2016 was a pretty grim year, but I do have one positive thing to say for myself: I saw more movies in the theater than I had in any year over the past decade. Compare: in 2015, I caught just 31 new feature films on the big screen. (That may sound like a lot to you, but you're probably not a childless filmmaker who works at home and has time for this.) In 2016, I've already seen twice as many –and 28 of them were at festivals, which I attended with my own short, 20 Matches. These nine, the best of the lot, are films you might not otherwise know about. That's the whole point of festivals! In order of personal preference:
- NUTS! (Penny Lane). A kooky, mostly-animated documentary about Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, the 1920s entrepreneur who swore he could cure male impotence by transplanting goat testicles onto his patients. The less you know about Brinkley in advance, the more you'll enjoy Nuts!, which quietly bends reality and makes you question everything. A surprisingly potent – no pun intended – film, as smart as it is fun to watch.
- MAGALLANES (Salvador del Solar). Foreign dramas are a tough sell, even at festivals, but this Peruvian entry is a stunner. A Lima cab driver named Magallanes spots a woman who brings back some dark memories: Magallanes was once a soldier whose commanding officer, now an Alzheimer's-addled old man, had held this same woman as a sex slave years earlier, when she was just a girl. Although Magallanes is not a pleasant film, it is an intense one, with a gripping plot that plays out like a thriller. And man, is it well-acted.
- THE BANDIT (Jesse Moss). This isn't the sort of movie you'd expect to find at a festival – a documentary, made for Country Music Television, about stuntman-turned-director Hal Needham and the making of his 1977 Burt Reynolds vehicle Smokey and the Bandit. But it's a real crowd-pleaser. And if you're like me, a child of the '70s, it's also a delightful wallow in nostalgia. I've seen a lot of contemporary movies that take place in the 1970s. After taking in the actual '70s clothes, hair, and attitudes on display in The Bandit, you'll realize how wrong those movies got the decade. This doc positively reeks of Aqua Velva.
- WE'VE FORGOTTEN MORE THAN WE EVER KNEW (Thomas Woodrow). A spooky, Kubrickian chamber piece, set in an uncertain time and place, in which seemingly the last two people on earth (Aaron Stanford and Louisa Krause, both excellent) wander into an abandoned hotel and rediscover Western culture. A preternaturally silent man (Guillermo del Toro regular Doug Jones, sans monster makeup) lurks on the periphery. The camerawork is sophisticated, the soundscape unnerving. A "dystopian sci fi" only on the surface, We've Forgotten is a metaphorical film that's filled with mystery.
- EMBERS (Claire Carré). This more openly dystopian film could arguably take place in the same universe as We've Forgotten, especially if you literalize the latter film's title, as Embers is about the survivors of an epidemic that has wiped out people's memories. Imagine a world in which everyone is the guy from Memento – that, more or less, is Embers. The film is slow moving, but the score (by Kimberly Henninger and Shawn Parke) is evocative, and there are at least a couple of stunning moments in which the actors brilliantly convey memories being lost before their very eyes.
- JOSEPHINE DOE (Ryan Michael). A low-key character study, shot in moody black and white in Cincinnati, of all places, about a shy young woman (screenwriter Erin Cipoletti, appealing) and her troublemaking friend Josephine (Emma Griffin), who is not what she seems. Even if you can guess the "twist" early on, the film is an effective portrait of loneliness and mental illness. And it's not nearly as depressing as I'm making it sound.
- COLLECTIVE: UNCONSCIOUS (various). Five indie directors visually interpret each other's dreams. The results are sometimes pretentious, occasionally fantastic, and authentically dreamlike. Standout segments include a stressful high school gym class and a kiddie TV show hosted by the Grim Reaper. You can watch the entire film for free on Vimeo. Check it out.
- WE'RE STILL TOGETHER (Jesse Klein). Two friendless Canadians – one a bullied, overweight young man (Jesse Camacho), the other a divorced father with anger issues (Joey Klein, the director's brother) – randomly meet one quiet night in Montreal, and decide to hit the town together. We're Still Together takes the buddy movie formula and turns it on its head. For this is not a raunchy comedy or a feel-good flick but a somber, intimate, vaguely menacing odyssey. Still, the film finds hope for its lost characters. The cast is strong, and Montreal is made to feel like the loneliest city in the world.
- GODDESS OF LOVE (Jon Knautz). No masterpiece, but a solid little thriller about an obsessive stripper (cowriter Alexis Kendra) who falls in love with a photographer client. Knautz, who also served as cinematographer, sure knows how to use a camera: this low-budget film looks like a million bucks. Kendra, with her spectacularly blue eyes, is appropriately unsettling, and the story will keep you guessing. Most would write this off as a B-movie, but I found it surprisingly well-made.