10 must-see films from each of the Florida Film Festival categories

10 must-see films from each of the Florida Film Festival categories

The Lobster
(119 minutes; 3 stars)
showtime: 7 p.m. Friday, April 8, Regal Winter Park Village A

click to enlarge The Lobster
The Lobster

A whimsical parable loaded with ultra-dry comedy and off-kilter romance, Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster is set in a totalitarian society where single people are rounded up and sent to "The Hotel." If they fail to find a partner within 45 days, they are transformed into the animal of their choice. David (Colin Farrell) chooses the lobster, for its long lifespan and rigorous fertility. The film spends much of its first half introducing the Hotel's hard-edged rules and quirks, including John C. Reilly and Olivia Colman as the no-nonsense managers. But as David begins to take destiny in his own hands in the second half, The Lobster begins to drag. Lanthimos, whose 2009 film Dogtooth made serious international waves, has something to say about singlehood and conforming to societal standards, but as the film drags his ideas begin to feel underdeveloped. Luckily, Farrell provides comic relief from the slogging pace. As the lonely David, whose only companion is his dog/brother, Farrell delivers a performance that manages to be simultaneously emotionally distant and deeply personal. Darkly comedic, violent and thoughtful, The Lobster is a primo kick-off film for the 2016 Florida Film Festival. – Patrick Cooper

Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler
(92 minutes; 3 stars)
showtimes: 9:15 p.m. Monday, April 11, Enzian; 9:30 p.m. Thursday, April 14, Regal Winter Park Village B

click to enlarge Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler
Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler

World Nibbler champion Tim McVey (no, not Timothy McVeigh) is tired of getting asked about his favorite video game.

"What's Nibbler? What's Nibbler? What's Nibbler? God, I'm sick of that question," he says. After watching the documentary Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler, you'll definitely know what Nibbler is. However, you might be sick of the game itself. But despite the fact that the doc almost collapses in tedium toward the end, it has enough kooky charm to sustain itself. Directed by Tim Kinzy and Andrew Seklir, this is the unlikely story of how one nerdy teen (McVey) became the first person to score a billion points on a video game (in 1984) and then attempted to reclaim his record once it was eclipsed by fellow gaming geeks.

"A billion-point game can give you carpal tunnel syndrome," we're told. And that's easy to believe, as the achievement takes about 40 hours of nearly nonstop gaming. Yet reaching that 10-digit score means the world to McVey and his man-boy buddies, and the doc quirkily captures their passion. It doesn't quite achieve the beautiful lunacy of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, to which it owes much, but it does project an awkward, yet strangely touching humanity that's easy to admire. – Cameron Meier

Belladonna of Sadness
(93 minutes; 4 stars)
showtimes: 11:30 p.m. Saturday, April 9, Regal Winter Park Village A; 11:59 p.m. Saturday, April 16, Enzian

click to enlarge Belladonna of-Sadness.
Belladonna of-Sadness.

Prepare your eyeballs for ultimate ecstasy. Painstakingly restored in 4K, Belladonna of Sadness (1973) is a poetic, orgasmic sensory trip that has never had an American release until now. Composed mainly of watercolor stills, the film tells the story of Jeanne, a young woman who's brutally raped on her wedding night by an evil baron and his demonic henchmen. Jeanne is unable to move past this nightmarish event, which leads her to make a pact with the Devil and spearhead a sexual uprising.

The artwork from anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Production is nothing short of remarkable. It assaults viewers with psychedelic and erotic images that flow across the screen, including one extraordinary scene where the whole town holds an orgy on a river of hair. Belladonna of Sadness draws inspiration from Jules Michelet's 1862 book on witchcraft, La Sorcière, as well as the story of Jeanne D'Arc, to create its own tale of feminist and sexual revolution. The psych soundtrack can be abrasive at times, but the visuals never fail to astound. Folks are going to be picking their jaws up off the ground after this one. – Patrick Cooper

(86 minutes; 4 stars)
showtimes: 11:30 a.m. Saturday, April 9, Enzian; 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, Regal Winter Park Village B

Zombie crises have dominated apocalyptic entertainment for the last few years, so it's rather refreshing that Embers' bleak context centers instead around a sudden neurological disruption in humanity.

