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Better This World

Directed by Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega

Let the birthers, tea partiers, and Republicans worry about Obama’s birth certificate. They’ll completely miss stories more likely to rile the passions of the average American. Like

The Tillman Story

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, Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s riveting documentary

Better This World

chronicles another tale of solid, red-blooded American families getting absolutely fucked by a government interested in protecting its image of itself as being in the absolute right in the War on Terror. At the 2008 GOP convention in Minneapolis, early twentysomething West Texas friends and anti-Iraq War DIY activists Brad Crowder and David McKay get arrested for illegally possessing Molotov cocktails and are soon targeted as conspirators to commit terrorism. What

Better

uncovers is how Crowder and McKay were targeted, which involves an FBI informant who organizes social justice activism, and a federal prosecutor team that isn’t going to lose. A heinous display of domestic “justice.” (BM)


The Dish and the Spoon

Directed by Alison Bagnall

Some will likely balk at

The Dish and the Spoon

’s quirky circumstances and sparse dialogue, but, at heart, the film is a potent drama. Indie queen Greta Gerwig stars as Rose, a spurned wife with a faulty equilibrium who finds a marooned English boy (Olly Alexander) in a Delaware beach town. The runaways begin a romance that would pale if not for its palpable tenderness, despite the predictability. Rose and her Tim Burton-looking new friend shack up in her parents’ summer cottage while she formulaically harasses her husband’s mistress. The boy serves as a conduit for her anger, offering his own insecurities to levy hers, a relationship both actors play coyly. Though the plot is sometimes hard to digest, the whimsical

Dish

is a rarity: a well-acted low-budget indie that does justice to an old cliché. (JF)


Domaine

Directed by Patric Chiha; hosted by John Waters

So deceptively simple and unshowy. Iconic French star Béatrice Dalle plays Nadia, a formidable middle-aging mathematician with a sense of style, an independent streak, and a purposeful stride. Isaïe Sultan plays Pierre, her bright-eyed teenage nephew, with whom she has a peculiarly close relationship. As writer/director Patric Chiha’s story unfolds, you wonder which fairly predictable path it will follow from there. It then surprises you slightly, and then slightly again, and then slightly, continuously, all the way to the jaw-dropping but perfectly fitting conclusion. A low-key marvel you’ll still be thinking about weeks later. (LG)


Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone

Directed by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler

This portrait of Los Angeles’ punk/funk/soul/rock/kitchen-sink band Fishbone does an ever better job than James Spooner’s

Afro-Punk

at articulating how segregated the business side of the music industry is. Directors Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler place the late 1970s origins of Fishbone by a ragtag group of black teens in the larger socioeconomic context of Los Angeles’ African-American creative cauldron, and then checks in on this anything-goes sextet as its live shows set LA punks’ hair on fire during the 1980s. What follows is what happens when a seminal force meets an unmovable marketplace—too black for rock/punk/metal, too punk for “urban music,” too genuinely weird to fit anywhere at all, really, Fishbone never achieved the commercial success of the bands, interviewed in the movie, it inspired (Primus, No Doubt, Red Hot Chili Peppers).

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Sunshine

captures the moving story of a group of friends facing the hard facts of how to keep a youthful dream alive while trying to be fathers, husbands, and, in general, grown-ass men. (BM)


Freaks in Love

Directed by David Koslowski and Skizz Cyzyk

Erstwhile Baltimorean David Koslowski (of Liquor Bike) and Skizz Cyzyk (of a kabillion Baltimore bands) have created an exhaustive documentary celebrating the 25 years (and counting) lifespan of the band Alice Donut, so if you know from Donut, you will enjoy this, and you will get sucked into this film even if you ain’t never heard of no Alice Donut and even also-still if you kinda do not enjoy the Alice Donut sound, which we will leave to the filmmakers and subjects to describe and classify, which they do, and it helps. You will also come to understand how much the amazingly normal human beings who call themselves Donuts do not give a fig about trends or popularity (although the filmmakers show some magazine-chart-topping moments), which also means they do not care much about money, and you’ll see what that attitude has earned them. Yeah. Spoiler Alert. (JM)


If a Tree Falls

Directed by Marshall Curry

The Earth Liberation Front made headlines in the early 2000s with a string of fires purportedly aimed at sabotaging the timber industry. This documentary profiles Daniel McGowan, a pudgy, middle-aged white guy arrested in 2005 with 13 others. “It’s horrible to be called a terrorist,” he says, adding that no one was hurt by what he did, “and I’m facing life plus 325 years.” Two perfect anecdotes sum McGowan up. His sister says he obsessively peeled the labels off all the cans in her pantry and threw them into the recycling bin. “Now I don’t know what’s in any of the cans,” she says. Toward the end there’s another one as he prepares to enter federal prison. McGowan is trying to peel an antacid out of its package and tells his wife, “No, I got it, I got to be independent,” before giving up and handing it over to her to do. The look on his face makes the movie. (EE)


Last Days Here

Directed by Don Argott and Demian Fenton

Can’t say the last time we’ve actually misted while watching footage of a doom-metal concert, but that’s only one of the very unlikely feelings piqued by

Last Days Here

. The thoroughly engrossing documentary tells the story of Bobby Liebling, the disappointed, delusional, and self-destructive lead singer of coulda-been-a-contender Mid-Atlantic metal band Pentagram, and the young guy whose passion for the band’s music drives him to literally lift the singer out of ruin. When we meet Liebling he’s addicted to crack, compulsively picks his skin, and wallows in his parents’ sub-basement in Germantown. Sean “Pellet” Pelletier wants to get the original band back together—Pentagram fans will swoon over the archival footage, interviews, and dramatizations—but soon realizes there’s a reason the band has gone through dozens of personnel changes: Liebling is impossible to work with. With Pellet’s help and perseverance, though, the 54-year-old damaged man is given a chance at redemption, whether he realizes it or not.

