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.


YTSL said...

Hi Kathie --

66 films in 14 days? 66 films is more than most people see in a year!!! :O

Very interest list too. Am happy to see "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" so highly ranked/rated -- am due to see it next week. (It's playing at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival.)

A bit shocked to see a Malaysian film so highly ranked/rated. You're making me reconsider checking out a Tan Chui Mui film again -- as I was unimpressed by her "Love Conquers All" (2006).

Also, am surprised that you ranked "Life Without Principle" (currently playing in cinemas here in Hong Kong) (slightly) higher than "A Simple Life". Re the Johnnie To film: opinion really seems to be divided about it -- know a couple of people who really like it but also people who don't care for it much at all.

Kathie Smith said...

I too was unimpressed with Love Conquers All, but check out Year Without a Summer if you have a chance. I really loved it - a very simple and effective method of tapping into common themes of homesickness/nostalgia/guilt.

I think I liked Life Without Principle more than most. It's more of a dark comedy, which I think To is really good at. Everyone is making it out to be an 'issue' film, and the issue of the financial crisis is a little flat, more of a backdrop. The movie itself is very dynamic.

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