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Best of the Fest 

Our critics' recommendations from this year's films.

Wednesday, Apr 23 2008
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Alexandra
(Alexander Sokurov, Russia)

Spare yet tactile, a mysterious mixture of lightness and gravity, Alexander Sokurov's Alexandra is founded on contradiction. Musing on war in general and the Russian occupation of Chechnya in particular, this is a movie in which combat is never shown. The star, octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, is an opera diva who never sings. Sokurov, who has more than once attempted to document the Russian soul, may be a visionary, but his eponymous protagonist is resolutely down-to-earth. An instant anomaly, Alexandra clambers out from a transport train into a dusty station — presumably at some point during the second Chechen war. Stern and stolid, when not sighing with annoyance, the old lady is surrounded by Russian troops and a swirl of whispers, laughs, and faint melody. Alexandra has come to see her grandson, an army captain in his late 20s, and is escorted to the base, at one point riding in a tank. The son of a Soviet military officer, Sokurov spent his childhood moving from base to base, and there's a mascot quality to Alexandra as she makes her tour of inspection. The movie has no shortage of incident, but it's less a narrative than a situation: The emphasis is on boredom and routine. Sokurov may not clarify the situation in Chechnya but, in chronicling Alexandra's trip to the front, he illuminates its reality. J. Hoberman
At the Sundance Kabuki Fri., April 25, 7 p.m. and Sun., April 27, noon; at the Pacific Film Archive Sun., May 4, 4:15 p.m.

Ballast
(Lance Hammer, USA)

It's winter in Mississippi Delta country, where every step squishes into mud or debris. The world is falling apart for a man whose twin brother has just committed suicide, prompting him to attempt the same thing. The dead man's ex-wife struggles to keep her adolescent son away from drug dealers, while the boy auditions surrogate fathers to serve as ballast for his wildly lurching life. Indelible performances by the nonprofessional actors in Lance Hammer's debut feature show a sluggish but unmistakable progress from despair to self-respect. A few ordinary images are made remarkable and funny by the compassion that has engendered them: a woman stalking angrily next door to yell at her brother-in-law; a man and boy choosing Cheerios, then something more sugary, from a minimart shelf; a wolf-dog suddenly looming into a frame, frightening the boy; a DHL box opened to reveal an algebra textbook. Frako Loden
At the Pacific Film Archive Fri., May 2, 6:30 p.m.; at the Sundance Kabuki Sun., May 4, 12:45 p.m. and Wed., May 7, 6:30 p.m.

Ezra
(Newton I. Aduaka, Nigeria/France/Austria)

The blood-diamond industry and its victims get a properly Afrocentric makeover in this fevered drama about a traumatized former child soldier cracking up under questioning by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone. Unsparing, pedagogic, and genuinely compelling, Ezra, like Ed Zwick's 2006 Blood Diamond, supplies context aplenty for the armed children springing up all over Africa, fingering the tainted diamond industry that lines the pockets of Northern Hemisphere profiteers while exacerbating vicious civil wars across the continent. But British-based Nigerian director Newton I. Aduaka, working with a modest budget and no Hollywood stars, offers a character study at once more personal and political than Zwick's flashier picture. Kidnapped by rebel thugs while skipping to school in his peaceful village, Ezra — played as a teenager with brooding intensity by Mamoudu Turay Kamara — suffers brutal brainwashing topped up with hallucinogenic drugs that dehumanize him until he can be made a killing machine. Once he's rescued, only amnesia protects him from total disintegration. The recovery of his past is complicated by his sister (Mariame N'Diaye), who has lost her tongue but finds her voice in public testimony. Though far from subtle, Ezra movingly complicates the distinctions between victim and aggressor, between forgetting and forgiving, while cutting the glibness from the claim that the truth shall set you free. Ella Taylor
At the Sundance Kabuki Sun., April 27, 9 p.m. and Tue., April 29, 3:30 p.m.; at the Pacific Film Archive Thu., May 1, 6:30 p.m.

The Judge and the General
(Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco, USA/Chile)

Who could imagine a scenario more compelling than The Judge and the General? A lower-level judicial bureaucrat, a passive supporter of the 1973 coup that had overthrown an elected Marxist government, is assigned an investigation into the reputed crimes of the new regime. He uncovers documents in his own hand denying writs of habeas corpus sought by families of missing victims of the coup ... and then he begins uncovering the bodies of those victims. One disinterred corpse had been shot in the head. Another had been tied to a rail and thrown into the ocean. Ultimately he weighs indicting the coup leader himself, Chilean General Augusto Pinochet. Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco's film tells this compelling story, its protagonist Judge Juan Guzmán, whose rulings determine the rest of the former president's life. Farnsworth, an East Bay filmmaker and contributor to PBS' NewsHour, and Lanfranco, a Chilean, have done a fine job using their film to reveal not just the horror of the individual crimes, but also the support those crimes received from our own government. Gregg Rickman
At the Sundance Kabuki Sun., May 4, 3 p.m. and Mon., May 5, 6 p.m.; at the Pacific Film Archive Tue., May 6, 6:30 p.m.

Medicine for Melancholy
(Barry Jenkins, USA)

Part mood piece, part awkward love story, and part sociological exposé, San Francisco writer-director Barry Jenkins' debut feature is some kind of wonderful. This day in the life of a young African-American couple (Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins) begins when they wake up the morning after they meet at a house party. Shot in timeless black-and-white, ranging across the city from the Marina to the Tenderloin to SOMA, the movie is simultaneously a laid-back sketch of a stutter-step courtship and a scathing comment on what it is to be black, middle-class, and invisible in San Francisco. The tone, though, is wistful rather than angry. This is the rare film that is as thoughtful as it is sensual, as attuned to personal epiphanies as it is to social injustice. Vaguely reminiscent of Charles Burnett's Los Angeles–set classic, Killer of Sheep, Medicine for Melancholy joins the short list of essential San Francisco indie films that includes Steal America and Revolution Summer. It deserves the wide audience, however, that eluded those movies. Michael Fox
At the Sundance Kabuki Wed., April 30, 9:15 p.m. and Wed., May 7, 3:30 p.m.; at the Pacific Film Archive Tue., May 4, 8:15 p.m.

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