12 movies you have to see at the 2017 Florida Film Festival

Screenings are sure to sell out quickly this year, so make a list and buy tickets early. These are the movies you don't want to miss.

Florida Films

click to enlarge I Am Another You
I Am Another You
I Am Another You
3 out of 5 stars
81 minutes

Chinese national Nanfu Wang first started working on I Am Another You when she was a New York University film student on vacation in South Florida. She met a charismatic young drifter named Dylan Olsen and spent most of her vacation following him around to document what his life was like living on the street. If you already think you know how the rest of the film goes from that brief synopsis – the drifter turns out to be less of a free-spirited hero than a manipulative grifter – you're both right and very wrong. After Wang parted ways with Olsen, she went on to make the acclaimed documentary Hooligan Sparrow, about Chinese human rights advocate Ye Haiyan, before following up. The difference between Wang's approach in the first act of I Am Another You, filmed when she was a student, and the latter two thirds, filmed after she had the experience of running from Chinese police in pursuit of Hooligan Sparrow's story, is palpable. Early on, Wang falls prey to the rookie mistake of making herself too much of a subject. But her subsequent investigation into Olsen's past and present ends up – for both better and worse ­– humanizes him. It's a revealing look at how first impressions – even if accurate ­– fail to tell the whole story. – TM

Music Films

click to enlarge Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke
Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke
Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke
4.5 out of 5 stars
75 minutes

If you don't already have a favorite bar in Austin, Texas, you will after seeing Honky Tonk Heaven. The documentary tells the story of James and Annetta White, the proprietors of the Broken Spoke, an old-school country dancehall smack in the middle of trendy South Austin. James White tells stories about the history of the place over its half-century in existence – which included residencies by Willie Nelson and George Strait – while introducing the viewer to the importance dancehalls had in country music culture. Those days are long gone, but the Spoke keeps plugging along, even as modern multi-use apartment buildings spring up all around (sound familiar, Orlando?). With plenty of live music performances and even a little bit of a two-step lesson thrown in, Honky Tonk Heaven is as close as you'll get to spending a night at the Broken Spoke without having to travel to Texas. – TM

International Films

Pop Aye
3 out of 5 stars
101 minutes

A touching look at getting older and maintaining a connection to our youth, Pop Aye is the story of Thana (Thaneth Warakulnukroh), a Thai architect who is finding himself to be more and more irrelevant both professionally and in his strained relationship with his wife. But when he has a chance meeting with the elephant he had when he was a boy growing up in rural Thailand, he decides to purchase it and bring it back home. The ensuing road movie is filled with memorable characters like a hypochondriac ascetic, a trans prostitute and a pair of beleaguered policemen. Though the journey sags in the middle, much like the titular elephant, Pop Aye is filled with just the right amount of humor and pathos to make it a recommended watch. – TM

Midnight Features

Bad Black
3 out of 5 stars
70 minutes

By any normal standard of filmmaking, Bad Black is not a "good" movie. A product of the zero-budget "Wakaliwood" film industry of Uganda, Bad Black utilizes amateur production techniques and actors to tell a uniquely Ugandan version of an over-the-top American-style action film. The plot can be hard to follow, but thankfully there's a narrator who fills in gaps while providing MST3K-style commentary about the characters and events on screen. It's a perfect fit for the festival's midnight slot, and will undoubtedly be a hit, especially since this screening is customized for Orlando audiences. – TM

Birdboy: The Forgotten Children (Psiconautas)
4 out of 5 stars
76 minutes

Cute animated animals deal with not-so-cute issues in this feature-length adaptation of a Spanish graphic novel. On an island devastated by some unspecified industrial disaster, Birdboy scrapes out an existence in the forest. Like a goth version of Looney Tunes' Egghead Jr., he drags his skeletal, black-suited self mutely through daily horrors – illness; drug use; trying and failing to fly; nightmares of terrifying demons. He's pursued by Dinky, a troubled schoolgirl (schoolmouse?) who wants to escape the island, but doesn't want to leave Birdboy behind. As she and her friends (a bunny who hears voices telling her to do bad things and a tubby, bullied fox) make their way through the scary dump full of mean, violent rats, they confront class warfare, rage, pain, greed and a lot of other stuff that's not usually on the menu for adorable cartoon critters. Psiconautas screens as a midnight movie, but aside from the trippy visuals and occasional flashes of black humor, it isn't average midnight movie fare – these animated characters are more likely to make you cry than laugh, and will stick in your mind for days after viewing. RIYL: dystopia, teen angst, anthropomorphic alarm clocks. – JBY

