Best of the Boston fests: IFFB

The Danish film “A Hijacking” starring Johan Philip Asbaek (right) is a moral drama about a commercial vessel crew hijacked by Somali pirates.
The Danish film “A Hijacking” starring Johan Philip Asbaek (right) is a moral drama about a commercial vessel crew hijacked by Somali pirates.

Last year, the Independent Film Festival of Boston celebrated its 10th anniversary, marking a decade in which it evolved from just another scrappy local event to the best indie-movie smorgasbord in town. This Wednesday, the IFFB opens its second decade with the same mix of strengths that has sustained its growth: savvy curatorial cherry-picking of the best from Sundance, SXSW, and other recent fests; a welcome spotlight on local films and filmmakers; panel discussions and in-person appearances by directors; and a general eye for the weird and wonderful.

The 2013 festival runs from April 24-30 and will unspool mostly at the Somerville Theatre, with other venues including the Brattle, the Coolidge, and Theater 1 at the Revere Hotel. Discussed below are some notable films in this year’s festival.

For more information go to www.iffboston.org

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TY BURR:

THE SPECTACULAR NOW

The festival’s opening night presentation comes to Boston after going over big at SXSW and especially Sundance, where costars Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley shared a special jury prize for “rare honesty, naturalism and transparency.” Translation: The movie’s a teenage romance with characters who seem like actual teenagers. Based on a novel by Tim Tharp, “Now” stars Teller (“Rabbit Hole”) as a life-of-the-party senior whose bravado masks insecurity; Woodley (“The Descendants”) is the class nobody he dates first out of pity and then — oh, you know. It’s an oft-told tale — a dab of John Hughes, a dash of “Perks of Being a Wallflower” — made fresh by the gentle realism of the playing and the levelheaded direction of James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”). (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., Somerville)

A HIJACKING

From Denmark, a riveting moral drama about a commercial vessel hijacked by Somali pirates. As the crew is held for ransom and days stretch into weeks, and then months, writer-director Tobias Lindholm splits the action between the ship, where the Danish cook (Pilou Asbaek) becomes the pirates’ harried intermediary, and company HQ, in Copenhagen, where the CEO (Soren Malling) proves an all-too-cool negotiator. The film works as both a suspenseful nail-biter and a subtle indictment of the profit motive, whether it’s found in a high-rise office building or a Third World motorboat. Recommended. (Friday, 9:45 p.m., Somerville)

PERSISTENCE OF VISION

A documentary portrait of craftsmanship so obsessive it doesn’t know when to quit. British animator Richard Williams is best known for his groundbreaking work on the 1988 classic “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” but Kevin Schreck’s film zeroes in on “The Thief and the Cobbler,” a labor of love that Williams worked on for 28 years before it was finally taken out of his hands and released in bowdlerized form as 1994’s “Arabian Night.” (By then Disney had already pilfered the film’s visual ideas for “Aladdin.”) Williams doesn’t talk to the director but everyone else does, and the picture that comes into focus is that of a maverick genius betrayed by his love for detail. (Saturday, noon, Somerville)

THIS IS MARTIN BONNER

A small, disarmingly democratic slice of life set in Reno about the friendship between a paroled convict (Richmond Arquette) and the title character, a wise but regretful older man (Paul Eenhoorn), who has lost touch with God. As in his debut feature, 2008’s little-seen “Luke and Brie Are on a First Date,” writer-director Chad Hartigan puts his faith in average people and little moments, watching as they forge connections almost in spite of themselves. An unassuming gem, more polished than mumblecore but far from the glossy certainties of the mainstream. (Saturday, 12:15 p.m., Somerville)

EXIT ELENA

From straight outta Lexington comes Nathan Silver’s deadpan tale of suburban dysfunction and the human urge to belong. Co-writer/star Kia Davis suggests an evolutionary midpoint between Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham as a lost 20-something who gets a job as a nurse’s aide for a maddeningly self-absorbed family. As the matriarch, Gert O’Connell is the quintessential progressive, noodgy outer-Boston mom — you could throw a tennis ball off Route 128 and hit about 10 of her. With the director’s own mother playing the grandmother, oy, is this a family affair. (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Somerville)

