Pass the popcorn

As much as I enjoy movies I’ve never really done the whole film festival thing. I’ve seen movies at the San Francisco International Film Festival, but I’ve never made a festival a destination or sat down and watched multiple movies a day for days on end. That was until last week when I went to the Palm Springs International Film Festival and saw 26 movies over eight and a half days. There were people there who saw more, but I feel like roughly three movies a day is the right amount. Any more than that and I imagine they all start to run together. The bulk of the films I saw were their country’s submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were the best film that country has to offer. The system is notoriously political. Each country has a governing body that is allowed to submit one film for Oscar consideration. This year 65 countries submitted films. Of those 65, nine have just been announced as the short list (six from Academy voters, three from the Academy’s Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee). The list is cut down further by committees in New York and Los Angeles to the final five nominees. All of which is to say that at each step in the process there’s a good chance a film you like isn’t going to make the cut. Controversy is common, though this year various pundits have said that there aren’t any glaring omissions. I have a quibble about one of the inclusions, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Overall, I was a good experience, while I didn’t see any films that just blew me away, I saw a lot of good films. I’ve listed them below in levels of “good” and a brief comment. Within each level of good I’ve listed them in descending goodness. Of course, all of this is subjective and it’s hard to compare films that are trying to do different things. I could probably come up with a dozen different lists based on different criteria.

VERY GOOD

Breathless (South Korea)
The cycle of brutality is vividly realized in the debut feature of writer, director, producer and star Yang Ik-june. Though not as extreme, fans of Chan-wook Park’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy should enjoy this nuanced portrayal of the life of a small time thug and those left in his wake.

Air Doll (Japan)
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life, Nobody Knows) puts a intricately intertwined spin on the sexual surrogate love story by bringing an air doll to life and having her afflicted with the human condition. How do people deal with loneliness, find a connection with another human being, or try to find another way to fill the void?

Mother (South Korea) Oscar Submission
How far will a mother go when her son is accused of murder? Pretty far according to Bong Joon-Ho in his feature follow up to the pleasing b-monster-movie fun of The Host. A fabulous performance by Kim Hye-ja in the title role.

The White Ribbon (Germany) Oscar Submission
Small town life is never as idyllic as it seems. While director Michael Haneke’s film is in black and white, the topics it’s dealing with aren’t as finely delineated. Set in an agrarian community in the run up to WWI Haneke is asking questions about what conditions prepare the ground for post-war Fascism. Just don’t expect any answers.

QUITE GOOD

Letters to Father Jacob (Finland) Oscar Submission
Using a limited number of locations and actors, director Klaus Härö tells the story of an ex-con working for a blind priest with quiet assurance. The two main actors give great performances.

Sergio (USA) Oscar Feature Documentary Short List
The heart breaking story of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the head of the UN mission in Iraq, who died in a bombing of the UN headquarters. The film cuts back and forth between the rescue attempt and Sergio’s life, but is a bit too one-sided in lionizing its subject to be a truly great film. It touches on the fact that he was a bit of a womanizer and mentions his first wife and children, but doesn’t get their perspective on him.

I Killed My Mother (Canada) Oscar Submission
A bit self involved, but what else would you expect from a film written, directed and starring a teenager? In fact, only a teenager could have made this film and had it feel as real as it does. Based on his own explosive relationship with his mother Xavier Dolan and Anne Dorval, who plays his mother, battle it out with gusto. It’ll be interesting to see what his next project is.

A Bad Day to Go Fishing (Uruguay) Oscar Submission
A delightful tale of two men clinging to the margins that has the feeling of a fable. A former world champion wrestler and man claiming to be European royalty land in a small town and set about to make some money putting on an exhibition bout against local talent. Things don’t go as planned. Beautifully shot by Álvaro Gutiérrez.

Reykjavik-Rotterdam (Iceland) Oscar Submission
Sometimes it’s nice just to watch a good caper movie. An ex-con looks to do one last smuggling job to help his wife’s brother and to improve his own family’s circumstances.

