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Choice Cuts: The St. Louis International Film Festival's eighteenth year brings together films shot around the world and in our back yard

St. Louis came down with a wicked case of Clooneymania earlier this year when the superstar, along with director Jason Reitman, used our fair city as the backdrop for the film Up in the Air. But believe it or not, other movies from across the globe were produced this year: Argentina, Macedonia, Senegal and dozens of other locales are represented at the St. Louis International Film Festival. But yes: The glitziest of the week's festivities are the Up in the Air cocktail party and screening, both on Saturday, November 14. Though that screening's now sold out, read on for a small sample of what else is on deck. For more information, including ticket prices, venues and a complete festival schedule, visit www.cinemastlouis.org.

An Education
The title is a double-entendre in An Education, the film version of British journalist Lynn Barber's memoir about the crash course she received in the "university of life" while studying in early-1960s suburban London. So, too, is Danish director Lone Scherfig's movie something of a deceptively packaged Oscar-season bonbon — a seemingly benign, classily directed year-I-became-a-woman nostalgia trip that conceals a surprisingly tart, morally ambiguous center. The year is 1961, and the place Twickenham, where spirited, sixteen-year-old overachiever Jenny (Carey Mulligan) falls under the spell of David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard, doing a passable British accent), a thirtysomething Jewish entrepreneur with a purposefully vague CV who begins whisking Jenny off to glamorous concerts and art auctions — not, as it happens, exclusively for her erudition. Undeniably designed for mass consumption, An Education elides some potentially awkward bits of business, but Barber's elemental tough-mindedness and lack of sentimentality remain constants, as does Mulligan's enchanting performance. Twenty-two when the film was shot, Mulligan is onscreen for nearly every frame of An Education, and in those 90-odd minutes, her Jenny seems to transform before us, from girlish insouciance to womanly self-confidence, from intellectual posturing to possessing a finely honed sense of personal taste. Mulligan gives us the sense that, right before our eyes, a star is born. Thursday, November 12, 7 p.m., at the Tivoli. Scott Foundas

Beeswax
As its title suggests, Beeswax has a mild buzz of business — and busy-ness. This loose, low-key, unaccountably fascinating movie has no particular sense of place. There are few establishing shots — Andrew Bujalski's setups are dictated mainly by his characters' relationships, most crucially that of the thirtyish twins played by actual twin sisters Tilly and Maggie Hatcher. Beeswax was inspired by the Hatchers, and their onscreen interaction (slightly infantile, a touch tense) imbues even the most ordinary activities with a strong behavioral subtext. So does Tilly's being in a wheelchair — much of the movie is casually concerned with the nuts and bolts of her daily existence. There's also Maggie's unexplained breakup with her boyfriend and Tilly's deteriorating situation with an estranged business partner, which prompts her to reach out for legal advice to a former boyfriend, played by Alex Karpovsky. Bujalski has always been good at portraying intimacy and social discomfort — making closeness feel exotic and awkwardness seem natural. And though there's nothing labored about Beeswax, it gives the impression of something being worked out — even while it's happening. Friday, November 13, 7 p.m. at Webster University.—J. Hoberman

A spitting image of the Man in Black tries to find his way home in Branson.
A spitting image of the Man in Black tries to find his way home in Branson.

Details

The St. Louis International Film Festival
Screenings take place at Webster University, the Hi-Pointe, the Tivoli, Plaza Frontenac and the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Visit www.cinemastlouis.org for more information.

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Branson
The stage performers profiled in Brent Meeske's documentary Branson ham it up and gush about their art with such a lack of ironic self-awareness, even mockumentary maestro Christopher Guest couldn't have scripted it better. But unlike the one-dimensional goofballs of Waiting for Guffman, the subjects in Branson are real human beings with very real sadness, money problems and addictions, all of which they bare to the camera with a disarming sincerity. The 52-year-old "Jackson Cash," whose rise, fall and redemption serve as the film's narrative skeleton, rolls into town with a guitar, $25 dollars in his pocket and a Johnny Cash impersonation that's so uncanny it brings the Man in Black's real-life sister to tears on the Jim Bakker Show. But in a weird parallel to his idol that he doesn't seem to appreciate, Cash spirals from marquee headliner to drugged-out no-show within weeks. After a failed attempt to make it in Las Vegas, he returns to Missouri — tail between his legs — and rediscovers both Christianity and success on the strip. If his personal arc doesn't pique your interest, just know that one performer shows off an original dance move dubbed the "Del Shannon" that will more than justify your ticket price. Saturday, November 14, 1 p.m. at the Tivoli.Nicholas Phillips

Up in the Air
You may have heard by now that George Clooney filmed a movie in St. Louis. You may not have heard that's it's actually pretty darn good. Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a charmingly callous and sharp-tongued consultant with a commitment problem whose job is traveling around the country firing people for companies "that don't have the balls to do it themselves." He's perfectly happy in self-imposed isolation until he falls for another dashing traveler (played with aplomb by Vera Farmiga) who shares his affinity for hollow status symbols. And when he's ordered by his boss (Arrested Development star Jason Bateman) to help an upstart Ivy Leaguer (Anna Kendrick) master the cold-hearted art of telling people they're out of a job, Bingham is forced to reconsider the unfulfilling life he leads. Much like his debut film Thank You for Smoking, writer/director Jason Reitman has crafted with Up in the Air a bittersweet and compelling picture that manages to wring laughs from pessimism while raising serious questions about the impact that technology and the recession have had on modern American lives and relationships. St. Louis itself is relegated to just a bit part in the movie, but eagle-eyed locals will notice many neighborhood landmarks that serve as stand-ins for other parts of the country, and even lifelong city-dwellers will leave the theater having learned a thing or two about our own Lambert Airport, which is praised by Clooney's character as being among the finest in the land. Saturday, November 14, 7 p.m., at the Tivoli. — Keegan Hamilton

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