Something About a Lived Human Experience: Paste at the 39th Portland International Film Festival

With 97 features and 62 short films from three-dozen countries, PIFF 39 was once again a cinephile's dream.

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Something About a Lived Human Experience: <i>Paste</i> at the 39th Portland International Film Festival

Like it did last year, the 2016 Portland International Film Festival, now in its 39th iteration, offered Portlanders a glimpse into a realm of cinema typically inaccessible, providing a non-market-based three weeks (or so) of, undoubtedly, some of the best contemporary films the world has to offer. As the festival details, “…through 97 features and 62 short films from three-dozen countries, the Portland International Film Festival explores not only the art of film but also the world around us, no matter the place or the language spoken.”

“There are several of us who have our eyes on films all year long,” says Nick Bruno, Publicity and Promotions Manager at the Northwest Film Center, the indispensable organization behind the festival each year. “A few of us travel to festivals around North America scouting for movies. And, of course, we also have an open submission period for the festival—we received around 900 submissions for this year’s festival.” The Center’s goal, as it has always been with PIFF, is to expose regional audiences to films and film culture otherwise unavailable in the Metro area. Because, for as artistically inclined as Portlanders often insist they are, rarely do many of the celebrated films that hit Cannes, Berlin or Toronto ever make it to the City of Roses.

Which means that, long after the bidding wars and hype of higher profile festivals have thankfully died down, PIFF offers an unsurprisingly comprehensive idea of the state of world cinema. Asking Bruno what he saw in international film, if anything, that could be construed as a through line, he responded:

Perhaps what has most changed is Portland itself. Housing prices have risen to a worrying degree in the past year, largely due to the city’s boom in major tech companies breaking ground, with much of the Portland’s available (and non-available) real estate going to condo developments. Blame Portlandia, blame the “Dream of Portland,” blame whatever—regardless, the face of Portland is changing drastically. “I spent most of my festival time at Cinema 21 this year, since that’s where PIFF After Dark, which I program, happened,” Bruno explains after he’s asked if he’s seen this change somehow manifest in the festival itself. “The main thing that I noticed that was different was a lot of younger faces attending those screenings. My impulse was to assume that the huge influx of people moving to Portland was somehow fueling that change, though there may be other factors involved.”

This year, the partnership with Voodoo Doughnuts may suffice as another sign of New Portland. The doughnut seller, now well known to tourists and cable TV subscribers alike, has become ubiquitous when thinking of Portland as a destination. Bruno described the festival’s alignment with the confectionery giant, “Our festival design team (Sandstrom Partners—who we’ve work with for decades now) floated the idea of the ‘international’ doughnuts leading up to last year’s festival. We went with a different idea then, but returned to the doughnut theme for this year’s festival. The Northwest Film Center’s director Bill Foster approached Voodoo with the idea and they loved it.” Not only did Voodoo sponsor the festival and provide a particularly delicious theme (“Each of those doughnuts featured in the design was hand crafted by Voodoo and then photographed and digitally perfected by Sandstrom,” remembered Bruno), but they posted up doughnut food trucks outside of certain showings. No matter how big Portland gets, one can’t escape the city’s sense of community.

Otherwise, PIFF was as dependable as ever, drawing crowds to such beloved theaters as the aforementioned Cinema 21, as well as Fox Tower, Roseway, and Whitsell Auditorium in the Portland Art Museum, where an extra dose of whimsy was added to one’s viewing experience via the so-called “greatest cat painting ever made,” which sits right outside the theater doors. The focus of the festival was of course access and comprehensive content, but special events popped up all over town, from Man vs Snake directors Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy (who worked together on Battlestar Galactica) hosting a midnight Q&A at Cinema 21 on the festival’s last night, to documentary short directors and Portland natives Irene Taylor Brodsky and Skye Fitzgerald showing their films, Open Your Eyes and 50 Feet from Syria respectively, before a crowd of supportive friends and fans—which led naturally into a reception hosted by a mighty proud HBO Documentary Films. Fitzgerald even brought along the subject of his film, hand surgeon Dr. Hisham Bismar, to talk about his time serving Syrian refugees in Hungary.

