Brief Reviews

We found the following films to be of particular interest.

’71. New York Film Festival 2014. We’re not born with guns in our hands. Every man, woman, and child who’s picked one up has made a choice—whether through coercion, conviction, necessity, or a repulsive urge to kill—to do so. All choices are not the same, but all can lead to the inevitable decision to pull the trigger or not. The ethical and existential ramifications of these choices form the subtext of ’71, a thriller set in Divis Flats, an IRA stronghold in Belfast, where a British soldier is left behind by his platoon. Directed by Yann Demange.

Aferim! Tribeca Film Festival 2015. To shed light on anti-Roma prejudices still rampant in modern-day Romania (as of 2013, members of Parliament were still suggesting that Roma women be sterilized), director Radu Jude sets the screen ablaze with this tale of a policeman searching for a runaway Gypsy slave in 1830, twenty-five years before the passage of the Law for Emancipation of All Gypsies in Wallachia. This strange, disturbing, and utterly compelling film has the structural trappings of a Western, but its X-ray-like black-and-white cinematography, combined with medieval-style references to Jews, folk witticisms, extravagant costuming, and incomprehensible behavioral codes—all based on historical record—obliterate feelings of fondness for the form. Aferim! is a brilliantly orchestrated train wreck, a cruel social document impossible not to watch.

Ana Arabia. New York Jewish Film Festival 2014. Inspired by a news clip about the enduring love between a Jewish woman born in Auschwitz and her Muslim husband, Amos Gitai created this filmic meditation on peaceful coexistence. To symbolize the unity between Arabs and Jews, he made Ana Arabia in one languorous, brilliantly choreographed shot.

Arabian Nights. New York Film Festival 2015. Miguel Gomes wanted to make two movies: one full of beautiful tales, and one about Portugal’s wretched economic situation. He made one instead: a movie full of tales about Portugal’s wretched economic situation, a la Scheherazade’s 1001 Nights, divided into three distinct films.

Interweaving fiction, documentary, and news-based stories, Gomes has created a reality-based fantasy full of rich, exotic imagery, absurd morality, and tragic circumstances. Each of the three films, which he designates as “volumes,” has its own purpose and aesthetic, but all three should be seen (hopefully on consecutive nights) to get the full effect of the work.

Between Arabian Nights and Tabu (2012), Gomes has emerged as one of the finest filmmakers of this century. His profound understanding of the medium, combined with a fertile imagination, gives a lasting depth to everything he does. Arabian Nights is certainly no exception.

Bad Hair. Tribeca Film Festival 2014. Poverty, impatience, and ignorance build a powerful wedge between an inept mother and her young son in this beautifully made tragedy from Venezuela. Titled for the boy’s obsession with straightening his curly hair—a preoccupation that lights a fire to his mother’s volatile fears—Bad Hair zeroes in on the downward spiral that begins when phobia triumphs over compassion in a mother’s heart.

Casa Grande. LatinBeat Film Festival 2014. Fellipe Barbosa brings a sure hand to this tightly controlled yet explosive exploration of relationships on the brink in an upper-class Brazilian household on the verge of financial bankruptcy. A coming-of-age story at its core, Casa Grande depicts a young man preparing for university entrance exams who finally realizes he’s becoming the nasty, underhanded father he despises. Barbosa’s own father went bankrupt (Barbosa describes the loss of wealth as “liberating”), and it’s clear he understands the psychological and social details of the personal transformation such an experience engenders. But Casa Grande also reaches far beyond this central conflict to examine the conundrum of power: Does it lie in the mansion, with those who can hire and fire at will? Or does it lie in the favela, with people who can satisfy their own needs with the work of their hands? Based on the Brazilian novel Casa Grande e Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves).

