Skip to Content
Movies

An Educated Guesser’s Guide to the 2024 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival

Read this or you might go see the wrong movies.

Photos provided|

Scenes from ‘Sira,’ “Swamp Dogg Gets His Pool Painted,’ and “Fargo’

“Can you honestly tell me that you’re not overwhelmed by the options?” I asked of the 2023 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival lineup this time last year. “Do you have any idea where to start?” And that was for a relatively slow post-pandemic year of just 130 films. This year the fest will be showing an additional 20 movies from April 11-25, primarily at the Main Cinema, with a few screenings as well at the Capri Theater and the Landmark Center.

Obviously you don’t have time to see 150 films in two weeks, not even if you wanted to. (I’m assuming you’re a relatively well-adjusted person who does not want to.) But do you have time to weigh the merits of 150 movies? Not even! That’s where I humbly enter the picture, an obsessive weirdo who loves poring over schedules and ferreting out whatever online information exists about these films to guess at whether they’re any good or not.

Digressive fun fact: As a kid, when our issue of TV Guide came in the mail each week, I used to mark it up with a schedule of what I would watch if I could sit in front of the TV every day from the minute stations signed on to the time they went off the air for the night. Studying film festival schedules is the closest I can come to reliving this wonderful childhood highlight.

As I did last year, I’ve split recommendations into “Faves So Far” (based on the few films I’ve seen in advance), “My Most Anticipated,” and “Locally Angled” (Minnesota-made films). To offer a little more breadth, and so you’re not solely being force-fed my (very good!) opinions, I’ve added two new sections, covering the festival’s tentpole films and events (“The Big Guns”) and the self-explanatory “Probably Not For Me, But Noteworthy.”

I realize that even this small selection below is more movies than most people will see in a 15-day period, but I hope it steers you in the right direction. Then again, part of the fun of MSPIFF is going into something on a whim and being pleasantly surprised, somewhat annoyed, or just confused. Some of the movies that stuck with me from past fests are the most imperfect. So while I’m excited about my recommendations, I encourage you to explore as well. That’s what I’ll be doing. 

The Big Guns

Colman Domingo in 'Sing Sing'

MSPIFF is built around its openers, closers, and special guests. For me, these event films can be hit or miss—I was very much not crazy about Bill Pohlad’s Dreamin’ Wild last year. (More like Dreamin’ Mild, amirite?) But I’m much more interested in this year’s opening and closing night films. And this year’s special guest—cinematographer Roger Deakins, a frequent collaborator with the Coen brothers—is very special indeed.

Sing Sing

In this year’s MSPIFF Opening Night film, a wrongly incarcerated man finds meaning in working with his fellow inmates as part of a prison theater program. As a setup that might sound a bit emotionally manipulative, but I believe that if anyone can pull such a role off, it’s Colman Domingo, who brought life to the by-the-numbers biopic Rustin last year and even managed to give Euphoria some emotional depth at moments. Though I do kinda wish they’d give him his Oscar so he can move on to more interesting roles. More info here.

Ghostlight

The festival’s closing night film is another story about finding yourself through theater, thematically a nice bookend to pair with Sing Sing. This time a construction worker who’s estranged from his family takes part in a community production of Romeo and Juliet and learns to open up emotionally. As someone who is essentially allergic to cinematic uplift, my corny senses are tingling, but advance word has it that directors Kelly O'Sullivan and Alex Thompson find nuance in this scenario. More info here.

Fargo

Yeah, yeah, I know you’ve seen it. Pretty good movie right? But have you seen it with the film’s ace cinematographer, Roger Deakins, in the house? This is one of three events at this year’s MSPIFF to feature Deakins and his wife/collaborator James—they’re also attending an Industry Night and will do a book signing. (And if you’re craving even more Deakins, MSPIFF is also screening Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which Deakins shot.) Every film obsessive in the metro has these events on their agenda, so get your tickets while you can. And expect the absolutely nerdiest gearhead questions afterwards. More info here.

Faves So Far

A scene from 'Terrestrial Verses'

A little disclaimer here: Though the lovely folks at MSPIFF do their best to send as many available screeners my way as they can, distributors and publicists can be ridiculously stingy with those advances, especially when it comes to the bigger-name movies. And I can only watch so many anyway. That said, here are five of my favorites (a sixth, Swamp Dogg Gets His Pool Painted, is in the “Locally Angled” section) along with notes on a few of the others I watched.

