Last year I neglected to post a round-up of the films I saw at the Festival. This year I’m remedying that, mostly for myself. Maybe it will be helpful to someone else as well.
I’m utilizing the Chicago Reader’s star ratings system with a bit of modification.
✭✭✭✭ means Masterful, rather than Masterpiece, a word I dislike: It seems to imply historical significance that has not yet been earned. For me, it’s a movie made by master filmmakers that has moved me in some profound way.
✭✭✭ means Recommended. Don’t miss it.
✭✭ means Worth Seeing. I didn’t love it but it might have strong appeal for others.
✭ means Has Redeeming Facet. There is at least one thing about it worth recommending.
■ Worthless. I think that designation is self-explanatory.
My favorite movie from this year’s festival. I’ll have to see it again but it may just be one of my favorite movies ever. Special highlight: Butch suedehead is stripped to his skivvies by a group of gypsies, shackled with his own handcuffs; he’s verbally abused and humiliated while beer is poured all over his tattooed body. But really, that’s not why I love it. Really. Cogent, relevant, powerful.
✭✭✭✭ Inland Empire
David Lynch’s best experimental feature since his first, Eraserhead. A real head trip.
✭✭✭ The Elephant and the Sea
A wry, somnolent comedy about boredom. Malaysian director Woo Ming Jin may not be as in command of his craft as his countryman Ming-liang Tsai, but I’d say he’s on the verge of something big.
A disciplined and focused fable situated in post-civil war Chad whose power comes mostly from its restraint and moral clarity. Masterful handling of amateur actors and perfect in pitch and tone.
✭✭✭ The Host or Gwoemul
Only horror-master George Romero is as concerned with the humanity of his characters as South Korean director Joon-ho Bong. Although effects-laden and too long by about 20 minutes, this CGI monster movie is warm and funny as well as stylishly shot in sumptuous widescreen.
✭✭✭ Black Sheep
The KVIFF’s selection committee is especially good at picking midnight movies. They’re a great way to unwind and relax at the end of a long day of film-going. One of the big surprises for me was this hilarious and competently filmed send-up of the mutant-creatures-run-amok genre. The mutated animals in this case are New Zealand sheep, and this odd choice is exploited for all its cheesy, comic, and it must be said, ribald, potential. The special effects are nothing to crow about but the gore is profuse, looking grandly disgusting on Velky Sal’s mammoth screen, and the actors all seem to be having a really good time. The best way to see it is how the Fest presented it – on a big screen, with blaring sound and along with 1000 teens and twenty-somethings hooting and hollering at every joke and every lobbed-off head. Can’t say a DVD viewing is going to feel remotely the same.
✭✭✭ Saturno contro
I don’t want to be too hard on this warm, if simple, film; so, I gave it an extra star. It’s a crowd-pleaser, to be sure, but not without essential cinematic virtues. I never felt like I was being cheated by its sentiments. Read my initial response.
✭✭✭ The Monastery
An honest documentarian allows the story to tell itself. In the case of this affecting film, a project that began with following the transformation of a chateaus into an Orthodox monastery – the lifelong dream of the film’s main character Mr Vig – ends up being about the friendship that develops between Vig and the young and feisty, rather brilliant and intractable, Russian nun who oversees everything. Watching their mutual respect and affection grow even while they butt heads over details, is this modest film’s singular achievement.
✭✭ Mark of Cain
A worthy dramatization of a fictionalized Abu Ghraib-style torture incident, scripted after considerable research by writer Tony Marchant, perpetrated by British troops against Iraqi civilians. It’s marred mostly by its adherence to the “whistle-blowing” genre of Hollywood message-movies. Instead of asking any big questions, director Marc Munden settles for depicting the emotional and moral turmoil endured by a young soldier forced to tell the truth about the horrible crimes his patrol committed under pressure of war. It’s limited, but powerful, especially considering it was produced for British TV, and enhanced considerably by a star-making turn by Gerard Kearns, who gives his all and shows his soft dick besides. Kearns is just as cute and self-deprecating in person as he is in the film. Director Munden was also present to answer questions after the film. To its credit, you won’t find any American films dealing with this subject so honestly.
This subtle faux-horror film came recommended by a Variety critic but it left me rather bored. It’s certainly shot opulently – successfully using the dank decrepitude of the Polish countryside that borders hollowed-out former industrial cities – but the “thrills” are so calculated and the atmosphere so heavy that I ended up feeling nothing much at all. I seem to be in the minority though.
✭✭ Lucky Miles
If I were to give an award to this rather ethically lazy immigrant comedy, directed by Aussie Michael James Rowland, it would be to the tolerance of the actors, who submitted their characters to being frequently infantilized and reduced. There’s a cable TV smugness given to the political context here, while not really offensive, I found merely pedestrian. This film did not move me. It did win a Special Jury Prize for Direction at KVIFF and it’s probably worth a look.
There’s a lot to admire in this Hungarian/Romanian, seemingly Gogol-inspired tragi-comedic farce: Daring shots created with an almost fisheye lens, performances by some of the regions most accomplished actors – including the incredible Piroska Molnár as the local madam and Adriano Giannini in the male lead role – detailed and impressive production design and sets, and scenes composed in deep purples and expressive greytones, creating a grudgingly knowable yet unfamiliar historical landscape. Most of the time, however, the socio-political references and cultural jokes were way over my head. I felt more confused than enlightened. Further, Hungarians, or at least Hungarian filmmakers, possess an unnatural gift for self-mockery and it’s displayed in abundance in Dolina. Its ubiquity just brought me down. Unlike last year’s brilliant, highly recommended and equally caustic Taxidermia, I could find very little common ground to make any sort of firm decision about this film one way or another. I wasn’t exactly bored; but, I wasn’t exactly engaged either. The Czech audience seemed to love it.
✭ The Tracey Fragments
I couldn’t help thinking that this mildly experimental feature would be more successful if it were less experimental. The leads were attractive, the set-up provocative; however, it’s marred by a very literal visual interpretation of the word, fragments: The frame is made of squares and rectangles of shots, creating a disjointed narrative that never really made much emotional sense for me. Given the general subject matter – basically teen angst and alienation – and the talent of the principals, I couldn’t figure out why the structure, almost always forced, was superimposed on this project. It felt like “Nikelodeon does Stan Brakhage,” without any real sense about why experimental filmmakers film like they do, or something like that. The soundtrack, featuring Peaches and the Fembots, as well as a wonderful use of Patti Smith’s Horses, covered by Elizabeth Powell, is the best thing about this movie. However, I can’t help but think that The Butchies and Le Tigre would have served, and enlivened, this movie more effectively.
■ Mister Lonely
I’m a big fan of director Harmony Korine’s first movie, the perverse and hilarious Gummo, and a grudging admirer of his second, Julien Donkey-Boy; but, his latest feature is so unctuously arch, and so artificial, that, when I wasn’t nodding off, I felt like running out of the theater. The premise itself is half-baked: A Michael-Jackson impersonator meets a Marilyn-Monroe impersonator on the streets of Paris and they move to a commune of, what else, celebrity impersonators. Despite the Felliniesque gloss Korine gives this underwritten material, nothing much happens after that, except a predictable yet utterly uncalled-for suicide. I was tempted to give this film one star for its opening and closing shots – the slow-motion crawl of the Michael Jackson impersonator on a mini-motor bike, a bobbing Bubbles puppet trailing behind him. It really has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the film, however, which is what makes it so distinctive, and the rest of the movie so depressing.
Finally, a special award, for the food at the fest. ✭✭✭ for the halušky. Marek concurs, and he’s Slovak.