Thursday, October 17, 2013

2013 Vancouver International Film Festival - Final Report

A few notes on my VIFF 2013 experience:
  • This year I was able to attend 69 features during the 16 days of the festival, 5 more than last. 
  • The slate of 2013 films was not as strong compared to 2012, but the overall festival experience this year was more enjoyable.
  • A most welcome change was the elimination of the early morning passholder lineup. In previous years passholders were required to queue up early every morning to reserve a ticket for each show they wanted to see that day. This year, you just joined a designated line outside the venue before showtime. This made it possible for me to sleep in most days. 
  • Aside from a persistent issue with the handheld barcode ticket scanners (it would often take several attempts to get scanned in), I was impressed by the overall smooth handling of lineups and theatre loading.
  • Respect to all the staff and volunteers, even with some unusually short turnaround times, there were only a couple of instances where the following show started late.
  • Although the venues were more spread out than in the past, scheduling was usually friendly enough for you to get from one place to the next on time.
Speaking of venues, a few words on the new additions and replacements at VIFF for 2013:

Most impressive was the huge 50 foot screen at the 1,800 seat, Moshe Safdie designed, The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts. Last year it was used only once, during the closing gala screening of Holy Motors (I did not attend), but this time around, it was host to over 40 films. I had some doubts about the quality of presentation on a temporary screen in a venue of this size, but they've done a fantastic job with the setup here. A nice bonus was the no food or drink policy, it helped to keep the distracting crowd noises to a minimum. I hope VIFF is able to secure this location again for 2014.

Another temporary screen was installed at The Vancouver Playhouse, a 668 seater normally used for live theatre and other performance arts. This venue had the best sight-lines overall. The stadium style curved seating, and the unique placement of the screen due to the size and shape of the permanent stage, meant that even the very first row provided an excellent vantage point. The only drawback were the acoustics of the building. Since it was designed to carry unamplified voices to the rear of the house, sounds reverberate and echo more noticeably in here than in a traditional cinema.

The newest venue was at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. A 350 seat lecture hall opened in the fall of 2010, and upgraded for VIFF with a digital projector and sound system. The screen and sound here were excellent, but there's room for improvement in the projection booth. I noticed on multiple occasions, problems with the sound feed, wrong aspect ratio, incorrect cropping, and sometimes the house lights were left on well after the film had started. Those are minor wrinkles that will no doubt be smoothed over with experience. Not much can be done about the uncomfortable seats however.

For ten days, shows were also held at 3 of the 12 screens at the Cineplex Odeon International Village. It's one of only two remaining multiplexes in the city centre, and a long time favorite of mine. Sure, it's located at the edge of one of the shadiest looking neighborhoods you will ever encounter, but it was the first with reclining seats, and has a history of offering first-run festival style films throughout the year. In a perfect world, VIFF would have the funding for 6 screens here for the entire duration.

The last, new to VIFF venue, is The Rio. A 420 seat, single screen venue originally built in 1938. It's a little out of the way compared to the others, requiring a vehicle or transit to get there, but its a cool and comfortable place. Renovated not long ago, with nice plush seats, adjustable armrests, and a concession licensed to serve alcohol, this was the perfect home for VIFF's new midnight movie series, Altered States. Hopefully, for many years to come.

Finally, here's my top 20 list of films seen at VIFF 2013. In brackets is the festival where they premiered. Check back for full reviews for all of these in the coming weeks:

  1. Stray Dogs (Venice)
  2. The Great Beauty (Cannes)
  3. Harmony Lessons (Berlin)
  4. In Bloom (Berlin)
  5. The Past (Cannes)
  6. Blue is the Warmest Colour (Cannes)
  7. The Great Passage (Hong Kong)
  8. Borgman (Cannes) 
  9. Gloria (Berlin)
  10. Like Father, Like Son (Cannes) 
  11. The Future (Sundance)
  12. Breach in the Silence (Cairo)
  13. The Strange Little Cat (Berlin)
  14. The Oxbow Cure (Sarasota)
  15. Manakamana (Locarno)
  16. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Berlin)
  17. Burning Bush (Czech HBO)
  18. Camille Claudel 1915 (Berlin)
  19. The Broken Circle Breakdown (Berlin)
  20. Ilo Ilo (Cannes) 

