Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Massive SFIFF round up

WOW. I COMPLETELY forgot to finish writing this. Le sigh. Things are already out!

Here are my thoughts on this year's SFIFF:

1. I need to take more days off next year. I was so exhausted at the end of this. Hence the tardiness of this post. [Ed note: that sentence was written weeks ago.]

2. There wasn't anything I saw that I really loathed. And all in all I enjoyed more of what I saw this year than last. I don't know whether or not that was due to the fact that...

3.  I saw more documentaries this year than usual and, as a group, they were really excellent. I should probably continue to see more next year.

4. I found it really interesting to see Stories We Tell and Pearblossom Hwy both. One is a documentary and one a narrative film, but they both blend reality and fiction in really interesting ways. 

So - in a general "I ADORED this" to "this was interesting in parts" way, here is what I saw at SFIFF:

The Act of Killing: Whenever people have asked me what the best film was I saw, I say this. The filmmakers met with executioners in the Indonesian genocide of the 60s, and asked them to recreate and film their crimes in whatever way they wished. It is utterly surreal and one of the most compelling and riveting films I have ever watched. I pretty much couldn't believe what I was watching for the duration of the film. I almost feel bad for recommending it, because watching it is so horrifying. But I do think it is an amazing achievement and very much should be seen. The reviews in the trailer sum it up well (although it may also be worth going in cold, so as not to spoil how bizarre it gets). (July 19 limited release)

Leviathan: I loved this so, so much. It was very much one of the more controversial films of the fest. I know a lot of people couldn't stand it, and there were several walkouts. But... it really worked for me; I even cracked up at one point. I loved this description: "a fish-eye view" of a fishing boat. It isn't beautifully shot, but it is interestingly shot, and I liked the languid pacing. It is very much an experimental Art (with a capital A) documentary. But I loved seeing the minutia of fishing and the unusual perspective. (out and gone; not yet on DVD - trailer here)

The Kings of Summer: This was so much fun. I really think this will be the best "summer" movie of the year, over any superhero epic. It's about three teens and their summer trying to be their own men, but unlike many teen-centered film, this one captures the discomfort, humor, and nuance of adolescence and rings true. It's funny and nostalgic and weird and I really liked it.
Here's the red band trailer. (Out now)

Much Ado About Nothing: This is totally delightful. Joss really nails the adaptation, and it is the best thing Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker have done (I liked her on Dollhouse; both of them on Angel - not so much.) My only quibble is that you could tell it was shot in 12 days and the lighting for the black and white cinematography sometimes seems a little off. But it is wonderful in every other way and very, very fun. [Oh. Quibble 1b, it's hard to use the text of Claudio's betrayal at the wedding in a modern setting. The gist may be that he is feeling betrayed by her ostensibly cheating, but the actual lines are all about virginity and maidenhood. It's the only bit that doesn't translate into the modern setting well.] (Out in limited release now - trailer here)

Prince Avalanche: Another really fun summer movie. It's an odd couple story of two characters painting lines on a highway in rural Texas near the site of a forest fire. I loved the cinematography and the pacing. I thought it was a great mash-up of David Gordon Green's indie and comedy tendencies and I really liked the performances of Paul Rudd (whom I sometimes like) and Emile Hirsch (whom I generally do not). As a bonus, David Gordon Green gave one of the most entertaining post-screening Q&As I've ever attended. (August 16 limited release - trailer here)

The Kill Team: A fascinating look at the US squad of soldiers that killed Afghani citizens. The access that the director got (particularly the official interrogations in Afghanistan), and the candidness of the interviews is unbelievable. It's really well structured - it centers around one particular soldier and tells the story of his time in Afghanistan, his life in the US after his arrest, and his childhood leading up to joining the army. I easily expect this to be up for best documentary this year. (no release details yet - I think they may be finalizing distribution. But it will definitely be out later in the year. Trailer here)

The Last Step: I am not going to be able to describe this well. It's an independent Iranian film, that touches on an affair, the death of the central character, making movies, and a mystery. I saw it for Leila Hatami, who was in last year's A Separation, and here plays the wife to the lead, Ali Mosaffa, who also wrote and directed the film. The narrative jumps about chronologically to construct its mystery (which, I admit, I'm a sucker for), it has some really beautiful cinematography, some really funny sequences, and very compelling lead performances. The final reveals (don't know if/when it will be released; not on DVD yet - trailer here)

The East: A thriller about a private security agent infiltrating an eco-anarchist collective. This isn't as good as Sound of my Voice, the previous Brit Marling/Zal Batmanglij collaboration, but it is entertaining. I really enjoyed the concept and wished that they had pushed it farther - apparently there is a darker ending coming on the DVD, which I'm interested in. My quibble with this one is that a number of the anarchists ended up being children of privilege with personal connections to their targets. I think it would have been more interesting to just see some pure idealists mixed in as well. (out in limited release now - trailer here)

Stories We Tell: Sarah Polley examines how memories are subjective and personal narratives are crafted of our own life stories. As an article on the Hairpin pointed out; "Katie Watson, a Northwestern University bioethicist quoted in Lang's story, posits that the cognitive dissonance... disappears because it is "psychologically in our interest" – we tell ourselves stories in order to live." Polley's documentary is beautifully crafted and wonderfully structured. The reveal comes not from her family secrets, but from discovering how she herself made the documentary. The only downside is that her particular family story ends up not having very many nuances or different telling's in the end, which dilutes the power of her meta-approach, which is so interesting. The central family mystery ends up as more straightforward. In the post-film Q&A she said that some of her family members told their recollections differently in the filmed interviews than in private. C'est la vie. (I think this review goes a little too far - not all the narratives line up precisely, but it gives you the gist of what I am getting at.) (out and gone already; not yet on DVD - trailer here)

