It’s film festival time again, and I’m back to make your life easier. There’s lots of amazing films to see at the Cleveland International Film Festival, but you may not have the time to see ’em all. I suppose that’s understandable. You really should try to see them all, even though that’s completely impossible. This year there’s 186 feature films and 168 shorts. Because I’m awesome*, I’ve already seen a whole bunch of them. I’ve narrowed it down to 20 that I think are absolute essentials. This year, the festival has added a Music Movies Sidebar, which I’m clearly excited about – 6 of the 10 films in that sidebar appear in this list. The rest of it is pretty diverse. Whether you’re a fan of comedy, drama, romance, adventure, thrillers, weird stuff, shorts, local, or documentaries, I’ve got you covered. Get some popcorn, turn off your cellphones (seriously, OFF), and be prepared to give your best “Hi Bill.” It’s CIFF time!
3 MILE LIMIT
In 1965, rock ‘n’ roll was everywhere. Well, except in New Zealand. The government controlled the airwaves, and they weren’t exactly fans. A journalist named Richard Davis was so upset by this, that he decided to start a pirate radio station. However, he didn’t exactly know what he was in for. Based on the amazing true story of Radio Hauraki, this incredibly inspiring adventure was one of my absolute faves this year. It’s got everything you need in a film. I could easily see Hollywood scooping up this story for a mainstream audience.
It’s certainly not easy being a teenager. It’s a confusing time. For Billie, the fact that her mom is about to transition from female to male, is certainly not helping. As she struggles to accept her mom’s new identity, she’s also still trying to find her own. The film is a very raw and honest portrayal of a transgender family and the issues they face. I liked how it approached the topic from both perspectives, and sort of paralleled their paths. Tilda Cobham-Hervey is absolutely terrific as Billie. She lights up the screen.
AS THE PALACES BURN
Other than knowing their name, I wasn’t too familiar with the band Lamb Of God before watching this. If you don’t know them, or aren’t a fan, I promise you none of that matters. While filming a tour documentary in 2012, their singer was arrested in Prague for an accidental death that occurred two years prior. The trial nearly destroyed the band, but thanks to the amazing outpouring of support from fans and friends in the metal community, they survived the ordeal. It’s a heartwarming look at a genre usually known for being cold.
It’s probably hard to imagine Tim Meadows in a dramatic role. I mean, we’re talking about “The Ladies Man,” here. But the Saturday Night Live-alum pulls it off well as Chris Brighton, a local author who makes a connection with a death-obsessed, 11-year-old YouTube sensation named Lucas Simmons. Their friendship helps to heal past wounds, and gives them both a new look on life. There’s some sad moments, for sure, but in the end, this one is a feel-good film that people of all ages can enjoy. Live life to the fullest, that’s the theme here.
After his dad dies, immature 28-year-old William travels to Copenhagen to find his estranged grandfather. He meets a young local girl who helps him navigate the city. Their chemistry is hard to deny, and the movie seems to be headed into the romance category. Until he learns that she’s only 14. This is the moment where his maturity is really tested. The film nails the “coming-of-age” concept perfectly. It starts off as a movie about a guy looking for someone, but really he ends up finding himself instead.
CRACK, BACK & SACK
The film tells the story of a shy kid from a small town who goes to college in a big city. His roommates are macho douchebagswho treat women like numbers. After getting his heart broken, he decides to take them up on an offer to teach him their secrets. From there, the movie becomes an endless party of sex and drugs. But, the fun turns real ugly when someone gets hurt. Writer/Director Johan Kaos’ film makes bold statements about sex, power, and the danger that can occur when you lose touch with who you are. Watching the main character’s emotional transformation is intense.
HERE WAS CUBA
How much do you know about The Cuban Missile Crisis? I thought I had a basic idea of it’s importance, until I saw this film. Featuring interviews from people on all sides of the debacle, this eye-opening documentary reveals just how close we were to being completely wiped off the map. Kennedy is often praised for his cautious handling of the situation, but as this film proves, Khrushchev was equally responsible for ensuring that annihilation didn’t occur, even at the cost of his own reputation. History buffs, or anyone who appreciates a really well-made doc, this one’s for you.
JINGLE BELL ROCKS!
A movie about a guy who’s obsessed with Christmas music?! Sounds boring, right? Wrong. Mitchell Kezin’s charming documentary will have you rethinking your hatred for holiday tunes. Or, at the very least, appreciating his love for it. Including interviews with people like Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips), John Waters, Dr. Demento, and Joseph “Run” Simmons (Run DMC), this film makes a seemingly dull subject incredibly fun and fascinating. I was pleasantly surprised.
LIFE FEELS GOOD
If you think your life is hard, then you need to watch this movie. Matuesz was been labeled a vegetable all his life. While people thought he was brain dead, he was fully aware, forced to live life inside his own head. Despite the unbelievable odds stacked against him, he kept fighting, waiting for the day he could prove them all wrong. He even maintained a pretty solid sense of humor too. This incredible story is true and Kamil Tkacz and Dawid Ogrodnik are extraordinary in it.
