indicates strongly recommended film.
Thursday, April 14EVERYBODY'S NUTS — (U.S., 13 min.) As told by the filmmaker Fabian Euresti, a son of a Latino farmworker, this paced short recounts the poisoning of a family's groundwater by pollution from oilfields. Set in the San Joaquin Valley of California, the film's title is revealed to have an unexpected double meaning. —DV
KILLING IN THE NAME — (U.S., 38 min.) In 2005, an al-Qaida suicide bomber detonated himself in the middle of a middle-class Jordanian wedding, killing 27 relatives of the Muslim couple. In the aftermath of this horrifying carnage, the bridegroom, Ashraf Al-Kaled, has taken it as his mission to travel the Muslim world to meet terrorists, their families and their supporters. The message he brings doesn't necessarily condemn terrorism, but seeks to reason with jihadists on their own terms. This thorny narrative winds through difficult confrontations with disturbing personalities. Secular western viewers may find some of the encounters difficult to completely digest. —DV
- "The Boy Mir: Ten Years in Afghanistan"
HOW TO DIE IN OREGON — (U.S., 108 min.) At a SXSW screening, sobs erupted throughout the theater and at least three people left within the first five minutes of this unflinching documentary about assisted suicide. That said, you absolutely should see it. Oregon is one of the few places in the U.S. where a doctor can prescribe medications to terminally ill patients, who, ultimately may choose to take them to end their lives. The film follows several characters, as they weigh the difficult decision of committing suicide—and the factors that go into that choice. As painful as the footage is, director Peter Richardson is never ghoulish. Instead, he perfectly navigates the ethical line in respecting his subjects. Nor is Richardson, while clearly having a point of view on the matter, politically heavy-handed, even when exploring the passionate religious arguments about the issue. This is the toughest, but most necessary 108 minutes of film you may ever see. —LS
BATHING MICKY— (Denmark and Sweden, 14 min.) This enchanting sketch of Danish centenarian Micky on her daily bathe in the sea combines stark visuals of the pier near her home with her voiceover reminiscence of escaping the Nazis and raising a family. Director Frida Kempff captures the changing seasons to give the film a timeless feel. Bergman could have framed the shots and William Carlos Williams placed the subtitles, as the text appears poem-like upon thin strips of dark sea between the shore and the luminous sky. A memory play without the play, Bathing Micky is both a gentle tribute and a challenge to, as Micky says, "keep participating in daily life for as long as you can." —CV
THE NEW SAINT — (Netherlands, 70 min.) In 1996, Chechen rebels beheaded 19-year-old Russian border guard Yevgeny Rodionov when he refused to renounce his Orthodox religion and convert to Islam. Now a patriotic movement seeks to canonize what they perceive to be his martyrdom and have his sainthood recognized by the church's hierarchy. Rodionov's grieving mother is thrust into the spotlight as her son's story is claimed by nationalism and religion. With sequences of masculinity, media manipulation and military indoctrination, the film presents a studied observation of the role that the Orthodox faith plays in the new Russian Federation. —DV
MY PLAYGROUND — (Denmark, 50 min.) A Danish parkour group called Team JiYo leaps, dangles and tumbles its way down the sloping face of a mountain-like apartment complex. Director Kaspar Astrup Schröder shows how Team JiYo reimagines urban architecture as it relates to their physical abilities in order to traverse it through parkour, a movement art form combining gymnastics, extreme sports and architectural theory. The cinematography conveys this new way of looking at urban spaces as the traceurs collaborate with architects to design a parkour park. If this film doesn't send you leaping up the side of a downtown Durham parking deck, you will at least physically relate to the deck differently. —CV
WINDFALL — (U.S., 83 min.) This eye-opening and perhaps controversial film look at the promises of wind power. This film offers no encouraging news about this resource, which is doubly unfortunate now that the nuclear genie is on everyone's mind after the Japan earthquake and tsunami. A pastoral community in upstate New York is roiled when an energy company begins making offers to landowners to host wind turbines. Initial good feelings turn neighbors against each other as the realities of the turbines sink in: they're huge, they're noisy, they block out the sun. And furthermore, they're not cost-effective—except for enhancing the energy companies' bottom lines. Anyone who's been involved in a community debate involving public resources and private land will be riveted, as will those interested in alternative energy sources. Filmmaker Laura Israel brings expert technique and editing to her sobering presentation, and she makes the most of the rustic Catskills landscapes. —DF
