MOVIES | MSPIFF 2011: What to see


After downloading the MSPIFF 2011 catalog today, I glanced through the schedule of 190+ feature-length films and some 40+ short films; I had to set the catalog down for a minute before I dived into it and made some serious choices about what I would plan on seeing over the next three weeks. Over the past month, I’ve been able to catch up on some of the films, which I had missed at various film festivals over the past year.

With around 230 films there are definitely some to avoid like the stench of sour milk, and people are bound to be confused with certain titles: The Queen of Hearts and Queen to Play (both from France, the latter is about chess and features Kevin Kline) are screening the same day on one occasion, while Little Rose (Poland) and Kawasaki’s Rose (Czech Republic) are playing back to back, and then there are Home For Christmas (Norway) and Home By Christmas (New Zealand), which I thought were the same film. So, study your catalogs and plan your schedules carefully.

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There are many films worth checking out; in some cases, MSPIFF might be your only chance to ever catch these films on the big screen, while others will open later in 2011. One great thing about MSPIFF this year too is that there are over 40 visiting directors coming to present their films—including Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), who will be here with his latest documentary, POM WONDERFUL presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold; another documentarian, Steve James (Hoop Dreams). will be present for his outstanding new doc The Interrupters. Mike Mills (Thumbsucker) will be here will his festival favorite Beginners, which is supposed to have a career-topping performance from veteran Canadian actor and Academy Award nominee Christopher Plummer (The Last Station); and David Carr, former Twin Cities Reader editor and now a New York Times writer, will be here opening night with director Andrew Rossi for Page One: Inside the New York Times.

Of the 32 films I’ve seen, there are plenty of themes brewing including abusive relationships (Tyrannosaur, The Arbor, The Interrupters), violent plagues (We Are What We Are, Midnight Son, Stake Land), coming-of-age (The Myth of the American Sleepover, Cracks, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle) and everyone’s favorite topic, bleak and uncertain futures for characters who deserve better (The Invisible Eye, My Joy, Honeymoons). You’re bound to find something to enjoy at this year’s festival, but most of the films that are high on my list fell under one of these themes.

Here are a few titles I would highly recommend you buy tickets for immediately.

It is hard to precisely to nail down what I enjoyed so much about Sergei Loznitsa’s narrative debut, the Russian feature My Joy, but it stayed with me for days last fall. It’s not an easy watch, but it is challenging and might be the most original feature I saw out of the bunch. A key to the film is to pay close attention right from the opening moment; while its story slowly unfolds, stay with it until suddenly, it develops into a stunning achievement of a haunting and overlapping narrative, striking cinematography and a “what the?” ending that might leave some flabbergasted, while others will see My Joy as pure movie magic.

Another film that treats its subject carefully and is equally as powerful as My Joy is director Clio Barnard’s superb documentary The Arbor, about U.K. author/playwright Andrea Dunbar, who died of a brain hemorrhage at 29. Dunbar achieved success at an early age: she wrote the play The Arbor, about growing up in the Yorkshire projects, at the age of 15. The play was a hit, but unfortunately, Dunbar’s life was not: she had three children with three different men who all physically abused her, and she was an alcoholic and a heavy drug user most of her life. What sounds like another story about a struggling artist becomes an amazing structured story. Much of the film uses a technique called “verbatim theater”: as actors portray characters out of Dunbar’s life, only they are lip-synching dialogue from the actual subjects, including Dunbar’s three children and her parents. Even scenes from The Arbor are reenacted out in the Yorkshire courtyard, with actors playing certain scenes from the play in front of others from the neighborhood, which Dunbar wrote about. Barnard’s documentary is compelling and fearless; seeing archival footage of Dunbar herself from the early 1980’s is fascinating stuff in itself.

Having seen the Canadian horror comedy Tucker & Dale vs. Evil at Sundance last year, I’ve been waiting to see this hilarious comedy of errors again. As Tucker and Dale head up to their cabin for a relaxing weekend, they run into some college coeds who are at the start of their spring break vacation. Later that evening, Tucker and Dale are out on a lake in a boat when one of the girls falls into the lake. Tucker and Dale pull her into their boat, while the other coeds think that she’s been kidnapped and is going to be tortured. You might think you can predict what happens next, but in writer/director Eli Craig’s homage to slasher films from the 70s and 80s, the jokes are quick-witted, there’s an excessive amount of blood shooting, spurting, and spraying everywhere, and the two lead performances by Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine are bound to make them cult heroes for years to come.

Barely scratching the surface with titles in the entire program, there are a good dozen I’m interested in seeing at the festival. They include the latest feature from veteran American independent director John Sayles, Amigo; a much heralded debut at Sundance this year, the evil car thriller Bellflower; the new film from Norwegian director Bent Hamer (best known for directing the locally shot Factotum, with Matt Dillon and Marisi Tomei), Home For Christmas; The King of Luck, a documentary on country troubadour Willie Nelson directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter and acting nominee Billy Bob Thornton; and the French animated film A Cat in Paris, which looks like a great adventure for the entire family.

Here are the ten films I’d recommend, in no particular order.

My Joy, Russia/Germany/Ukraine/Netherlands, Narrative

No Return, Argentina/Spain, Narrative

The Arbor, U.K., Documentary

Tyrannosaur, U.K., Narrative

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Canada, Narrative

Dossier K, Belgium, Narrative

The Interrupters, USA, Documentary

We Are What We Are, Mexico, Narrative

Page One: Inside the New York Times, USA, Documentary

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, U.K., Documentary