Thursday, April 19, 2012

15 Must-See Movies at the 2012 Nashville Film Festival

Posted By on Thu, Apr 19, 2012 at 9:04 AM

In this week's Scene cover story, we provide a peek at more than 40 features and documentaries screening over the next seven days at the 2012 Nashville Film Festival, opening tonight at Regal's Green Hills 16. Hardcore festivalgoers tend their schedules with the care of cube rats filling out their March Madness brackets, agonizing over whether to pick the Steve Martin banjo documentary or the account of a choreographed modern dance for garbage trucks.

But if you don't have time to Sharpie your way through a fold-out festival grid, we've provided below a list of 15 sure-fire selections that at the very least will give you plenty to talk about with friends the next day. Some you may well see on year-end Top 10 lists come December after their theatrical release; others you may never get the chance to see again. Still others we chose just because they were so much fun.

Despite our attempts to be as thorough as possible, we still suggest you check out the full list of films (including the many programs of shorts). And we plan to catch up on movies we might have missed throughout the week — don't worry, we'll post updates here on any finds. But if you want a place to start, look no further.

★ ERASING HATE (4 p.m. April 19)

A stirring chronicle of former skinhead Bryon Widner's attempt to redeem himself, Erasing Hate offers an intimate and thoughtful look at both the causes and consequences of involvement in the white nationalism movement. Though Widner and his family have moved to Middle Tennessee to get a fresh start, his face is covered with racist tattoos — making it hard for him to get a job, let alone cleanse himself of his hateful past (which included stints as a violent enforcer for several organizations). Enter the Southern Poverty Law Center, which pays for Widner to have his tattoos removed at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Erasing Hate captures the excruciatingly painful process — 25 surgeries over 20 months — in unflinching footage that is difficult to watch, but it helps demonstrate how this agonizing physical penance helps Widner find some semblance of peace. JACK SILVERMAN

★ THE DYNAMITER (5:30 p.m. April 19; also 11:30 a.m. April 21)

Like its hero — a laconic 14-year-old (newcomer William Ruffin) dodging the law as he tries to hide the fact his mom skipped out on him and his little brother — this affecting Independent Spirit nominee by first-time director Matthew Gordon is a real diamond in the rough. ... Comparisons to Days of Heaven and Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows suggest less the style or level of accomplishment than the mark the movie leaves in memory: When it was over, I worried that this compelling little scrapper wasn't as nimble a survivor as he thought he was, and I've thought about him ever since. JIM RIDLEY

★ ATTENBERG (5:45 p.m. April 19; also 2:45 p.m. April 20)

Few films this year will offer the same quotient of joy, melancholy, and unalloyed strangeness as Athina Rachel Tsangari's Attenberg, another gem from the recent "Weird Wave" in Greece. In some vague respects a kind of feminist obverse to last year's Dogtooth (whose director, Yorgos Lanthimos, plays "the love interest"), Attenberg is the odd tale of Marina (Ariane Labed). She has grown up unintentionally asexual (possibly because of the failed modernist housing project her dad designed), and she plans to do something about it. Nature documentaries, tongue-kissing practice, and unfathomably goofy walk-dancing will help in her quest. Highly recommended. In Greek with subtitles. MICHAEL SICINSKI

AFTER Teaser B from Ryan Smith on Vimeo.

★ AFTER (9 p.m. April 19; also noon April 20)

Following a meet-cute shattered by a catastrophic accident, After wastes no time immersing us in the lives of two individuals who may be the only people in the world. Since there's a giant wall of swirling evil slowly contracting around them, the metaphorical race is on. As with most suspense/otherworldly thrillers, you find yourself hoping that it's not going to settle for a dumb twist or rote predictability: the exciting surprise is how smartly co-writer/director Ryan Smith avoids those pitfalls. The lead performance from Magic City up-and-comer Steven Strait is great, and Nashville's Magnetic Dreams devised some remarkably good special effects (including a first-rate monster): a couple of simply magnificent images of weird, surreal power will stay with you. Some dialogue rings a little flat, and some narrative transitions seem a bit too on the nose, but it's been ages since we've had a local effort this strong. JASON SHAWHAN

★ BROOKLYN CASTLE (noon April 20; also 8 p.m. April 25)