POSITION AMONG THE STARS — (Netherlands, 111 min.) This engrossing family drama concerns three generations of the Sjamsuddins, a small Catholic family living in the slums of predominantly Muslim Jakarta. Amid the economic, environmental and political stresses of modern Indonesia, the Sjamsuddins struggle to provide opportunity for their granddaughter Tari—who, like teenagers everywhere, seems mostly interested in the consumer trappings of her social clique. The globalized pressures of hectic city life are contrasted by visits to the quiet village of the grandmother Rumidjch's youth. By turns funny, appalling and stirring, this lush cinematic experience arcs a profound narrative regarding the universal human condition. —DV
STEPS TO ETERNITY — (Mexico, U.S., Israel, 27 min.) An exquisite example of the single-take technique, this little film makes the link between faith and determination crystal clear. The camera follows the aged Aaron Cohen in his ritual garments as he makes his difficult way with his walker toward the sound of the shofar. His labored breathing as he toils by inches over steps, up a hill, then more steps to join the chanting, davening men in the temple is more eloquent than any dialogue could be, and his blissful smile upon arrival tells all about the rewards of faith. Shot on film with a Steadicam in low light, Steps may not be appropriate for people sensitive to visual jitter and fluctuating focus. —KDA
- "Guilty Pleasures"
Friday, April 15HOT COFFEE — (U.S., 90 min.) Remember the episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer burned himself with hot coffee? This film takes the lid off the real-life case of Stella Liebeck, the Albuquerque woman burned so badly by a cup of McDonald's coffee in 1992 that a jury awarded her over $2.7 million in punitive damages. If you think the suit was a sham, wait until you hear the narrative of the case and see images of her burned thighs. Director Susan Saladoff shows how pro-business conservatives spun the Liebeck decision into the poster child for frivolous lawsuits in a well-funded effort to cripple the civil justice system through tort reform, judicial elections and more. —CV
- "I Will Marry the Whole Village"
- "If a Tree Falls"
PIG COUNTRY — (Denmark, 29 min.) In Denmark, a country with twice as many swine as humans, pig farmer Jakob Vallo struggles to save his family business after a recessionary market proves inhospitable to an unlucky attempt at expansion. If Vallo fails, his multigenerational extended family will lose not just their livelihood but their way of life. Showing us glimpses of how a medium-size Danish pig farm is operated (certainly less atrocious than the worst American factory farms) and the general civility of Danish society, this understated account examines how globalized pressures threaten one facet of the traditional Western European economy. —DV
WE STILL LIVE HERE (ÂS NUTAYUNEÂN) — (U.S., 56 min.) The latest by acclaimed director Anne Makepeace should rate high with anyone interested in the interplay of language and culture, and more particularly in stories of cultural dominance, diminution and revival. The Wampanoag were the first peoples who met the English Pilgrims, and the last native speaker of Wampanoag died long ago. But the language survived in written form and is being recovered, thanks to the visions and energy of Jessie Littledoe Baird. Thrilling, inspiring and beautifully made (and very well funded), with particularly imaginative use of historical documents, this film sings with hope and joy. —KDA
IL CAPO — (Italy, 15 min.) A small masterpiece. The less you know about it before seeing, the better. Il Capo's jaw-dropping visual power and tantalizing use of conceptual metaphor are best savored by clean palates. The only thing you need to know on the outset is that the title means "the boss." See it first and look up the mundane details later. —DV