But really, the star here is the Northwest Film Center. As late as this coverage can seem, and as redundant as these lists can feel given much of their coverage elsewhere—with many reviews of these films featured on this site already—the point, we hope, in so obligatorily picking our favorites is to point out just what a phenomenal event the Film Center puts on each year. Which of course doesn’t end with PIFF: Among its current list of showings and series are a complete viewing of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1, a Wim Wenders retrospective, a showcase of Bollywood films, a collection of picks from the UCLA archive, and, every second Friday of the month, a film discussion “club”—this week is Otto Preminger’s Laura. So, in other words, if you’re going to take one thing from this article, we hope it’s a renewed support and enthusiasm for Portland’s foremost film resource.

And so, as always, we missed a handful of films we shouldn’t have missed—notably Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, Radu Jude’s Aferim!, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room, Peter Greenway’s Eisenstein in Guanajuato and Marcin Wrona’s Demon—but we did catch like 30-something titles, 15 of which we’ve included in the following pages as our favorites, showcasing the sheer breadth of stuff to find at the festival each year. Films worth checking out that we haven’t listed are Johnnie To’s 3D musical Office, which is a welcome departure for the director but one that struggles to compare to the precision of his Hong Kong action films, and Lee Joon-Ik’s The Throne, an affecting period piece that loses all earned melodrama in its bloated final 10 minutes. Plus, if you’re going to watch one Ghanaian Pidgin musical in your lieftime, make it King Luu’s Cuz Ov Moni 2: FOKN Revenge, whose soundtrack (by stars Fokn Bois) is on Spotify and is magnificently, grotesquely catchy—especially if you prefer your musicals beginning with its two main characters on the toilet, talking about their shits.

With that, the following films are our favorites at this year’s PIFF, beginning with Dom’s picks for the 10 best narrative features, followed by our five full-length documentaries. Covering everything from Oscar nominees to the final works of film legends, these films should be considered a primer to the best of what’s to come for 2016 as far as wide release foreign films. In other words, if any of these show up in your town, go while you still can:


10. A War


Tobias Lindholm; Denmark

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Tobias Lindholm and cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck shoot A War in unadorned, exacting clarity, treating both the scenic mountains of Afghanistan and the urban outlines of Denmark with the same stark, practically clinical eye. For yet another wartime narrative, Lindholm’s film is refreshingly spare—music, color palette, dialogue are all bereft of anything dramatic—and instead the director allows conflict to come from the natural exigencies of war, of being away from home, of attempting to do the right thing when what you’re doing is shooting at other people. The moral quandary at the center of the film may not be an original one—Danish commander Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) must go to court over a split-decision made during a firefight in which his actions saved a comrade while unknowingly leading to a number of civilian casualties—but Lindholm takes seemingly ages to get to that point, allowing the audience to soak in the monotony and incessant-if-buried burden of Pedersen’s position: serving as ersatz father for his unit while knowing, intuitively, that his family desperately needs him back home. Nothing at home happens with action-packed aplomb (though the director sets up tense red herrings to lure the audience into a sense of unease), and yet the stakes are very, painfully real. Pedersen did the only thing he knew to do, yet in saving his unit he may have sacrificed his family’s well-being. And when the “happy” ending does come, there is absolutely no sense of relief, just the overpowering drama of imagining what it must be like to be that man, living with what he must. —Dom Sinacola


9. Rams


Grímur Hákonarson; Iceland

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Though they share a homestead upon which their prized lineages of sheep have been grazing for generations, graying brothers Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson) haven’t spoken in 40 years. Setting them as quiet specks against one gorgeous Icelandic vista after another, director Grímur Hákonarson never once attempts to explain why they’ve grown apart, but it hardly matters: If you’ve ever endured a long-held grudge amongst family members—as we all have, seemingly—then you know that the origins of the schism rarely bear such interminable silence. Instead, when Gummi, the ostensibly more responsible one, discovers that his brother’s flock is showing signs of a fatal illness that threatens to take out the sheep population of their whole valley community, he sets in motion a government intervention that might as well drive them even further apart. Both devastating and playful, heartbreaking and wistful, Rams carefully picks at the bonds of blood and brotherhood, wondering how far we can stray from such essentially unselfish connections before we start to lose all sense of self anyway. —DS


