Best of Fest: Massachusetts Independent Film Festival 2016

Founded by filmmakers, ambitious MassIFF connects audiences with films that truly embody the spirit of independence.

At a time when the word “independent” has as much to do with a film’s marketing as its production, funding, or distribution, the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival stands out as a celebration of the scrappy spirit of grassroots, DIY filmmaking . Founded six years ago by Christopher Di Nunzio, Jason Miller, and Nolan Yee — themselves independent filmmakers — MassIFF is one of the best places to catch budding artists on their way up. The even playing field among projects with differing levels of polish and production value is both part of MassIFF’s appeal and a key component of its mission; if a person is passionate enough about an idea to make it at all costs, it deserves an exhibition and an audience, period.

This year, I had the honor of serving on the MassIFF jury on behalf of Boston Reel with Boston Globe’s Peter Keough and Improper Bostonian’s Brett Michel. In truth, MassIFF is so well programmed that a Best Of list could conceivably be the entire lineup. A few did stand out for me personally, so here are my picks to watch out for when they hit theaters or VOD.

BEST OF FEST

‘Neptune’

NEPTUNE (dir. Derek Kimball)

Set in 1980s Maine, Neptune follows the story of Hannah, a young girl caught between the conviction of her faith and fulfilling her obligations to the religious institution that raised her. After witnessing the possible death of a teenage boy in a small Maine fishing town, she offers to help the boy’s father on his fishing boat because she believes it is the right thing to do. In doing so, Hannah draws the ire of the priest who has raised her and groomed her for an exclusive religious high school, biting the hand that fed her in order to do what she felt was right. Hanna’s emotional struggle is manifested by visually captivating dream sequences inspired by Jonah and the Whale, just one of the many ways Neptune deftly strikes a balance between the integrity of its characters based in the gritty realism of coastal life with the film’s broader existential exploration of faith and duty.

‘Chalet’

CHALET (dir. So-jin Park)

One of the great tragedies of the modern world is that learning a whole host of facts about another person has never been easier, yet this in no way translates to a deeper personal connection. Chalet explores this topic with the story of a man and a woman who are both occupants of the same rented room yet never meet — she sleeps there during the day, he at night — who form an intimately personal relationship by Post-It notes despite knowing nothing concrete about one another. Every other relationship in their lives, no matter how close or longstanding, is based on misunderstandings and judgment and the pressure to act a certain way or aspire to a specific goal. A beautiful film with thoughtful performances, with a universal theme and sympathetic characters guaranteed to connect with audiences the world over.

AGONIES AND REMEDIES (dir. Fernando Usón-Forniés)

Debuts don’t get much more promising than Spanish writer-director-editor (et al.) Fernando Usón-Forniés Agonies and Remedies. The story follows Tita, a widow who narrates her thoughts and daily activities to a photograph of her deceased husband Paco, and Reme, a boarder in Tita’s home who treats her harshly, alternating between apathy and outright hostility. Tita is occasionally visited by mysterious silent ballerinas when Reme is not around; their appearances are whimsical flights of fancy at first, but as the conflict between the two roommates reaches a head, they begin to embody the darkest corners of Tita and Reme’s psyches. Funny, insightful, and tragic, we’re looking forward to seeing what Usón-Forniés has in store next.

‘Solitary’

RAPID FIRE RECOMMENDATIONS

SOLITARY (dir. Derek J. Pastuszek)
An incredible two-part short film that follows a prisoner’s deteriorating mental state in solitary confinement followed by a jarring return to drab, bureaucratic reality. His conviction and his past are irrelevant in this film, which focuses on a harrowing act of punishment our society does not consider “cruel and unusual.” Stylishly executed and stunningly performed, Solitary is packed visual poetry and bursting with sociopolitical ambition.

I WISH I WAS THAT BIRD (dir. Jeffrey Krolick)
Good documentaries tell you interesting stories you would not have otherwise heard. Great ones challenge your preconceived notions and force you to see the world from another perspective. Krolick’s film is just that, following the life of an eccentric, self-taught outsider artist who never intended to be a rebel, only to find truth, beauty, and meaning after a lifetime of mental illness and trauma.

ZAAR (dir. Ibrahim Nada)
Zaar puts a fascinating spin on the age-old question of how a person would act if they knew the precise moment of their death. In this case, the title character Zaar is a suicide bomber waiting for his vest to go off in a neighborhood diner, and in his final moments, becomes hyper-aware of the people around him. Whatever brought him to this moment, he now sees what were once targets as humans with their own lives, personalities, and problems. Technically stunning with excellent performances, Zaar is a plea for humanity to collectively and openly address the problems that separate us before it’s too late.

OPERATOR (dir. Caroline Bartleet)
Imagine the most dangerous experience of your life. Now imagine the emergency operator whose job it is to talk people through life-threatening situations. The main action of Operator is off-screen — a mother whose house is on fire with a child upstairs — but our camera remains transfixed on this oft-forgotten hero, whose ability to follow protocol while maintaining composure and empathy saves lives.

RSVP (dir. Shannon Beeby)
A gay man who brings his partner’s ashes to the beach for a final goodbye is met by a surprise visitor. It’s best left at that as saying any more would give too much away and lessen the emotional punch that is crucial to its success, but the catharsis of RSVP is quite powerful with an inspiring message that resonates both on a personal and societal level.

OLIVE AND THE SAMURAI (dir. Brendan Boogie)
A gauntlet of street harassers makes it impossible for Olive to enjoy a nice day in the park. Annoying at first, she is eventually directly threatened and pursued, until she is rescued by a sword-wielding samurai who makes her safety his mission. A mostly lighthearted look at a very real and awful phenomenon that women face every day out in the open, the direction Olive and the Samurai takes from there shows a thoughtful metaphor at its core. Without spoiling nay more, if such heroes did exist, are they really an effective solution or would they be more trouble than they’re worth?

If a film isn’t mentioned here it doesn’t mean we don’t recommend it! Check out all the MassIFF nominees and winners, we guarantee you’ll find something you love!