Friday, December 30, 2011

Best of 2011...because this is what we do.

Below is my top ten in accordance with official 2011 US releases submitted to In Review Online. (There is quite a caché of top tens over there, so check it out.) But because the year offered so much more, I've supplemented with other offerings that didn't make the cut. Happy viewing and Happy New Year!

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives / Apichatpong Weerasethakul

First viewed VIFF 2010, subsequent viewings Walker Art Center and Trylon microcinema. Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Instant.
Over a year has passed since I first saw Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and its ethereal glow still burns brightly. The spiritual world and the natural world mingle effortlessly in Apichatpong Weerasethakul sixth feature and Palme d’Or winner. In one of the most beautiful openings of the past ten years, a water buffalo breaks from its tether in the dim light of the jungle to conjoin with monkey ghosts. The sequence is timeless and ephemeral, and it captures the film’s mesmerizing preoccupation with the mysteries of a tangible environment. The patience and simplicity of ‘Uncle Boonmee’ slowly decodes the fate of one man through gentle curiosity. Death and the magical possibilities of reincarnation materialize in a drift, a journey, a spell that taps the collective unconscious and eventually leads to a pop song induced fracture in the space-time continuum.

2. House of Pleasures / Bertrand Bonello

First viewed VIFF 2011. Coming soon to the Trylon microcinema Feb 7 and 14.
House of Pleasures is a baroque free-fall of sensuality and violence stoked by anachronistic tumbles and sways. Director Bertrand Bonello depicts the corporeal reality of a late 19th century Parisian brothel without schismatic moralizing and stifled emotional goo, but with a cinematic verve that incites the senses. The graceful narrative patterning, opening and closing with a round, and organic camerawork flow in tandem with the natural performances of the ladies for hire within a closed rococo world. Tenderness and strength, sorrow and joy are amplified with a soundtrack that is seamlessly embellished with English language pop and soul from the 60s. But just as quickly as Bonello embraces the fruition of an illusory dream, he pulls the rug out from underneath the romance for its disjunctive ending. House of Pleasures lends a feminine ring to the emblematic cries of Aeneid: “These are the tears of things, and our mortality cuts to the heart.”

3. The Arbor / Clio Barnard

First viewed at MSPIFF. Now available on DVD and Netflix Instant.
Clio Barnard’s decision to use actors to lip-sync recorded interviews with playwrite Andrea Dunbar’s family is nothing less than a stroke of brilliance. Far from the fallacy that one might expect from this machination, the raw emotion is heightened, and the actors are a constant reminder of a potent reality. Dunbar wrote herself into infamy, but also drank herself to death, leaving a long and winding road of influence and dysfunction on her two daughters. Their shattering accounts come with a tempered blow, crafted with assertive matter-of-fact honesty, and juxtaposed with the unvarnished bluntness of Dunbar’s plays. Barnard spins Dunbar’s tale with the specificity of artistic mathematics and the patterning of a kaleidoscope, allowing shards of fact and fiction to present a semblance of a whole. The experimental presentation of this overwhelming material is both formally and poignantly unique—not necessarily pushing the boundaries of preconceived form more than simply working outside of them.

4. Meek’s Cutoff / Kelly Reichardt

First viewed at the Walker Art Center. Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Instant.
Kelly Reichardt rattles the cages of the disaster microcosm with a dusty neo-Western sharply drawn with its script and artistically specific with its form. Shot in the square Academy ratio of 1.33, Meek’s Cutoff boxes nine lost settlers within their own psychology of fear and paranoia and doubt. Extending beyond the frame is the indifference of nature on the outsiders, represented in an unforgiving landscape and an enigmatic Native American. Through cycles of sun-bleached days and inky-black nights, the personal politics of a desperate situation create a divide between individuals, a chasm between genders and a permanent wall between races. Emily Tetherow, played with powerhouse subtlety by Michelle Williams, acknowledges their precarious situation in the hands of larky chauvinist Stephen Meek, a pitch perfect Bruce Greenwood, by following her conscience to rebellion. Haunting and austere, Meek’s Cutoff is filled to the brim with aesthetic elegance and civil allegory.  

5. A Separation / Asghar Farhadi

First viewed at VIFF 2011. Coming soon to the Edina Cinema Feb 3.

Few films are able to keep such a character-rich balance while building a tense, plot-driven drama better than A Separation. Although literally tackling the marital difficulties of Nader and Simin, a young middle class couple living in Tehran, director Asghar Farhadi puts all manner of social issues under an incredibly absorbing microscope, with gender and class at the forefront. Sharp as a razor, the film gives equal space to all characters: the religious caretaker, her downtrodden husband, the conflicted Nader, the brazen Simin and even their mature eleven-year-old daughter who is learning about the grey areas of human nature. Farhadi presents and considers the complex moral decisions of each individual within their respective social and religious confines, but he does so without moralizing to the audience. Tightly wound around an impeccable script and camera choreography, A Separation perfectly parables a country hurtling toward and uncertain future.

