“I, Daniel Blake” (2016) – Dave Johns and Hayley Squires radiate in “I, Daniel Blake,” an endearing portrait of a warm, affectionate individual who stands as an illustrious example of who we should strive to be under arduous circumstances.

Across the pond, this film made quite the splash at the Cannes Film Festival, in which it took home the Palme d’Or, the festival’s most prestigious honor. Director Ken Loach is widely acclaimed as one of Britain’s most outstanding filmmakers, and with “I, Daniel Blake,” it’s easy to see why.

It lives very much in the moment, occasionally offering a bit of kind-hearted levity to offset the the harsh, muted reality that its characters inhabit.

As an empathetic snapshot about good people trying to make an honest living under a disheartening welfare program, “I, Daniel Blake” is magnificent, offering a heartbreaking glimpse into the blossoming of a special kinship between a single mother and a surrogate father figure who puts the needs of others before himself.

“I, Daniel Blake” is wrought with plenty of well-earned tear-jerking junctures, but nothing comes close to a harrowing food bank sequence that perfectly captures the breaking point of a desperate mother whose frustration and embarrassment washes over her in an instant, well aware that to the UK welfare system, her and her two children are nothing but numbers in a broken system.

As someone watching this raw, unfiltered breakdown, I wanted nothing more than to reach out and extend a warm embrace. In this regard, “I, Daniel Blake” is more important now than ever. Rating: B+ 

“Paper Lanterns” (2016) – In the summer of 1945, Shigeaki Mori, a young Japanese child, would bear witness to the devastating effects of Hiroshima brought on by the U.S. atomic bomb. Later in life, he would spend over 35 years researching the 12 American POWs that perished in the attack, using every ounce of his being in order to contact the bereaved family members.

Aesthetically, very little about “Paper Lanterns” sticks out aside from a chilling recollection of that destructive summer day amid a few visually upsetting paintings. As a documented account of Mori’s journey, it flows as a fairly straightforward narrative.

However, it’s the content within that uncovers a deep human story of reconciliation and understanding. Past grievances are rendered meaningless when it came to the respect shown toward fallen soldiers on both ends of the spectrum. As Mori converges with two separate families, an unbreakable bond is formed.

He seeks no rewards for his humble actions, but rather the knowledge that the loved ones of these 12 men will find closure. Rating: B-

“The Islands and the Whales” (2016) – Deep in the North Atlantic, the people of the Faroe Islands continue to uphold the tradition of hunting whales and seagulls for consumption and other needs.

Upon the discovery that the rise of mercury, often found in the whales, causes hazardous disruptions to the development of the brain, the community begins to ponder whether they should stick to their roots or abandon the hunt in search of a safer alternative.

“The Islands and the Whales” makes no qualms about the community on display. As an obscure blip on the map with very little resource to grow their own crops, the islanders resort to following through with the only practice that allows them to thrive economically and traditionally.

The whaling is depicted in graphic detail with whole families participating in the brutal execution of said sea creatures, digging large spikes into them until the water becomes engulfed in blood.

Director Mike Day offers a bit of insightful commentary, along with some truly awe-inspiring landscape scenery, but can’t help but succumb to a meandering experience that loses focus and gets lost out at sea. With no real protagonist, the loose narrative finds issue in structure and pacing, averaging out to a middling presentation with very little answers to the dilemma. Rating: C+

“Big Sonia” (2016) –  As a teenager, Sonia Warshawski had been witness to several atrocities of the Holocaust. At 90 years of age, she perseveres despite her traumatic experience within three separate concentration camps.

When she’s not operating her one-woman tailor shop, Sonia serves as an inspirational speaker at schools and prisons, interacting with her audience on a personal level à la support groups. In using her trauma to inform others, Sonia stands as a commendable figure with a big heart.

I think it’s easy to determine why “Big Sonia” took home the Audience Choice Award at MONIFF.

Despite the heavy nature of Sonia’s story, especially in a heartbreaking sequence that depicts (through paper animation) the critical moment in which Sonia witnesses the final few moments of her mother’s life, this 93 minute documentary is oftentimes a humorous, crowd-pleasing delight.

