Films

20,000 Days on Earth

Singer-songwriter Nick Cave is a singular figure from the last 40 years of music, a feral rogue whose Old Testament–style psychodramas and murder ballads stir up salvation and damnation in equal measure. In this exquisite profile, his still-vital spirit is matched by two new directors hell-bent on reinvigorating the form. As Cave drives from real to imagined places, he is accompanied by ghostly passengers such as actor Ray Winstone and singer Kylie Minogue, who chat and then vanish as quickly as they arrived. An ongoing psychotherapy session brings out the singer’s down-to-earth side while more mythic scenes near the Brighton seashore and in a fantastical archive feed the Cave mythology. Throughout, we witness his meticulous wordsmithing (written longhand in volumes of journals), his tight collaboration with instrumentalist Warren Ellis, and, in a fitting climax, a cathartic performance that explains Cave’s power once and for all. (PS)

Actress

Brandy Burre discovered she was pregnant after landing a breakthrough role on HBO's iconic drama The Wire. She hid the pregnancy for months, finished the job, and retired to a small town in the Hudson Valley. After years of playing the role of wife and mother, Burre decided to re-enter the acting business. Actress intimately observes the seismic impact of this decision on the cozy domestic world she spent years carefully cultivating. The latest movie from director Robert Greene (Kati with an I, Fake It So Real), Actress is an exhilarating, visionary filmmaking coinciding with unpredictable real-world developments. It’s also a blistering look at what happens when a woman decides to grab hold of her destiny. Plays with “***Flawless” (dir. Jake Nava, 4 min.), a dazzling, straight-shooting feminist declaration from pop icon Beyoncé and Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (CB)

The Apple

Directed by a then 17-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf (daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who co-wrote the screenplay), this 1998 film recreates a scandalous news story using the real-life participants. In an Iranian neighborhood, a strict, unemployed father and his blind wife keep their 11-year-old twin daughters, Massoumeh and Zahra, locked in their house. After neighbors complain to the welfare ministry, a social worker comes to release them. Makhmalbaf's quasi-documentary follows Massoumeh and Zahra as they receive their first taste of freedom and observes their father as he sits behind bars, reflecting on his actions. Makhmalbaf's auspicious debut is a profoundly unsettling exploration of patriarchy. Screens with “The House Is Black” (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963, 22 min.). (CB) Screens for free as a part of the Neither/Nor Film Series. Neither/Nor is presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Approaching the Elephant

First implemented by Barcelona anarchists in 1901, the free school model proposes a learning environment where classes are optional and all rules are determined by democratic vote. More than a century later, this radical concept has reached the small town of Little Falls, New Jersey, where an ambitious idealist named Alex opens the world’s 262nd free school. Director Amanda Rose Wilder is there from the beginning, closely observing outspoken young classmates as they form relationships, explore their surroundings, and debate rule violations. Wilder’s camera latches onto her subjects’ deeply expressive faces and attentively documents the rising, and sometimes boiling, tensions. This is democracy, in messy miniature. In an age of overly tidy documentary narratives and characters, this delicately observed, carefully edited film is a riveting throwback to when documentary masters embraced the anarchy of life. (CB)

Big Men

Rachel Boynton took three years to make her first film Our Brand Is Crisis, an insider’s look at political machinations in Bolivia. Now she’s spent six patient years with her second, set on the western coast of Africa, where the vast underwater Jubilee oil field has attracted the likes of Kosmos Energy, an American startup headed by big Texan Jim Musselman. Boynton shows us high-level board meetings and behind-the-scenes strategizing with Ghanian entrepreneur George Owusu, then follows low-level pirates siphoning oil from the pipeline. Its biggest coup is an encounter with the Deadly Underdogs, fierce saboteurs who wear ski masks but who want to become famous. With its remarkable access and ambiguous point of view, Big Men is investigative nonfiction filmmaking of the highest order, a gripping, well-crafted work whose sprawling ambitions take us up and down every rung of Ghanaian society. (PS)

