Valentine’s Day falls during the Portland International Film Festival almost every year, so if you happen to have a significant other, hopefully they’re as into films as you are. (And if you don’t have one, no worries—just spend the day at the movies!) While you might not find a typical Hollywood romance at PIFF, that doesn’t mean there aren’t pleasures to be had. Here are the best bets for Sunday, Feb. 14:
“Above and Below”: Easily one of the best and most cinematic documentaries in the festival this year, this is the rare nonfiction film that demands to be seen on a big screen with a proper sound system. The picture follows five characters, credited only by their first names—April, Dave, Cindy, Rick, and The Godfather. They’re loosely connected (though Rick and Cindy are a couple) by their voluntary off-the-grid lifestyles. Three of them are just a few of the many who inhabit an entire underground world that exists in massive tunnel systems under Las Vegas. Dave lives alone in an abandoned military bunker in the California desert. April, another military vet, is enrolled in a remote training facility in Utah where students simulate life on Mars so they’re prepared to fulfill their dream of living there someday.
There are plenty of documentaries about people living on the fringes, but almost none of them sound this good (the sound design and soundtrack are top notch) or are made in such a visceral, immersive way. Swiss director Nicolas Steiner, editor Kaya Inan, and cinematographer Markus Nestroy, along with four composers and three credited sound artists, have crafted a great film that further blurs the line between fiction and documentary. [Erik McClanahan]
(Switzerland, 110 minutes, in English) Sun., Feb. 14, 1 p.m., Cinema 21; also Wed., Feb. 24, 8:30 p.m., Whitsell Auditorium.
“In Transit”: When I moved to Portland in June 1991, I traveled by train from Indiana to Portland, the vast majority of the trip on Amtrak’s Empire Builder. This venerable and still-popular line still runs from Chicago to the West Coast, and it’s the topic of the final film from documentary legend Albert Maysles.
With the restraint and humanity that characterized his and his brother David’s cinéma vérité work for decades, Maysles’ camera observes a diverse array of passengers headed east or west, more often than not in pursuit of a new life or returning to an old one. The biggest drama comes from a Minneapolis-bound pregnant woman four days past her due date. One of the most moving subjects is an old woman returning home from Seattle, where she had just visited, for the first time, the daughter she gave up for adoption 47 years earlier.
The biggest change on the Empire Builder in recent years is the number of passengers headed for work in the North Dakota oil fields. In that sense, “In Transit” is like a snapshot of something akin to the California Gold Rush—men (and some women) heading into the unknown with a sense of optimism and ambition that you can’t help but hope pays off for them. [Marc Mohan]
(United States, 76 min., in English) Sun., Feb. 14, 7 p.m., World Trade Center; also Mon., Feb. 15, 1 p.m., World Trade Center and Sun., Feb. 21, 7 p.m., World Trade Center.
“Liza the Fox-Fairy”: This Hungarian comedy is probably the most outright romantic film playing on V-Day, but that doesn’t mean it’s all gooey or anything. With a bright, energetic style that’s part Wes Anderson and part Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Amelie”), director Karoly Ujj Meszaros tells the story of Liza (Monika Balsai), a perpetual singleton on the cusp of thirty. Liza’s only friend is an imaginary one, in the form of a dead Japanese pop singer from the 1950s named Tomy Tani and charmingly played by the Danish-Japanese actor David Sakurai.
Suspicious accidents start to befall anyone Liza has a relationship with, starting with her tyrannical boss but eventually including a string of suitors. Tomy is behind these lethal incidents, for reasons that veer from the metaphorical to the supernatural. As the plot description might imply, “Liza the Fox-Fairy” (which takes its title from a Japanese folk tale) piles the determined whimsy precariously high. The house of cards teeters but never collapses, and you’ll probably walk out with a smile on your face despite yourself. [Marc Mohan]
(Hungary, 98 min., in Hungarian and Japanese with English subtitles) Sun., Feb. 14, 10 p.m., Cinema 21; also Mon., Feb. 15, 1 p.m., Moreland Theater
“Mia Madre”: Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti has been described as his country’s Woody Allen, and his films often tend to feel autobiographical while operating in a mode of assumed urbane sophistication. He’s often more willing, though, than Woody to engage with genuine emotions, without the protection of intellectual shellac. In perhaps his best, most heart-rending film, “The Son’s Room,” Moretti dealt with the death of a child, an unimaginable tragedy with which most of us will never have to contend.
In “Mia Madre,” the subject is a more universal experience: the loss of a parent, in this case the mother of film director Margherita (Margherita Buy, who has appeared in Moretti’s last three films). As her mom languishes in hospital with an enlarged heart, Margherita is also dealing with difficulties on the set of her current film, a labor union drama that has imported a bombastic American star (John Turturro, having almost too much fun). Moretti appears as Margherita’s brother, enhancing the tale’s roman à clef aspect. It’s an adequately crafter, inevitably moving film that should hit home for its intended audience. [Marc Mohan](Italy, 106 min., in Italian with English subtitles) Sun., Feb. 14, 7 p.m., Cinema 21