This May Palace Cinemas once again brings the best of American independent film to Australian screens with American Essentials.

Twenty films make their Australian premiere at the three-week festival, celebrating the latest indie treasures in narrative feature and documentary, together with newly restored American classics.

Thirty-one films curated by Artistic Director Richard Sowada reflects the remarkable breadth of contemporary independent cinema produced in the US, proving a richness far greater than the same old, same old studio pictures inherent in the Hollywood machine.

American Essentials kicks off with 20th CENTURY WOMEN. Nominated for Best Original Screenplay in this year’s Academy Awards, Mike Mill’s 20thCENTURY WOMEN resembles a ramshackle novel rather than a polished screenplay.

Mill’s previous film, Beginners, which starred Christopher Plummer in his Academy Award winning role was a much leaner, elegant, and tighter beast.

With 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, he brings us a shambolic, shuffling, shifting saga, a chaotic celebration of the complexities of women, family, and time, in particular, the pivotal summer of 1979.

It is Jimmy Carter’s last year in the White House. Iran’s Islamic Revolution has begun, as has the hostage crisis at the American Embassy. For the first time, Americans feel a loss of control over the growing thirst for oil, as dependence on the Middle East turns into long gas lines and a much talked-about “energy crisis” – all of which reverses the fate of the gas-guzzler car and Detroit’s power.

The country is in a recession; Carter delivers a “Crisis in Confidence” speech; Three Mile Island has America’s first major nuclear accident; Margaret Thatcher is elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The end of a Decade and the end of life as counter culturalists and squares alike, knew it.

20TH CENTURY WOMEN follows Dorothea Fields, a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie. Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women in Jamie’s upbringing – Abbie, a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the Fields’ home played by Indie fave, Greta Gerwig, and Julie, a provocative teenage neighbour, played by the prodigious and ubiquitous Elle Fanning.

It’s a sprawling ensemble piece anchored by Annette Bening’s formidable and fractious turn as Dorethea. In a terrific piece of programming, this latest Annette Benning starrer sits snug in a compare and contrast 1990 sit up and take notice support role in POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, superbly playing a back-lot floozy, a fly in the ointment to Meryl Streep’s attachment to Dennis Quaid.

POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE pre-dates nuptials to Warren Beatty, and here she is in a film with Waren’s sister, Shirley MacLaine, and Oliver Platt, who is in the cast of the other current Bening blockbuster, RULES DON’T APPLY. Six degrees of separation spanning twenty seven years!

Speaking of old and new, pairing old and new is another American Essentials initiative, presenting two unmissable double bills: Matteo Borgardt’s You Never Had It: An Evening With Bukowski with Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly in its 30th-anniversary screening; and David Lynch: The Art Life screening with a new restoration of Lynch’s 1977 calling card, Eraserhead.

YOU NEVER HAD IT is an extraordinary forty five minutes of exhumed footage of a single booze and smoke fuelled interview with Bukowski at his prickly best, definitely a primer for Mickey Rourke’s performance as Chuck’s avatar in Barfly.

Another exceptional documentary about a writer is The Untold Tales of Amistead Maupin. It’s a brilliant portrait of the acclaimed author and as much a story of the man’s life as it is a chronicle of San Francisco’s gay scene.

The film examines his evolution from a son of the conservative Old South into a gay-rights pioneer and best-selling author. Jennifer Kroot’s documentary is a talking head eye opener featuring fans and friends Neil Gaiman, Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Sir Ian McKellen and Amy Tan.

From the jungles of Vietnam to the bathhouses of 70’s San Francisco to the front line of the plague years of AIDS, and a fling with Rock Hudson, this is a fascinating biography of a man and his time.

Xander Robin’s ARE WE NOT CATS comes across as maybe Cat People as perceived by David Lynch. Sacked garbo, Eli, has his life totally trashed when his girlfriend refuses him, and  his folks decide to sell the family home and leave. His inheritance is an old removal truck in which he lives and tries to eke out a living. In search of work, he stumbles upon Anya, a spunky punk working in a lumber yard.

Eli is kitten smitten, but the relationship throws him a curve ball in the form of a fur ball. Anya has a hunger for hair, her idea of giving head is to feed on his follicles, in effect, scalping him. Her suit is hirsute, literally flipping her wig in the pursuit of a meal of mane. Love can certainly be tressfull.

One of the goofiest offerings of the American Essentials Film Festival is also one of the great satisfiers.

SYLVIO is about a gorilla called Sylvio working in a Baltimore call centre running down delinquent debtors. Sent into the field, he is mistakenly marked as a contestant in community television station talent quest. Traducing a juggling act, he becomes an instant cult, acquiring his own TV show called What’s The Ape Gonna Break?

Swamped by fans eschewing autographs he is asked to break things for them and is feted as front man for a series of cheesy chandelier commercials. But Sylvio’s true artistic outlet is puppetry and animation, which he combines with a self devised show called The Quiet Times with Herbert Herples. It is through his art that he parallels his frustrations with fame.

Film making couple Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney deliver the cinematic equivalent of Sylvio’s mantra – Breathe In, Chill Out.

American Essentials offers a kaleidoscopic virtuosity that makes for essential viewing at Palace Verona and Palace Norton Street May 9-24.

Sydney Arts Guide has ten double passes to the American Essentials Film Festival. Be one of the first to email the Editor on editor.sydneyartsguide@gmail.com. Winners will be advised by return email.