Sonia herself is such a loveable human being who treats everyone she encounters with a warm smile and a common understanding. A subplot involving the possible shutdown of her store permeates the narrative, concluding in one of the funniest outcomes of any documentary. Whether in her shop, which she built from the ground up with her husband, John, or speaking to a crowd, Sonia is as Sonia does. Rating: B+

“Political Animals” (2016) – In the face of adversity, four influential lesbian legislators (Carole Midgen, Sheila Kuehl, Jackie Goldberg and Christine Kehoe) from California fought for gay rights, paving the way for every significant development in the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

They were strong, fierce and never bought into the idea of failure. Every time they would get knocked over, they got right back up and rose to the occasion.

Of all the films screened at MONIFF, “Political Animals” earned the most audible reaction from the crowd, including myself. We’ve come a long way with gay rights since the early 90s, but the journey to get to where we are now was lined with homophobia.

Through C-Span-style archival footage, the plight of these four women came to light in a manner unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. In an instant, their fellow legislators would blatantly refer to their lifestyle choices to pedophilia and beastiality, hiding behind a Bible to mask their hate with warped logic.

Aside from existing as a captivating time capsule, “Political Animals” celebrates the revolutionary achievements of four determined women who stood as pioneers of anti-discriminatiory legislature. Rating: A-

“The Idol” (2016) –  Based on a true story, “The Idol” follows Mohammed Assaf [Tawfeek Barhom], an aspiring Palestinian singer who, at a young age, discovered his incredible talent by playing at weddings alongside his friends and sister, Nour [Hiba Attalah]. Years later, Mohammed would continue to improve his craft in the hopes that one day he’ll compete on “Arab Idol” in Cairo, Egypt. Hampered by tragedy and poverty, Mohammed takes a leap of faith, escaping the war-torn Gaza and making his way to Cairo in order to achieve his dream.

First things first. Of all the films I’ve seen with the “based on a true story” label, “The Idol” is the first one that openly admits to fictionalizing true events for dramatic effect. In doing so, the film is allowed to move freely on its own merits with remarkable results. From its opening chase to the heart-racing finale, “The Idol” glides along at an energetic pace that hardly lets up. Sure, there are plenty of conveniences to be found, but the film’s inhabitants are so charismatic that you don’t mind; you just want to see them reach their intended goal. Despite the lack of subtitles during Mohammed’s vocal performances, his golden voice transcends mere words, emitting a beautiful sound that anybody can find comfort in. We’re so used to the American underdog story; why not confide in a beautifully-constructed Palestinian coming-of-age dramedy with outstanding performances, snappy dialogue and captivating music? Rating: A-

“The Guys Next Door” –  “The Guys Next Door” follows Erik and Sandro, a gay married couple who recruit their friend Rachel to act as a surrogate mother for a second child. In this intimate documentary, filmmakers Amy Geller and Allie Humenuk follow the trio throughout the process.

There’s not too much to say about “The Guys Next Door,,” other than it’s fine. As a portrait of three individuals with an unbreakable bond, it flows well enough. Erik and Sandro are very charismatic, caring parents with their own ups and downs, further proving the validity of the mantra: love is love. However, the content rarely excels beyond most reality television programs documenting the rapid progression of the new modern family. It’s been done before. Rating: C

“I Am Not Your Negro” –  When the critically acclaimed author James Baldwin passed away in 1987, he left behind 30 pages of a manuscript for “Remember this House,” a book that was going to examine racial tension in America through the lives and assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In “I Am Not Your Negro,” filmmaker Raoul Peck envisions the visual novel Baldwin never finished via narration by the great Samuel L. Jackson.

“I Am Not Your Negro” firmly stands as a scathing critical analysis into both past and present injustices brought on by America’s racial fear of “the other.” Through his lyrical testimony as a witness to a divided nation, Baldwin uncovers a sharp look into the subversive racial subtext hidden with multiple facets of our pop culture, many of which included racist print advertisements with the “magical negro” stereotype. He makes an eloquent plea for equality, using all-too familiar images of “white power” and other racial epithets that surprisingly haven’t aged a day. Written in 1979, Baldwin’s words should have remained an inside look into our past as a nation. Sadly, his words still hold relevancy as the line between images of the past and present start to blur together. No matter where you lie on the political spectrum, “I Am Not Your Negro” should be required mandatory viewing for every American citizen. Rating: A

Matt Bilodeau can be cotacted at mbilodeau@kscquinox.com

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