Last Days

is a wild, satisfying ride, a real story of love, friendship, and self-acceptance beneath the tantalizing surface of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. (TH)


Narrative Shorts

Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza bring the creepy-child bar to new heights in their strange “Rita,” a resolutely cold narrative of a blind girl wandering a house in the midst of what we’re never told exactly, just that it involves blood, a suddenly absent family, and a wanted young man. In 19 minutes of showing the viewer barely anything and slyly nicking our sense of reality, they’ve made a film utterly disorienting and quite scary, albeit in a most unexpected and uncomfortable way.

“Crazy Beats Strong Every Time” is a truly excellent story about a young African-American man forced to haul his mother’s alcoholic, possibly homeless ex-husband around for a night, debating whether or not to save him—or kill him. The program also delivers a quick story of love and tradition in Japan in “First Sunrise.” “Flow” tells the somewhat glib story of an OCD woman who quits taking her medication to find that her compulsions become, not an illness so much, but a sort of musical foundation.

Like “Rita,” Thomas Hefferon’s “The Pool” takes a sharply minimal palette—here, four kids at a somewhat creepily lit pool—and turns it into subcutaneous fear and anxiety. Andrew Blackwell and Andrew Goldman’s “Jim Kirby’s Pizza” ventures into family drama, presenting a frustrated and afraid non-custodial father trying, and perhaps failing, to connect with his son. Like the best shorts, it succeeds in not trying to condense a larger story, but by only hinting at that larger story, making a narrative all the more concentrated and affecting. (MB)

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Ne Change Rien

Directed by Pedro Costa; hosted by Matthew Porterfield

Manna from heaven for anybody who gets intoxicated on luxuriant black-and-white (but mostly black) cinematography and a beautiful French woman singing gorgeously melancholic music—which, honestly, should be just about anybody with a pulse.

Ne Change Rien

—”change nothing”—is one of those simply perfect pairings of director and subject. Portuguese director Pedro Costa has an uncanny knack for massaging a glacial cinematic narrative flow into an unforgettably hallucinatory experience. Actress/singer Jeanne Balibar (from Olivier Assayas’

Clean

) sings with the effortlessly sleepy phrasing of Chet Baker and voices a breathy seduction equal parts Marlene Dietrich challenge and Nico permafrost. And for

Rien's

roughly 100 minutes, Costa points a stationary camera at Balibar as she rehearses and performs—a little opera, “Johnny Guitar,” French chansons. There’s no plot per se, there’s no story being told.

Change Nothing

does just that: lets sound and image conspire to create a divinely strange enchantment. (BM)


Shunka

Directed by CJ Gardella

Best to put aside your notions of narrative or character development when watching

Shunka

, a lush paean to life’s mysteries filmed in South Dakota’s Badlands. Sure, there are a few characters—among them Donna, a psychic who helps a family come to terms with ghosts in their old farmhouse, and Ed, an old soldier who tools around a reservoir in his fishing boat—but there is no

story

, per se. Rather,

Shunka

is a feast of image and sound. It features some of the most beautiful cinematography we’ve ever seen, weaving snippets of conversation and macro closeups of animals, people, and insects going about their business with wide panoramas of that vast, big-sky country landscape. A Walt Whitman influence suffuses Gardella’s first feature film, and you leave with that open-ended appreciation of life’s tiny wonders, but no conclusions. Lovely. (TH)


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

It’s tempting to recommend the latest film from Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul strictly on its bravura set pieces: a family dinner invaded by departed loved ones, including a glowing-eyed monkey ghost; a disfigured princess who makes love with a catfish in a jungle pool; a journey deep into the mysteries of a dark and glittering cave. But the heart of Weerasethakul’s latest elliptical epic resides in the titular uncle (Thanapat Saisaymar), who retreats to his bucolic farm with a few family members and a servant as he dies of kidney failure, and the interconnectedness of not only Boonmee’s past lives, but also the lives of his family—of us all, really—close or distant, past and present, this world or another. As is usually the case with Weerasethakul’s films, it’s a bit of a puzzle, yes, but a gorgeous and rewarding one. (LG)


A Useful Life

Directed by Federico Veiroj

In black and white with an often orchestral soundtrack,

A Useful Life

is both a long-running joke on and a warm homage to classic film. The plot follows Jorge, who works at a Uruguayan film archive that’s fallen on hard times: The rent is late, membership is declining, and the foundation that supports it is pulling its funding. When the archive closes, awkward, film-obsessed Jorge must reinvent himself. He decides to ask a woman he likes out on a date. That’s all. But the camera and the soundtrack treat him like a conquering hero from a silent film, as he gets a haircut and walks down the street to find her. The result—with echoes of many a classic film—is poignant and funny. A charming love note to the movies. (AA)


We Were Here

Directed by David Weissman and Bill Weber

God, what a gut punch. David Weissman and Bill Weber follow 2002’s

The Cockettes

, their exuberant doc on the pioneering drag troupe, with the rest of the story, so to speak.

We Were Here

revisits the early days of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco by building on the talking-head accounts of a handful of men (and one woman) who took part in the flourishing of gay culture in the city in the ’70s only to watch in horror as a mysterious “gay cancer” started killing friends, lovers, co-workers, and neighbors on a devastating scale. (More than one interviewee sums up the fate of a particular group of people with some variation of “everyone died but me.”) Yet these men survived to look back and help Weissman tell this enormously moving and important tale. Expect regular welling. (LG)

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