The Miami International Film Festival has never quite gained the Olympian status of other South Florida arts events. But in the festival's 27th incarnation, which begins this week, 115 movies will be screened across five venues, perhaps signaling that it's finally ready for a bigger stage.
Festival director Tiziana Finzi, who was hired in 2009, wants to make MIFF a world-respected festival of contemporary cinema. "I accepted this job as a challenge to bring my taste — cutting-edge, radical films — to this town, a beautiful place where people come for enjoyment, big parties, and holiday and not to see a Russian or Chinese movie."
Her choices can be eclectic, but the 2010 selections are some of the best ever. Two things stand out: the youth of the directors — many are younger than 35 — and the international quality — 45 countries are represented.
Among our favorites, reviewed below, are a British story about soccer and friendship, an Iranian docudrama on censorship, and a Brazilian tale of terrorism.
Looking for Eric
7 p.m. March 5 at the Gusman Center
Eric (Steve Evets) was once a spry young man who met the love of his life at a swing-dance competition; he's now a graying, slouching postman, slowly losing his mind and stuck caring for two teenaged sons. He's so miserable that his fellow postmen stage a little self-help visualization session. It triggers Eric, a rabid Manchester United soccer fan, to begin hallucinating about Eric Cantona, a British superstar soccer player who plays himself in this film. In an imaginary rendezvous with his hero, Eric regains his zest for life, pursuing the woman he deserted. Looking for Eric is a creation of Ken Loach, one of the U.K.'s most important directors, whose realist films have tackled unsexy subjects like labor rights and homelessness. And although this film studies working-class Britain's gun-loving youth, it's an unexpected comedy in Loach's downbeat oeuvre. Loach is able to turn both the overdone British heist movie and soccer hooligan culture on their heads to present a hilarious film in which a regular guy survives hitting rock bottom and starts living again. Amanda McCorquodale
Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats
9:30 p.m. March 8 at Regal South Beach
7:15 p.m. March 12 at Tower Theater
Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi takes us through the underground music scene in Tehran, where all Western-style music is prohibited. Based on real people, places, and events, the film follows Negar Shaghaghi and Ashkan Koshanejad of the indie band Take It Easy Hospital (yes, a real band) as it attempts to leave home to play a concert in London. It's escorted by a smooth-talking linchpin of the black market, Nader (Hamed Behdad), who promises to find them passports, visas, and additional band members. The film, with its MTV-style music video montages and pop culture references, runs the risk of feeling like a lighthearted documentary. But in the final ten minutes, the tour through Iranian rock makes an abrupt and disturbing turn. Amanda McCorquodale
Blood and Rain
7 p.m. March 7 at Tower Theater
9:15 p.m. March 10 at Regal South Beach
A few hours after midnight, a man and a woman meet randomly on the cold, wet streets of Bogotá. He's Jorge (Quique Mendoza), a taxi driver whose brother was mysteriously murdered. She's Angela (Gloria Montoya), a sexy but emotionally damaged party girl with an out-of-control coke and liquor habit. Gradually, as chance events and targeted violence bring the pair closer, a strange but undeniable attraction develops. Director Jorge Navas leads his characters (and viewers) on a slow, methodical descent into the darkest corners of the Colombian underworld, from after-hours clubs to strip joints to killing fields. Blood and Rain depicts a dark sphere of existence where chaos reigns, outbursts of brutal violence are common, deeply irrational behavior is the norm, and drugs are eaten to erase bad memories. But it's not bleak. One of the reasons is the luridly bright nightscape photography of Juan Carlos Gil, who soaks the streets of Bogotá in saturated blacks and warm yellows that make abandoned lots and trash-filled alleys seem beautiful. Then there's the acting; both Mendoza and Montoya deliver human performances that redeem profoundly fucked-up characters. And finally, consider Navas' clarity of vision. At only 36 years old, he's a mature filmmaker with enough perspective to tackle the inexplicable. S. Pajot
The Wind Journeys
9:30 p.m. March 7 and 9 p.m. March 9 at Tower Theater
4:15 p.m. March 14 at Regal South Beach
This is the story of a man's road trip across northern Colombia trying to return a devil accordion to its master. That's all you really need to know, although you might like to be informed that the wife of our protagonist, Ignacio (Marciano Martínez), has just died, so he no longer wishes to play the instrument. Along Ignacio's journey, we meet long-lost brothers, hoodlums, and former lovers, who all remind him that he can never leave his instrument behind. The Wind Journeys (Los Viajes del Viento) has a stacked résumé: Best Film and Best Director at the Colombian Film Festival (2009) and most recently Best Spanish Language Film at the Santa Barbara Film Festival (2010). Dave Landsberger
7:15 p.m. March 7 and 9:15 p.m. March 14 at Regal South Beach
9 p.m. March 12 at Tower Theater