Eat Your Bones. Rendezvous with French Cinema 2015. After spending a terrifying night careening through France with Frederic Dorkel, a young Yeniche—a community of nomads living in France, Germany, and Switzerland—and Dorkel’s uncle, who had just been released from a 15-year stint in prison, director Jean-Charles Hue decided to turn the experience into a film. Hue has spent dozens of years filming Frederic Dorkel and the Yeniche, whose origins are European (not to be confused with Rom, whose origins lay in India), producing five short films and two features (Eat My Bones is the second). It’s not clear where the documentary ends and the fiction begins, but this unapologetic document of self-expression, which ends in a devastating plea for civil and human rights, is brutally effective from beginning to end. “Who cares if it’s a documentary or a fiction?” asks Hue. “What matters is finding the right balance between what you want to tell and the way you tell it, using the community’s own codes.”

History of Fear. New Directors/New Films 2014. This terrifying Argentinean fantasia in which social classes touch, only to repel each other in fear and loathing, unfolds with a sure touch born of conviction as much as talent for subconscious storytelling.

In the Courtyard. Rendevous with French Cinema 2015. Catherine Deneuve was, is, and always will be inherently elegant. In In the Courtyard, a charming tragedy about a strange affinity that develops between a singer at the end of his rope (played by the irresistible Gustave Kervern) and the wealthy woman, also at the end of her rope, who hires him as her concierge, Deneuve’s natural gifts allow her to transmute her once-remote elegance into an urgent need to serve, a personal sort of noblesse oblige. The same confusion she displayed in Repulsion now resides in a spirit made vulnerable by fear, but because of who she has become, both as an actress and as the character she portrays, she is able to rescue dignity from despair. Director Pierre Salvadori, who wrote the script for Deneuve, says of her, “She eradicates anything that could seem artificial.” In the Courtyard proves it once again.

Io e Te. Film Comment Selects 2014. Ten years ago, Bernardo Bertolucci thought his filmmaking days were over when he was confined to a wheelchair, but he knew he had to shoot again when Niccolo Ammaniti brought him his novella “Io e te” (Me and You). Thank God. Bertolucci has achieved a work of vast empathy in this tale of a 14-year-old loner who ditches a school ski trip to spend a week alone with his favorite music and books, only to be invaded by his older, long-estranged half sister. With David Bowie singing the Italian lyrics to “Ground Control to Major Tom”—”Tell me, lonely boy, where are you going, because there’s so much pain”—Bertolucci has managed to convert so much pain to so much beauty.

Jimmy’s Hall. Tribeca Film Festival 2015. Little might have been known of the real Jimmy Gralton, but Ken Loach makes Gralton’s life pulse with living detail in Jimmy’s Hall, a reimagination of the Irish activist’s return to his native land following a ten-year self-imposed exile in America. It’s 1932, and the social hall that Jimmy and his friends built a decade earlier stands abandoned; gone are the classes in art, music, and dance, Irish literature, and socialist ideas that energized their poor rural community. But Jimmy’s back, and the young want to dance again. They importune Jimmy to open the hall once again; led more by instinct than good judgment, he does, and life—and the authorities—pour back in. Actor Barry Ward bursts off the screen as Jimmy Gralton, while Loach’s brilliant direction draws us into his own socialist universe. Look for Director Talk’s interview with lead actors Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, and Jim Norton on the film’s US theatrical release.

Journey to the Shore. New York Film Festival 2015.  Death might be a universal experience, but rituals and attitudes surrounding death are as numerous as the cultures that humankind has created. In Japanese culture, the verb mitoru denotes the act of watching over a dying person until the moment of death. The living and the dying together remember the past they have shared and moments they have kept secret from each other, and look forward to a future they will experience together.

In Journey to the Shore, the process of mitoru is gracefully transformed into a tender road trip. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa based the film upon Kazumi Yumoto’s eponymous novel, in which mitoru begins when a lonely piano teacher is visited by her dead husband and agrees to accompany him to the many beautiful places he saw in his life. Along the way, they enable others to finalize the death process with dignity and self-awareness.

Though the enactment of mitoru might be specifically Japanese, the film shimmers with universal insights into the pain of regret and wonder at the miracle of creation. Experiencing it is like watching the sea; what is deep rises to the surface and sinks again, what is visible vanishes, and what is unknowable makes itself known.