Monday, October 14, 2013

#VIFF2013 Days 14-16 Diary

The Strange Little Cat (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen)
directed by Ramon Zürcher
A pleasantly surprising little film following an ordinary day with an ordinary German family. Rookie director Ramon Zürcher (a student of Bela Tarr) has a real talent for subtly humorous observations, unique camera placement, and complex choreography in confined spaces. Especially the kitchen where most of the film takes place, the main stage where the family must constantly interact with, navigate around, and seek refuge from each other while performing their daily tasks.
Camille Claudel 1915
directed by Bruno Dumont
This is a film of firsts for Bruno Dumont, it's his first time working with a bona fide star in Juliette Binoche (he is known for preferring non-professional actors) and his first historical film (all his others are contemporary). An unique biopic that eschews the norm and focuses only upon a brief moment in the life of sculptor Camille Claudel. It falters in the second half when the focus sidetracks to follow her brother Paul (Jean-Luc Vincent), but needless to say Binoche delivers a tremendously moving performance as a tortured genius committed to a psychiatric hospital against her will by her family.
The Broken Circle Breakdown
directed by Felix Van Groeningen
Belgium's submission to the 2014 Academy Awards. A compelling chronicle of a relationship through all its soaring highs and tragic lows. Driven by a pair of raw and heartfelt performances from the leads, and a brilliant bluegrass soundtrack, the film follows a non-linear path that takes us on a roller coaster ride of emotions. It loses its way towards the end when things take a heavy-handed political turn, but the rest make it well worthwhile.
Blind Detective
directed by Johnnie To
Hong Kong
A playful, genre-jumping film that goes all over the map from police procedural, to dark thriller, to tender romance, to silly cartoon comedy, sometimes all in the same sequence. Definitely not one of Johnnie To's best, but worth seeing for the entertaining physical performances from Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng who make it look like they are having the time of their lives playing their characters here.
directed by Cody Calahan
An interesting take on the crowded zombie/infected genre that uses social media as the source and means of spreading the deadly virus. Unfortunately it follows a well worn path with stock young-adult characters and all the same old moral dilemmas and obvious melodrama we've seen so many times before. It also fails to provide the audience with the good stuff by always cutting away from or obscuring the action.
A Story of Children and Film
directed by Mark Cousins
United Kingdom
Building off the style seen in his epic 15 hour masterclass The Story of Film: An Odyssey, this is a very well researched and uniquely presented documentary about young children in cinema. Though this is less of a film history lesson and more of a personal musing about the similarities and common traits of children everywhere, using examples in film (from the well-known to the obscure) to make the connections. Some of his comparisons and assertions are sketchy at best, but his friendly voice and accessible presentation make it a joy to watch.
So Much Water (Tanta Agua)
directed by Ana Guevara & Leticia Jorge
The first feature length film from Guevara and Jorge, is a simple film that follows a divorced father and his two children on a heavily rain soaked vacation. What seems at first to be a bleak and depressing drama turns into a wonderful family portrait and coming of age tale full of clever observations and ironies. Always subtle and cautiously paced, details are revealed with careful framing of small actions and quick glances.
The Future (Il Futuro)
directed by Alicia Scherson
Italy, Chile
The one and only film I saw in the festival that was projected on traditional 35mm film. There's something magical about seeing the imperfect flutter and flicker accompanied by the appearance of dust and scratches on the big screen that can sometimes actually improve the viewing experience. That was the case with this film, one containing many references to the past of cinema. A stylishly directed, slightly surreal story of two teenagers who suddenly become orphans in Rome and must learn to look after each other.
Young & Beautiful (Jeune & jolie)
