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Los Angeles Film Festival 2011 Preview 

Thursday, Jun 16 2011
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Last year the Los Angeles Film Festival served as the local launchpad for a few key indie and indiewood landmarks of the following 12 months, including Cold Weather, Marwencol, Tiny Furniture and Oscar nominees Gasland and The Kids Are All Right — all of which premiered at other film festivals. This year the lineup for the 11-day event (which returns June 16-26 to L.A. Live and the surrounding downtown neighborhood) does have a handful of Cannes, Sundance, SXSW and Toronto pedigreed titles in the mix, but there's also a wealth of world and U.S. premieres, particularly in the narrative and documentary competitions.

LAFF's biggest "get" in terms of a world premiere from a name filmmaker, Richard Linklater's opening-night selection Bernie, was not screened for us before the festival; what follows is our guide to 30-something films that we were able to preview. In next week's Film section, we'll take a closer look at a few highlights from the festival's second weekend. —Karina Longworth

Reviews are by Phil Coldiron, Doug Cummings, Ernest Hardy, Aaron Hillis, Sarah LaBrie, Karina Longworth and Michael Nordine. For screening locations and times, go to lafilmfest.com.

108 Attempting to unravel the secrets around her uncle's mysterious death and even more mysterious life, documentarian Renate Costa finds herself plunged into the hidden history of Paraguay's queer community, including the intense brutality it suffered under dictator Alfredo Stroessner. It's less a matter of official obfuscation, however, than that of familial homophobia that shrouds her uncle's brief, painful life. Costa is tenacious but also repetitive; her badgering of her father, especially, is pointless to the audience long before it is to her. And though she clearly means well, her own views on the queer struggle can be incredibly naïve. Still, as a window into Paraguay's not-so-distant past — with her family's tale serving as a microcosm of the larger arch toward LGBT visibility and equality — 108 is a useful thread in the global conversation about queerness. (E.H.)

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A BETTER LIFE Carlos Galindo, the undocumented Mexican father who's half this movie's center (his surly teen son being the other), is trying hard not only to support his boy materially but to show, by example, that hardship doesn't have to rob you of compassion or basic human decency. In the hands of director Chris Weitz and screenwriter Eric Eason, that means the father edges close to sainthood, in stark contrast to L.A. gang culture pulling at his son in school and on street corners. In arguing their case for tolerance and understanding of the immigrant struggle, they even extend saintly sheen to the fellow immigrant whose betrayal sets tragedy in motion. What makes the film worthwhile is the beautifully examined dynamic of the complex father-son relationship. By the tearjerker ending, you won't quibble about the film's minor flaws. (E.H.)

AN ORDINARY FAMILY An Ordinary Family is one of those well-meaning films whose core politics are laudably progressive, but whose execution is flat and unsophisticated. When Seth shows up at a family gathering with his (kind of obnoxious) boyfriend, his older brother Thomas — a man of the cloth — struggles to reconcile religion-based homophobia with his love for his queer brother. Over the course of several days, the siblings and their extended family are put through paces that juxtapose sugary family outings with teary confrontations. None of it really goes beyond surface-deep psychological examination, however, and, from the faux-ribald comments of the women in a "girls only" sit-down to the final emotional showdown between Seth and Thomas, the dialogue is largely boilerplate. (E.H.)

THE ARCANE ENCHANTER It's easy to guess one reason why LAFF guest director Guillermo del Toro — who offers an exuberant commentary on the U.K. DVD of Carl Dreyer's classic Vampyr — might be excited about presenting Pupi Avati's 1994 horror film, unreleased in the U.S. Its slow-burning gothic setup about a defrocked priest residing in a rustic castle is filmed in unusually strong atmospheric terms; every sky is stained with ominous clouds and each passing character oozes subterfuge. Avati has a gift for portentous visuals, but the film loses considerable steam when it slowly becomes clear that creaky doors and indigo twilights are pretty much the main act. The plot invokes conspiracies and the occult, but the ideas never fully materialize, the protagonist is kept at an emotional distance, and the central "mystery" is obvious long before the movie ends. What might have been commendable restraint ultimately feels like undernourished ambition. (D.C.)