The Strange Little Cat: An odd little German film about one day in an apartment as an extended family prepares for dinner. It's almost entirely contained within the apartment and chronicles mundane eccentricities. It's deadpan, minimalist, and a really interesting fly on the wall examination of 'a day in the life.' A little hard to describe, but very enjoyable. (don't know if/when it will be released; not on DVD yet - trailer here)

A River Changes Course: A documentary about three young rural people trying to make a living in the face of environmental challenges in Cambodia, one by following her traditional life on the land, one who is a fisherman, and one who leaves her home for the city factories. The stories are interesting, and I liked that two of the subjects are women, but there (obviously, unfortunately) isn't any resolution. I thought the structure maybe could have been a little stronger to make more of a compelling arc. However, this won best documentary at the fest, so clearly others liked it more than I. (don't know if/when it will be released; not on DVD yet - trailer here)

Pearblossom Hwy: So this is a follow-up to Littlerock, which I did not know and which I have not seen. However, I found this enjoyable on the whole. It follows two struggling friends in a deadbeat town in southern California and their roadtrip north. Apparently parts of this are not entirely fiction, but stylized takes on the life of one of the characters'. (don't know if/when it will be released; not on DVD yet - trailer here)

Dom A Russian Family (also called Home): This was a pretty straight-forward gangster flick, but it was enjoyable and pretty amusing. A Russian mobster comes home after years as a crime boss, which triggers repercussions across his extended family and neighbors. Nothing groundbreaking, but entertaining.  (don't know if this will be released in the US - it's from 2011 in Russia. Does not seem to be on DVD - trailer here, but not subtitled)

Augustine: This reminded me a lot of A Dangerous Method. It centers on the doctor-patient bond, and the lag in competent treatment for women by male physicians. This film is well acted, and based on a true story, but it started to meander after a while. The lead character is compelling, but the ending just wasn't as strong as I would have hoped. (out and gone (at least in NY - I'm not sure it played anywhere else); not yet on DVD - trailer here)

You're Next: This is mostly a very good horror film, of the home invasion genre. It's well shot,  scary, and I enjoyed the protagonist (from Home and Away!) and the plausible explanation for her survival (despite her being about 95 pounds. Shades of Colombiana. *sigh*) But it does the thing I HATE in horror films, where every jump scare has the volume ratcheted up to 11. I walked out with a headache. And it really doesn't need to use such a cheap trick to get a reaction. It's already creepy and scary enough without the bad sound direction.  (Aug 23 wide release - trailer here)

Peaches Does Herself: I... think this would make an awesome midnight show with booze. Or with a Rocky Horror style audience. Seeing it in a quiet movie theater felt very, very wrong. But it's a pretty impressive piece of choreography/direction and the guest stars are pretty crazy. It takes genderqueer to a whole other level. Plus, Peaches is awesome. The finale, where she rides a trike around Berlin singing Fuck the Pain Away makes me endlessly happy. (don't know if/when it will be released; not on DVD yet - trailer here)

Nights With Theodore: Two young people at a party meet, and end up running off to a famous park in Paris to spend the night. Their entire relationship becomes centered around spending nights in this park. I liked where this was going, and the leads were pretty good, but then it got all occult-y, which didn't really work for me. This was screened with a short film "night, peace" that I liked better. (don't know if/when it will be released; not on DVD yet - trailer here in French)

Afternoon Delight: A wealthy, Jewish housewife is unsatisfied and ends up taking in a stripper. Kathryn Hahn gives a good performance in this, and we certainly need more films that are female centric. However, Juno Temple (as the stripper) is totally wasted here. Her character never gets much depth. And the film was unfocused - it tried to address more than it was able to. I do like that it acknowledges upfront that wealthy housewife problems are hardly grand tragedies. (don't know (if/)when it will be released; not on DVD, no trailer yet)

Tall as the Baobab: It is interesting to get a look at a faraway culture and place, and the lead is likable enough. But I don't know if it was a cultural difference (if people form Senegal are conflict-averse and humble), or whether this comes from using amateur actors, but there wasn't a lot of dramatic tension in how scenes played out. (don't know if/when it will be released; not on DVD yet - trailer here)

Computer Chess: I may have been particularly exhausted for this one, but I didn't get it. I know some people really loved it at Sundance, so maybe there was something I was missing. Or maybe it just didn't appeal to my sense of humor. It's about a weekend convention of computer programmers in the 80s who are trying to design the best chess-playing software. (July 17 limited release - hey it has a poster now.)

Things I wish I had seen:
Something in the Air (Went in and out of SF theaters in about a week - trailer here)
Emptying the Skies (work in progress)
Byzantium (June 28 limited release - trailer here)
The Way Way Back (July 5 limited release - trailer here)
Fill the Void (out in limited release now - trailer here)
A Hijacking (June 21 limited release - trailer here)
Inori (don't know if/when it will be released; not on DVD yet - trailer here)
The Mattei Affair (who knows? It's a restoration of an older film. Hopefully available at some point. The unrestored version seems to be available here and there.)
The Spectacular Now (Aug 2 limited release)
Twenty Feet From Stardom (June 14 limited release - trailer here)

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