People are in various stages of memory decay, wandering around colorless streets in a lifeless or oblivious manner. No matter how they're getting through life, however, the main struggle they seem to face is not a failure to recollect the past, but a grappling with holding onto what truly makes them human. One couple continuously works to stay together, despite forgetting each other every morning upon waking. A daughter grows bitter toward her father for sheltering them in a bunker, arguing that experiencing the outside would be more fulfilling than desperately clinging to memories of days long gone.

The concept isn't ever fully explained – the "why" isn't even touched on – but never once is it burdened with confusion. In fact, the lack of exposition works to the film's benefit. The split between five stories is what allows the situation to be understood and provides a semblance of a plot. But this focus dwindles toward the end of the movie, making Embers seem more aimless than it should.

This film about memory isn't completely memorable, but for the hour and 26 minutes you're watching it, you'll certainly be forced to ponder what truly makes your life yours. – Kim Slichter

(90 minutes; 2 stars)
showtimes: 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, April 12, Regal Winter Park Village B; 11:15 a.m. Saturday, April 16, Enzian

One of the festival's four International Showcase features, Lamb is an Ethiopian film (in Amharic, with English subtitles) about a boy's stubborn independence, perseverance and love for his pet sheep. Written and directed by first-timer Yared Zeleke, the film was Ethiopia's Oscar submission for best foreign-language film. (It was not nominated.)

Following the death of his mother, young Ephraim (Rediat Amare) and his father leave their native village in search of a better life. "I don't want to leave either," his father tells him, "but if we stay, we may meet your mother's fate."

Realizing that success can come only in the big city, the boy's father leaves Ephraim with unsympathetic relatives – in rural isolation – while he seeks work in Addis Ababa. The separation devastates the boy, and he clings to the one thing that gives him comfort and reminds him of home: Chuni, his lamb. But, predictably, the relatives don't view the animal as a pet.

"You're going to learn what all boys must do in our country: sacrifice sheep," his uncle scolds him.

Lamb is not the maudlin tearjerker it might have been. In fact, it's surprisingly devoid of passion. That imbues it with a realistic maturity, especially considering its refreshing inclusion of complex female characters and beautiful landscapes. (Who knew Ethiopia was so breathtaking?) But it also makes the film a tough watch thanks to its almost unbearable pacing and lack of emotional impact. Frankly, this review could have gone either way. If Ethiopian culture and the film's premise interest you, you might give it a try, but this reviewer simply never got enough from the actors or the story arc to merit a recommendation, especially given the weak ending. – Cameron Meier

Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?
(17 minutes; 4 stars)
showtimes: 4:15 p.m. Monday, April 11, Regal Winter Park Village A; 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 14, Enzian

click to enlarge Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?
Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?

Few artists are as hyperaware of the worlds they're forced to live within as Daniel Johnston is and has been for decades. In the latest film to take on Johnston's style and struggles (and how deeply they are connected), Hi, How Are You Daniel Johnston?, you see Johnston in a fatherly dialogue with a version of himself from 1983. It's a fictionalized setup, but the film takes inspiration from Johnston's old recordings, journals and artwork, so it never feels false or forced. It's an emotional way to get to know the artist, who has been diagnosed bipolar and schizophrenic. At one point, he gestures to his hoarder-like, yet minimal surroundings and says to the viewer very honestly and plainly, "This is my world."

Fittingly, the conversation is presented through playback on a cassette recorder with Johnston chain-smoking to make it through tough innocent questions ostensibly mined from his youth. A selection of memorable Johnston songs fills out the soundtrack. This reminds anyone who has possibly lost touch with Johnston of the un-maskable emotional fragility in his music and continually adds tension to the film's gentle premise.

You also get glimpses of Johnston's artwork – try and spy the artist's well-known creatures, which could probably populate a Hieronymous Bosch-scale landscape and evoke the same fantastical outsider appeal. The most famous of these is Jeremiah, the Hi, How Are You? frog, who becomes animated in the film as originally sketched, engaging with an aged, updated version of Jeremiah to represent Johnston's current state.

True fans will smile and somberly nod, just in time for Lana Del Rey's cover of "Some Things Last" to chime in and affirm the short film's mantra: "It's funny, but it's true. It's true, but it's not funny." – Ashley Belanger

April and the Extraordinary World
(105 minutes; 4 stars)
showtime: noon Saturday, April 9, Regal Winter Park Village A

It may be worth noting that this movie's title has been translated elsewhere as April and the Twisted World, which may not be as smiley-positive as "extraordinary" but certainly captures the weirdness of this animated feature's steampunk mirror world.

