by Mark Burger

The principal screening venues remain the same: a/ perture cinema, Hanesbrands Theatre, the ACE Cinematheque Complex on the UNCSA campus, and SECCA (Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art). Much of the staff and many of the volunteers are the same, and despite the departure of executive director Andrew Rodgers, who accepted the position of executive director of the Denver Film Society earlier this year, RiverRun 2016 looks to be a film fan’s frenzy.

L’attesa (The Wait): Directed by Piero Messina. Juliette Binoche headlines this award-winning drama, set in Sicily, as a mother who is awaiting her son Giuseppe’s return – as is Giuseppe’s young fiancee (Lou de Laage). Given the furtive glances, long looks, mounting sense of unease, and the presence of skulking servant Giorgio Colangeli, clearly much is being unsaid and something is amiss. The ending of the film, fraught with ambiguity (the legacy of Birdman?), might have had more impact were not for Binoche’s earlier, superior, and equally ambiguous Clouds of Sils Maria. Nevertheless, the performances are good (especially Colangeli’s), and Francesco Di Giacomo’s cinematography is lovely. (In French and Italian with English subtitles)

Five Nights in Maine: Directed by Maris Curran. David Oyelowo (also a producer) delivers yet another stellar performance in this intimate, low-key drama that manages to sidestep soap-opera territory. Oyelowo’s Sherman, mourning the recent loss of wife Fiona (Hani Furstenberg), visits her ailing mother (Dianne Wiest) at her cabin in Maine, as both struggle to come to terms with Fiona’s death and their own troubled relationship. Structured almost as a play, with only a handful of characters (including Rosie Perez as Wiest’s caregiver), the film’s portrait of guilt and loss is told in trim, effective terms. As Sherman reflects on his marriage, it becomes clear theirs was a troubled but no less loving union, and it’s particularly nice that the race factor (Fiona was white) isn’t really a factor at all.

Sunset Song: Directed by Terence Davies Screenwriter/director Davies’ adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel, widely considered one of the most important Scottish literary works of the 20 th century, stars fashion model/singer Agyness Deyn in the pivotal role of plucky heroine Chris Guthrie, who comes of age during World War I. Although gorgeously shot by cinematographer Michael McDonough, the film’s palpable atmosphere and flavor are hampered by an episodic, slow-moving pace that reverses itself in the third act and rushes toward its conclusion. Davies’ grand scale echoes that of such filmmakers as William Wyler, John Ford and even Michael Cimino, but Kevin Guthrie’s transformation, as Chris’ husband, from noble to brutish feels awkward and sudden, despite the character having returned from war. As Chris’ domineering father, Peter Mullan seems to have cornered the market on abusive Scottish patriarchs.

Valley of Love: Directed by Guillaume Nicloux French titans Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu – playing “Isabelle” and “Gerard” – are a long-divorced couple who are reunited in Dalley Valley at the behest of letters written by their son, who committed suicide. In the course of this award-winning drama, which also has moments of inspired comedy (including a terrific joke regarding Robert De Niro, who co-starred with Depardieu in Bertolucci’s 1900 40 years ago), Isabelle and Gerard occasionally re-open old wounds and grudges as they contemplate their loss and their own mortality. The two stars, who have worked together many times in the past, bring effortless chemistry to their roles. Huppert is still elegant and sexy, and Depardieu – although he’s burlier than ever (and not shy about going shirtless) – still has that buoyant bounce. They’re simply wonderful.

The Fits: Directed by Anna Rose Holmer Writer/producer/director Holmer’s noteworthy debut feature introduces impressive newcomer Royalty Hightower in the pivotal role of Toni, a teen-aged athlete who aspires to join the dance troupe that practices in the gym where she works out. When she does, however, the other dancers begin suffering from inexplicable seizures and fainting spells (hence the title). Cinematographer Paul Yee’s captures some evocative and eerie imagery throughout. Even when interacting with other characters, Toni always seems to be isolated. Holmer also coaxes persuasive performances out of youngsters Da’Sean Minor (as Toni’s older brother) and Alexis Neblett and Lauren Gibson (as her closest friends, relatively speaking). Once again, however, the film’s ending is steeped in ambiguity, an increasing trend (see L’attesa) that’s becoming all too familiar and increasingly less satisfying.

