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What to see during the Philadelphia Film Festival's first week

See a retro musical ("La La Land"), a devastating drama ("Moonlight") and even a hilarious three-hour German comedy ("Toni Erdmann") before anyone.

Sorry, everyone, but reports of cinema’s death have been greatly exaggerated. If Hollywood is hurting, indies and art house fare are thriving. Feel free to gorge on the good stuff at the Philadelphia Film Festival, which runs from Oct. 20 through Oct. 30, and offers early looks at the Ryan Gosling-Emma Stone musical “La La Land” (even we haven’t seen it yet) and the Amy Adams-headlining alien drama “Arrival” (ditto). Here’s what we have seen:

‘BUGS’
Simultaneously enlightening and disgusting, this doc follows a pair of hipster food scientists as they argue for bugs as the next wave of eating habits. Global population is skyrocketing, they point out, and we might as well chill to the idea that beetles and bees and crickets and ants could be the next sustainable food sources. Judging from their faces they even taste good, whether imbibed raw or as handsome high-end dishes. Not that “BUGS” only argues for chomping on locusts. As it goes on it becomes a trenchant look at the difficulty of being a do-gooder over the long haul, and not just a demented form of food porn. (Matt Prigge) Fri., Oct. 21, 7:35 p.m., Ritz East; Thurs., Oct. 27, 4:40 p.m., Ritz East

‘Christine’
The story of Christine Chubbuck — the Florida news reporter who shot herself live on the air in 1974 — is upsetting enough that it’s birthed two movies this year. There’s Robert Greene’s doc “Kate Plays Christine,” which argued that any traditional biopic about her would be an ethical violation. And there’s Antonio Campos’ “Christine,” a traditional biopic. But Campos’ entry isn’t so easily taken down. Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck as a bundle of nerves, lonely and desperately trying to make it as a journalist who can (but won’t) make a difference. Rather than cancelling each other out, the two “Christine”s work better together; in tandem they add up to a devastating portrait of depression that rescues a lost soul from being a “Faces of Death”-style horrorshow. (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 7 p.m., Ritz East

‘Do Not Resist’
An activist doc that’s as formally exciting as it is blood-curdling, this study of the growing militarization of the police doesn’t need to lecture us to get under our skin. Starting with hair-raising footage from Ferguson, director Craig Atkinson patiently tracks through a new problem that’s already well out of control, with localized police forces cheerfully taking federal money and military do-hickeys to combat the citizens it should be protecting, not attacking. The issue reaches its darkly comic apex with no less than Rand Paul asking why small town police forces have added bayonets (!!) to their arsenals. (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 7:35 p.m., Ritz Five

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‘Fire at Sea’
Italy’s submission to the Foreign Language Oscar, the newest doc from Gianfranco Rosi sounds topical: It’s a look at the migrant crisis. Specifically it looks at the tiny Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, which has long served as a makeshift way station for refugees — some 150,000 a year, in fact — trying to cross into Europe. Not all of them make it, including the batch seen in the hair-raising opening. Rosi spends the film juxtaposing various, usually unbearably grim sojourns with life on the island; there, despite only eight square miles to deal with, life goes on. Most of the time we hang with Samuele, a precociously confident boy with not much to do except destroy cactus plants with slingshots and await a go-nowhere future in a land with not much to offer. Rosi isn’t equating the two sides, but he is drawing comparisons, viewing life in a pocket of the world where futures, or even the present, are unbearably unstable, or toxically circular. (M.P.) Fri., Oct. 21, 2 p.m., Ritz East; Sun., Oct. 23, 2:20 p.m., Prince Theater

‘Graduation’
The films of the Romanian New Wave call to mind a TV procedural, as though most of these titles comprised an Eastern European version of “The Naked City”; each one might as well end with the words, “There are 19 million stories in Romania; this has been one of them.” And here’s another: A doctor (Adrian Titieni) badly fumbles about as he tries to ensure his college-bound daughter (Maria Dragus), who’s been sexually assaulted and can’t concentrate on her final round of exams, actually makes it to good school in England, away from her miserable nation. These stories, about ethical dilemmas, byzantine bureaucracies and bullheaded plebeians, never get old, especially if they’re told by Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”). He has an instinctive sense of plotting, framing and a pitch black sense of humor, even in the face of humanity’s worst. Watching our well-meaning but dodgily motivated antihero try to contain the uncontainable, then deal with his whole life crumbling around him, is clear-eyed, killer stuff. (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 2:15 p.m., Ritz East; Tues., Oct. 25, 6:35 p.m., Ritz East