6. Certified Copy / Abbas Kiarostami

First viewed at VIFF 2010. Now available on Netflix Instant and import (region free) Blu-ray.

Certified Copy is Abbas Kiarostami at his best, and perhaps better than we have ever seen him before. He directs dialogue in three languages and selects an operatic baritone as the individual who can’t speak Italian. He builds an aura of mystery as he simultaneously points out devise. He vacillates on classic Italian art while polishing the tarnished halo of film-as-art. He takes an academic subject and fills it with the pulse of life. He breaks from a mold of working with non-professional actors and hires the biggest star in Europe. And he casts us, the audience—his audience—as the mirror, the ultimate reflection of his film. Under the auspice of exploring artifice, Certified Copy delves into the esoteric notions of love, life and art on the coattails of a wandering Tuscan tête-à-tête and turns it into something far more fallible and beautiful than a mechanical reproduction.

7. My Joy / Sergei Loznitsa

First viewed MSPIFF 2011. Coming to DVD March 20.
My Joy opens with a mysterious corpse being covered in cement and ends with a shell-shocked murderer walking off into the darkness of the night—although the literal connection is abstruse, the cyclical motif is crystal clear. Blissfully unpredictable stream-of-consciousness, My Joy is made of two haves that meander through various stories and leave a lingering vapor trail to a much larger allegory. Corruption unapologetically blankets My Joy, trickling down from a history of authoritarianism and extreme conditions. Any kindness is met with an untrusting hostility that, at least within the gauge of the film, is not unwarranted. Director Sergei Loznitsa and his cinematographer Oleg Mutu tell much of their story through the complex and sardonic ‘joy’ on peoples’ faces. The film’s vignettes, in their structural ambiguity, are anything but detached. Heavy with heartbreak and despair, each sequence is loaded with the components of profound social destruction and deranged malaise.

8. Le Quattro Volte / Michelangelo Frammartino

First viewed MSPIFF 2011. Now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Instant. 

Michelangelo Frammartino evokes the spiritual philosophies of Pythagoras and relies entirely on the ambient language of a village in Southern Italy. But the observational tableau gains as much sustenance from the notions of God’s creations (with a capital ‘G’) and the Buddhist cycle of suffering and rebirth as it does the transmigration of the soul. Life, death and the earth-bound rhythms that connect them flow from a man to a goat to a tree to coal. Unconscious gestures of existence were never so poetic and graceful as exhibited in snails teaming from a pot, goats inexplicable exploring and investigating, and, in an unbelievably orchestrated 9-minute shot, a persistent dog communicating to no avail. The magic, however, seems to lie in the final stage of Frammartino’s visual prose and the smoldering, coal-producing mounds that open and close the film like an archetypal symbol of the past, present and future.

9. Love Exposure / Sion Sono

First viewed on import DVD in 2009. Available on DVD.

Born from the bowels of chaos, the euphoric anarchy of Love Exposure trumps the slicked up brutality of Sion Sono’s other 2011 US release, Cold Fish. Sono’s ambition is fleet-footed if not a little blind, but his vision of Catholic repression with hentai aesthetics through a 4-hour maze of cross-dressing, misogyny, obsession, barbarity, sanctimony, redemption and humor is a frenetic supernova. Like Sono’s Noriko’s Dinner Table, Love Exposure uses the bloated runtime, not to slow things down, but to indulge, specify and unreel the impossible with reckless but surprisingly sincere abandon. Sono has a unique film language that, when given free reign, explodes with the unusual dexterity of focusing the mayhem like a laser which in this case is Yu’s serpentine path to personal absolution. Receiving a belated US release, Love Exposure is a film experience that defies explanation but not exultation.

10. Pina /Wim Wenders

First viewed at VIFF 2011. Coming soon to the Walker Art Center Feb 1. 

Although Wem Wenders’ Pina seems like a straightforward documentary on the surface, because of the inspired use of 3D and the equally innovative nature of the material, it was easily one of the most viscerally exhilarating films of the year. The film is an unselfish and vital homage to the work of modern dance icon Pina Bausch, who passed away quite suddenly during the film’s pre-production. Primarily a vehicle for her choreographed pieces—some performed on stage and some in the open-air ambiance of Wuppertal, Bausch’s creative home—the 3D perfectly captures the tactile buoyancy and physicality of these performances. Bausch’s Rite of Spring, which opens Pina is as thrilling as any action sequence I’ve seen all year. Dispersed throughout are quiet portraits of her dance troupe, as animated and impassioned reflections of the artist. Art and film collide in the most unaffected and visually arresting manner—a palpable masterpiece of digital proportions. 

The best of the rest.

