Ten to watch at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival 

A can't-miss list.

Directed by Robert Greene

Devotees to HBO's "The Wire" will remember Brandy Burre as Theresa D'Agostino, the icy political consultant who beds McNulty and helps Carcetti become mayor in seasons three and four. That's the last you've seen of her on-screen. She got pregnant while on "The Wire" and retreated from acting to suburban Beacon, N.Y., where she and her partner, restaurateur Tim Reinke, have been raising two children. In "Actress," filmmaker Robert Greene, who's shown twice previously at the festival — "Kati with an I" in 2011 and "Fake It So Real" in 2013 — tracks Burre through her day-to-day life in Beacon. Greene programmed this year's slate of cinematic nonfiction at the festival, an adventurous collection of films that don't fit neatly into traditional cinematic categories, and though "Actress" isn't included in the collection, it clearly belongs. Greene set out to find out "what happens when you film an actor in an observational documentary," he told the Times in an interview. "Is it a fiction film, or is it a nonfiction film?" The degree of collaboration between Burre and Greene and the extent to which we're seeing Burre, the actress, in the role of Burre, mother and domestic partner, will be fun to talk about with Burre and Greene in the post-screening discussion. Regardless of where you land, it's an arresting character study that captures how corrosive domestic mundanity can be when dreams are deferred. Sound like something that hits too close to home? That it's beautifully shot should help it go down easier. 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, Ron Robinson. 6 p.m. Friday, Historic Arkansas Museum. LM.

'Happy Valley'
Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

The Penn State sexual abuse scandal broke in 2011 and was one of those horrific, news-cycle-dominating events that seemed only to expand, threatening (and arguably succeeding) to drag down an entire college administration in its wake. Most of us were desperate to look away, but documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, award-winning director of "The Tillman Story" and "My Kid Could Paint That," opted to look closer, traveling to State College, Pa. (the surrounding area nicknamed Happy Valley) and immersing himself in the minutiae of the crisis and the rabid world of Penn State football. "Happy Valley" isn't looking for a new scoop, and it doesn't offer viewers an easy out — it's a meditative and careful film, an examination of the structures and cultures both literal and abstract that allowed for the abuses to go undiscovered. 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Ron Robinson Theater. WS

Directed by Andrew Renzi

"Fishtail" is a Western, and a cowboy movie, but there's no gunslinging or noisy action. The documentary, part of the festival's cinematic nonfiction programming, depicts the daily grind of ranching work, following a pair of cowboys during calving season at the 2,000-acre Fishtail Basin Ranch in southern Montana. The cowboys make small talk, horse around with their kids, and do their work. But they are minor figures in the film, which is a love letter to the land and the lifestyle of the ranches of the American West. Shot on 16mm film, the photography is rustic and breathtaking: brown earth, staggering mountains, big sky. The film depicts the cowboys at their daily tasks — gathering timber, transporting hay, tagging and banding the animals, castrating bull calves. In case you're missing the poetry in all this, director Andrew Renzi offers up haunting music, voiceovers and languid cinematography — this is a documentary deeply committed to its vibe. The soundtrack features acoustic guitars and strings with the same cinematic sweep and crackling, dusty feel as the cinematography (suggested soundtrack title: "Explosions in the Big Sky"). The actor Harry Dean Stanton does the voiceover, popping up from time to time to recite Rick Bass and Walt Whitman, or gently sing "Home on the Range." As clouds roll and horses roam, Stanton intones, "Here I am alone and sad like a leaf on the wind." Does it all get a bit goopy? Well, yes. But damn, Harry Dean Stanton's voice. It's like honky-tonk Shakespeare. It sounds like God talking, or maybe just Jimmie Rodgers. The glacial pacing, sun-drenched portraits and meandering poetic voiceovers inevitably call Malick to mind. If Malick's great theme is The Fall, "Fishtail" seems to argue that Eden's still right here on Earth. 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Ron Robinson. 10:45 a.m. Saturday, Ron Robinson. DR