‘The Handmaiden’
“Oldboy” bomb-thrower Park Chan-wook goes period, but the results are far from staid; indeed, it might be the most compulsively watchable film he’s ever made. Rejiggering Sarah Waters’ lesbian romance “Fingersmith” from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, “The Handmaiden” follows a pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) hired by a cad (Ha Jung-woo) to help with his scheme to marry an heiress (Kim Min-hee). Instead the two women fall in love, yielding a flurry of betrayals and some old-fashioned, semi-comedic classic Park nastiness. The acrobatic, “Blue is the Warmest Color”-esque sex scenes are pure male gaze (complete with a vag-cam), but Park always knows where his allegiance lies. The men are awful and the better gender is heroic and badass. It’s trash on the side of angels, and good, good fun. (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 10:15 p.m., Prince Theater

'The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki'
This modest black-and-white Finnish film chronicles featherweight boxer Olli Maki (Jarkko Lahti) as he prepares for his 1962 championship match against American Davey Moore (John Bosco, Jr.). Olli apparently has fallen in love with Raija (Oona Airola). This “distraction” leads to the pugilist to fight more with his trainer, Elis (Eero Milonoff), than inside the ring. Elis repeatedly battles the love-struck Olli to lose weight and stay focused during promotional events and sparring. While Lahti is impressively moody in the title role, “The Happiest Day” is a benign character study that never builds enough excitement or dramatic tension—even during the climactic bout. (Gary M. Kramer) Fri., Oct. 21, 5:15 p.m., Ritz East; Sat., Oct. 22, 12 p.m., Ritz East

‘I, Daniel Blake’
For better and worse, the new Ken Loach film is a Ken Loach film. There will be righteously angry working class Englanders. There will be corny jokes. There will be at least two or three times when the plotting, by Loach’s longtime regular writer Paul Laverty, will turn so calculatedly grim you can only respond with a forehead-slap. And there will be times when you forgive the preachiness because Loach understands the down-and-out like no other. Here, an aging, ailing construction worker (comic Dave Johns) suffers through the labyrinth of England’s bureaucracy, making friends with a sparkplug single mom (Hayley Squires) in similarly dire straits. Mystifyingly, this all-too-typical entry scored this year’s Palme d’Or, which only makes it seem worse: you’re better off focusing on the little bits that kill, not the big moves that don’t. (M.P.) Sun., Oct. 23, 4:45 p.m., Ritz East

'Illegitimate'
This gripping Romanian drama opens with a heated argument during a family lunch. Much to his children’s dismay, Victor (Adrian Titieni), the patriarch, admits he prevented women from having abortions during the Communist regime. When his daughter Sasha (co-writer Alina Grigore, outstanding) discovers she is pregnant by her twin brother Romeo (Robi Urs), she wants to terminate. However, Romeo is determined to keep their baby. Director/co-writer Adrian Sitaru deftly navigates the family’s social and moral conundrums without judgment. As his handheld camera zooms in on the characters during their most uncomfortable moments, “Illegitimate” maximizes the intensity and emotions. (G.M.K.) Mon., Oct. 24, 12:50 p.m., Ritz East

‘King Cobra’
At once campy and deeply felt, Justin Kelly’s gay porn romp goofs on the true story of Brent Corrigan, a young lad so strapping he started a war between rival producers. Disney Channel star Garrett Clayton dirties up his image as the obscure and not too bright object of desire, a “twink” who signs up with a lonesome but enterprising suburban porn-maker (Christian Slater). He’s so endowed that a pair of coked-up idiots (producer James Franco and Keegan Allen) try to steal him to their side, with grisly results. On top of nailing a tricky tone, it confirms that the Slater-aissance is real: The actor’s deeply melancholic turn makes this more than laugh-at-the-morons sleaze, though that would have been fine, too. (M.P.) Tues., Oct. 26, 9:10 p.m., Ritz East