Boyhood

Over the course of twelve years, a young boy (Ellar Coltrane) comes of age in 21st-century Texas. Beginning with his unreliable biological father (Ethan Hawke), the boy watches as his mom (Patricia Arquette) cycles through a series of doomed relationships. Director Richard Linklater could have taken his superbly crafted coming-of-age screenplay (a wise, ambitious piece built around small, tender moments) down a traditional path of fiction film producing, but instead, he gambled on a daring, unconventional storytelling technique that places this work of narrative fiction in close conversation with nonfiction filmmaking. Starting in 2002 and continuing each year through 2013, Linklater filmed scenes for his movie with the same cast members. This risky decision to create fictional cinema at the pace of reality pays extraordinary, unprecedented dividends; Coltrane’s gradual blossoming from quiet young presence to magnetic performer ranks among the most moving transformations ever captured on celluloid. (CB) Presented by the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Bronx Obama

When Louis Ortiz shaved off his goatee one day in 2008, his life changed forever. He looked in the mirror and he didn’t see himself—a middle-aged, unemployed Puerto Rican father from the Bronx. He saw the face of change, of hope . . . of money. Bronx Obama tells the strange and improbable tale of a Barack Obama impersonator who cashes in on the “look of a lifetime” and chases a fevered American dream from opportunity to oblivion. Director Murdock documented Ortiz from Obama’s first term through the 2012 election and skillfully captured moments both ludicrous and unsettling as he hones in on the question, “What does it mean to be someone you’re not?” (DW)

Cairo Drive

Cairo, Egypt, is home to 20 million people and more than 14 million vehicles. Director Sherief Elkatsha’s ingenious film paints a vivid portrait of the bustling metropolis by dropping us in the passenger seats of its hilarious, pithy residents. As we learn about the city’s quirky transportation etiquette, Elkatsha transports us across the city, from “The Kids Driving School” (an educational program with aspirations of fostering “a new generation that understands traffic rules”) to the eyebrow-raising Traffic Police Center, where Egyptians pick up their licenses. Filmed from 2009 all the way through the Arab Spring, Cairo Drive features impeccable editing, as Elkatsha expertly weaves across traffic to tell a witty, insightful story of a country in transition. (CB)

Captivated: The Trials of Pamela Smart

Captivated revisits a story that enthralled a nation in the Desert Storm era: how a 22-year-old woman in small-town New Hampshire may have engineered the murder of her husband at the hands of her teenage student. In the media circus that was unleashed—including a quickie movie and the Nicole Kidman–starring To Die For—Zagar locates the spectacular creation myth of reality TV and court TV. And he tells an almost archetypal tale involving gender typecasting, in which media reports consistently portrayed Pamela Smart, the defendant, as a sex-crazed, remorseless ice princess. Consistently stylish, Captivated fetishizes period detail, such as old TVs playing the torrent of trial coverage and a cassette recorder used by Juror #13, whose nightly audio diaries provide new revelations. While Captivated revels in the grimy particulars of this long-told case, it illuminates its meaning in new and unexpected ways. (PS) Sponsored by Holder Susan Slusher & Oxenhandler.

Close-Up

In this 1990 landmark, director Abbas Kiarostami takes a bizarre case of identity theft and convinces its real-life subjects to participate in a creative reenactment. Hossain Sabzian is a young, underemployed lover of cinema. One day while riding a bus, he meets a woman and convinces her that he is film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. When she is confused why such a famous man would be riding public transit, Sabzian explains that it's important to draw inspiration from the real world. Under this pretense, he worms his way into her family’s home and bank account. When the family becomes suspicious, they invite an ambitious journalist to come investigate. (CB) Screens for free as a part of the Neither/Nor Film Series. Neither/Nor is presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

Concerning Violence

Colonialism, the political theorist Frantz Fanon wrote in 1962, “is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence.” Hugely influential yet largely forgotten, Fanon better expressed the mechanics of global oppression and resistance than any 20th-century thinker. Göran Hugo Olsson structures this immersion into the African decolonization movements of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s with excerpts from Fanon and, as with his Black Power Mixtape (T/F 2011), illustrates it using extraordinary footage mined from Swedish TV archives. Rebels prepare to ambush a Portuguese military base; a young woman and child, post amputation, reunite; starving villagers await redemption that will never come; and revolutionary icons Thomas Sankara and Amílcar Cabral forcefully denounce the immoral system they are fighting against. Concerning Violence inverts the war film, revealing the ideology that too often remains invisible beneath the human wreckage. (JS)