Key of Life. This brilliant comedy of mistaken identity won the Best Screenplay award at the Japanese academy awards, but the acting will have you falling out of your seat laughing. With shades of It’s a Wonderful Life, Some Like It Hot, and Fletch, it’s one of the best comedies to be made in decades. Available on DVD or online from Film Movement.

Last Hijack. New York Film Festival 2014. Last Hijack is to Captain Phillips what Green Prince was to Bethlehem: the real thing. Using a combination of interviews shot feature-film style, superb animation, live wedding footage, and shockingly beautiful seascapes, Last Hijack reveals the personal history, ambitions, and regrets of Mohammad, the first Somali pirate. Not surprisingly, the origin of piracy is ascribed to the moment when commercial trawlers fired upon local Somali fishermen, but what seems to have begun as a protest movement has degenerated into a colossal waste of millions of dollars of blood money, which poured through pirate hands into drugs, violence, and women instead of schools, health clinics, and prosperity for the people. Directed by Tommy Pallotta, Femke Wolting.

Les Cowboys.  New York Film Festival 2015. In Thomas Bidegain’s update of The Searchers, a French family heavily into the cowboy culture popular throughout Europe discovers that their daughter is missing; she’s run away with her Muslim boyfriend to join the jihad. Substituting Muslims for Indians and radicalization for kidnapping, Bidegain has created an intelligent remake full of well-observed moments.

Still, remaking a classic confers both advantages and danger. Advantages lie in the fact that the original is inherently powerful—that’s what’s made it a classic—and some of that power devolves to the remake. The danger lies in not living up to the original. Les Cowboys is an unsettling mix of the power conferred by The Searchers and the nagging feeling that the issues Bidegain is addressing are too complex to deal with at this point in time.

Bidegain has a phenomenal ability to capture interior lives and interpersonal relations with a minimum of dialogue; he is a master of show, not tell. But when it comes to dealing with Muslims as a whole, the film’s intelligent edge slips. The power of the original, in which John Wayne is forced to confront his own racism, is first diluted—rather than being forced to take an honest look at himself, the father in Les Cowboys dies in his epic quest, to be replaced by his son—and then inadvertently made into stereotype (radical Muslims mistreat their women). But perhaps this is not Bidegain’s problem but the fact that, unlike John Ford, whose Westerns refer to a different time period, he’s making his film at the very point when ISIS is using children to decapitate their enemies. Given the heinous lengths to which ISIS currently stoops, it’s possible that Bidegain’s ultimate message of forgiveness and understanding can be appreciated as a welcome step away from fanatical anti-Muslim views of the Western variety.

Life of Riley. New York Film Festival 2014.  Directed by Alain Resnais. Rather than confronting head-on the monumental but simple matter of rectifying one’s past mistakes, Alain Resnais, as usual, employs a series of devices to explore his middle-aged couples’ banal but real and recognizable angst. In the case of Life of Riley—his final film, finished shortly before he passed away—Resnais uses two devices: an offscreen play the onscreen characters are supposed to be rehearsing, and highly stylized stage sets that stand in for their real-life abodes. Revisiting the themes of love, death, and artificiality he explored in You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, Resnais hones in on the single gesture that can turn a life around, with the gentle humor, wry wit, and clear-sighted wisdom of a master filmmaker at the end of a very long and extremely well-lived life.

Love & Engineering. Tribeca Film Festival 2014. You might think this documentary about a group of geeky engineers in Finland searching for a scientific formula for love is tongue-and-cheek, but it’s not: They really believe that electrodes and algorithms pave the way to romance. Blissfully unaware that that may in fact be part of the problem, they enlist a cadre of blue-eye blondes to help them in their experiments. Whatever else these guys are, they’re really sweet, and you’re pulling for them all the way through this highly entertaining film.

