January was busy month here at Film Independent, and not just because last week we announced (with a little help from Olivia Wilde, Barry Jenkins and Laverne Cox) the nominees of the 2021 Film Independent Spirit Awards. It was also our most jam-packed month of Film Independent Presents programming ever. Catch up below…
Guests of honor: Kenneth Paul Rosenberg (writer/director/producer), Peter Miller (writer/producer), Joan Churchill, ASC (co-producer/director of photography), Alan Barker (co-producer/location sound), Buddy Squires, ASC (additional cinematography and project development), Bob Richman (cinematographer); moderated by Caroline Libresco (curator, producer, consultant)
About: Through intimate stories of patients, families and medical providers, Bedlam is a feature-length documentary that immerses viewers in the national crisis surrounding medical care of the severely mentally ill. Filmed over five years, it brings us inside one of America’s busiest psychiatric emergency rooms, into jails where psychiatric patients are warehoused and to the homes–and homeless encampments–of mentally ill members of our communities, where silence and shame often compound personal suffering. The story is told in part by director Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, MD, whose own life journey has been profoundly impacted by a severely mentally ill family member.
What critics are saying: “Bedlam—titled after the notorious London madhouse founded six centuries ago—does manage to provide incriminating evidence that we’ve become a society that considers many of its neediest citizens too unimportant to care for,” writes Dennis Harvey in his review for Variety.
Guests of honor: Viggo Mortensen (writer/director/actor/producer), Lance Henriksen (actor); moderated by Ed Harris (actor/director/producer)
About: Falling follows John (Viggo Mortensen) who lives with his partner, Eric (Terry Chen) and their daughter, Mónica (Gabby Velis) in California, far from the traditional rural life he left behind years ago. John’s father, Willis (Lance Henriksen), a headstrong man from a bygone era, lives alone on the isolated farm where John grew up. Willis is in the early stages of dementia, making running the farm on his own increasingly difficult, so John brings him to stay at his California home so that he and his sister Sarah (Laura Linney) might help him find a place nearby to relocate to. Unfortunately, their best intentions ultimately run up against Willis’s adamant refusal to change his way of life. The challenge they face is to find a way to forgive each other, to accept what has happened in the past and, most importantly, what is happening to them as a family in the present. We embark on a journey from darkness to light, from rage and resentment to acceptance and hard-won grace.
What critics are saying: “Lance Henriksen gives the performance of his career as an emasculated father facing dementia, but it’s writer-director-star Viggo Mortensen who makes the film’s universal themes resonate so strongly,” writes Peter Debruge, Variety
Guests of honor: Mark Amin (co-writer/director/producer), Cami Winikoff (producer), Reginald Hudlin (producer), Dayo Okeniyi (actor); moderated by Clayton Davis
About: An escaped slave rumored to have been descended from African royalty (Okeniyi) travels North and has chance encounters with Frederick Douglass (Harry Lennix) and John Brown (James Cromwell), in a story loosely based on the real life story of Shields Green.
What critics are saying: “Okeniyi has a strong presence that conveys a genuine moral authorit,” writes Glenn Kenny, The New York Times
I CARRY YOU WITH ME
Guests of honor: Heidi Ewing (co-writer/director/producer), Armando Espitia (actor), Christian Vazquez (actor); moderated by Zachary Quinto
About: I Carry You With Me (currently nominated for Best First Feature and Best Editing at the 2021 Spirit Awards) is an intimate love story as well as a soulful rumination on family, sacrifice, regret and, ultimately, hope. Ewing gracefully traces two men’s lives from their childhoods in Mexico through the decisions that lead them into adulthood. Iván (Espitia), an aspiring chef and young father, hopes to secure a spot in a restaurant’s kitchen while supporting his child. But the discovery of his relationship with Gerardo (Vazquez) causes conflict, and in despair he makes the arduous choice to cross the border into the United States, promising his son and his soulmate that he will return.