Bad Press

Did you know that many Native American nations don’t have a constitutionally guaranteed right to First Amendment protections? I didn’t till this documentary from Rebecca Landsberry-Baker and Joe Peeler about the struggle of Mvskoke Media to continue its coverage of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation. When the tribe repeals a free press law, apparently in retaliation for the news org’s coverage of high ranking tribal officials, Mvskoke Media has to fight to survive. Journalism! It’s good! More info here.

In Flames

Zarrar Kahn’s feature directorial debut is the sort of arthouse horror flick where the subtext is the text. After her grandfather dies, placing her family in financial peril, a student named Mariam is haunted by… well, by the patriarchy. The nice guy who insists on courting her, the over-friendly cab driver, her duplicitous uncle—each of these men is as terrifying as the visions that disturb. This is misandry at its most stylish and justified, with a terrific lead performance from Ramesha Nawal. More info here.

The Mother of All Lies

We’re living through a great moment of formally inventive documentary reconstructions, often by female directors; in its way, this attempt by director Asmae El Moudir to examine the legacy of Moroccan history through the lens of her family’s interactions is akin to another recent North African doc, the great Four Daughters. El Moudir and her father craft clay figurines and assemble doll houses to replicate her childhood neighborhood and remember the past, while her feared grandmother looms potently in the background, representing how repressive social norms are imposed by those we’re closest to. More info here.

Sira

Written and directed by Apolline Traoré, Sira follows the travails of a young nomadic woman who is abducted, raped, and abandoned in the desert. She struggles to survive on her own, then rallies a group of women being kept as slaves to revolt against their captors. Maybe it’s hard to film the Sahara badly, but the images here of gorgeous yet brutal landscape set off by colorful nomadic robes are something to bask in. And Nafissatou Cissé, in the title role, gives an absolutely fearless performance. More info here.

Terrestrial Verses

A series of beleaguered Iranian individuals make their cases to off-camera (and so literally faceless) bureaucratic forces: A man tries to give his son a name unapproved by the government; a schoolgirl fends off her principal’s accusations; a director exasperatedly tries to satisfy a censor; an elderly woman asks the police if they took her dog; a cab driver is forced to strip to reveal his tattoos. As written and directed by Ali Asgari and Alireza Khatami, this series of single-shot vignettes offer moments of grim comedy, and if the satire edges toward the heavy-handed, the situations justify it. More info here.

Honorable Mentions

Jeroboam Bozeman in 'Once Again (For the Very First Time'

Luther: Here and Now 

This documentary about the life of Luther Vandross is engrossing despite its conventional, talking-head-studded style, partly because its subject is just so engaging. It’s both revealing and frustrating, tiptoeing around his sexual orientation while addressing his lifelong loneliness, as it follows his incredible career path: an appearance on the very first Sesame Street, arranging and opening for David Bowie, becoming a key ingredient of Chic’s success, reigning as the king of jingles at the turn of the ’80s, and finally achieving superstardom. Overall, Vandross comes off as a sweet, gifted man who deserved to be much happier. More info here.

MMXX

In the nearly two decades since Romanian director Cristi Puiu made a splash with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, his output has been, as they say, polarizing. His latest gathers four claustrophobic, interrelated scenes of life during Covid that are so static we could be watching a play much of the time. There are compelling moments here, but it’s not clear what this all adds up to, evidence of real talent either withholding something from us or struggling to connect his own dots. More info here.

Name Me Lawand

An emotional story of a deaf Kurdish-Iraqi boy learning to communicate in the U.K. as his family faces the threat of deportation; slightly undermined by an overbearing soundtrack and an editing style better suited to a Claritin commercial. More info here.

Once Again (For the Very First Time)

Fantastic dance and rap battles, an intriguingly oblique love story, occasionally overwrought poetic dialogue—director Boaz Yakin’s film, starring Alvin Ailey dancer Jeroboam Bozeman and poet Mecca Verdell, is as captivating as it is frustrating. More info here.

Richland

Surveying the Washington town that produced the nuclear matter used in the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski, this documentary covers hometown pride (the town’s high school team is called the Bombers and their logo is a mushroom cloud), environmental devastation, and the struggle of art to come to grips with the complexity of history. More info here.

Locally Angled

Nicole Brending in 'Afterbirth'

The “I” may stand for “international” but there’s plenty of local appeal to MSPIFF as well. You can find MSPIFF’s full “MN Made” program here, including 10 thematically grouped short film screenings. These are the Minnesota-affiliated flicks I’m most curious about, but there’s plenty more worth exploring.

Afterbirth

Not all new mothers are happy! Director Nicole Brending turns the camera on herself after the birth of her son, capturing her postpartum depression, body image concerns, and musings about infanticide. I’ve got a feeling this one will be very relatable to many who attend. More info here.