SECUNDARIA

Boston University film professor Mary Jane Doherty traveled to Cuba repeatedly over the years to complete this lucid, watchful portrait of young ballet dancers desperately trying to plié their way out of poverty and into the Ballet Nacional. The film follows a path familiar from documentaries like “Spellbound” and “First Position,” the difference here being that the young aspirants have the future of entire families on their shoulders. As we follow Doherty’s primary subjects — middle-class Gabriela, poor Mayara, poorer Moises — “Secundaria” reveals itself as being less about competing in dance and more about battling into adulthood. (Saturday, 1 p.m., Somerville)

GOOD OL’ FREDA

A documentary for Beatle fanatics who think they know it all. Freda Kelly was 17 years old when she was plucked out of a gaggle of fans at Liverpool’s Cavern Club and tapped to head up the Fabs’ fan club. In 1970, she was still at it, answering letters and mailing out photos even after the group disbanded. In between, Kelly had a front-row seat for all the cultural changes of the ’60s as enacted by the pop group that seemed to lead those changes. Kelly herself asks director Ryan White early in the film, “Who would want to hear a secretary’s story?” The answer (besides the faithful) is anyone interested in what legends look like to the invisible ordinary folk right next to them. (Saturday, 3 p.m., Somerville)

BLOOD BROTHER

A fascinating film, but not entirely for the reasons its maker and subject think. Pittsburgh’s Steve Hoover documents his childhood friend Rocky Braat’s journey to India, where the young man finds his purpose caring for HIV-infected orphans. On one level, it’s a movie about a committed young altruist; on another, it’s about a lost soul using an exotic culture to define himself (and on still another level it’s about a guy using his best friend to make a movie). Rocky’s compassion can’t be denied — especially in a harrowing hospital sequence late in the film — but, almost in spite of itself, “Blood Brother” is about the West treating the Third World as a mirror rather than a place of its own. (Saturday, 3:15 p.m., Somerville)

A SUITCASE OF LOVE AND SHAME

Perhaps the most formally bizarre entry in this year’s festival, Jane Gilooly’s film represents the aural evidence of a forbidden affair. The filmmaker bought a suitcase on eBay containing 60 hours of reel-to-reel tapes, mid-1960s love notes from a married Texas veterinarian to his girlfriend. Gilooly keeps the visuals minimalist in the extreme — “Suitcase” could be, and has been, an art installation. Still, listening to these twangy anonymous adulterers proclaim their passion, indulge in kinky pastimes, and eventually move toward breakup is weirdly moving. It’s a work of sonic voyeurism, an artifact of prehistoric sexting, a pre-feminist tragedy, and more. (Saturday, 6:45 p.m., Somerville)

THE DIRTIES

A grand-jury prizewinner at this year’s Slamdance, a festival that likes to show neighboring Sundance what edgy looks like. Matt Johnson’s queasy low-budget drama — about two bullied high school kids making a film about killing their tormentors — may have too much edge for a lot of people, but it delves into interesting and unsettling areas: the way storytelling fuels revenge fantasies, the blurry line between pretending and doing, the distortions of movie geekery. A scurrilous but inspired work, and one worth arguing with. (Saturday, 9:15 p.m., Somerville)

TOUCHY FEELY

With “My Sister’s Sister” — a high point of last year’s IFFB — writer-director Lynn Shelton vaulted out of the mumblecore pack with a deft, funny look at relationships, one that featured actual movie stars like Rosemarie DeWitt and Emily Blunt. DeWitt re-ups with Shelton here to play a Seattle masseuse who suddenly freaks out at the idea of touching someone. This doesn’t do much for business, let alone her relationship with bike-shop dude Scoot McNairy. It’s the director’s most baroque project yet, with ideas that can outrun the drama, but the supporting cast (Ellen Page, Allison Janney, Ron Livingston) is deep, and Shelton’s lightly parodic touch remains a treat. (April 29, 7:30 p.m., Somerville)

PETER KEOUGH:

WASTELAND

When someone ends up bruised and busted in a police station facing Timothy Spall, he’d better have a good story. The one told by Harvey (Luke Treadaway), the perp, is so-so; the one woven around it by writer-director Rowan Athale is much better. In a series of flashbacks, Harvey relates the familiar tale of a guy getting out of prison after being framed by the local psychopathic mob boss. He enlists his mates in an elaborate payback scheme made even more confusing by the impenetrable Yorkshire accents. There’s a girlfriend, of course, the typical wet blanket who wants Harvey to stay straight. The outcome seems predictable — but not so fast. Athale might not have Quentin Tarantino’s dazzle and depth, but he shares some of his narrative subversiveness. (Thursday, 9:15 p.m, Somerville)

