When I was invited to the Miami International Film Festival, an obvious draw was to leave the cold Northeast for a sunny trip to Florida, even if I'd naturally be spending most of my time inside watching movies. I knew it'd be a little tough to keep off the beaches in favor of the assignment, however, and I was almost glad to find the weather chillier than expected. Did I eventually take in some cocktails poolside one day as I did some work? Of course. I'm only human.

The thing about the Miami fest is that its screenings are pretty much limited to evening show times. So attendees are able to hit the sand during the day, view any of 100 films in and out of competition at night, and then, if desired, still have the later hours reserved for the clubs. This year's event marked the debut of new executive director Jaie Laplante, formerly of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, who upon appointment told the Miami New Times that the city's cinematic taste is for "a lot of passion, color, flare" and "works with grand emotions."
I have my own taste, which I wouldn't describe as that. I guess I'm known for my interests in documentary, and certainly part of my reason for attending MIFF was that its new Doc-You-Up program was hand picked by Thom Powers, one of the finest non-fiction film curators working today -- he's known for programming the docs at Toronto, founding the fledgling DOC NYC fest and running the now-year-long, very popular Stranger Than Fiction series in New York.

Yet I'm also a huge fan of Ibero-American cinema, particularly works from South America, and that's a big part of this festival, appropriate for a city where the majority of residents claim Spanish as their first language. At least one-fifth of the offerings were primarily in Spanish, including a few of Powers' doc selections. That I was only there for half the festival and could only see on average 2-3 films per day, it goes without saying that I had to miss a lot of what called my name.

World premieres (all of which I missed) this year included: Mario Van Peebles' 'Things Fall Apart,' a football drama starring Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson and Ray Liotta; Aaron J. Salgado's Miami-set 'Magic City Memoirs,' which was produced by Andy Garcia; and Robert Lee King's 'Psycho Beach Party' follow-up, '(818).' Also of note: Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier was paid special tribute while her Oscar-winning 'In a Better World' screened; the career of Morgan Spurlock was highlighted in a special interview event (his new doc, 'The Greatest Film Ever Sold,' later won an Innovation in Industry honor); and stars were also in town for the acclaimed 'Ceremony,' following its debut on VOD, but just ahead of its showing at SXSW.

Another film to pass through Miami on its way to Austin was Nicholas Goldbart's intense and funny quarantine thriller 'Phase 7' ('Fase 7'), which was MIFF's sole secret screening. The Argentine flick was a big hit with the audience, especially those Spanish viewers who seemed to get more of the comedy, some which may not have translated completely. Helped by an awesome villainous turn by Federico Luppi and a warped-sounding Carpenter-like score, it's a fun and eerie ensemble exercise about paranoid residents confined to their apartment building during a global virus epidemic.

Luppi (best known in the U.S. for roles in Guillermo Del Toro films) also shows up as a justice-seeking father in the compelling hit-and-run drama 'No Return' ('Sin restoro'), which expertly combines elements of the wrong-man film and the accidental-murder-kept-secret subgenre, moving fluidly from a mildly suspenseful opening to an unexpected final act. That and the creepy, absurdist Colombian political satire 'All Your Dead Ones' ('Todos tus muertos'), which definitely deserves its cinematography award from Sundance, holding my interest visually even while my engagement with the story waned, were part of MIFF's Ibero-American Competition.

The winners from that program (none of which I saw) are Grand Jury Award winner 'Marimbas From Hell' ('Las marimbas del infierno'), Honorable Mention 'Half of Oscar' ('La mitad de Óscar'); and screenwriters Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán for 'Jean Gentil.'

A very, very different kind of Colombian film can be found with 'Little Voices' ('Pequenas Voces'), though there is something almost surreal about it. Using kids drawings as the basis for animation illustrating their unbelievably tragic memories from the war, this crudely (in an interesting way) fantastical exercise in documentary unfortunately failed to sufficiently grab me emotionally. Perhaps a live-action sequence at the end, a la 'Waltz with Bashir,' would have left more of an impression. If it were a short (actually I think it originally was), it probably could have earned an Oscar nomination, like the less-substantial Irish kids-stories-centered animated doc series 'Give Up Yer Aul Sins.'

