Over four days, beginning March 21 and ending March 24, the 2019 Annapolis Film Festival screened over 70 films, of different lengths, genres and styles. This year, I served on the feature-documentary jury and moderated a panel on screenwriting. I saw many more movies at the festival than I had previously, as well. The lineup was strong, and a good number of filmmakers came to represent their movies. As I did in 2018 (and also in 2017) I present short capsule reviews of the films I liked, in order of preference, by category, though this time I saw enough that I break them down into a Top 5 for documentaries and a Top 5 for fictional narratives. These summaries are all adaptations of longer reviews I have written (most still pending) for Hammer to Nail (where I am lead film critic) with a few soon slated to run here at Film Festival Today when the films are released. Enjoy!
TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARIES (in alphabetical order)
Facing the Dragon (Sedika Mojadidi, 2018) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]:
WINNER OF THE DOCUMENTARY-FEATURE JURY AWARD
Three women face off against the patriarchy, one a filmmaker and the other two her documentary subjects. They are, respectively, Sedika Mojadidi (Motherland Afghanistan), politician Nilofar and journalist Shakila. The place is Afghanistan, a country still recovering from decades of turmoil brought about by foreign intervention and subsequent religious extremism, and the time is now. The world they inhabit is dangerous, yet they navigate its treacherous waters bravely, hopefully leading the way for others to follow. A bittersweet tale of success, defeat and, most importantly, survival, Facing the Dragon offers an engrossing portrait of its characters and their beloved, if troubled, homeland.
General Magic (Sarah Kerruish/Matt Maude, 2018) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]
A fascinating, densely packed profile of one of the most important tech startups you’ve never heard of, General Magic recounts the rise and fall of the eponymous company, founded in the 1990s by a group of computer engineers determined to create a smartphone. They didn’t use that term, but the invention on which they banked their fortunes was a handheld mobile-computing device; in other words, exactly the kind of thing we all now carry around. Unfortunately for the folks at General Magic, the technology of the time was not quite up to the challenge of their vision, and so the company failed. But failure sometimes leads to success, and many of our present-day gadgets, including iPhones and Android phones, were subsequently designed by members of the General Magic team. Out of their original debacle rose the phoenix of today’s techverse. It’s a history worth telling, then, and directors Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude do a fine job presenting the detailed facts of the case.
The Interpreters (Andres Caballero/Sofian Khan, 2018) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]
Imagine a world in which you put your life on the line for an idea only to find yourself abandoned by erstwhile allies. Such is the plight of the interpreters who helped U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though there is a program in place – the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) – to help such folks, what with bureaucratic foot-dragging and political posturing, the once-vital friends who made American actions possible are all too often left to face potentially fatal consequences for their work. For a country that likes to position itself as a bastion of good in this world, we so frequently fall short of that ideal that it’s a wonder we don’t all die of shame.
This Changes Everything (Tom Donahue, 2018) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]
In This Changes Everything, documentarian Tom Donahue (Thank You for Your Service) chronicles the never-ending struggle of women in Hollywood to achieve something resembling gender parity. With a cast of interview subjects that includes Jessica Chastain, Julie Dash, Geena Davis, Rosario Dawson, Patty Jenkins, Callie Khouri, Tiffany Hadish, Taraji P. Henson, Sandra Oh, Natalie Portman, Shonda Rhimes, Amanda Stenberg, Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon and many more, the film offers story after story of discrimination across multiple eras and studios. Where (white) men hold power and feel invulnerable, they will act accordingly and subjugate everyone else to their will. So goes human behavior … at least until now. Fortunately, we may finally be in a moment where real change could happen (though as one interviewee says, we’ve certainly heard the “this changes everything” line before, to little effect), thanks in part to actual data to prove that gender (and racial) bias exist. That data comes to us in part via Davis (an executive producer on the film), whose Institute on Gender in Media commissioned a study to examine the number of roles given to women vs. those given to men, particularly in media targeted to children. Representation matters.
TransMilitary (Gabriel Silverman/Fiona Dawson, 2018) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]
Those who serve their country even in the face of continued discrimination deserve special commendation, irrespective of battlefield bravery. For a long time, the various branches of the United States Armed Forces had an active ban on openly gay and lesbian personnel, first as a blanket restriction and then through the nominally less prohibitive “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, finally repealed in 2011. Allowing people to be soldiers (or marines, etc.), irrespective of sexual orientation is as it should be. Next on the list were the transgender, freed from persecution in 2016. Unfortunately, our 45th President tweeted, just a year later, his intention to walk back that decision. It’s a good time, then, to check out TransMilitary, a documentary from first-time feature directors Gabriel Silverman and Fiona Dawson that profiles four exemplary trans men and women in the military whose status goes, over the course of the film, from precarious to stable to precarious once more. And yet they still want nothing more than to honorably serve. Always lurking in the background is the evil specter of irrational prejudice, today embodied by the current commander-in-chief. A fish rots from the head …
TOP FIVE FICTION FILMS (in alphabetical order)
The Public (Emilio Estevez, 2018) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for this site, which will post in full on April 5, the date of the movie’s release]
Given Emilio Estevez’s role in the 1985 touchstone film The Breakfast Club, it is perhaps appropriate that he sets The Public in a library. In that earlier movie, if you recall, five high-school students rebel against a hierarchy that defines them by class, gender and behavior, the bulk of the story taking place inside the school library. Here, Estevez has graduated from delinquent to gatekeeper – at least at the start of the film – playing the part of head librarian Stuart Goodson at the downtown branch of the Cincinnati public library. In the middle of a brutal cold spell, with homeless people dying across the city, Goodson faces the moral dilemma of what to do when those homeless folks who are library regulars refuse to leave his building one night. The shelters are full, and they just won’t go. Should he follow orders and kick them out, or allow them protection from the elements? It’s a quandary. Doing the right thing is also one way to lose a job. What price ethics? We can’t wish away poverty or ignore its consequences; our humanity demands a better response. The Public is a good place to start.
