I can’t tell you how much I look forward each year to the The Independent Film Festival of Boston, which just closed out the 2016 edition. It’s a time when members of the region’s film community and visiting filmmakers all get to meet and reconnect, watch films together and party a little bit too.

I’m fortunate to have been asked to compose music for the festival’s TV commercial and screening opener for the past few years, which allows me to attend and see all the films I can over the eight day period. I tied my personal best this year, seeing 13 films in all – some great, a few just OK, all of them interesting. That’s the beauty of independent film. Even if one doesn’t quite hit it’s mark, they always have value because of the honest attempts to tell a story, make a point or both. They don’t generally suffer the input of stakeholders in non-creative roles or a large studio’s need to cash in on a franchise or piece of intellectual property. I love many blockbusters and other studio films, but for all the money spent making them, the worthwhile ones seem few and far between.

A few films from this year’s festival that stuck out for me:

Best and Most Beautiful Things is dir. Garret Zevgatis’ moving portrait of Michelle Smith, a charming, bright, quick witted visually impaired young woman that also has Asperger syndrome. We follow Michelle as she becomes an adult and tries to build a life after graduating from Perkins School for the Blind. The film explores what happens when a disabled person ‘ages out,’ or reaches the age when there are no longer schools or programs for them, leaving many to spend much of their lives unemployed, spending days listless around the family home or homeless. Michelle is a very open person, and the filmmakers have created a very intimate and engaging film about her. It was satisfying to see the winner of last year’s IFFB/UMass Boston Work-in-Progress contest in it’s finished form.

Don’t Think Twice dir./writer Mike Birbiglia w/Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Gethard, Kate Micucci and Tami Sagher
Listening to the Howard Stern show over the years, I’ve heard many lengthy discussions with SNL alums about the various ups and downs as they’ve built their careers. Many come from the improv comedy scene, and it was interesting watching from the other side of the rainbow in this very funny movie about a New York improv group. The film focuses on the interpersonal difficulties created by an interesting paradox – the need for the group to function as a team that can only succeed by valuing no individual more than the group (the ‘Yes, and …’ improvisers’ mantra), and the desire for individual recognition in an attempt to achieve success by becoming a cast member on the ‘Weekend Live’ comedy show. The film manages a bit of nuance by sidestepping obvious good/bad guy scenarios as members peel off when their careers move forward.

The Dwarvenaut dir. Josh Bishop
I felt nostalgic for my D&D in this portrait of top five Dungeon Master and founder of dungeon sculpture company Dwarven Forge Stefan Pokorny, a very funny, creative and skilled artist, accomplished partier and successful entrepreneur. The film relates the complexity of his background as a Korean-American adopted son of an Italian mother and Czech father. He believes D&D can save the world by bringing people together to play in the same physical space – ironic since the game is the ancestor of every fantasy and role playing video game, as well as providing the basis for the character development and combat systems of many others. The film’s fantastical quality fits the subject like a magic glove as it explores Stefan’s artistic life and follows him as he attends conventions, parties with D&D royalty and runs a Kickstarter in support of his firm’s new city building system.

Embers dir. Claire Carré, writers Charles Spano and Claire Carré w/Jason Ritter and Iva Gocheva
An intriguing post-apocalyptic thought experiment. A disease has caused everyone to have lost the ability to remember or create new memories. Carré has created a challenge for herself to create an engaging narrative using a basic conceit that doesn’t allow for it, since no character can track their own narrative for more than a couple of minutes. I found it somewhat successful and touching at moments, and an interesting experiment, but not entirely engaging.

The Guys Next Door dirs. Amy Geller, Allie Humenuk
The lives of two gay men building a family, and the college friend serving as surrogate mother for them for a second time are the focus of this wonderful doc from local filmmakers Geller and Humenuk. For all of the novelty of the situation, most striking was how the film brought home the similar challenges and joys we all experience as we strive to build our lives and make our relationships work. Also of note is how beautiful the film looks in both the intimate scenes and scenic shots of Cape Cod and Italy. I was also caught by how often, for a verité film, the camera work seemed to anticipate the characters’ movements. Kudos to co-director and cinematographer Humenuk for that achievement.

Transpecos dir. Greg Kwedar; writers Clint Bentley, Greg Kwedar; w/Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna and Clifton Collins Jr.
My favorite narrative of the week was this taught, suspenseful neo-western about a trio of border guards watching for smugglers on the Texas-Mexico border. A tight story with solid performances and dialog make this a very worthwhile trip. The ending, while strong in concept, lost a little luster in the details, especially as compared with the rest of the film. Overall though that felt to be a small matter. I believe Transpecos is getting a theatrical release in the fall, so look out for it.

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