Our writers were able to review advance copies of nearly half of this year’s competitive slate. It seems to us that while this year’s lineup may be a few hits short of a legendary festival, the overall quality is quite strong with very few weak films. Consult your schedules for screening times and venues. Capsule reviews are by Grayson Currin, David Fellerath, Fiona Morgan and Neil Morris. Titles preceded by an asterisk are highly recommended.

51 Birch Street (88 min.) When confronted with his widowed father’s quick remarriage, Doug Block made this video excursion into a trove of family photos, movies and his late mother’s startlingly frank diaries. While film lacks the raw pervy voyeurism of Capturing the Friedmans, it captures something more universal: the anxiety of the postwar suburban family that animated such diverse American writers as Friedan, Updike and Moody. –DF

Afloat (5 min.) A visual meditation on the curative powers of water therapy for a group of elderly adults manages to evoke feelings of admiration and melancholia. –NM

* Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture (60 min.) In his directorial debut, former college quarterback Byron Hurt explicates his distaste for the misogyny of commercial hip hop and launches a brilliant investigation into the genre’s homoeroticism, and he questions white teenagers about their love of ghetto music. But, more importantly, he hints at a solution: Take it personally. –GC

* The Boy in the Bubble (52 min.) Director Barak Goodman and John Maggio (The Fight) present this enthralling account of the travails of David Vetter, the so-called “Bubble Boy,” whose short life demonstrates the sometimes divergent paths of medical science and human dignity. –NM

* The Chances of the World Changing (99 min.) A study of obsessive loners in the mold of Werner Herzog classics, complete with voiceover narration from a perhaps too-involved filmmaker. By the time director Eric Daniel Metzgar catches up with one-time New York writer Richard Ogust, his life has been engulfed by a collection that has grown to about 1,200 endangered turtles. This is a nature film, all right, but one that is reminiscent of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill in that the true subjects are highly vulnerable and endangered human beings. –DF

El Immigrante (91 min.) Highlighting many of the same issues as last year’s Wetback: The Undocumented Documentary, this film explores the immigration crisis along the Mexican-American border against the backdrop of a retrospective about a young Mexican shot and killed by a Texas resident. –NM

Exit (74 min.) This poignant, provocative insight into a Swiss organization dedicated to facilitating the desire of some terminally ill people who wish commit suicide will inspire some viewers and disturb others. The final 15 minutes of the film are especially gripping. –NM

Hammer and Flame (10 min.) A sans-dialogue portrayal of Gujarat, India’s Alang-Sosiya shipbreaking yards, this 10-minute think piece is compelling: Scores of Indian workers dismantle some of modern life’s true steel juggernauts with hammers, picks, chisels and welding machines. Rest assured, it will hurt your Western feelings. –GC

I for India (70 min.) Director Sandhya Suri blends contemporary footage with vintage home videos exchanged for decades between her expatriate father and his family back in India after he moved to London to pursue a medical career. The film captures the feeling of being alienated from one’s family and culture. –NM

* Iraq in Fragments (90 min.) James Longley received well-deserved props at Sundance for his impressionistic, challenging and often gorgeous portrait of post-invasion Iraq. Bypassing the soapbox, Longley implicitly demonstrates the difficulty of trying to influence Iraqi affairs by diplomatic, military and ideological fiat. What’s remarkable is that the situation has since become worse–a film like this is impossible to make today. –DF

* The Kings for Christmas (11 min.) An entertaining and revealing look at the way several homeowners in the outer boroughs of New York compete to adorn their homes with the biggest, brightest and most elaborate Christmas decorations. Their dedication takes the form of garish secularism, but its motive is a perpetuation of the wide-eyed wonder of the season. –NM

* A Lion in the House (230 min.) A profound, epic portrait of five children battling cancer and the families who suffer with and support them. Director Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert follow these heart-wrenching but inspirational tales over six years. –NM

* Maxed Out (86 min.) Anyone who’s ever tried to correct their credit report will appreciate this highly effective examination of the credit card industry, which collects two dollars in interest and penalties for every dollar lent. News and CSPAN footage, music and educational films pepper the interviews, which explain why credit card companies are eager to lend money to people who’ve filed for bankruptcy, and how the national debt is connected to the hole middle-class families have dug themselves into. We predict this one will see national release. –FM

Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (112 min.) This Wiseman-like excursion into an upscale old folks’ home reveals a group of seniors in decline who, despite the quality of their care, are lonely, frightened and powerless. Meticulously observant, patient and, inevitably, rough going. –DF