GO  ATTACK THE BLOCK Unlike Shaun of the Dead and the other cheekily self-aware genre mash-ups of Edgar Wright (who serves here as an executive producer), writer-director Joe Cornish's charmingly zippy debut — a funny-scary thriller about an alien invasion within a South London council tower block — wants to be taken seriously while evoking a childlike sense of marvel, or at least early-blockbuster nostalgia. (Is this the inner-city companion to Super 8?) Wryly wisecracking in a sometimes hard-to-follow Brit vernacular, a racially mixed rabble of teen delinquents redeem themselves with the nurse they've previously mugged after intergalactic beasties with glow-in-the-dark chompers come crashing down like meteorites. Classes, races and morally opposing forces must unite to survive, but the Ealingesque social satire gets forgivably whitewashed by all the techno-thumpin' frights and fantastic action. (A.H.)

THE BAD INTENTIONS Set in Peru in 1982, with the Shining Path socialist terror wave a distant backdrop, The Bad Intentions focuses on Cayetana, a sweet-faced 9-year-old schemer often left to her own imaginative, destructive devices by her globe-trotting, pill-popping mom and estranged womanizer dad. Morbid and cynical, Cayetana learns her mom is having a baby with her new husband (whose glass business, booming thanks to civil unrest, keeps them all in a lavish lifestyle) and becomes convinced she's going to die. There's a lot of tired, Sundance-style quirk here — bad parenting is played for laughs, Cayetana's precocity is meant to be adorable even as it borders on sociopathy — but by presenting a world in turmoil through the oblique perspective of her child protagonist, director Rosario Garcia-Montero manages to evoke the look and feel of bourgeois solipsism in the face of social struggle. (K.L.)

CHEONGGYECHEON MEDLEY: A DREAM OF IRON Kelvin Kyung Kun Park's nonfiction hybrid is part dream journal, part post–Chris Marker video letter to Park's late ironworker grandfather, part fly-on-the-wall document of the vestiges of the old-school scrap-metal industry still hanging on in Cheonggyecheon, a rapidly gentrifying district in Seoul. The vérité material of life and work in contemporary small-scale foundries is intimate, casual and not terribly revelatory. Much more exciting are the many experimental, purely formal sequences, in which Park sets his own personal musings to highly manipulated, nearly hallucinatory footage of machinery in motion. (K.L.)

CRITIC'S PICK  CURLING In Curling, a young girl (Philomène Bilodeau, giving a fascinatingly blank performance), stumbles upon a tiger and a pile of frozen dead bodies in the woods; her father (Philomène’s father, Emmanuel Bilodeau) finds a dead child on the side of the road, lusts after a goth girl while wearing a bowling pin costume and sleeps with a hooker; the world is one of imposingly huge vistas or impenetrably shallow focus. Director Denis Côté’s best feature to date looks on the surface like a string of discrete incidents that may or may not add up to anything. As the credits roll over yet another image with no obvious relation to what came before it, a form gradually comes into focus: Curling, like the highly strategic game from which it takes its name, is a film of connections and reactions, one where the meaning of each shot is dependent upon its place in the whole. (P.C.)

THE DYNAMITER A beautifully lensed coming-of-age tale set in rural Mississippi, The Dynamiter stars newcomer William Ruffin as Robbie, a 14-year-old struggling to finish junior high and keep some kind of family life intact, despite the fact that his mom has all but left him and his younger half-brother to fend for themselves. The film is at its best as a character study of this realistically conflicted teen, who will resort to all manner of hardscrabble methods to get by, but obviously longs for a "normal" teenage life. Ruffin is the most compelling member of a cast composed primarily of apparent nonactors, many of whom are laughably stilted. (K.L.)

ENTRANCE Directors Dallas Hallam and Patrick Horvath take their time telling the story of beautiful hipster barista Suizey (played by actual beautiful hipster barista Suizey Block, her Elvira haircut perma-perfect even at the character's most agitated), whose increasing loneliness and isolation in a cold, dark Silver Lake hilltop house builds until she impulsively decides to move — an out plan foiled when a creepazoid crashes her going-away bash. That this film exists is evidence of the rising influence of indie horror star Ti West (writer-director of LAFF '06's Trigger Man and LAFF '11 selection The Innkeepers, reviewed below), who pretty much invented the subgenre of slow-burn studies of hot, cool 20-somethings who learn very late in the game that their paranoia is totally justified. But Hallam and Horvath can't pull off the transition from long, "is anything actually happening here?" buildup to genuine horror. Their bloodbath climax is unintentionally funny, and not at all creepy. (K.L.)