What critics are saying: “I Carry You With Me is fluid and carefully crafted from start to finish. Restless handheld camerawork reinforces a sense of unsettled lives, and the city of Puebla, with its rain-slicked cobblestone streets and markets bursting with color, is brought to vibrant, romantic life,” Jon Frosch, The Hollywood Reporter
Guests of honor: Miranda de Pencier (director/producer), Stacey Aglok MacDonald (producer), Ben Schnetzer (actor), Booboo Stewart (actor); moderated by Film Independent’s Jeremy Aguilera-Gaudette
About: The Grizzlies is based on the inspiring true story of a group of Inuit (Eskimo/Indigenous/Native) students, living in a small Arctic town suffering from one of the highest teen suicide rates in the world. The disillusioned students are initially resistant when a naïve and culturally ignorant white teacher introduces them to lacrosse—but gradually, as they begin to connect with each other as teammates, “The Grizzlies” find inspiration to make a profound shift in their lives.
What critics are saying: “Though it’s a familiar plot about kids learning discipline and teamwork through sports, The Grizzlies is brought to life through the specifics that make the characters and their sense of place—and of displacement—central to the story,” writes Nell Minow, RogerEbert.com
Guest of honor: Katori Hall (creator/showrunner/executive producer), Geeta Patel (director), Nicco Annan (actor), Brandee Evans (actor), Elarica Johnson (actor); moderated by actor and film critic Carla Renata
About: Down deep in the Mississippi Delta lies an oasis of grit and glitter in a rough patch of human existence where beauty can be hard to find. This Southern-fried, hour-long drama tells the kaleidoscopic story of a “little strip club that could” and the big characters who come through its doors: the hopeful, the lost, the broken, the ballers, the beautiful and the damned. Trap music meets film noir in this lyrical and atmospheric series that dares to ask what happens when small-town folk dream beyond the boundaries of the Piggly Wiggly and the pawnshop.
What critics are saying: “These are richly crafted characters in what is essentially a quasi-family. It’s obvious Hall did her homework, talking to dozens of strippers over six years, to make the production as authentic as possible,” writes IndieWire’s Tambay Obenson
Guest of honor: Matt Wolf (director/producer); moderated by filmmaker Josh Safdie
About: Spaceship Earth is the stranger-than-fiction adventure story of the eight visionaries, who in 1991 spent two years quarantined inside of a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem called BIOSPHERE 2. The experiment was a worldwide phenomenon, chronicling daily existence in the face of life-threatening ecological disaster and a growing criticism that it was nothing more than a cult. The bizarre story is both a cautionary tale and a hopeful lesson of how a small group of dreamers can imagine a new world.
What critics are saying: “The film is helped greatly by telling a story that hasn’t already been covered to death. Along the way, it incidentally hands audiences a new metaphor for, well, pretty much everything—which might’ve been one small part of Allen’s original intent, considering these pioneers were essentially building and inhabiting a huge metaphor anyway,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com
STANDING UP, FALLING DOWN
Guests of honor: Matt Ratner (director/producer), Billy Crystal (actor/executive producer), Ben Schwartz (actor/executive producer); moderated by Film Independent President Josh Welsh
About: After four years of chasing his stand-up comedy dream in Los Angeles, 34-year-old Scott Rollins (Schwartz) has crashed and burned. Hard. Left with little money and a fledgling-at-best “career,” Scott has no choice but to regroup, lick his wounds and return home to his parent’s house in Long Island. While trying to figure out what to do next, Scott pines after his ex, Becky Brookes (Eloise Mumford), a successful photographer who has since married a former mutual friend. On a night out at the bar, Scott strikes up an unlikely friendship with an eccentric dermatologist, Marty (Billy Crystal), who has regrets of his own. Marty and Scott both help each other find the courage to face the failures in their lives.
What critics are saying: “With a movie like this, chemistry is key, and Standing Up, Falling Down has got it. The scenes where Schwartz and Crystal crack each other up while talking about their problems always have an off-the-cuff liveliness, regardless of how much their bonding has been scripted,” says Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com
ZOEY’S EXTRAORDINARY PLAYLIST
Guests of honor: Austin Winsberg (creator/showrunner), Paul Feig (executive producer), Mandy Moore (choreographer), Jane Levy (actor), Mary Steenburgen (actor), Skylar Astin (actor), Alex Newell (actor), John Clarence Stewart (actor), Lauren Graham (actor), Peter Gallagher (actor); moderated by Katherine Tulich (HFPA)
About: Created by Austin Winsberg, this effervescent, postmodern musical follows Zoey Clarke (Levy), a whip-smart computer coder forging her way in San Francisco. After an unusual event, Zoey suddenly starts to hear the innermost wants, thoughts and desires of the people around her–her family, co-workers and complete strangers–through popular songs.
