Twisted misters

From Australian serial killers to flighty Spanish ghosts, IndieFest 2012 explores the darker side of life (and the lighter side of the afterlife)

Ghosts with the most: Finisterrae's otherworldly duo

FILM This year's San Francisco Independent Film Festival kicks off with a film that knows exactly what time it is: 4:44 Last Day on Earth.

Abel Ferrara's latest imagines what the end of the world might be like for a volatile Lower East Side couple — he's an ex-junkie (Ferrara favorite Willem Dafoe), she's a young painter (Shanyn Leigh, Ferrara's real-life companion). The film's title refers to the predicted instant that an environmental catastrophe will completely dissolve the ozone layer, but 4:44 is mostly set indoors, specifically within the headspace of Dafoe's character. It's a gritty film that veers between self-indulgence and stuff that honestly seems pretty practical (sure, there's a lot of Skyping, but if the world were ending, wouldn't you?); as far as inward-looking disaster movies go, anyone planning an apocalypse film festival could double-bill 4:44 nicely with 2011's Melancholia.

IndieFest is not an apocalypse film festival, per se. You could choose to have a jolly old time; there's a power ballad sing-along, and even a flick called I Like You. But the selections for sick puppies are truly, truly outstanding this year. Personally, I recommend going as dark as you can possibly stand.

Start your journey with Michael R. Roskam's Bullhead, a Belgian import that just scored a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. The five-second description of this film, which is about a cattle farmer who injects both his livestock and his own body with illegal hormones, doesn't do it justice. Who knew there was such a thing, for instance, as a "hormone mafia underworld"? While some of Bullhead's nuances, which occasionally pivot on culture-clash moments specific to its Belgium setting, will inevitably be lost on American viewers, the most important parts of the movie come through loud and clear, and you won't soon forget them.

Also memorable is Snowtown, another standout Australian crime film on the heels of Animal Kingdom (2010). While Snowtown — whose vérité shooting style recalls Andrea Arnold's films about desperate living amid Britain's council estates — isn't quite as exportable as Animal Kingdom, it is just as uncomfortably tense, and features a teenage protagonist struggling to survive amid close-to-home evil. It's based on the real-life case of Australia's worst serial killer, and follows the gruesome facts quite closely. The film has a lot of characters that come and go without much explanation or introduction, which starts to seem deliberate after awhile. Fortunately, the core cast is magnetic. Remember 2005's Wolf Creek? Snowtown is just as intense.

Still have a lust for blood? Of course you do. British director Ben Wheatley made a splash with 2009 gangster drama Down Terrace; he's back with much buzz surrounding Kill List, with a review in the IndieFest catalog citing it as "the number one horror film of the year." I'd hate to hand out that accolade so early in 2012, but this hired-killer-down-the-rabbit-hole tale is indeed worth considering.

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