Claire Facing North

In director Lynn Lukkas’s debut feature, a woman travels alone to Iceland with a lot on her mind, and she meets a younger, carefree (maybe even careless) hitchhiker. Will the two women learn a little about each other—and about themselves—through this encounter? I haven’t seen it but I have a hunch. MSPIFF’s local films tend toward the documentary, and while that’s cool, it’s good to see a fictional feature here too. More info here.

The Fishing Hat Bandit

In the mid-2000s, a middle-aged man in a bucket hat robbed 23 Minnesota banks in 18 months—now that is a tale that deserves a film festival doc. What’s more, the bankrobber, John Whitrock, is still around, and after release from prison he’s making amends. (To the banks? I’m sure they’re doing fine.) Whitrock will also be on hand at the screening, proving that if you live long enough, anyone can become a colorful character, whatever your past. More info here.

No One Asked You

For years, locally grown comic and Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead has been criss-crossing the country with her group Abortion Access Front, demonstrating in favor of reproductive rights. Director Ruth Leitman captures how that activism has ramped up even more in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Both Winstead and Leitman will attend, and Saturday night’s screening will be followed by an dance afterparty called FUNK THIS SH*T, a fundraiser where “you can bid on belting out an exclusive karaoke duet with some of your most beloved Minnesota stars.” More info here.

Swamp Dogg Gets His Pool Painted

Soul eccentric Jerry Williams (aka Swamp Dogg), the author of songs you may know like “Don’t Take Her (She’s All I Got)” and songs you should know like “I’ve Never Been to Africa (And It’s Your Fault)” has been a cult legend since Total Destruction to Your Mind dropped in 1970 (and he was a music industry pro for a decade before that). He deserves a documentary as idiosyncratic as his genius, and directors (and musicians) Isaac Gale and Ryan Olson deliver. This is music doc as hangout movie—we’re not barraged by talking head testimony to the 81-year-old singer’s legacy, but instead we get to lounge out in the California sun with Swamp and his bandmates and roommates as they reminisce about the past. And though Swamp lives out in L.A., there’s plenty of Minnesota local color: singer Dizzy Fae appears in one segment and rapper Greg Grease narrates. This one’s a pure delight. More info here.

Probably Not For Me, But Noteworthy

Sverre Thornam and Mille Sophie Rist Dalhaug in 'Victoria Must Go'

Look, I understand that acerbic Romanian essay-films and Vietnamese slow cinema are not for everyone. So this year I’ve highlighted a few movies to check out if you just want a little something out of the ordinary but not too heavy, or if you’re planning dinner and a movie with your parents. (I’m so accommodating!) Who knows—I might even like a few of these if I check ’em out. I’ve certainly been wrong before.

Bonjour Switzerland

When French becomes the national language of Switzerland, the quiet little country’s German speakers go bonkers. From what I’ve seen, Peter Luisi’s comic romp might not quite be my kind of zany, but for the right crowd, it will be a sure pleaser. More info here.

Merchant Ivory

Haters of the genteel like me gave these fellas too much shit in their heyday. In retrospect, there was nothing fussy about Ismail Merchant and James Ivory’s literary adaptations (until a recent rewatch, I somehow forgot—or never noticed?—that A Room With a View displays actual peen), even if they did open the gates to stuffier stuff. They had a moment, and they deserve a doc. More info here.

Thelma

When she’s swindled out of her life savings by a phone scammer, a 93-year-old grandma swings into action to punish the culprits, with help from Richard Roundree (Shaft himself!) in one of his final roles. Think of it as The Beekeeper if Phylicia Rashad hadn’t needed Statham to avenge her. More info here.

Victoria Must Go

Hijinks ensue when two dour, spoiled Norwegian kids hire a hitman to off their new stepmother. Be forewarned: Apparently this dark little romp turns unexpectedly sweet. More info here.

Wildcat

Ethan and Maya Hawke seem to have a nice relationship, and I like ‘em both. But this biopic of Flannery O’Connor, directed by dad and starring daughter, feels kind of like a vanity project. I’ve seen reviews claiming it upends the conventions of the genre. To which I respond with a noncommittal “hmmm.” More info here.

My Most Anticipated

Ilinca Manolache in 'Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World'

Finally, the fun part. Last year, I called this section “Most Anticipated,” but in the interest of honesty I’ve made a slight change, acknowledging that my most anticipated MSPIFF films are not necessarily yours. My tastes are my tastes, y’know, and they very much do not line up one-to-one with many fest-goers. (For instance, Kelly Reichert’s Showing Up, which I liked, was the lowest-rated film of last year’s festival.) Still, if any of these sound at all interesting, go for it. If you can’t get out of your comfort zone at a film festival, then when can ya?

