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Six must-see movies at Twin Cities Film Fest

With 120 screenings in 11 days, the festival offers a curated selection of promising regional debuts.

JACK ENGLISH, FOCUS FEATURESGary Oldman stars as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s World War II drama “Darkest Hour.”

That means that it’s prudent to check the full 120-event schedule online at ­ and order your tickets promptly in anticipation of the added traffic. Numerous showings are selling out quickly.

Some of the more interesting films in this year’s lineup are well-made independent productions.

A documentary in the form of a psychological horror film, there are few documents more chilling about mounting madness than the Minnesota-based “A Gray State” (showing at 7:20 p.m. Fri. in its 91-minute release cut and 2:10 p.m. Sat. in an extended director’s cut).

Erik Nelson, producer of Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man,” constructed his film with 13,000 stills, 23 terabytes of footage and massive amounts of selfies and recorded speech left by David Crowley when he, his wife, Komel, and their young daughter, Rani, were found dead in their Apple Valley home in January 2015. A veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Crowley suffered a breakdown during his second tour.

After his service, Crowley proved a talented aspiring filmmaker as he created “Gray State,” a violent combat film about an American dystopia enslaved by an oppressive international government. He was an ambitious, narcissistic, self-promoting libertarian with a multiplying social media fan base in fringe-right politics. As his personal recordings over years reveal, he was becoming increasingly unhinged.

When the family was found dead, conspiracy theories of a murder-suicide, government assassination and terrorism flared, depending on what people wanted to believe. Nelson painstakingly interviews Crowley’s relatives, business associates, friends, neighbors, social media fans and journalists who covered the case, using their commentary to help understand the details of his strange, sad life. Nelson will be present to introduce the film and field audience questions at both screenings.

“Beauty Mark” (4:30 p.m. Sat. and 3:30 p.m. Oct. 24) is not flawlessly crafted filmmaking, but the story is so powerful that its flaws hardly matter. Inspired by true events, it follows a single mother living in poverty as she is evicted from her condemned house with just $65 to her name. No alternative exists for Angie (Auden Thornton in an admirably strong performance), her 3-year-old son and her alcoholic mother unless she can produce $1,700 within a week. Now in her mid-20s, she also carries ongoing emotional damage from a much earlier crisis. She experienced child sexual abuse from the only person she knows who has the money she needs, an aged man who still wants to manipulate her for sexual control. Shot in seedy areas of Louisville, Ky., the film has the feel of depressive realism.

The lightly comic romance “Becks” (1 p.m. Oct. 25 and 12:20 p.m. Oct. 28) features Tony-winning actress and singer Lena Hall as “Becks the Wreck,” a Brooklyn guitarist who finds herself dumped by her glamorous singer girlfriend. She ends up broke, jobless and couch surfing in St. Louis at the home of her widowed mother, Ann (made nice but controlling to a fault by Christine Lahti). Playing at a high school friend’s bar on evenings for tips and teaching inexpensive music lessons don’t help much financially, but do lead to an impulsive chance relationship with a long ago acquaintance (Mena Suvari). The thrift store owner just might become the love of Becks’ life, although she’s married to Mitch (Darren Ritchie), Becks’ high school nemesis.

Hall is a likable screen presence even when Becks is being snarky and obnoxious, which happens a good deal. While the film contains more Lesbianism for Dummies exposition than is strictly needed, it charmingly demonstrates why she needn’t be the underdog outsider in her old neighborhood these days.

As before, the fest’s schedule is a mix-and-match roster of arty, funny and gritty films from remarkable moviemakers. You can sample the directorial debut of multitalented Andy Serkis (the English actor best known for his motion-capture work as Caesar in the “Planet of the Apes” reboot trilogy and Gollum in ”The Lord of the Rings”). His new film “Breathe” stars Andrew Garfield in a heart-wrenching real-life tale of romance and debilitating disease showing at 5:30 p.m. Wed.

If you prefer current events, there’s the beloved children’s PBS science hero turned adult climate change evangelist in the documentary “Bill Nye: Science Guy” at 5 p.m. Sat. Or visit new works by established auteurs, such as the nihilistic comedy “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”by Martin (“In Bruges”) McDonagh at 6 p.m. Oct. 23. If you enjoy history and star vehicles, see Gary Oldman transformed into Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” in side-by-side screenings at 2:30 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. Oct. 28.

If online overexposure has chipped away at your attention span, there are several blocks of thematically related short films covering subjects such as coming of age, families and friendship, crime thrillers, animation and comedy scheduled across the 11-day run.