Ramen Shop (“Ramen Teh”) (Eric Khoo, 2018) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]
Director Eric Khoo (Tatsumi), in his lovely new film Ramen Shop, explores not only the history of culinary/cultural transformation, but also the way food is so often a vehicle for memory, as well. When twentysomething Masato, son of a ramen restaurateur, loses a close relative, he embarks on a journey from Japan to Singapore, where his parents first met. Fascinated by Singaporean food, he simultaneously explores its traditions while following in his parents’ footsteps, allowing the sights – known to him from old photographs – to trigger flashbacks of what his mother and father must have done both before he was born and while he was a child. Though the emotional terrain of the movie is fraught, the mise-en-scène is remarkably gentle, Khoo placing the one in evocative opposition to the other. The title refers to the combination of the traditional Japanese noodle soup with the Singaporean bak kut teh, or pork rib soup. They seem to go well together, as do almost the ingredients in this fine cinematic treat.
An expansion of writer/director Tchaiko Omawale’s eponymous 2013 short film, Solace tells the story of Sole, a 17-year-old woman sent to live with her estranged grandmother in Los Angeles after her father dies. The two could not be more different, the one an atheist, socially conscious intellectual and stress-eater of junk food (though also a vegan), the other a devout believer, conformist and avid exerciser. All Sole dreams about is returning to New York to study under a beloved professor, with a trip to Sierra Leone as the ultimate prize, while all her grandmother wants her to do is attend church, eat less and go on power walks. The future seems bleak until Sole befriends the rebel next door, Jasmine, a woman of approximately the same age who offers her a way out of her new hell. They each, it turns out, need a little of what the other is offering. It’s hard to believe this is Omawale’s first feature, so assured is she in her mise-en-scène. Solace is, indeed, a beautiful thing.
Storm Boy (Shawn Seet, 2019) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for this site, which will post in full on April 5, the date of the movie’s release]
Based on the eponymous 1964 children’s bookby Australian writer Colin Thiele (adapted once before, in 1976), Storm Boy starts off as one kind of story before quickly morphing into something quite different, far more interesting, and mostly moving (if occasionally overly manipulative). We begin in present-day Australia, where Mike Kingley, CEO emeritus of a construction company that bears his name, faces off against his granddaughter, angry at a proposed development that her father – the new CEO – wants to pursue on Aboriginal land. In trying to bond with her, Kingley unlocks memories from his childhood. It’s in those flashbacks that the film comes alive. There, we meet the boy version of Kingley, living on an isolated inlet with his loner of a father. Unfortunately, the beach is caught in a dispute between hunters and conservationists, with the native wildlife in the middle. When a number of pelicans are shot, leaving three chicks without a mother, Mike insists on raising them on his own, despite the adult skepticism that greets his decision. Before long, after his tender ministrations have brought the young birds out of danger, he has three rowdy companions to play with, who follow his every move. Despite the threat of inevitable tragedy, for much of its length this is a perfect movie for lovers of interspecies friendships and cute animal videos.
Take It or Leave It (“Võta või jäta”) (Liina Trishkina, 2018) [the paragraph, below, is an adaptation of a longer review I wrote for Hammer to Nail, which has yet to post, as of this writing]
Just 50 miles of the Baltic Sea separate Helsinki and Tallinn, and with some linguistic roots in common it should come as little surprise to find post-Soviet Estonians working in Finland, much as happens everywhere in the world where disadvantaged neighbors see better opportunities next door. So begins Take It or Leave It, Estonia’s 2018 submission to the Foreign-Language Oscar race (it was not nominated), as Erik plies his construction skills where they will earn the most money. The locals aren’t too happy (they never are, no matter the country), but he’s a tough one, so to hell with them. He can handle rough. What he can’t handle, it turns out, is the sight of a baby with no one to care for her, as we discover when a phone call drags him back home, where ex-girlfriend Moonika, in a postpartum funk, tells him that she wants to give away their daughter (about which Erik knew nothing until that moment). Though an irresponsible, drunken lout, he is touched by the little girl, and decides to raise her on his own. Good luck. It’s interesting to me that the film was directed by a woman, Liina Trishkina, given its relentless focus on the male protagonist, with the female characters barely sketched out. Despite those issues, I’ll take it, rather than leave it.
And that’s it! Hope to be back next year for the festival’s eighth iteration!