20 Must See Films at the 37th Cleveland International Film Festival

By Eddie Fleisher

When I was asked to make a list of my recommendations for what to see at the 37th Cleveland International Film Festival, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy task. There are 180 feature films and 165 shorts this year. That’s 345 movies in total. Anyone who’s been to the CIFF knows that 95% of the films they show are amazing. That’s thanks to their Artistic Director, Bill Guentzler, and Associate Programmer, Mallory Martin. Combined, they watched over 1,000 movies this year, traveling the world from film festival to film festival, and combing through submissions. They do get a little help narrowing it down from the Selection Committee, of which – full disclosure – I have been a part of for the last three years. I’m also a synopsis writer for their program guide. This means I have seen over 100 shorts, and almost 50 features so far this year. And, I loved a good chunk of them. But, for the sake of brevity, I have narrowed it down to a small list of favorites in 4 categories: features, documentaries, shorts, and local interest. If you’ve never been to the festival, you’re missing out. It’s truly the best event in Cleveland.


Mariachi Gringo

If you’ve got a dream, pursue it, no matter the odds. That’s the theme of this excellent film, which stars Shawn Ashmore, who you may recognize from the X-Men films. He’s quite good here. Sick of his boring life in rural America, he goes to Mexico to become a mariachi singer. Not an easy task for a white dude who can barely play one song on guitar. It’s an inspiring film, packed with drama, comedy, and good tunes. I loved it.


Love is complicated. But, true love should be able to survive anything. Right? When Jim proposes to his girlfriend on the way to visit his mother for the weekend, she says no. Jim sorta forgets to tell his family, who are waiting to celebrate when they arrive. So, the couple decides to lie. From there, lots of crazy stuff happens. Some of it funny, some of it messed up, but all of it entertaining. It’s not some bullshit Hollywood love story.

Childish Games

Two step-brothers tease their little sister in a prank that leads to her death. Years later, one of them believes their own daughter (an outstanding performance by Magica Perez) is the reincarnation of the dead sister sent to haunt him. Eventually, the other one starts to believe it too. Are they right? You’ll be guessing until the end. This one is a total thriller that will leave you on the edge of your seat.

Clandestine Childhood

It’s hard enough being a kid, sometimes. Imagine having to go through growing pains while constantly fearing that you and your family could be killed at any moment. Welcome to Juan’s life. His parents are Argentine guerillas, who are hiding from the government. Besides the obvious safety concerns, it also prevents him from doing normal stuff, like having a girlfriend. The acting is terrific, and the story, loosely based on true events, is superb.

After Lucia

This is an extremely intense film about bullying. The young girl in this film is subjected to absolutely horrendous humiliation by her peers. Not wanting to upset her father, who’s still mourning the death of his wife, and due to her feelings of embarrassment, she stays silent about the abuse. I will warn you that this is a brutal film. It will make you uncomfortable at times. But, it should. Otherwise, the message is not getting through.


We Came Home

Ariana Delawari is a musician from L.A. Her debut album was released on David Lynch’s label in 2009. Most of the record was recorded in Afghanistan, where her parents are from. She worked on it when her dad went back to help rebuild the Afghan financial system after 911. Noor’s love for Afghanistan is unrelenting. Ariana’s journey to understand why is extremely captivating. The music is quite good too.

Honor Flight

If you don’t cry during this film, your tear ducts are broken. Honor Flight is a program that takes World War II vets to see their memorial in Washington, DC. The stories these men tell are amazing. We’ll never be able to truly repay these guys for the sacrifices they made for us, but the volunteers in this program sure as hell try. The look on these guys’ faces when they are welcomed home is priceless. Do not miss this one!


Remember Napster? At this point, it’s a distant memory. But, when you think of the things it set the stage for (iTunes and Spotify, for example), you realize what a profound impact it had on how we get music. It was directed by Alex Winter, aka Bill from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It’s a fascinating documentary, especially if you’re a music nerd like me. Plus, it’s always fun to watch Lars Ulrich whine about downloading.