May Allah Bless France! Rendezvous with French Cinema 2015. Director Abd al Malik is only 39, but he’s already produced a body of work—musical, literary, and filmic—that firmly establishes him as a figure of cultural significance in the twenty-first century. His early life was schizophrenic; he was both a brilliant student and a ghetto thug, but he found an escape from the brutality of his environment through music (he was one of the founders of the rap group New African Poets) and, later, through Sufism. May Allah Bless France! conveys his journey, here portrayed by the brilliant French actor Marc Zinga. Throughout, Abd al Malik’s nuanced sensibilities and attention to detail have created the most beautiful contemporary black-and-white palette to date, leaving Bela Tarr and Pawel Pawlikoski (Ida) in the dust.

Misundertsood.  New York Film Festival 2014. This wild ride of brilliant mise-en-scène, wacky scenarios, and blackly imaginative humor ultimately add up to a simple but potent cautionary tale about the damage that adult narcissism does to youngsters forced to live under its shadow. The film achieves much of its unique energy by melding the sharp-edged design of Abel Ferrara with the wistful whimsy of Jacques Demy. Directed by Asia Argento.

Mood Indigo. Rendezvous with French Cinema 2014. “Mood Black” would be a better title for Gondry’s latest fantasia, based on Foam of the Daze by novelist, inventor, and jazz critic Boris Vian. Life is sweetness and light when fabulously wealthy bachelor Colin (Romain Duris) and fabulously delightful Chloe (Audrey Tautou) meet, fall in love, and marry, but all turns bleak when real life intrudes. It’s hard to tell whether the schizophrenic nature of Gondry’s vision springs from an eternal naivete or deep grasp of some tragic fundamental, but his inventiveness is, as always, fabulously entertaining.

Mr. Turner. New York Film Festival 2014. With a chemistry between characters that is Mike Leigh’s signature, the acting (Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, and Marion Bailey) in Mr. Turner is truly outstanding. As sensational as the performances are, however, the work by cinematographer Dick Pope is the film’s pièce de résistance. This is absolutely a cinema of images, and much will be written about the way Pope and Leigh transform the film into a series of Turner landscapes, giving fresh insight not only into Turner’s paintings but also into the world as viewed through Mr. Turner’s eye.

Natural Sciences. LatinBeat Film Festival 2014. In just over one hour, director/writer Matias Lucchesi delivers two miracles. The first is the impeccably shaped story of a twelve-year-old girl intent on finding the father whose name she doesn’t even know. The second miracle is lead actress Paula Galinelli Hertzog, who, at the age of ten, has already won two Best Actress awards. In a performance that rivals the young Jean-Pierre Leaud’s in 400 Blows, Hertzog embodies the innocent fierceness that will allow her unhappy character to turn into a beautiful young woman. Writer/director Lucchesi embeds it in the compact simplicity of a fairy tale, further emphasizing the primal nature of her quest. Itself the winner of multiple “Best” awards (Berlin’s Generation Kplus Grand Prix as well as Best Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress at the 2014 Guadalajara Film Festival), Natural Sciences is a rare combination of restraint, passion, and mercy and a superb example of the power of clear-sighted storytelling.

On My Way. Rendezvous with French Cinema. “Road trip” takes on new meaning when the wayfarer behind the wheel is Catherine Deneuve, who’s forced into chauffeuring her estranged grandson to a small town in the countryside. Simultaneously naïve and worldly, Deneuve is adorable in her openness to the new people she meets along the way, gifting the audience with insight into the grace that is needed to find love after pain. Both Deneuve and Nemo Schiffman, who plays the grandson, are nominated for 2014 Cesar Awards.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum. New Directors/New Films 2014. Of all the tragedies the Communist Party inflicted on Romania, perhaps the greatest was the creation of a population that thought nothing of betraying parents, children, and friends in the simple need to survive. Director Andrei Gruzsniczki brings the period to life with a mathematician trying to publish a groundbreaking paper in America.