Demonstration

There is a truism in documentary filmmaking that group projects hardly ever work. Too many cooks, too many stories. Even more of a challenge? Saying something new and different about mass public protests. So the odds were stacked against this collaboration between 32 Spanish film students and the Russian master (and T/F True Vision honoree) Victor Kossakovsky. But through some strange alchemy, they created this soulful, often poetic portrait of the face of the protester, a face both familiar (the requisite Guy Fawkes mask) and fresh (an old man, pushed too far). That alchemy arises, in part, from the genius pairing of the ballet Don Quixote with these eruptions of the desire for change. It’s stirred with a sense of playfulness and brought to boil through a maestro’s attention to sound and image. Maybe this project shouldn’t have worked, but Demonstration leaps the barricades to reveal a fresh perspective on the act of protest. Plays with “Foundry Night Shift” (dir. Steven Bognar, 5 min.). (DW)

Dusty Stacks of Mom

Momma Mack’s poster-and-postcard business has been rendered defunct by the likes of Amazon, and dutiful daughter Jodie has come home to depict its final days via avant-garde rock opera. The result is a psychedelic deconstruction of Western pop-cultural history viewed through the local lens of a failing entrepreneur. Playfully appropriating Pink Floyd hits to tell the story—hint: the film’s initials are D.S.o.M.—and literally deconstructing a warehouse full of iconic images, Mack transforms mass-produced kitsch into a touching tribute. Its tongue planted firmly in cheek, its heart (and its themes) on its sleeve, and its eye irrevocably dilated by a few decades’ overexposure to pop culture’s excesses, Dusty Stacks of Mom is the perfect Weird Wake-Up. And you get to see it performed live. (KP)

E-Team

When crimes against humanity flare up, the Emergency-Team of Human Rights Watch are the world’s first responders. As word gets out about the Syrian regime’s abuses, Anna Neistat and her partner Ole Solvangand cross overland into the country, meticulously take testimonies, and then issue a clarion call to the world. Neistat emerges as a charismatic hero, impressively juggling momhood and some complicating personal considerations. Meanwhile, in Libya, the team’s weapons experts are meticulously recording the bullets, the weapons, and the graves. The E-Team may possess the guts and brains of crack secret agents, but they are revealed as flesh-and-blood humans who happen to be willing to work in the most adverse situations. With shrapnel flying and land mines underfoot, these brave observers strive to guarantee that history will not forget, and we cannot ignore, these most heinous of crimes. (JH) Sponsored by University Affairs at Mizzou.

Forest of the Dancing Spirits

Director Linda Västrik traveled deep into the lush Congolese rainforest, integrated herself into the pygmy society of the Aka for seven years, and emerged with this piece of artful, humanist anthropology. Besieged by rent-seeking “Owners” on one side and (unbeknown to them) logging companies on the other, the formerly insulated Aka live the only lives they know: men weather bee stings to gather honeycombs from the canopy overhead, an elderly woman recounts the myth of how women discovered men, a “doctor” uses mystical ceremonies to ascertain the true causes of horrible events, and a young woman worries about the prospect of divorce if the child in her womb is stillborn. Forest of the Dancing Spirits is a glimpse into the hard work of cultural self-preservation on the precipice of modernity. (KP) Sponsored by the Mustard Seed.

The Green Prince

Two stories, at first separate, gradually interweave. And the combined narrative is truly nothing you’ve ever heard before. Mosab, the oldest son of a Hamas leader, and Gonen, a young Israeli secret service operative, were thrown together by circumstance but became partners in this shocking story of modern espionage. As a filmmaker, Schirman brings an arsenal of creative devices—including archival footage and re-creations—to illustrate this real-life thriller. But what he does best takes no bells or whistles—just understanding the emotional depths of the human face and the power of a good story. The Green Prince may owe a debt to The Imposter’s stranger-than-fiction narrative and The Gatekeepers expertly tense milieu, but as Schirman plumbs the souls of Mosab and Goran, he creates something truly unique. (DW)

Happy Valley

In State College, Pennsylvania, college football has been the heart of the community for decades. Under coach Joe Paterno, the program was a model for universities around the country, and Paterno was as beloved as any public figure anywhere. But in 2011, it all came crashing down. Rather than wallow in the particulars of the Sandusky case, though, Bar-Lev examines how the shock waves cracked the foundations of this idyllic college town. It’s an astonishing piece of filmmaking, harnessing archival footage to paint the case in spare, exact strokes but simultaneously sifting through the aftermath to find poetry and emotional depth. Happy Valley should raise moral and ethical questions in every viewer, but it’s not a prescriptive film. It encourages us to consider how we think about our community and our values while admiring the soulful filmmaking that is Bar-Lev’s trademark. (DW) Sponsored by Restoration Eyecare: Dr. Timothy McGarity.