11. Poetry / Lee Chang-dong
12. Putty Hill / Matt Porterfield
13. Cold Weather / Aaron Katz
14. Aurora / Cristi Puiu
15. 13 Assassins / Takashi Miike
16. Mysteries of Lisbon / Raúl Ruiz 
17. Nostalgia for the Light / Patricio Guzmán
18. Shit Year / Cam Archer
19. Le Havre / Aki Kaurismäki 
20. Film Socialisme / Jean-Luc Godard
21. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu /Andrei Ujica
22. Tree of Life / Terrence Malick
23. Tuesday After Christmas / Radu Muntean
24. Petition / Zhao Liang
25. To Die Like a Man / João Pedro Rodrigues
26. Leap Year / Michael Rowe
27. Cave of Forgotten Dreams / Werner Herzog
28. Drive / Nicolas Winding Refn
29. The Time That Remains / Elia Suleiman
30. The Mill and the Cross / Lech Majewski

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

VIFF 2011 Film Roundup

66 films. 14 days. Here's what I saw, loosely ranked from most to least favorite, with a few notes and links to reviews I wrote. It's a great slate of films and you really have to get pretty far down the list to get to films I didn't care for. (Yep, I didn't like Alps.) Ratings out of 10.

1.     House of Tolerance / House of Pleasures (France) Bertrand Bonello 9.5

Love defies logic. Find the right key and the doors to the dopamine and serotonin fly open. For those with an affinity for film, this effect has probably happened while sitting in a theater. After seeing 64 films at VIFF, most of them slow, cerebral affairs, I went into House of Tolerance with little pretense and came out head over heels. Hopefully, as an untrained cinéastic, the right side of my brain was informing my left side in my adoration, and there is some sort of critical foundation to my crush. A provocative heartbreak of a film, House of Tolerance (ridiculously renamed House of Pleasures by IFC for its US release) is set in a high class Parisian brothel at the turn of the century. And while its themes and plush visuals reminded me of Flowers of Shanghai, House of Tolerance breaks out of that mold with grandiose highs and lows and a brutal plot thread. All of the courtesan tropes are there, but Bonello orchestrates them beautifully and sometimes rather clinically. But most importantly House of Tolerance's soundtrack pulls out some of the best emotional trappings since Lee Myeong-se threw a Bee Gees song into an action sequence.

2.     This is Not a Film (Iran) Jafar Panahi 9.5
Tinged by bitter post-film developments (Jafar Panahi’s appeal denied; cameraman Mojtaba Mirtahmasb arrested), This is Not a Film is far less ostentatious than the title implies. Instead it’s an unprecedented construct that openly addresses the ubiquity of media, sometimes in its most raw form of self-discovery, and the weight of oppression on an altruistic artist. A day in the life under house arrest, Panahi composes an in-the-moment diary entry, not the least of which includes a reading from the screenplay that he was not allowed to film. This is Not a Film burns with subdued frustration and vulnerable humor building to a final shot of compulsive irreverence.
(Capsule submitted to In Review Online's NYFF coverage. No, I wasn't in NYC. If I had been, I would be yammering on about all the Nikkatsu films I saw. But many of the films playing at VIFF were also playing at the NYFF.)

3.     Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey) Nuri Bilge Ceylan 9.5
Nuri Bilge Ceylan allows his formal compulsions to recede into the background in favor of the sprawl of an impressionistic narrative in his latest, most realized film. While casually wandering the archeological rich countryside of the title, looking for a corpse, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia exhumes the dark fairy tales of public servants and the unfolding nightmares of two criminals. The characters vacillate between the perfunctory and the profound in a mysterious reality of effects without cause. But these somber and sometimes playful intrigues merely lead us down a road to a much less abstruse corporeal space where scalpel meets flesh and dirt clogs throat.
(Capsule submitted to In Review Online's NYFF coverage.)

4.     A Separation (Iran) Aghar Farhadi 9
Few films are able to keep such a character-rich balance while building a tense, plot-driven drama better than A Separation. Although literally tackling the marital difficulties of a young middle class couple, director Asghar Farhadi puts all manner of social issues under an incredibly absorbing microscope, with gender and class at the forefront. The film gives equal space to all characters: the religious caretaker, her downtrodden husband, the conflicted husband, the brazen wife and even the mature eleven-year-old daughter who is stuck in the middle. Tightly wound around an impeccable script and camera choreography, A Separation perfectly parables a country hurtling toward and uncertain future.
(Capsule submitted to In Review Online's NYFF coverage.)

5.     Year Without a Summer (Malaysia) Tan Chui Mui 9
Caged in nostalgia and folklore, a man returns home to visit his friends and family he left behind. Beautiful and mysterious and completely unexpected.