'Lost in Paris'
The latest bit of brightly-colored whimsy by Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon — the rubber-faced, rubber-limbed comedians/directors (“Rumba,” “The Iceberg,” “The Fairy”) — is disappointing for the couple’s fans, but still somewhat delightful. Fiona (Gordon) is a Canadian who travels to Paris to locate her aunt Martha (Emmanuelle Riva). When Fiona gets lost, she encounters the homeless Dom (Abel) and they share a series of slapstick adventures together. While hilarity ensues during a restaurant sequence, some of the episodes — underwater or on the Eiffel Tower — are more strained than amusing. Still, the sight gags and pratfalls will have you chuckling. (G.M.K.) Mon., Oct. 24, 3:10 p.m., Ritz East; Tues., Oct. 25, 12 p.m., Ritz East

'LoveTrue'
Alma Har’el’s exquisitely made documentary (produced by Shia LaBeouf) features three stories about love — but they aren't love stories. In Alaska, Joel loves Blake, a dancer; in Hawaii, Willie, a surfer, loves his son; and in New York City, Victory, a teenager, loves her parents. Har’el gets her subjects to open up and discuss some painful things about their lives and relationships, and some of the revelations are heartbreaking. But it is Har’el’s distinctive approach to storytelling — she employs an actress to portray “Older Blake” — that add layers of depth and meaning. “LoveTrue” is unusual, but it is also poignant and inspiring. (G.M.K.) Fri., Oct. 21, 5:15 p.m., Ritz Five

‘Manchester by the Sea’
You know that part in bad grieving dramas where there’s a sudden bit of comic relief, and all the characters chuckle then get back to being grossly sentimental and phony? “Manchester by the Sea” destroys that cliché at least 100 times. That’s to say it’s actually funny, and also never sentimental. The third film from Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me,” “Margaret”) follows a grouchy Boston janitor (Casey Affleck) as he returns to his hometown to deal with the aftermath of a death in the family. His brother (Kyle Chandler) has suddenly died, leaving a sarcastic son (Lucas Hedges), a house and a busted boat. There’s also an ex-wife (Michelle Williams) he’d rather not see, for reasons that are far from the norm. What follows is an acutely observed look at the grieving process, the way painful memories suddenly pop up at the drop of a hat, the way men don’t like to talk about their feelings, especially if they’re from Massachusetts. That it’s also a laugh riot isn’t a contradiction; Lonergan has made one of the most honest films about dealing with death. And he did it while including, among other things, a fake garage rock band name for the ages. (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 7:30 p.m., Prince Theater

‘Moonlight’
Yes, believe the hype: The first film by Barry Jenkins since 2008’s “Before Sunrise”-y “Medicine for Moonlight” stormed the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, and rightfully so. Don’t dare call it a black “Boyhood,” even though it jumps through three stages in the life of Chiron, a kid from a Miami ghetto. We see him go from a shy boy to a bullied teen to a hard young adult who’s built his body to shut out the world. It could have been schematic, treating our hero as little more than a symbol for the modern black American experience. But it’s the moments of release and even surprise that put it over: a fatherly drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) teaching him how to swim; an unexpected gay hook-up on a beach under moonlight; a reunion with an old friend that forever taunts us to predict where it will go. (M.P.) Mon., Oct. 24, 7:10 p.m., Prince Theater

‘My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea’
And now for something completely different: Take a break from the serious for this loudly-colored comedy featuring actual jokes. Of course it’s all about death. Jason Schwartzman leads an all-star vocal cast as a pretentious high school journo who tries to survive as an earthquake rips his school a new one — sights brought to us in splotchy colors that often make the film look like psychedelic freak-out sections from ’60s movies about drugs. It’s a beautiful eyesore, even if the deadpan humor is a bit too much of the “don’t take us too seriously” kind. Not to mention, this is already a hilarious PFF, with numerous films (“Manchester, By the Sea,” “Toni Erdmann,” “A Quiet Passion”) that are profoundly sad (or messed-up) and yet far funnier than anything here. (M.P.) Fri., Oct. 21, 7:35 p.m., Ritz Five

‘Neruda’
One of two wildly inventive anti-biopics in the fest by Chilean bomb-thrower Pablo Larraín — the other is the just-added “Jackie,” starring Natalie Portman as Mrs. Onassis — “Neruda” starts as the type that focuses only on a slither of a famous figure’s life. (In this case, it’s poet Pablo Neruda’s stint hiding in Chile’s underground before decamping for Europe.) But it’s just getting started. The film’s narrator is the official (Gael García Bernal) doggedly pursuing him, who, over the film’s furious, muscular, darkly funny course, betrays a fascination that’s equal parts obsessive and grudgingly admiring. He’s also a total fiction — a way for a political filmmaker to attempt to understand, even empathize, with the bad guy. Based on the wowed response to “Jackie” (we haven’t seen it yet), Larraín (“Tony Manero,” “No”) might be the most fascinating person making movies in 2016. (M.P.) Fri., Oct. 21, 12:30 p.m., Ritz East; Wed., Oct. 26, 7:10 p.m., Ritz East