The Beast

What’s better than a movie starring Léa Seydoux? A movie starring three Léa Seydouxs. (Léas Seydoux? My French plurals are rusty.) In this very loose adaptation of Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle,” Seydoux is a woman of 2044 who undergoes a new procedure that extracts her past lives to help her overcome painful emotions. She’s also a woman from 1910 and a woman from 2014—those same lives she’s hiding from. Bertrand Bonello, best known for Nocturama, directs. Sci-fi Henry James? I gotta give it a shot. More info here.

Copa 71

Did you know that 100,000 people filled Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium in 1971 to watch a world title women’s soccer game? I sure didn’t. And then for decades after, we were told that no one cares about women’s sports. Filmmakers Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine constructed this belated documentary of the event from footage of the game, along with interviews with the stars of that time, reconstructing what was truly a lost moment. More info here.

Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World 

Romanian director Radu Jude broke through with U.S. critics and arthouse audiences a couple years back with Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a mix of narrative and film essay about sex and nationalism that I remember being kind of annoying. In one of the most critically acclaimed films of 2023, he follows a woman named Angela, a production assistant who has also constructed a reprehensible internet presence named Bobita on TikTok. The New Yorker praised its “form-blurring fury,” while a Slate headline called it “The Only Movie That Feels Like Contemporary Life.” That’s a lot to live up to. I hope I’m not expecting too much. More info here.

Evil Does Not Exist

The newest film from Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the director of 2021’s devastating Drive My Car, comes in at a trim 106 minutes—much more compact than his three-hour Best Picture nominee, let alone his wonderfully sprawling five+ hour 2015 film Happy Hour. The plot also appears more pointedly topical: A man who lives in a remote Japanese village is spurred to action when he learns that a corporation has decided to construct a glamping site nearby, likely upending his peaceful rural life. More info here.

Green Border

With a fictional film told in a documentary style, the great Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa) views Europe’s refugee crisis from the vantage point of the border between Poland and Belarus. Here, desperate people are lured by government propaganda meant to stoke division between the EU and Belarus. Incidentally, the Polish government has condemned the film. More info here.

Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell

Slow cinema—it’s not for everyone, but for its devotees there’s nothing quite like it. I mean, just check out these raves for Phạm Thiên Ân’s directorial debut from Google Reviews: “like watching someone’s meaningless travel videos,” “mere decoration with no message to deliver, ” ”I caught myself falling asleep at least 4 or 5 times,” “I didn't know how to sit anymore.” Oh hell yeah. Let’s. Fucking. Go. More info here.

Lies We Tell

Fans of 19th century Irish novelist Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas will be outraged by this feminist twist on his 1864 tale of mystery and intrigue. Seriously though, from what I can tell, this has got everything you’d want from a story of Gothic suspense—a spooky old house, a family fortune, a suspicious governess, a manipulative guardian with a dark past, and, of course, an endangered heiress. Except screenwriter Elisabeth Gooch made a point of giving that heiress a bit more gumption than Le Fanu had allowed her. More info here.

Sugarcane

A hit at Sundance, this doc looks at the aftermath of an investigation into years of horrific abuse at a Catholic-run Indian residential school in British Columbia, particularly its effects on the residents of the nearby Sugarcane Reserve. The revelations of rape, torture, and suicide call forth an emotionally complex reckoning, captured by directors Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie, and critics have praised the films refusal to tie things up with neat emotional closure. More info here.

And because I can’t stop making lists, here are eight more movies I’m hoping to see: About Dry GrassesThe BurdenedThe Buriti FlowerDaughtersDead MailIn Our DayLeRoy TexasWhite Plastic Sky.

OK, I’ll stop!

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Racket

MN GOP’s Growing Royce White Problem

Plus Starbucks didn't touch that mural, police downsizing is good, and the Bundt Cake has MN roots in today's Flyover news roundup.

What Does Horace the Como Corpse Flower Really Smell Like?

After a 102-minute wait, I present: My lunch with Horace.

Let’s Talk Trains on This Friday Open Thread

As we do every Friday, we're turning Racket over to you, the readers

Freeloader Friday: 70 Free Things To Do This Weekend

We're going all the way through Memorial Day baybeeee!

Wolves Win! (Financially Speaking…)

Plus libraries continue to rock, RIP 'Bring Ya Ass,' and Cousins unloads a home in today's Flyover news roundup.