Welcome to the Larry411.com Guest Columnists! April 27, 2013
In my travels to the best film festivals in…
The action-packed 29th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival has come to an exciting conclusion and I've returned home from The Golden State to take stock of my whirlwind week in stunning Santa Barbara. As usual, I used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Foursquare to cover the festivities live and post capsule reviews of all the movies I saw. Hopefully you followed along and were able to join me in experiencing the events in real time.
The first time I headed west to this hybrid college town/upscale California community was way back in 2007. While other festivals change and grow, morph into monsters or collapse into shells of their former selves, SBIFF has remained essentially what it was then -- friendly, manageable, and compact enough that one can easily see six films a day without running from theater to theater. All this while shopping and dining within steps of the main venues. Santa Barbara is a walkable town -- no shuttle buses are needed here -- and accommodations are affordable, convenient, and plentiful. The airport has grown a bit -- they have actual jetways now (I walked the tarmac back then) -- and is accessible by many major airlines, situated just a few miles from town.
The quality of this year's lineup was truly extraordinary, resulting in one of the most memorable cinematic experiences I've had in the nearly nine years I've been covering film festivals. SBIFF 2014 wowed me from the very first screening, so it's a formidable challenge for me to narrow down my favorites to just a few. But, as I do following every festival (68 since the start of 2006), this wrapup will conclude with my list (actually lists -- more about that later) of Top Picks.
First, some statistics. I attended a total of 31 screenings in five and a half days, including six on three days, five on one, and four on another. Those 31 movies included four documentaries. Therefore, the total number of narrative features was 27. Most notably, my 31 films consisted of only 10 American productions (including one US/foreign title) and a whopping 21 non-US titles -- a full two-thirds of my schedule. These included 18 foreign language films (subtitled or partially subtitled), over half the total number of features I saw. Those "sweet little American indies" -- low budget, undistributed US films that often dominate my festival calendars -- were less prevalent here. In my lineup of 31 screenings there were only seven films that fit that description.
As mentioned above, only nine of my 31 features were exclusively American while there was one US/foreign co-production, the opening night doc Mission Blue, produced with financing from Bermuda and Ecuador. Many countries were represented on my schedule. The 21 titles exclusively from outside the US included two each from Canada, Spain, and South Korea, along with one each from Austria, Cuba, France, Israel, Palestinian Territories, Singapore, and the UK. Co-productions included Canada/India, France/Italy, Germany/Norway, Israel/France, Ecuador/Argentina/Canada, France/Israel/Bulgaria, Guatemala/Spain/Mexico, and Uruguay/Venezuela/Argentina.
I’ve always loved foreign films, but I became truly enamored with contemporary world cinema after my first Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Since then, whenever the inevitable conversation comes up about favorites, I never hesitate to label SBIFF as a top fest for foreign film fans. It’s where I first fell in love with subtitles. This year over half the screenings I attended were in other languages. 18 of my 31 features were at least partially subtitled, including two with Canadian funding -- Siddharth was a Canada/India co-production set and shot in India. Saudade was a co-production of Ecuador, Argentina, and Canada, set and shot in Quito, Ecuador.
A big reason to attend festivals is to be among the first in the world to see a movie. Despite being a large regional fest, my 31 titles included nine World Premieres and 11 U.S. Premieres. The rest were highly acclaimed pictures which had been garnering awards on the circuit, including many I’d missed at festivals I’d attended, and was thrilled to see at SBIFF. These included France’s For a Woman (Pour un femme), La Jaula de Oro (The Golden Dream), Blue Jasmine from Woody Allen, South Korea’s Cold Eyes (Gam-si-ja-deul), The Past (Le passé), Two Lives (Zwei Leben), Siddharth from Richie Mehta, the Palestinian award-winner Omar, Cuba’s Sombras de Azul (Shades of Blue), Singapore’s Ilo Ilo, and the biopic Victor Young Perez.
