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The 2009 Independent Film Festival of Boston

In anticipation of the 93 films of this year’s IFFB, festival organizers threw us critics a tease: A broad advance sampling of their lineup, intended to tempt the cinematic palate.

So here’s a ‘ten-pack preview’ of those movies offered, ready to go for this weekend (April 22 through 28, to be exact). In order of recommendation:

Winnebago Man
Search for ‘world’s angriest man’ on Google, and you’ll find Jack Rebney. Twenty years ago, he appeared in an industrial video for Winnebago, spewing fits of profanity during outtakes that became infamous. Enter filmmaker Ben Steinbauer, a fan of Rebney’s, um, work, determined to find the erstwhile RV salesman. His three-year journey is ridiculously entertaining, a giddy look at cultural iconography and public perception. Rebney, charming and crotchety in his late 70s, regularly keeps us guessing, turning a simple idea into a case study that’s complex, and very funny. Viewing with a crowd is highly recommended.

Helen
This quiet curiosity from the UK is an achievement of mood and tone, with a tip of the cap to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. In helping police search for a missing girl, a college student acts as the girl’s stand-in for an event reconstruction. Filmmakers Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy (following their acclaimed short, Joy) employ long, hypnotic takes, graceful dolly shots, and slow, deliberate camera moves. Time stands still for so many involved with the case; for the protagonist, we eventually find out why. Eerie, precise, not a moment wasted.

That Evening Sun
Eighty-four-year old Hal Holbrook commands this humble gem of a drama as a lifelong farmer who flees an old-folks home to reclaim his land after his son leases it away. Writer-director Scott Teems, adapting William Gay’s story, understands the tale’s simplicity — this could easily work as a play — but sees beyond it, developing a tight, tense piece of cinema using very few locations. Once this film gets out there, Holbrook will be on Oscar’s Best Actor shortlist. Guaranteed.

Crude
Joe Berlinger is one of our most skilled documentary filmmakers –Paradise Lost, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster — and Crude requires his level of craftsmanship, as 30,000 native Ecuadorans sue Chevron for literally poisoning the population. The details and minutiae can be staggering, but Berlinger is smart enough to focus on the most interesting player involved, a neophyte Ecuadoran attorney representing the plaintiffs, a man more compelling than even the celebrities who enter the fray. An amazing cautionary tale combining idealism and hopelessness.

The Unmistaken Child
How’s this for pressure: You spend most of your life in predestined servitude to your mentor. Then, upon the elder’s death, you’re charged with finding the body he’s chosen for his reincarnated soul. This multinational documentary follows the spiritual journey of a Tibetan monk who searches a village where he believes his exalted teacher has been reborn. A fascinating mystery that inspires conversation about faith and belief, especially by Western viewers. But ultimately, Nati Baratz’s effort loses steam, following man and child without the curiosity or narrative grace displayed earlier in the film.

Luckey
Another documentary about the relationship between an architect father and son? Well, sort of. Hippie designer Tom Luckey transitioned from wacked-out furniture to kids ‘climbers,’ giant sculptures made for child’s play. When a freak accident (really freak) leaves Tom paralyzed, he’s forced to finish two installations with his headstrong son — and without the ability to design or climb his own creations. PBS producer Laura Longsworth airs two generations’ worth of dirty laundry with a story so full of irony it almost seems fictional. If you’re in Boston to see the film, check out the Luckeys’ installation at the Boston Childrens’ Museum — then see them create it in the film.

The Way We Get By
Here’s the festival’s surefire lump in your throat: Aron Gaudet’s documentary follows a group of elderly Maine folks dedicated to ensuring that every American soldier moving through Bangor airport is greeted personally. As the troop numbers reach unthinkable levels (think six digits), Gaudet takes time to detail the lives of the greeters as they lose spouses, pets, and their health. There’s nothing groundbreaking or earth-shaking, but the respect these folks show the soldiers is paid back in spades by this film. And rightfully so.

The Lost Son of Havana
Major League Baseball pitcher Luis Tiant shed a lot of tears during his career, winning games and losing jobs while his family remained in Cuba. Forty-six years after leaving, Tiant returns to his baseball-crazed nation and Jonathan Hock’s cameras capture it all. This exhaustive documentary, produced by the Farrelly brothers, feels scattered and long, but it’s saved by its star: El Tiante is still the beloved personality he was in the 1960s and 1970s — but now, decades later, he’s questioning the path of his life. When he promises an old aunt he’ll visit the next day, she warns ‘Don’t get lost out there!’ Tiant replies, ‘I’m already lost,’ and there shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house.

Big Fan
The Wrestler screenwriter Robert Siegel makes his directorial debut with this awkward comedy-drama about an unmotivated do-nothing who takes his sports fanaticism too far. Patton Oswalt gives a deceptively strong performance as a NY sports radio caller with all the clichéd attributes: mid-30s, lives with his mother, brainless job, and dedicates every waking moment to ‘writing’ his next calls and rooting for the Giants. When a run-in with his favorite player turns ugly, he’s forced to choose between his own well-being and his team’s success. Siegel has a chance to push all the right buttons but comes up short, especially in the film’s overblown climax.

Trinidad
No, this documentary isn’t about the Caribbean island; it’s about a small Colorado town of the same name that’s known as the sex change capital of the world. Co-directors Jay Hodges and P.J. Raval start by addressing the obvious question — Why Trinidad, Colorado? — but don’t have much else to deliver from there. While the story of transgendered people, mostly men becoming women, is one of confusion, shame, and commitment, those featured in Trinidad aren’t intriguing enough to carry a feature documentary. Frankly, as some of their issues and conflicts turn petty, the whole result is somewhat annoying.

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