American Essentials Film Festival’s top 5

At first glance, a festival dedicated only to US films seems strange – isn’t every film at our multiplexes American, and half those at arthouses as well?

True, but the American Essentials Film Festival sets out to showcase films that go way beyond the usual Hollywood blockbuster fare. Now in its third year and hopefully a permanent addition to Palace’s festival line-up, it delves deep into films from the US indie realm that may not normally get released over here, as well as locating promising new works from emerging practitioners.

This year there are 22 new movies and a retrospective of five classics from LA, all of them either celebrating or casting a skeptical eye over American life in all its weird and wonderful permutations. Its touring four capital cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra) from May 8 to 20 – and its Sydney venue this time is the new Palace Central. For more details, a full list of venues and bookings, head to the festival website.

Indies don’t have the big studios’ massive publicity machines working for them, so choosing what to see can feel a bit random. But a good rule of thumb is the critical response they’ve had in US – now helpfully collated by review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Based on that (and a bit of film-buff’s intuition) here’s 5 sure-fire must sees.

Outside In

After serving 20 years for the crime of essentially being in the wrong place at the wrong time, 38-year-old Chris (Jay Duplass) struggles to get by after his release, and falls for his former high school teacher (Edie Falco), who has remained his pen pal. Trouble is, she’s married… Lynne Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister) directs this compelling and thorny tale of redemption and longing, which has a 94% Tomatometer rating.

My Days Of Mercy

Real-life best friends Ellen Page and Kate Mara star in this powerful and emotional lesbian romance and coming-of-age-story, which is also set against a backdrop of a contentious death penalty case. They’re lovers on opposite sides of the debate, and while at may sound contrived, its “handled with plausible restraint and delicacy by Israeli director Tali Shalom Ezer,” says Variety, whose generous review adds to its 100% approval rating. 


Gotti, which is being screened at the festival just hours after its world premiere at Cannes, is an epic that spans three decades and follows infamous crime boss John Gotti’s (John Travolta) rise to become the “Teflon Don” of the Gambino Crime Family in New York City. No reviewer’s rating yet, as its not being released in the US until June 15. Although the word is that the movie marks a real return to form and a career comeback for Travolta, who stars alongside real-life wife Kelly Preston.

Pet Names

When her ill mother urges her to take a holiday from playing nurse, grad school dropout Leigh (Meredith Johnston) invites her old high school boyfriend along on the trip. The two soon find that confronting old wounds during a weekend camping in the woods is anything but restful. This “winningly sharp Millennial” comedy (The Hollywood Reporter) is directed by Carol Brandt and has an unbeatable 100% Tomatometer rating (ok, only 5 reviews so far, but they’re all stellar).


If you’ve only seen this noir-classic from 1974 on the small screen, then grab a chance to catch it here as part of the Postcards from LA retrospective. Jack Nicholson gives his greatest performance ever as private detective Jake Gittes – showing every tough, cynical, wise-cracking smart arse detective cinema and TV has ever produced since just how its done. He’s just sublime… 98% on Tomatoes, but who was the single grump who ruined its perfect score? Well, there are people who will never forgive director Roman Polanski

* Don’t forget we have 5 double in-season passes for festival films to give away. Details here.

Russell Edwards