BUCK— (U.S., 88 min.) This biopic about Buck Brannaman, a former child trick roper turned horse trainer who served as an advisor and inspiration for Robert Redford's film The Horse Whisperer, won an audience award at Sundance this year. Buck leads a vagabond existence, traveling the road nine months per year and occasionally joined by his wife and two daughters, teaching an empathic discipline of horse starting. We discover this gentle cowboy's method is the ironic antithesis of his abusive childhood and can translate beyond the horse pen into everyday life. —NM
THE GROVE — (U.S., 62 min.) Beautifully communicating the tremendous losses of the early AIDS epidemic and attempts to honor those experiences, The Grove tells the story of the National AIDS Memorial in San Francisco's Golden Gate State Park. The Grove memorial, founded by the loved ones of AIDS victims, has over the years become of great cathartic importance, helping survivors channel their heartache productively into maintaining the space. It has also become the great interest of entrepreneurial politician types who have taken hold of the advisory board and desire to assert their own vision for the Grove's purpose. The film's power is in contrasting the very personal connections of those who would tribute loved ones against those who seek to memorialize the disease and raise the space's profile. It's a heartrending work that provokes questions about the narrative of history and the intentions of memorial sites. —AM
AN ENCOUNTER WITH SIMONE WEIL — (U.S., 85 min.) Troubled by the specter of suicide in her academic family, and a contemporary state of seemingly endless war, filmmaker Julia Haslett seeks guidance from the works of French philosopher Simone Weil. In her writing and life, Weil was among the most uncompromising figures of the 20th century, and Encounter serves as a fascinating introduction to her work and biography. Haslett's own personal account is absorbing enough until her obsession with the philosopher compels her to hire an actress to become Weil—a turn that is certain to divide audience opinion. —DV
WHEN CHINA MET AFRICA — (UK/France, 75 min.) The consequences of the global economic meltdown have left governments in sub-Saharan Africa scrambling for investment, and China—in need of more resources to accommodate the needs of an enormous, ever-growing population—has been all too willing to oblige them. Marc and Nick Francis follow three stories of development projects in Zambia to highlight the new colonialism sweeping across the African continent. By building roads and providing jobs, the Chinese can potentially improve the living conditions of large numbers of Zambians, but the psychological effects of this culture clash on the country's struggling citizens are much more problematic. —BD
WHERE SOLDIERS COMES FROM — (U.S., 90 min.) Tenacity and access are the hallmarks of Heather Courtney's account of a group of Michigan high school friends who join the National Guard to pay for college but are eventually deployed together to war-torn Afghanistan. There, they belong to a unit assigned to ferret out and detonate IEDs and other explosive devices. Filmed over a four-year period, Courtney's footage traverses rural hometown haunts, overseas deployment training camp and the dangerous deserts of Afghanistan, providing a full spectrum of the challenges of war, the young people sent to fight in them and the family and friends they leave behind. Won best editing at last month's SXSW Festival. —NM
THE LAST MOUNTAIN — (U.S., 95 min.) In an era ushered in by Bush administration deregulation, activists square off against coal giant Massey Energy, the largest strip-mining operation in the country. At stake are the health of local communities and, activists warn, entire ecosystems. Bobby Kennedy Jr. is given ample time to provide historical perspective and explain the crux of the issue: democracy. Who controls our natural resources? Who profits, and who pays the costs? Energetic and even guardedly optimistic, this well-paced, sharply crafted film should be seen by everyone who has a light switch in his or her home. —DV
A MATTER OF TASTE: SERVING UP PAUL LIEBRANDT — (U.S., 68 min.) The youngest chef to be awarded three stars by The New York Times, Paul Liebrandt was just 24 when he was deemed the Next Big Thing in the food world. But as Liebrandt learns, being at the top means there's only one way to go—down. One day he is crafting the culinary equivalent of designing the Eiffel Tower (his methods are so obsessive that he uses a ruler to measure the width of sliced squash), and the next day he's stuck in the restaurant version of hanging drywall—flipping burgers. After disagreements with various restaurant owners, he burns through a series of jobs as he tries to regain his glory. Along the way, he matures not only as a chef—his food becomes more approachable—but as a man. Liebrandt, while fussy, is charming. By the end, you're eating out of his hand. —LS
