In the SIFF Spotlight

17 must-see titles, surveyed by our critics.

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros

An incongruous vision of lipsticked, hip-swiveling fabulousness, 12-year-old Maximo (Nathan Lopez) flounces through his Manila shantytown, a beacon of beatific flamboyance in the gritty (but mostly tolerant) hood as well as a doting mother hen to his petty-criminal father and brothers. All is improbably well, until Maxi's undisguised attraction to a strapping policeman sparks tensions at home. Even more so than Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin, Auraeus Solito's feature debut confronts the taboo of preteen sexuality with extraordinary openness. No less than its precocious protagonist, the film is alarming, endearing, and utterly unflappable. (NR) DENNIS LIM Broadway Performance Hall: 9:15 p.m. Fri., June 2; 11 a.m. Sun., June 4.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

If there's a tougher sell than a Romanian movie by a hitherto unknown director, it's a Romanian movie by an unknown director that takes two and one-half hours to tell the tale of a 62-year-old pensioner's final trip to the hospital. Living alone with his cats and the bottle, Mr. Lazarescu wakes with an unfamiliar headache and a bad stomach and, after a day of futile self-medication, calls the local equivalent of 911. After 45 minutes (film time), the ambulance arrives, and from the limbo of his squalid flat, our Dante enters the first circle of hell. For the remainder of the movie, he will be transported from hospital to hospital, to be variously diagnosed, ignored, browbeaten, humiliated, and finally processed by a harried succession of brilliantly acted doctors and nurses. Lazarescu is highly scripted but shot like a documentary. As filmmaking, it's a tour de force, with director Cristi Puiu successfully simulating—or rather, orchestrating—the institutional texture of a Frederick Wiseman vérité. (R) J. HOBERMAN Harvard Exit: 11 a.m. Sat., May 27. Pacific Place: 9:15 p.m. Tues., May 30.

Half Nelson

Ryan Gosling, all is forgiven! We'll forget about Stay. We'll excuse the treacly SIFF '04 opener, The Notebook. His turn as an idealistic yet crack-addicted young schoolteacher in New York is the best performance we've seen this year. And it's closely matched by that of Shareeka Epps as the 13-year-old who discovers her teacher's secret. She could bust him, but he's the friendliest, most earnest, most awkwardly committed instructor at school. In class he spouts Hegel and Martin Luther King, gets the kids reading Che and making presentations on Attica. Then he goes home to indulge in the pipe, and other drugs, fully aware that he's ruining his life. The young actor refuses to inject any junkie clichés into his performance, and the younger actress, reaching out to help him, is equally undeluded about separating his best and worst qualities (she's seen the same within her own family). Half Nelson isn't perfect, but it doesn't oversimplify matters of race, addiction, or education. (R) BRIAN MILLER Egyptian: 7 p.m. Thurs., June 1; 1:15 p.m. Sat., June 3.

The Heart of the Game

An astonishing homegrown saga, Heart began seven years ago when director Ward Serrill became fascinated by the winning techniques of Bill Resler, a UW tax professor moonlighting as head coach for the Roosevelt High School girls basketball team. Resler, who tutored his own three daughters at the game, is charismatic, wide-eyed, and wryly exasperated as his teen players do the opposite of what he orders. Heart gets its real focus with the arrival of Darnellia Russell, a ninth-grade basketball prodigy made shy by the nearly all-white Roosevelt environment. Blazing on the court, she finds her footing, along with the camaraderie of teamwork, by her sophomore season. We in the audience find a complicated, tenacious, extraordinary young woman to pull for, on the court and eventually in the courtroom—through her next three tumultuous years. Having watched Heart from its SIFF '05 work-in-progress beginnings to Toronto that fall and now to this burnished, professional state (helped hugely by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges' new narration), I am still blown away by how powerfully Heart works, especially as it considers the far-from-level playing field of life. SHEILA BENSON

