There are as many ways to choose movies at the 38th Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival as there are movies to see (250, officially). You could opt for titles that grab your attention, such as “Put Grandma in the Freezer,” a macabre Italian comedy whose original title is even better: “Metti La Nonna in Freezer.” You could hit Thursday’s opening-night film — the Cuban-set ballet drama “Yuli” — to eavesdrop on people whose pale Red Vines-nourished skin betrays them as frequent moviegoers. Or you could simply stick a pin on a map and see what the fest has to offer from Syria or Estonia or wherever you land. Maybe the purest way to enjoy the April 4-20 festival is to show up and leap into the unknown. But for strategizing types, here are four ways to approach your hunt:
In general, MSPIFF opts for movies that are too original and adventurous to rake in a dozen Oscars. But if that’s how you gauge interest in movies, you have options.
Two of the festival’s biggest stars also have best supporting actress trophies on their bookshelves. Judi Dench, who won for “Shakespeare in Love,” plays the title role in “Red Joan,” a thriller about a Brit who was a KGB asset. And Juliette Binoche, a winner for “The English Patient” — and, give or take Isabelle Huppert, the female actor with the most adventurous taste in the business — frequently pops up in MSPIFF movies. Last year, it was Claire Denis’ “Let the Sunshine In.” This year it’s “Non-Fiction.” Set in the publishing world, it’s a comedy from writer/director Olivier Assayas, who was the subject of a 2010 Walker Art Center retrospective.
Speaking of nonfiction, Brigitte Berman earned a best documentary Oscar in 1986 for “Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got,” a portrait of the reportedly abusive bandleader. Berman has directed another film based on a showbiz type with troubling relationships with women, “Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America.” And Irene Taylor Brodsky, a 2009 nominee for her short documentary “The Final Inch,” is in MSPIFF with the feature “Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements,” about her non-hearing son’s efforts to master the Beethoven piano piece.
Writer/director Denys Arcand has earned a couple of foreign-film Oscars for his French Canadian films, with “The Barbarian Invasions” winning that trophy and scoring a screenwriting nomination, to boot. Coming to this year’s film festival is his latest release, “The Fall of the American Empire.”
Good directors can make awful movies, as anyone who has seen the last few Tim Burton efforts will gloomily testify. But if you’re a fan of certain top directors, even their not-so-fresh movies usually are worth seeing.
One of the most decorated filmmakers in the history of the Cannes Film Festival, Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is represented at MSPIFF by “The Wild Pear Tree.” The 2018 film is both characteristic of previous Ceylan works such as “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and “Three Monkeys” (it runs three hours and is studded with arguments about morality) and uncharacteristic (it’s funny!).
Ceylan won’t be making the trip to MSPIFF. Nor will Jafar Panahi, who has an excellent reason for RSVPing “no.” The “White Balloon” filmmaker (and Cannes winner) isn’t allowed to leave Iran after several arrests due to the political content of his movies. His latest, “3 Faces,” depicts female actors at different stages of their careers.
Other Cannes-winning directors represented at the fest: South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo with the contemplative “Hotel by the River”; Mexico’s Carlos Reygadas, whose latest, “Our Time,” is set on a ranch and was not just written, directed and edited by Reygadas but also stars him; Germany’s Werner Herzog, with his latest first-person doc, “Meeting Gorbachev”; Italy’s Matteo Garrone with “Dogman”; and Paolo Sorrentino, also from Italy, reteaming with “The Great Beauty” star Toni Servillo for “Loro.”
Canadian Patricia Rozema, who made the beloved “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing” as well as the Drew Barrymore/Jessica Lange “Grey Gardens,” continues to explore the inner lives of women with “Mouthpiece,” in which a writer tries to plan her mother’s funeral, with frequent interruptions from her own self (she’s played by two actors), who keeps telling her she’s doing it all wrong.
Too few women are acknowledged as cinematic legends, but this year’s festival does its part to change that with a “Women & Film” section, featuring documentaries (“Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl” by Amy Goldstein), fictional films (“Bulbul Can Sing” by India’s Rima Das) and others that are difficult to categorize (Jodie Mack’s “The Grand Bizarre” uses various forms of animation and documentation to depict the creation of textiles).
French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché created the first known fictional film, “The Cabbage Fairy,” in 1896. The festival celebrates her legacy with a retrospective of shorts she made from 1912 to 1916 and a new documentary, “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché,” directed by Pamela B. Green and narrated by Jodie Foster.
A contemporary filmmaker who’s continuing to break ground is Nina Paley, whose “Seder-Masochism” counts among the festival’s crowd-pleasers. It’s another wildly inventive, richly hued film from the animator of the stunningly colorful and viewable-for-free “Sita Sings the Blues" (sitasings theblues.com). Inspired by conversations with her father about Passover rituals, “Seder-Masochism” uses contemporary music to shed light on ancient customs.
Chanya Button’s raucous comedy “Burn Burn Burn” is one of the most intriguing debuts in recent years. And Button follows it up with the dual biopic “Vita & Virginia,” starring Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki as writers and lovers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf.
The rich cinematic history of Pine City, Minn., is augmented this year by a pair of documentaries from filmmakers who grew up blocks apart in the home of the International Polkafest. The first has a little something to do with that: “Singin’ in the Grain — A Minnesota Czech Story” is a long-in-the-works portrait of Czech identity that followed the Eddie Shimota Polka Band for four decades. It was made by Daniel Geiger and nonagenarian MSPIFF co-founder Al Milgrom.
Louise Woehrle is another Pine City product whose film combines European and Minnesota influences. “Stalag Luft III — One Man’s Story” is about her late uncle, Charles Woehrle, who (A) had movie-star handsome looks, (B) seems to have been one of the kindest men who ever lived, (C) was a very sharp 93 years old when he filmed his interviews and (D) survived the World War II prison camp where the events fictionalized in “The Great Escape” took place (minus Steve McQueen’s motorcycle leap). He has some stories to tell.
World War I is the subject of “Over There,” a fictional look at the war’s final days that was partly filmed in Big Lake. It was directed by Steven Luke, who previously shot “Zombies” in Owatonna, Minn. The documentary “Blood Memory” is about a different sort of battle: Twin Cities-based attorney Mark Fiddler and activist Sandy White Hawk’s efforts to reclaim the heritage of generations of American Indian children who were stolen from their homes and forced to assimilate into white culture.
And there’s Golden Valley native Scott Z. Burns, a screenwriter/producer/filmmaker who will participate in a public conversation April 20 to close the festival, followed by screenings of “The Informant!” (which he wrote for frequent collaborator Steven Soderbergh) and “Sea of Shadows” (a documentary he produced about an endangered whale species). Burns’ new film, “The Report,” a CIA thriller that stars Adam Driver, will be released later this year.