The feature-length directorial debut of filmmaker Katie Dellamaggiore centers on I.S. 318, a Brooklyn junior high where more than 60 percent of students come from homes with incomes below the poverty line. But it's practically ground zero for rising chess stars, with a history of 26 national titles and counting. In the vein of the 2002 spelling-bee doc Spellbound, Brooklyn Castle focuses on individual kids who are natural charmers — Pobo, the charismatic scene stealer; Rochelle, the ambitious female player; Patrick, the ADHD kid who's not great at chess but eager to learn; and Justus, the precocious sixth grader with a rank that's almost as high as his coach's. The documentary succeeds in being heartwarming but not maudlin, inspiring but not overblown. LAURA HUTSON

★ BESTIAIRE (5:15 p.m. April 20; also 12:45 p.m. April 25)

Canadian director Denis Côté is one of the most exciting young talents on the current festival scene. Each of his last two films — the isolationist character study Carcasses and the homicidal black comedy Curling — looked as if it would be his breakthrough. Maybe three's the charm with this exquisite observational documentary about animals in captivity. Beginning with art students drawing a stuffed deer, and settling in for its extended middle third at a Quebec zoo, Bestiaire is a sly meditation on a complex conundrum: Humans need animals in order to truly see ourselves. MICHAEL SICINSKI

★ ONE NIGHT STAND (5:45 p.m. April 20; also 4:30 p.m. April 25)

Anyone who has ever derived any sort of pleasure from musical theater needs to see this look at the second annual 24 Hour Musicals, a fundraiser that pairs composers and librettists with a bunch of intriguing performers (including Modern Family's Jesse Tyler Ferguson, 30 Rock's Rachel Dratch, Broadway treasure Cheyenne Jackson, A Serious Man's Richard Kind, and David Lynch/Cybill Shepherd collaborator Alicia Witt). In one 24-hour stretch, four groups will compose and perform a 15-minute piece with two new songs in it, and the end results are thrilling: think the 48 Hour Film Festival, but with more integrity and less evil. JASON SHAWHAN

★ LAST CALL AT THE OASIS (1 p.m. April 21; also screening 7 p.m. April 20 in Lipscomb University's Ward Hall)

The latest in the parade of sound-the-alarm docs, acclaimed filmmaker Jessica Yu's slick, beautifully photographed wake-up call surveys the global water shortage — a crisis that isn't just over the horizon but already under our feet. Focusing on the U.S. as the world's biggest water wasters, Yu follows the flow from Las Vegas to picture-book farmland soon to be pipelined (wonderfully visualized by a drinking straw visible from space), and convincingly shows us the devastating effects of unsustainable expansion. Erin Brockovich herself is back too, still on the case after a topical movie 12 years ago bearing her name failed to raise much awareness. But water's running out, and working this doc into your festival schedule is literally the least you can do about it. SAM SMITH

★ HELL AND BACK AGAIN (2 p.m. April 21)

An Oscar nominee and winner of Sundance's 2011 Grand Jury Prize, Danfung Dennis' searing documentary is the latest in a string of remarkable dispatches from the frontlines of the war on terror. What makes Dennis' film uniquely devastating is that, like the horrors of war, it follows its subject home. Having suffered a gunshot wound to the hip, Sgt. Nathan Harris has come home from deployment deep behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. He is increasingly dependent on his loving wife Ashley, while his now-fragile body is matched by a fragile psyche — even something as mundane as car passengers talking can send him, and us, right back to the war zone. ... For all the starpower lined up for this year's fest, Nathan and Ashley Harris (who'll participate in a post-film Q&A with journalist Willy Stern) may be the NaFF's most distinguished guests. STEVEN HALE

★ LOVE FREE OR DIE (3:15 p.m. April 21; also 5:45 p.m. April 22)

All-out bigots will probably be spared, but it's hard to imagine any other viewer — regardless of sexual or theological orientation — leaving this screening without a dull pain in their stomach. The Special Jury Prize winner from this year's Sundance chronicles the trials and tribulations of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop. But while Macky Alston's doc does well at exposing the more repulsive attitudes vying for oxygen within the church, as well as some genuinely thoughtful individuals on either side of the issue, one wishes the director would have further investigated some of the rabbit holes he merely points out along the way. Alston will attend. STEVEN HALE

