I’ve taken a months-long hiatus from the blog because, frankly, I just didn’t feel like writing. But the Miami International Film Festival came along and woke me from my dormant state. This year’s festival (March 5-16, 2014) celebrated its 31st year with 141 films from 39 countries and promised “every character under the sun.” Having attended 10 screenings this year – the most in the three years I’ve gone – I was able to see a wide range. Here’s a rundown of five standouts.
Cristo Rey bills itself as the Dominican Romeo and Juliet. Set in the poor, chaotic, and colorful Santo Domingo barrio of Cristo Rey, the film follows lead character Janvier, a smart, sweet Haitian-Dominican man who suddenly finds himself alone and facing limited options. He takes a job guarding the sister of a local drug kingpin, falls in love, and ends up in the middle of a manhunt. We can guess that the tale doesn’t end well for our star-crossed lovers, but Cristo Rey still feels vibrant and fresh, with taut storytelling and a roster of talented newcomers. It presents the Haitian immigrant experience and very current issues of prejudice and institutional racism against Haitians in the Dominican Republic. It’s a point of view that’s almost never seen on the big screen, especially in the United States. James Saintil, who plays Janvier, makes his film debut in a role that seems made for him, while director Leticia Tonos impresses with her visually stunning style.
Elsa & Fred
Cinema legends Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer show that they’ve still got it in this romantic comedy. The free-spirited Elsa and the grumpy, cynical Fred learn that you’re never too old to love again and make dreams come true. A remake of a 2005 Argentine film of the same name, Elsa & Fred is delightful, sweet, funny, and has so much heart. Plus, it features one of the best movie mash-ups I’ve seen on film.
Belle tells the story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, a mixed-race aristocrat in 18th century England. Based on a true story, Dido is the daughter of a Royal Navy admiral and a black slave. She is sent to live with her father’s family, affording her a life of privilege. But she still exists in a gray area where she is “too high in rank to dine with the servants,” but too low in rank to dine with her family. The trailer does the film a disservice by focusing on Dido’s love life, but Belle is really “about Dido finding her own identity and how different she was from the other black characters,” said director Amma Asante. Central to this awakening is the Zong dispute, a landmark slavery case that her uncle, the chief justice of England, must decide. In researching the case, Dido finds inner strength and tests the strength of family bonds. Belle will enter limited release in U.S. theaters May 2.
Whitey: The United States v. James J. Bulger
Director Joe Berlinger shines the spotlight on James J. “Whitey” Bulger in this documentary about the notorious Boston gangster. Using Bulger’s 2013 trial as a backdrop, the movie does Bulger no favors. He was responsible for multiple murders and deserves to rot in prison. But authorities at the local, state, and federal levels don’t seem to have clean hands in this either. “There’s some deeply troubling questions that have yet to be answered that should’ve been answered at the trial,” Berlinger said. Through court testimonies and interviews with cops, Bulger’s former associate, and the victims’ families, Berlinger connects the dots, suggesting years of collusion and cover-ups by the authorities. “The film was born out of the idea to separate fact from fiction,” he said. Produced for CNN Films, Whitey is currently being recut to air on the cable news network at a later date.
Living is Easy with Eyes Closed
Noted Spanish actor Javier Cámara (Talk to Her) plays Antonio, a grade-school teacher on a mission to meet John Lennon in 1960s Spain. The film opens with Cámara teaching his students the lyrics to “Help” by The Beatles. It’s a theme that runs throughout the film. During his trip, Antonio picks up two runaways. Stuck in the oppressive, conservative Franco regime, each character looks to escape the confines of daily life and finds support in an unlikely place. These ordinary people are subversive in quiet ways, rejecting society’s standards to find their own identities. The film has subtle yet solid performances by its cast, including Cámara, who is charming as the earnest, nerdy teacher.
Here’s the full list of movies that I saw and the score that each received on a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent).
- Barefoot in the Kitchen – 3
- Belle – 4
- Brazilian Western – 4
- City of God: 10 Years Later – 3
- Cristo Rey – 5
- The Dog – 4
- Elsa & Fred – 4
- Living is Easy with Eyes Closed – 4
- The Immigrant – 3.5
- Whitey: The United States v. James J. Bulger – 5
Missed connection: I should’ve seen Finding Vivian Maier instead of City of God: 10 Years Later. When festival film curator Thom Powers personally recommends you see a film, you see it. Lesson learned.
— Jessica Alexandre (@jess_alexandre) February 22, 2014
He proceeded to tweet a list of 10 documentaries (including Whitey and The Dog). But I should’ve known this was the film with all the buzz.
— Thom Powers (@thompowers) February 22, 2014
It went on to win the Knight Documentary Competition. Thankfully it’ll return to O Cinema and Miami Beach Cinematheque in early May.
Free tickets: Thanks again to festival sponsor 88 Rue du Rhone for offering free tickets to the opening night screening and party. Until next time!