directed by François Ozon
There have been a number of French films about student prostitution in recent years: Student Services (2010), Léa (2011), Elles (2011), to name a few, and this one doesn't say anything particularly new or provide any meaningful insight. However, it is a polished production as you would expect from François Ozon, who displays a strong sense of color and style to match the film's progression through the four seasons. Along with a strong central performance from Marine Vacth, who remains an enigma to the audience while effortlessly playing her double role.
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Când se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau metabolism)
directed by Corneliu Porumboiu
The minimalist Romanian director's third feature film. True to his style, it's one of long unbroken takes (I counted only 16 cuts) and insightful dialogue, with little regard for a traditional story. The simple scenario follows a director and his lead actress behind the scenes as they have a fling while working on a film. It doesn't take long for it to become clear that Porumboiu is using their mundane conversations to provide a clever self referential commentary track. Several scenes here seem directly inspired by the trademark restaurant table sequences of Hong Sang-soo.
directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour
Saudi Arabia
The Saudi Arabian contender to the 2014 Academy Awards. The story surrounding the first ever film shot in Saudi Arabia, and even more significantly, by a female director with permission from the government, is more significant than the story in the film itself. With a narrative that ultimately plays it safe rather than subversive. However, the result is still a rather charming tale with an adorable performance from young Waad Mohammed, who represents a rebellious and mischievous but good-hearted symbol that everyone can root for. It stands a very good chance for a nomination.
The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)
directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Italy's submission to the 2014 Oscars. A visually intoxicating experience with what is arguably one of the greatest openings in all of cinema. Sorrentino expands on the ideas of Fellini to present us with a dolly and crane shot filled extravaganza through modern day Rome, with frequent collaborator, the ever charismatic Toni Servillo, as our guide through a city of culture and rich history with no shortage of empty lives celebrating in wild debauchery and decadence. It remains to be seen whether or not The Great Beauty will hold up as a masterpiece, but it makes as strong a case as anything I've seen so far this year.
Karaoke Girl (Sao Karaoke)
directed by Visra Vichit-Vadakan
A directorial debut, hybrid docu-drama portrait of a country girl who works as a 'hostess' in a karaoke bar in Bangkok. A slow, moody and impressively lensed character study that never gets exploitative or lurid, but lacks acting talent to make a convincing drama, and is too visually cinematic to work as a documentary.
Michael Kohlhaas
directed by Arnaud des Pallières
Based loosely on the novella by Heinrich von Kleist, set in the Middle Ages and starring Mads Mikkelsen as a horse trader who stages a violent revolt for personal justice after he is wronged by the courts and nobility. A raw and gritty depiction of the 16th century which has moments of action and violence but is more of a character study than a heroic epic. Young Mélusine Mayance adds a glowing presence, with the perfect look of an impossible innocent beauty in an ugly world.
Wolf Children
directed by Mamoru Hosoda
A bittersweet, often humorous tale about a young single mother raising two lycanthrope children on her own. Has more than enough cuteness for kids but a thoughtful allegorical story meant for adults. Not a groundbreaking work, but it looks great on the big screen, and plays well in a packed house.
Stray Dogs
directed by Tsai Ming-liang
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Venice. An atmospheric and unforgettable film about a homeless family existing on the outskirts of modern day Taipei. Strangely beautiful and hypnotic, filled with lengthy shots of the absurd and the mundane, all perfectly staged and lit to astonish the viewer, while also conveying a deep sense of loneliness, misery, and despair.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