8. Men & Chicken


Anders Thomas Jensen; Denmark

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We live in a wondrous world where a film which breaks box office records in Denmark prominently features a chronic masturbator (the inimitable Mads Mikkelsen at his least charming) and a reasonable-sounding description of the logic behind certain forms of bestiality. In Men & Chicken, Elias (Mikkelsen, mustachioed repugnantly) and his pecky milquetoast of a brother Gabriel (David Dencik) share both a harelip and, upon trekking to a remote island estate where they meet their estranged brood, the discovery that the foundations of their existences hinge on a sort of nightmarish debauching of the basest tenets of life and love. What begins as a pitch-black take on a Farrelly Brothers farce descends irrevocably into madness as director Anders Thomas Jensen reveals—through a deeply unsettling mastery of tone—what the title of his film really means, never once losing his sense of humor or penchant for gross setpieces as he approaches trenchant, even transcendent ideas about what it means to be human. —DS


7. The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers


Ben Rivers; UK/Morocco

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Using Paul Bowles’ celebrated short story “A Distant Episode” to frame his sojourn to the brink of madness, director Ben Rivers imagines the worst case scenario of the filmmaking process for such well-known “ecstatic truth” auteurs as Werner Herzog or, recently with The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñárritu. In his vérité-like story of a young director (Oliver Laxe) who tries to make a film in Morocco, conscripting locals to fill his roles, directing these non-actors to follow his every word bit by bit, Rivers inevitably sends both Laxe and the film down a harrowing path, questioning both art and truth as worthy ends to suspect means. Understandably, in severely punishing the other-ness of Laxe (and if you’ve read the Bowles story, then you know exactly how severe it gets), Rivers risks unfairly emphasizing the exoticism of the native people over whom Laxe exercises his unearned authority, but one can’t help but watch what happens with aloofness. Which may be Rivers’ point: We’re afraid of places like this and situations like this because we do not understand them, and we do not understand them because maybe there are some things we shouldn’t understand. So we keep ourselves at a distance, and we immerse ourselves in experiences in which we do not belong through people with greater courage, or deeper arrogance—or both. In Les Blank’s documentary The Burden of Dreams, which chronicles the beyond troubled production of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, the director laments, “…we are cursed with what we are doing here.” And though The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are Not Brothers is an often starkly beautiful film, it’s that curse that concerns Rivers most. —DS


6. Chevalier


Athina Rachel Tsangari; Greece

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Nearing the end of a sort of luxury fishing vacation on the Aegean Sea, six friends—to varying degrees of allegiance to that word—attempt to quantify their worth as men by engaging in a game in which each person serves as contestant, judge and jury to determine who is “best at everything.” Each round can take any form: There is the requisite dick-measuring, of course, but there is also the assembling of Ikea furniture or the calling of loved ones, to the point that every gesture, word and interaction are judged to an obscene degree, each contestant carrying a small notebook in which he jots down a series of points, assigned according to no discernible structure. And director Athina Rachel Tsangari refuses to limn that structure with logic—to each his own, she insists, to the point that all subjectivity is erased in thrall to an absurd idea of whatever it means to be a man. All of the men do agree on a winner, but not before excruciating embarrassment, humiliation and emasculation takes each character down a peg or two, climaxing in a pathetic act of violence which serves absolutely no one. Chevalier may be an unexpected examination of a nation in depressing economic straits, drawing lines between money and masculine validation, but that it’s also directed by a woman (still proving herself to be one of Europe’s contemporary masters) makes the film an especially hilarious bloodletting of the male ego. —DS


5. Arabian Nights


Miguel Gomes; Portugal/France/Germany/Switzerland

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Nearly six and a half hours, the Arabian Nights trilogy isn’t exactly that: If one watches one, one should watch all three, but if one watches one, one should wait some time to watch the next, and then one should wait some more time to watch the next after that. Not because Gomes’s tri-volume’d opus is an especially weighty film—it’s actually quite a lot of fun to watch—but because it seems as if Gomes never really intended it to be viewed all in a row. In assembling a hybridized narrative of documentary and adaptation fable, Gomes provides a take on the aforementioned classic story by distilling its spirit into an entirely bonkers portrait of modern Portugal in the throes of economic desolation. A cadre of bureaucrats can’t get rid of their erections, a beached whale explodes only to beach a mermaid, an immortal dog happily serves generations of owners, an old skinny criminal uses teleportation to avoid the authorities, a rooster avoids execution by telling the story of young lovers embroiled within an arson investigation, a judge listens to the testimony of a talking cow who seeks permission to speak from a gender-ambiguous genie, a community of gruff bird trappers prepare their finches for singing competitions—and somehow I feel as if I’ve missed so much, unable to grasp the light but immense complexity of what Gomes has accomplished. Of course there is the overarching story, of Scheherazade telling nightly stories to the King of Baghdad to avoid execution, and there is inexplicable time-leaping, as there is the emergence of Gomes himself, explaining that even he is unsure of what it is he’s doing, which the audience has no reason to disbelieve, which the director obviously expects, which the audience can’t possibly accept without total devotion to the sheer glee of Gomes’s kitchen-sink conceit. Above all, the Arabian Nights volumes are a testament to the power of storytelling, to losing oneself within the folds of a human imperative without once taking that imperative for granted. —DS