Kelin (Kazakhstan) Oscar Submission
A foreign movie where I didn’t have to read any subtitles because there was no dialogue. Even without dialogue, this simple story of the life of a young bride on the steppe in the second century CE is easy to follow. As you would expect from a film without words (but not sound), the visuals are quite good and winter in the steppe looks daunting.

GOOD

Terribly Happy (Denmark) Oscar Submission
One of the themes of the festival (other than “don’t mess with mom”) was “bad things happen in small towns.” In this film a city cop gets reassigned to a town in the boondocks and has to deal with things hidden there and within himself.

Max Manus (Norway) Oscar Submission
A fairly standard, but well crafted war movie centered on the efforts of the Norwegian resistance during WWII and particularly, Max Manus.

Merantau (Indonesia)
This movie may be a bit high on the list for its actual quality, but I saw it near the end of the festival when it was nice to take a break from all the serious films to see a genre film. The focus of this particular genre film was the Indonesian martial art silat with some solid fight scenes.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (USA) Oscar Feature Documentary Short List
Well-crafted and interesting, especially in comparison to the run up to the war in Iraq.

Milk of Sorrow (Peru) Oscar Submission
With a touch of magical realism, director Claudia Llosa tells the personal story of Fausta as she tries to keep herself from being taken advantage of and the larger story of a generation of children of women raped in the turbulent 1970s.

Backyard (Mexico) Oscar Submission
A fairly standard police procedural enhanced by being set in Juarez, Mexico and focusing on a female detective investigating violence against women. Throw in corrupt government and uncaring multinational corporations to round out the mix.

Samson & Delilah (Australia) Oscar Submission
The monotony of life in central Australia runs off the rails for two Aboriginal teens. Played by non-actors with minimal dialogue this “love story” was beautifully shot, but I couldn’t help but wonder why the female lead stuck with Samson. He was a mess.

Garbage Dreams (USA) Oscar Feature Documentary Short List
The story of three young men growing up in the Coptic Christian community in Egypt that makes a living from collecting trash. As engaging as some of the subjects of this film were I just wished it could have been better somehow.

NOT QUITE GOOD

Reverse (Poland) Oscar Submission
Well-acted story set in Warsaw of the 1950s and present. A grandmother, mother, and daughter struggle to find a husband for the daughter. Ultimately unsatisfying.

For a Moment, Freedom (Austria) Oscar Submission
You would think that the story of Iranian families escaping to Turkey and dealing with the unexpected conditions there would be a compelling story, but it seemed like the film maker tried to cram too much into this movie.

Nobody to Watch Over Me (Japan) Oscar Submission
Felt like a series of tv dramas strung together. The premise was intriguing, just overly melodramatic and not very well executed.

Only When I Dance (UK/Brazil)
Great subjects. Uninspired film-making.

Baaria (Italy) Oscar Submission
I expected more from the director of Cinema Paradiso, but the best I can say about this film was that it was a visually appealing mess. And at 150 minutes, way too long.

NOT GOOD

The World is Big and Salvation Lies Around the Corner (Bulgaria) Oscar Submission
For me this was the biggest disappointment of the festival. There was a lot of buzz about it and it ended up as one of the “best of the fest”, but I found it completely predictable and uninteresting. There wasn’t anything special about the cinematography either. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I seem to be in the minority thought as it ended up making the short list of nine films for the Oscars.

Dawson, Island 10 (Chile) Oscar Submission
This film seemed to be stuck between the narrative and the poetic and failed at both which is too bad because the story of deposed Allende government officials being sent to a concentration camp on an island in Southern Chile is a story I want to know more about.

Grandfather is Dead (Philippines) Oscar Submission
I’m thinking this one was culture specific. A broad comedy that the Philippino audience members seemed to enjoy. I couldn’t get past the poor production values and on screen histrionics.

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