#VIFF2013 Days 11-13 Diary

directed by Sebastian Lelío
The Chilean entry to the 2014 Oscars. Paulina García deservedly won best actress at the Berlinale for her courageous performance as a divorced woman navigating through the perils of midlife. It's a crowd pleasing film, receiving the loudest and longest ovation I've heard this year, but one which balances all the drama and emotion in a thoughtful and unforced manner. There's also a wonderful use of music throughout.
The Lunchbox (Dabba)
directed by Ritesh Batra
A sweet and charming little romantic tale from first time director Ritesh Batra set amongst the nonstop hustle and bustle of modern day Mumbai. Greatly enjoyable for the simple way that the story develops and then unfolds with humor and emotion without resorting to melodrama. A word of advice, do not watch this film with an empty stomach.
directed by John Curran
The true story of Robyn Davidson's 2700km solo trek across the Australian desert. Beautifully shot, as you would expect a film set in the outback to be. It also further cements Mia Wasikowska as one of the true talents of her generation. Though it never quite manages to convey the degree of physical challenge and danger she faced on her walk. You get the impression that dealing with people was more difficult than dealing with nature. Perhaps that was the point.
directed by Louise Archambault
Canada's submission to the 2014 Academy Awards, winner of the Audience Award at Locarno. The coming of age story of a young woman with Williams Syndrome. A feel-good drama with documentary aspects (most of the cast including lead Gabrielle Marion-Rivard are non-pros playing a version of themselves). Strong use of music, and mostly avoids being too sentimental or sympathy seeking, but still feels a little too politically correct to be true.
The Venice Syndrome
directed by Andreas Pichler
A sobering documentary seen through the eyes of Venice's quickly dwindling remaining residents that strips away all the romance and glamour to show a side of the city that tourists are unaware of. It shows how the natives have been priced out of real estate by investors, and how the once great city is now just a glorified amusement park. Shots of imposing cruise-liners dominating the frame underscore how hundreds of years of history and culture have been completely and irreversibly overshadowed by commerce and tourism.
directed by Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez
USA, Nepal
Produced by Lucien Castiang-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, the duo responsible for Leviathan. Like that film, this is another unique and challenging experimental documentary that caused the most walkouts of the festival. The entire film consists of real-time still camera shots inside a cable car carrying passengers (who seem unaware they are being filmed) up and down the mountainous location of Nepal's Manakamana Temple. Depending on the viewer this will either be infinitely fascinating or hopelessly boring.
directed by Lisa Langseth
Soon to be household name Alicia Vikander displays incredible range in this drama about a group of strangers who take an unconventional approach to dealing with their individual traumas, running from their troubled lives by checking into different hotels and pretending they are someone else. It's very funny at times and tragically sad at others, but even an amazing lead performance can't overcome what you know deep down is a ridiculous and unbelievable story.
directed by Marteinn Thórsson
Winner of best actor at Karlovy Vary. A dark dark comedy with intense and frantic visuals made to match the perpetual inebriation and crazed raw debauchery engaged by the thoroughly unlikable yet amusingly watchable protagonist. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson fills the role perfectly, but whatever political message the director intended is lost in all the drunken chaos and confusion.
The Oxbow Cure
directed by Yonah Lewis & Calvin Thomas
A quietly simple yet utterly entrancing story of a woman who retreats to a winter cottage to deal with a debilitating illness in isolation. Slow paced, minimal and almost entirely dialogue free, with evocative visuals that recall the style of Phillippe Grandrieux with just a touch of early Cronenberg, this is wonderfully mesmerizing cinema. The first independent film from English Canada I've been impressed with in a long while.
Vojta Lavička: Ups and Downs
directed by Helena Třeštíková
Czech Republic
Directed by Helena Třeštíková, who is known in her home country for documentaries that follow their subjects over several years. This one recounts the past 16 years in the life of Romany musician and television host Vojta Lavička. It's an interesting approach, but its presented entirely from the words and perspective of Lavička who has the vibe of a good storyteller, one who may or may not be telling the truth at any given time. The many musical interludes are what make this worth seeing, especially touching are moments of him playing the violin with his young son.