GO  ETERNITY Director Sivaroj Kongsakul doesn't skimp on the long takes, nonprofessional performances and elliptical narrative that we've come to expect from films bearing the stamp of the Rotterdam Film Festival — but for its first 10 minutes, Eternity looks like it might be something truly different. It begins with a sort of rural Thai Brown Bunny routine: Across a handful of shots, a man drives around on a motorcycle with no apparent destination, at one point entering and exiting a single shot half a dozen times. Soon enough the oblique metaphysical love story kicks in (the motorcyclist is a ghost, and the bulk of the film recounts his youthful romance) and Kongsakul nudges it along in a gentle, underplayed style. (P.C.)

FAMILIAR GROUND Writer-director Stephane Lafleur's incredibly droll look at one family's multipronged, slow-boil domestic despair (a marriage dying from inertia; a scorching, decades-old sibling rivalry; a father's unshielded and frequently verbalized disappointment in his son; male self-hate that firebombs everything around it) is measured but far from boring. The film's paced dissection of spiritual malaise is smart, sympathetic and at times laugh-out-loud funny. With a wintry Canadian landscape as its backdrop (an ironic metaphor for characters whose surface lives often appear chilled even as they quietly roil inside), the film has a hypnotic quality that pulls you in as layers of its characters' lives are subtly peeled back in scenarios ranging from disastrous family dinners to a road trip with unexpected consequences. The cast is note-perfect, as is the surprise ending. (E.H.)

CRITIC'S PICK  FAMILY INSTINCT An hourlong, slice-of-fucked-up-life portrait of Zanda, a penniless mother raising two kids alone in rural Latvia. Her baby daddy is in prison, and she’s responsible for putting him there — after a fight, she impulsively revealed to the community that her common-law husband is also her brother. As Zanda nervously waits for her lover/brother to finish his sentence, she receives a constant stream of visitors — mostly male, all destitute, crazy-eyed and grotesquely drunk — and mulls over whether to change her life. Director Andris Gauja clearly had fly-on-the-wall access to his not-all-there subjects, but some scenes, shot from multiple angles, are so formally composed as to seem staged. That’s not a bad thing: In all of this desperation and depravity, Gauja rescues a narrative of deep sadness and yearning that’s as touching as the circumstances are shocking. Splitting the difference between the work of the Dardennes brothers and Harmony Korine, Family Instinct is the must-see WTF?!? title of the festival. (K.L.)

CRITIC'S PICK  FAMILY PORTRAIT IN BLACK AND WHITE There’s nothing “post-racial” about the Ukraine depicted in Julia Ivanova’s documentary about single, middle-aged, white Ukranian mom Olga Nenya, whose brood of 27 kids includes 20 foster kids, most of whom are the biracial children of white Ukrainian women and African immigrants. With a population that’s overwhelmingly white, within which is a thriving skinhead community, there’s still huge social stigma in Ukraine around racial intermingling and the children that result. Ivanova painstakingly captures the turbulence within and without Olga’s loving but iron-fist-ruled household, and as the film moves through time, with normal teen rebellion spiked by questions and issues of identity, both Olga’s motives and affections become murkier. One of her foster sons labels her “Stalin,” and the film illustrates that while he’s not simply indulging teen hyperbole , he is somewhat simplifying truth. That Ivanova resists such simplification — painting Olga as neither saint nor villain — makes this Family Portrait riveting. (E.H.)

THE FATHERLESS First-time auteur Marie Kreutzer's cinematic proof of the Tolstoyan notion that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, The Fatherless charts the slow-moving torrent of emotions — few of them cathartic — released by the death of the emotionally distant patriarch of a former hippie commune in rural Austria. The film is more a portrait of the living (including the man's son and two daughters) than an elegy for the dead. Kreutzer favors small moments over sweeping gestures: silence, blurred faces, sun-kissed flashbacks of the man and his many adopted and biological children abound. Kreutzer is attuned to the now-adult children's idiosyncrasies, but this strange crest of family secrets and lies is so stately that what's meant to be revelatory sometimes fails to engage. (M.N.)

