16 must-see movies at MSPIFF

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The Last King


You could never hope to watch every single movie playing at the 35th annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, but that shouldn't stop you from seeking out the best. More than 160 features and 90 shorts make up this year's program, which is divided into sections including Childish and Experimental and runs from April 7 to 23 — a full two weeks of cinematic bliss.

Whether your schedule allows for only a few movies over the coming weeks or you're simply overwhelmed by the embarrassment of riches, direct your attention toward these 16 standouts — the top 10 percent of MSPIFF's generous full-length feature selection, as it were.

Don't mistake this for an entirely comprehensive breakdown, however; there are any number of promising films that barely missed the cut. It's possible, if not likely, that a few of these will end up being disappointments, and a certainty that many films not included here will be stand outs. But the risk-reward ratio seems favorable for each of these titles, which are emblematic of the festival experience as a whole: Taking a chance on an unknown entity often yields the best results.

Unless otherwise noted, these films will screen at St. Anthony Main Theatre.

The Alchemist Cookbook

Category: Dark Out

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The best of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

Premise: A drug-addled hermit who lives in a trailer in the woods inadvertently summons a malignant force beyond his reckoning.

Background: Having recently completed his animal trilogy (Coyote, Ape, and Buzzard), Joel Potrykus now turns his attention to a self-styled alchemist eking out an off-the-grid existence. The Michigan-based filmmaker has displayed exceptional skill in portraying troubled young men whose disenchantment finds violent, often self-destructive expression, so it's no surprise that his latest protagonist is the kind of dude who would consider science and black magic one and the same. Given how little Potrykus' characters tend to think before acting, the seemingly fantastical direction of his latest micro-budget concoction should be seen as the illogical culmination of their collective psyche. The film takes its title from the controversial Anarchist's Cookbook, which you may remember for inciting a moral panic in the aftermath of Columbine.

Who might be interested: Fans of lo-fi indie cinema with a DIY sensibility veering on punk. Potrykus' vibe isn't for everybody, but those who appreciate Repo Man-style weirdness are likely to dig him.

When: 9:50 p.m. April 14; 10 p.m. April 21.

Demon

Category: Dark Out

Premise: A dybbuk, a.k.a. everyone's favorite monster from Jewish mythology, possesses a man who's about to get married.

Background: Marcin Wrona died shortly before Demon premiered in his native Poland last fall. That loss to the international film community was made even more pronounced by how well-received his swan song ended up being. As with The Alchemist Cookbook, there's a folkloric quality to the way Demon places an ancient entity in a contemporary context — and a sense that such things shouldn't still be allowed to exist, if ever they were before. The possession occurs when the bridegroom-to-be stumbles into a pile of human remains (as you do) shortly before tying the knot. Lest the horror label send you running, let it be known that Demon has won praise for its tonal variations, so you can expect to laugh almost as often as you gasp in fear.

Who might be interested: Genre lovers whose tastes lean toward the art-house end of the horror spectrum, including It Follows and The Witch.

When: 10 p.m. April 16.

The Endless River

Category: Images of Africa

Premise: In the wake of his family's murder, a man forms an unlikely (and potentially dangerous) bond with a woman whose husband has recently returned home from prison.

Background: Oliver Hermanus' third film takes its name from Riviersonderend (Afrikaans for "endless river"), the small town in the Western Cape of South Africa where it takes place. Dramas about damaged souls united by their shared sorrow abound on the festival circuit, but by all accounts this is an exception to the usual humdrum rule. The writer-director, who's been hailed as his nation's most important new cinematic voice, draws on everything from old-school Western aesthetics to the legacy of Apartheid in crafting his tale. If we're lucky, The Endless River will be the kind of redemptive story that emphasizes hard-won catharsis rather than pat melodrama. (The fact that one of them is a white Frenchman and the other is a black native probably does little to endear them to the local criminal element.)

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The Endless River

Who might be interested: Festival-goers with a soft spot for character studies as violent as they are intimate.

When: 9:40 p.m. April 12; 9:30 p.m. April 17.

