Despite the shocking and inexplicable decision to omit Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins from this year’s Film Festival (a disaster applicable only to me I think) the actual line-up is as good as everyone says. At least I think it is from surveying about 20 out of the 160+ titles in the programme – hardly a representative sample but when most of those 20 bring such joy and only a few land with a dull thud you have to think that the rest of the programme is similarly proportioned.

Last year the big Cannes winner, Of Gods and Men, was missed by the International Festival, a situation that was remedied at Easter’s World Cinema Showcase. This year, of the big Cannes movies, only Godard’s Film Socialisme is missing in action. The great Swiss iconoclast may well have produced his most interesting work in years but it will take a trip to Amazon to find out for sure. Even the redoubtable Aro Video are unlikely to take a punt on it without the Festival’s imprimatur.

As usual, I asked the helpful Festival people to point me towards the less likely, the unheralded, the little battlers, the kind of film that is easily missed when skimming the 80 page programme. Any fool can tell you that The Tree of Life is going to be interesting. Capital Times readers want more than that.

Firstly music: two documentaries impressed me and they worked so well together I wish they were a double-feature. Merle Haggard: Learning to Live With Myself is a biography of the outlaw country star as he settles in to an uncomfortable old age. Actually old age to Haggard is no less comfortable than every other age – I can’t think of a great star less at ease in his own skin.

Compare that with Sing Your Song, the life story of the pop star, actor and activist Harry Belafonte. From a similar generation to Haggard, born with an equal lack of opportunity, Belafonte turned his talent and fame into a relentless drive to improve the lives of the people around him while Haggard seems to think that he is unworthy of his.

As an example of their differing attitudes to life and fame, Haggard described his invitation to perform at Nixon’s White House as the proudest day of his life. Belafonte once refused an invitation to represent the US at Nelson Mandela’s inaguration in protest at the situation in Haiti.

Those two films are about musicians but not much about music. This is remedied by crazy John Turturro’s portrait of Napoli, Passione. I think it was Noel Coward who wrote of the “potency of cheap pop music”, a potency that is increased dramatically when sung in a foreign language. Filled with music video recreations of Neapolitan hits, old and new, Passione is a delight from start to finish.

The best documentary I saw in this preview period was Aaron Schock’s Circo, a sad look at the dwindling fortunes of a once proud Mexican circus, held together by ringmaster “Tino” as the rest of his family slowly drifts away. A beautiful soundtrack by Calexico completes the picture. Another, more succesful, side of the showbiz dream can be found in Being Elmo: a Baltimore teenager watching early morning kids TV falls in love with puppetry and discovers a talent that takes him all the way to Sesame Street. Joyous.

Every Festival needs a great architecture doco (last year’s I.M. Pei film, Learning From Light wasn’t quite it) and this year we have How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? Over the last 30 years Sir Norman Foster has built the biggest architecture practise in the world, working on the biggest projects and building the biggest buildings. Cinema and architecture can work so well together, the camera floating through a space, catching the interplay of light and shadow, presence and absence. This film does all of that, tells an great story and illuminates Foster’s now influential way of thinking.

Sophie Fiennes (sister of Ralph and Joseph) has produced a documentary about German artist Anselm Kiefer that belongs in the “Slow Cinema” section of the programme – Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow and is all the better for it. Knowing nothing about Kiefer at the beginning, I was drawn into his work first by Fiennes’ long delicate tracking shots and Ligeti soundtrack. Then we get to see the man at work and he turns out to have a much lighter touch in the studio than his dark and broody meditations on European history would have you believe. More films showing artists at work please – much more cinematic than staring at paintings.

The Mill and the Cross is an exceedingly cinematic way to look at a painting: a recreation of the world that produced Peter Bruegel’s mid-16th century masterpiece The Way to Calvary (and an extraordinary, digitally-supported live-action recreation of the painting itself). A stunning technical achievement but in desperate need of a sense of humour.

This festival seems to be full of confused teenage girls: in Tomboy a ten-year-old girl would rather be a boy so … chooses to be one. A delicate subject deftly handled by director Céline Sciamma, it could have gone very wrong. She Monkeys, from Sweden, isn’t nearly as successful. A seemingly self-contained fourteen-year-old (this time) tries out for the local equestrian vaulting team (like synchronised swimming on horseback) and falls under the spell of beautiful Cassandra. Or does she? Mistaking opaque character motivations for a general sense of adolescent mystery is but one of its flaws and it’s described on its own website as a modern Western. Yeah, nah.

Another teenager, struggling to come to terms with adulthood and, more specifically, sexuality is stunning newcomer Clara Augarde in Love Like Poison. Like all of the last three films, parenting (lack of) is the core of the problem but this film states its manifesto right there in the title. Augarde reminds me of a young Isabelle Huppert and that’s quite a career to aspire to.

Talking of going places, Lena Dunham has well and truly announced herself with Tiny Furniture, a film that made me laugh out loud more than almost all of the commercial Hollywood “comedies” I’ve sat though this year. And then she whoops you in the guts with some real emotion, too.

Talking of comercial cinema, there are a plenty of examples of international hits to choose from: Point Blank is a French thriller about a hospital nurses’ aid who is dragged into a police conspiracy and has to join forces with a brutal (and tactiturn) safe cracker in order to rescue his kidnapped wife. It’s a rare thing – a film with action sequences you can actually follow – so expect a less coherent Hollywood remake soon.

Brazil’s biggest hit in years was Elite Squad: The Enemy Within , the sequel to it’s previouys biggest hit Elite Squad. Featuring even more police corruption, this time plucked from the Rio headlines, Elite Squad has plenty of action but not much subtlety – director José Padilha has definitely seen the final third of Scarface, you can be certain of that.

Medianeras is a slight Argentinian romantic comedy that was in love with its elegant structure more than it’s characters – two lonely-hearts take a year (and an entire film) to discover that their soulmate is actually right across the hall. By about half way I wanted to give them both a good slap.

For once, the Sports section of the programme isn’t dominated by cycling. In fact there’s even a couple of films about the sports that we watch rather than participate in. With Senna, Asif Kapadia provides an object lesson in documentary storytelling. Most of us know the arc of Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna’s life but Kapadia still manages to produce surprise after surprise: gripping from beginning to end.

Fire in Babylon has less to work with in terms of archive footage but it supplements it with a splendid choice (and use) of still photographs illustrating the 1970s bloom of West Indian cricket and their 20 year supremacy. The thesis is that the explosion of pride in Caribbean cricket was a result of post-colonial independence and the case is well made. There are many pleasures for a cricket fan, not least seeing the Master Blaster, Vivian Richards, still quietly dominating every room he is in. What a player, what a man.

Two years ago in these pages, I recommended a Korean film called Daytime Drinking only to be scolded for it by my own mother. So, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting the deadpan Mongolian “comedy” Winter Vacation which will drive many audiences mad with frustration but intrigued and delighted me.

Finally, the first half of A Useful Life might have been made for me and me alone. A failing Montevideo cinematheque (imagine if the Film Society ran its own cinema – it would be a bit like this) struggles to pay the rent and keep the projectors running despite falling membership. Portly Jorge (Jorge Jellinek) has been keeping the place going for 25 years but when he finally has to venture out in to the world his eyes are opened but sadly mine were closed. I’ll cherish the beautifully observed and photographed first half though.

A shorter version of this preview was printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 27 July, 2011. This version cross-posted from Funerals & Snakes.

Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments. There’s a lot to see!