One thing that festivals offer over traditional cinemas is an exciting and informative Q&A session with the cast and filmmakers afterward. Much like the previous statistical categories, these were about split down the middle, as well. 16 of my 31 screenings had Q&As while 15 did not. But this is easily explained. As stated previously, about two-thirds of my films were World or U.S. Premieres (which tended to feature Q&As) while the rest were primarily “older” favorites which had been winning accolades around the world. The non-Q&A films tended to be those from overseas which had played a number of previous festivals along with foreign films making their U.S. debuts. Finally, it should be noted that, at most festivals, movies usually have at least two showings and Q&As traditionally wane with successive ones. Of the 18 first showings I attended, 10 had Q&As while eight did not. Of my 10 second screenings, the ratio was six Q&As to four without. None of my three third screenings had a Q&A. Looking at premiere status, all nine World Premieres had a Q&A while the Q&A count for my 11 U.S. Premieres was three to eight (again, most were from overseas). However, of my 11 “non-premiere status” films, four did have Q&As and all were from other countries – kudos to Georg Maas, who flew over from Germany for Two Lives, Richie Mehta of Siddharth, Kelly Daniela Norris for Sombras de Azul, and Andrew Douglas, who came in from the UK for uwantme2killhim?
Every year fewer and fewer films are actually, well, films. Or at least not shot on film stock. It wasn't that long ago when digital cinematography, primarily utilizing the RED camera, was a curiosity. This is now becoming the norm, while the Arri Alexa system is rapidly taking its place alongside the ubiquitous RED ONE (and newer EPIC) as digital camera of choice. This also allows many movies to be projected in the 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio ("scope") as opposed to the common 1.85:1 ("flat") which was the traditional format for domestic indies and foreign films featured at festivals. I used to mark "scope" in my notebook next to those titles, which were few and far between. Lately I've been noting the rare "flat" where it appeared since the overwhelming majority of narratives are being exhibited in the 2.39:1 widescreen ratio. But that trend was reversed at SBIFF 2014 where there was a near 50/50 split. 15 of my 31 titles were in the widescreen format while 16 were 1.85:1. Only 11 of my 21 non-US titles were in the traditional 1.85:1 aspect ratio typically seen in international cinema in the past. As was the case at most of this year’s festivals, there were several near-monochromatic films, almost black and white, and a handful with very little dialogue. I don't know if these examples signal a trend but it's nice to see old school techniques aren't dead.
The lost art of the opening title sequence is still, well, lost, as only three of my 31 movies kicked off the old-fashioned way. The French production For a Woman (Pour un femme), Israel’s Cupcakes (Bananot), and Blue Jasmine, from Woody Allen (see it here), all had notable opening graphics with an extensive title sequence. Of the other 28, five had a few credits or just the title before the action begins, two opened cold with no credits or title at all, and six had credits superimposed over the first scene. The remaining 15 launch cold into a prologue followed by credits or just the title, clearly the film opening style of choice. Fortunately, fewer films are resorting to conventions like the "opening overhead bed shot," car scene, and/or voiceover narration. The few times these were used I felt they were necessary.
Before I select my Top Picks, a few observations about the direction film festival lineups have taken in recent years and where we may be headed. One of the curious and, occasionally, most frustrating consequences of attending multiple films back-to-back is coming across trends which may or may not have been as apparent if not for the quick succession of these themes. Perhaps it's because I see so many low budget narratives at festivals, causing conventions and romantic comedy tropes to become tiresome, but I find myself tuning out a lot sooner than I used to. Here's a template for an indie trying to be mainstream: Begin with voiceover describing every character. For example, "This is my sister Bonnie. She broke up with her husband over a bad meatloaf. This is her girlfriend Kate. Kate likes to walk around the house with nothing on but a clown nose..." Make sure one of the first scenes is an overhead shot of the protagonist(s) in bed. If the first shot isn't a bed it's a car. At some point, have the leads say, "I have something to say." "No, I have something to say." "Okay, you first." "No, you first." Unless there’s a very good reason for it, clichés like this will take me right out of the movie.