Seymour: An Introduction. New York Film Festival 2014. Dedication to craft is indispensable to making great art. But there is dedication to craft that is so complete it transcends the making of art; it transforms the soul of the artist. Such is the life of Seymour Bernstein, renowned teacher of piano, author of With Your Own Two Hands: Self-Discovery Through Music, and the subject of Ethan Hawke’s lovely documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. Hawke met Bernstein by chance at a dinner party, where the two struck up a conversation about conquering stage fright. They became close friends, and Hawke realized he had to make a documentary about his newfound mentor. What makes this film so authentic is the fact that there is no distance between what Bernstein says and what he does—when he speaks about harmonizing the personal and musical self through discipline and dedication, he speaks about his lived experience. What makes the film so moving is Hawke’s appreciation of Bernstein’s wisdom; the film sings with honest gratitude. Featuring Bernstein’s own practice sessions, as well as private and master classes with his students and his first public appearance in decades, Seymour: An Introduction is a rare and intelligent exploration of artistic creation at its most profound.

Tap World (2015). Many writers, historians, and philosophers have expounded on the redemptive power of art, but few have done it as thrillingly as filmmaker Dean Hargrove has in his feature-length documentary Tap World. With clips of over two hundred dancers from nineteen different countries, as well as (often heartbreaking) testimony of tap artists, some unknown, some legendary, around the world, Hargrove explores tap as a universal artform capable of changing not only individual lives but also history itself.

The film begins by underscoring tap’s essence as a people’s dance. Tap historian Constance Valis Hill traces its origins to the Caribbean, where Irish and African slaves labored side by side on plantations, communicating through rhythm—“the universal language,” according to tap legend Ted Louis Levy.  Through interviews and clips of gumboot dancers in South Africa, we learn that rhythm was used as a secret language of communication in South African mines and plantations in the American South.

In fact, communication is the essence of tap as depicted in Tap World, and that’s what makes the film—as well as the artform—so potent. With every dance clip, with every personal story, Tap World reveals the immense power that tap bestows on those who embrace it. Regardless of national origin, race, gender, socioeconomic status, or age, tappers the world over understand that they participate in a specially vibrant global community, for rhythm is, as Ted Levy goes on to say, “the language of life,”  and when you speak the language of life, you speak to everyone, even those who might not want to listen.

The personal narratives in Tap World range from young Americans who escaped the desolation of poverty and broken homes through tap, to adults who’ve devoted their lives, often at great sacrifice, to teaching tap as a way of giving back to their communities.  We visit a Taiwanese school that teaches tap to children from the Bunun, a culture in which extremely sophisticated musical forms have developed to the exclusion of dance, and Brazil, where tap is used as a way to teach math to socially disadvantaged youth.  The ways in which these youngsters will be able to change their world—and, in so doing, ours—are limitless.

When Dean Hargrove set out to make Tap World, he wanted “to film this great, truly American, underserved dance and give it some of the recognition it deserves.”  What he has accomplished, to our good fortune, is so much more.

The Experimenter. New York Film Festival 2015. Peter Sarsgaard brilliantly portrays Stanley Milgram in Michael Almereyda’s tragicomic biopic, which conveys Milgram’s inner life as much as it conveys his impact on our understanding of human psychology.

In 1961—as Adolf Eichmann’s trial was broadcast around the world—Milgram, a social psychologist, began his obedience experiments at Yale University. The son of Eastern European Jews who had immigrated to New York in 1933, Milgram wanted to discover how deeply the instinct to obey inhumane orders ran in human nature.

To that end, he designed an experiment in which he spuriously told his subjects he was investigating learning. The subject would have to administer an electric shock—possibly lethal—to a second subject whenever he failed to learn the required material. In fact, the second subject was one of Milgram’s confederates, and the shocks weren’t real. And Milgram was not investigating learning: He was investigating people’s willingness to obey authority even when doing so went against their own moral codes.

Milgram discovered that 65 percent of his subjects were willing to administer a shock simply because they were told to do so. His findings horrified the world. He was labeled a monster for lying to his subjects and putting them under extreme stress, and he became an academic pariah. But the question remains: Was Milgram labeled a monster because of his methodology, or were his findings so devastating that the scientific community needed to discredit them by maligning him instead? Almereyda’s homage delves into the question with a clever touch.

