prostitute named Joyce (Jessica Alba, SIN CITY) for whom he has mistakenly fallen, and his own sociopathic tendencies. In Thompson’s savage, bleak, blacker-than-noir universe, nothing is ever what it seems.

Solitary Man

Ben (Michael Douglas, WONDER BOYS) was once on top of the world, with an enormously successful car dealership, a loving wife (Susan Sarandon, DEAD MAN WALKING), and a beautiful daughter (Jenna Fischer, “The Office”). But somewhere along the line, something went wrong; he was arrested for fraud and began cheating on his wife, eventually ending the marriage. Now he spends his time picking up women — the younger, the better — and scrapes by on loans from his family. Things begin to look up when his new girlfriend (Mary Louise Parker, “Weeds”) uses her connections to get his proposal for a new dealership considered and asks him, in turn, to help her daughter with an interview at his alma mater. On the college visit, Ben mentors a promising student (Jesse Eisenberg, ZOMBIELAND) and reconnects with an old friend (Danny DeVito, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”). But can he really pull his life back together?

Filled with deft performers, A SOLITARY MAN nevertheless belongs to Michael Douglas, who pounces on his role with aplomb. Like most of Douglas’s characters, Ben loves to be the center of attention. But his smooth-talking bravado has become a cover for an aching fear of getting older. As his nervy confidence tips over into dangerous audacity, his loneliness begins to reveal itself to those he thought he might have lost.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

What do defrauded American Indian tribes, the Malaysian government, Saipan sweatshops, and the Russian mob all have in common? Jack Abramoff, of course. In 2008, the former political lobbyist was convicted of fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion for his role in fleecing several American Indian-owned casinos. But what really made waves were Abramoff’s ties to the highest levels of the Republican party, including President George W. Bush and House Majority Leader Tom Delay. While never formally charged in connection with Abramoff’s activities, Delay resigned due, in part, to his associations with them.

But just who is Jack Abramoff, and how far did his reach extend? With CASINO JACK, Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM) provides a comprehensive look at Abramoff’s rise from chairman of the College Republican National Committee to formidable Washington insider. As with his previous work, Gibney uses a particular figure as a case study in which to examine a larger political issue. In this case, Abramoff’s combination of renegade greed, religious conviction, and media fixation — he reportedly converted to Orthodox Judaism after watching Fiddler on the Roof — serves as a symbol for the meteoric rise of the New Right, whose fervor for economic deregulation, Gibney argues, reverberates powerfully in today’s bleak economic climate.

Searching for Elliot Smith

A worshipful invocation of the fallen indie god, SEARCHING FOR ELLIOTT SMITH attempts to piece together a man too talented for the underground and too shy for the spotlight. An icon defined by his music’s emotional accessibility and the detached enigma of his public persona, Smith is as quietly compelling in the accounts of his friends and fans as his life and lyrics were. The film’s search is for a complete person amid the stories and associations, to preserve his memory and detail the disturbing uncertainties of his death.

The strange circumstances of Smith’s alleged suicide seem too perfectly and tragically poetic to be real. Reportedly, after arguing with his fiancée, Jennifer Chiba — the secondary center of the film’s latter half — Smith stabbed himself twice in the heart with a kitchen knife. Discovering the scene minutes later, Chiba immediately pulled the knife out of her love’s chest — the absolute opposite of any first-aid recommendation — and instantly worsened the already fatal wound. After Smith died, Chiba’s refusal to speak with detectives left the cause of death undetermined and allowed for the mounting popular assumption that the crime’s only witness was actually the murderer.

The case is not yet closed, but as the mystery is sustained, so is Smith’s spirit. Balancing his darkest depressions and greatest achievements, SEARCHING FOR ELLIOTT SMITH reveals its subject’s kindness, subtle humor, and reserved brilliance, as well as the perfect imperfections of his prolific output — and it testifies to the overwhelming effect his visceral truths had on his closest friends and anonymous admirers alike.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.