While death and issues surrounding grief are not uncommon topics, I first noticed this plot trend in 2009 when my favorites from Sundance (The Greatest) and Tribeca (Accidents Happen) both involved families grieving over the loss of a child and how parents and siblings come to cope with these tragedies. At one festival I saw six films centered on fathers dying of smoking-related illnesses. Three of these opened with a shot of a man lying in bed hooked up to tubes, coughing his lungs up. One movie opened with a young girl asking her mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" The very next one opened with a young boy asking his mother, "Mommy, is daddy going to die?" I had an equally surreal experience at a recent Sundance. The first six pictures I saw all dealt with death. The first five of these included death and guns. Two involved death, guns, and suicide. One juggled themes of death, guns, and homophobia. And one had death, guns, suicide, and homophobia (the very first one I saw). I found myself walking into theaters saying, "Please don't let this be about death..." It wasn't until my seventh screening that I finally found a film without any of these four themes. But my very last movie there was, like the first one, about death, guns, suicide, and homophobia.
What's been the trend on the circuit this past year? Sundance 2013 went down in the books as "Porndance," as the week was filled with tales of love, lust, and sex bordering on soft pornography. Issues surrounding mental illness are now in vogue and the focus of many recent festival favorites (which I won't mention here as just naming them could be spoilers). But grief and death are back as major plot points, playing a prominent role in more than half of my 37 selections at SXSW 2013. At Palm Beach 2013 a whopping 17 of 27 films featured issues surrounding grief and death as significant storylines. At Toronto 2013, despite avoiding synopses and trailers, I somehow ended up picking a number of selections dealing with death, guns, and suicide again. I saw four films in four days that included someone thinking of jumping off a bridge or cliff (or actually doing it). The father-son relationship was also prominent on my schedule, although that's understandable given that many festival films are by male first-time directors. Remember, "write what you know." Yet almost half the films I saw were directed by women. Who says there aren't enough female filmmakers? There are more and more every year.
I went straight from Toronto to Austin, Texas for Fantastic Fest, a genre festival whose focus is on the crazy, twisted, and macabre to begin with. Those dark themes involving death, guns, grief, and mental illness are almost prerequisites for a film to be booked there. I had two films in a row which opened with a hanging. Fort Lauderdale 2013 was also dominated by pictures dealing with death, guns, and suicide. Grief and mental illness are becoming ubiquitous as plot points. And morbidity isn't dead. The overwhelming majority of the films I saw had death as a major storyline.
But festivals are still dominated by relationship dramas, and Santa Barbara was a perfect example. Even the most horrific films had touches of humor, mirroring real life which, for me, is one of the definitions of an indie. Whether comedic drama or dramatic comedy (sort of like partly cloudy and mostly sunny -- I never could tell the difference) my favorites made me laugh and cry, often within the same scene. That's the power of cinema.
On to the Top Picks selection. With two-thirds of my SBIFF 2014 titles coming from other countries, I'm going to divide up my favorites into two categories. Subtitled films primarily in a foreign language can be clearly defined, in the same way as the Motion Picture Academy has an award for “Best Foreign Language Film” (as opposed to “Best Foreign Film”). Therefore, I’ll be posting Top Picks for English Language Features, which include American as well as non-US productions from Canada and the UK (13 eligible), and Foreign Language Features (18 eligible).
Despite the wide selection of titles, and the fact that this is more of a large regional festival, there were only about a dozen disappointments for me out of the 31 films I saw. Most met or exceeded expectations and there were at least a dozen pleasant surprises. So please keep in mind that even the "worst" ones on my schedule here could, theoretically, be among the best at other festivals, and would make my Top Picks from those respective fests. Just because you don't see a title listed below doesn't mean I didn't love it.