★ AFFAIR OF THE HEART (6 p.m. April 21; also 3:30 p.m. April 23)

To call this documentary about Rick Springfield's small but wildly passionate fanbase the feel-good movie of the fest might be a stretch, but not by much — Sylvia Caminer's film is surprisingly touching, even as it pokes fun at the almost co-dependent relationship between the '80s pop idol and his devoted disciples. Caminer follows a variety of Springfield fanatics, including a teen son and his dad, a couple whose courtship centered around their fandom, even a 55-year-old Unitarian minister. The most compelling thread features two suburban New Jersey housewives whose 24/7 obsession with the Aussie heartthrob creates palpable family tension. Throughout it all, Springfield comes off as candid, vulnerable and downright endearing, and you get the impression he's as crazy about his fans as they are about him. Recommended viewing, even if you cringe at "Jessie's Girl." JACK SILVERMAN

★ UNDER AFRICAN SKIES (9:15 p.m. April 21; also 9:45 p.m. April 24)

So much more than your stock rock doc, director Joe Berlinger's Under African Skies chronicles the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon's explosive album Graceland, recorded amid the political turmoil of apartheid, and Simon's recent reunion with the artists who played on the record and subsequent tour. Because Simon broke the African National Congress' cultural boycott in order to collaborate with South African outfits like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Stimela, many critics at the time of Graceland's release felt he was landing on the wrong side of history. But Under African Skies suggests — via interviews with Paul McCartney, Harry Belafonte, Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Philip Glass and Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo — that Simon's synthesis of African and Western styles transcended the maelstrom of debate and did more to bring black South Africans' plight into the international spotlight than perhaps any other album. D. PATRICK RODGERS

★ GIRL MODEL (9:30 p.m. April 24; also 2:45 p.m. April 25)

A must-see. An intriguing subject — the corrupt, creepy process that procures Siberian teenage models for Japanese fashion spreads — leads to this award-worthy piece of documentary journalism. Filmmakers Ashley Sabin and David Redmon follow Nadya, a 13-year-old girl picked out of her picturesque homeland to model for Japanese audiences under uncomfortably shady conditions. The title refers also to former model turned scout Ashley Arbaugh, who selects Nadya and then keeps tabs on her — making for a fascinating study of a complex and ambivalent psychology seemingly shaped by trauma. When a SXSW screening audience delivered the knee-jerk criticism that the filmmakers didn't intervene in the queasy situations they document, they fired back with a sobering reality check: By making this film at all, the filmmakers put their lives on the line. By film's end, you'll understand why. SAM SMITH

★ OSLO, AUGUST 31 (9:30 p.m. April 25; also 2:15 p.m. April 26)

The latest from up-and-coming Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier (Reprise) zeroes in on one pivotal day for Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), a 30-something drug addict finishing up rehab and taking an outpatient day to apply for a job. We follow Anders on the interview, but also as he visits his best friend, tries to meet up with his sister, and takes stock of his options after cleaning up. Anchored by Trier's rich, literary sensibility and a steely, pitiless performance by Danielsen Lie, Oslo eviscerates the pat inspirational tales Hollywood loves to spin about its own 12-stepping pals. This ain't 28 Days. In Norwegian with subtitles. MICHAEL SICINSKI

★ PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (10 p.m. April 25)

Paul Williams, elfin actor-songwriter, meet Brian De Palma, leering gargoyle of '70s Hollywood. If you know this movie, you've already got tickets — it's among the biggest cult rediscoveries of recent years (especially in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where it's celebrated like heat). If you don't, oh my God. Williams, who wrote the soundtrack of so-off-they're-awesome pop pastiches, plays the demonic record mogul who literally smashes composer William Finley in his music-biz machinery; the disfigured Finley dons a cape and metal mask to terrorize Williams' glam-rock palace and moon over delectable ingénue Jessica Harper. (The screening will serve as a sad epitaph for Finley, who died Tuesday after an association with De Palma that dated back 50 years to his earliest shorts.) In some ways, this garish cartoon horror-rock musical is the quintessential De Palma movie: operatic in style, sarcastic in sensibility, yet oddly chivalrous in its wounded-romantic fashion. It was a life-changing experience when I saw it at Murfreesboro's Cinema One in 1974 in third grade. Will it change yours? JIM RIDLEY

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