Special Screenings

3.5 out of 5 stars
97 minutes

The festival presents a special screening of Unrest, a documentary about people with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). The film is special not just for its topic but because the director and subject, Jennifer Brea, grew up in Orlando. After developing a high fever several years ago, Brea slipped into what is often labeled "chronic fatigue syndrome." But she didn't fight just the condition, she fought for answers – on film.

"It was like I had died but was forced to watch as the world moves on," she says in the documentary. "I didn't know what else to do, so I just kept filming."

But instead of becoming a self-indulgent cinematic exercise, Unrest embraces everyone who has suffered silently with this misunderstood condition (17 million worldwide, 85 percent women) and partially morphs into a medical thriller by exposing the horrible history of "female hysteria."  

"Central Florida is where I spent all of my formative years, and it's where I spent all of my time, dreaming what I would grow up to become and what I would do with my life, and it's also where I fell in love with film," Brea told OW. "[This screening] rivals how I felt about appearing at Sundance. I'm really excited to be coming home."

"One of the amazing and I think really beautiful things about filmmaking is that it is a collaborative, creative process," she says. "When I started production, I was almost homebound and almost entirely bed-ridden, and at first I tried to travel to go on shoots, and I would, you know, go an hour from my house and would shoot for a day on location and would spend the next 30 days in bed. ... It took six months to get to six shoot days. ... I started to think about what were some sort of technological solutions that would allow me to have a presence in the field without actually having to travel to set. What I want people to take away [from the film is that] life is fragile and often unpredictable, but I think that it is ... possible to find a way to survive, and I think that's what a lot of the film is about on the deepest level," she says.

"We are fighting. This is a movement." – CM

Competition Documentary Features

click to enlarge Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape
Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape
Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape
4 out of 5 stars
92 minutes

Hats off to the documentary Cassette for handily answering the question, "Are cassettes still a thing?" Yes, they're still a fucking thing, and they never really weren't "a thing," for those in the underground interested in transmitting their sounds in an affordable, quickly produced physical medium. At the core of this documentary is the notion that cassettes represented a democratization of sound production and dissemination in a way that no physical medium had before or since. This love letter to the format is all heart – the emotion during interviews with Henry Rollins, Rob Sheffield, Daniel Johnston, National Audio Company employees, and DJs Ron G and Red Alert is palpable. The true coup of this film, however, is extended conversations with Lou Ottens, the inventor of the cassette tape. He talks about his work with a dispassionate lack of nostalgia. And yet, there is one beautiful moment towards the end when Ottens, the slightest smile creeping across his face, confesses fondly, "The best thing is, it's not over yet ... all those crazy people are still working with cassettes." – MM

Circus Kid
3 out of stars
71 minutes

For most of us, it's too late to run away and join the circus. But the next-best thing might be watching Circus Kid, a delightful documentary that shines its follow spot not just on the history of the modern American circus but the meaning of family. At just 71 minutes, Circus Kid might seem too slight. And the fact that it's directed and partially narrated by its subject, Lorenzo Pisoni, might strike some as self-promotional. But the stories that Pisoni presents about the famous Pickle Family Circus and the countless clowns and acrobats (including Bill Irwin) it inspired will likely inspire you too, regardless of your opinions of the Big Top. The feature is accompanied by Richard Twice (3 stars), a short, partially animated documentary about a talented musician who walked away from potential fame after a life-altering stage experience in the late 1960s. It's a fascinating yet melancholy examination of how a single event can irreparably alter one's life. – CM

