The annual cinematic feast that is the Maryland Film Festival can be a little daunting — with nearly 40 feature films to choose from, not to mention a handful of shorts programs, choosing the best things to see is never easy.
One way to experience the festival is to approach it determinedly unprepared. Show up, look at the schedule, see what's playing where at the time you're there, and check it out. Taking a chance like that can be thrilling and, more often than not, rewarding.
But throwing caution to the winds isn't for everybody. So, for those into mapping out their own destinies, here are 12 suggestions on what looks especially inviting at this year's 20th annual gathering of Baltimore's film faithful. We've included features, documentaries and shorts, movies both old and new (spanning 92 years, from 1926 to 2018), some that should go down easy, others that could challenge long-held beliefs and values.
Festival venues are the Niarchos Foundation Parkway, 5 W. North Ave (Parkway 2 and 3 are smaller screening rooms separate from the main theater); Maryland Institute College of Art Brown Center, 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave.; MICA Gateway building, 1601 W. Mount Royal Ave.; and MICA Fred Lazarus Center, 131 W. North Ave.
Time to start watching.
Marilyn Ness' look at the way police and community relations have evolved in the three years since the death of Freddie Gray debuted at last month's Tribeca Film Festival, where Village Voice critic Tanner Tafelski lauded it for being "an even-handed issue film featuring those who are working to change the face of one of the U.S.'s most violent cities." 4:30 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday and 1:45 p.m. Sunday at MICA Brown Center.
A drunken weekend at an aging Victorian home in rural New England celebrating the family dog's birthday leads to all sorts of strangeness — and family tension — in this feature from writer-director Bridey Elliott. She and SNL's Abby Elliott (her real-life sister) star as daughters (and former child stars) returning for the weekend, with Elliott's own dad, comedian Chris Elliott, as their father, an aging comic struggling with fading fame. It shouldn't come as a surprise that their mom is played by their mom, Paula Niedert Elliott. 7 p.m. Friday at the MICA Gateway, 9:55 p.m. Saturday at the MICA Brown Center.
An American artist flies to Ireland to meet the subject of her latest show — a reclusive priest who, according to urban legend, was responsible for the disappearance of an 8-year-old girl. This is the fourth feature brought to the festival by director Michael Tully, who grew up in Mount Airy and attended UMBC. One review called the movie " 'Rosemary's Baby' in the Irish countryside," which certainly sounds promising. 10:45 p.m. Saturday at the Parkway, 4:45 p.m. Sunday at the MICA Gateway.
'I Am Not a Witch'
The MFF always includes a strong selection of foreign-language films, and one of this year's most intriguing looks to be Zambian director Rungano Nyoni's drama of an 8-year-old girl convicted of being a witch and sentenced to life at a state-run witch camp, where she is told she'll turn into a goat if she ever tries to run away. But maybe she'll chance it. Nominated for Best International Film at March's Independent Spirit Awards. 11:45 a.m. Friday at the Parkway 3.
'I, Olga Hepnarova'
Every year, John Waters gets a few hundred Baltimoreans to watch a film few of them have ever heard of, and the experience is guaranteed to be among the highlights of their cultural year. This one, from Czech directors Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, was included on his list of the 10 best movies of 2017, which should be enough for anyone. Here's Waters' own description: "A hypnotic black-and-white docudrama based on the case of a pretty, twenty-two-year-old chain-smoking lesbian from Prague who in 1973 hopped in a truck and mowed down twenty pedestrians on a sidewalk. Deadpan indeed." Be there. 7 p.m. Friday at the Parkway.
A look at how immigrant London teenager Maya Arulpragasam became popstar M.I.A., using 22 years' worth of material originating from herself, her family and her friends. Variety called the documentary "suitably disordered," and they meant it as a compliment, adding within the body of its review, "It's a film as compellingly all over the shop as its subject." 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Parkway.
'The Miseducation of Cameron Post'
Writer-director Desiree Akhavan's provocative drama stars Chloe Grace Moretz as a high-schooler who, after being caught making out with another girl on prom night, is shipped off to a conversion camp where her guardians hope she can be turned away from being gay. The sentence proves a mixed bag for Cameron, who is subjected to all sorts of aversion therapy (including Christian rock songs), but also finds emotional support among her fellow campers. Winner of the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, which is usually a good sign. 9:55 p.m. Friday at MICA Brown Center.
The rare Japanese silent film to have survived World War II, director Teinosuke Kinugasa's 1926 exercise in the avant-garde concerns a man who takes a job at a mental hospital to be near his wife, who has been committed, and maybe help her escape. Descriptions of the film, rediscovered in 1971 after long being thought lost, usually include words like "difficult," "unflinching" and "audacious," but never "boring" or "ordinary." Sounds challenging in the best sort of way, plus you get an original score performed live by the Alloy Orchestra, an invaluable Sunday-morning MFF tradition that every film fan should take advantage of. 11 a.m. Sunday at the Parkway.
'Shorts: Character Study'
The MFF's multiple shorts programs offer the welcome and relatively risk-free opportunity to try something different — films like these, rarely lasting more than 20 minutes (and often less than 10), offer their makers all sorts of opportunities to experiment, and audiences know that, even if a particular work isn't to their liking, another one will start in just a few minutes. This eight-film showcase includes a little boy who falls in love with his babysitter ("I Was In Your Blood"), a vet struggling to work through a brain injury ("Cole"), a man who disguises himself as a ram to try to get across the border ("Animal") and a 10-year-old immigrant girl trying to connect with her stubbornly Russian father ("Bean"). Surely, there'll be someone here you'll enjoy meeting. 11 a.m. Friday and 7:15 p.m. Saturday at MICA Lazarus Center.
'Sickies Making Films'
Maryland censor board maven Mary Avara always made great — if frustrating and maddening and sometimes embarrassing — copy. This history of movie censorship focuses on the Maryland board, the last in the nation when it was finally dissolved in 1981. Wonder what Avara would have to say about today's cinema? From local filmmaker Joe Tropea, whose "Hit & Stay," a look back at the Catonsville Nine co-directed with former MFF programmer Skizz Cyzyk, was a well-deserved hit of the 2013 festival. 11:30 a.m. Friday at the Parkway, 7 p.m. Saturday at MICA Gateway.
The fourth feature from Baltimore's own Matthew Porterfield stars McCaul Lombardi as Keith, a small-time drug dealer trying to re-enter his community after being released from prison. The temptations to fail are many, and Keith isn't always as resolute as he should be. But he tries, and Porterfield's compassionate storytelling allows the audience to feel both frustrated with Keith and invested in his struggle. Another winner from Porterfield, who steadfastly offers his audiences insight without insisting he has any answers. 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the MICA Brown Center.
'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'
From Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville ("Twenty Feet from Stardom"), a look at the career of Fred Rogers, whose PBS show spent decades providing a comforting and encouraging place for children to grow, and his "radically kind ideas." By film's end, here's betting you'll understand why he's so missed. 4:45 p.m. Sunday at the Parkway.