6.     Eternity (Thailand) Sivaroj Kongsakul 8.5
Although it might be safe to say that Thailand had the corner on the gentle otherworldly genre, this might be a broad stereotype brought about by the widely-seen films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But I would also include Mundane History (VIFF 2010) and this extremely beautiful love story by way of passing over into another world. I have little expectation that this film will gain any significant international distribution, so if it plays in a festival near you, please go see it!
7.     Pina 3D (Germany/France/UK) Wem Wenders 8.5
Naysayers beware! Wem Wenders Pina 3D was one of the most exhilarating films I saw at VIFF. The film is an unselfish homage to the work of modern dance icon Pina Bausch, who passed away quite suddenly early in the film’s production. Primarily a vehicle for her choreographed pieces—some performed on stage and some in the open-air ambiance of Wuppertal, Bausch’s creative home—the 3D perfectly captures the tactile buoyancy and physicality of these performances. Dispersed throughout are quiet portraits of her dance troupe, as animated and impassioned reflections of the artist. Art and film collide in the most unaffected manner.
(Capsule submitted for my VIFF coverage at In Review Online.)

8.     The Turin Horse (Hungary) Béla Tarr 8.5
More on this later. I promise.

9.     Apuda (China) He Yuan 8.5
Read my review on Twitch here.

10. Elena (Russia) Andrei Zvyagintsev 8.5
Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev crafts his best film yet with his third, a tightly wound drama of cinematic elegance. The matronly woman of the film’s title is a social survivor who understands the delicate balance between necessary acquiescence and taciturn defiance. But when her hand is forced, the film gives her a grand stage for a paradoxical tragedy of Shakespearian tone. Maternal instinct takes over and Elena rejects fate for conscious, if not reprehensible, volition. Zvyagintsev builds a palpable mood of suspense, staged with gorgeous long takes and scored with the effective anxious sounds of Phillip Glass.
(Capsule submitted for my VIFF coverage at In Review Online.)
Read my review on Twitch here.

11. Le Havre (Finland/France) Aki Kaurismaki 8
A man in a black trench coat walks into a bar with a pineapple… Moments like these in Le Havre, delivered with a dry wit and in a peculiar light, will be very familiar to fans of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. But surrounding the sardonic humor is unremitting optimism and effervescent magic. Joining unlikely forces is an impassive aging shoeshine whiling away his time and a young illegal immigrant on the lam from the law, backed by an entire community of underserved idealists. Kaurismäki takes his local verve and goes global in a forgotten French port city, rife with gleeful tenderness and plainspoken marvels.

(Capsule submitted to In Review Online's NYFF coverage.)

12. Two Years at Sea (UK) Ben Rivers 8

13. Are We Really So Far From a Madhouse? (China) Li Hongqi 8
Read my review on Twitch here.

14. The Sword Identity (China) Xu Haofeng 8

15. The Day He Arrives (S Korea) Hong Sang-soo 8
Hong Sang-soo continues to amaze within a narrow frame of focus by somehow pulling a fresh rabbit out of the same hat. Hong evokes his playful side in The Day He Arrives by ruminating on the mound of minor coincidences that mold the lives of his admittedly fallible characters. The set up is familiar—a film director, his friends, women from his past and soju—but the narrative pattern is slightly askew, cycling through different possibilities ala Groundhog Day. But more importantly, Hong takes the opportunity to explore his charming, booze filled variations on a theme all within one film. Check out this brilliant tease of a trailer.
(Capsule submitted for my VIFF coverage at In Review Online.)

16. Policeman (Isreal) Nadav Lapid 8

17. Headshot (Thailand) Pen-ek Ratanaruang 8
Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang returns to the noir and grit of his cult crowd-pleasing 1999 film 6ixtynin9, but with an added panache for murky spaces and nuanced storytelling. A man finds his altruistic ideals crushed on both sides of the law until he suffers a bullet to the head, turning his world upside-down (somewhat literally.) Concerned with enlightenment in a croaked world, Headshot skirts the edges of genre with a striking sense of ease and control. It runs through the well-trodden paces of political, police and criminal corruption with ample bloodletting but a unique set of credos.
(Capsule submitted for my VIFF coverage at In Review Online.)
Read my review on Twitch here.

18. Martha Marcy May Marlene (USA) Sean Durkin 8

19. Life Without Principal (Hong Kong) Johnny To 7.5

20. I Wish (Japan) Hirokazu Kore-eda 7.5
No one films the subtle affairs of the heart quite like the Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda. He has mastered the ability to capture delicate shifts, shuffles and pangs without caving to predictable schmaltz and eye-rolling banality. I Wish folds these skills in with a group of charismatic young kids looking to make their dreams come true. At the center are two brothers struggling with the adjustment of living apart due to the irreconcilable differences of their parents. The humble perfection of I Wish is found in the generosity not only given to the kids but also to the adults harboring their own hopes and disappointments. Cynics need not apply.
(Capsule submitted for my VIFF coverage at In Review Online.)
Read my review on Twitch here.