For Ahkeem
3.5 out of 5 stars
90 minutes

Most documentaries either report past events or observe unfolding ones. For Ahkeem is a memorable example of the latter, as its camera provides extraordinary access to Daje Shelton, a 17-year-old black girl from the slums of St. Louis. The film, directed by Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest, follows her for a year and a half, as she struggles to avoid legal trouble, graduate from high school, raise a baby and maintain a relationship with her boyfriend – while he is trying to stay out of jail. And behind it all is the shadow of the 2014 Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. Though the subjects' actions are undoubtedly altered by the camera, the film is still a memorable and painful portrait of a world that seems hopeless. (The film's executive producer is Jeff Truesdell, former editor of Orlando Weekly, who now lives in St. Louis.) The feature is preceded by a short Florida doc titled The Rabbit Hunt (3 stars), which is exactly what its name suggests. Directed by Patrick Bresnan, it is extremely difficult to watch, especially if you're an animal lover, but it also feels culturally and morally necessary. – CM

Shorts Programs

International Animated Shorts
3.5 out of 5 stars
87 minutes

This annual block is known for filmmakers who push the thematic and technical limits of animated cinema. This year's offering is a mixed bag of quality, but discovering the assorted treats is nevertheless a worthwhile, mind-expanding experience. Most of the 12 films are surreal, absurd or experimental, and the group would have benefited from one or two selections with a traditional narrative structure, to serve as palate cleansers for the stranger fare. In addition, Pussy (2 stars) is better suited to the midnight shorts block. (About a vagina that springs to life and escapes a woman's body to wreak havoc, it is surely President Trump's nightmare.) Most accomplished is the Spanish-language Decorado (4 stars). The only foreign-language film (with subtitles) in the group, it's both laugh-out-loud funny and hauntingly dark. Only slightly less brain-bending are The Absence of Eddy Table (4 stars), Journal Animé (3 stars) and This Is Not an Animation (3 stars), while Fears (3 stars) is the sweetest. But sweet or not, make no mistake: This is an adults-only program. – CM

Shorts Program No. 2: “Everybody Knows”
3.5 out of 5 stars
96 minutes

This narrative shorts block is titled "Everybody Knows" in tribute to Leonard Cohen. And, fittingly, most of the characters in the eight films are either being watched or judged, but ultimately exceed or defy expectations. Cul-de-Sac (3 stars), written by and starring Oscar winner (and Florida Film Festival friend) Shawn Christensen, is well acted, shot and paced but lacks some context and emotional punch. Laurels (3 stars) offers a unique and twisty take on film festivals while providing the block with its only comedy, albeit a dark one. Zaar (3 stars) is an unconventional and touching examination of an act of terror – from the terrorist's point of view. And Zero-Zero (4 stars), about an unlikely bond between a little girl and her seemingly unscrupulous neighbor, is an absolute gem. – CM

Food Films

click to enlarge New Chefs on the Block
New Chefs on the Block
New Chefs on the Block
4 out of 5 stars
96 minutes

Like pictures of food on Instagram, movies about food and chefs are apparently irresistible, and this tale of two restaurants spreading their wings is no different.

The film follows Aaron Silverman of Rose's Luxury and Frank Linn of Frankly ... Pizza! from construction to doors opening and through their first year, covering 2013 to 2015.

Viewers who know that 30 percent of restaurants fail in the first year, some even before opening their doors, may be biting their nails wondering whether these places will make it, especially in the challenging Washington, D.C., area, where business slows to a trickle when congress is out of session. Despite some pacing issues, including a slow start full of unnecessary Restaurant 101 info (some of the talking-head interludes are pointless — I don't care if it's Michel Richard saying it, lines like "You have to focus 150 percent" are just a waste of screen time), Silverman and Linn eventually emerge as engaging characters, and the filmmakers manage to make viewers care deeply about whether they'll succeed. The two men, and the two restaurants, are very different – Silverman's personal reserve dovetails with the studiedly casual perfection on his plates, while Linn seems like a big goofy kid who just wants to open a slice joint – but both end up surprising us. – JBY

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