BEST OF FEST (RUNNERS-UP)
Most Beautiful Island
Writer/director/star Ana Asensio’s Jury Award winner seems, at first, like a simple day-in-the-life story of a Spanish immigrant in NYC, its gritty, ground-level aesthetic (in Super 16, even) conveying the desperation of being straight-up broke in the city- and all the life hacks, inconveniences, and stresses that involves. (Beware of cockroaches.) But then our protagonist’s day takes a turn, as she’s offered a money-making opportunity that sounds too good to be true, and whaddaya know, it is. As a director, Asensio has a sharp eye for details, and the kind of patience required to build true tension; as an actor, she draws us in and brings us along, desperate enough for us to understand what gets her in that room, and terrified enough that we hope she gets out it.
Aaron Katz, best known for low-key efforts like Quiet City and Land Ho!, writes and directs this crisp little sun-and-neon-soaked neo-noir, using its deceptively relaxing palm-trees-at-night aesthetic to set up an atmosphere thick with dread, and push it until a murder almost seems inevitable. It’s the reliable story of the natural suspect (Lola Kirke), accused of murder, who has to investigate the crime herself to prove her innocence. The amateur investigation hits all the right notes (disguises, tailing, snooping through a room on a clock, etc.), but it’s no mere genre exercise. Kirke is a good audience surrogate (likable and sympathetic, smart but not brilliant), and Katz uses her to give this murder mystery a helpful human anchor.