THE PUNK SINGER

Feminism may be dead, but the Riot grrrls live on, if only in the Moscow prison where members of their Russian incarnation, Pussy Riot, serve sentences for hooliganism. Sini Anderson’s surging, rough-and-ready portrait of Katherine Hanna, one of the movement’s founders, and lead singer for the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, should renew enthusiasm for her cause and her music. The film starts with a question — why did Hanna pull the plug on her career in 2005? — and then relates Hanna’s tale from her origins as a teenage feminist putting on assaultive art shows to her success as a punk rock singer. At its best the film evokes the jagged edges of punk, mixing talking heads and crackling performance footage into gleeful, ’zine-like collages. So why did Hanna quit? The answer is both banal and devastating, but her defiant spirit and ferocious music prevail. (Thursday, 9:45 p.m, Somerville)

SOFT IN THE HEAD

The title of Nathan Silver’s John Cassavettes-like slice of lowlife could apply to any of the characters, but perhaps is meant specifically for Natalia (Sheila Etxeberría), a woman under the influence if ever there was one. In short order she engages in a drunken fight with her boyfriend (shot in assaultive close-up), crashes a Seder at her best friend’s house, and ends up on the sidewalk. That’s where Maury (Ed Ryan) finds her. He invites her to crash at his apartment, an ad-hoc homeless shelter, already boarding a bunch of indigent oddballs who seem like rejects from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Silver divides the film into six truncated chapters, and the whole culminates with a full-stop image reminiscent of Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” (Friday, 7 p.m, Brattle)

SIGHTSEERS

Covering much the same picturesque northern England terrain as Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip,” though with more sex and serial killing, Ben Wheatley’s black-comic road movie overdoses on absurdities before reaching its oddly poetic climax. Despite her dotty mother’s protestations, frumpy Tina (Alice Lowe) joins new beau Chris (Steve Oram, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lowe) in a trailer (or “caravan”) touring such attractions as the Crich Tram Village and the Cumberland Pencil Museum. Chris has little patience with rude people, and Tina’s initial disapproval of the subsequent murder spree gives way to avid participation. It’s a Monty Python version of “Badlands,” with a dark heart underlying its inspired, if tiresome, nonsense. (Friday, 9:30 p.m, Somerville)

THE GENIUS OF MARIAN

A year after Pam White started on a book about her mother, Marian, a painter who fell victim to Alzheimer’s, Pam herself was diagnosed with the disease. She was 63. Her son Banker White (with co-director Anna Fitch) records his mother’s fight against the disease, and the equally courageous efforts of Pam’s husband and her children in caring for her; their daily struggle will resound not only with those who face the same situation, but with all who must someday confront the inevitabilities of decline, loss, and grief. The film’s intercutting of scenes from home movies of Pam as a child with similar scenes from the present day, punctuated with shots of Pam’s mother’s paintings, evoke the persistence of memory and identity. In a poignant moment, one of Pam’s friends catches herself using the past tense. “I didn’t want to say ‘was,’ ” she insists. “Because she still is.” (Saturday, 2:45 p.m., Somerville)

THE HUNT

An hour or so into Thomas Vinterberg’s drama about a nursery school teacher falsely accused of child molestation, a nagging question persists: Why doesn’t he just call a lawyer? This implausibility only calls attention to the film’s contrivances. Mads Mikkelsen’s cheekbones add intensity to his portrayal of the victim of this witch hunt (and get this — he’s a hunter!) as does Vinterberg’s giddiness-inducing post-Dogme style. The primitive male-bonding rituals do suggest a world where the Dark Ages lurk just around the corner. But the real star is Annika Wedderkopp as the girl who cried wolf: She’s an uncanny looking child, and if she has a twin they could be featured in “The Shining II.” (Saturday, 9:45 p.m, Somerville)