DRAGONSLAYER — (U.S., 74 min.) With its innovative, rapid-fire, in-your-face delivery, it's possible to miss the sociological significance this documentary reaches for. Chronicling the (mis)adventures of semiprofessional skateboarder Josh "Screech" Sandoval, Dragonslayer punches forward without filler. Dirty, broke and often homeless and high, Sandoval ranges through recession-era suburbia draining swimming pools as a sort of latter-day dharma bum-cum-skater. In contrast to his aggressive, gnarly and sometimes downright ugly skating style, Sandoval's personality off-board engages as shy, complex, guarded and perhaps even tender. Similar to the best of Gus Van Sant, this experimental portrait of youth and subculture is easy to appreciate—and to realize its sum is greater than its kinetic edits. —DV
CURE FOR PAIN: THE STORY OF MARK SANDMAN — (U.S., 85 min.) Being a bassist, noted Mike Watt, among the best himself, is like "playing right field in Little League." If that's the case, then Morphine's Mark Sandman, who puzzled and dazzled fans by playing two-stringed bass, was more akin to Hall of Fame right fielder Reggie Jackson than the kid picking dandelions near the cheap seats. Cure For Pain chronicles the life of Sandman, whose band was on the brink of mainstream success when he died unexpectedly at age 46 of a heart attack in the middle of a performance. Morphine fans already know how the story ends, so that's not a spoiler, yet the film excels in taking us on the journey of Sandman's transient, often impulsive life. Home movies, recent interviews and concert footage could have veered into VH1 territory, but the film is rescued by the filmmakers' showing us the deep affection and antagonism he simultaneously elicited from his family and his friends. "He could be a dick," Primus bassist Les Claypool said, albeit lovingly. And why did Sandman choose to play two stringed bass? "Because it's easier," he said. —LS
Saturday, April 16BETTER THIS WORLD — (U.S., 98 min.) The differences between this and If a Tree Falls are a matter of perspective and tone. In Better This World, two young men from Midland, Texas, are arrested for possessing incendiary devices supposedly designed to disrupt the 2008 GOP National Convention. The filmmakers essentially act as witnesses for the defense, humanizing their subjects while demonizing the government and the boys' duplicitous former mentor. —NM
UNLIKELY TREASURES — (Canada, 52 min.) The collectors of Unlikely Treasures are an obsessive lot. These people savor everything from the mundane (pencils, tea tags, staplers) to the typical (records, World's Fair memorabilia, clothes) to the madcap (ceramic ET figurines, copper molds, bats). These collectors love the hunt of digging through thrift stores and flea markets, and moon over the evolving precision and minute graphic flare in industrial designs. The film, like the people themselves, glorifies the paradox of patterned excess with curatorial passion, and when some of the gimmicky editing gets out of the way, it really shines. —AM
BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD — (U.S., 90 min.) This biopic artfully chronicles chess champion Bobby Fischer's changeover from genius to madness, hinging upon his 1972 victory over Boris Spassky. Director Liz Garbus weaves photographs and video of Fischer with interviews with his friends, associates and luminaries such as Henry Kissinger and Malcolm Gladwell. Garbus expresses the loss to the game of chess while unsympathetically presenting the paranoid anti-Semite whom the U.S. exiled in 1992. A portrait of a man checkmated by his own mind, the film sets Fischer's descent against geopolitics from the Cold War forward. —CV
- "Blue Sky, Dark Bread"
ANGST — (Portugal, 53 min.) This journey begins at a dinner party in lethargic Portugal, Europe's oldest, sleepiest nation. Using Thoreau's Walden to illuminate the proceedings, filmmaker Graa Castanheira probes the underworld for civilization's petroleum lifeblood, examines the visual modes of modern industry and races through centuries of folly and Malthusian dread before posing her questions to the SETI scientists searching for signals from extraterrestrial life. Thoreau wrote that we have "settled down on earth and forgotten heaven," a warning that Castanheira mulls to astonishing effect. Shuffling unanticipated images of immense beauty against pressing existential query, Angst might be the most quietly grandiose film at this year's festival. —DV
