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9 must-see films at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival

Mark your calendars.
William Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince star in "The Florida Project," which will be screened at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival. | Provided
William Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince star in "The Florida Project," which will be screened at the 2017 Philadelphia Film Festival. Provided

The 26th Philadelphia Film Festival opens October 19 with two screenings of “I, Tonya,” about figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), and and ends ten days later, though the closing night film, Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” about a mother (Frances McDormand) seeking justice for her daughter’s murder, screens on October 27. In between there are 100-plus features, documentaries, and shorts from around the corner and around the world to enjoy. Here, in alphabetical order, are 9 must-see films from this year’s fest.

AlphaGo

This fascinating documentary chronicles the “human vs. machine smackdown” that took place when Lee Sedol, a championship player of the Chinese game Go, battled Google DeepMind’s computer, AlphaGo. The 5-game match was designed to help understand artificial intelligence, and local filmmaker Greg Kohs builds tension wondering if the computer will do what it is supposed to. AlphaGo will certainly please geeks and gamers, but this insightful film also asks probing questions about how AI works, and what it might be used to do.

Bad Lucky Goat

Set in the gorgeous island community of Port Paradise, the low-key gem Bad Lucky Goat has teenage Rita (Kiara Howard) accidently killing a bearded goat while driving—and fighting—with her brother Corn (Honlenny Huffington). As a result, the bickering siblings must spend the day trying to earn money to get their vehicle fixed and ward off bad juju. The affable leads endure kidnapping, a police chase, and visit a cockfighting ring, but their picaresque adventures are more amusing than dangerous. Director Samir Oliveros’s modest, stylish film is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.

Before Hollywood

This informative and highly entertaining documentary from History Making Productions chronicles Philadelphia as a cradle of the motion picture industry. The talking heads, including local critics Carrie Rickey and Irv Slifkin, eloquently recount Charles Willson Peale’s “moving picture” shows, Coleman Seller’s Kinematoscope and Henry Heyl’s Phasmotrope as well as Siegmund Lubin’s Cineograph (a camera/projector) and Garret Brown’s Steadicam. Plus there are captivating sidebars on David Starkman’s Colored Players Film Corporation and their film The Scar of Shame, and Ed Sabol’s NFL films. The images and anecdotes are seamlessly interwoven to create a history every Philadelphia cinephile and moviegoer should know.

Bloody Milk

This absorbing French film may sound like a horror movie, and for anxious farmer Pierre (Swann Arlaud), it is. One of his cows has Dorsal Hemorrhagic Fever (DHF), a disease that wipes out livestock. Pierre takes drastic action to prevent his herd from being killed—a decision that has criminal consequences. Moreover, he gets his sister Pascale (Sara Giraudeau), a vet involved, compromising her ethics. Writer/director Hubert Charuel creates a strong sense of atmosphere, and viewers may become as itchy as Pierre as his downward spiral engulfs him.

The Cage Fighter

Weighing in at 204 lbs is beefy, 40 year-old Joe Carman, the title subject of Jeff Unay’s riveting observational documentary. A working-class guy with four kids and a sick wife, Big Joe fights literally and figuratively for his self-worth; fighting is what gives him confidence and pride. But he may be his own worst enemy. Joe breaks his promise to his family not to fight, and is besieged by health issues, an ex-wife’s lawsuit, and his emotionally abusive alcoholic father. Unay captures Joe’s complicated life with tremendous agility and sympathy. Viewers will feel every physical and emotional blow.

The Florida Project

This film is a raucous and affecting comedy-drama by writer/director Sean Baker (Tangerine). Moonee (the phenomenal Brooklynn Prince) is a feisty, foul-mouthed 6 year-old who lives hand to mouth with her equally feisty and foul-mouthed single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) in a cheap Orlando motel. Running scams for food and money, they mostly survive on their wits. Baker artfully immerses viewers in Moonee and Halley’s gritty, unruly world, juxtaposing the beauty of a sunrise against the pain of being a step away from homelessness. In support, Willem Dafoe is fantastic as the motel’s long-suffering manager. 

Sister of Mine

This intense Spanish import has Oliver (Julio Perillán), a filmmaker, tracking down his decades-younger half-sister, Aurora (Ivana Baquero) after seeing her on a porn site. Oliver secretly installs a camera in Aurora’s bedroom to spy on her. Aurora, who is curious about Oliver, snoops through his things when she visits him. What starts out as a naughty little drama about voyeurism and trust soon turns into something disturbing as Oliver and Aurora act on taboo desires. Sister of Mine is absolutely creepy as the characters behave badly—but that is exactly what makes it so compelling.

Sollers Point

Keith (McCaul Lombardi of American Honey) is an inchoate young man under house arrest as writer/director Matthew Porterfield’s staggering character study opens. Keith is determined to get back on his feet—at least that’s what he says. Whether it’s true or not remains to be seen. Sollers Point crackles as Keith tries in earnest to improve his life, only to make a series of increasingly bad decisions that might jeopardize the future he can’t see. Lombardi is magnetic and hypnotic as Keith, a man with a long fuse that once it gets lit, burns bright and flames out.

Where Is Kyra?

Nigerian-born filmmaker Andrew Dosunmu eavesdrops on his poor characters’ lives in this intriguing, relentless drama. Kyra (a deglamorized Michelle Pfeiffer) is unemployed and facing insurmountable debt. After her ailing mother Ruth (Suzanne Shepherd) dies, Kyra takes desperate measures to stay afloat. Dosunmu takes an experimental approach to telling this downbeat story. He employs a discordant score and has ace cinematographer Bradford Young often shoot the character through reflective surfaces, or in silhouette—making them practically “invisible.” But viewers will empathize with Kyra because Pfeiffer’s remarkable, gutsy performance makes her character’s despondency palpable just through the weariness of her expressions and body language.