One of the things that those of us who obsessively watch and rank movies struggle with is how to weigh a movie's strongest assets or best moments against the less-impressive whole. Sometimes a few strong minutes at the end of a movie can leave a lasting positive impression, wiping away the mediocrity that came before. Yaaba, a childhood drama from the country of Burkina Faso — and our first movie from this list with an African director, Idrissa Ouedraogo, a native Burkinabe — is narratively pedestrian, and so clumsily constructed that its simple plot is sometimes needlessly confusing. However, the amateur child actors at Yaaba's core, Noufou Ouédraogo and Roukietou Barry, are so charming, and their relationship so cute, that the flashing of a couple of playful smiles goes a long way to overcoming the film's many shortcomings.
When the rural village where cousins Bila (Ouédraogo) and Nopoko (Barry) live experiences a series of misfortunes, superstitious villagers blame an old "witch" who lives nearby. You'll never guess that she turns out to be a nice old woman. Although this uninspired plot stretches on for a taxing 90 minutes, with about half of that padded by threadbare village melodramas, whenever director Ouedraogo focuses on Bila and Nopoko's horseplay, bickering and flirtations, it's a pleasure; the same goes for any quiet shot of characters moving around against the Sahel's parched landscape. Cinematographer Matthias Kälin does a mostly serviceable job with the close-in village scenes (except for one shot of moderate length which is shockingly out-of-focus), but usually chooses nicely when given a broader expanse to work with (coincidentally, Kälin also shot the next movie on this list, the 1993 Burundi drama Gito the Ungrateful).
There are a few rare moments of colorful dialog, an amusing jab at charlatan witch-doctors, and at least one bonkers unearned plot development (more kids' movies could use an unwarranted knife attack); but just when Yaaba's final act mires itself most deeply in its obvious moral lessons (complete with obnoxiously fake glycerin teardrops), and labors through the perfunctory wrapping-up of all of its inconsequential subplots, the final minutes once again focus on the winning pair of kids, suggesting an affirmative cycle of life, and they almost blot out the disappointing whole.
An interesting companion to Yaaba is Djibril Diop Mambéty's half-hour behind-the-scenes documentary Parlons Grand-mère, which surprisingly shows director Ouedraogo berating the very child actors who salvaged his film. It's as engaging, if not more so, than Yaaba itself.