LIFE INSIDE OUT
Laura is a middle-aged mom who’s unsatisfied with her job at the bakery. Years ago, she gave up her goal of becoming a famous songwriter. Her youngest son is trying to find himself, and can’t relate to his sports-loving dad and older brothers. Laura decides to reconnect with music again, and in the process helps her son to find his passion too. It’s an inspiring story about following your heart, and for creative people, it’s a reminder not to give up on those dreams – it’s never too late. Goh Nakamura, the star of Surrogate Valentine (one of my favorite 2011 CIFF films) has a small role in it too.
I will start by saying that this is a love story. But, it’s certainly not a conventional one. Shy Clemens meets rambunctious Lara at the resort they both work for. He’s immediately drawn to her explosive personality, and the two begin to spend a lot of time together. Unfortunately, Clemens begins to see that Lara’s antics stem from a heavy addiction to alcohol, one that is quickly spiraling out of control. I loved the rawness of the film, and was deeply impressed with Franz Rogowski’s performance as Clemens. He’s terrific.
MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS
Presented by Cellar Door
Sunday, March 23 at 6:00pm at the Beachland Ballroom
Monday, March 24 at 9:25pm
Matt Berninger is the lead singer for indie-rock superstars, The National. His slacker brother Tom is an aspiring horror movie director who always feels dwarfed by Matt’s accomplishments. In 2010, Matt asked Tom to join the band on tour as a crew member. He mostly just got drunk and annoyed everyone. No one knew he was also gathering footage that would eventually make up the movie I’m describing. But, it’s really not about The National at all. It’s more about a brother’s struggle to find his own voice. That’s what I liked about it. Instead of being a regular music doc, it morphs into a really endearing film about family.
REPORTING ON THE TIMES: THE NEW YORK TIMES AND THE HOLOCAUST
Historical Documentary (Short)
There’s lots of good shorts at CIFF, so I wanted to include one here. This shocking documentary examines how The New York Times hid reports about the Holocaust in the back pages of the paper during World War II, and in some cases, completely ignored it all together. It looks at the power of journalism and the effect it can have when it doesn’t fulfill it’s purpose.
THE SAX MAN
Music Documentary/Local Interest
My list wouldn’t be complete without a local film. I absolutely adored this documentary about Cleveland’s own “Sax Man,” Maurice Reedus. You’ve probably heard him outside of Progressive Field playing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” a hundred times, but did you know he’s the son of a Grammy Award-winning jazz artist and was once on the cusp of musical fame himself? I didn’t either. This one is 100% Clevelandtastic.
This film is a prime example of why I love documentaries. They can open your eyes to new things, expose you to stories that you’ll never hear about in the media. Dean Kamen is an inventor. He’s the man behind the Segway, insulin pumps, and portable dialysis machines. But, the biggest invention of his life is a water purification device that produces clean water using any source. It’s an idea that could change (and save) the lives of people in developing countries. In order to get it made and distributed, Kamen turns to an unlikely corporate partner. It’s proof that simple ideas can be very powerful.
WATCHERS OF THE SKY
Words are important. Before Raphael Lemkin, the term “genocide” didn’t even exist. A German lawyer who lost 49 members in the Holocaust, Lemkin made it his life work to make sure the signs of genocide are quickly noticed, and to one day prevent it from happening all together. This documentary profiles his battle against violence and hate, and spotlights a younger generation of activists who are still fighting for his cause. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the recent situation in Syria, we still have a long way to go. This one’s heavy, but it’s also full of hope and inspiration too.
When a mother escapes with her son from East Germany to West Germany, she hopes it will be the start of a new life for them. But as they try to gain citizenship on the other side, the process hits a lull when officials start to question her about her ex. She soon uncovers information that could be dangerous for her and her son. If you’re looking for a good thriller, I highly recommend this one. It’s full of twists and turns that keep you wondering. 11-year-old Tristan Gobel steals the show as Alexej.
If you’re like me, you’ll spend the first half of this movie thinking: “What the f#@k?” Helen (played brilliantly by Carla Juni) is a wild young girl who’s suffering from hemorrhoids, a fact that is graphically pointed out many times. She does and says some pretty gross stuff. Yet, there’s also something about her that you just can’t help but like. As things unfold, and you learn how Helen got to this point, the movie really ties itself together and completely validates the absurdity it begins with. Be patient with it.
THE WINDING STREAM
You may only know the Carter name because June was married to Johnny Cash, but there’s a rich history behind it that never gets the attention it deserves. That is, until now. This documentary traces the roots of the Carters, and reveals the incredible impact they’ve made on music, and how their influence still lives on today. Artists like Sheryl Crow, Old 97s, and Kris Kristofferson make appearances to testify to that. You don’t have to be a fan of country to appreciate the incredible history in this film.
THE ZIGZAG KID
I’ve heard people ask if there are any movies for children at the festival. There are. This is one of them. But, what makes this one great is that adults are going to get just as much out of it as the kids will. It’s a magical coming-of-age story about Nono, the 12-year-old son of famous inspector Jacob Fienberg. Before he enters adulthood, he must embark on a secret mission of his own, where he’ll uncover a variety of mysteries about his family. It’s super fun and Isabella Rossellini is in it. Bring the kids, or leave them at home. Either way, you can’t go wrong with this one.
*By “awesome,” I mean – full disclosure – I’m a Synopsis Writer and Selection Committee member for CIFF.
The Cleveland International Film Festival runs from March 19 – 30 at Tower City Cinemas in Downtown Cleveland. To see the rest of the schedule, purchase tickets, and explore more films, visit www.clevelandfilm.org.