In the 14 years since the East Lansing Film Festival was launched, it has become a major-league showcase for independent films, documentaries, shorts and foreign films. The tradition continues with this year’s festival, which offers everything from student films to a retrospective screening of “Shaft.” The festival also includes the Lake Michigan Film Competition, which awards cash prizes to filmmakers whose productions were at least one-quarter filmed, produced or financed in the states bordering Lake Michigan; categories include feature, long documentary, short documentary, short film, student documentary, student narrative and other media.

Here’s what’s on this year’s schedule. Films of particular note are highlighted.


7:30 p.m. 

“In a Better World” (113 min.) Hannah Community Center 

Noble intentions and strong performances battle a preachy screenplay in director Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film last year. Bier’s screenplay (co-written with her frequent collaborator Anders Thomas Jensen) examines the nature of violence and how we often secretly applaud the same behavior we claim to despise. Young Christian (William John Nielsen) is still reeling from the death of his mom, but workaholic Claus (Ulrich Thomsen) overlooks his son’s neediness. That allows Christian to channel his frustrations into increasingly scary escapades with misfit classmate Elias (Markus Rygaard). Meanwhile, Elias’ pacifist dad, Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), a Swedish doctor who works in African villages, tries to deal with murderous militants and brutal warlords. While the acting is exemplary all around (Trine Dyrholm, who plays Elias’ defensive mom, is also outstanding) and Bier knows how to build tension, “World” is overloaded with heavy-handed messages — before you devote yourself to saving other folks’ kids, take an interest in your own; bullies come in all sizes, etc. — that suffocate much of the drama. — JS

Thursday, Nov. 10

7:30 p.m. 

“Shaft” (98 min.) Hannah Community Center

Who’s the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks? None other than Richard Roundtree, in the defining performance of his career. The 1971 hit helped to launch the short-lived but fondly remembered “blaxploitation” genre and it did wonders for the career of Isaac Hayes, who won an Oscar for his title song. It probably boosted sales of full-length brown leather coats, too. The raucous, achingly “with-it” crime drama (which was considered uncommonly violent in its day, but looks fairly restrained in the post-Tarantino era) co-stars Michigan State University alum Charles Cioffi as a mobster. It’s truly a blast from the past, in every sense. Can you dig it? — JS

Friday, Nov. 11

9:15 a.m. 

“Stranger Things” (77 min.) Wells Hall, Theater B

Like taking time to smell the roses, “Stranger Things” is a frustratingly simple film that finds beauty in ordinary details. Filmmakers Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal explore ideas of grief, connection and kindness through a happenstance meeting between two strangers. Patience is required for full enjoyment of this deliberately slow film in which shots of water beetles, bathwater and abundant awkward glances yield no symbolism or deeper meaning. The story and its message unfold in what feels like real time. Still, the subtly textured performances from the two leading actors make “Stranger Things” a worthwhile respite from overly ambitious plots and political subtexts. — PW

7 p.m.

“Buck” (88 min.) Wells Hall, Theater C

This has been a terrific year for documentaries, and director Cindy Meehl’s “Buck” is one of the very finest. Meehl’s charismatic subject is Buck Brannaman, a “horse whisperer” who gets the endorsement of no less than Robert Redford, who calls him “the real deal/no-nonsense guy.” Brannaman first made his mark as a celebrated young rider and roper (as seen in a clip from a memorable 1970s Kellogg’s Sugar Pops commercial), but outside the arena he and his older brother suffered savage beatings at the hands of their hard-drinking, never-satisfied father. Thanks to a nurturing foster family, Brannaman overcame his traumatic childhood and developed a method of working with horses that emphasizes empathy and patience instead of whippings and threats. “Respect isn’t fear,” Brannaman insists. “It’s acceptance.” Even those who aren’t obsessed with all things equine will be utterly charmed by Brannaman’s magnetic personality and fascinated by his philosophy. Part therapist, part shaman, Brannaman is equally adept at reading the minds of mares and diseecting the personalities of their owners. “A lot of times, rather than helping people with horse problems, I’m helping horses with people problems,” Brannaman observes. — JS

7 p.m. 

“Donor Unknown” (78 min.) Wells Hall, Theater A