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

Artists are weird people, but, Tomi Ungerer is definitely one of the weirdest. In the 1950s, he wrote a bunch of great books for kids. He received a lot of criticism for them, mostly because they were too honest. On the side, he was also releasing some pretty explicit adult books too. Because of this, his children’s books were banned, and he was blacklisted. This documentary finally gives Tomi the credit he deserves, and loudly celebrates his wackiness.


As a war photographer, Don McCullin has seen things we can never imagine. The list of atrocities his eyes have witnessed is astonishing: mutilated bodies, shootings, starving children, you name it. But, while his work helped to expose these events to the world, his profession has fierce critics. And, as we see in this documentary, the job has had quite the toll on McCullin. His first-hand accounts of history will completely blow your mind.


Red, White And Blueprints

Directed by Cleveland’s own, Jack Storey, this documentary explores the creative ways that cities like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Detroit, and, of course, Cleveland, are reinventing themselves. If you love your city, as I do, then you’ll want to see this. Too often, the Rust Belt has been the butt of jokes. Not anymore. This film serves as our anthem. (Editor’s Note – Look for our feature on Director Jack Storey and the film early next week.)


Dear Mr. Watterson

I never even realized that the creator of Calvin & Hobbes was from Chagrin Falls. How awesome is that? As for the strip itself, I’m not sure I’ve ever read it. But, that’s the awesome thing about CIFF films. Things you think you’re not interested in, somehow become fascinating. I learned that Watterson turned down millions of dollars in merchandising in order to maintain the integrity of his art. Pretty punk rock, in my book.


This is a terrific documentary about bullying and the effect that rejection has on our brain. It examines the unfortunate outcomes that this can produce, from school shootings to suicide. While this film was not made by a Clevelander, it covers the story of Eric Mohat, a Mentor High School student who killed himself as a result of being bullied. Unfortunately, these things are becoming more and more common these days, which makes a film like this extremely important.


When New York artist Nicholas Forker gets an invitation to exhibit his art in Cleveland, he brings some camera men, who’ve been shooting a documentary about his work. Turns out, someone is playing a prank on him. The gallery never sent the invite. But, who’s being punked? Forker or the film crew? You’ll be debating it long after the movie ends. It’s part Exit Through The Gift Shop, part The Blair Witch Project. A great choice for fans of mystery.


The Interviewer

What would you think if a man with Down Syndrome was the person interviewing you for a position at a fancy-schmancy law firm? Never judge a book by it’s cover. Such an awesome story! This one is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.



Sometimes, people wonder if there are movies at CIFF for kids. There are, for sure. This one is a great example. And, adults will love it too. It’s magical. It’s epic. It’s also completely adorable. The little boy who plays the lead is fantastic.


Touch Me

Martial is a lonely handicapped dude. His hairdresser, Lucie, goes beyond her duties to help him out. We’ll leave it at that. It’s kinda sad, sure, but they balance it out with some really funny moments too. Plus, the acting is fantastic.

Domestic Tale

A trippy little film about love and jealousy with eye-catching visuals. The cinematography is gorgeous. The world that Ann Sirot and Raphael Balboni have created here is like no other. An extremely creative short.


Death Of A Shadow

A terrific short about second chances, and how jealousy can cause us to make some pretty bad decisions. The way in which this film presents such a narrative is uniquely original.


The Cleveland International Film Festival runs from April 3 – 14 at Tower City Cinemas in Downtown Cleveland. To see the rest of the schedule, purchase tickets, and explore more films, visit


Eddie Fleisher is a freelance writer from Cleveland, Ohio. His work has appeared in publications like Alternative Press, Scene, and Wax Poetics. He is also a synopsis writer for the Cleveland International Film Festival’s program guide.



Eddie Fleisher

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