The Fool. American cinema is full of heroic characters who pit themselves against a corrupt establishment, but few American films are as nuanced as Yury Bykov’s The Fool. This Russian tale centers around a plumber who discovers that years of institutional neglect have put a dormitory in danger of imminent collapse, threatening the lives of the eight hundred lower-class residents who live there. When the plumber approaches the authorities about saving the building’s residents, he finds himself in the very den of thieves who caused the problem in the first place.

Much of the film’s nuance comes from superb performances across the board, which carry the scenario far beyond a conflict between good guys and bad guys. We can sympathize with the corrupt city mayor (Natalya Surkova as Nina Galaganova) even if we can’t stomach her behavior. We can admire the hero (Artyom Bystrov as Dima Nikitin) without endorsing his decisions. This level of acting changes our experience of the film’s dynamic, blurring lines that would otherwise circumscribe a simple morality play.

And director Yury Bykov is not afraid to take chances. Just as the action is about to skyrocket, Bykov indulges in a long tracking shot of the plumber walking down the street, a device that slows the action but develops the theme without a single word of dialogue.

Bykov’s bold touch, combined with the ensemble’s extraordinary acting, allows the impact of the film to come from a lived day-to-day brutality that most Americans—at least the ones who are making movies—can’t imagine. The violence in The Fool is organic to the essence of the film; Yury Bykov doesn’t need smug humor or Hollywood horror to seat it in the characters’ psychology or the action that unfolds onscreen. It is effective because it is real. For that, it is all the more terrifying.

Opens Wednesday, September 16, 2015 at Film Forum, New York City.

The Lobster. New York Film Festival 2015. In Yorgos Lanthimos’s brilliant, surrealistic vision of romantic life today, people are not allowed to live without mates in The City. But a parallel society exists in The Forest: there, people are not allowed to fall in love. Ironclad rules, brutally enforced, dominate both.

A wildly funny, well-observed take on romance and solitude, The Lobster uses humor and intelligence to reveal the punishment we inflict on both ourselves and others in our increasingly blind quest for attachment in a disconnected world. With Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and John C. Reilly heading up an astute acting ensemble.

The Measure of a Man. New York Film Festival 2015. Because The Measure of a Man comprises such a seamless bond between the material world and the inner life of its main character, it feels as if there’s no light between real life and what you’re watching on screen. It is a feature film—a sociopolitical expose told from a position of intimacy—that feels truer than a documentary. It is a completelyunique viewing experience.

Director Stephane Brise achieved this miracle with the help of lead actor Vincent Lindon, cinematographer Eric Dumont, and a cast of nonprofessional actors (excluding Lindon). Lindon won Best Actor at Cannes for his portrayal of a man on the edge after being unemployed for twenty months. This is Eric Dumont’s first feature film; he had previously made only documentaries. The nonprofessional actors play themselves—real cashiers, real bank examiners.

The dehumanization of an economic system that values money over men, and the humiliation that system imposes on the millions of men and women who labor without reaping its benefits, are painful to see, especially when conveyed by Vincent Lindon. As an actor, he is a physically powerful man, handsome and sympathetic. He is so good that it is almost too painful to watch as he is stripped, layer by layer, of his power. Yet director Brise knows that the measure of a man is determined not by his power but by how he will behave in a morally corrupt system. In this, we find our relief.

The Newburgh Sting. Tribeca Film Festival 2014.New Yorkers may well remember the Newburgh Four: Black Muslims foiled in a homegrown terrorist attempt to blow up two synagogues in Riverdale and an American Air Force Base. But what the FBI, NYPD, and newscasters didn’t tell us was that these men weren’t thwarted during a brilliant FBI sting operation; they were entrapped by a shady FBI “informant” who lured them in with promises of big bucks as part of an agencywide engineered plot to defame the Muslim community post 9/11.