THE ELDERS

Why hasn’t Hollywood realized that old people are a gold mine of story material? Though Nathan Hansen’s documentary opens with a quote from Simone de Beauvoir about how a society should be judged by the way it treats the elderly, his film is more about what old people can offer than what they need. In a style reminiscent of Errol Morris, he interviews seniors from disparate backgrounds, each with exemplary tales to tell. They include a Japanese-American woman whose dream of becoming a teacher ended when she and her family were put in an internment camp during World War II, and a Native American Vietnam vet with post-traumatic stress disorder who exorcised his demons through carpentry. Asked why he works with old wood, he sums up the film’s theme, explaining that society disposes of used things too quickly, and is the poorer for it. (April 28, 12:45 p.m., Somerville)

LAURENCE ANYWAYS

Orson Welles made his first film at 26. Xavier Dolan, at 24, has him beat — he’s already made three. Though no “Citizen Kane,” “Laurence” is also a fictitious biopic. Framed by an interview heard in voice-over, the narrative covers in flashback 10 years in the life of the title writer (Melvil Poupaud) following change of genders from male to female. Fred (Suzanne Clément), the woman he loves, complicates the process, but their persistent relationship allows Dolan to explore the ambiguities of gender and desire. Sometimes the imagery overdoes it, such as a scene in which an indoor deluge marks a character’s epiphany. But lapses aside, “Laurence” combines the lacerating melodrama of Fassbinder with the exuberant flourishes of Almodóvar, confirming Dolan as a talent of Wellesian potential. (April 28, 2 p.m, Somerville)

BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO

Timid audio engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones) doesn’t know what he’s in for when he starts work at the title studio, hired ostensibly to work on the soundtrack of a ’70s Mario Bava-like slasher film for Santini (Antonio Mancino), a conceited hack director (“It’s not a horror film,” he insists, “It’s a Santini film.”) Gilderoy’s not the only one bewildered. I expected the movie within the movie to become the actual movie, with special effects turning into actual carnage. But for more than an hour the only things tortured are fresh vegetables, splattered and crunched to simulate the sounds of the atrocities in the film — which is never seen. Or is it? Director/writer Peter Strickland emulates existential horror films like Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” as the term “looping” takes on a diabolical new meaning. (April 28, 8:45 p.m., Somerville)

SOME GIRL(S)

I lost track of Neil LaBute after the inexplicable “Wicker Man” (2006), but Daisy von Scherler Meyer’s adaptation of his 2005 stage play finds him in his comfort zone of cynical, sometimes sadistic experiments in male/female incompatibility. Here Adam Brody (the 21st-century answer to Matthew Broderick) plays an unnamed writer who is dropping in on old flames (Kristen Bell, Zoe Kazan, Jennifer Morrison, Mia Maestro, and Emily Watson) to make amends, or something. They include an unhappy housewife, a slut, a ditz, the one true love, etc. — a balanced assortment of stereotypes — with whom he engages in his alternately narcissistic and masochistic project. By “some girl” number two he reveals about as much as he has to offer (“I really suck”). Meyer makes the most of hotel rooms and a talky script. This was better when it was Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers.” (April 29, 7 p.m., Somerville)

JANICE PAGE:

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

Did the world really need another adaptation of this Shakespearean classic? Probably not. But Joss Whedon’s modest black-and-white film, shot in just 12 days at his California home, is a breezy delight that proves worthy of keeping company with his other TV and filmmaking credits, including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The Cabin in the Woods.” The cast is full of the filmmaker’s pals and regular players — Alexis Denisof as Benedick, Amy Acker as Beatrice, Fran Kranz as Claudio — making it feel like the Bard by way of “The Big Chill.” Even Whedon’s most devoted fans may have doubted the wisdom of following “The Avengers” with something this challenging. They can rest easy. He hath indeed better bettered expectation. (Saturday, Somerville, 4 p.m.)

THE ACT OF KILLING

You’ve never seen a movie like this documentary from director Joshua Oppenheimer. It’s about Indonesian death squads who tortured and executed communists in the 1960s. Their story would be dramatic enough told straightforwardly, but Oppenheimer has the kooky-brilliant-outrageous idea to let former squad members also craft their own revealing narratives, complete with reenactments, done up in cinematic genres from noir to musical. The controversial result can be as absurd as it is horrific to watch. Can these unremorseful killers, as casual about dispatching a human life as they are about dressing in drag, be for real? Should you feel bad for even giving them your time? Just when it all seems a bit too staged and slimy to stomach, you see the bile erupt onscreen, too, and the volume of it haunts. Executive produced by Werner Herzog and Errol Morris; in Indonesian, with subtitles. (April 28, 5:45 p.m., Somerville)

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