Many of the other documentaries I caught, courtesy of Powers' program, were Sundance selections I missed. Doc-You-UP was kind of a greatest hits from other fests, not that I'd complain about seeing my top three films of 2011 (so far), 'Project Nim,' 'Armadillo' and 'The Interrupters,' as well as the underseen 'If a Tree Falls' (which received an Honorable Mention here), made available to more viewers. Steve James, stunned after deservedly winning the Grand Jury Award for the doc category, admitted it was a very still competition.

I'm happy to say I've now added another film to my favorites (seriously, it might be my new No. 2 following 'Nim') after catching it in Miami: Goran Olsson's 'The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975' is the most fascinating and freshly constructed archive-based history I've seen in years. The amount of layers of perspective here are incredible, as we follow a kind of chronicle of the black power movement through the lens of Swedish journalists at the time, re-configured by a white Swedish filmmaker and commented on by black figures, both of the time and not.

In other hands it could have been another common, mediocre '60s romanticization -- like Allison Ellwood and Alex Gibney's 'Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Trip,' which I have to admit wasn't as bad as I'd heard, but still ends up being about nothing more than a presentation of possibly significant footage. It actually also does involve an interesting layering of perspective, but it doesn't really account for its own strengths, so they go unrecognized by the audience (unless there's a Q&A, I guess).

Basic and conventional isn't always bad, though, as I saw with the tearjerking San Franciso AIDS history, 'We Were Here,' a doc that gets a lot of mileage out of its dependency and focus on a handful of talking heads, proving that onscreen interviews aren't in fact as antiquated and stale as we sometimes think they are. And the simple and straightforward 'How to Start Your Own Country' is plenty informative, and that's all it needs to be, without doing much new with the form.

With dramas, basic and conventional is more typically frowned upon and that may be why Larysa Kondracki's 'The Whistleblower' hasn't caught on more than an equally humdrum documentary about Kathryn Bolkovac might. But it's not bad, has a lead performance from Rachel Weisz that's not much different from her Oscar-winning work in 'The Constant Gardener' and is ultimately successful as both a specific true story of human trafficking and a representative of the broader issue of disaster capitalism.

I'm more surprised I hadn't heard anything from prior fests on Ed Gass-Donnelly's excellent Canadian Gothic drama 'Small Town Murder Songs,' the best fiction film I saw in Miami, hands down. What's lacking in (unneeded) narrative depth is made up for in a great cast of character actors, led by the underrated and overtly understated Peter Stormare, and a brilliantly invigorating tone that's somehow both subtle and overpowering, the latter mostly the result of the very prominent gospel-march soundtrack by Bruce Peninsula (who are like a wonderful blend of Tom Waits and Arcade Fire).

Also enjoyed -- from Canada -- was Daniel Cockburn's 'You Are Here,' a film that makes me wish Games magazine was in the business of movie distribution. It's being sold as akin to Charlie Kaufman but it's more experimental and more of a literal puzzle and will be best watched at home, when you can rewind, rewatch, take lots of notes and have time to work it all out, if it even can be.

My favorite film of the fest, and my favorite experience while there, was with the near-50-year-old 'Mooney vs. Fowle,' a work of verite cinema from Drew Associates about a Miami high school football rivalry. The documentary, directed by James Lipscomb and originally made for the 1960s Time-Life series 'The Living Camera,' played the area for the first time and I was one of a few attendees who weren't in the film. It was like attending a Rolling Roadshow event where the people seated around you are the equivalent of Devil's Tower or Monument Valley. I really would like to see more festivals dip into the doc vault, especially when they're as relevant to the region as this one was.

Other 2011 Miami Film Festival winners included the following:

In the World Competition, China's 'The Piano in a Factory' ('Gang de qin') won the Grand Jury Award, while Israel's 'Intimate Grammar' ('Hadikduk Hapnimi'). Morgan Spurlock's 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' took the Innovation in Industry prize and producers Andy Garcia and Jaydee Freixas and director Aaron J. Salgado took the Lexus Pursuit of Perfection award for 'Magic City Memoirs.' Audience awards went to the feature 'Hamill' and short 'Yuri Lennon's Landing on Alpha46,' which also got an Honorable Mention from the shorts jury. Their main award went to 'Blokes' ('Blockes').