THE BENGALI DETECTIVE — (UK, India, U.S., 90 min.) Combining compelling qualities of mystery fiction and Bollywood films, this slowly paced film follows one of the private eyes who tries to bridge the gap between India's crime and what its police can do. The Always Investigating and Security Concern, headed by Rajesh, takes on everything from domestic problems to counterfeiting to murder, with sympathetic cleverness worthy of Sam Spade. We follow three investigations, intercut with Rajesh's increasingly sad home life and leavened with the detectives' periodic outbursts of dancing. This doc is big-budget and equally big-hearted. —KDA
PAGE ONE: A YEAR INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES — (U.S., 88 min) In this fascinating look inside the country's largest and most venerated newspaper, the Times' media editor always seems to have a bottle of Excedrin by his keyboard. It's no wonder: The Times' media writers are watching online media threaten their livelihoods like scientists plotting the course of an asteroid as it nears the Earth. But as the film brilliantly illustrates, while the blogosphere and online outlets can scratch the itch of instant information, a truly informed citizenry still needs stories that are driven by thoughtful shoe-leather reporting. (And that doesn't come cheaply—thus the Times' website has gone partially behind a paywall.) One of the main characters is the irascible Times media writer David Carr, a former alt-weekly editor and ex-crack addict whose brashness is refreshing. He is fearless in interviewing his sources and equally intrepid as he calmly, yet stealthily dresses down a pompous asshole from Vice magazine. What makes Carr so winning is that he embodies most journalists—and I'm speaking personally here as well: It's like the priesthood. We do this because it is our calling. The film neither bashes the blogosphere nor glorifies the traditional media, but rather, illuminates us about the multitude of ethical decisions that confront—or should confront— journalists every day: What is news? What do we know? How do we know it? What is true and fair? —LS
MINKA — (Japan/U.S., 16 min.) Inspired by AP correspondent John Roderick's memoir, Minka: My Farmhouse in Japan, this is a look into the home Roderick built and the life he shared with his adopted son, architect Yoshihiro Takishita. The minka, an 18th-century farmhouse, is showcased with quiet reverence. The filmmakers highlight its current design while taking care to detail its initial construction. Throughout, Takishita tells the story of the minka, providing a soundtrack of reminisces that illuminate the life lived there. Significantly, this film's greatest triumph is in revealing the great depth of feeling between two people, while keeping a respectful distance. It is startlingly intimate, even in its brevity. —AM
TUGS — (U.S., 9 min.) Providing a brief peek into the tugboat business, Tugs hops onto the small vessels that work in New York City Harbor. A cinematographic spectacle of sparkling water, saturated boat decks and shimmering light, the film is awash with beautiful, and beautifully framed, images. However, that preoccupation for beauty distracts from the narrative—a point not aided by the film's brevity. Focusing on the Miller's Launch tugboat operation, the filmmakers tiptoe into a company whose trade has undergone significant technological change but whose workforce still features multigenerational connection. It's a snapshot that feels more like the shard of an as yet unproduced (though promising) feature than a whole moment. —AM
- "The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975"
SOUND UNDERGROUND — (U.S., 33 min.) Lovingly photographed in the guts of New York City, the film focuses in on the buskers who bring vibrancy to the subway system. Commuters and tourists wander through the cacophonous halls and rail platforms while the filmmakers hazily pass from one musician to the next. This drifting focus provides plenty of evidence into the genuine talent of the subjects but trades incite or information for poetic license to craft an aural/visual collage. The filmmakers get preoccupied with the beauty of the urban landscape and the joy of the performances, sidestepping the chance to reveal anything new. It's a beautiful half hour, but it's a beautiful half hour of B-roll. —AM