4. Cemetery of Splendour


Apichatpong Weerasethakul; Thailand

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Deep into the enchanting Cemetery of Splendour, an assortment of fit-looking bodies get up, sit down, join one another, walk away, split apart, ride bikes and trade seats, all without reason but obviously with rhyme, as if, as a viewer, you’ve stumbled upon a reel of background footage with the film’s main action cut out. Soon after, a sparkling shot of blue sky is calmly violated by a giant amoeba—or not, because maybe the amoeba is normal size, because the perspective isn’t clarified. And soon after that, a woman (Jenjira Pongpas) rises from an unperturbed nap, unsure if she’s found her way out of the labyrinth of her dreams, or if she’s only woken into another level of subconscious surreality. Meanwhile, a hospital of soldiers afflicted with a mysterious sleeping sickness, who rest indefinitely under glass tubes used as part of an ill-defined light therapy, rests indefinitely upon a sacred burial ground. At least that’s what the modern manifestation of god-like princesses, come to life resembling the statues at the woman’s favorite shrine, tell her. Such is the stuff of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s typical filmmaking fodder, the Thai director not so much doing something radically different with Cemetery of Splendour as just laying one more layer of fantasy upon his oeuvre, waiting with clairvoyant patience to see if his characters, and by extension his viewers, will ever wake up—or if they even want to. —DS


3. The Lobster


Yorgos Lanthimos; Ireland/UK/France/Greece/Netherlands

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Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to international break-out Dogtooth ditches that film’s knotted familial pathology, but refuses to be any less insular. Instead, it expands, even bloats, Dogtooth’s logic as far as it’ll stretch. I know: That doesn’t make much sense, but stay with me—which is exactly how Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou (who also co-wrote, unsurprisingly, Chevalier above) assume the audience will approach The Lobster, starting with the familiar, inviting visage of Colin Farell, gone full dad-bod for a role that is debatably the actor’s best example for his still unheralded genius. With a remarkable dearth of charm, Farrell inhabits David, a man who, upon learning that his wife has cheated on him and so must end their relationship, is legally required to check-in to a hotel where he has 45 days to find a new mate, lest he be transformed into an animal of his choosing. David easily settles upon the titular namesake, the lobster, which he explains he picks because of their seemingly-immortal lifespans, the creatures like human ears growing and growing without end until their supposed deaths. At the hotel, David tries his best to warm to a beautifully soul-less woman, but the depths to which she subjects his resolve eventually encourages him to plan an escape, through which he matriculates into an off-the-grid conglomerate of single folk, led by Léa Seydoux. There, of course, against all rules he falls in love with another outsider (Rachel Weisz).

The world of The Lobster isn’t a dystopian future, more like a sort of mundane, suburban Everywhere in an allegorical alternate universe. Regardless, Lanthimos and Filippou find no pleasure in explaining the foundations of their film, busier building an absurd edifice over which they can drape the tension and anxieties of modern coupledom. In that sense, The Lobster is an oddly feminist film, obsessed with time and how much pressure that puts on people, especially women, to root down and find someone, no matter the cost. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a significant other concerned about the increasing dangers of becoming pregnant in one’s late 30s, then The Lobster—and its ambiguous but no less arresting final shot—will strike uncomfortably close to the home you’re told you should have by now. —DS


2. The Other Side


Roberto Minervini; Italy/France/US

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A bit too directed to be a documentary, but too unflinching to be fiction, Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side skirts the fringes of both cinematic forms as oneirically as it floats on the sidelines of civilization. Which isn’t meant to be a pejorative description of the Louisiana people Minervini portrays—from meth addicts to libertarian militia members, the people of this film purposely plant themselves (via addiction, political leaning or some strange brew of both) on the outskirts of what most viewers understand as a functional way of life. From there, many of them simply subsist, Minervini following one ex-con named Mark as he falls in love, tries to hold down a job, helps a pregnant stripper shoot up, cooks meth in his coffee maker, rants about Obama, uses the N-word flagrantly and visits his mother: It is all, violently and shamelessly, a mess of enraging and deeply touching, humane moments, splayed out before the camera without question or judgment.

