April’s longer hours of daylight are terrific. Feeling warmer weather as winter slips aside is marvelous. But for cinema lovers, the month brings to the Twin Cities something even better. The Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival (MSPIFF) returns Thursday and continues through April 29.
For many people, it is a highlight of the year’s film calendar. Fans arrange their vacation schedules, drive hundreds of miles and put on their comfortable standing-in-line shoes for the rich, friendly, exciting experience.
Longtime devotees know that finding the most promising choices among 170 international features — and even more shorts, documentaries, filmmaker seminars and whatnot — is a challenge.
For me, it’s also a job. As a film reporter, I’ve explored mass film screenings from Toronto to Reykjavik to Sundance. While serendipity helps, it’s invaluable to spend a bit of time ahead of the gala to learn the best options.
Winnowing through the vast MSPIFF schedule is a bit like panning for gold: Avoid low-value shale and search for life-changing golden nuggets. Be alert and informed, through your local newspaper, hip websites and MSPIFF’s online catalog, which divides the programming into various searchable streams and series. Some guidelines that keep me in focus include:
1. There’s nothing wrong in sticking with a winner. Many films screened at MSPIFF arrive with significant awards from earlier festivals. If a title that intrigues you impressed viewers enough to win a prestigious prize or two, it’s likely a safe bet.
2. “Made in” stickers almost always get my attention. I follow nations that I think are producing impressive, artistically interesting work. Right now there are overwhelmingly good movies coming from South Korea (they are better at suspicion, revenge and dark fantasy than anyone) and Latin America (where it’s almost a legal responsibility to create socially sharp, visually majestic films).
3. Politics is on everyone’s mind now, so a nonfiction examination of some issue might launch a good talk.
4. It’s always a treat to explore new talents and far-off lands for a novel experience. You can’t have a new favorite if you avoid everything new.
5. Post-screening Q&A sessions with the films’ creators are great. It’s like getting a free DVD director’s commentary with up-close and personal access. If you really enjoy the exchange, you might be able to say hi at one of the buzzy evening parties, where lucky people even meet film critics. Talk to anyone and everyone. But take it easy so you’re up early and ready for the next morning’s screenings.
Most of the films that debut at MSPIFF aren’t available for me to view until just before they screen here, so I have to research, weigh and decide what I think belongs at the top of my must-see list. Here are a few of my guesstimate choices to get you started.
“The Truth Beneath.” Two weeks before the climax of an election to the South Korean National Assembly, the daughter of the leading candidate disappears. While the young teen has run away before, the politician’s loyal, supportive wife grows increasingly desperate as days pass and their daughter doesn’t return. Tension boils as the couple face growing conflict at home, with the police investigators, the frenzied media and the political establishment. As the mother probes deeper into the case, she finds deep secrets that threaten to tear her life apart. Four Korean film competitions gave it eight top awards across various categories. Bonus points: Director Lee Kyoung-mi shares script credit with her mentor, Park Chan-wook, the awesome creator of edgy masterpieces including “The Handmaiden,” “Stoker,” “Oldboy” and a dozen more. More bonus points: Director Lee will attend. (St. Anthony Main, 7 p.m. Fri.; Uptown, 4 p.m. Sat.)
“150 Milligrams.” A good way to capture my attention is by casting Sidse Babett Knudsen in a leading role. Despite appearing in a sizable recurring role in HBO’s “Westworld” and co-starring with Tom Hanks in “Inferno” and “A Hologram for the King,” the magnetic actress remains borderline unknown in the United States, but across Europe, she is a big thing — and deservedly so. She won multiple best-actress nominations for this fact-inspired French medical drama. She plays a heart specialist campaigning against a Big Pharma diabetes drug that triggers pulmonary deaths. It sounds like a high-gusto “Erin Brockovich.” (7:10 p.m. Sat., St. Anthony Main; 8:30 p.m. April 26, Rochester Galaxy 14)
“All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone.” Stone, who died in 1989, was a jowly independent journalist whose highly influential self-published newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, put muckraking, fact-revealing, government-embarrassing coverage on 20th-century America’s media map. With Oscar winner Oliver Stone as executive producer and Emmy winner Fred Peabody at the director’s controls, you know exactly what progressive choir this film will be singing to. On-screen talking heads range from Michael Moore to Radio Now host and producer Amy Goodman and Rolling Stone editor Matt Taibbi. I haven’t seen beyond the trailer, but some of the archive footage it uses is woeful and hilarious at the same time. In an epic fail from 2014, MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell is shown in an interview about NSA collection of phone records. She cuts off U.S. Rep. Jane Harman midsentence to bring viewers breaking news of Justin Bieber’s arrest for driving under the influence. (7:40 p.m. Sat. and 4:35 p.m. April 18, St. Anthony Main; 4:45 p.m. April 27, Capri Theater)
“The Fury of a Patient Man.” A Spanish thriller that promises to be a slow-fused, western-style drama about brutal revenge. In Raúl Arevalo’s debut feature, a robbery goes deadly wrong. The driver is caught and sent to prison. His common-law wife connects to a lonely man. Eight years later, the driver, a cauldron of contained anger, plans on serving up the coldest kind of vengeance. But against whom? The camera work looks as raw and grainy as 16mm home movies, which adds an unnerving layer of blunt realism. It won Goya Awards, including best picture. (10 p.m. Sat., Uptown Theater; 9:30 p.m. April 22 and 9:55 p.m. April 28, St. Anthony Main)
“The Commune.” Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen pays the high cost of 1970s free love in the newest film from Thomas Vinterberg (“The Hunt”). The middle-aged professional couple at the story’s center seem to have it made. He’s a respected professor; she’s a TV news host, and they’ve just inherited a mansion-sized property from his father. She convinces him to rent space to a hodgepodge of acquaintances, hoping to escape her midlife boredom. It’s all raise-hands-and-vote house meetings, group dinners and multi-bottle parties at first. But eccentric, no-rules living puts solidarity at risk. As the couple are sent on a painful course of jealousy and mental breakdown, the tone moves from lighthearted to melancholy. I saw it and was well impressed. Lead actress Trine Dyrholm won the best actress prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. (7:15 p.m. April 18 and 9:40 p.m. April 26, St. Anthony Main)
“A Decent Woman.” This looks quirky! Argentine director Lukas Valenta Rinner asks an eternal question: “If you were a repressed maid in a wealthy gated community, wouldn’t you find spiritual and sexual liberation in joining the free-love nudist camp next door?” Social satire will never go out of style, and the idea of an underdog character escaping the spotless blandness of her deodorized prison is relatable. As the pink-collar escapee, comic actress/dancer Iride Mockert reportedly concocted a wicked body language to suggest the character’s stifled impulses. Plus, there’s action when the militant naturalists defend their liberties to the death — fight for your right to party! I’m expecting a dry absurdist tone like Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Lobster.” (10 p.m. April 19, Uptown; 9:35 p.m. April 26 and 1:45 p.m. April 28, St. Anthony Main)
There’s much more to explore. If things turn out as I hope, we may be looking at another MSPIFF embarrassment of riches. Good luck on finding yours.