The Pleasures of Being Out of Step. Doc NYC 2013. A gorgeous portrait of jazz critic and political commentator Nat Hentoff. Hentoff’s ability to get inside his subject and convey what lay deep within was intimately connected to his conviction that the best art, like the best politics, is made when freedom and empathy walk hand in hand.

The Treasure. New York Film Festival 2015. Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu has created a farce that simultaneously satirizes class, Communism, history, technology, and fairy tales. Actor Cuzin Toma, who also starred in Aferim! and The Japanese Dog, plays a loving father whose neighbor asks him to find buried treasure in his grandparents’ garden. What results is a hilarious journey into the recently buried past; along the way, the recently buried present comes to the fore with sly humor and witty grace.

The Unknown Known. Doc NYC 2013. In The Unknown Known, Errol Morris’s excruciatingly brilliant documentary in which he interviews Donald Rumsfeld about his reasons for invading Iraq, Errol Morris creates the most effective weapon against war: he exposes the lunacy of the men who wage it.

Two Days, One Night. New York Film Festival 2014.  Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Like Ken Loach, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne focus on the trials of the working-class poor. In Two Days, One Night—an outstanding film and one of the best of the festival—they return to their native town of Seraing, Belgium, to stage the gripping saga of a woman who must convince her coworkers to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job, a dilemma forced upon them all by an uncaring management. A modern hero quest, it’s a simple story, but the Dardennes’ sense of purpose, as well as Marion Cotillard’s intensely riveting performance, illuminate the complexity, as well as the tenacity, of life lived with too little means.

Viva la liberta. Open Roads 2014.Viva La Liberta is the rare film that combines intelligence, charm, and message with brilliant entertainment. In this satire of Italian politics, Toni Servillo (The Great Beauty) plays both a moribund politician who disappears on the eve of his political defeat and the politician’s mad twin brother, who steps into his campaign shoes. Literate, cinematic, operatic, the film is as funny as it is smart. One of the best films of the year.

Where to Invade Next. New York Film Festival 2015.  Michael Moore’s inherent optimism reveals itself in Where to Invade Next. As the director journeys to European countries searching for good ideas to bring back home in order to solve our nation’s woes, he unleashes both a condemnation of our present and a tribute to our past. We are a land of beautiful ideas, hijacked by greed, narcissism, and short-sightedness—all of which can be withstood by opening our hearts and minds to the greater good and taking individual action. Behind all the antics and the humor, there is a conviction of hope here: By taking care of each other, we can make America great again.

Whiplash. New York Film Festival 2014.  Heart-pounding. Adrenaline-pumping. Nail-biting. Not adjectives you’d typically ascribe to a film about music, but that’s one of the countless things that makes Whiplash such a phenomenal moviegoing event. Based on the personal experience of director Damien Chazelle (as well as the legendary story of Jo Jones, drummer for Count Basie’s Orchestra, throwing a cymbal at 16-year-old Charlie Parker when Parker lost the beat during a jam session at the Reno Club), the film pits a sociopathic music teacher against a young drummer gifted with enormous talent and equally enormous drive. The teacher will stop at nothing—cruelty, humiliation, even violence—to get his student to be the best he can be, even though stopping at nothing often leaves nothing but ruin behind.

Wondrous Boccaccio. Tribeca Film Festial 2015. Wondrous perfectly describes the Taviani brothers’ stunning, fantastical film set in plague-ridden Florence in 1348, where ten young people flee to the countryside to escape the black death. There they structure their time and their impromptu society by telling each other stories, charmingly enacted on screen. A loose combination of tales from Boccaccio’s Decameron and stories of more modern-day plagues, the film is a sumptuous paean to the human spirit and redemptive power of art. Look for Director Talk’s interview with Paolo Taviani on the film’s US theatrical release.

Zero Motivation. Tribeca Film Festival 2014. An Israeli M*A*S*H, this first-rate comedy satirizes the famed Israeli army even as it deals tenderheartedly with the longings, ambitions, and loyalties of the soldiers who serve. Comedian Dana Ivgy delivers one of the earthiest comedic portraits to hit the screen in a long time.

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