The Vancouver International Film Festival Top 10 (Out of 10)
Well, I hit the big time this year. The jackpot. I managed to get a media pass to the Vancouver International Film Festival. I threw some names around. Don’t worry about it.
This is, of course, the major festival for the West Coast of Canada, sort of the older sibling to the Victoria Film Festival, Whistler Film Festival, etc. When I went to university in Vancouver and lived there for four years I would go to VIFF every fall, spend some money to see a few flicks. Always had a blast.
Changes happen, seasons came and went, ashes to ashes and all that, and although I don’t live there anymore, I made sure to book my holidays for when it would be going on and got hooked up with the media credentials. So with my press pass clutched eagerly in my paw, I filled a rucksack and headed off, a country film fan in the big city.
Unfortunately, what with a regular job and limited funds and personal relationships to keep up and all that junk, I could only go for three days. But in those three days I saw 10 films. So, without further ado, here are my Top 10 Films of VIFF (Out of 10):
1) Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), directed by David Lowery
While much of the rest of the world has seen this film already, thanks to a heavily staggered release schedule, us West Coasters had yet to have the chance. It caught my eye because it looked as though it had that Terrence Malick, Texas Southern Gothic feel going on and, as I have stated many times in the past: that’s my jam.
And boy, was I not disappointed. Lowery’s first film does have a Malick influence going on, what with beautiful shots of Texas wheat fields and big skies juxtaposing the crowded lives of the characters below. But more so it feels like the film of a new voice, one who revels in the past but has his own take on it, his own perspective.
Director David Lowery attended the screening and talked about how he tried to make the movie feel like a folk song, in its portrayal of characters and the way in which the tone of the film comes across through pacing, music, etc.
He has succeeded and it’s what stands Ain’t Them Bodies Saints apart from lesser films it could be compared to. In some ways it’s the opposite of a film like Lawless, which was essentially an exploitation film about the South. That film didn’t work partially because its characters were caricatures and hard to care about. Lowery cares about his characters and it’s their choices, their desire to do the right thing, their escape from the tropes of the genre, which makes the film work so well.
The tone of the film is hypnotic, the cinematography beautiful (particularly its use of natural light), but above all else it’s the characters, and the actors portraying them, which make this a great film. And it is a great film, the best at VIFF (out of the 10 I saw).
2. Whitewash (2013), directed by Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais
I have to say, I saw a lot of bleak, violent movies at VIFF. Lots of themes of despair, helplessness, and, perhaps above all else, solitude. Many of the films revolved around a single character seemingly taking on the world all on his own (I would say ‘or her own’ but I have no examples of that).
Of these films, Whitewash was the best, and the purest. This film captures the very core of being alone: a man, out in the wilderness, hiding, fighting the elements and, best of all, by choice. There is actually a gas station and hardware store not far away from where Bruce (Thomas Haden Church) is living out of his stuck snowplow. But he stays away.
For one thing, he is being looked for by the authorities. He went missing the same time a man who had been staying at his house went missing. And he has something to do with it. So it’s best, for now, if Bruce doesn’t have much contact with police.
But he’s also getting away from his life. His wife died and left nothing but boxes of marble doll eyes she hand painted to remember he by. He drinks, which has cost him his driving licence and his job. He hasn’t got a lot going for him. So when he finds himself stuck in Quebec woods, his incentive to leave is not strong.
Church’s performance is the highlight of a film which is at times tense, at other hilarious. It’s a dark tale, both in location and themes, but it doesn’t fail to come off as enjoyable in the end, despite its lonely core.
3. Grand Central (2013), directed by Rebecca Zlotowski
Starring current French film stars Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) and Les Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color), Grand Central is a look at the seemingly disposable lives of the workers at a nuclear power facility and the love triangle that arises out of the tension of living close to the edge.
I enjoyed the performances in this film and the juxtaposition of the detail-oriented work versus the messiness of the character’s personal lives. A decimal point on a radiation reader can be the difference between safe and in danger of “a dose” inside the walls of the plant, but outside it is alcohol, sex, fighting and speed which typify the lives of these lost souls.
The film is stunningly directed, with a great use of colour and scale, and the affair at the centre of the film is appropriately charged (pun intended). It’s simply a unique story, one which raises questions over the meaning of life, and the cost of consumption, while never being heavy handed or cliche.
4. 11.6 (2013), directed by Philippe Godeau
Another French film, 11.6 is a neo noir of sorts, and one that manages to be high in tension while minimal in action.
French Dustin Hoffman, Francois Cluzet, plays Toni, a security guard with a armoured car service, who is up to something. He’s bought a Ferrari, is creating a false wall in the back of a rented storage unit and is treating his girlfriend with unusual disdain and distance.
What he has been planning, and what plays out, is a caper more impressive for its simplicity than its carnage, and yet as tense as any shootemup Heat-style snatch.
While the ending is a little baffling, 11.6 is a compelling thriller and with more depth of character than one usually expects with this sort of fare. Nerve-wracking and exciting.
5. The Past (2013), directed by Asghar Farhadi
In Farhadi’s followup to the fantastic A Separation (2011) he again looks at the effects of a marriage torn in two, but with a more obvious dramatic flair than his previous work, which for me diminished the power of what is otherwise a magnificently wrought film.