Tower: Directed by Keith Maitland. Almost 50 years ago, in the summer of 1966, former Marine Charles Whitman took position at the top of the observation tower on the University of Texas campus and opened fire on passersby with an array of firearms. Incredibly, this is the first documentary feature about the tragic event – and it’s first-rate. In what initially seems like a gimmick, many of the scenes dramatizing the events of that day have been rendered in animation, combined with stock footage. The film is less about Whitman than about the survivors and observers that day. Alternately harrowing, heartbreaking and ultimately heroic, the film gets a little preachy toward the end when it recounts the recent spate of similar events (including Columbine) and pushes a little bit for gun control. Still, it’s hard to argue the point, and Tower provides a unique and respectful legacy of that terrible event in Texas, from which we can still (hopefully) learn.

Barge: Directed by Ben Powell The river that runs through this film is the Mississippi, and the focus is on those blue-collar fellows who work as deckhands aboard barges. Ambling along nicely at 71 minutes and augmented by breathtaking views of the Mississippi River, this slice-of-life look at those who work the water – some of whom describe themselves (not inaccurately) as misfits – is told in their own words. One gets a real sense of who they are, where they come from, and why they do what they do.

Coming Out: Directed by Alden Peters Rookie filmmaker Peters scores with his feature debut, a first-person look at his decision to come out of the closet – to friends and family – by telling them while the cameras are rolling. It’s almost as if he’s examining his decision from the abstract viewpoint of an objective filmmaker – as if it’s about someone else – but it’s no less effective as a result. It’s an honest, sometimes heartwarming film, as Peters himself comes to terms with his homosexuality, and is frequently more conflicted about it than those around him. There’s also a hilarious exchange with his mother that Peters thankfully left in the film, and it’s the biggest laugh.

Containment: Directed by Peter Gallison and Robb Moss A clear-eyed and sobering look at the problem of containing nuclear waste, a political hot potato the world over that presents a dilemma without a foolproof solution. The processes by which nuclear waste is stored are explained by experts, who do all the talking (none of it very comforting), and the possibility of meltdown is conveyed in imagery showing the aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, whose safety precautions (questionable at best) did not include the possibility of a rampaging tsunami, which is precisely what occurred in March 2011. It’s an issue that a lot of people would like to bury (no pun intended), but the threat is very real – and it hasn’t diminished one iota. Indeed, it continues to increase.

Country: Portraits of an American Sound: Directed by Steven Kochones One needn’t be a country-music aficionado to enjoy this well-assembled exploration and celebration of the music, the artists, and the images of country music as immortalized by photographers for almost a century. Many iconic images are displayed here, and many iconic personalities interviewed, including Kenny Rogers, Lyle Lovett, Tanya Tucker, Garth Brooks, Keith Urban, Merle Haggard (who’s terrific), Charley Pride, North Carolina’s own Ronnie Milsap, Roy Clark (yes, there’s a segment all about “Hee Haw”), and many others. The music has had an impact on American culture and history, and American culture and history have equally had an impact on the music – although some artists lament the increase of the image over the music. Toward the end it grows a little repetitive, but it’s still fun – and an absolute must for music mavens.

