by Peter Wong on March 4, 2014

The start of March brings the return of San Jose’s major film festival Cinequest, which runs from March 4 to 16, 2014 at a variety of venues. The 24th edition of the festival will introduce viewers to such unforgettable characters as a gay rugby player and a pair of apparently non-communicative sisters. What follows are subjective mentions of some of Cinequest 24’s more intriguing offerings.

Pop culture fans will have particular reason to attend the 24th Cinequest. This year’s recipient of the festival’s Maverick Spirit Award is writer Neil Gaiman, who’s written the classic graphic series “Sandman,” the novels “American Gods” and “Coraline,” and even a few episodes of “Doctor Who.” Though Gaiman’s appearance will not be accompanied by a film, the writer’s live presentations bring enough wit and charm to entrance those lucky enough to see him.

Famed Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan is one of the recipients of this year’s inaugural Media Legacy Award. Turan’s appearance will be supplemented by a screening of the acclaimed drama “Fruitvale Station,” a portrait of the last day of the life of BART Police shooting victim Oscar Grant.

The other recipient of the first Cinequest Media Legacy Award is Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles. The iconic film geek will accompany a screening of Eugenio Mira’s devilish thriller “Grand Piano.” Elijah Wood stars as a stage-frightened concert pianist whose professional return gets more frightening thanks to a mysterious sniper’s threat to kill him during a benefit concert should he play a wrong note.

Equally offbeat forms of education link a quartet of Cinequest offerings. Fred Schepisi’s romantic comedy “Words and Pictures” features Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as teachers fomenting a “war” between words and pictures to inspire their students to learn. Real life comedy can be found in Brenda Goodman’s documentary “Sex(ed): The Movie,” which shows how a century of sex education films taught students (or not) about the mysteries of sex. Jorge Gil Munarriz’ amazing documentary “The Arrieta Method” shows what happens after two sisters learn communication with each other can happen despite an inability to speak or control one’s muscles. “Class Enemy,” Rok Bicek’s Slovenian Oscar submission, follows a war that erupts between an authoritarian teacher and the students who blame him for a tragedy.

Two films capture the difficulties of teenage life outside the classroom. Actual incidents from its foster youth actors’ lives provide the raw material for Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza’s musical drama “Know How.” Matt Wolf’s collage-like documentary “Teenage,” which recently played at S.F. Indie Fest, offers a historical perspective on the struggle between 1875 and 1945 to define what teenagers’ social role is.

Rock ‘n’ roll provided a formative part of many teenagers’ experiences. Directors Marlon Johnson, Chad Tingle, and Dennis Scholl’s documentary “Deep City” charts the early days of South Florida soul music and how Deep City Records’ musical legacy had an impact far beyond Florida’s state lines.

Another example of border-crossing impact is the remake of popular films from other countries. Lee San-il takes up the challenge with a remake of the Clint Eastwood classic “Unforgiven” set in the days of the samurai. Ken Watanabe takes on the Eastwood role.

The masked man as a heroic symbol is the subject of two documentaries. “Masterpiece: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns” is Alexander Gray and Jeff Maynard’s chronicle of the genesis of the legendary graphic novel which redefined Batman for a new age. Lucha Libre fans will appreciate Gabriela Obregon’s “The Man Behind The Mask,” her portrait of famed Mexican wrestler El Hijo del Santo.

Two other Cinequest films offer heroism more grounded in reality. “The Rugby Player” in Scott Gracheff’s multi-festival award-winning film is United Flight 93 passenger Mark Bingham, whose 9/11 death inspired a nation. Jayan Cherian’s “Papilio Buddha” has drawn controversy in India for its unflinching dramatization of ongoing atrocities against that country’s Dalit tribes.

Perhaps the everyday lesson to be drawn from Cherian’s Dalit activists is to never passively accept dissatisfaction with the status quo. “Gloria” star Paulina Garcia, the titular heroine of Moises Sepulveda’s Chilean drama “The Illiterate,” wants to read for herself a very important letter she keeps hidden. The loosely connected group of characters in Frauke Finsterwalder’s “Finsterworld” search for human warmth beneath German society’s polished surface. On the other hand, a private forest refuge provides a poor shield from social unrest for the wealthy Chilean family of Marcela Said’s poetic “The Summer of Flying Fish.”

But what if the better response to a darkening world is finding a way to laugh at it? Matthew Kowalchuk’s feel-bad comedy “Lawrence & Holloman” adapts Morris Panych’s Canadian play about a successful suit salesman whose golden life tarnishes badly after he takes a suicidal credit collector under his wing. But in terms of wringing humor from dark moments, Mark Bodszar’s comic drama “Heavenly Shift” promises to do a better job. The film follows a Budapest ambulance night crew who seem more successful at providing more work for the morgue than saving lives.

For those who prefer their spiritual crises straight and without mockery, the last two suggested films might be more appropriate. The Pawel Pawlikowski (“My Summer of Love”) film “Ida” won the Toronto Film Festival’s International Critics Award. The drama follows a novitiate nun who discovers her family’s hidden dark past. Those seeking drama from a less familiar religious tradition should check out Deniz Cinar’s Turkish drama “The Circle Within.” Its story comes from the non-Islamic nature based religious community known as the Kurdish Yazidi. It concerns an old man kidnapped and placed inside a circle drawn in the earth, who is convinced he cannot leave unless the kidnapper breaks the circle.

Whatever type of film the reader eventually seeks out at Cinequest, odds are there’ll be at least a few offerings that will match his or her taste.

(For Cinequest 2014’s screening schedule, as well as further information about the film selections and ordering tickets in advance, go to .)

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