21. Mr. Tree (China) Han Jie 7

22. Low Life (France) Nicolas Klotz, Elisabeth Perceval 7.5
In the grand tradition of French film burning with the ethos of May 68, Low Life emerges like a hot-blooded second cousin to Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme. An unsettled Paris is portrayed through the lives of disaffected young adults and disenfranchised immigrants in a meditative pool of intellectual ideals and carnal passion. Directors Nicolas Klotz and Elizabeth Perceval steady their aim at ill-defined movements of marginal cause and effect, juxtaposed with the less theoretical reality of deportation. These two worlds meet when a graduate student and an illegal Afghani immigrant fall in love. Low Life is a film to discover, with a distinct blend of dialectical acrobats and brooding hipsters that oddly culminates with a little sci-fi and a little magic.
(Capsule submitted for my VIFF coverage at In Review Online.)

23. Kid With a Bike (Belgium/France/Italy) Dardennes 7

24. The Loneliest Planet (Germany/USA) Julia Loktev 7
Western world privilege and confidence are at the center of the latent suspense that slowly spins in The Loneliest Planet. But so is the fragile trust between companions, both intimate and professional. Julia Loktev wields a careful hand on the perceptive story surrounding two beautiful, and engaged to be married, globetrotters (Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal) backpacking through the country of Georgia. Triangulated by a local guide, the group forms a jovial pack until an event, and a reaction, forms a mighty fissure. Unlike Loktev’s first feature Day Night Day Night, the insinuating introspection of The Loneliest Planet is both potent and convincing.
(Capsule submitted to In Review Online's NYFF coverage.) 

25. Kill List (UK) Ben Wheatley 7
Divisive, maybe to a fault, Kill List nonetheless pummels its way from drama to thriller to horror with riotous and cavalier flair.

26. Patience (After Sebald) (UK) Grant Gee 7

27. Return to Burma (Taiwan) Midi Z 7

28. A Simple Life (Hong Kong) Ann Hui 7
Between July Rhapsody, The Way We Are and this film, Hui has made some of the best and most understated films coming out of Hong Kong. 

29. The Skin I Live In (Spain) Pedro Almodóvar 7
With its veins pumped full of style, The Skin I Live In launches Pedro Almodóvar back into the spotlight with a riveting explosion of noir melodrama. Antonio Banderas plays a plastic surgeon too confident for his own good, and Elena Anaya plays the mysterious object of his demented affection. Harking back to Almodóvar’s early years, plotlines go haywire but with the measured control of his more recent films. But for all its storytelling confidence and cinematic elan, there is an absence emotional zeal. Obsession and death are brilliant but somewhat plastic tools of the film’s trade.
(Capsule submitted for my VIFF coverage at In Review Online.) 

30. Michael (Austria) Markus Schleinzer 7

31. The Color Wheel (USA) Alex Ross Perry 7

32. Flirting with Heights (France) Jean-Michel Bertrand 7

33. A Time to Love (S Korea) Boo Jiyoung, Yang Ikjune 7
Omnibus things rarely work, but this South Korean dyptich was impressive.  Thinking about it now, it would probably rank higher amongst the films I rated a 7.

34. Mitsuko Delivers (Japan) Yuya Ishii 7
Can we call this screwball comedy?

35. Woman in a Septic Tank (Philippines) Marlon N. Rivera 7

36. Bachelor Mountain (China) Yu Guangyi 7
Read my review on Twitch here.

37. The Artist (France) Michel Hazanavicius 7
Michel Hazanavicius ditches his OSS 117 franchise for a very probable spin through the awards circle. Although The Artist will likely dazzle audiences with flashy design, good performances and cute dog, behind this silent film’s undeniable charm is an unsurprising and rote story. Jean Dujardin plays silent movie star George Valentin whose career is threatened by Hollywood’s new fangled talkies. The film follows George’s downfall and his love’s rise to the top. The fact that you can guess what will happen every step of the way doesn’t decrease the enjoyment, but it does increase its eventual depreciation.
(Capsule submitted for my VIFF coverage at In Review Online.)  

38. Nana (France) Valérie Massadian 6.5

39. Baby Factory (Philippines) Eduardo Roy Jr 6.5

40. Salt of Life (Italy) Gianni Di Gregorio 6.5

41. Almayer’s Folly (Belgium/France) Chantal Akerman 6.5
In her adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Chantal Akerman casts a wider swath over the notion of colonialism. Taking touchstones from the book, Almayer’s Folly puts a more random spin on time and place with an effective theatrical air. Akerman piles on the atmosphere suffocating Almayer in his own malaise of failure while his wife and daughter burn with madness and rage, respectively. The film is a stunning treatment of the material, but alone it becomes an abstruse illusion with a topical fever of power, obsession, jealousy, depression and death.
(Capsule submitted for my VIFF coverage at In Review Online.)  

