The Seen Scene: MSPIFF 2016

For the third year in a row, I attended a fairly sizeable batch of films at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  This year I saw nineteen films, perhaps twenty if this Thursday I make the “best of” screening of the exquisitely titled Garbage Helicopter.  I saw a Kill-me-pleaselot of good films, a few truly excellent films, and one dud, Kill Me Please, that, with a premise mixing the coming of age genre with a slasher film, failed to live up to the edgy, Charles Burns-like discomfort fest it promised.

The breadth of “documentaries” this year stress what a misnomer the category is.  Perhaps they should start calling them “non-fiction films” to better accommodate films that ranged from investigative journalism to biography to cinematic memoir to what might best be called portraiture.  Holy Hell, an account of a man’s twenty year involvement with a New Age cult, was one of the weaker entries I saw in this category, and it still haunted me for days afterward.

The Asian cinema at this year’s festival was especially noteworthy, though the Asian programming is usually pretty good at the MSPIFF, no doubt thanks to the exquisite taste of Asian and international film programmer, Kathie Smith.

My favorites films at the festival this year were:

Happy_HourHappy Hour, a five-hour Japanese drama about four middle-aged women whose lives, especially their marriages, are shaken when one of them divorces her husband, a description that does not come close to conveying the pleasures of watching this near novel of a film.

Kaili Blues, a visually poetic Chinese film about loss and change and regret that, unfortunately, I nodded in and out of, though it was one of the most visually beautiful films I’d seen at the festival—I would jump at the chance to see it again.

Right Now, Wrong Then, the most recent film by Korean director Hong Sang-soo, a funny and sweet comedy in two parts, one, titled Wrong Now, Right Then, in which a director falls for a young woman, doing all the wrong things and coming across as a jerk; and the other, titled Right Now, Wrong Then, retelling the same story in which the director is more open and honest, charming everyone he meets, in spite of an inebriated disrobing at a strangers’ house.

Under Electric Clouds, Aleksey German Jr.’s brooding, apocalyptic film set exactly 100 years after the Russian Revolution that is a meditation on Russia’s future and its troubling relationship with Russia’s past.  It’s a visually stunning and formally complex movie that explores themes that are challenging not only Russia, but the entirety of twenty-first century Europe.

In Transit, Albert Maysle’s final film, a portrait of those riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder that is a testament to America’s underlying humanity—its dreams and longings and shared suffering—that is a welcome tonic in such a toxic election cycle.

AferimAferim!, a darkly comic Romanian film set in the nineteenth century about an officer of the law charged with tracking down and bringing to justice a Gypsy slave who had slept with a nobleman’s wife; shot in rich black and white.

Also noteworthy were Hong Sang-soo’s structurally suggestive 2014 comedy Hill of Freedom; the charmingly shaggy portrait Don’t Blink—Robert Frank by Frank’s longtime assistant Laura Israel; and Aaron Brookner’s memoir Uncle Howard, about his uncle Howard (director of Burroughs: The Movie) that becomes a snapshot of the downtown New York art scene at the end of the ‘70s and early ‘80s.

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