What critics are saying: “A likably inspired musical dramedy boasting a strong cast led by a never-better Jane Levy,” writes Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
Guests of honor: Emerald Fennell (writer/director/producer), Carey Mulligan (actor)
About: From ground-breaking (and Spirit Award nominated) director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) comes a delicious dark comedy. Everyone said Cassie (Carey Mulligan) was a “promising young woman”–until a mysterious event abruptly derailed her future. But nothing in Cassie’s life is what it appears to be: she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter is about to give Cassie a chance to right the wrongs of the past in this thrilling and wildly entertaining revenge story.
What critics are saying: “Girlishness isn’t a contrast to darkness in Promising Young Woman but incidental to it, the two perfectly capable of coexisting,” writes Vulture’s Alison Willmore
Guest of honor: Edson Odaand (writer/director), Winston Duke (actor), Zazie Beetz (actor), Bill Skarsgård (actor), Benedict Wong (actor); moderated by Spike Jonze (executive producer)
About: In a metaphysical in-between space, Will (Winston Duke) spends his days in a remote outpost watching TVs with the live Points of View (POVs) of people going about their lives until one subject perishes, leaving a vacancy for a new life on earth. Soon, several candidates—unborn souls—arrive at Will’s to undergo tests determining their fitness, facing oblivion when they are deemed unsuitable. But Will soon faces his own existential challenge in the form of free-spirited Emma (Zazie Beetz), a candidate who is not like the others, forcing him to turn within and reckon with his own tumultuous past. Fueled by unexpected power he discovers a bold new path forward in his own life. The film is nominated for two 2021 Spirit Awards: Best First Feature and Best Supporting Male, for Benedict Wong.
What critics are saying: “Yes, Nine Days does have characters, and memorable ones at that. But it’s the deeper inquiry into the human soul that makes it so special,” writes Peter Debruge, Variety
PIECES OF A WOMAN
Guests of honor: Kornél Mundruczó (director), Kata Wéber (writer), Vanessa Kirby (actor), Ellen Burstyn (actor); moderated by Film Independent President Josh Welsh
About: Martha (Kirby) and Sean (Shia LeBeouf) are a Boston couple on the verge of parenthood whose lives change irrevocably when a home birth ends in unimaginable tragedy. Thus begins a yearlong odyssey for Martha, who must navigate her grief while working through fractious relationships with Sean and her domineering mother (Ellen Burstyn), along with the publicly vilified midwife (Molly Parker) whom she must face in court. Pieces of a Woman is a deeply personal, searing and ultimately transcendent story of a woman learning to live alongside her loss.
What critics are saying: “Vanessa Kirby gives an intensely physical performance as a woman whose life and marriage are upended by the death of a child,” writes Jeannette Catsoulis in The New York Times
Guest of honor: Victor Kossakovsky (director)
About: Experiential cinema in its purest form, Gunda chronicles the unfiltered lives of a mother pig, a flock of chickens and a herd of cows with masterful intimacy. Using stark, transcendent black and white cinematography and the farm’s ambient soundtrack, director Victor Kossakovsky invites the audience to slow down and experience life as his subjects do, taking in their world with a magical patience and another worldly perspective. Gunda asks us to meditate on the mystery of animal consciousness and reckon with the role humanity plays in it.
What critics are saying: “This astonishing documentary offers an intimate look at the lives of a sow, her rambunctious piglets, a one-legged chicken and a herd of cows,” writes Manohla Dargis in The New York Times
THE WHITE TIGER
Guests of honor: Ramin Bahrani (writer/director/producer)
About: Balram Halwai (Adarsh Gourav) narrates his epic and darkly humorous rise from poor villager to successful entrepreneur in modern India. Cunning and ambitious, our young hero jockeys his way into becoming a driver for Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) and Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), who have just returned from America. Society has trained Balram to be one thing — a servant — so he makes himself indispensable to his rich masters. But after a night of betrayal, he realizes the corrupt lengths they will go to trap him and save themselves. On the verge of losing everything, Balram rebels against a rigged and unequal system to rise up and become a new kind of master.
What critics are saying: “A zestful epic blessed with rapier wit, casually dazzling dialogue, gorgeous cinematography (by Paolo Carnera) and, at the center of it all, a sensational star turn.” Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal
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(Header: Bill Duke in Nine Days)