By the time The Other Side leaves Mark behind, lost literally in the bayou of his own remorse, the film has ballooned to orgiastic proportions, joining a group of armed “freedom” fighters preparing for what they see as the country’s inevitable collapse. They’re angry, but so are those of us watching as a cadre of drunks use Obama masks and cut-outs to obscene ends, and not because they don’t have a right to protest our government, but because there is so much terror in the ways in which they do. As the film ends on a scene of metaphorical effigy, as the idea of Barack Obama is filled with bullets and a car bearing the words “OBAMA SUCKS ASS” is pulled apart at the seams, it’s difficult not to be absolutely disgusted by what we’re witnessing. My partner turned to me, her face blank with shock, “Imagine if Obama’s daughters saw this.” No, I don’t want to imagine that—I’d rather imagine the disgust the people of this film would have for me, an outsider thinking I have any right to look in. —DS


1. Evolution


Lucile Hadžihalilovi?; France

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Hadžihalilovi?’s gorgeous enigma is anything and everything: creature feature, allegory, sci-fi headfuck, feminist masterpiece, 80 minutes of unmitigated, unmoored gut-sensation—it is an experience unto itself, refusing to explain whatever it is it’s doing so long as the viewer understands whatever that may be on some sort of subcutaneous level. In it, prepubescent boy Nicolas (Max Brebant) finds a corpse underwater, a starfish seemingly blooming from its bellybutton. Which would be strange were the boy not living on a father-less island of eyebrow-less mothers who every night put their young sons to bed with a squid-ink-like mixture they call “medicine.” This is the norm, until Nicholas discovers one night what the mothers do once their so-called “sons” have fallen asleep, and from there Evolution eviscerates notions of motherhood, masculinity and the inexplicable gray area between, simultaneously evoking anxiety and awe as it presents one unshakeable image after another.

In fact, since this was Nick Bruno’s favorite film at the festival, a recommendation which I’m glad I took to heart, I asked him to weigh in:

Yup. Me too, Nick. —DS


On the following page, find our brief run-down of the five best documentaries we saw at PIFF.


5. For Grace


Mark Helenowski and Kevin Pang; US

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Those going into For Grace unfamiliar with chef Curtis Duffy might think it another on-trend slice of foodie porn about the latest culinary rockstar—and they’d be right, kind of. Chicago Tribune dining reporter/filmmaker Kevin Pang and filmmaker Mark Helenowski introduce Duffy as a two-Michelin-starred hotshot who sharpened his knives under Charlie Trotter and Grant Achatz before leaving his latest venture (Avenues) to open labor-of-love restaurant Grace. And that’s where the devastating backstory comes into focus. As the even-keeled, hyper-disciplined Duffy describes a troubled upbringing that involves the murder-suicide of his parents, viewers glimpse the moments that shaped the recently divorced father of two young girls. He frets over $1,000-a-pop dining room chairs, but he frets arguably more about an opening night visit from his middle school home-ec teacher, who took on a motherly role following his own mom’s death. Throughout, Duffy holds himself with a quiet dignity and, yes, grace that resonates on the elegant plates he crafts. So too does his staff, helmed by a GM/business partner who understands how important it is to make each diner feel special—Googling and social media searches of that night’s reservations are par for the course. At now $235 per tasting menu, such a personalized experience should go without saying, but the sincerity and gratitude is obvious. And, of course, the food looks nothing short of exquisite. —Amanda Schurr


4. Man vs Snake


Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy; US

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Like a companion piece to The King of Kong, Man vs Snake patiently tells the story of one mild-mannered man on a relentless quest to utterly dominate one specific classic arcade game. In this case, that means Nibbler, the original “Snake” (whattup, old school Nokia cell phone users) in that the whole point is to grow your snake as much as possible without running into your own ever-lengthening torso. This time, the seemingly insurmountable feat is to reach 1 billion points on Nibbler, accomplishable only through a multi-day “marathon” session, a record first set by a fella named Tim McVey (it is quickly noted that he is not that McVeigh) in 1984. When, 25 years later, Tim learns that an Italian teen named Enrico Zanetti apparently beat his record decades before, he decides to claim back the title, though he is now much older and markedly out of shape. With help from “bad boy” gamer Dwayne Richard and classic gaming stalwarts Walter Day and Billy Mitchell—who people may recognize from King of Kong as the obsessive owner of Twin Galaxies and ersatz villain, respectively—Tim begins to question everything he is, everything he’s ever done, as he tries to regain old glory. With pomp and flair, Man vs Snake does more than make watching a guy play video games exciting, it makes one seriously consider—I shit you not—what immortality really means. —DS