Jodorowsky's Dune

It was a match made in trippy heaven: in 1975, cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) optioned the rights to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune. Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, the graphic artist Moebius, and Pink Floyd signed on to help. A phone-book-thick script was prepared and the 14-hour hallucinatory project that Jodorowsky called “the most important picture in the history of humanity” seemed to be on its way. But it was not to be. Director Frank Pavich’s inspiring tale of ambition and failure uses phenomenal storyboards, concept sketches and interviews with the principals to revisit the film that could have rendered Star Wars superfluous. “I didn’t read Dune, but I had a friend who said it was fantastic,” Jodorowsky says, capturing the spirit of this idiosyncratic pursuit. (JS)

The Joycean Society

Since 1986, a small, erudite cult has met weekly in Zurich. The group is currently making their third lap through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, one of the literary canon’s most notorious texts. Carefully reading aloud with frequent pauses for analysis, they slowly weave their way through Joyce’s labyrinth, line for line, word for word. In The Joycean Society, filmmaker Dora Garcia offers us a seat at the table, making us a party to the group’s excavation of the meanings, allusions, and cross-references buried in Joyce’s wordplay and digressions. The group’s decades-spanning quest is made manifest in potent images of notebooks overflowing with obsessive scribblings and loose pages adorned with microscopic marginalia. Garcia’s rigorous approach yields a surprising amount of fun, as the self-aware readers talk through insights both profound and ridiculous, and reflect on the impossibility of knowing the difference. Plays with “Hacked Circuit” (dir. Deborah Stratman, 15 min.). (DS)

Killing Time

This masterful new work in the present-tense tradition is ostensibly about "killing time" waiting for an execution of a man on Texas’s death row, who raped two sisters and then killed their uncle in the mid-1990s. Dutch director Jaap van Hoewijk follows the convict’s family, the media, protesters, penitentiary workers, and police, and introduces us to the down-to-earth testimony of one of the victims. There is an unpretentious, lived-in quality throughout the film that shows a director at the top of his game, interested in something bigger than a polemic about capital punishment. By the end, Killing Time trembles with humanity, transcending its small details and approaching a universal truth involving human nature, guilt, forgiveness, good and evil, and so much more. Plays with "Emergency Calls" (dir. Hannes Vartiainen & Pekka Veikkolainen, 15 min.) (PS)

Kingdom, If I Can (shorts)

Transcendence doesn’t come easy, as shown in these three international shorts from Russia, the Ukraine, and Spain. An old proverb states, "Vodka is our enemy, so we'll utterly consume it!" And while the demon water sends most Russian men early to their graves, some continue to chase its salutary effects, as seen in the stylish “The Green Serpent” (Benny Jaberg, 20 min.). Distant skiers on a snowy mountain show man’s place in the overwhelming, awesome landscape in “Mountain in Shadow” (Lois Patiño,14 min.). An uneasy symbiosis between two very different groups prevails in “Sirs & Misters” (Olexandr Techynskyy, 35 min.) as local porters work with Hasidic Jews making pilgrimage to a town near Kiev, where the founder of their sect is buried. Before the singing-and-dancing exaltation can commence, some more basic arrangements must be negotiated. (PS)

Kith & Kin (shorts)

Family ties are untangled in these six short films: “Good Morning Resistance” (Adrián Orr, 20 min.), an epic odyssey by a father intending to get his three kids to school on time; “The Lion’s Mouth Opens” (Lucy Walker, 15 min.), a down-to-earth sci-fi about a woman at a crossroads; “Gates of Life” (Hannes Vartiainen and Pekka Veikkolainen, 6 min.), which steals stolen moments at a Helsinki railroad station; “Tim and Susan Have Matching Handguns” (Joe Callander, 2 min.), showing marital bliss is a set of warm pistols; “Butter Lamp” (Hu Wei, 15 min), in which a modern photographer helps Tibetan nomads get with the times; and “I Think This Is the Closest to How the Footage Looked” (Yuval Hameiri, 9 min.), a stunning look at what remains after a mother leaves her family behind. (PS)