'Little Accidents'
Directed by Sara Colangelo

Starring two Arkansans — Little Rock-born Josh Lucas and Briggsville native Jacob Lofland, who played one of the boys in Jeff Nichols' Arkansas-shot feature "Mud" — "Little Accidents" is an unflinching look at grief, guilt and the way we try to make ourselves whole in the wake of tragedy, set in what appears to be District 12 from "The Hunger Games." Boyd Holbrook does standout work as Amos, the mentally and physically wounded sole survivor of a mine accident that took the lives of 10 West Virginia coal miners. Amos' testimony and spotty recollection of the events leading up to the accident soon finds him pulled in all directions as an investigation ramps up. With the town in the midst of wallowing in grief and blame, the lens soon settles on young Owen, played by Lofland, a poor and sensitive boy who lost his father in the mine disaster, but is forced to carry on while trying to help his harried mother (Chloe Sevigny) raise her other son, James (Beau Wright), who has Down Syndrome. Owen soon finds himself at the secret heart of another tragedy: the disappearance and long search for JT (Travis Tope), a corporate mining exec's son who disappeared in the weeks after the mine collapse, following a spate of anti-bigwig violence. JT's mother, Diana (Elizabeth Banks), destroyed by her son's disappearance and feeling pushed away by her grieving husband, Bill (Lucas), seeks comfort in the arms of an unlikely lover, and it all eventually rushes to some kind of head. If all this sounds bleak, it is. But coal mining and the pain of loss ain't beanbag, friend, and the film handles both with the gravity it should. Shot in the real-life mining town of Beckley, W.Va., the color scheme of "Little Accidents" is almost exactly the blue/black of the coal dust-stained coveralls the miners wear, and the only redemption to be had is when characters are escaping into things they probably shouldn't do, from cheating on a spouse to sneaking into a pitch-black mine shaft. Still, if you don't mind a plot as heavy as 16 tons and whadaya get, it's a good film. Not excellent, but good — a subtle character piece with fine performances from most of the people on screen. Sure, it's not the feel-good hit of the year, but "Little Accidents" does speak with a harsh kind of reverence about the gritty lives of those who do the hard, dangerous jobs no one else wants, while making Amos, Owen, Diana and all the rest more than hayseed saints or sad-sack caricatures. 6 p.m. Thursday, Ron Robinson Theater; 1:30 p.m. Friday, The Rep. DK

'Five Star'
Directed by Keith Miller

Driving through Brooklyn, James "Primo" Grant tells the story of missing his son's birth because he was locked up. Primo, a bulky, tattooed man with a shaved head and a thick black beard, is shot in closeup during his monologue, which runs more than three minutes. His voice is measured, at times lyrical: "I can't recall tearing so hard in my life ... I teared like a baby. Because I missed the most important part of my son's life and that was his coming. And on that day, I promised my kids, I swore to my son and I swore to my daughter: I'll never leave you again." The thoughtful gangster — the tenderness and the violence, the rage and the calculating patience — is a familiar archetype in film and television. The difference in "Five Star" is that Primo is a real-life gang member playing a dramatized version of himself (he caused a bit of a stir at the Tribeca Film Festival when he told the audience during a Q&A that he remains an active member of the Bloods street gang; he'll be in Little Rock for the festival, too). Keith Miller's previous film, "Pine Hill" used a chance real-life encounter Miller had with another Brooklyn resident, Shannon Harper, to build a deeply personal fictionalized portrait of Harper, who played himself. "Five Star" finds similar emotional power in the spaces between fiction and documentary. The film depicts the story of John (played by one of the few professional actors in the cast), a cocky, rail-thin 15-year-old whose father was once a gang leader before he was shot and killed. Despite pimples and peach fuzz, John wants to be a man, and Primo — who was close to John's father — offers to mentor him and give him work in his criminal operation. John is torn between questions about his father's death, allegiance to Primo, a budding romance, and his mother's fears that he will meet the same fate as his father. The narrative can be a bit pat, but the film is at its best lingering on the naturalistic moments happening in and around the story — the bustle of Brooklynites in the background, John's goofy tenderness in puppy love, Primo playing with his kids. The film uses the real-life James "Primo" Grant's real-life family — his girlfriend and his four kids — and these are the scenes that most reward the fiction-documentary blend, as we see the joy and the ache in Primo as he tries to envision a secure future for his family. The film is perhaps a bit too enamored with Primo's O.G. wisdom at times, but Primo himself (the character, the actor, the man) is a tour de force. You can't take your eyes off him. 6 p.m. Thursday and 8:30 p.m. Friday, The Rep. DR

'The Night the Blackbirds Fell'
Directed by Brian Campbell and Will Scott

On the first day of 2011, Arkansans awoke from ringing in the New Year to learn that the apocalypse was nigh. Or at least that's how the mystical-paranoid among us saw it (while others of us made jokes to similar effect). Thousands of blackbirds had fallen out of the sky in Beebe and some 100,000 drum fish had washed up along the banks of the Arkansas River near Ozark, and for some time, officials couldn't definitively explain why either had happened. Naturally, national media descended. Every talking head from Jon Stewart to sitcom-star-turned-crackpot Kirk Cameron weighed in. Paranoid websites and Facebook pages emerged to offer explanations. In this 40-minute documentary, Campbell and Scott create a character that Gustav Carlson illustrates — a vaguely stoner-ish and conspiratorial college student working on a thesis project on the animal deaths — who serves as our guide through the media circus and conspiracy theories. That creation allows the filmmakers to indulge in wild conjecture, something the film's appropriately playful tone makes easy to forgive. Most crucially, they find fantastic Arkansas characters, one of whom tells them that blackbirds falling out of the sky in Beebe was "the second most Googled news items in the history of Googlin'." 9 p.m. Friday, The Joint. 7:15 p.m. Saturday, The Joint. LM