Farhadi is best at his simplest and for my money is one of the best actor’s directors working today. There is nothing flashy in his style, but in his ability to wring superb performances from his actors he is superb.
The first half of The Past carries on this tradition, with simple delights and empathy found in watching his characters interact with one another, their words and body language conveying all the complexities of human relationships. It’s far more captivating than such a simple film has any right to be.
From there, however, the film turns into a series of dramatic reveals and a whodunnit investigation into, well, the past. It’s all quite intentional, but whereas Mike Leigh understood in Secrets and Lies that the past is merely a detail of the present, Farhadi gives it a legitimacy which is hard to care about.
By the time the film finishes tying up all the loose ends it has created, it has overstayed its welcome and lost the grounded appeal which makes the first half, and his prior film, so powerful.
6. Stand Clear of the Closing Doors (2013), directed by Sam Fleischner
Following the journey of an autistic teen who spends over a week lost in the New York City subway system, Stand Clear… is almost as much an experiment in perception as it is a harrowing story of a mother’s search for her son.
Ricky isn’t running away, he is merely following his instincts, oh and a pair of sneakers he really likes. As he rides the trains he thinks his own narrative to himself while observing and occasionally interacting with other, sometimes strange, sometimes mean, riders.
Fleischner’s use of the camera, his attempts to capture the disjointedness of Ricky’s thought process visually, creates a captivating juxtaposition between the downtrodden lives of the characters and the vibrant world inside his mind. Tying the adventure in with the socioeconomic state of the family and the flooding of New York also gives the material a weight beyond its own story.
7. Heli (2013), directed by Amat Escalante
Steven Spielberg loves lesbian sex and violence. That was the word coming out of Cannes this year, when the Spielberg-headed jury picked a couple of shockers as big trophy winners, including Heli, which won the award for directing.
Quite frankly I’m surprised ole E.T. phone home, doe-eyed Spielberg could tolerate the level of sadistic violence in Heli, a film about stealing from Mexican drug cartels. I nearly couldn’t.
While, yes, it is incredibly well directed, and, yes, provides an unflinching look at an important topic, Heli is the kind of film you can respect but never love, it is just too hard to watch.
I’m still trying to figure out how the filmmakers even accomplished the special effects behind some of the horrendous torture seen in the film, and the outcome of the entire affair is as bleak as the desert terrain it is set in.
This is probably a great film. But I’d rather not see it ever again.
8. Another House (2013), Mathieu Roy
I started the festival off with this Quebecois drama and it really set the tone for what was to follow: pure, unadulterated sadness.
In a film about family, Roy follows the lives of two brothers attempting to take care of their elderly father, who has dementia. One of the brothers, Gabriel (Roy Dupuis), is a well-known journalist with many commitments, while the other, Eric (Emile Proulx-Cloutier), has the time but perhaps not the mental stability to provide care.
This is a fine film, with great performances, especially from Marcel Sabourin as the father, but my is it bleak. The selfish, self-destructive Eric is painful to watch as he pushes everything decent out of his life. Gabriel is more interesting, especially when on assignment, but the film as a whole is more hard to watch than insightful.
While much of the cinematography is a pleasure and the acting is top notch, I had a enough hard time trying to tolerate Another House, especially Eric, to be able to get much out of it.
9. Closed Curtain (2013), directed by Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi
Perhaps I didn’t know what I was getting into, and perhaps I missed some tremendously brilliant point, but I could not get into Closed Curtain. Granted I have yet to see This is Not a Film and I was a walking, sleepy zombie after a day of movies, but to me Closed Curtain was dull and pointless.
This is the latest from Panahi, who is under house arrest in Iran and therefore can only make movies within the confines of his property. There are no exterior shots here. The only views of the outside world are seen through windows. And yes, there are closed curtains.
This is an art film, and all that means. It has a purely abstract interest in perspective, in the effects of authoritarian control, in spaces. The narrative of the story is one which dissolves as the film goes on, breaking down into theory over practice.
In another mood I may have taken more away from this film, but as it was I had no time for it. While many hail Panahi as a brilliant fillmmaker, I found little of interest in this claustrophobic exercise.
10. A Long and Happy Life (2013), directed by Boris Khlebnikov
Another film with a strong start leading to a disappointing finale, A Long and Happy Life isn’t terrible but it lost me enough to make it my least favourite of the festival (out of the 10 I saw).
While I understand the film wants to convey the spirit of a Western, I wish it hadn’t been so literal about it. The shootout ending comes out of left field and makes no sense for the character or the tone of the film. I get how it is supposed to be an interesting turn of events, considering it was only the “ignorant” villagers who before spoke of turning to violence. But I never believed Alex’s quick trigger finger, his descent into violence.
The rural scenery is beautiful, some of the acting is decent, I really liked a lot of the setup but then it took its turn and completely lost me. Shame.
So there it is. After all this violence and misery I’m in need of a good comedy. Or a late start on Horror Pledge 2013. That’ll do.
The Vancouver International Film Festival continues until Oct. 11.