For this year's San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54), I have yet to go on a screener binge—that starts later today—so I'll be attending festival screenings and, I hope, have more to say in a few days. I did manage to see four of the films at Palm Springs in January, attend some press screenings last week, and don't feel inhibited from praising the two for which I wrote catalogue notes. So here goes, from the least to the best.
Mike Mills's Beginners fits the Opening Night slot perfectly. It has big-name actors (Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer) and "addresses" big subjects like fathers coming out of the closet only to be diagnosed with a terminal disease. At the same time it displays traits of the indie film like pensive voiceovers ("This is the sun in 2003. This is the sun in 1955"), cutesy drawings ("The History of Sadness") and a subtitled Jack Russell terrier. Overall these mock-cheery devices can't surmount the mopey gloom of its younger protagonist, and the film's subtly condescending attitude toward gays reflects that of the resentful son before, and not after, his reconciliation.
I have to admit that I didn't take notes during my Palm Springs viewings of Life, Above All and The Light Thief. But I remember coming away a bit let down by both. Each is a humanist celebration of the individualistic spirit against forces of intolerance or greedy developers. Life, Above All (Oliver Schmitz), Best Foreign Film Oscar® nominee, is about a young South African girl determined to care for her AIDS-infected mother despite social ostracism, and The Light Thief is the moniker of a Kyrgyz man (played by director Aktan Arym Kubat) risking electrocution to steal juice for his fellow villagers. Powerful performances by the principals always trump a predictable plot, and the triumph of the human spirit always makes up for the harsh miserabilism we've had to witness. Black Bread (Agustí Villaronga) shares Fascist villain Sergi López with Guillermo Del Toro's more surreal Pan's Labyrinth, as well as a child protagonist facing evil Franco nationalists in a post-Civil War Catalan forest. The newer film is darker and more austere than its predecessor because the boy has no fantasy universe to flee to when the real world becomes too cruel.
Incendies was more than just disappointing—it even angered me a little. Canadian Denis Villeneuve's Polytechnique, about the 1989 Montreal university massacre of 14 women, was one of my favorite films of 2009, so I eagerly anticipated his next, which was nominated for a 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar®. Incendies' plot involves a young woman fulfilling her late mother's will, which stipulates delivery of letters to a father she didn't know was still alive and another brother she didn't know existed. First she has to travel to an unnamed Middle Eastern country (Jordan doubling for Lebanon) to discover the secret of her mother's past. The difficulty of learning the truth is compounded by her not knowing Arabic, a problem that is usually tossed aside in more facile films. The daughter revisits key locations in her mother's life and, later joined by her twin brother and their notary, uncovers a shattering revelation that explains her mother's final wish.
What I liked about Polytechnique is that it didn't try to explain the motives of a young man who would target so many women for termination. What I didn't like about Incendies was its over-explanation and plot contrivance. It strained unnecessarily for Greek-tragic significance in showing the senselessness of religious conflict, and I could see the stretch marks too easily.
Yves Saint Laurent L'Amour Fou (Pierre Thoretton) tells the life and career of the French couturier from the point of view of his husband and business partner of 50 years, Pierre Bergé. Like Bergé, the film is haughty and tightly controlled with occasional bursts of color and emotion. The designer remains the pathologically shy, mysterious enigma who brilliantly succeeded Christian Dior in his early 20s and led haute couture into the middle class despite personal demons and substance abuse. A major tranche of the documentary involves the 2008 sale of the couple's art collection, which allows us peeks into several of their palatial residences, including one containing rooms devoted to the characters in Proust's novels.
The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi) explores the role that cell-phone cameras, Twitter feeds and blogging played in the days before and after the 2009 election campaign in Iran, when the rigged re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad triggered a youthful populist anger that exploded in massive street revolts. Young people who had idealistically gotten out the vote now documented paramilitary-squad beatings and shootings by the minute, witnessing a revolution that failed but always threatens to return. It's an exciting combination of traditional documentary, animation and street dispatches that put the viewer in the middle of history.
Unhappily, I dozed through bits of Göran Hugo Olsson's Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, which may be why I thought the film was disjointed. But a better reason in its favor is that the documentary is made up of segments from Swedish television reportage, whose cumulative effect is to show us what American mainstream media was never willing to reveal: the intellectual foundations of the Black Power movement. The occasional naïveté of the Scandinavian journalists even enhances the material, forcing us to look at domestic activists in a new and more respectful way. The opening footage of Stokely Carmichael speaking on nonviolence, and then interviewing his mother to extract the desired answers, are particular highlights. They're cause for regret that our own national discourse didn't allow for thinkers like Carmichael and Angela Davis, even today, to speak for themselves.
The South Korean End of Animal (Jo Sung-hee), whose title I still don't understand (a dog does figure in the plot), remains terribly gripping in my memory even though I saw it on screener. A slight letdown at the end doesn't erase the intense suspense of earlier scenes in which we wait along with the heavily pregnant teenage heroine for the repercussions of some kind of apocalypse. We're inclined, as in any ordinary horror film, to yell "Stay in the car!" at her, but the consequence of her wanderings steers us away from our expectations like a map that tells lies.
Also against my expectations—how could a road trip with two middle-aged guys eating at English country inns be funny?—Michael Winterbottom's The Trip had me howling with laughter all the way through. I treated the unsatirical presentation of trendy cuisine, and the fairly unfunny cell-phone conversations they have with their womenfolk, as brief breaks so I could catch my breath. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's competitive impressions of Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins and especially an irate Michael Caine are hilarious, yet at the same time show how solipsistic and anachronistic the men sound to the younger women they think they're entertaining. As Steve Seid says it may be "a foodie version of Sideways," but this one is drier, subtler and feels no need for a pat resolution.
Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams is probably the only 3-D film you need to watch this year. The postscript involving mutant albino alligator doppelgangers is a bit forced even for Herzog, but it only comes at the end of an enthralling exploration of hitherto unseen art that will change your notion of humans who painted on cave walls over 30,000 years ago. The images of woolly mammoths, cave lions, rhinos, horses, bulls and a woman's torso among the lovely formations of the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc caves of southern France evoke a romanticism and modernism that Herzog thinks must have existed in the minds of our prehistoric ancestors. The 3-D feels exactly right for the subject—it follows the convex contours of the art and helps extend the filmic space in claustrophobic interiors—and Herzog does have occasional fun with the technology, but not as a special effect.
Finally, Le Quattro Volte (Michelangelo Frammartino) is an ineffable journey through the elements, an allegory of reincarnation in a rural Italian landscape that will evoke wonder for the viewer who isn’t expecting a call or needs to get to another screening real soon. It may even have the power to banish those thoughts in a simple story of an old man, his irritable dog, his goats, his snails and the tree that towers over them all. I loved this film and will carry the memory of it through the seasons.
Cross-published on Twitch.