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5. (T)ERROR Saeed, aka Shariff, doesn’t like to be classified as an FBI informant, explaining, “I consider myself a surveyor/operative.” Whatever the semantics, this former Black Panther and convicted thief now works for the feds, going undercover in Muslim communities to root out would-be terrorists. He justifies the work by claiming to be a good Muslim protecting the faith, but more often than not, he mentions the money, and if Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s fly-on-the-wall documentary were just a personality profile of this endlessly contradictory and frankly delusional man, it would be worth seeing. But it goes further than that in the back half, taking several unexpected turns as the investigation Saeed is conducting goes up in smoke. A truly thoughtful film, and a troubling one.
4. Democrats Director Camilla Nielsson spent three years in Zimbabwe, documenting the drafting of a new constitution following decades of unrest, corruption, and political protest. She focuses on the two negotiators from the ZANU-PF and MDC-T factions, providing a ground-level view of the messy, difficult, and even dangerous business of fixing a country. Unobtrusively yet painstakingly detailing the dirty tricks, negotiation, and violence that unfold, Nielsson deftly demonstrates both the large implications and the personal (sometimes petty) interests that motivate them.
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3. In My Father’s House Rapper and writer Che “Rhymefest” Smith and his wife were looking to buy a home in Chicago when they found the house his father — who’d abandoned him as a child — lived in. They bought it, and then discovered (in a twist so neat a screenwriter would be afraid to float it) that his father was homeless. So Smith tracks down his estranged father, who’s a warm guy, a big hugger, and a hopeless drunk, and decides to try and help him get his life back together. What follows is complicated and emotionally fraught, with no easy roles; there’s a real tension as you wait for something to go wrong (and, with alcoholics, something always does). And Che isn’t always a model father himself, and seems at times to push his father to screw up. Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work; The Trials of Daryl Hunt) capture scenes of extraordinary candor and quiet intensity, creating a work of real depth and heartbreaking inevitability.
2. The Wolfpack In many ways, the Angulo family are ideal documentary subjects: their father keeps them shut in and homeschooled in their Lower East Side public housing unit, aware of the world around them only via the movies that they vociferously consume. So they’re open to her camera; they only know the world through its lens, and since they spend all of their time escaping their reality by recreating those movies, there’s no worry of them falsely “performing” for the camera. They’re always performing. Their lo-fi, Be Kind Rewind-style reenactments of Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight are charming, sure, but director Crystal Moselle treats them as the respites that they are. Around them, she uses unsettling music, home movies, and interview snippets to create a sense of unease — appropriately, as this is, for all intents and purposes, a hostage situation. Impressively assembled and ultimately empowering, Moselle’s film is both a tribute to the power of the movies and a reminder that a fictional escape is no substitute for the real thing.
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1. In Transit The Empire Builder is the busiest long-haul passenger train route in America, a three-day journey from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest (or the other way around). The final film of the late, great Albert Maysles is a chronicle of the people on that route. They pass the time by playing cards, singing songs, conversing, and confessing. There are bits of mini-drama here and there (chief among them a young woman whose baby was due three days ago), but Maysles doesn’t get hung up on any of it. He just settles in to the rhythms of those long nights and bleary-eyed mornings, and gets into the get-up-and-go spirit of these trips, best summarized by a line employee’s memory of understanding the trains as a child: “It was just amazing to me that all these people were going someplace that I’d never been.” And in his own quiet way, Maysles captures that wonder. This is a lovely, perfect film.