From my perspective, a member of the ticket-buying public who also happens to teach film studies, this was the strongest CIFF in years. Of course, the opening night slot was again taken by a would-be prestige film with no real “awards season” prospects that was predictably dumped on us by a major studio (Stone) and one could always nitpick the absence of such major 2010 festival players as Carlos, Film Socialisme, Hahaha, Poetry, The Strange Case of Angelica, Mysteries of Lisbon, Another Year, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Road to Nowhere, etc. On the other hand, it was a major coup to land such heavyweight titles as Cannes winners Certified Copy, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and On Tour. Combine those films with Chicago premieres/gala screenings of genuinely anticipated titles like Black Swan, Tamara Drewe and Hereafter, not to mention a “Visionary Award” / Q&A session with a director who actually deserved the honor (Guillermo del Toro) and you have the recipe for a successful festival.
Unfortunately, I was able to only take in 8 screenings (out of over 100 available). I tried to diversify as much as possible by going with films by directors I admire (Uncle Boonmee, Certified Copy), recommendations from friends (Caterpillar, Heartbeats) as well as a few stabs in the dark based on catalogue descriptions (Shorts 4, Devil’s Town). The one screening I really regret missing is Tuesday, After Christmas, the latest buzzed-about film of the Romanian New Wave. But it wouldn’t be a proper festival experience without “the one that got away.” Here is a report card of my festival experience:
Certified Copy (Kiarostami, France/Italy/Iran)
Grade: A+ / 10
Who could’ve guessed that austere Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami would end up doing his best work by shooting a warm, gentle and wise comedy in Italy with French superstar Juliette Binoche? An English writer (opera singer William Shimell) and a French antique store owner (Binoche) meet at a lecture given by the former on the topic of his new book – the qualitative difference between original works of art and their reproductions; she invites him on a tour of a nearby Tuscan village, during which time they converse about life, love and art. Midway through the film, they begin to play-act that they are a married couple for the benefit of a café owner who is under that mistaken impression. Only the longer they carry on the act the more it seems as if they really are married and perhaps they were merely play-acting to be strangers in the beginning. I don’t know how “original” this brilliant cinematic sleight of hand is or how much it intentionally “reproduces” Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Bunuel in general (acknowledged most obviously by the presence of his longtime screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere). But I do know this film is a genuine masterpiece, one that haunted me for days. I can’t wait to see it again.
Cinema of the Americas’ Visionary Award – Tribute to Guillermo del Toro / The Devil’s Backbone
In receiving the festival’s Visionary Award, del Toro, a witty raconteur, regaled the capacity audience with tales of his adventures in filmmaking across Mexico, Spain and the U.S. and was abetted by surprise guest Ron “Hellboy” Perlman. The genuine affection between the two was touching to behold (Perlman’s deferred salary helped del Toro complete his first feature Cronos and del Toro repaid the favor years later by insisting against vociferous studio exec objections that only Perlman could play Hellboy). Both were even gracious enough to put in a little face time at the requisite “after party” held at a nearby nightclub. A rare screening of The Devil’s Backbone in 35mm was the icing on the cake; for me, the true highlight was watching del Toro kiss my star-struck wife on the cheek.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, Thailand)
Grade: A- / 8.9
A man searches the jungle for an elusive “monkey ghost” before sprouting hair and blazing red eyes and becoming one himself. A princess copulates with a talking catfish. An orange-robed Buddhist monk checks his cell phone. Welcome to the wonderful world of Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, the international face of Thai art cinema. Joe’s latest is a gentle, meditative fable about the titular character, dying of kidney disease, who not only can recall past lives but is also attended to by the ghosts of dead family members. God, it can be so refreshing to see a movie that does not aspire in the least to follow any sort of Hollywood-style narrative formula, especially when that movie is presided over by a director whose employment of image and sound is as masterful and poetic as this.
Heartbeats (Dolan, Canada)
Grade: B+ / 7.5
Francis and Marie are best friends. He’s gay and she’s straight. Their friendship is put to the test when they meet Nico, a handsome, seemingly bi-sexual Adonis-type who conforms to both of their romantic ideals. As a statement on young love today, this arty, candy-colored rom-com is funny, tender and very, very sweet. Derided in some circles as “style over substance,” I was only too happy to see a new movie packed with enough filmmaking smarts to fill half a dozen others. At just 22 years old, writer/director/actor Xavier Dolan is clearly someone to keep an eye on.
On Tour (Amalric, France)
Grade: B- / 6.6
Rumor has it that On Tour has yet to find a U.S. distributor due to expensive music rights so I was grateful to catch this at CIFF. The wonderful actor Mathieu Amalric directs and stars as Joachim, a formerly successful television producer who has since fallen on hard times and is forced to hustle a living by producing a traveling burlesque show. A genuine sense of warmth develops between Joachim and the American burlesque performers (all real dancers playing themselves) as he shuttles them along the coast of France, booking venues and hotel rooms by the seat of his pants. However, this unfocused ramble doesn’t quite achieve the depth of characterization of its obvious model, John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and one suspects that Amalric’s Best Director win at Cannes was possible only because he also plays a director-type character in front of the camera. Still, Amalric is fun to watch as a variation on his usual fuck-up character and the dance routines are magnificent.
Caterpillar (Wakamatsu, Japan)
Grade: C / 6.3
An odd, genuinely disturbing Japanese drama about a soldier returning home to a small village after losing both his arms and legs in WWII. He attempts to assuage his anguished memories of rape and murder through overindulging in food and sex and ironically finds himself pronounced a “living war God” by the local villagers. I didn’t quite know what to make of this film; as a statement about how war dehumanizes everyone it touches, it’s undeniably effective. But there’s also a pointed lack of humor as well as the kind of sociological insights that a director like Imamura would’ve brought to the table. In fact, Imamura’s great final film (the short, cryptic Japan), accomplishes much more in the span of just a few minutes.
Shorts Program 4: Together Apart (Various directors and countries)
As with all “shorts programs” these days, this was the usual international mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly, with everything being shot on video. The one obvious standout was White Lines and the Fever: The Death of DJ Junebug, a terrific documentary about a curiously under-documented era: the Bronx in the early days of hip-hop. Let’s hope director Travis Senger is able to turn it into a feature.
Devil’s Town (Paskaljevic, Serbia)
Grade: D / 4.1
A wannabe Altmanesque comedy about the crisscrossing lives of a dozen or so citizens of Belgrade over the course of one long day. I’m sure this was intended to be some sort of dark social satire but I was repulsed by the lightness that writer/director Vladimir Paskaljevic made of rape, cruelty to animals, violence towards women, child abuse and pedophilia. The sooner I forget this movie the better, a sentiment with which I’m sure Serbia’s Board of Tourism would readily agree.