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25 movies that intrigued, annoyed, and greatly pleased our fest-happy critics

The Letter That Was Never Sent
Winner of the top prize at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, Mikhail Kalatozov's revelatory World War II drama The Cranes Are Flying was something of a cultural Sputnik—one of the first post-Stalin Soviet films to circle the globe. "One Crane does not make a summer," Time sniffed, but Kalatozov and his brilliant cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky followed up in 1959 with an equally convulsive film, The Letter That Was Never Sent. The story of geologists battling nature in the Siberian wilderness provided the pretext for an even more visually extravagant, almost hallucinatory spectacle. J.H.

Making Of
While a confused 25-year-old breakdancer named Bahta evades the police and joins a group of Islamic fundamentalists, the actor who plays Bahta (Lotfi Ebdelli) battles director Nouri Bouzid for the right to decide the fate of the character. The result is sort of like Richard Rush's The Stunt Man recast as a debate about the ethics and morality of storytelling. Bouzid uses his unconventional structure to cleverly play his own devil's advocate: When Bouzid tells Ebdelli, "With this film, I want to show how a young man like you can be manipulated," he could be referring to Bahta's actions or his own. M.S.

My Father My Lord
My Father My Lordis not a happy movie or a particularly subtle one: It draws a grim parallel between Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac and a modern Israeli rabbi's devotion to God at the expense of his wife and son. A series of tense religious scenes culminates in tragedy during a family vacation to the Dead Sea (symbolism duly noted). Still, director David Volach manages to capture the fumbling wonder of a child's world as young Menachem (Eilan Grife) struggles to put on his shoes, save a dying fish, and understand his father. J.W.

Nobel Son
Eli Michaelson (Alan Rickman), world-renowned chemist and asshole, has just won the Nobel Prize, to his colleagues' chagrin. Meanwhile, his regrettably named son Barkley (Bryan Greenberg) gets by on $35 a week while he plugs away at his thesis on cannibalism. Eli hates Barkley. Barkley hates Eli. So when Barkley is kidnapped just as his father is leaving for Stockholm, who pays the ransom? Throw an obsessive- compulsive Danny DeVito and a criminally insane Eliza Dushku into the mix, and this frenetic, ungainly L.A. story becomes what might once have been called "a madcap romp." J.W.

The Optimists
Goran Paskaljevic takes a page from Voltaire's book and gives us five inter- locking vignettes of Serbian men who are convinced that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Taken as a whole, the film paints a damning picture of modern Serbia as a ship of fools. Each of its parts, though, is kind to its characters, who range from a blind girl dreaming of a miracle cure to a chubby boy whose hobby is slaughtering pigs. Luckily, Paskaljevic complements his sense of pathos with a sense of humor, and every scene is ripe with both. J.W.

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song
This admiring documentary about ur-folkie Pete Seeger is as dependably good as its subject. Everyone's here to pay him tribute: Dylan, Springsteen, Baez—and even, inexplicably, Bill Cosby. The mid-century folk revival may seem quaint in retrospect—all those middle-class teenagers learning to play "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" on their brand-new banjos—but director Jim Brown does a nice job of showing its strong influence on progressive politics. Seeger's goal, as he puts it, was "to build a singing labor movement," and his success in harnessing the power of song to achieve social change will be his most enduring legacy. J.W.

Playing the Victim
The title sums it up nicely: The police hire Valya (Yuri Chursin) to re-enact alleged crimes, while a hilariously inept collection of Moscow detectives and deputies film the incident in Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov's feature entry. Alternating with the restagings are scenes of Valya's family life, which are loosely based on Hamlet; he lives in a dank apartment with his blowsy mother and his dead father's brother. Chursin's got screen presence, but the interplay between Valya's darkly funny work life and patently miserable home life doesn't quite work—it's a movie in search of a tone. J.G.

The Polymath, or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman
Author, critic, academic, and occasional Wonder Woman scribe Samuel R. Delany believes that sexuality belongs in public discourse, so director Fred Barney Taylor obliges by crafting a documentary about Delany in which the writer's many literary accomplishments share the spotlight with his sexual ones: A scene about one of Delany's celebrated novels, for example, might segue into a recollection of a night spent cruising old St. Marks Place. Clearly, Delany's claim that he's a very dull, ordinary person is false modesty—how many other Hugo Award winners have slept with 50,000 people? M.S.

Still Life
A film about persistence and the passage of time, Jia Zhangke's Still Lifefinds a miner returning to a Yangtze town looking for his ex-wife only to discover its houses swallowed by water and its buildings primed for demolition. When he grows weary of searching, the man looks upward to witness a light (an alien spaceship, perhaps?) darting across the sky. Cue fierce rhetorical shift! Across the expansive landscape, a woman sees the craft too but barely bats an eye; she's distracted, after all, also searching for a missing spouse. For those who thought The World was not enough, Zhangke's latest represents progress. ED GONZALEZ

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