HABANA EVA Imagine Drew Barrymore at her most insufferably cute — twinkling and mugging for the camera — and multiply it by 10, and you have an idea of Prakriti Maduro's performance as Eva, a poor seamstress in contemporary Cuba who has to choose between the wealthy Venezuelan tourist who woos her and the longtime boyfriend who's loyal but lazy. Writer-director Fina Torres (who penned the screenplay with Jorge Luis Camacho) tries to give his Cinderella-tinged romcom heft by injecting a voice-over about the dire living conditions of most Cubans, and including lots of admittedly gorgeous shots of dilapidated buildings and vintage cars (best part of the film). But neither those devices nor the ghost of a ribald hooker can offset the saccharine and shameless emotional manipulation. And the ending of faux female empowerment rings extraordinarily hollow. (E.H.)

HOW TO CHEAT There's a wonderful brunch scene in How to Cheat in which a couple secretly struggling to conceive a child endure the comments of friends who are pushing them to have a baby, the friends oblivious to the discomfort being caused. Writer-director Amber Sealy (who also stars as Beth, the female half of the struggling couple) has filled her film with such painful, all-too-real moments. Cheat charts a troubled marriage whose fractures are widened by a host of issues — childlessness, shitty jobs, a general sense that the spouses are just ill-suited for one another. It's not groundbreaking stuff, but the ample time spent on the husband's pain and frustration — especially his bumbling, then life-altering, efforts to have an affair — creates an unexpectedly complex portrait of an ordinary, often annoying man trying to avoid being crushed by the upheavals in his ordinary life. (E.H.)

THE INNKEEPERS It's the last weekend of operation at a creaky old New England inn, and slacker front-desk workers Luke (Pat Healy) and Claire (Sara Paxton) are determined to capture evidence of the ghost that reputedly haunts the halls. Distinguished by low-key character comedy (Claire a well-intentioned goober for whom the surly Luke quietly pines), Ti West's latest lacks the aesthetic precision of his last effort, The House of the Devil — and being that they're both haunted-house movies, the comparison is unavoidable. But even when West isn't at his best, nobody else does this kind of slow-mounting, supernatural spooker better. (K.L.)

LEAVE IT ON THE FLOOR There's much to like in Sheldon Larry and Glenn Gaylord's musical: some wonderfully bitchy one-liners, musical numbers that only just miss their mark but are still largely enjoyable (especially the Stevie Wonder–inflected show tunes), the chance to see L.A. ball culture repped on-screen (with black gay folk taking care of one another), and some amazing eye candy. But much of the exposition-heavy dialogue looks right through the characters to "explain" the milieu (lingo, politics) to outsiders; references and influences (Rent, Dreamgirls, Paris Is Burning) are leaned on too heavily; the ending is so determined to send viewers out of the theater feeling good that conflicts are too quickly (even bafflingly) resolved, with a tragedy that was earlier used to milk tears completely erased. This should be a hoot to watch with a crowd, but it doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. (E.H.)

LOVE CRIME Alain Corneau's Serie Noire, one of the great French crime films, was adapted from Jim Thompson's A Hell of a Woman by novelist Georges Perec, who rendered its dialogue almost entirely in hard-boiled clichés. Three decades later, in his final film (he passed away last August at the age of 67), Corneau transmutes the banalities of Perec's script into the set design for Love Crime, which, for its first hour at least, looks like it was shot in a showroom at the local Ethan Allen. Corneau uses these soulless spaces to mirror the power struggle between an icy Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier (doing her best Chloe Sevigny), potential lovers and competing ladder-climbers at a multinational corporation. A sudden act of violence breaks the movie in two, and what follows pares away Corneau's materialist interest, while unpacking the slyness of the plotting that had preceded it, in order to set up a bitterly sentimental final twist. (P.C.)

MAMITAS At one point in Mamitas, Echo Park bad boy Jordin (E.J. Bonilla) confesses that he's drawn to bookish Felipa (Veronica Diaz-Carranza) because with her he doesn't have to act like the swaggering asshole everyone else expects. The strength of writer-director Nicholas Ozeki's coming-of-age romance is that he strikes a wonderful balance between "performed," expected representations of Latino culture and shrewd dismantling of the same. Jordin comes from a troubled family whose secret-laden past shadows them. Felipa, a New Yorker living with L.A. relatives because of her own family troubles, is the polar opposite of the girls Jordin normally chases. Their initial connection is a little contrived, and the film's ending is rushed, but between those bookends is a sweet exploration of young love against a backdrop of complex family dynamics. Though the writing and pacing could be tighter, Bonilla and Diaz-Carranza have fantastic chemistry. (E.H.)