42. Invasion of Alien Bikini (S Korea) Oh Youngdoo 6.5

43. Dragonslayer (USA) Tristan Patterson 6.5
Read my review on Twitch here.

44. Bullhead (Belgium) Michael R. Roskam 6

45. Shattered (China) Xu Tong 6
A disappointment compared to last year's stunning Fortune Teller.

46. Bonsái  (Chile/France/Argentina) Cristián Jiménez 6

47. Honey Pupu (Taiwan) Chen Hung-I 6

48. Seediq Bale (Taiwan) Wei Te-Sheng 5
Read my review on Twitch here.

49. We Can’t Go Home Again (USA) Nicholas Ray and friends 5

50. Dendera (Japan) Tengan Daisuke 5

51. My Little Princess (France) Eva Ionesco 5

52. The Sun Beaten Path (China/Tibet) Sonthar Gyal 5

53. Outside Satan (France) Bruno Dumont 5

54. Recreation (Japan) Nagano Yoshihiro 5

55. My Back Page (Japan) Yamashita Nobuhiro 5

56. Harakiri:Death of a Samurai (Japan) Takashi Miike 4
Read my review on Twitch here.

57. Alps (Greece) Yorgos Lanthimos 4

58. The Mirror Never Lies (Indonesia) Kamila Andini 4

59. Our Future (Japan) Iizuka Kashou 3

60. Hi-So (Thailand) Aditya Assarat 3
Read my review on Twitch here.

61. Buddha Mountain (China) Li Yu 3

I'm glad that Li Yu (who brazen started her career with a indie love story, Fish and Elephant, about two women) continues to make films, but this is a mess. There's some good material for a music video here, but the story and script fail to launch with some cringe-worth melodrama. Starring Fan Bingbing, Sylvia Chang and Chen Bo-lin.

62. There Once Was an Island (New Zealand/USA) Briar March 3
A well intentioned but barely realized documentary about a community on a disappearing island off Papua New Guinea.

63. Sleeping Beauty (Australia) Julia Leigh 3
It’s going take more than waifish confidence and blissful servanthood for me to buy what this austere, affected film is trying to sell. Sleeping Beauty channels the emotional distance of young woman (Emily Browning) willing to endure a drug induced sleep for the pleasures of elderly clientele. First time director and accomplished novelist Julia Leigh turns in a stylish debut, inhabiting an ethereal atmosphere that is not so different from her novels. But the characters are cardboard cutouts of failed hearts and broken psyches with little gravity, especially when tears are shed. Give me Sucker Punch any day.
(Capsule submitted for my VIFF coverage at In Review Online.)

64. Fatigue (S Korea) Kim Dongmyung 2
Fatigue is an extremely heavy-handed film about a woman in an oppressive domestic situation. The film steers far from literal interpretation, and I (incorrectly) read it as a lo-fi analogy about a male-dominated South Korean society. As it turns out, Fatigue is about the environment and a social engineering project going on right now to boast tourism...huh? The director was on hand to explain the film, but it only resulted in digging a hole. The Q&A was not pretty.

65. White (S Korea) Kim Sun, Kim Gok 2
Read my review on Twitch here.

66. Sufferosa (Poland/UK) Dawid Marcinkowski 0
This is a web based idea, not a film. Check out the idea here at A frustrating waste of an hour on a gimmick.

Monday, October 17, 2011

VIFF 2011 Non-film Roundup

Here's some photos from my two weeks in Vancouver for the International Film Festival. Yes, I spent most of my time inside a movie theater or cranking away in a notebook or on a laptop, but here is a nominal record of some other things that made my trip and experience special.

VIFF was primarily housed in four venues, not including the Park which hosted the two 3D films in the line up. (No photo of the Park because I was too anxious about getting into both Pina and Harakiri, one of which was awesome and the other disappointing. Stay tuned if you don't already know the answer to that one.)

The massive 1200 seat Vogue Theater was the place for the premieres and hot tickets of the fest, and it routinely filled up. Built in 1941, the Vogue is a venue for mostly live performance. (Tom Morello, looking old, coming soon.) I sat in the balcony every time I was in the Vogue, and oh, what a balcony it was. For Twin Cities folks, imagine the upper half of the Riverview being a balcony - huge! I heard one projectionist complaining about sore quads from climbing up the steps to the booth.

The more modest Pacific Cinémathèque hidden behind the foliage is also a nice theater that has regular programming similar to the Trylon: great rep series and interesting first run screenings. It has a great feel to it and super duper comfortable seats. I would be at this theater a lot if I lived in Vancouver.