Life After Death

Kwasa is a clever, charismatic twenty-something Rwandan native who also happens to be a terribly unreliable employee. As he struggles to find stable work in Kigali, some well-intentioned Americans swoop in to offer a helping hand. Close by his side are Suzette and Dave, committed Christian philanthropists who frequently travel to Rwanda to offer life guidance and short-term job opportunities. Meanwhile, in suburban Dallas, donors Tim and Susan—moved by the story of Kwasa’s mother, who was impaled by a spear during the 1994 genocide —offer financial aid as they communicate with Kwasa via Facebook. Although tragedy looms large, director Joe Callander (“Tina Delivers a Goat”) sidesteps the pitiful tone that tends to define films about Rwanda in his affectionate yet sharp-eyed feature-length debut. (CB)

Manakamana

In central Nepal, tiny cable cars travel up and down the breathtaking mountain landscape, transporting pilgrims to the ancient Manakamana temple. Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez from Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab (the endlessly inventive hub behind earlier T/F selections Leviathan and Foreign Parts), present 11 different cable car journeys in full, each lasting nearly ten minutes (the same length as the rolls of super 16mm film on which they shoot). A miracle of nonfiction cinema casting, Spray and Velez’s carefully configured movie delivers captivating characters, one after another. With a hypnotic rhythm, this memorable work of slow cinema allows us to closely observe compelling faces and bodies responding to the camera, conveying everything from boredom to amusement to astonishment. (CB)

Miraculous Tales

Somewhere high up in Northern Ireland’s County Armagh lives a people of deep belief. Or so says farmer/raconteur Mickey McGuigan, who takes us on an off-the-beaten-path tour of folk medicine, faith healing, and other methods by which the afflicted find comfort; if you have a colicky baby or a cow with ringworm, you might seek out the seventh son of the seventh son for a cure. Whether you find it to be superstitious blarney depends on your prejudices, but Miraculous Tales undoubtedly tells a yarn that bewitches. And it’s done with an exuberant flair, as you’d expect from T/F alum Daniel Vernon (The Man Who Ate Badgers), who clearly is enjoying the ride. Whatever your orientation, the film is a delightful experience showing us that stories—whether administered with a remedy, sermon, or satellite dish—can redeem us from the chaos of life. Plays with “The Lost Village” (dir. Manuel Jimenez, 13 min.). (PS)

The Mirror

In the center of Tehran, as the day comes to a close, a young first grader named Mina (played by Mina Mohammad-Khani) walks out of her school and discovers that her mother is nowhere to be found. Impatient, and with one arm in a sling, she decides to find her own way home. Mina boards a bus and listens in on the various conversations unfolding around her. That bus, it turns out, is heading the wrong direction. Eventually, a frustrated Mina does something surprising. Jafar Panahi, then a protégé of Close-Up director Abbas Kiarostami, directed this playfully reflexive 1997 film. (CB) Screens for free as a part of the Neither/Nor Film Series. Neither/Nor is presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

A Moment of Innocence

In 1974, when Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a 17-year-old anti-Shah militant, he stabbed a policeman at a rally. The police officer suffered serious injuries, and Makhmalbaf found himself in prison for six years. Many years later, after Makhmalbaf had found fame as a director, he ran into the same police officer during a film shoot, and they agreed to collaborate on a film. In the brilliantly structured A Moment of Innocence, we witness the two men working together to recreate this incident. As they go about this process, we discover that the men have very different memories of what transpired on that pivotal day. (CB) Screens for free as a part of the Neither/Nor Film Series. Neither/Nor is presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

My Kid Could Paint That

From True Vision Award honoree Amir Bar-Lev. A four-year-old who paints abstract works of modern art and then sells them for thousands of dollars a piece? Armed with his camera, Bar-Lev traveled to upstate New York to document Marla Olmstead and her family. All was good. But then a 60 Minutes story suggested that the paintings might be fakes (painted all or in part by Marla’s father) and suddenly nothing was tidy. Once again, Bar-Lev deconstructs a high-concept story, wringing out the sensationalism and replacing it with a complex inquiry into the nature of both art and celebrity. He even questions his own role as part of the media circus. Allowing no easy answers, My Kid Could Paint That makes for richly ambiguous art that will keep you debating with your neighbor long after the credits roll. (DW)