The Fits

Category: New American Visions

Premise: An 11-year-old boxing fanatic develops an interest in dance when she notices the cool older girls on the drill team at a nearby gym.

Background: Anna Rose Holmer's coming-of-age drama has already made waves at the Venice and

 Sundance Film Festivals, where she and star Royalty Hightower were labeled talents to watch. Set in Cincinnati and centering on an African-American tomboy, The Fits looks like the kind of under-the-radar fare that dares to break from typical indie conventions of quirk and preciousness. In this case, it's the first-time filmmaker's focus on the pressure adolescents face to fit in with this group or that; for Hightower's character, whose competing interests would appear to be at odds with one another, the feeling can only be amplified. This setup is admittedly nothing new, which just makes the plaudits with which The Fits has been met even more compelling — Holmer must have done something right.

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The Fits

Who might be interested: Anyone looking for an understated take on familiar subject matter.

When: 9:25 p.m. April 20; 9:20 p.m. April 23.

Francofonia

Category: World Cinema

Premise: A rumination on the Louvre — its history, its legacy — from the Renaissance to today.

Background: If you've seen Russian Ark, you already know what kind of magic Alexander Sokurov is capable of creating when he and his camera drift through a world-renowned museum: In a single elegant take, the film showed long-dead historical figures coming alive in the Winter Palace. Few filmmakers have shown such a unique interest in history, whether through abstract biopics on Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito or works like this one. Sokurov's films can demand a lot of the viewer — Faust, which won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2011, is a distinctly uncomfortable viewing experience — but Francofonia doesn't give the impression of being an endurance test. Blurring the line between fact and fiction as Russian Ark did, the film includes newsreels and reenactments in its self-described "elegy for Europe" set primarily during the Nazis' 1940 invasion of Paris.

Who might be interested: Auteurists already enamored of Sokurov's heady oeuvre and art enthusiasts alike.

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Francofonia

When: 4:30 p.m. April 9; 5 p.m. April 12.

Happy Hour

Category: Asian Frontiers

Premise: Four middle-aged Japanese women have their friendship tested by a divorce and a disappearance.

Background: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi's drama clocks in at more than five hours long, which will instantly have some readers skipping ahead to the next movie on this list. For those of you still here, know that

 the film is said to be fleet of foot and not at all a slog; it's even been described as akin to a highbrow Sex and the City. Think of its scope as being more like a miniseries and its length should be even less intimidating. And how often do film festivals give you the chance to binge-watch? Hamaguchi's drawn-out treatment of a seemingly simple story is further proof that epics come in many forms. Film festivals favor the risky, so take a chance on this one. Its length is likely to preclude a traditional theatrical release, so there's a good chance it'll never play here again.

Who might be interested: Patient viewers who can appreciate the irony of a film called Happy Hour boasting a 317-minute runtime.

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Happy Hour

When: 6 p.m. April 11.

The Invitation

Category: Dark Out

Premise: A grieving father is invited to a dinner party by his estranged ex-wife. The evening goes very, very poorly.

Background: Karyn Kusama's close-quarters thriller unfolds largely in real time, meaning that each uncomfortable exchange plays out in excruciating detail. The Invitation is initially tense in the same way that cringe comedy is, but its overtones of dread hint at something more than painful awkwardness, as buried emotions, old friends seeing one another for the first time in ages, and expensive wine rarely make for an incident-free night. In spite of that, being locked in with these people isn't torturous; Kusama's use of the house in the Hollywood Hills where all this takes place is too thought-out and clever for the narrative momentum to ever stop. The fact that this is in the horror- and thriller-heavy Dark Out section of the fest should tell you that there's more at work here than mere family drama; without giving anything away, let it be known that the title refers to more than an invite to the dinner party from hell.

Who might be interested: Cinematic sleuths who fancy themselves experts at figuring out what a movie's playing at before it shows its hand.

When: 9:45 p.m. April 8; 9:15 p.m. April 11 (Uptown Theatre).

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Lo and Behold Reveries of the Connected World

Kaili Blues

Category: Asian Frontiers

Premise: While on a road trip in search of his lost nephew, a country doctor passes through a town where past, present, and future commingle freely.

