From late July to early August, the bayside town of Traverse City, Mich., hosted its annual film festival, assembling an impressive lineup of impactful films including documentaries, fiction  pieces, movies based on true stories and short films. Founded 15 years ago by documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, the festival continues to showcase strength in documentaries that present pressing and complicated social issues. The festival’s venues were scattered, ranging from the extravagant State Theatre and quaint Bijou by the Bay located in the heart of town to local high school auditoriums, but the festival’s careful management by kind volunteer staff made navigating the venues a breeze, even for those who wanted to see as many films as possible. The exceptional films in a cozy town made for an enlightening weekend.

“Midnight Family”

Of the many reasons why “Midnight Family,” is such an impressive story, the most striking is that it is an unscripted documentary. It constructs such a strong narrative around its central figures without the use of interviews or narration, capturing scenes perfectly with crisp and focused camerawork. The film follows the Ochoa household, who operate a private ambulance in Mexico City. Every day, the family has to race against government ambulances or other private vehicles to save lives for a paycheck they’re uncertain they’ll receive. Director Luke Lorentzen has created a truly special film showing the hardship and camaraderie that the Ochoa family experiences, successfully eliciting an astounding level of emotional vulnerability from each family member. This film is a better drama narrative than many fiction films of similar tones and is a documentary of the highest caliber.

Grade: A+

“Villains”

While the few fiction films in the festival’s lineup often felt lackluster in comparison to the documentaries, this movie was a personal favorite. “Villains” is a boisterous horror-comedy romp with a snappy, fast-paced style of blocking and editing. A young couple, Mickey (Bill Skarsgård) and Jules (Maika Monroe), have just robbed a gas station and are fleeing to start a new life in Florida when, ironically, their car runs out of gas. Stuck in the middle of the woods with no other vehicle in sight, the two stumble upon a nice house and break in to look for a car from which to siphon gas — unknowingly entering the home of a much more insidious couple. The film maintains a lively pace, and its bright color scheme lends some of the movie’s more insane and perverse moments a humorous tone despite the underlying tension in each scene. Mickey and Jules’ supportive dynamic feels refreshing and fits well with the comedy the film presents. “Villains” is short, sweet and to the point; while the film readily uses tropes from the horror and home invasion genre, its dark comedic style and well-rounded performances make it well worth seeing.

Grade: B+

“Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” and “Planet of the Humans”

It would be remiss not to discuss these two environmental documentary films in tandem because they both confront viewers with horrors that should haunt them far beyond the films’ final scenes. “Anthropocene” takes audiences across the world to witness the global rampancy of human destruction: We see scenes depicting the barren earth and giant machines in German coal mines that look straight out of a sci-fi movie, glorious drone footage of South American lithium fields and African landfills that are terrifying in scale, and an anxiety-inducing time lapse of coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, among other atrocities. The great irony of “Anthropocene” is how the existential terror on display is rendered in such awesome beauty, making the film near impossible to look away from. However, “Anthropocene” struggles to form a cohesive argument, often lacking proper context to certain vignettes, leaving viewers pondering the importance of some events. 

In contrast, “Planet of the Humans” effectively starts a clear yet controversial discussion that reframes our pursuit of “going green.” Directed by Michael Moore’s longtime producer Jeff Gibbs, the film follows Gibbs’ investigation of the truth behind clean and renewable energy businesses and discovery of how these “well-intentioned” pursuits have only made our carbon footprint worse. “Planet of the Humans” tackles complex and distressing research material with ease for all to understand but does so with little cinematographic prowess, poor film quality and camerawork, utterly unimpassioned narration and a soundtrack that is constantly at odds with the rest of the film. Despite these shortcomings, both environmental films share important, sobering messages that people would greatly benefit from viewing. If a film could possess the cinematography of “Anthropocene” and the substantive complexity of “Planet of the Humans,” it would likely rank among the best documentaries in recent years.

 “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” Grade: A-

“Planet of the Humans” Grade: B-

“One Child Nation”

Many people in the United States are likely aware that China enacted a one-child policy in 1979 in order to deal with overpopulation. But what many of us may not fully understand is the policy’s enduring impact on rural Chinese citizens. In “One Child Nation,” directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang bring viewers closer to these stories through interviews with people who lived under the policy, starting with Wang’s own family. Over the course of the movie, Wang speaks with officials and doctors from her hometown, as well as artists and activists concerned with child trafficking and the international adoption craze brought on by the policy. The somber and poignant film is clearly a work of passion, but the lack of a strong central narrative and little emphasis on camerawork or style make “One Child Nation” an insightful documentary that falls just short of being something exceptional.

Grade: B+

“16 Shots”

There may be few documentaries more important for U.S. citizens to watch now than “16 Shots.” The 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by a Chicago police officer becomes an even larger story about brutality, corruption, conspiracy, turmoil and social activism in director Richard Rowley’s “16 Shots.” The film follows multiple people involved in the case and the social movement, fully immersing the audience in the tension of this four-year battle for justice. Featuring inspiring interviews with lawyers and activists and revealing conversations with police officers and Fraternal Order of Police representatives, this film is a well-structured experience that effectively showcases every aspect of the tenuous relationship between the citizens of the U.S. and our police force in recent history.

Grade: A