The Notorious Mr. Bout

At the time of his 2008 arrest and subsequent extradition to the United States, “merchant of death” Viktor Bout’s reputation as an arms dealer was audacious enough to inspire a Nicolas Cage movie. But moving past the supervillain hype, The Notorious Mr. Bout retraces the career of a gung-ho, optimistic Russian entrepreneur who built an import/export empire during the wild, heady days when anything-goes capitalism swept away decades of Soviet communism. Our guides include Mr. Bout himself, recounting his life from behind bars, his dedicated wife Alla, and associates who helped Bout fly massive amounts of cargo in and out of Africa and the Middle East. The filmmakers cleverly build their film from a variety of archival sources, most importantly Viktor Bout’s own whimsical and upbeat home movies, which gleefully capture exotic adventures, oblivious to the human misery lurking off-screen. (DS)

The Overnighters

A decade ago, Williston, North Dakota, was a sleepy place. Then an oil gusher inspired a flood of get-rich-quick immigrants. Director Jesse Moss, whose Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story played at the inaugural T/F, headed to the boom town and found documentary gold: the extraordinarily complex character of Pastor Jay Reinke. The pastor sees the newly arrived homeless, viewed as a scourge by some, as “God’s gifts to us” and successfully rallies his congregation to create a shelter. But don’t call him a saint! The humble Reinke says, “We’re all broken,” and there’s nothing here to make you think any differently. At every turn, Moss confounds our expectations and prejudices, and captures vivid scenes unlike any doc in recent memory. If that weren’t enough, brace yourself for a surprise ending guaranteed to pin you to your seat. (PS)

Particle Fever

You could hear the cry go out last October when two physicists were given the Nobel Prize for discovering the Higgs boson: “Would someone please explain?!” Fortunately, physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson had trained his cameras on the Large Hadron Collider since its opening, awaiting this moment. The LHC is the largest science experiment in history: a 17-mile-long tunnel on the French-Swiss border with immense data collection systems, designed and operated with 10,000 scientists and engineers from 150 countries, in hopes of replicating the instant after the Big Bang in order to see what we can learn about the atom—and life itself. With massive energy and unfolding thrills, plus wonderfully easy-to-grasp graphics and fantastic subjects, Particle Fever explains and makes exciting the complex matters at hand—even the Higgs. (JS)

Private Violence

Opening with one of the the great nonfiction scenes ever, Private Violence immediately announces itself as far more than an issue-driven documentary. This is storytelling of the highest order and a rare window into the lives of advocates for battered and abused women. We meet Kit, a take-charge hero with a touch of Erin Brockovich. And Deanna, whose bravery in the face of horrific adversity forms the core of this affecting film. Director Cynthia Hill guides us through the issues, artfully arranging answers to questions just as we think of them.  And the biggest question, "Why didn't she leave?" becomes almost a second title for this film, one that gets answered repeatedly, with dispassionate facts, brutal emotion and everything in between.  We all say that we oppose domestic violence, but there is still a battle to be fought-- a battle against apathy.  Private Violence is a searing, devastating call-to-action and awareness. (DW) Sponsored by the Crossing.

Rich Hill

Without a trace of condescension, this wise, compassionate film introduces us to three young teenage boys from Rich Hill, a small Missouri community located 70 miles south of Kansas City. Be it financial difficulties, a missing parent, or traumatic memories, Harley, Andrew, and Appachey are each bravely confronting major life struggles. But as it intimately observes their day-to-day lives, this empathetic film refuses to define its subjects by their troubles, instead locating and cherishing the charming personality quirks that makes each one so unforgettable. With Rich Hill, the talented filmmaking cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo (a former Columbia resident and a good friend of True/False) have delivered a quietly moving, deeply humane ode to resilience. (CB)