I've narrowed the list down to my Top Picks using a one through five rating scale. Among the English Language Features, no films deserved only one star (avoid at all costs) and I gave two stars (not recommended) to just one film. Four films merited a three (recommended). There were three with a rating of four stars -- ones I'd not only recommend but also would see again. That leaves the cream of the crop, the five films that merited five stars -- films I'd recommend, see again, and add to my DVD collection. So those five make up my Top Picks.
Among the Foreign Language Features, like the English ones, no films deserved only one star and I gave two stars to only one film. That means 17 of 18 got a “recommended” or higher rating. That ratio of 17 to one shows the strength of this year’s international cinema lineup. Five films merited a three and there were five which I rated four stars. That leaves seven films in the five star category, which make up my Foreign Language Top Picks.
Here are my lists of Top Picks from the 2014 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Titles link to the film's page at the SBIFF official site or capsule reviews and Q&A photos, where available. Countries of origin are listed in parentheses. Many of my choices have been honored with awards, as indicated below. I've also named my favorite of the four documentaries and listed seven Honorable Mentions -- the four-star films which were "on the bubble."
TOP ENGLISH LANGUAGE FILMS – (in alphabetical order)
BFFs (USA) -- Director Andrew Putschoegl received a Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema nomination from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It was also selected for the Narrative Feature Competition at the Palm Beach International Film Festival in April.
Falcon Song (USA) -- As I mentioned above, my schedule this year (not necessarily by choice) had very few of the "sweet little American indies" I crave at festivals. Not only is this one of them, but Jason Brown's 1980s throwback is an homage to many of the movies which helped inform the style of today's independent films. The Montana-set tale, full of subtle dialogue and fleeting retro references, demands a second viewing. That alone bumps it up a notch on the scale. It had a limited theatrical release shortly after the festival. As of May 23rd it's available On Demand via most VOD outlets.
Menthol (USA) -- Besides the Santa Barbara and Palm Beach International Film Festivals, Micah Van Hove's film played the Brooklyn Film Festival and was selected for the International Competition at the Sofia International Film Festival.
Night Has Settled (USA) -- Director Steve Clark received a Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema nomination from the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. It also played the Palm Beach International Film Festival. At the SoHo International Film Festival, the film won both the Grand Jury Award and the Festival Prize for Best Showcase Feature Film.
uwantme2killhim? (UK) -- Back in 2003, 14-year-old "John" (played by Toby Regbo) and 16-year-old "Mark" (Jamie Blackley) made UK crime history (which says a lot in itself). Their horrific story, widely circulated in the British press in the mid '00s, eventually made its way into the hands of writer Judy Bachrach and a 2005 Vanity Fair magazine article. Transforming that magazine article into a movie script began shortly afterward by writer Mike Walden. Bryan Singer was brought on to direct the project. After a series of delays, he ended up producing it with Executive Producers Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and Andrew Douglas was brought on to direct. It debuted at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June, 2013, where stars Blackley and Regbo shared the award for Best Performance. -- See my non-spoiler capsule review, Q&A photos, and trailers
TOP FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILMS – (in alphabetical order)
15 Years + 1 Day (15 años y un día) (Spain) -- This moving coming of age story was Spain's submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Oscars. One of that country's most honored films of the year, 15 años y un día picked up seven nominations at the 2014 Goya Awards (Spain's Oscar equivalent) and six at Spain's Cinema Writers Circle Awards. It won the Golden Biznaga for Best Film and the Silver Biznaga for Best Screenplay at the Málaga Spanish Film Festival. The Spanish Actors Union honored Belén López with the award for Best Supporting Female.
