The 13th Maine International Film Festival begins in Waterville next Friday, and along with the usual unusual array of (political, music, and eco-)documentaries, Amerindies, classic and foreign films, and a special night at the drive-in, MIFF has a couple new tricks up its sleeve. First is a new partnership with the American Film Institute's Project 20/20, an endeavor to promote cross-cultural communication in the form of screenings of four diverse and widely acclaimed festival favorites. Second, a special Portland event that blurs the lines between documentary, concert, and philosophical essay. Herein, a loosely-categorized roundup of the festival's highlights from July 9 to 18. Enthusiastic recommendations are noted in bold type.
To these eyes, the most encouraging steady advance in MIFF programming is the increasing prominence of world cinema's more ambitious young voices. German-Turkish director Fatih Akin established his credentials as one of Europe's most talented new filmmakers with his first two releases, the Turkish punk-rock romance Head-On and then 2007's widely-released, intimate study of globalization, The Edge of Heaven. Lighter in tone if not in command, SOUL KITCHEN observes a German restaurateur torn between saving his business and his relationship.
Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan made his first film, the autobiographical I KILLED MY MOTHER, at 20. Last year, it swept its category at the Cannes Film Festival. (His second film, the new Heartbeats, played there to similar acclaim this May.) His heavily stylized, micro-budgeted debut is about a gay teenager (played by the director) and his complex relationships with older women.
Similarly, 1981 is an autobiographical coming-of-age tale by the half-Italian, half-French-Canadian director Ricardo Trogi, but of a much more familiar ilk: a cocksure, goofily charming child struggles with differences from his wealthier classmates and desires both romantic and material. Strong adult performances elevate the film, which is a definite crowd-pleaser.
Alexander Sokurov, who made the famous single-take-historical-museum-tour Russian Ark, returns with ALEXANDRA, which chronicles the relationship between a world-weary grandmother and her grandson, a Russian soldier battling the Chechens.
Also worth a look: Cell 211 is a well-honed prison-riot flick from Spain, and Around a Small Mountain may well be the final effort from the great French New Wave director Jacques Rivette. His film, about a man who stumbles upon and lingers with a traveling circus, is an appropriate elegy.
A vibrantly original animated documentary, Nina Paley's underdog DIY success story SITA SINGS THE BLUES relays three stories at once: the career of the 1920s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, the epic Hindu legend of the Ramayana, and the director's own break-up story. It screens at the Skowhegan Drive-In on July 15.
Like Paley's film, Jessica Oreck's BEETLE QUEEN CONQUERS TOKYO is part of AFI Project 20/20. The festival favorite travels far and wide to consider the Japanese fascination with (and myriad uses of) insects.
BostonGlobe arts reporter Geoff Edgers puts a new spin on the musical fan-worship documentary (thank god) with Do It Again, as director Robert Patton-Spruill chronicles Edgers's deadly-serious mission to reunite the original lineup of the Kinks. Along the way, he chats with Sting, Zooey Deschanel, and Clive Davis.