In 2005, 52 people died in terrorist bombings in London. The resulting paranoia and xenophobia is well-described in Jean Charles, directed by Henrique Goldman. Based on the true story of a Brazilian electrician living in London who was mistaken for a Muslim terrorist, the film could have been a public lashing of the British government. Instead, it is a sentimental eulogizing of a hard-working immigrant, wonderfully played by Selton Mello, doing his best to improve the circumstances of his own life and those around him. The film's only fault is heavy-handedness in relaying that Jean Charles loved London. At one point, he buys a kitschy snow globe of the British capital for his newly arrived but homesick cousin so she can always remember how beautiful the city is; Goldman seems to be shouting: "Would a terrorist do this?" Amanda McCorquodale
7 p.m. March 8 and 4 p.m. March 14 at Regal South Beach
7 p.m. March 13 at Tower Theater
Born into the itinerant life of a con artist, Kay (Aida Folch) is a sexy but street-tough young woman who's helped her father, Sebas (Manuel Morón), run scams since she learned to walk. After 16 months in Barcelona, Kay and Sebas have started to settle into a routine: She steals cars while he fences jewelry. When Mexican gangsters return to collect an overdue debt, Sebas begins plotting a big job that involves a crew of crooked cops, a big bag of stolen jewels, an incriminating videotape, and a cable news network. Written and directed by first-time Spanish filmmaker Patxi Amézcua, this action thriller is more conventional than many of the movies in the festival. However, Amézcua delivers his story with full knowledge of its sources, so it never seems derivative. S. Pajot
The Thorn in the Heart
6:45 p.m. March 7 and 5:45 p.m. March 9 at Regal South Beach
Michel Gondry must have been on to us. He knew we'd expect something as imaginative as his last film, The Science of Sleep, or his popular Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. So in The Thorn in the Heart (L'Epine Dans le Coeur), he presents an evenhanded documentary about his aunt Suzette, a retired teacher in rural France, and her complicated relationship with her son, Jean-Yves. Juxtaposed between scenes in which Suzette is praised for her skill with schoolchildren, Gondry gives us a fragile Jean-Yves, a grown man still living under his mother's thumb, suffering nervous breakdowns after coming out as gay. Gondry is known for his imaginative visual style, but The Thorn in My Heart is an exercise in restraint. Amanda McCorquodale
7 p.m. March 12 at the Gusman Center
The Rizzos are an average family — two parents, two kids — who make their home on City Island, an old fishing town in the Bronx. The patriarch, Vince (Andy Garcia), is a New York State corrections officer with dreams of being an actor. His wife, Joyce (Julianna Margulies), is a beautiful but aging housewife and mother who laments the education she lost when she became pregnant with her daughter, Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido), now college age herself. And then, there's Vinnie (Ezra Miller), a skinny 15-year-old master of the smart-ass remark. The Rizzos live together, eat together, and bicker like hell about everything. Plus, they're all intensely secretive. When City Island works, it's thanks to the strong ensemble cast and writer/director Raymond De Felitta's light touch. Ultimately, City Island is a charming if not entirely realistic movie about a big, messed-up modern family. S. Pajot
7:15 p.m. March 8 at Regal South Beach
9:30 p.m. March 14 at Tower Theater
It would be easy to dismiss Northless (Norteado) as just another film about immigrants attempting to cross the U.S. border. The bulk of the plot is about this, but Northless aims to give us a more realistic and Mexican depiction. It's filled with scenes of silence around dinner tables and the drudgery of daily work. Andres (Harold Torres), a migrant from Oaxaca, fails to cross into America after his coyote deserts him overnight near the California border. Marooned at the immigration office in Tijuana, he finds work with two women who attempt to coerce him into staying in Mexico by taking him on dates and divulging their deepest secrets. Still, he tries to cross several times, culminating in an extremely clever and seemingly absurd plot twist. This is a movie of silences and wide open spaces, shot beautifully by cinematographer Alejandro Cantu. It eschews the fantastic and unrealistic in favor of the realistic and quotidian, right down to the portraits of George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger that beam judgment upon Andres each time he is apprehended by la migra. Dave Landsberger
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4 p.m. March 7 at Regal South Beach
7 p.m. March 9 at Tower Theater
On the surface, this debut feature by writer/director Florence Jaugey is about a girl boxer, Yuma (Alma Blanco), struggling to escape the barrios of Managua. She lives in a concrete-floor shack with her often-absent mother, unemployed pedophilic stepdad, teen junkie brother, and two younger siblings. She loves and protects the children but despises the adults. Meanwhile, outside her home, Yuma's street-thug boyfriend, Culebra — whose name means snake — tries to control her, saying: "Women don't box." But Yuma is wild and tough. She continues training and soon starts an affair with Ernesto, a middle-class journalism student at Universidad Centroamericana. La Yuma doesn't dig much beneath the surface, however. Most of the major characters never evolve beyond mere outlines. And although the film runs only 90 minutes, it becomes entangled in a mess of completely unnecessary subplots and side plots. There's a simpler, better movie in there somewhere. S. Pajot