'Point and Shoot'
Directed by Marshall Curry

"Point and Shoot," the new film by the Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Marshall Curry ("Street Fight," "If a Tree Falls"), is the story of the impulsive 27-year-old ex-pat, Matthew VanDyke, who took a 35,000-mile motorcycle trip through the Middle East that led to his ultimately joining the Libyan revolution, where he was captured and imprisoned for six months. Fortunately, VanDyke thought to bring a camera. The film, which won Best Documentary at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, combines VanDyke's footage with animation, and New York magazine calls it "as much a coming-of-age story and an exploration on the ever-evolving nature of filmmaking as it is a riveting tale of war and conflict." 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Clinton School of Public Service. 1 p.m. Sunday, Ron Robinson Theater. WS

Directed by Sebastian Junger

"Restrepo," the 2010 Academy Award-nominated documentary from Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington, was a towering achievement. The film depicted an Army platoon during their 15-month deployment in the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. Perhaps the most intimate portrait of war ever shot, "Restrepo" captured both the lives of the young men (in some cases, boys, really) on deployment and followed them in real-time battle scenes so embedded in the action that it was almost excruciating to watch. We are distanced from the wars our nation fights — and often from our fellow citizens who fight them. Sitting down and watching a movie can't change that, of course, but Junger and Hetherington labored to create the most up-close depiction imaginable of the platoon and their experiences in the Korengal Valley. That kind of reporting is dangerous work, and Hetherington was killed by shrapnel while covering the 2011 Libyan civil war. Junger had so much material from "Restrepo" (they shot over 150 hours of footage during their year with the platoon) that he decided to make a second film, "Korengal," which makes its world premiere at the Little Rock Film Festival. Junger has said that while "Restrepo" aimed to capture the experience of war, "Korengal" aims for understanding. It features more post-war interview footage than "Restrepo" and is structured thematically rather than following the chronological narrative that "Restrepo" did. The original film is a more powerful work, but "Korengal" is an important coda, a deeper look at these Americans tasked with navigating the horror and the boredom and the rush of war, far from home. "Korengal" is excellent as a stand-alone film, but "Restrepo" is on Netflix streaming, so you might consider a double feature. Michael Cunningham and Jason Mace, two soldiers from the platoon, will be on hand after the screening for a Q & A. 3:15 p.m. Saturday, Ron Robinson Theater. DR

'The Overnighters'
Directed by Jesse Moss

Midway through "The Overnighters," Jesse Moss' harrowing look at a conservative North Dakota town in the grips of an oil job boom, the local pastor at the center of the film recommends that one of the men looking for work cut his hair. "Did Jesus have short hair?" the man asks, and the pastor responds patiently, "Jesus didn't have our neighbors." This is the crux of the documentary, which begins slowly and earnestly, and becomes gradually messier and more uncomfortable as it also becomes more beautiful and visually striking. It's a film about class, about work and especially about fear — the fear that results from a sudden collision of values and tax brackets — and there's no question of it ending well. 5:50 p.m. Saturday, Ron Robinson Theater. WS

'The Case Against 8'
Directed by Ryan White and Ben Cotner

Hear that? That's the sound of a whole lot of nothing terrible to report happening in the wake of gay and lesbian couples by the hundreds being married earlier this week at four county courthouses in Arkansas after Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage. That's right, the milk didn't curdle, plagues of frogs didn't drop from the sky and hetero marriages were as great or God-awful as they had been before. Considering the big doings and plentiful conservative outrage in Arkansas over the issue, it's an excellent time to take in "The Case Against 8," a documentary about the seemingly mismatched team of determined, passionate people — including Arkansan Chad Griffin, who now heads the Human Rights Campaign — who took on the five-year quest to get California's Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage overturned. Watching attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies, who stood on opposite sides during the landmark Bush v. Gore arguments before the Supreme Court in 2000, battle arm in arm for marriage equality gets at the soul of what it is to be an attorney who sees through the political smoke around hot-button issues, striving to reach the place where justice — blind to Republican versus Democrat — still stands. Like 1993's similarly excellent "The War Room," you go into "The Case Against 8" knowing basically how it's all going to turn out, but getting there still manages to be a nail-biting ride. 8:30 p.m. Saturday at The Rep. DK



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