Host & Guest

SIFF

What do you do with a hostile main character whose days are full of porn, prostitutes, and public peeing? Why, choreograph him into an odd-couple pas de deux with an earnest evangelist, of course. Thus we have the implausible rescue of cynical college professor Hojun from the prison of his own malfunctioning bathroom lock by quiet missionary Kye-Sang. Hojun's attempts at gratitude are, understatedly, rusty. He coerces the chaste lad to see a movie, but then behaves so badly they get kicked out. He socks a Bush-supporter in a cab, farts with aplomb, and renders some truly unforgivable karaoke. An unlikely friendship develops when Kye-Sang suddenly finds himself in need of rescue from government prosecution for refusing compulsory military service. Becoming his passionate defender spins Hojun's wretched life sweetly if improbably on its head. (NR) MARGARET FRIEDMAN Pacific Place: 7 p.m. Wed., May 31; 2 p.m. Thurs., June 1.

Jack Smith & the Destruction of Atlantis

This documentary entertainingly profiles the late Jack Smith (1932–1989), prominent underground filmmaker of N.Y.C.'s avant-garde heyday. Staunchly anticapitalist, he rejected the bohemian glamour of the '60s downtown scene, despite being credited with Warhol's superstar system. After Flaming Creatures (1963) was banned in 22 states, his career went into decline. He spent the rest of his life mostly reshaping his old work, making it ever more hermetic and personal—and also incorporating his devotion to '40s B-movie star Maria Montez. (His exquisite pansexual fantasy worlds were eclipsed until John Waters and others helped restore him to the public eye in the '70s.) Here, director Mary Jordan expertly assembles archival footage from Smith's many incomplete works. She pairs them with informative contemporary interviews from key artists of Smith's era. The result is a kind of bruised affection for a man that everyone admired but no one understood. (NR) FRANK PAIVA Northwest Film Forum: 9 p.m. Mon., May 29; 7 p.m. Thurs., June 1.

Maquilapolis

ITS/Grupo Factor X

Though not the slickest antiglobalization doc to head through the festival pipeline in recent years, Maquilapolis may be one of the most brutal in its indictment of how multinationals run roughshod over the lives of Third Worlders. Visiting the near-border cluster of Mexican maquiladoras where low-paid women assemble goods ranging from toys to TVs for First World consumption, the filmmakers reveal a ravaged landscape of sewage-filled streets, toxin-threatened children, and 19th-century-style workplace conditions. The story, focusing on a successful group of activist workers, attempts hope, but the bigger picture implies otherwise. (NR) ED HALTER Broadway Performance Hall: 9:15 p.m. Tues., May 30; 4:15 p.m. Fri., June 2.

My Country, My Country

Laura Poitras, an experienced progressive doc maker, makes the definitive nonfiction film about the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and as a counterpoint to acres of the usual corporate-spun, power-tweaked non-news, it is indispensable, heartbreaking, and ferociously wise. Time and again, Poitras manages to be where platoons of U.S. telejournalists were afraid to go, as she follows a Sunni activist-doctor around the Triangle in the year leading up to the 2005 elections, even accompanying him to the fences around Abu Ghraib. "We're an occupied country with a puppet government," Dr. Riyadh says to the pleading prisoners. "What do you expect?" Never intruding on her own movie, Poitras rides with the Kurds, records U.S. military briefings, listens to security contractors try to make sense out of chaos, sits in Sunni living rooms as shells fall in the street—it's a month's worth of visual experience packed into 90 minutes, and the most valuable piece of film to emerge about the war in all of its three years. (NR) MICHAEL ATKINSON Broadway Performance Hall: 6:45 p.m. Fri., June 2; 2 p.m. Mon., June 5.

Old Joy

Washington Square Films

Starring Daniel London and musician Will Oldham as longtime friends who embark on a weekend camping trip in the Oregon wilderness, this exquisite, achingly beautiful movie was the best narrative film I saw at Sundance this year—a haunting, melancholy contemplation of male friendship and the irretrievability of the past. For one man, a pregnant wife patiently awaits his return; the other is about to be evicted from his home and has little idea of where he'll go—or where he can go—next. Kelly Reichardt, who made a stunning feature debut 12 years ago with the Florida-set neo-noir River of Grass, allows the story to unfold according to its own sedate, woodsy rhythms, drawing excellent performances from London and Oldham and showing a Zen-like attention to the subtlest variations in landscape and in human emotion. (NR) SCOTT FOUNDAS Egyptian: 7 p.m. Wed., May 31; 4 p.m. Fri., June 2.