God's Slave (Esclavo de dios) (Uruguay, Venezuela, Argentina) -- SBIFF awarded God's Slave The Nueva Vision Award for the best Spanish/Latin American film. It was selected for the Narrative Feature Competition at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize for Excellence in the Art of Filmmaking. It also won both the Audience Award and Best First Work Award at the Lleida Latin-American Film Festival. At the Huelva Latin American Film Festival, director Joel Novoa won the Prize of the City of Huelva while writers Fernando Butazzoni and Joel Novoa won the Manuel Barba Award for Best Screenplay
Ilo Ilo (Singapore) -- Director Anthony Chen and cast have 21 wins and 10 nominations worldwide from festivals and other industry groups. These include the Golden Camera Award from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the Asian Film Award for Best Supporting Actress to Yann Yann Yeo, and the Sutherland Trophy from the British Film Institute. In its presentation, the BFI remarked, "The startlingly assured direction and screenwriting of the winning film surprised us all. Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo also chose a domestic canvas, but the imaginative and innovative voice of this filmmaker elevated the film technically and narratively, and made us wonder at the fragile nature of family life in this modern Singapore tale."
La Jaula de Oro (The Golden Dream) (Guatemala, Spain, Mexico) -- The film has been honored with 19 wins and seven nominations. These include two prizes from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival: Un Certain Regard - A Certain Talent Prize for the ensemble and the François Chalais Award - Special Mention to director Diego Quemada-Díez. In its presentation, the festival cited the film "For the strength of the visual aspect, the violence of truth and the emotional intensity of the tragic story of the journey of three teenagers from Guatemala to the American dream." Other festivals presenting the film with major awards include Bombay, Giffoni, Havana, Lima Latin American, Mar del Plata, São Paulo, Tallinn Black Nights, Thessaloniki, and Zurich. It also received a prestigious Goya Award nomination for Best Iberoamerican Film.
Omar (Palestinian Territories) -- At the 2014 Academy Awards, Omar received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It won Best Film at the 2013 Asia Pacific Screen Awards and was nominated for Achievement in Cinematography (Ehab Assal) and Best Performance by an Actor (Adam Bakri. Director Hany Abu-Assad won Un Certain Regard - Special Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. The film also won or received nomination from festivals around the world, including AFI Fest, Dubai, Ghent, New York, and Palm Springs.
Siddharth (Canada, India) -- The film was nominated for three Canadian Screen Awards at the Genie Awards, including Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Rajesh Tailang, Achievement in Overall Sound, and Original Screenplay. Writer/director Richie Mehta won the SIGNIS Award - Special Mention from the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Victor Young Perez (France, Israel, Bulgaria) -- In addition to its nomination for Best International Feature here at Santa Barbara, the film received a nomination for the International Jury Award for Best Feature Film from the São Paulo International Film Festival.
I also want to give a special mention to A Year in Champagne as the best of the four documentaries I saw. It was one of five films which accepeted my invitation to screen at the Palm Beach International Film Festival in April (where I'm Artistic Director), along with BFFs, Menthol, Night Has Settled, and God's Slave. In addition, I'd like to single out Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine. While it was one of my favorite films at SBIFF, it had already been released in theaters in 2013. Therefore, it doesn't really fit the definition of a festival Top Pick, a designation which I generally reserve for films either without distribution or those which have yet to be released. It does live up to the hype, though. Not long after PBIFF ended, Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role at the 2014 Academy Awards. Sally Hawkins was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Woody Allen received a Best Original Screenplay nomination. Blanchett also won the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama, the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead, the Critics Choice Award for Best Actress from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the BAFTA Film Award for Best Leading Actress, and the SAG Award for Best Actress from the Screen Actors Guild. In total, the film received 38 wins and 45 nominations from various critics' groups and industry organizations.
HONORABLE MENTIONS -- (in alphabetical order)
Cupcakes (Bananot) (Israel, France)
For a Woman (Pour un femmes) (France)
The Grand Seduction (Canada)
The Past (Le passé) (France, Italy)
Saudade (Ecuador, Argentina, Canada)
Two Lives (Zwei Leben) (Germany, Norway)
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In my travels to the best film festivals in…