In an alternate universe powered by steam and coal, young April and her talking cat are left on their own after her scientist parents and grandfather all die in one day through a series of brutal misadventures. The story then jumps to a teen April who spends her time evading the authorities, stealing food and books, and conducting experiments to try and replicate her family's work.

Though it's nominally a "children's film," any adult who can stomach animation should enjoy its bittersweet mix of sentimentality and darkness, reminiscent of The Triplets of Belleville. The version screened for press was subtitled, but the print showing at the festival is dubbed by Paul Giamatti, Tony Hale, Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons – here's hoping that their work lives up the the very high bar set by this, well, extraordinary story. – Jessica Bryce Young

The Babushkas of Chernobyl
(72 minutes; 4 stars)
showtimes: 7:15 p.m. Sunday, April 10, Regal Winter Park Village A; 1:30 p.m. Friday, April 15, Enzian

click to enlarge The Babushkas of Chernobyl
The Babushkas of Chernobyl

"You can't go home again," Thomas Wolfe wrote. The subjects of The Babushkas of Chernobyl, the fascinating documentary by first-time directors Anne Bogart and Holly Morris, would disagree.

When the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster occurred in 1986, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from a thousand-square-mile area that became known as the Exclusion Zone. Most never returned to their ancestral homes. But a stubborn group violated the law and sneaked back. Roughly 100 people – mostly old women – remain, and the law has essentially turned a blind eye to them, allowing them to live, semi-legally, in virtual isolation, unprotected from the radiation that still permeates the ground, the trees, their food and their bodies.

Yet this is not a tale of law-breakers. This is a story of survival and defiance, and the meaning of happiness. Indeed, remarkably, statistics show that the women who came back and exposed themselves to years of radiation have lived longer than the women who never returned. Radiation, it seems, is less damaging than heartbreak and exile. And the documentary, which is receiving its Florida premiere, presents – in a simple, straightforward style – a remarkable historical document while also illustrating an essential truth about human existence: "You don't get sick in your motherland."

The feature is preceded by a short doc, The House Is Innocent, directed by Nicholas Coles, about Tom and Barbara, a couple living in a house in Sacramento, California, that had been the scene of grisly murders. But instead of fighting the home's reputation, they embrace it.

"It's like creepy in a good way," Tom says.

Lacking the profundity of the feature it accompanies – and running a tad too long – the short is still a fun watch and, like The Babushkas, teaches that a positive attitude and a purpose in life are more important than your damaged surroundings. – Cameron Meier

To Keep the Light
(88 minutes; 3 stars)
showtimes: 4:15 p.m. Saturday, April 9, Regal Winter Park Village A; 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 12, Enzian

click to enlarge To Keep the Light
To Keep the Light

First-time writer-director Erica Fae's To Keep the Light is a quietly mesmerizing look at the lonely life of a lighthouse keeper's wife who is struggling with her daily duties – and her sanity – while caring for her sick husband in 19th-century Maine. When a mysterious stranger washes up on shore, she is forced to confront both her past and her future.

Shot much like a haunted-house thriller, the film takes on an Ingmar Bergman feel in the second half. Though it offers few surprises once its twist is revealed, its beauty and confidently methodical pacing – not to mention a solid performance by Fae herself – make it one of the better offerings in the Narrative Features competition. It doesn't utilize the rich Downeast New England dialect as much as it could, but it nevertheless captures the feel of the period and, in keeping with many other films at the festival, features an interesting feminist theme. – Cameron Meier

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
(131 minutes; 4 stars)
showtime: 9:30 p.m. Sunday, April 17, Enzian

click to enlarge Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

This 1966 classic is probably the best – or at least the most emotionally wrenching – feature of the festival. Directed by Mike Nichols, the film stars Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis.

Based on Edward Albee's play, the movie was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, receiving a nod in every category for which it was eligible. It won five. Yet it's not the Oscars it's remembered for – it's the uncomfortably claustrophobic, even absurdist, way in which the dark comedy/drama exposes the underbelly of a marriage rife with alcoholism, jealousy and bitterness.

Buy your ticket for this Closing Night film now, and don't forget to order a stiff drink at Eden Bar beforehand. You'll need it. – Cameron Meier


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