A Prairie Home Companion

Melinda Sue Gordon/Picturehouse

Garrison Keillor and Robert Altman have taken one of radio's more lovingly detailed and tenacious conceits, brought it to life perfectly, and made it mandatory moviegoing—although it's still as ephemeral as airwaves. Underneath the jokes, there's a sweet melancholy to Keillor's screenplay that finds the PHC gang doing its last broadcast before the theater falls to a Texas real-estate baron (Tommy Lee Jones, savoring his villainy). As Altman's camera prowls the dusty stage set, regulars gather—most especially the Johnson sisters, Yolanda (Meryl Streep) and Rhonda (Lily Tomlin), whose harmonies can crack the heart of an angel, and whose trailing, overlapping dialogue is an art form all its own. Of course, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline), that would-be Thin Man, is here, on the lookout for the Axeman (Jones) but finding instead a mysterious trench-coated blonde (Virginia Madsen), as well as those cowboy jokesters Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly), whose banter becomes bluer than the eyes of Yolanda's disaffected daughter (Lindsay Lohan). Threading through the proceedings, Keillor, called simply G.K., refuses sentimentality or even acknowledgement that something precious is ending, exactly the right note for a film by Altman at 81. SHEILA BENSON

Russian Dolls

IFC Films

The entertaining sequel to Cédric Klapisch's hip 2002 hit L'Auberge Espagnole catches up with the filmmaker's former student roommates five years later, all scattered from Barcelona now and approaching the landmark age of 30. They're still holding some fun tickets, but annoyances like maturity and melancholy are also creeping into their lives. The focus here is on Romain Duris, now a struggling writer in Paris who's searching for a new romance. Among others, ex–Auberge residents Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France, and Kevin Bishop also return, each with new comic quandaries and new directions. Shot on glamorous locations in London, Paris, and St. Petersburg (the site of a wedding that occasions the characters' reunion), Klapisch's busy, bittersweet farce fairly wallows in the youth-obsessed worlds of media, high fashion, and publishing. Those who loved the original Auberge will likely be eager to book rooms once again. (NR) BILL GALLO Egyptian: 9:15 p.m. Sun., May 28.

The Science of Sleep

Etienne George

Aspiring artist Stephane (Gael García Bernal) returns to France from Mexico, lands a dead-end job at an ad agency, and finds himself falling in love with the quirky Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who happens to live in the apartment across the hall. As in his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry takes us deep into that dense matter between his protagonist's ears, and the elaborate fantasy sequences that unfold therein rival Sunshine for their freewheeling absurdist brio: Entire cities are constructed of miniature buildings and toy cars; an anthropomorphic electric razor adds hair to your body instead of taking it away; and Stephane is indisputably master of his domain. Gondry has a penchant to overindulge his flights of visual fancy, though I'd still rather journey through his overindulgences than, say, Terry Gilliam's. But the soul of Gondry's work—and the thing that makes Sleep, warts and all, one of the two or three truly indispensable films to emerge out of Sundance this year—is its richly imaginative and painfully felt understanding of a generation hopelessly tongue-tied when it comes to matters of the heart. (NR) SCOTT FOUNDAS Neptune: 6:30 p.m. Sun., June 18.

Sketches of Frank Gehry

Sony Picture Classics

Part documentary, part dialogue between filmmaker and subject, Sketches is a modest, personal look at one of the most innovative, controversial architects of our time. Director Sydney Pollack (The Interpreter) alternates artless shots of a shambling Gehry (driving his car, talking about his wife and his therapist, etc.) with beautifully composed images of his inspired sculptural constructions, such as Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum and L.A.'s Disney Hall. Seattle's Experience Music Project—whose shell was designed by Gehry, though not all of its interior—rates only about a half-dozen shots among the hundreds of images here. And most of those appear in the portion of the film devoted to the architect's critics, reminding us once again that Seattle is the owner in perpetuity of a second-rate building by one of our era's only truly first-rate architects. (PG-13) LYNN JACOBSON Harvard Exit: 6:30 p.m. Fri., May 26; 4:15 p.m. Mon., May 29.