3. In Transit


Albert Maysles, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III and Benjamin Wu; US

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Albert Maysles’ (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, Salesman) final documentary is an unforced, unsentimental portrait of the American Dream, as witnessed on the rails of Amtrak’s cross-country Empire Builder route. Set between Chicago and Portland and Seattle, the terrifically literal In Transit spans three days and any number of ages, races and socio-economic classes, with tales of new beginnings and last trips out, family and leaps of faith, reconciliations and escapes: It’d be boringly cliché were it not so soft-spokenly authentic. Passengers craft with beads, they sleep, they play with toys and make new friends, they philosophize, they drunk dial, sometimes they even look at the northern oil fields and mountains just outside the train windows. There’s a normalcy, a structure, a comfort to this microcosm, to the contents of the cars as a world that will eventually “stop,” wherein some folks are scared of the near unknown, others fear a return to the all-too-familiar. Maysles and his co-filmmakers echo the meditative rhythms of the rails, rolling into each station as stories board and depart, flies on the wall for overheard and -seen moments of hope and heartache. In Transit is a fitting coda to the groundbreaking career of the legendary documentarian, who died in March of last year and, along with his brother David (who died in 1987), thrived on capturing the human condition, ordinary and otherwise. —AS


2. Sonita


Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami; Iran/Germany/Switzerland

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Sonita is a documentary of projected moments: a mother buried under lifetimes of religious oppression picking up the phone to soon after hang up on a daughter finally digging herself free; an Iranian teenage girl accepting that she is little more than a commodity to be sold for a reasonable price, collapsing in tears under the weight of futility; a documentarian who can’t help but intervene in the life of her subject, even though she knows to do so would be to breach the duty that gives her purpose. In 18-year-old Afghani refugee Sonita—an aspiring rapper who finds that everything she loves is against the law in her new Tehranian home—everyone discovers inspiration to do more, to be more, to hope for more than their lives have ever ostensibly allowed. But when Sonita turns the camera on its filmmaker, detailing Maghami’s decision to spend the money required to keep Sonita in Iran when her family decides to return to war-torn Afghanistan, the film becomes so much more than a portrait: Like last year’s The Look of Silence, Sonita emerges as a testament to the responsibility of seeing. In a world like ours, there is no longer any such thing as an impartial observer. —DS


1. A Good American


Friedrich Moser; Austria

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Rarely have the inner workings of metadata seemed so riveting as in Austrian filmmaker Friedrich Moser’s portrait of Bill Binney, the former tech director of the NSA. The master code breaker and cryptologist behind the ThinThread program, he was essentially a math geek who delighted in making the infinite finite, mapping all of the relationships of all the people in the world in a program proven to predict catastrophic manmade events over several decades. Binney’s ability to find structure in behaviors is tracked back to the Bay of Pigs, though metadata in particular is discussed as a product of the digital age; he explains how the sheer explosion of information buried analysts of the time with “meaningless data” before Binney, et al. reframed the problem. At the forefront of his worries are the unintended consequences of misinformation and misinterpretation, along with—as ThinThread included—privacy protections in response to the “arrogance of power” that accompanies trillions of touchpoints. Presented with the slick production and suspenseful dramatizations of a spy thriller, A Good American contextualizes analytics from the first attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993 to Sept. 11, which—tragically—did not benefit from Binney and Co.’s creation: It’d been scrapped by the government three weeks prior. The Imitation Game, this is not. “Everything is human behavior,” Binney says matter-of-factly. “When you see the pattern and break, that’s exhilarating.” A Good American is at its most compelling in the words of its brilliant whistleblower, who believes in the humanity of numbers, and their ability to provide a greater understanding of how people operate. —AS


Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.

Amanda Schurr is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Pac NW-based culture writer. You can follow her on Twitter.

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