FilmFest Detroit offers a wealth of pop-up screenings this month — here are four you shouldn’t miss 

click to enlarge El Planeta. - HOLGA MEOW PICTURES
  • Holga Meow Pictures
  • El Planeta.

With the recent shuttering of Royal Oak’s Main Art Theatre and the 19-month suspension of in-person screenings at the DIA’s Detroit Film Theatre, it’s become easier for a lot of movies that play larger cities to pass metro Detroiters by. (We’re glad to hear the DFT is reopening Oct. 15.) Restorations of older works, smaller releases, and films made abroad have often been without a physical home here given a sparse pandemic environment, and films left to stream in “virtual cinemas” are forced to compete with the subscription services home viewers already have. With the first edition of Filmfest Detroit, though, Josh Gardner of the nonprofit Cinema Lamont is bringing seven new and recent releases — along with an extraordinary restoration — into a handful of brick-and-mortar spaces around the city. Running from Oct. 7-21, with programs often accompanied by a curated selection of food and drink, the works to be shown span continents and modes of production, featuring both big-name stars and first-time directors.

Of the welcome range of works coming through, here are the ones that stood out to us most:

El Planeta

7-9 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 9 at Oloman Cafe, 10215 Joseph Campau Ave., Hamtramck. Tickets are $12.

Finding a mother-daughter pair of petty grifters (played by director Amalia Ulman and her real-life mom, Ale Ulman), El Planeta makes despondent comedy just as well of reluctant efforts at gig work (and sometimes sex work) as it does compulsive bouts of shoplifting. Set in the coastal Spanish town of Gijón — which scans here in flatly composed black-and-white as a one-time vacation town permanently consigned to the off-season — this small story’s driven by a blend of its leading women’s easy, true-to-life rapport and cutting social satire. Peering at the pair with an affectionate air of closeness while grasping well their whistling denial of their personal economic decline, Ulman’s style harbors echoes of Frances Ha and Miranda July’s Kajillionaire along with early Jim Jarmusch. An able, finely balanced performer and director both, Ulman understands that a flip or despairing response to an unfair world can be a reasonable one — and that a blow job should earn you more than the price of a book.

Isabella

7-9 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 12 at Oloman Cafe, 10215 Joseph Campau Ave., Hamtramck. Tickets are $12.

No less inquiring about the state of things is Argentinian director Matías Piñeiro’s more meditative experiment Isabella, with a calmly reshuffled, more rhythmic than narrative chronology that asks questions about film and theater on the level of structure, ambition, and form. Offering extended glimpses of reluctant performer and installation artist Mariel (María Villar) competing with a more eager actor in Luciana (Agustina Muñoz) for the film’s titular role in Measure for Measure, Piñeiro cuts here so that the film ambles about within its own timeline, granted some degree of clearer temporal order anyway by the progression of Mariel’s pregnancy. Juxtaposing walks, hikes, and rehearsal scenes to upend the typical frames we might expect Isabella cultivates in viewers an air of wary displacement that reflects Mariel’s own skepticism of the systems, structures, and traditions that confront her. By leaning into the circular rhythms of stage rehearsal and the accompanying interpersonal swings of competitive ire and reconciliation, Piñeiro finds an almost comforting air of the faulty and inevitable in the ways we spend careers and lives. Best approached with a sense of patience and a willingness to make abstract, quite poetic connections, Isabella provides more rewards than it would ever claim to promise.

Possession

7-9 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 16 at Workers Row House, 1430 Sixth St., Detroit. Tickets are $12.

Truly a one-of-a-kind work sharpened by a brand-new restoration, Andzrej Zulawski’s ecstatic, authoritative existential horror from 1981 witnesses Mark (Sam Neill) returning from an espionage trip abroad to to find himself cuckolded and adrift in the mire of a dissolving marriage. With Isabelle Adjani stealing scene after scene as Anna, Mark’s wife, the film’s crisp, exclamatory deliveries, high-powered score, and spiralling camera movements become vectors for a suite of thoroughly transcendent performances. (Forty years later, hers towers above most before and since). Unafraid to capture its cast in states that run the gamut from revealing and embarrassing to sadistic and unhinged, Zulawski’s arias are never sung from a place that feels self-righteous; they’re instead made far more singular and cutting for being so brutally and emotionally honest. With gestures that feel more like exorcisms than artistic expressions, this often ugly, fierce, and unflattering work set against crumbling slices of West Berlin is — and will always be — an absolute must-see.

The Velvet Underground

7-9 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 21 at Outer Limits Lounge, 5507 Caniff St., Detroit. Tickets are $12.

While I’m sorry to say I’ve not yet had a chance to screen this one due to a distributor-side delay, any work by Todd Haynes (previously of Poison, Safe, Carol, and Dark Waters) is sure to be worth one’s time — and the prevailing word of mouth here from festival viewers and critics backs the case. Working with a mix of archival footage and newer interviews for this long-gestating project, Haynes seems to take the Velvet Underground’s centrality within a broader cultural scene for a starting point rather than the too-oft-presumed endgame, allowing what’s here to remark on but not reduce itself to buttressing the iconic group’s already rock-solid state of canonization. In refusing to privilege a post hoc PR project over a sincere examination of a band, sound, and scene, Haynes can hope to give the band the kind of deeply inquiring critical examination that it deserves.

See cinemalamont.com/filmfestdetroit for the full schedule.

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