Lace Crater: Directed by Harrison Atkins Writer/director Atkins’ debut feature begins as something of the typical gabfest, with a group of twentysomething friends enjoying a weekend getaway at a lakeside cabin, which is rumored to be haunted. Indeed it is, as Ruth (a very good Lindsay Burdge) encounters a mysterious figure who identifies himself as “Michael” (Peter Vack). After a brief existential discussion, it’s time for a little hanky-panky, but this is no Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore hook-up (a la Ghost), as Ruth finds herself stricken with a mysterious malady (thus making this something of a cautionary tale about sexually-transmitted diseases). When not approximating Ruth’s increasingly distorted point of view, Gideon de Villiers’ praiseworthy cinematography keeps her almost on the periphery of many scenes, as if she’s already a ghost, fading before (mostly shallow) friends. Cult status is assured, and Neon Indian’s soundtrack is highly effective. (Neon Indian will be headlining Phuzz Phest, which takes place April 15-16 and is co-presenting the film’s screening.)

The Missing Ingredient: Directed by Michael Sparaga A light and lively documentary that profiles New York restaurateur Charles Devigne, owner of Pescatore’s (which opened its doors in 1993). In an effort to boost business, Devigne decides to adopt the “zebra wallpaper” made famous by Gino’s Restaurant (which opened its doors in 1945 and closed them 65 years later). The film also offers an affectionate history of Gino’s, and observes the “controversy” surrounding Devigne’s decision – especially among die-hard Gino’s aficionados. One thing they do agree on is their disgust at the use of zebra wallpaper in the business that replaced Gino’s in midtown Manhattan – Sprinkles Cupcakes (!). Sparaga focuses more on the people than the dishes, and it’s that emphasis on personality that gives the film its own personality.

El Chivo: Directed by Rod Murphy El Chivo (“The Goat”) is the nickname given to Will Harlan, who hails from Bernardsville and is a life-long marathon runner. His decision to run the grueling 50- mile Caballo Blanco Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in Mexico (“If you die, you’re disqualified”) proves an eye-opening experience for the likable Harlan, who is not only impressed by the athleticism of his fellow runners and especially by the Mexicans’ culture – so much so that he established a charitable organization on their behalf. Harlan, who won the marathon in 2009 (which inspired the best-selling book Born to Run, continues to train relentlessly, even as age and injuries creep up on him. The film also looks at how Harlan’s devotion to (or obsession with) running isn’t always problem-free when it comes to his family, yet he’s so innately likable. Whereas so many documentaries examine problems or controversies – as long as they do it well, that’s fine – this is a nice documentary about a nice guy.

The Anthropologist: Directed by Daniel Miller Any film that opens with Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” is off on the right foot, and this engrossing documentary explores the life and career of noted anthropologist Margaret Mead, as told in the words of her daughter Mary Catherine Bateson, while simultaneously exploring the work being done by anthropologist Susie Crate, a single mother often accompanied by her own daughter Kate. As well as addressing various environmental concerns (with a particular emphasis on climate change), the film also works as a portrait of a working anthropologist and a teen-aged daughter who has crisscrossed the globe in her young life – thereby giving her a unique insight into various cultures – but who also, inevitably, butts heads with mom. That adds a nice personal touch to the proceedings (and the film’s message) — and love those end credits!

Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi: Directed by Neal Broffman A timely, topical and powerful documentary feature that follows the search for 22-year-old Brown University student Sunil Tripathi, who despite being a good student and a talented musician was prone to bouts of depression. When he vanished into the night in March 2013, his family mounted a large-scale social-media campaign to locate his whereabouts. Then, a month later, the Boston Marathon bombing took place, and because one of the suspects resembled Tripathi (only vaguely), social media went into hateful overdrive, with countless bloggers, e- mailers, and even major media outlets labeling him a suspect – much to the shock and dismay of his family, whose on-camera recollections are heart-breaking. Unfolding in suspenseful fashion, the film takes social media to task for this tragic case of mistaken identity (Tripathi was a Hindu, but that didn’t dissuade many from offering their unwanted, vile, racist messages). This is a persuasive exploration of responsibility and accountability, a film that offers considerable food for thought – as well as an opportunity to examine our own prejudices. !

MARK BURGER can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. © 2016, Mark Burger.