On its face, 96 hours feels like a lot of time, especially when you’re thinking in terms of 90 minutes movies. But in reality, it flies by, leaving you in a kind of glorious exhaustion. Your head is swimming with ideas and images, and all you want to do is drink a cup of tea and dream about them while you catch up on the sleep you missed.
At least, all that is kind of how I feel the day after True/False 2018. It was a strange year for the festival as I heard alternating theories about the strength of this year’s program. Some said it was the strongest in years, while others thought it was a down year. I was a big fan of the relative consistency of last year’s festival as I didn’t see anything below a “B-” grade. But while there were definitely a few duds this go-round there were also a plethora of standouts, each of which captured my imagination and soul in new, experimental ways.
I’ll start this roundup with my day four recap before offering some general festival highlights, including the five movies that deserve a shout-out heading into the 2018 film year.
I wasn’t as big on Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine back in 2016, and I often felt like I was in the minority. It was an in-your-face effort that felt equal parts revolutionary and manipulative, but even I could tell Greene was right on the cusp of a masterpiece. Said masterpiece arrived at this year’s festival, with local celebrity Greene screening Bisbee ‘17 (Grade: A), a haunting, visceral piece of Americana that feels just at home in the early 20th century as it does now.
Marking the centennial of the Bisbee deportation – when 1,200 immigrant union workers were rounded up and shipped into the Arizona desert to be left for dead – Greene’s full ambitions and strengths are on display. In a post-film Q&A session, Greene talked about his 15 year history with the town, and both the trust he’s built with the city and the care he feels for it are both evident. It is equal parts gut-bustingly funny and existentially horrifying as we’re forced to reckon with the skeletons of that have long been stashed in the darkest corners of American closets. Still though, if the ghosts of our ancestors makes up the film’s bones, the grief and timeliness it exudes makes up its soul. It’s a work that is essential in the present, and will age well as a layered period piece.
In what was sure to be the most sure thing of the festival, I got into the last screening of Academy Award winner Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Grade: B+), and it has the characteristic Neville touch. It has a traditional documentary feel, but the tenderness and compassion Neville brings to his subjects – this time, the iconic Fred Rogers – is always wholly in awe of the work they do and the lives they live.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, much like it’s subject, run the risk of being tooth-achingly sweet, but this is where Neville’s expertise comes into play. He doesn’t as much reveal Rogers demons – though he does touch on some ideas some people might find questionable – as he does reveal Rogers’ hurts and pains. His portrait of Rogers always finds its foundation in the titular Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, be they the puppets or the crew. It’s a touching, almost overwhelmingly wholesome film, but one that holds a radical center based in love and respect. It was also one of the most religious films at the fest, never shying away from Rogers’ conservative roots and highlighting the intentional, incredible love he emulated from his Savior. Mark this one down as one people might be talking about during Oscar season next year.
Before I got to the festival’s closing film, I got to take part in one of True/False’s secret screenings. By obligation, I can’t say much about the film I watched, but if it ends up getting a wider release, I’ll be sure to remark on it here at Cinema Faith.
The weekend’s final film, which will be widely available on HBO later this year, was Nathanial Kahn’s The Price of Everything (Grade: C+) a deep, frustrating dive into the world of art, art collecting, and art dealing. I don’t say frustrating as a necessarily negative thing; Kahn pointed out beforehand the film would likely draw some harsh feelings. However, I found it oddly celebratory and humanizing for a film so focused on the hyper-capitalist nature of the art world at large. The film drew big laughs and reactions from the crowd, but I was too caught up in the contradictory tone and message the film seemed to be offering. With Bisbee ‘17, I talked about the trust you could feel between Greene and his subjects. Here, Kahn seems to maintain an uncomfortable distance from his most sympathetic characters, while humanizing some particularly nasty people. There’s a clear spectrum of protagonists and antagonists, and to Kahn’s credit, he eventually picks up on a cohesive pattern. However, it doesn’t come until about the final 30 minute stretch, leaving me with more heartburn than appreciation.
With all that being said, here are a few spare thoughts about the festival.
- I was very impressed with the way the True/False programmers struck a cohesive tone with their choices. Even when I didn’t enjoy movies, they all felt part of a whole, which left me with a really enjoyable festival experience.
- This year featured an incredible lineup of both first-time feature directors (RaMell Ross, Sandi Tan, Anna Frances Ewert), and festival veterans (Robert Greene, Morgan Neville, Bart Layton), and I’d love to see that continue into future lineup decisions.
- Two of the films I really didn’t connect with this year – Three Identical Strangers and The Price of Everything – have earned good reviews from other critics, so I might need to give them another look down the road.
- The landscape of non-fiction films is changing, as evidenced by the presence of films like American Animals and The Rider, the latter of which I didn’t get to see. It seems like we’re moving away from more traditional documentaries into a melding of fiction and non-fiction forms, much like the style of Robert Greene and Kitty Green. It’s pretty exciting to watch.
Recommended: Five films to watch in 2018
- Bisbee ‘17 (dir. Robert Greene): I just wrote about this one above, but it really is the the perfect realization of tone and form. With Greene’s unique vision, it’s wildly entertaining and sickening, all while maintaining the pace it wants. It’s uncompromising filmmaking at its very best.
- Shirkers (dir. Sandi Tan): On the other side of the brilliance spectrum, Sandi Tan reclaims a piece of her past in this wild, fem-punk masterpiece. This is one that, amazingly, will be available to a wide audience later this year (Netflix), and everyone should take the opportunity to watch it. It’s both a wider celebration of women and people of color in film, while maintaining the personal touch Tan brings with her own, roller-coaster story.
- Hale County This Morning, This Evening (dir. RaMell Ross): A Sundance award winner, Ross’ 76-minute epic is one that transports you, body and soul, into a world you’ve likely never experienced. This is essential viewing, especially for white audiences, as it reshapes the way African-American stories are told in a way that is both visionary and accessible. When you’ve got me thinking about both Moonlight and Twin Peaks in the same movie, you’re doing something right.
- Lovers of the Night (dir. Anna Frances Ewert): This simple, elegant portrait of Irish monks in the twilight of their lives is perhaps the most “Cinema Faith-y” movie I saw this weeked. It’s both celebratory and profoundly thoughtful as the monks impart both their joys and fears, allowing the graceful, gentle hand of Ewert to craft a poetic, master stroke debut.
- Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (dir. Morgan Neville): Easily the most accessible film on this list, Morgan Neville has once again created a delicate, rounded portrait of one of America’s true heroes. With his radical acceptance of love and respect in the face of a cold, uncaring world, Mr. Rogers’ story should transform both the way we see ourselves and our neighbors. It’s a commentary on the lives he touched, both inside and outside the television studio, and a reminder of the worthwhile effort it would be to follow in his footsteps.
I want to give a special shoutout to Jon and Dan for letting me do this for the past two years, and I hope to continue doing it at future True/False festivals. To everyone who took the time to read and share, thank you from the bottom of my heart. It’s an honor to continue writing for a website I believe in as we seek to celebrate the medium of film through the eyes and spirit of Christ.