‘Paterson’
“She understands me,” says perpetually low-key poet/bus driver Paterson (Adam Driver) about his live-in girlfriend (Golshifteh Farahani). Jim Jarmusch’s latest wants you to understand it, too — to take it for what it is. What it is is a character study, tracking a week in the life of its low-ambition hero, who does next to the same thing every day and seems only mildly flabbergasted when something goes askew. Jarmusch’s most soothing film gets in his groove, letting you judge whether Paterson’s wasting his life or really living it. It’s more like the latter, and quietly slipped into its unhurried rhythms is one of the great portraits of an artist, even one in no rush or need to be called that. (M.P.), Thus., Oct. 27, 6:40 p.m., Ritz East

‘Personal Shopper’
It almost sounds like a dumb ghost movie: Kristen Stewart plays a, yes, personal shopper who moonlights as a medium, and appears to have awoken an evil spirit — an evil spirit with a smartphone! But this is the latest from Olivier Assayas, and Stewart’s second go with him after “Clouds of Sils Maria.” You know he’s not just a real artist, but someone interested in films that resist interpretation, that like to stew in character’s bustling worlds, that are fluid about how you should interpret them. This is to say one shouldn’t take this not-quite-horror-film too literally. Assayas picks up then drops genre elements as he likes, and even playfully steers you to dwell on meta jokes: Once Stewart’s Maureen finds herself haunted by a text-messaging ghost, the movie could be read as a story about someone stalking KStew. Speaking of which, she’s, as ever, a magnetic screen presence, even when doing nothing, and especially when she makes a line like “It’s extremely difficult to find a portal to a spirit world” sound hilariously off-hand. (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 4:55 p.m., Ritz East; Wed., Oct. 26, 1 p.m., Ritz East

‘A Quiet Passion’
Are you ready to laugh? Because Terence Davies’ new Emily Dickinson movie is hilarious! Or it is for a while. That’s two kinds of surprises: Emily Dickinson is few’s idea of a rip-roaring good time, and nor is Davies, one of the great and most stubborn auteurs, known for melancholic, devastating memory pieces like “The Long Day Closes” and haunting lit adaptations, like “House of Mirth” and this year’s “Sunset Song.” (Though we can speak from experience that in real life he's hilarious.) But the first half of “A Quiet Passion,” with Cynthia Nixon as the younger, then-spirited poet, gives Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” a run for the title of year’s most droll costume saga, lousy with jot-down-able quips and banter. Of course, it’s all part of Davies’ cunning plan: The good times really don’t last, and once Dickinson’s friends and loved ones have parted for marriage or death, leaving her to herself, the movie takes a heartbreaking slide into its subject’s despair, bitterness and loneliness. It’s downright cosmic watching a movie that charts a life so marked by change, and where the shift in temper and tone is so dramatic. Along with “Sunset Song,” it’s one of the year’s best films. (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 2:50 p.m., Ritz East; Mon., Oct. 24, 12 p.m., Ritz Five

‘The Rehearsal’
In 1999, New Zealand director brought us “Jesus’ Son,” an eccentric, playful and perfectly judged stab at Denis Johnson that captured a distinctive voice while bringing her own. Jump 17 years, and she finally got to make another movie. “The Rehearsal,” about a group of young drama students, doesn’t entirely make up for lost time, but it does remind you what a lively talent she is. No shot is tossed-off, and the smallest scenes are sometimes the best, using off-beat framing or even a specific shade of sky to convey character psychology. It also has a bland everyguy as a hero — a big comedown compared to “Jesus’ Son” hungry, goofy FH, brought to us by Billy Crudup’s finest screen performance. On the other hand, someone finally remembered Kerry Fox, as the troupe’s bitchy but warm teacher, is one helluva actor. (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 5:25 p.m., Ritz East