Monday, October 7, 2013

#VIFF2013 Days 8-10 Diary

A Place in Heaven
directed by Joseph Madmony
Another Israeli drama that delves into the rocky relationship between a father and son. It spans several decades and does well to capture the important moments, but can't quite escape the trap of films of this nature, that too much is being left out.
directed by Tom Shoval
A story of two teenage brothers (played impressively by non-professional real life siblings Eitan and David Cunio) who concoct a half baked plan to kidnap a rich schoolgirl for ransom to save their family from economic troubles. Serves as an amusing and sobering look at modern Israeli life.
A Touch of Sin
directed by Jia Zhangke
Winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes. A set of four very loosely connected scenarios ripped from recent headline news stories in China. Overall this a captivating depiction of the plight of the everyday citizen. It's also beautifully shot, in a variety of locations around the country. Unfortunately it starts with the most interesting protagonist and segment, and the rest never quite match the level of intensity of the first.
La jaula de oro
directed by Diego Quemada-Díez
Winner of the A Certain Talent Prize at Cannes for the non-professional ensemble cast. Tells the familiar tale of a small group of youths making their way north to the USA in hopes of a better life. So not the most original story, but an involving and realistic one aided by the grainy film and non-professional cast which gives it a documentary feel.
directed by Yang Zhengfan
Very similar in style and execution to Benedek Fliegauf's Milky Way (2007), this is an experimental film comprised entirely of a series of voyeuristic long static shots seen from a remote vantage point with no dialogue or music. The framing and sequencing give an extraordinary meditative effect, and the spontaneity of the onscreen action enables the viewer to craft their own stories from all the details.
Breach in the Silence (Brecha en el silencio)
directed by Andrés & Luis Rodriguez
Venezuela's entry to the 2014 Oscars. The most visually arresting film I've seen at the festival so far. Former social workers and long time documentary filmmakers Andrés & Luis Rodriguez, have created a dark modern fairy tale that because of the subject matter becomes very frustrating to watch, but highly recommended for remarkable acting from first timer Vanessa Di Quattro, and for the surreal imagery and sound.
See You Never (Hasta Nunca)
directed by Mark Street
Part documentary part fiction set in Uruguay's capital city of Montevideo, framed around a radio show where callers dial in to share their secrets and stories. Never succeeds dramatically, and doesn't say anything particularly insightful, but gives a fascinating look at the city from a tourist or outsiders point of view. Highly recommended for those who love to people-watch.
Longing for the Rain
directed by Lina Yang
The story of a 30-year-old rich housewife who starts to get erotic visits from a ghost lover in her dreams. Sounds ridiculous, and it is for the most part, especially in the way the story plays out with its focus on various religious superstitions. However it's well acted, visually stylish, and it's a non exploitative and unique exploration of sexuality (the first I've ever seen) told from a Chinese woman's perspective.
directed by Alex van Warmerdam
A hugely enjoyable dark comedy that plays like a twisted Dutch version of Down in Out in Beverly Hills. Its strange and illogical narrative falters under close scrutiny, but the firm handed direction and the ominous mood created make up for any plot holes that may exist. Jan Bijvoet plays the title character with irresistible charisma.
Like Father Like Son
directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes. Koreeda in his usual fashion, handles the story with a light and carefully paced direction. He's able to wring profound amounts of emotion from the tiniest of scenes or gestures, and his ability to direct young children is matched by no other. Though the outcome of this story seems a bit obvious and inevitable from the start.
Anatomy of a Paperclip
directed by Ikeda Akira
Winner of the 2013 VIFF Dragons and Tigers Award. A very odd and highly repetitive surrealistic tale set in a handmade paperclip factory. Very funny in moments but definitely requires a patient and open minded viewer to handle its strange rhythms. There were plenty of walkouts at the encore screening.
Code Black
directed by Ryan McGarry
Winner of Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Gives an unflinching first hand look inside LA County Hospital's emergency room. Works best when depicting the chaos and camaraderie that exists in one of the world's busiest hospitals, less so when it turns to politics, health care reform, and the bureaucracy.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Vic+Flo ont vu un ours)
directed by Denis Côté
Winner of the Alfred Bauer Award for innovation at Berlin 2013. Côté has definitely raised the creative bar with this unique film that can't really be categorized, and it's best seen without knowing the reasons why it is so original and innovative. Also, Pierrette Robitaille (known mainly in Quebec for appearing in silly comedies) is amazing here in a role that obliterates her typecast.
Big Bad Wolves
directed by Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado
A suspenseful dark thriller about a rogue cop and a vengeful father who get in each others way while tracking down a suspected serial child killer. Feels in a way like the recent hyper violent and morally ambiguous films from South Korea. The screenplay keeps the audience guessing until the end, at the same time prevents things from getting too bleak with some very humorous twists. All three leads are excellent as well in this all around entertaining and thought provoking thrill ride. The only annoyance is the very generic sounding score.

