OPEN THE PROGRAM
book or scan the website for the the Heartland International Film Festival and it’s easy to get stymied. With so many movies to choose from, how to pick the handful that you’ll have time to see during the festival?
Sure, you can gravitate toward the higher-profile opening-night screening (the documentary Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues) or the closing-night event (the already-getting-attention The Whale starring Brendan Fraser), but what of the dozens of flicks in between?
Select based on the plot description? An IMDB check to see if you’ve seen anything else by the filmmakers? A coin flip?
I won’t knock any of those methods.
But to make at least some of your choices a little easier, I’ve binge-watched as many of this year’s festival flicks as time and press screening links allowed in order to come up with 10 that I can recommend. And I’d surely have more if my deadline didn’t loom.
Here’s what I found.
On the narrative film front, I admittedly had a bias when it came to the first film I screened. Having worked in arcades during my formative years—and still someone who stops into Main Street Amusements for a few games whenever I’m in Lafayette—I couldn’t resist Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game. Generic title aside, it proved to be a treat, with Mike Faist (in a vastly different role than his Riff in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story) playing Roger Sharpe, the real-life obsessive guy who was instrumental in changing New York’s pinball laws.
Yes, there were actually laws against pinball.
What could have been just a film for us passionate pinballists, though, turns out to be equal parts docudrama, romcom, and self-aware meta-flick with a contemporary Sharpe (Dennis Boutsikaris) calling BS when the film takes liberties with the facts. It’s one of my favorite films of the year so far, in or out of festivals.
For straight-up silliness, look no further than Ravi Kapoor’s Four Samosas, an original comedy with its own off-kilter rhythm and sensibility. At its center is a minor league heist with plenty of deeply dumb plot turns. But the mechanics of the plan take a backseat to the absurdly sincere quartet of not-quite masterminds and their equally well-drawn targets. With Sharmita Bhattacharya standing out as one of the accomplices and Karan Soni seriously dim as a foil, it’s the funniest festival film I’ve seen in a long time.
Quite the opposite is the stunning Remember This, featuring David Strathairn, a table, two chairs, and a riveting, disturbing, important story. He plays Jan Karski, whose heroic efforts to tell the world about the Holocaust could have made him a household name if only he had been listened to. It’s a first-class melding of actor, direction, and content that should be a contender come awards season.
I haven’t done a fact-check on The Lost King, which tells the story of amateur historian Philippa Langley’s quest to salvage the reputation of Richard III by tracking down his thought-to-be-lost burial site. I’d hope that a film that is about an effort to correct historic misinformation would get the details right. The opening titles, though, give the film an out, making clear that this is her story, so I’m assuming liberties have been taken beyond the appearances to her of Richard himself. Still, it’s an enjoyably original nobody-believes-me/nobody-gives-me-credit story with the always-interesting Sally Hawkins supported by the always-interesting Steve Coogan. And I look forward to hearing the discussion about it from my Shakespeare-buff friends.
It used to be that films had to pick sides. If you played the Indianapolis International Film Festival, you had no chance of also landing at Heartland. That’s no longer the case and that’s a good thing since it will allow more audiences to catch the Irish charmer Roise & Frank, about a widow who believes that her beloved husband has been reincarnated as the stray dog that’s taken a liking to her.
There’s as much variety on the documentary front this year as well.
Awkwardness is central to Crows are White, a film that benefits from filmmaker Ahsen Nadeem’s willingness to not hide the absurdity of his quest. Born Muslim and afraid to tell his strict parents about his non-Muslim girlfriend, he somehow convinces himself of the need to get insight from an isolated group of monks on Mount Hiei in Japan who go through long stretches of silence. At times the action feels a bit staged, but there’s some things you just can’t make up.
I found myself caught up in the personal story of stepbrothers trying to solve the mystery of a mother’s abandonment in Sam Now and the way a secret language for oppressed Chinese women was kept alive—and now is being questionably marketed—in Hidden Letters. I laughed—and cringed—at the antics of the duo Chop and Steele but also was surprised to find a real story arc in the film that made it far more than just a recap of the pranks and goofy discoveries of the men behind the Found Footage Festival.
And even as someone who isn’t a sports fan (I honestly couldn’t name two working professional baseball players right now), I still got caught up in The Best We’ve Got: The Carl Erskine Story, which focuses as much on his post-ball field life as it does on his brilliant baseball career.
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Lou Harry writes regularly on the movies for Midwest Film Journal. His play
Rita From Across the Street will have its world premiere via American Lives Theatre in October at the District Theatre.