Background: Bi Gan's debut was a multiple prizewinner at the Locarno Film Festival, a Swiss fete with an eclectic programming sensibility that skews toward the outré. Everything about Kaili Blues has the feeling of a pleasantly dreamlike moodpiece, the kind that rewards close viewing while also inviting you to luxuriate in its hazy atmosphere. (Bi was a poet before he was a filmmaker, which should give you a sense of his lyrical approach.) No word on whether its narrative trajectory answers the many questions raised by its premise, but it's hard not to want to simply go along for the ride after hearing so many good things about the movie.

Who might be interested: Admirers of otherworldly reveries, like those made by Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

When: 9:35 p.m. April 8; 9:15 p.m. April 13.

Kill Me Please

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Under Electric Clouds

Category: Cine Latino

Premise: A clique of teenage girls develop a morbid fascination with a series of grisly murders in a well-to-do neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro.

Background: Part slasher-inspired mystery, part coming-of-age story, Anita Rocha da Silveira's psychodrama has the most alluring premise of the entire festival. Everything from Twin Peaks to Carrie has been invoked in describing the first-time writer/director's film, which foregrounds a middle-class teenager named Bia whose fixation on the crimes goes even further than that of her friends. Adolescence is rarely easy, whether in Cincinnati or Rio. When the untimely deaths of several women in your neighborhood stirs something inside of you that can't be ignored, it's probably a sign that things won't be getting easier anytime soon.

Who might be interested: Intrepid cinephiles hoping to discover a bold new voice.

When: 3:15 p.m. April 9 (Uptown Theatre); 9:45 p.m. April 14.

The Last King

Category: Midnight Sun

Premise: Two soldiers are tasked with hiding the heir to the throne during a civil war in 13th-century Norway.

Background: Representing the Scandinavian sidebar, Nils Gaup's sword-and-shield drama is one of the festival's few unabashed action movies. Norway has been impressive on the blockbuster front lately, with The Wave providing an intelligent alternative to the mindless disaster movies of Hollywood; if The Last King displays anywhere near the same level, we're in for a good time. Focusing on the untenable blood feud between the Birkebeiners and the Baglers, those warring factions of yore, The Last King concerns matters of succession and survival in the year 1204. The aging monarch's sole remaining heir is a royal secret whose safeguarding is vital to the kingdom's future — and seeing it play out should prove compelling even if you've read up on your Norwegian history.

Who might be interested: Game of Thrones diehards who need to tide themselves over before the season-six premiere.

When: 4:15 p.m. April 9; 7:15 p.m. April 14.

L'attesa (The Wait)

Category: World Cinema

Premise: A woman and her son's fiancée meet for the first time in the lead-up to Easter and wonder why the man in question has yet to arrive.

Background: Piero Messina's debut premiered at the Venice Film Festival last fall, instantly garnering praise for its discomfiting moodiness and elusive plotting. As with many other great MSPIFF selections, secrets abound between L'attesa's two main characters. Juliette Binoche plays the older of the two, and she's anchored many ambiguous narratives already. Movies about two women in close quarters under strange circumstances — think Persona, Mulholland Drive, and Clouds of Sils Maria — tend to be unusually nuanced character studies; that, coupled with Binoche's ever-engaging presence onscreen, makes L'attesa one to prioritize.

Who might be interested: Binoche devotees, of course, as well as fans of slow-burning mysteries.

When: 7:20 April 12; 4:40 p.m. April 20.

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World

Category: Documentaries

Premise: Werner Herzog explores the internet. Need we say more?

Background: Herzog has shifted between narrative and documentary filmmaking throughout his career, something few others have pulled off so seamlessly. This latest foray into nonfiction sets its sights on that World Wide Web the kids are always talking about. As anyone who's seen Grizzly Man or Cave of Forgotten Dreams knows, Herzog has an inimitable talent for teasing out the most profound aspect of his chosen subject (albino crocodiles, anybody?). The internet may be his broadest canvas yet, but there's every reason to be optimistic that his take on the internet — its wonders, dark side, and future — will succeed where other, similar movies have failed.

