Among the many treats at last year's Maine International Film Festival were a future Oscar winner (James Marsh's documentary Man on Wire) and one of the biggest art-house hits of 2008 (Scandinavian teen-vampire flick Let the Right One In). This year, MIFF offers a slightly shallower lineup, but expands beyond its Waterville headquarters with a weekend of screenings (June 17-19) at Portsmouth's Music Hall. Other new developments at Maine's largest film festival include MIFF's first-ever drive-in screening (of Infestation, a man-versus-giant spider duel directed by Kyle Rankin) and the bestowment of a Lifetime Achievement Award on Arthur Penn, the legendary director of Bonnie and Clyde and Carousel. Otherwise, MIFF once again presents a sprawling slate of domestic and international cinema: old and new, fantastical and gritty, awful and masterful. Highlights (and lowlights) follow; see screening times in our film listings.
The prestigious opening-night slot at MIFF this year belongs to The Rivals, a locally-made (and -soundtracked) documentary by Kirk Wolfinger and Lone Wolf Documentary Group about the nascent high school football rivalry between Cape Elizabeth and Rumford. The Rumford squad are perennial division champs, the pride of a run-down town whose economy is supported by a hospital and a dying paper mill. The Capers are a brand-new program with, naturally, huge financial support (including a new artificial-turf field) and talented athletes looking for some extra padding on their college resumes. The stark disparities between the towns give this rivalry an economic and ideological edge that intensifies the stiff competition on the field.
Wolfinger does an excellent job navigating and sometimes defying the prejudices of both the viewer and the townspeople — Cape coach Aaron Filieo, who seems like an unrepentant douchebag until we learn more about his efforts to support a growing family on a teacher's salary, is one of a few unlikely case studies — and as the football season approaches its end, The Rivals' final half-hour becomes genuinely surprising and suspenseful. (The narrative crux of the film is a post-game handshake.) The film will air on cable's Smithsonian Channel in 2010.
Eric Daniel Metzgar confirms his status as the most unique and talented young documentarian in America (he also directed The Chances of the World Changing and Life. Support. Music.) with his latest and best film. In Reporter, Metzgar follows the New York Times's Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof through the war zones and humanitarian crises of Afghanistan, Sudan, and Congo. The result is as beautiful and unsettling as it is philosophically rigorous: Metzgar is deeply aware that making a 90-minute film about the world's most depressed areas cannot capture the breadth of these people's suffering, but in acknowledging that dilemma, he intelligently transcends the medium's limitations.
Dirt! the Movie
MIFF's closing-night film is the most ambitious of a handful of eco-documentaries on view this week. (Others include Ron Mann's Know Your Mushrooms and Stephanie Soechtig and Jason Lindsey's Tapped, a film about the global water crisis, which begins in Fryeburg.) Directed by Bill Benenson (father of Portland artist Stephen Benenson) Dirt! is a consideration of the composition and functions of soil from the perspective of farmers, physicists, activists, and children, employing many filmmaking techniques, including some animation.
(500) Days of Summer
One of a few MIFF features guaranteed to make it to area art houses (if not multiplexes), Marc Webb's Sundance hit is an anti-love story starring two of the film world's most appealing twentysomethings: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.
The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza)
Rarely has such an opaque film felt so relentlessly creepy and gripping. Lucretia Martel, the Argentinean director of the widely acclaimed The Holy Girl, twists an almost maddeningly vague story — a well-to-do dentist hits something (maybe a dog, maybe a bump) in her car on a country road and enters a practically mute, trancelike state — into what may be an examination of class conflict. Whatever it is, it's masterfully executed. Martel exercises a hypnotic, David Lynchian command of craft (and defiance of the viewer's expectations) without the aid of his violence or psycho-sexual outbursts.
Lorna's Silence (Le silence de Lorna) and 35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums)
New films from modern European masters. The sublime Claire Denis (Chocolat, Beau Travail) returns with 35 Shots of Rum, an impressionistic take on the relationship between a Parisian man and his daughter. Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, kings of artfully realistic portraits of people on society's margins (Cannes Palme d'Or winners Rosetta and L'Enfant), try out a more conventional plot structure (Lorna is an Albanian woman seeking a home in Belgium who is charmed by a gangster) with reportedly great success.
What happens when you wrangle up six dozen hard-touring indie rockers and ask them what life is really like as a struggling musician? If Robert Moczydlowsky's documentary is any indication, you have a lot of shallow conversations about sex on the road, being poor, and self-delusion. There are members of a few successful bands (the Get Up Kids, Spoon) in 72 Musicians, but most of the film's running time serves as an incidental explanation of why most of these insipid (and often misogynistic) personalities remain "under the radar."