SBIFF 2021: Films to Find

Use Our Sneak-Peak Guide to Plot Your Week of Movie-Watching 

Starting from top left going clockwise: The Last Ones (Viimeiset), Fear (Strah), The Pit, Akilla’s Escape. | Credit: Courtesy

We got a sneak peek at some of the more than 130 films screening at SBIFF in 2021, and here are some of our favorites so far, listed alphabetically.

Addict Named Hal | Credit: Courtesy

Addict Named Hal: A study of addiction and recovery, this narrative film draws on director Lane Michael Stanley’s own experiences in rehab. That knowledge shows in the intimate portrayal of such homes’ forced camaraderie, occasionally humorous embarrassments of personal space, and unclear track records for success in a system with inherent flaws. Solid acting and clean filmmaking throughout. (MK) 

Akilla’s Escape | Credit: Courtesy

Akilla’s Escape: Broken into “Exhibits,” this emotive crime feature explores the lingering impacts of Jamaica’s tumultuous political scene of the late 1970s and 1980s on the gang-strewn streets of Toronto. In the aftermath of a marijuana robbery gone haywire, we watch as the protagonist, played by spoken word star Saul Williams, tries to right wrongs that began many years before. (MK)

Alaska Nets: Beautifully filmed and tenderly told, this documentary sticks in the mind long after the credits roll. While exploring the two sacred pastimes — basketball and fishing — that define the state’s last native reserve of Metlakatla, it respectfully bears the heart of a proud but troubled people. No need to understand (or even like) the sport or the industry to appreciate this one. It’s all about human grit and hope through tragedy — something we can all relate to. (TH)

Baby: Surface storyline details only go so far in this surreal Spanish film (with echoes of Darren Aranofsky’s Mother). A young junkie struggles to exist, compounded by her baby’s arrival and the dark lure of a baby-trafficking demimonde. Written, directed, and virtually dreamed-up by Juanma Bajo Ulloa, the film pulls you into a hermetic, dialogue-free “other” world, a bad dream in some fairy-tale-like backwoods. Enter at your own risk. (JW)

The Cinderella Addiction | Credit: Courtesy

The Cinderella Addiction: This deceptively sensuous and visually stylish Japanese love story gradually takes detours into mysterious places, for its characters and viewers alike. Melodrama and thriller tactics entwine, and in keeping with the tease of the title, fairy-tale dimensions keep abutting our assumptions of realism in the works, keeping us guessing and enchanted. (JW)

Coast | Credit: Courtesy

Coast: Directed by Jessica Hester and Derek Schweickart, this enjoyable coming-of-age film chronicles an adolescent on the brink of self-discovery, questioning whether to stay in her humble hometown or hit the worldly road with a rock band. Of local note, said “small town” location is Santa Maria, featuring such sites as the cinema-history-kissed Guadalupe dunes. (JW)

The Conservation Game: Jack Hanna a fraud? Say it ain’t so. The way Blackfish blew the lid off SeaWorld, the upcoming world premiere of The Conservation Game will rip back the curtain on the dishonest and sometimes criminal practices of celebrity conservationists who care far more about their airtime than they do the animals they drag onto talk shows. Mark our words — the world premiere of this absolute bombshell of a documentary, directed by Michael Webber, will change the big business of animals on TV forever. (TH)

Fear (Strah): This sneakily charming film from Bulgarian director Ivaylo Hristov somehow broaches timely subjects of refugee dynamics and Black Lives Matter sensibilities, all in the tale of interracial love in a small town on the Turkish/Bulgarian border. Dry, Kaurismäki-like humor and light cinematic touches counterbalance xenophobia and tragedy-in-the-making, alongside a surreal wink of a color camel cameo (think the finale of Palm Springs). (JW)

Fellinopolis: Rather than being a fully-fledged portrait of the late, great cinemagician Federico Fellini, this documentary zeroes in on his 1980s films City of Women, Fred and Ginger, and The Ship Sails On. Directed by Silvia Giulietti — drawing heavily on period, on-site footage by Ferruccio Castronuovo — the doc, though limited in scope, manages to convey Fellini’s mastery of cinema as “circus, a magical circle, where anything can happen.” (JW)

The Flood Won’t Come (Tvano nebus): War, as something painfully specific even as it is chaotic and ambiguous, is the underlying theme of this unusual Lithuanian film, a hypnotic and nonlinear evocation of wartime — and war film culture. A world-weary colonel is the protagonist, of sorts, in a narrative conveyed through vignettes rather than an easily comprehended storyline. Consider it a fable about the fever-dream-like absurdity, cyclicality, and volatility of war. (JW)

Fortitude (La Fortaleza): Venezuela’s problems get big-screen attention in this revealing feature about an alcoholic (played masterfully by Jorge Thielen Hedderich) who flees his big-city problems to find his old shack in the jungle. But his old friends there are caught up in the dangerous hunt for gold, as portrayed in rugged mining scenes that take on an almost documentary feel. Things don’t go well, but the movie grips until the finish. (MK)