Sacro GRA

Sacro GRA intimately explores the human geography along the Grande Raccordo Anulare, a massive motorway that encircles Rome. Like a voyeuristic nature documentary, the filmmaker peers into traditions—new and old, personal and national—observing the cultures of Italy from within each person’s unique habitat. The camera hovers over the shoulders of prostitutes dancing on café countertops, a scientist tracking the lecherous red palm weevil, a medic rushing to accidents, and more—all connected by the omnipresent rush of churning cars. It’s a beautiful work as sprawling as the road itself, but with a penchant for lingering at every pit stop. (DK)

Secret Screening Amber

Secret Screening Amber is a dizzying yet serene spin out of deadpan sadness. Two unlikely friends, bound by a shared love, dip in and out of desperation with a compassion that feels like a plea for death . . . and a spit in death’s eye. The camera disappears as it frames their world through the poeticism of their detachment, an isolation that is self-inflicted but also frays at their surrounding community. The filmmaking here is truly visionary, with a richness of image pushed further by masterful editing. Companionship is a means of survival in this film where even the soundscapes feel like an intense gasp for air. (DK)

Secret Screening Burgundy

A man sits in a cluttered apartment. He is utterly focused. The TV is on. He is working. Later, his efforts will be heralded and hated in equal measure. They will be seen as an attack on institutions and an affront to established mores. His character will be questioned. This adroitly sculpted character study is sure to leave you debating motive and perspective for weeks (if not months) to come. But what’s not up for debate is the empathy and strong sense of narrative the filmmaker brings to the subject. A perfect true/false film. (DW)

Secret Screening Orchid

Civilization has its discontents, including this person who gave away everything they knew to start a new life. Decamping one day to fulfill a promise, our hero must venture deep into the center of their long-forsaken culture and come face to face with the past. This impeccable portrait is gorgeously shot, slyly scored, and sharply edited, showing an engrossing protagonist at a crossroads. If there is any doubt that antipodes, both real and metaphoric, exist, this film accentuates the vast gulf between tribes, as we are immersed in a series of contrasting images. (PS)

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

Ricky (Jesus Sanchez-Velez) is a 13-year-old autistic boy from Rockaway, Queens, a neighborhood that meets the ocean on the edges of a sprawling New York City. When his lively inner world lures him into the city on a lone journey under the pulsing urban streets, the delicate safety net of his family and community is sundered. His sudden disappearance raises tension at home that coincides with the approach of Hurricane Sandy. Though largely fictional, this film documents the undocumented, from the struggles of Ricky’s illegal immigrant family to the vibrant cars and shadowy tunnels of the New York subway system. It’s not just a story about a boy, it’s an ode to the one thing that keeps the ravaging currents of city life at bay: the people. (DK)

Stop-Over (L'Escale)

Illegal immigration is never far from the headlines, frequently discussed in political and economic terms, but it is a rare and vital thing to see beyond the statistics to the people at the heart of the issue. In the honest and humane Stop-Over, Swiss-Iranian debut director Kaveh Bakhtiari visits his cousin Mohsen, living illegally in Athens with a small group of other undocumented Iranian men. Greece was supposed to be their gateway into Europe, but, abandoned by their smuggler, they find themselves trapped. The constant fear of being picked up by the police, the hopeless search for fake papers, and the monotony of their group flophouse begin to take their toll. Filming intimately from within the group but nevertheless an outsider, Bakhtiari elegantly captures the camaraderie and struggles of these men, caught in a terrible limbo. (JH)

A Thousand Suns (Mille Soleils)

In 1973, Magaye Niang starred in the landmark Senegalese film Touki Bouki. Magaye played a young cattle herder with dreams of escaping to Europe. With Josephine Baker’s “Paris, Paris” on loop, the film tracks him and his lover (Mareme Niang) as they drive to the Port of Dakar in hopes of boarding a ship to France. Forty years later, Magaye is still herding cattle in Dakar. As an anniversary screening of Touki Bouki nears,  he wanders through his hometown and comes to terms with his legacy. ATex Ritter song replaces  “Paris, Paris” as Magaye wonders what became of Mareme. Mati Diop, niece of Touki Bouki director Djibril Diop Mambéty and an exciting director in her own right, creates a dreamy, moving chimera that gracefully floats between reality and fantasy. Plays with “Vegas” (dir. Lukasz Konopa, 24 min.). (CB)