THE INTERRUPTERS — (U.S., 144 min.) Steve James (Hoop Dreams) spent a year with Chicago's CeaseFire, an organization with a radical approach to curbing the city's murder rate: stop it as it happens. CeaseFire's founder, an epidemiologist, considers violence a transmittable disease. James followed interrupters Ameena, Cobe and Eddie as they put that theory into direct action on the streets, using their own experiences as former gang-bangers to stop the transmission of violence from situation to situation, sometimes literally getting in the middle of street fights. James' camera is in the middle of the interrupters' rough mix of conversation, compassion and credibility. —CV
SCENES OF A CRIME — (U.S., 86 min.) Of all the social and legal ills that contribute to wrongful convictions in the United States, false confession is one of the most common and the least understood. What does it take to compel an innocent person to assume blame for a crime he didn't commit? Not much, it turns out, if an interrogator knows what he's doing—just ask Adrian Thomas, who is serving a life sentence in New York for the murder of his 4-year-old son. This shocking film, which uses footage from Thomas's 10-hour interrogation to highlight problems in standard police interview techniques, should be required for anyone sitting on a jury. —BD
JUNK PALACE — (U.S., 14 min.) No doubt the most liberal take on a documentary you'll catch at the fest this year, Junk Palace tells the story of the infamous, hoarding Collyer brothers through marionette puppetry. Entering the brothers' world through a newspaper photo, the film finds Homer and Langley in the squalor of their decaying mansion. From there, the world of the film is a delight of mixed textures: 2-D and 3-D paper puppets and backgrounds, glass mirrors or bottles, and fabric. That said, the filmmakers are careful to utilize the cinematic language and play with spatial relationships, sound design and light to craft a visual language that supercedes the puppetry performance. —AM
PIT NO. 8 — (Estonia/Ukraine, 95 min.) While the disjointed style of this film may leave some American audiences feeling a few key points have been lost in translation, the lives of its teenagers (who try to support themselves by illegal coal mining in abandoned pits) are full of tender and heartbreaking moments. The story's most bizarre character, however, is the landscape, where densely packed rural villages and public parks are pocked with holes, and unattended children regularly explore them. "I don't like the smell in here," 15-year-old Yura tells a friend as they scavenge for leftover coal in one such chasm. "It could be a dead body." And by the tone of his voice, one bets this wouldn't surprise him in the least. —BD
PLANET KIRSAN— (Poland, 50 min.) Competition doc meets meditative aesthetic in this look inside Kalmykia, a federal subject of Russia, whose president has transformed the tiny country into an international chess mecca, including compulsory chess education in schools and building Chess City, a modern training and competition site for chess. This fascinating premise gets lost during the excessive number of contemplative moments, unnecessary for a film of this length when the core subject-matter is so intriguing. —NM
Sunday, April 17TABLOID — (U.S., 87 min.) When I saw this film at SXSW, Tabloid producer Mark Lipson told us in the audience to prepare ourselves for a detour from Errol Morris' serious political fare such as Standard Operating Procedure and Fog of War. "He's afraid people think he's not funny," Lipson said. Well, Tabloid is funny, thanks to Janet McKinney, originally from the mountain town of Newland, N.C. She is either a virginal beauty queen who was in love with her devout Mormon boyfriend or a bondage-loving escort-turned-stalker who, in the late 1970s, followed him to England to kidnap him, chain him to a bed and force him to have sex with her all weekend. The money quote: "Can a woman rape a man?" Morris asks McKinney. "No," she says coyly. "That's like putting a marshmallow in a parking meter." A sordid tale, for sure, but Tabloid is really about memory, belief and the elusiveness of truth. —LS
A GOOD MAN — (U.S., 85 min.) An unusually intelligent, thoughtful and well-constructed examination of an artist and his work, this film succeeds in illuminating both. It follows Bill T. Jones, one of contemporary dance's great thinkers, as well as one of its great makers, as he, his company, his collaborating composer and musicians undertake together the arduous process of creating the complex dance-theater piece, Fondly Do We Hope, Fervently Do We Pray. The film is as crammed with ideas and information as the artwork, but it deals evenhandedly with both concept and craft, and will be revelatory to many with regard to what it takes to bring an huge stage work to life. —KDA