CRITIC'S PICK  MYSTERIES OF LISBON Filmmaker Raul Ruiz adapts Camilo Branco’s 19th-century Romantic novel and turns it into the kind of utterly absorbing masterwork one might expect from the director of such intricate and playful films as Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, Three Lives and Only One Death and Time Regained (not to mention more than 100 other titles in the last half-century). The grand narrative — which bears comparison to the works of Victor Hugo — emanates from an orphan seeking his identity and expands forward and backward in time through the boy’s relations in the Portuguese aristocracy. Originally a six-hour miniseries, this roughly four-hour theatrical cut entrances with elaborate costumes, candlelit interiors and arresting landscapes. But unlike typical period dramas, it boasts a sly self-consciousness (distortions, exaggerated close-ups and unexpected tracking shots) that emphasizes its artifice. This is a filmmaker who relishes the telling of tales, and his enthusiasm is felt in every frame. (D.C.)

NATURAL SELECTION The inexplicable winner of multiple prizes at this year's SXSW stars comedian Rachael Harris as Linda, a housewife whose devout Christian husband won't have sex with her because she's infertile. When hubby has a stroke, Linda discovers his secret life and hits the road to track down his 23-year-old illegitimate son, a hot loser who is happy to accompany Linda back to meet his dad if it helps him evade the fuzz. This dramedy of an odd couple using the road as a safe space in which to court via the swapping of life stories/life lessons is all post-Sundance cliché. It's not a movie about people living lives, but a movie about collections of quirks moving through situations. (K.L.)

CRITIC'S PICK  ONCE I WAS A CHAMPION An unexpectedly moving look at the short life of Ultimate Fighting Championship star Evan Tanner, Gerard Roxburgh's documentary manages to celebrate its subject without ever slipping into hagiography. Filled with interview and fight footage of Tanner, as well as talking heads powerfully sketching in his life (often moved to tears while doing so), the film maps Tanner's troubled youth, unpredictable and self-sabotaging career choices, battle with alcoholism and the ongoing mystery of his death — was it a suicide? The portrait that emerges is that of a very troubled but deeply spiritual man of surprising intellectual prowess who saw his life as a soul journey with the mandate to treat everyone he met with kindness and respect. This may well be one of the most inspiring and heartbreaking films in the festival. (E.H.) 

CRITIC'S PICK  PAPER SOLDIER One of the most thought-provoking and visually sumptuous films to yet emerge from post-Soviet Russia, Alexey German Jr.'s meditation on the life of individuals caught up in the early-'60s cosmonaut program is at once a tribute to the past and a commentary on the present. Idealistic doctor Danya (played by the brooding Merab Ninidze) must choose the first person to undergo a space launch, a utopian project that increasingly threatens human cost. The film powerfully extrapolates Danya's internal bifurcation by emphasizing his romantic indecision, his dislocation in the barren Kazakh prairies of the launch site (where a Stalinist gulag is in the process of being dismantled), and the Chekhovian, farcical conversations that continually dance around the dread. It's a tribute to a generation of intellectuals and a country in transition, etched with astonishing long takes that echo the work of Tarkovsky and other Soviet and Eastern European filmmakers of the era. (D.C.)

GO  PARAISO FOR SALE The huge numbers of Americans and Canadians (mostly retirees) setting up shop in Latin American countries (where the dollar goes further, and where gorgeous landscapes can be bought for a song) has been well covered in the media. Director Anayansi Prado takes her camera to Panama to capture how the new immigrants, bringing wealth, arrogance and the determination to turn paradise into a grotesque resort, are literally and metaphorically bulldozing indigenous citizens. It's a captivating and infuriating film, a real-life horror flick as we watch smug American developers maneuver the law and taint local politics to achieve their goals. It's inspiring to see countless Panamanian would-be Davids standing up to assorted gringo Goliaths, but the slow-growing pessimism and cynicism of native citizens in the face of a clearly rigged system are depressing to witness. (E.H.) 

GO  PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB This short, vérité-style narrative feature, directed by Mohsen Abdolvahab, consists of three loosely connected stories unfolding on a single day in contemporary Tehran. A game-show host tries to prevent his wife from going public about his domestic abuse; a cleric fields calls from the thief who stole his wallet; and an elderly couple attempt to prevent a suspicious repairman from entering their home. The tone throughout these public/private negotiations is unexpectedly neurotic-comic (the husband's defensive "jokes" about the history of wife beating feel like a bizarro-world Larry David rationalization routine), which allows Abdolvahab to breeze through a variety of Big Social Issues without lecturing or coming off as heavy-handed. (K.L.)