Three Times

Wafting across the decades, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times presents the same romantic couple, played by Shu Qi and Chang Chen, in a trio of psychologically fraught settings and historically charged situations. Hou's latest opens, mid-'60s, in a small-town Taiwanese billiards parlor, goes back 45 years to a brothel in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, and concludes amid the tech- no-driven confusion of contemporary Taipei. My first impression of Three Times was that it was high-middling Hou— conceptually bold but unevenly executed. But it improves on a second viewing. Hou's sense of motion pictures as a temporal medium seems all the more profound. Is there another filmmaker who can so fluidly celebrate the moment as well as the epoch, and do so in the same shot? (NR) J. HOBERMAN Pacific Place: 1:30 p.m. Sat., June 10. Harvard Exit: 6:30 p.m. Tues., June 13.

13 (Tzameti)

Palm Pictures

Part of an impoverished Georgian family in France, 20-year-old Sébastien (George Babluani) gets a job doing roof repair for an aged drug addict. The guy kicks the bucket before he pays up, but Sébastien has gotten wind of what sounds like a hugely profitable arrangement. He appropriates his employer's train ticket and Paris hotel room and just follows instructions, with horrific results. With shades of The Passenger, Hostel, and Seven, Géla Babluani's assured and terrifically tense black-and-white debut is an unnerving noir on the sin of covetousness, even if the last act loses steam. (NR) JESSICA WINTER Pacific Place: 9:30 p.m. Fri., June 2. Neptune: 9:30 p.m. Sun., June 4.

Wah-Wah

Samuel Goldwyn / Roadside Attractions

How anything this harrowing can also be this hilarious rests entirely with the buoyancy of Richard E. Grant, who survived, barely, his tumultuous boyhood in Swaziland in the late '60s and early '70s, the twilight of England's "ruling" class in that breathtaking country. In his writing-directing debut, Grant's wit is at its sharpest in the pan-excesses of these preening colonials, whose "toodle-pip!" antics seem faintly mad. On the dangerous side of mad, there's the consuming love of 11-year-old Ralph's father (Gabriel Byrne) for his mother (Miranda Richardson). When she leaves them for another husband in this nearly incestuous gang, Byrne turns desperate and bitter. A few years later, home during boarding-school recess, Ralph (About a Boy's Nicholas Hoult) finds a new stepmother, spirited Yank Ruby (Emily Watson). She puts Ralph solidly on her side when she calls the Brits' airs and jargon pure "wah-wah," and when she helps with his intricate puppet theater. Yet Richardson's "Mummy" is never entirely gone, poisoning the chances of this second marriage. Played against this stunning scenery, Wah-Wah (the first film made in Swaziland) is a bravura debut, with an entire cast of full-blooded characters and an astonishing vein of tenderness. (R) SHEILA BENSON Egyptian: 4:30 p.m. Fri., May 26. Pacific Place: 6:30 p.m. Sun., May 28.

Wordplay

In Patrick Creadon's diverting doc, New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz emerges as the benignly sadistic lord of a realm of word-crazy puzzleheads—the kind of folks who can't help but notice that the flip of a consonant turns Dunkin' Donuts into "Unkind Donuts." Creadon follows Shortz to the national championship in Stamford, Conn., pausing for profiles of the contenders as well as puzzle master Merl Reagle, whose nimble tutorial on the history, form, and construction of crossword puzzles is riveting. Enjoy Creadon's film as a peek inside an obsessive subculture—or simply your chance to watch puzzle fan Jon Stewart rack his brain alongside Ken Burns, Mike Mussina, Bill Clinton, and the Indigo Girls. (NR) JIM RIDLEY Neptune: 11 a.m. Sat., May 27; 6:30 p.m. Sun., May 28.

 
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