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Under the radar: The Amazon, enlightened animation and happy docs

Under the radar: The Amazon, enlightened animation and happy docs
Richard Rasmussen in a scene from the documentary "A River Below." (Movies That Matter)

Our annual compilation of overlooked films. Each reviewer chose five films to highlight.

“A River Below”: Serving as a revealing reminder that you can’t always judge an eco-doc by its cover, a pair of conservationists bringing attention to the plight of the Amazonian pink river dolphin drift into decidedly murkier waters as filmmaker Mark Grieco discovers an intriguing layer of ethical ambiguity lurking just below the well-intentioned whistleblowing.

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“A Taxi Driver”: Played out against South Korea’s 1980 Guangju Democratic Uprising, Jang Hoon’s deftly-directed buddy picture of a political thriller takes some affectingly unexpected turns driven by Song Kang-ho’s reluctant title character and Thomas Kretschmann as his dogged fare — a German broadcast journalist determined to bear witness to the brutal attacks.

“Ethel & Ernest”: Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent give a master class in voice acting for animation in Roger Mainwood’s movingly nostalgic ode to the workaday lives of author-illustrator Raymond Briggs’ parents. Coinciding with a dramatically eventful period in world history, the tender, hand-drawn film is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

“Free in Deed”: Set along a particularly downtrodden stretch of Memphis, Jake Mahaffy’s fact-based, atmospheric indie is a powerful, bleakly spare depiction of two damaged souls (played with achingly raw conviction by Edwina Findley and David Harewood) seeking salvation beneath the harsh fluorescent lighting of a converted storefront Pentecostal church.

“Window Horses”: “Coco” wasn’t the only 2017 animated release that avoided whitewashing another culture. Likewise Ann Marie Fleming’s stirringly original portrait of a stick figure of a young Canadian woman entering a poetry contest in Shiraz, Iran, which emerges as a vibrantly-rendered excursion (em)powered by universal themes of identity and belonging.

Filmmaker Agnes Varda and muralist JR in their documentary "Faces Places."
Filmmaker Agnes Varda and muralist JR in their documentary "Faces Places." (Cohen Media Group)

Yes, please: Refreshingly uplifting documentaries like “Faces Places,” “Jane” and “Kedi,” about the street cats of Istanbul, enlivened a field long dominated by films dealing with international conflict, the food chain and other inconvenient truths.

No more: Thin skin. Aggravated by Rotten Tomatoes and other review-aggregation sites, filmmakers and fanboys seem to be increasingly trolling those in the critical community who dare show their pet projects anything less than unconditional love.

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