Friday, October 4, 2013

#VIFF2013 Day 7 Diary

Sarah Prefers to Run (Sarah préfère la course)
directed by Chloé Robichaud
Another intriguing feature debut from the Cannes Un Certain Regard section. Young actress Sophie Desmarais is entrancing to watch despite the detached and closed off nature of her character. There's a cold aesthetic and quirky feel to the picture that resembles that of recent Greek cinema. However, the direction is perhaps too minimal, Robichaud never truly lets the audience inside Sarah's headspace. It's obvious what drives her, but we barely get a real sense of why.
Closed Curtain (Pardé)
directed by Jafar Panahi & Kambuzia Partovi
Amazingly, this is the second film released by Panahi since receiving a 20 year ban. Like This is Not a Film, this is another self reflexive scenario. The mysterious and suspenseful first half works better than the play on reality/fiction that occurs in the second half. However, Panani creates an effective portrait of a director near the end of his rope. One who would rather drown in the sea, than live in creative silence. This also features the best performance by a dog I've seen since The Artist.
Grand Central
directed by Rebecca Zlotowski
Zlotowski's second feature film has an incredible cast that once again features the red hot Léa Seydoux, alongside Tahar Rahim, Olivier Gourmet, and Denis Ménochet. It also has a unique setting, taking place in and around a nuclear power plant. Unfortunately the narrative never manages to convey the intensity and excitement needed to convince us of the passion of the affair or the danger of the work.
In Bloom (Grzeli nateli dgeebi)
directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Groß
Georgia's official submission to the 2014 Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.
The first effort from Ekvtimishvili and the second for Groß, is a note for note copy straight out of the Romanian New Wave playbook. You know, the now familiar story of two young girls growing up in a difficult and dangerous world. They've even got Cristian Mungiu's regular cinematographer Oleg Mutu on board to recreate that exact same gritty look and feel. Though, even with the plagiarized style and basic scenario, this is a wonderful film that gives us a strong sense of what life was like in early 1990's Georgia. The directorial duo also show great talent for choreographing long chaotic scenes in close quarters, with several of these outstanding sequences peppered throughout. This was easily one of my favorite films of the festival so far.
directed by Chung Mong-Hong
Taiwan's entry to the 2014 Oscars. A strange supernatural psychological thriller set in the remote forested mountains in Taiwan. Far more gruesome and visually stylish than any Taiwanese film in recent memory. Chung creates a genuinely creepy and haunting mood using super saturated colors and heavy contrast of bright lights with dark shadows. It likely has no chance at making the shortlist, but is definitely worth checking out if the description fits your tastes.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

#VIFF2013 Day 6 Diary

A Long and Happy Life (Dolgaya schastlivaya zhizn)
directed by Boris Khlebnikov
You just know that a Russian film with a title like A Long and Happy Life is going to be about anything but. In a brief 77 minutes, Khlebnikov roughly sketches a bleak portrait of life and group dynamics in contemporary Russia.
New World
directed by Hoon-jung Park
South Korea
A big budget Korea gangster flick that doesn't stray from the formula, with all the intricate twists and ultra violence that one would expect. Worth a watch if you are a fan of this kind of film.
directed by Amat Escalante
Winner of Best Director at Cannes, Escalante keeps things cold and deliberate in this unflinchingly brutal political statement about life in contemporary Mexico. A raw, terrifying, and sometimes extremely difficult to watch tale about an innocent working family suddenly caught up in the drug war.
Ilo Ilo
directed by Anthony Chen
Winner of the Camera d'Or for best first feature at Cannes, this was a surprisingly heartwarming film directed with a remarkably keen eye. Anyone who was or had to raise a terrible brat will be able to relate with this personal tale about a Singaporean family unit caught in the 1997 Asian financial crisis. A genuinely touching slice of life.
The Past
directed by Asgar Farhadi
Felt like a close cousin to A Separation but without the cultural nuances that enabled that film to take the world by storm. What remains is an impressively sculpted scenario about how all the little lies, mistakes, and regrets in our past accumulate and affect our present lives. Farhadi handles the story with surefooted direction that turns its intricately complex soap-opera style revelations into believable and powerful dramatic moments. Berenice Bejo won the Best Actress award at Cannes, and she does give an outstanding performance, but it's the overall brilliant acting from the entire ensemble cast that elevates this film to essential viewing status.