'The Salesman'
When Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) find temporary housing after being evacuated from their apartment, a complication arises involving the former resident. However, things get worse when Rana is attacked one night. Emad takes it upon himself to track down the culprit, but Rana has a different response to the traumatic event. “The Salesman” — named for the production of “Death of a Salesman” that Emad and Rana co-star in; an apt if obvious parallel — thoughtfully considers themes of revenge, justice, betrayal and forgiveness. If writer/director Asghar Farhadi’s ("A Separation") morality play is at times too talky, it is still quite powerful. (G.M.K.) Sun., Oct. 23, 7:05 p.m., Ritz East

'Short Stay'
Mike (Mike MacCherone) is an ordinary, lonely guy living in his parents’ house in Haddonfield, NJ. When his friend Mark (Mark Simmons) asks if Mike wants to sublet his South Philly apartment and take over Mark’s tour guide job, Mike agrees. In the city, Mike encounters various friends and strangers as well as some romantic possibilities. As various situations prompt Mike to sleep on the floor, he starts to think more about changing his uninspired life. “Short Stay” may be crudely made and acted, and not much happens, but the film has a certain low-key charm, and it uses its Philadelphia locations well. (G.M.K.) Sun., Oct. 23, 4:30 p.m., Prince Theater

‘Staying Vertical’
The strangest comic mind in France since Luc Moullet, the filmmaker Alain Guiraudie makes movies where absurdity is normal, where our hero getting sci-fi plant therapy deep in the woods is treated as casually as a city being destroyed in a superhero movie. His latest sounds random and wacky, but is anchored by a philosophical exploration of freedom. Our wandering protagonist (Damien Bonnard) wanders from the deep country to the city and back, mating with farmgirls and old men alike, never tied down but always lonely. Both sillier and sadder than Guiraudie’s masterful last film, “Stranger by the Lake,” “Staying Vertical” boasts at least one scene you’ll never forget. (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 23, 9:45 p.m., Ritz East; Wed., Oct. 26, 12:15 p.m., Ritz Five

‘Things to Come’
Isabelle Huppert may get all the raves for Paul Verhoeven’s forthcoming “Elle,” but don’t neglect this subtler number, which affords viewers the rare chance to see the legendary ice queen playing almost normal. Huppert gets to laugh and even cry during the latest from Mia Hansen-Love (“Eden”), playing a philosophy professor whose life falls apart something fierce: her mother (Edith Scob) is dying, her longtime partner (Andre Marcon) is leaving her and she loses her job. But she handles it all like a pro. Hansen-Love loves to immerse herself in worlds held together by bubblegum and Scotch tape, where nothing is permanent and people adapt to disappointments. This is her at her most focused and exacting. (M.P.) Fri., Oct. 21, 12:10 p.m., Ritz Five

‘Toni Erdmann’
These are surreal times, so add this to the pile: One of the year’s best and most accomplished films has the same basic plot as an Adam Sandler movie. Like “That’s My Boy” (one of his better/least awful ones, tbh), the latest from Germany’s Maren Ade (“Everyone Else”) tells of an eccentric father (Peter Simonischek) who tries to save his semi-estranged daughter (Sandra Hüller) from a workaholic life, then almost destroys it. It’s a broad, crowd-pleasing comedy, with a couple caveats: For one, it’s almost three hours long. For another, it’s still an art house grinder, leaving in all the rough edges. Anything can happen, and every now and then it does, yielding at least three of the year’s most memorable set pieces. Can a movie be narratively experimental, emotionally raw and gut-bustingly funny? Apparently! (M.P.) Sat., Oct. 22, 2 p.m., Ritz Five

‘The Unknown Girl’
You can set your watch to the Dardenne brothers: every two or three years the Belgian brothers will gift the world with another immaculately crafted, socially-driven drama, boasting an ethical dilemma that eats at your guts. Their latest, though, throws a bit of a curveball: It’s technically a mystery, following a young, workaholic doctor (a laser-focused Adele Haenel) as she tries to find the identity of a girl who was killed in an event she might have been able to stop. And that’s not all: Whereas every Dardenne picture methodically builds to a moment of grace, this one is more warm and fuzzy, finding its character scuttling out of her shell. That doesn’t mean it’s a minor work. Far from it. (M.P.) Fri., Oct. 21, 4:20 p.m., Ritz East

The Philadelphia Film Festival runs from Oct. 20 through Oct. 30. Visit the site for showtimes and tickets.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge and Gary M. Kramer @garymkramer

 
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