My Country, My Country (90 min.) A verite expose about the heartache of everyday life in war-torn Iraq, told against the backdrop of the Sunni Arab boycott of the 2005 election and through the eyes of Dr. Riyadh, a political candidate and medical doctor. Director Laura Poitras (Flag Wars) lends a patient eye and stunning photography to this impressive work. –NM

No Umbrella: Election Dday in the City (26 min.) Cleveland Councilwoman Fannie Williams is a force to be reckoned with, but even she can’t get enough voting machines and workers to the polls on Election Day 2004. While it captures the frustration and injustice those African-American voters had to contend with, the film doesn’t manage to connect the experience at one urban polling place to the larger allegations of vote suppression in Ohio. –FM

Send Me Somewhere Special (32 min.) Sad and directionless, a Londoner sets out with a video camera to the first place someone suggests he go: a small English village where through asking boldly personal questions, he finds people in the same state of mind. This short film is a meditation on loneliness. –FM

Shutka Book of Records (78 min.) This stylized, occasionally Fellini-esque piece is an earnest tribute to the director’s hometown of Shutka, a Roma community in Macedonia. Behind the eccentricity of its denizens lie lessons in religious and social tolerance. –NM

* Sir! No Sir! (84 min.) This film dispels the myth of the spat-upon soldier returning from Vietnam by documenting the widespread movement of GIs and veterans against the war. Highly effective juxtaposition of interviews and archive footage tells a story that neo-cons would like us to forget: peacenik coffeehouses near military bases, soldiers facing court marshal and detention rather than participate in genocidal operations, underground newspapers by and for soldiers against the war. A must-see. –FM

Site Specific: Las Vegas (13 m.) A meditative, God-eye’s view of Sin City. –NM

So Much So Fast (87 min.) Directors Stephen Ascher and Jeannie Jordan fashion this Ross McElwee-style chronicle of Stephen Heywood and his battle against ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). A touching, malleable work, the film itself mirrors the outlook of Stephen and his dedicated family–boundless, even cockeyed optimism, eventually surrendering to a balance between hope and reality. –NM

Songbirds (80 min.) Downview Prison in Surrey, England is the setting for this self-described “documentary musical.” The film’s construct is unique, but the source of the songs–not the featured female inmates, but lyricist Simon Armitage and composer Simon Boswell–casts a pall of contrivance. –NM

Stand Like Still Living (25 min.) Duke graduate Peter Jordan directs this personal look at the AIDS epidemic in Africa by spotlighting two HIV+ people living in western Botswana. –NM

Sweet Dreams (123 min.) Boxing may be in a slump in the post-Tyson (or post-Ali) era, but there are still work-a-day fighters who need union protections. Eric Latek’s handsomely produced boxing movie is set in the white ethnic neighborhoods of Cranston and Providence, R.I. –DF

The Trials of Darryl Hunt (113 min.) The sad but true story of Winston-Salem native Darryl Hunt serves to assail the continued dysfunction of our criminal justice system, where racism, politics and ego often trump the search for truth. Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg bring stunning breadth to their project, having followed and documented their subject for 10 years. –NM

two headed cow (70 min.) Tony Gayton’s portrayal of lifetime rock ‘n’ roller Dexter Romweber swings in close with a reverence for Romweber’s music–a primal rebranding of the power of ’50s rock–and sympathy for his psychoses–suicide, women, drugs, booze, poets, guitars and the music industry. It’s as moving as it is intriguing.–GC

Vault Keys (10 min.) Director Harvey Wang videotapes his father’s instructions on accessing the family’s jewels and other financial assets, a ritual that changes over time as age and mortality take its toll. –NM

The Wash (20 min.) In this landscape study, the filmmakers record the shifting uses of a dry river valley in southern California. Luminously shot in what appears to be Super-8 Kodachrome. –DF

Wordplay (94 min.) This year’s competition doc crowd-pleaser doesn’t have the underdog kids and unbearable tension of Spellbound or the cocky wheelchair bruisers of Murderball. But Patrick Creadon’s already-acclaimed film does boast New York Times puzzle master Will Shortz and a surprising array of crossword enthusiasts, including Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart and the Indigo Girls. –DF

* Workingman’s Death (122 min.) Director Michael Glawogger adroitly spotlights five of the most dangerous and incendiary jobs in the world, from the sulfur mines of Indonesia to an open-air slaughterhouse in Nigeria–the footage and ambient screams of the latter segment will haunt you long after the screening. –NM