Who might be interested: Anyone who can listen to Herzog's dulcet tones as he waxes rhapsodic about the ecstatic truth at the heart of the series of tubes we all know and love/hate. So everyone, presumably.

When: 5:15 p.m. April 12; 7:20 p.m. April 21.

Neon Bull

Category: Cine Latino

Premise: A rodeo cowboy with aspirations of becoming a fashion designer comes to a crossroads in his life.

Background: Early word on writer-director Gabriel Mascaro's film has been almost entirely positive, including his focus on a distinct subculture and his understated visuals. In vaquejada, a Brazilian spin on traditional rodeo sports, cowboys attempt to grab bulls by their tails and subdue them to the ground. Our hero Iremar excels at this, but his real passion has a different sort of physicality to it — more gestural than muscular. Along with Kill Me Please, Neon Bull is already being canonized as one of the most compelling films to come out of Brazil in recent years.

Who might be interested: Project Runway fans looking for an art-house equivalent to their favorite show.

When: 4:50 p.m. April 12; 9:45 p.m. April 19.

Sabina K.

Category: World Cinema

Premise: A divorced mother of two reconnects with a man she met while serving in the Bosnian army decades earlier.

Background: Shot in Bosnia and Herzegovina but directed by Cristóbal Krusen, who lives in St. Paul, Sabina K. is a based-on-true-events account of what would appear to be a doomed romance between a Muslim and a Catholic in a time and place when such a union is considered heretical by both families. Telling your kids who they can and cannot be with rarely works out, but Sabina's fate as a star-crossed lover ends up being sealed by something other than parental disapproval: Her new beau's sudden disappearance. A Minnesota transplant with global concerns, Krusen has made a number of films shot around the world prior to Sabina K.

Who might be interested: Locals in need of a hometown hero. Also, hopeless romantics who've ever found love in a hopeless place.

When: 6:50 p.m. April 17; 6:30 p.m. April 18 (Rochester Galaxy 14 Cine); 2:30 p.m. April 21 (Rochester Galaxy 14 Cine).

Tickled

Category: Documentaries

Premise: A TV reporter from New Zealand learns about something called competitive endurance tickling, which somehow ends up being infinitely weirder than it sounds.

Background: David Farrier's interest was piqued when he first happened upon videos of CET online, as his job requires him to seek out and report on the bizarre. When he reached out to the production company for an interview, the openly gay Kiwi was met with homophobic insults. He and collaborator Dylan Reeve set about documenting this strange, almost Kafkaesque process, with Tickled serving in part as a documentary about its own making. It's also a complex take on the nature of power and control, whether virtual, legal, financial, or otherwise. Farrier and Reeve were threatened with legal action almost instantly, but the harder their foes worked to keep their identities and practices hidden, the more determined the filmmakers became to bring this strangeness to light. You'll never believe how much deeper this rabbit hole goes without actually seeing Tickled, so make it a priority.

Who might be interested: Jaded internet addicts who think they've already seen the extent of its weirdness. Spoiler alert: You really, really haven't.

When: 9:55 p.m. April 16; 9:40 p.m. April 20.

Under Electric Clouds

Category: World Cinema

Premise: One hundred years after the Russian Revolution, the world seems poised to slip into another Great War.

Background: Aleksei German was an art-house luminary, and his 2013 death left a huge void. It would seem that his son, Aleksei German Jr., has soldiered on and not let the loss stop his own cinematic pursuits: He recently helped complete Hard to Be a God, his father's unfinished swan song, and is now back with a new work of his own. This speculative account of a near-future in which Russia has gone full dystopia unfolds via seven interconnected stories, with one constant being the strange electronic messages projected onto the clouds hovering over a crumbling society. That may sound bleak, but Under Electric Clouds has won awards for its cinematography and looks starkly beautiful in its own oppressive way.

Who might be interested: The apple never falls far from the tree. If you're an admirer of Aleksei German's demanding corpus — or that of Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker), whose influence on the fellow Russian is clear — see whether his son lives up to that tradition.

When: 9:15 p.m. April 14; 2:10 p.m. April 21.



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