CRITIC'S PICK  POSITION AMONG THE STARS You don't need to have seen 2001's The Eye of the Day or 2005's Shape of the Moon to be moved and awed by the final leg in Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich's warmhearted doc trilogy involving the Sjamsuddin family from the chaotic slums of Jakarta. Rather than another weepy lament over the anesthetizing effects of Third World poverty, this patient but wildly expressionistic mosaic uses a canvas so vast that not just the subjects but fighting fish, cockroaches and the mangiest rat yet committed to cinema complete a bizarre ecosystem of co-dependence. There are no talking heads or voice-over, just acrobatic vérité camera work, allowing the rapidly changing details of this post-globalized society to be mirrored in the day-in-the-life toils of middle-aged slacker Bakti, his ball-busting Christian mother, Rumidjah, and his mildly Westernized young niece, Tari. (A.H.)

THE PRUITT-IGOE MYTH Directed by Chad Friedrichs, this documentary painstakingly illustrates how racism, classism and government agencies — all in the service of big business — shaped the horrors of St. Louis' notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project, demolished in 1972 after being allowed to slide from a state-of-the-art planned community to a hellhole of violence and despair. Nothing revealed in the film is really news, though seeing it all carefully laid out on-screen by talking heads (social scientists, journalists, former residents of Pruitt-Igoe) is maddening, while old news and stock footage of the project is riveting. Given the ongoing shredding of the social safety net in America, the film's greatest service might be to remind us that programs and services for the poor have always had hostile enemies, and the assaults taking place now are nothing new. (E.H.)

SALAAM DUNK Basketball is an escape — from regressive gender roles and daily life in a nation torn from within and occupied by outsiders — in Salaam Dunk, David Fine's documentary chronicling a year in the life of the women's basketball team at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. Though the subject is ripe for sentimental affectation, Fine's approach is commendably evenhanded. His focus is more on the inexperienced but determined young women at AUI-S than on the war-torn milieu that surrounds them. Having lived through displacement and tragedy, they treat the basketball court not as another battle zone but rather as a place of fellowship and unity. They're genuine exemplars of strength wrought by hardship. (M.N.)

GO  SAWDUST CITY Written, directed by and starring David Nordstrom (lead of LAFF '05 title Trona), Sawdust City begins with a gracefully ingenious montage, soundtracked by a phone call between Bob (Nordstrom) and his brother, Pete (Carl McLaughlin), establishing their relationship and situation: Bob's married and stuck in the dying lumber town in which they grew up, Pete's a drifter currently in the military, they're estranged, it's Thanksgiving, Pete's in town for one night and he wants to see their alcoholic father. The brothers hop bars all day and night, slowly dropping their masculine fronts and revealing long-buried resentments. Nordstrom demonstrates an uncanny feel for the shape and architecture of drunken misadventure, with James Laxton's digital cinematography carving a tangible mood out of smoke, steam and snow. But because the narrative premise is an obvious MacGuffin, there's nowhere for this to build but to a blowout marked by disappointingly generic dialogue ("I was running away from you!" "You were running away from yourself!"). Sawdust City is just good enough that you wish it were better. (K.L.)

SELF MADE In British artist Gillian Wearing's experimental docu-stunt, a group of non-thespians are put through a crash course in Method acting, with the goal of translating their traumatic personal histories into staged short films within the film. The process — the intense workshopping the participants go through, alone and as a group, to learn how to first access and then express their memories — is more interesting than the end product. One player, after acting out a dramatization of his worst fear, sums up my feelings about the short films exactly: "I was hoping it would be metaphorical, rather than explicit. But it just turned into explicit." But the tension that runs throughout between "real" and performed, recorded and created, is compelling, particularly if you think of Self Made as a companion to that other recent, British performative documentary puzzle, The Arbor. (K.L.)

SENNA Asif Kapadia's documentary on the life, career and death of Brazilian Formula One race car driver Ayrton Senna is composed entirely of archival footage — from TV broadcasts, home movies and, most powerfully, the flickering feeds captured by helmet cams, which put the viewer in Senna's seat for a number of races, including the one that killed him. Audio interviews with racing experts and Senna intimates are laid on top of a pulsing electro score, but they fall a bit short in providing context: While illustrating in depth the racer's complicated relationship with the sport's governing body and his rivals, the film fails to make a case for why Senna's story has any larger relevance outside the world of Formula One. But there's no denying the visceral impact of its best sequences, particularly the harrowing climax. (K.L.)