The Ghosts (Los Fantasmas) | Credit: Courtesy

The Ghosts (Los Fantasmas): This impressive, impressionistic Guatemalan film follows our young protagonist, enmeshed in prostitution and robbery schemes, languishing in pool halls and the wrestling world, and escaping to the roof. Sebastián Lojo’s unsparing yet artful slice-of-life tale boasts a heightened visual and cinematic sensibility and resists filmic cliches — a unique, poetic film, conveying a lot without having to explain itself. (JW)

Invisible Valley | Credit: Courtesy

Invisible Valley: Showcasing the Coachella Valley — which, much like Santa Barbara, is a land of both wealthy semi-residents and migrant farmworkers — this documentarytells the tale of one farmworker family that’s trying hard to stay in one place while featuring the efforts of a nonprofit and goodhearted individuals to improve conditions for many more. Set against lush golf courses, empty Palm Springs mansions, and the Coachella music festival, it’s a moving portrait made ominous by the degrading state of the Salton Sea, an environmental disaster that hints at a more dire future. (MK)

The Knot (Uijhan): This engaging Indian film aims its loaded title in separate but tautly entwined directions: the sometimes-knotty complications of marriage/family planning and socio-economic and caste-system conflicts endemic to India (and far beyond). In writer/director Ashish Pant’s morality play, an upward-mobility-aspiring man’s conniving efforts to secure a loan for a family home entangles with an accident that flings his wife into secret dealings in the poverty zone. Associated tensions take their toll. (JW)

Last Call | Credit: Courtesy

Last Call: The Shutdown of NYC Bars*: Impressive enough alone for turning around a compelling documentary in such a short time span, this doc covers the impact of COVID closures to the bar scene in Astoria, Queens, a homey district of New York City. Using commentary from bartenders, bar owners, doctors, journalists, and social workers, director Johnny Sweet presents a moving portrait of an industry thrown back on its heels, revealing how integral that industry is to life itself. (MK)

The Last Ones (Viimeiset): Dark forces are at work in the extreme north, where minors in Lapland face off with machismo power plays, fueled by greed and a will to sacrifice reindeer herding culture for progress and profit. Director Veiko Õunpuu’s saga on the far global fringes manages to be both viscerally edgy and ambiguous, with poetic touches all along the rugged path of its narrative. (JW)

The Man with the Answers: A road trip flick of a different nature, this film follows the accidental tourist alliance of a Greek man in search of his mother, and a prepossessed stranger — the “answer” man — on a ferry and then his car and, at some point, a common bed. It’s a pleasant-enough feelgood number, savoring the sights in Greece, Italy, and Bavaria, on a trek toward family redemption and personal discovery. (JW)

My First Summer: A coming-of-age and sexual awakening tale Down Under, this is an affecting portrait of a tightening relationship between adolescent girls — one the reclusive daughter of a late writer mother, the other an enabling free spirit/rescuing agent. Writer/director Katie Found, working with the sensitive actresses Markella Kavenagh and Maiah Stewardson, achieves tenderness, folding in sentimentality in the right ways. (JW)

One-Way to Moscow (Moskau Einfach!): An excellent example of films that highlight forgotten segments of history, this dramedy dusts off Switzerland’s widespread surveillance campaign near the end of the Cold War, when the paranoid government spied on nearly one million free citizens. The story follows a cop gone underground into a supposedly left-wing theater troupe, where he finds love and truth as the Berlin Wall comes down. (MK)

The Pit (Bedre): Set amid the seemingly idyllic suburbs and beautiful forests of Latvia, this dramatic feature follows a scarred child being raised by his struggling grandmother. She tries to hide him from the town’s big secret — that her transgender stained-glass artist friend lives in a remote barn — but that’s who the bullied boy befriends, leading to both happiness and heartache. (MK) 

We Burn Like This: Macro- and microaggressions against Indigenous and Jewish people pop up throughout this dramatic feature about a young woman trying to find herself in Billings and Butte, Montana. Partying and parenting issues form the moral backdrop, with troubling revelations emerging by the end. (MK)

Trees of Peace: Inspired by true events, four women take shelter in a crowded bunker that locks from the outside for 81 days during the Rwandan genocide. With an arresting soundscape reaching your ears before the first image flashes the screen, and the majority of the film spent in a singular, claustrophobia-inducing location, I could not help but hold my breath from start to finish. (CG)
How best to convey the horrors of the Rwandan genocide on film? Contrasting the grit of films such as Hotel Rwanda, the lean Trees of Peace coaxes its emotional intensity from a single site — a hidden basement (actually, shot in Los Angeles) where four varied women cower and hide from the Carnage outside for weeks. Sensitive acting and deep themes empower the close quarters. (JW) 


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