First Run Features’ first three releases of 2016 are just what film lovers will cherish and in the first film’s case, is just what the doctor ordered . . . literally. When she learned that Americas spend a trillion dollars a year on high-tech medical test, yet almost 20% of patients are misdiagnosed, filmmaker Muffie Meyer decided step forward. Her documentary reintroduces the oldest diagnostic method—listening to the patient—by following Dr. Valentin Fuster and Dr. Herschel Sklaroff, two leading cardiologists from New York City’s esteemed Mount Sinai Hospital, over a one-month period as they care for critically-ill heart patients in the Cardiac Care Unit.
The film accompanies Fuster and Sklaroff as they teach future doctors the traditional art and science of a thorough bedside physical exam. “A great many diseases may be diagnosed,” they explains, “just by looking at a patient’s hand.” The film concentrates on several such patients, including a man suffering from heart failure who refuses treatment; a young woman awaiting a heart transplant; and a man whose life-threatening sleep apnea went undetected for years.
Meyer (who co-directed the superb “Grey Gardens” and “The New Medicine”) shows Fuster’s and Sklaroff’s decades of experience in action as they correct misdiagnoses and save lives, demonstrating—in real-world situations—that simply observing and listening to patients remain medicine’s most indispensable tools. An illuminating documentary that can save lives . . . literally.
Two other new year new must-haves: “The Looking Glass” is the latest triumph from Academy Award-nominated director John Hancock (“Bang the Drum Slowly,” “Prancer”) and his longtime collaborator and wife, Dorothy Tristan (“Klute,” “Scarecrow”). After losing her mother, troubled 13-year-old Julie (played by newcomer Grace Tarnow) comes to live with her grandmother (Tristan), who is a former star of stage and screen. Feeling trapped in her new world, Julie struggles to find peace and happiness as she and her grandmother butt heads at every turn. An unexpected discovery of their shared talent enables Julie to find her voice, her passion and, ultimately, happiness.
“The Clearstream Affair,” a film by Vincent Garenq, is a triller whose plot seems ripped-from-the-headlines, based on the real exploits of Denis Robert, an investigative journalist who spent years tracking the illicit activities of the Luxembourg-based Clearstream bank, uncovering ties with leading French companies and government officials. Journalist Denis Robert (Point Blank’s Gilles Lellouche) sets the world of finance ablaze when he exposes a major European bank’s opaque operations. In his search for the truth, he uncovers a dark political financial machine of bribes and threats, false bank accounts and alleged international money laundering. The film is in French with English subtitles.
End of the year favorites:
“Top Spin” Inside a cramped gym, the clacking sounds of hollow plastic balls whirling at 80 mph are punctuated by exclamations of victory and bitter cries of defeat. Welcome to the hidden world of competitive ping pong. Three fiercely committed teenagers battle their way through the world of elite table tennis. With devoted parents by their side, they have traded normal teenage life for a chance to represent their country on the world’s biggest athletic stage: the Olympics. An inside look at an offbeat sport, “Top Spin” turns one of America’s favorite pastimes on its head and reveals a coming-of-age story where success and failure come down to mere millimeters.
“Tokyo Fiancee” Based on Amélie Nothomb’s bestselling novel, the film is a dark romantic comedy that will appeal to fans of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation.” The young, pixie-like Amélie is in love with all things Japanese, which prompts her to buy a one-way ticket to Tokyo in order to completely immerse herself in Japanese culture. She offers to work as a French tutor, and soon finds herself enjoying a passionate relationship with her only student, the charming Rinri. As the two explore the joys (and awkwardness) of their first real romance and the colorful city around them, many cultural barriers fall . . . but some still remain. This captivating and unique comedy played in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and seduced audiences in Europe with its whimsical style and its playful look at misunderstandings, complications and the problems that arise from cultural stereotypes. Pauline Étienne, as Amélie, is winsome and wonderful as the enthusiastic young woman on a cross-cultural adventure of the heart. The film is in English, French and Japanese with English subtitles.
“Divide in Concord” Jean Hill, a fiery octogenarian, is deeply concerned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—the world’s largest landfill. She spends her golden years attending city council meetings and cold-calling residents. Since 2010, she’s spearheaded a grassroots campaign to ban the sale of single-serve plastic bottles in her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. So far, her attempts to pass a municipal bylaw have failed. As she prepares for one last Town Meeting, Jean faces the strongest opposition yet-from skeptical residents, local merchants and the International Bottled Water Association. But her fiercest challenge comes from Adriana Cohen, mother, model and celebrity publicist-turned-pundit, who insists the bill is an attack on freedom. When Adriana thrusts Jean’s crusade into the national spotlight, it’s silver-haired senior versus silver-tongued pro. In the same town that incited the American Revolution and inspired Thoreau’s environmental movement, can one little old lady make history? A tense nail-biter of a vote will decide. (Angie Driscoll)