Tim's Vermeer

A few years back, the inventor Tim Jenison’s insatiable curiosity hit upon a new obsession. A David Hockney book about the ancient technologies of art got him wondering: How could the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer create such photorealistic works? Did he have help from mirrors? If so, could a regular Joe (or Tim), without any training, make a beautiful painting? Such begins this deep  dive into optics and art. The legendary Penn Jillette (who produces) and Teller (who directs) turn thousands of hours of Tim’s own footage of his quixotic journey into a fully-formed adventure that ends with irrepressible oohs and aahs. Tim’s Vermeer simultaneously serves as a riveting personal journey, an inspiring exploration of creativity, and a provocative “what is art” argument. It’s also the most fun you’ll have watching a documentary this year. (JS)

Ukraine is Not a Brothel

Is there a better media hook than a group of topless feminist protesters, all hewing suspiciously close to traditional ideas of beauty? Femen is an activist movement started in the Ukraine to protest sex trafficking and the hyper-sexualization of Ukranian women. Their tactics? Topless protests, with slogans scrawled across their chests, and elaborate pieces of street theater. And, no surprise, they’ve been very effective at getting media attention for their cause. But for many observers, something seemed . . . off. Are all politically active Ukrainian women really this thin and blonde? What fuels Femen and who funds Femen? Australian filmmaker Kitty Green made a journey of discovery and, having won the trust of the group, uncovered Femen’s biggest secrets. Ukraine Is Not a Brothel is a complex, provocative film, with plenty to say about feminism and its discontents. (DW)

Uncertain (work-in-progress)

In the haunted, southern gothic town of Uncertain, Texas, hunched on the Louisiana border, desperate men battle their demons. “May I defeat my greatest enemy, myself,” one intones in prayer. The demons take many outward forms: marauding wild boars that ravage the countryside, noxious weeds (salvinia molesta) that choke Caddo Lake at the center of the region's economy, drug and alcohol problems that torment them and those around them, and fits of violence that burst forth and ricochet through their lives. This masterful debut feature is highlighted by memorable images—such as a search party on the water using flashlights—that reveal bit by bit, an archaeology of the human spirit. While southern noir is nothing new, this kaleidoscopic portrait of a town feels like a fresh kind of nonfiction. (PS)

The Unknown Known

“All generalizations are false. Including this one.” So runs the central paradox in the body of wisdom known as "Rumsfeld's Rules.” The secretary of defense under Gerald Ford (he was appointed at age 33) and George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld claims his rules guided the policies he championed, including launching wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Oscar-winning director Errol Morris offers up history through the prism of the Rumsfeld Doctrine, but this is more an inquiry into the philosophy of language than an unpacking of historical fact. As The Unknown Known progresses, Morris strips bare the contradictions, obfuscations, paradoxes, and clichés at the heart of Rumsfeld's Rules, leaving us grinning at this dazzling sparring match but far less sanguine about the fuzzy logic that propelled the United States into two lengthy, hugely costly wars. (JS)

Vanishing Point (shorts)

All lives leave traces, but some invite more detective work than others; these three short films undertake investigations into the inexplicable. In “Rings of Life” (Ida Lindgren, 13 min.), an older sister sets off on a poetic exploration of love and loss. “The Last Days of Peter Bergmann” (Ciaran Cassidy, 19 min.) takes us on an engrossing forensic journey into the disappearance of a loner, as seen through a series of spy cams. “Morning Star” (David Kremer, 40 min.) is the found evidence of a courageous life on the high seas. We witness a French woman leave all that she knows in search of adventure on her beloved sailboat, the Stella Matutina. Emerging director David Kremer’s artful reconstruction brings us into the visceral center of her life on the alternately calm and stormy Indian Ocean. (PS)

The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

This essay film transports us to Eastern Europe, where it draws from recent history and local folklore to explore provocative, universal ideas about the domineering relationship between man and nature. Amid the ruins of this war-torn region, Oreck locates sublime images of daily life. Farmers scythe fields and bale hay. A wedding party dances late into the evening, then gathers to launch floating lanterns into the night sky. Mushroom hunters scour the forests and dump their finds into a flash freeze. Interwoven into this finely woven 16mm tapestry is beautifully hand-drawn animation depicting the Slavic myth of Baba Yaga, a sinister witch who dwells in the forest. By the end, this mesmerizing work leaves us scrutinizing our own surroundings with fresh eyes. (CB)