Vancity Theatre is the year around venue for VIFF and it is incredibly beautiful. The seats in the Vancity are like first class airplane seats (not that I've ever traveled first class...but I've seen those seats as I walk by!) At 170 seats, Vancity was probably the smallest venue but also the nicest.
And finally, the Granville 7, also known as VIFF Central Station. This seven screen multiplex was where 90% of the action was, and everyday I was shocked at the organization and planning that went into getting hundreds of people in and out and in and out of this bottleneck. The theater doesn't look like much from the outside, but it's towering lobby with all-glass windows is really nice, especially on those days where I needed to confirm that I wasn't a vampire.

Downtown Vancouver is flush with cheap eats, some better than others. Although I dipped by toe into the many inexpensive sushi places (finding a good one down near Vancity that suited me just right a couple times), my bread and butter was $5 or less. The true object of my Vancouver food obsession was Japadog, with carts around town and a storefront on Robson.

This cart was conveniently located right outside the hotel of the VIFF media office. My favorite was the oroshi: a brat with grated daikon and soy sauce. Yum!

Here's the outside of their storefront on Robson between Richards and Seymour, but if it was too packed it didn't matter. Right next door at Viet Subs you could get an amazing bahn mi (rivaling St Paul's Saigon Cafe sandwiches) that you could easily smuggle into any theater. And on the corner is Gyudon-ya, an inexpensive rice bowl restaurant that does a bustling business. Top any of those off with a cream puff from Beard Papa's (with rotating flavors like mango, caramel, and green tea) and you will be ready to take on a day of movies.

Vancouver has nature! Not that I saw much of it, but here we are at Lynn Canyon Park, the suspension bridge that the locals go to. (Props to the good folks at the media office for this free recommendation!)

I bet you didn't know that one of those exits from Union Street Station puts you in Vancouver. Or at least it did for one morning.

In between films I worked on my behind-the-back dribble here. Steve Nash was able to give me some good pointers.

A poster in the hostel I was staying that had an unwitting VIFF 2011 theme to it. (Cough, cough. Aki Kaurismaki's most recent.) The St. Clair Hostel has done me right for the second year in a row, providing the most amazing free Thanksgiving dinner. Even if I could afford the Sutton with the film fest rock stars, I prefer the humble and mellow ambiance of the St. Clair.

And last but not least, a big shout out to my buddy Erik McClanahan who contributes to the Playlist and works for the NW Film Center in Portland. For the second year in a row, Erik and I have been festival roommates and movie comrades. I love talking to this guy about movies, even if he is over-obsessed with Drive. Above is a drawing by a panhandler made while we stood in line for tickets. The guy earned his 2 bucks.

Up next: the final tally of films, their rankings, my ramblings and link to reviews.

Friday, September 16, 2011

30th Vancouver International Film Festival

The full schedule for the 30th Vancouver International Film Festival went live over last weekend with 375+ films from 75 countries. The Fest will open with Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In on September 29 and close two weeks later with the Dardenne Brother’s The Kid With a Bike. VIFF and its stellar array of films might be overshadowed by Toronto’s buzz, glitz and glam (not to mention the other film festival also known as VIFF), but Vancouver packs 16 days with an eclectic mix of films, including the largest East Asian selection outside of that region and the influential Dragons & Tigers Award.

In competition for the Dragons & Tigers Award are eight films: three from the Philippines, two from South Korea, two from Japan, and one judiciously stated from China, parenthetically, Tibet. This year’s jurors are producer Simon Field (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives, I Can’t Sleep Alone), director Ann Hui (July Rhapsody, The Way We Are and this year’s A Simple Life) and actor/director Yang Ik-joon (Breahtless). The award, announced October 8, has had a long history of recognizing some of the most important young talent coming out of the region, including the debut features of Jia Zhangke, Hong Sang-soo, Lee Chang-dong and Hirokazu Kore-eda.

There are 46 Asian features in the Dragons & Tigers Program, and rounding out the award nominees are new films from well-known directors (Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle, Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s I Wish, Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Headshot and Takashi Miike’s Harakiri: Death of a Samurai) as well as a number of highly anticipated titles (Wei Te-sheng’s four-hour epic Warrior’s of the Rainbow: Seeqid Bale, Xu Haofeng’s The Sword Identity and Jang Hun’s The Front Line.) But it is the remaining discoveries of under-the-radar Asian films, curated by Tony Rayns and Shelly Kraicer, which make the Dragons & Tigers Program a unique treasure trove.

On the international stage VIFF offers regional premieres of some of the most talked about films on the festival circuit. Fresh from Cannes and direct form Toronto, VIFF 2011 will include Aki Kaurismäki’s first feature in five years Le Harve, Gerardo Naranjo’s follow-up to I’m Gonna Explode, Miss Bala, Wim Wender’s 3D documentary Pina, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, novelist Julia Leigh’s debut Sleeping Beauty, Frederick Wiseman’s newest Crazy Horse, Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film, filmed under house arrest, and Bela Tarr’s purportedly final film, The Turin Horse.

