Top picks for BIFF

Four docs and two dramas to see at this year’s fest

In June of 1964, hundreds of college students, eager to join the civil rights movement, traveled to Mississippi and started what would be known as Freedom Summer. That same month, two groups of young men -- made up of musicians, college students and record collectors -- also traveled to Mississippi. Though neither group was aware of the other, each had come on the same errand: to find an old blues singer and coax him out of retirement. Two Trains Runnin' tells the story of these groups.

Boulder audiences love a good documentary. And from Feb. 22–25, the Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF) returns to help Boulderites scratch the educational itch with a lineup that holds a little something for everyone.

Of the 34 features screening at this year’s festival, 23 are documentaries, including BIFF’s closing night movie, a work in progress from Boulder-based photographer James Balog. What does Balog’s latest hold in store for audiences? Hard to say at this point, but if past results are any indicator, then Balog’s latest is sure to capture the city’s hearts and minds.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and jump to the end; there’s an awful lot of good in between that would be a shame to miss. Namely, the best movie screening at BIFF: Faces Places (Feb. 23, 10 a.m., Boulder Theater). Yes, this column has droned on long enough about Agnès Varda and JR’s remarkable road trip/art project, but now Boulder audiences have their chance to see this masterpiece on the big screen and experience this Oscar-nominated doc’s charming and life-affirming sensibility first-hand.

Moving from the French countryside to the Deep South, Two Trains Runnin’ (Feb. 23, 7:15 p.m., Boulder Theater) is a retrospective documentary about a group of college friends who loved the Delta blues so much they packed up and went in search of their heroes: Skip James and Sun House.

The year was 1964, and tracking down two retired musicians from the ’30s was neither an easy nor a welcome task. As the title alludes, there are two narratives at work, the first a recollection of three college buddies working their way through the South, trying to track down their musical idols; the second, the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-’60s. One part memoir, one part history lesson, Two Trains Runnin’ uses archival footage, animation and contemporary interviews to further explore the intersection of popular art and the Civil Rights Movement.

Andre – The Voice of Wine

Heading west, we find ourselves basking in the Golden State’s sunshine with a man who saw eternity in a glass of wine, Andre: The Voice of Wine (Feb. 24, 12:15 p.m., First Presbyterian Church).

Directed by Mark Tchelistcheff, the grandnephew of the doc’s subject, Andre recounts the life and work of André Tchelistcheff, one of California’s most influential winemakers.

After fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917, Tchelistcheff found success in the vineyards of France until Georges de Latour of Beaulieu Vineyards (BV) recruited the Russian refugee to shepherd his Napa Valley vineyards in post-prohibition California. For the next 56 years, Tchelistcheff would not only shape Californian winemaking techniques, he would change the course of wine history with 1976’s Judgment of Paris — where a California cabernet and a chardonnay beat out a Bordeaux and a Burgundy in a blind taste test.

From those sun-dappled vineyards, we move to Montana and much darker territory with Dark Money (Feb. 25, 2:45 p.m., Boulder Theater). It’s politics, after all, how uplifting could it be?

Directed by Kimberly Reed — who will appear in-person following Sunday’s screening — Dark Money looks at how Montana dealt with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows unlimited election donations from completely anonymous donors. Established in 1988, Citizens United is a pro-corporation advocacy group and its shadowy tactics have shaped elections, big and small, ever since. This might seem like rote news to those who keep close eyes on politics, but there are several similarities between Montana and Colorado that makes this doc particularly prescient for local audiences.

Dark Money — like Andre, Two Trains Runnin’ and Faces Places — is a wonderful way to learn about the world around us, but these docs are not the only way. Often times, the truth is best conveyed through the lens of a scripted movie, as can be seen in Sally Potter’s The Party (Feb. 23, 2:15 p.m., Boulder Theater).

Set in modern-day London and shot in stark black and white, The Party is a rip-roaring collection of backstabbers trying to outdo each other with their own selfishness and entitlement. And it’s a comedy! Racing along at 71 minutes, The Party — both a reference to the dinner party and the political party host Kristin Scott Thomas has recently been elected to — features some of Europe’s finest actors: Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Bruno Ganz and Cherry Jones, spraying truth, vitriol and comedic pettiness. It’s the kind of movie you watch and secretly hope is a fantasy, but deep down you know it’s as real as the nose on your face.

The Party

So it goes for The Insult (Feb. 24, 2:30 p.m., First Presbyterian Church), Lebanon’s entry for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar.

Directed by Ziad Doueiri and set in Beirut, The Insult begins with an anti-Palestinian Christian accidentally spilling water on a Muslim construction foreman. No apology is given and though the foreman tries to fix the drainpipe, a sudden aggressive outburst elicits a foul and offensive slur. Both men, harboring deep anger, pain and resentment, dig their heels in and slurs become hate, hate becomes violence and the legal system must intervene.

From here, The Insult gives way to a stunning courtroom drama, one that peers beneath the veneer of bigotry and hate, to the horrors of the past. We have all been wronged, the movie posits, but who has been wronged more?

The insult

It’s a sneaky film; one that builds piece by piece until its larger objective becomes clear and you can’t help but fall under its spell. Not every movie sticks to the ribs, but The Insult is like peanut butter; you’ll carry this one around for some time. Hell, it might even make you see the world from both sides. What a wonderful thought.