SEX CRIMES UNIT In many ways, Sex Crimes Unit is just a couple of real-life Law & Order: SVU episodes mixed together. But this documentary about the formation and day-to-day challenges of New York's sex crimes unit is so engrossing that its surface familiarity is not an issue. Particularly illuminating are the talking heads who outline the history of the unit, and the countless ways it has been at the forefront of changing laws and cultural attitudes (viewers are reminded — or newly informed — that as recently as 20 years ago, marital rape was not a crime, and acquaintance rapes weren't prosecuted almost everywhere in America). Both behind-the-scenes strategizing and courtroom footage of real-life cases unfold before the camera, illustrating just what's at stake for this office and the victims it represents. (E.H.)

TYRANNOSAUR Written and directed by actor Paddy Considine, Tyrannosaur traverses well-trod territory — a damaged old crank brought to redemption by an angelic female savior — without offering much in the way of invention. Peter Mullan plays Joseph, an elderly vandal who kicks his own dog to death. Hannah (Olivia Colman) is the religious shop owner who prays for his soul while fighting to escape her monstrous husband (Eddie Marsan). A color palette inspired by the low-hanging Leeds sky enhances a lingering sense of doom. Virtually hopeless and brutal for brutality's sake, the film does feature multifaceted performances by Mullan and Colman, and careful direction by Considine, all of whom won prizes at Sundance for their work. (S.L.)

GO  UNFINISHED SPACES In 1961, Fidel Castro asked three architects to design a complex of buildings to house Cuba's new National Art Schools. Inspired by the feeling of freedom in the air, the chosen designers set out to create structures that would embody the utopian ethics of the revolution. And then the ethics of the revolution changed, and construction was halted indefinitely. The unfinished buildings still stand, a reminder of the lost promise of the '60s, and of how the ideals that fueled that era soured once given practical application. Composed primarily of archival footage and candid interviews with the now-aged architects, Spaces gets flabby as it goes on, but it's still a fascinating example of a nation's evolution told through the life of a single art project. (K.L.)

UNRAVELED In 2009, attorney Marc Dreier admitted to forgeries that netted his law firm more than $750 million. Directed by former Dreier employee Marc Simon, Unraveled investigates the strange mix of hubris and low self-esteem that drives people with enormous amounts of money to do incredibly stupid things. Under house arrest in his Manhattan apartment, Dreier narrates his own rise and fall through interviews interspersed with graphic-novel-style re-enactments of his crimes, an odd directorial choice that verges on distracting. Simon's stated goal is for audiences to understand Dreier on his own terms, so Dreier, his son and his lawyers constitute the film's entire cast. The absence of input from others involved and a lack of compelling visual footage detract from this otherwise mesmerizing glimpse inside the mind of a white-collar thief. (S.L.)

WISH ME AWAY This confessional documentary looks at the country music world from a new angle: the closet. Directors Bobbie Berleffi and Beverly Kopf relay Chely Wright's long, painful process of coming out as the first openly gay country singer, and subsequently going from mainstay of the Nashville-centric scene to pariah. Archival footage of Wright's public life is backed with intimate voice-over in which she recalls private agonies: the dissolution of relationships, acts of deflection and repression, and a near-suicide attempt with a loaded gun. Betraying a need to be liked that hasn't left her even as she's gained a renewed sense of self, the image Wright leaves is of a woman tiptoeing in and out of the spotlight, hoping to reconcile her star persona with her true self. (M.N.)

GO  WHERE SOLDIERS COME FROM They come from lower-class families in rural northern Michigan, or so illustrates Heather Courtney's eye-opening and riveting, four-years-in-the-making doc portrait of childhood friends who decide to join the National Guard after high school to escape dead-end futures. The pragmatic belief is that college tuition and signing bonuses are worth deployment to Afghanistan, but Courtney avoids the maddening obviousness of that bitter socioeconomic truth through humanity and understatement. We candidly see how the battlefields wear down these wartime neophytes into apathetic, even misanthropic shells of their former selves; the relatable emotional shades from their nervous families also are colored in. Never heavy-handed, intrusively stylized or wagging its finger at foreign-policy hypocrisies we've all heard before, the film's greatest heartbreak is showing how the only way for some to survive on the home front is to continually risk permanent injury overseas. (A.H.)

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