Equally exciting is the long list of buzz worthy titles making an appearance at VIFF. Markus Schleinzer’s debut film Michael seems worthy of controversy. Recently picked up by Strand, Michael taps into the taboo subject of pedophilia. Also sure to divide audiences is Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to Dogtooth, ALPS. Lanthimos employs more of an ensemble for his newest that has been called an “absurdist ghost story.” Also of note: one of the latest in a exploding US independent scene, The Color Wheel from Alex Ross Perry; the SXSW and Hot Docs favorite from Tristan Patterson, Dragonslayer; the sophomore features from Julia Loktev (The Loneliest Planet), Ben Wheatley (Kill List) and Canada’s own Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz.)

The Vancouver International Film Festival, in its 30th year, runs from September 29 to October 14. I will be there from September 30 to October 14, covering the festival daily for Twitch and providing festival overviews for In Review Online and KFAI.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Clio Barnard's THE ARBOR

My review of Clio Barnard's amazing documentary The Arbor is up on In Review Online. I've watched this film four times of the past 6 months and it continues to grow on me exponentially. As I mentioned in my halftime post, it is easily one of my favorite films of the year so far.

I gave The Arbor a four star review in the Star Tribune for an MSPIFF capsule, trying as hard as I could to maximize praise without fluff or hyperbole. Shortly after, I was randomly talking to a stranger at one of my various jobs about the films she had seen at MSPIFF, and she said, "Did you see that one...what was it got a really good review...but really depressing!" I had to take responsibility and sort of explain myself beyond the 100 words I was allotted for the Strib. It seems fitting that I took the time to flesh out a longer review and am glad I did.

Although it has already passed the Twin Cities by, playing at MSPIFF a couple months ago, The Arbor comes out on DVD September 6. Be sure to check it out!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

MSPIFF wrap on In Review Online

Festival Coverage: Minneapolis St Paul 2011

If you thought you missed it, you probably didn't because it only recently went online a couple weeks ago...but, better late that never, my coverage for MSPIFF 2011 is up and available at In Review Online. Check out my thoughts on Mohammad Rasoulof's The White Meadows, Federico Veiroj's A Useful Life, Arvin Chen's Au Revoir Taipei, Mike Mills' Beginners, Jordan Scott's Cracks, Denis Cote's Curling, Jean-Luc Godard's Film Socialisme and most importantly Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy - a film that nearly broadsided me with narrative surprise and dark ingenuity. And because Dan Dobbs was recently asking me why I liked My Joy so much, I'm re-posting my review here. This is for you Dan:

My Joy / Sergei Loznitsa. A kindred, chaotic spirit of Huang Weikai’s Disorder, Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy has a rigid Russian gloss that takes a traditional approach only if you watch a portion of the film’s random hopper of narratives. Although My Joy is made of two halves, those halves meander through various stories that each leave a lingering vapor trail to a much larger allegory. Corruption unapologetically blankets the film, trickling down from a history of authoritarianism and extreme conditions. Any kindness is met with an untrusting hostility that, at least within the gage of the film, is not unwarranted. But these vignettes, in their structural ambiguity, are anything but detached. Heavy with heartbreak and despair, each sequence is loaded with the components of profound social destruction and deranged malaise. My Joy opens with a mysterious corpse being covered in cement and ends with a shell-shocked murderer walking off into the darkness of night—although the literal connection is abstruse, the cyclical implication is crystal clear. The narrative is loosely structured around Georgy, a stolid truck driver, and the people he comes in contact with. Loznitsa and his cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who worked on The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, tell much of their story through the complex and sardonic ‘joy’ on peoples’ faces. As the camera takes an impromptu walk through a market crowd we see it all—anger, frustration, fear, judgment, distrust, hate—and, in this case, for no logical reason, only to trail off after a man in an unexplained panic. The disjunctive anatomy of My Joy may be an aggravation to some, but I found it entirely euphoric with extremely detailed elements of subtle surprise that I could have never predicted in my wildest dreams.

Check out the full coverage here.

And in case you are wondering here is a loose ranking of the films I saw at MSPIFF, from top to bottom:

My Joy
The Four Times
The Arbor
Nostalgia for the Light
Film Socialisme
The Interrupters
The Forth Portrait
13 Assassins
The Actresses
Cameraman: The Life and Times of Jack Cardiff
A Useful Life
Page One
Ticker & Dale Vs. Evil
The Green Wave
Home for Christmas
Happy Happy
Au Revoir Taipei
Position Among the Stars
Project Nim
Rio Sonata
White Meadows
Kinshasha Symphony
If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle
Dooman River
The First Beautiful Thing
Who Killed Chea Vichea?
A Cat in Paris
Small Town Murder Songs
Kawasaki’s Rose
Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film
Dossier K
Street Days
The Troll Hunter
Stake Land
Midnight Son
The Ugly Duckling
El Infierno