By Robin E. Simmons
The just-ended 25th edition of our wonderful winter film fest was for me the best ever selection of eclectic world films. The only problem for a shameless film addict was the impossibility of seeing everything. This year, we picked random titles, knowing nearly nothing — we avoided catalog descriptions — about the films themselves. It’s far more fun seeing films cold, as it were. We were lucky to catch some remarkable movies. Following are a few of the films that made the strongest impressions and are worth finding when they come to a theater, Netflix or retail shelves.
THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN
Felix Van Groeningen’s latest feature was shortlisted for the best foreign language Oscar. Based on the hit play of the same name and set in Belgium, it’s the story of the marriage between a tattoo artist and a bluegrass musician who connect over a shared enthusiasm for American music and culture. They dive headfirst into a sweeping romance, but when an unexpected tragedy hits their new family, everything they know and love is tested. A seductive bluegrass score weaves together old and newly written tunes, lively and sad, that deepens the understanding of the characters’ inner lives. (The score is the best-selling soundtrack of all time in Belgium!)
OF HORSES AND MEN
Set in Iceland, this country romance about the human streak in the horse and the horse in the human is an affectionate, unflinching portrait of a remote valley community as seen from the horses’ perspective. Director Benedikt Erlingsson’s beautiful film is punctuated with humor and pathos. It’s also a story where love and death are interlaced with immense, unforeseen, consequences. Just like in life.
Erlingsson said, ”This is a story about horses and men. It is important to state that no horses were hurt in the making of this film. The entire cast and crew are horse owners and horse lovers.” And it shows in every frame in which these magnificent beasts appear.
THE GALAPAGOS AFFAIR: SATAN CAME TO EDEN
Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller’s murder-mystery documentary takes place in the Galapagos Islands during the 1930s. The film features evocative voice work by Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger and Gustaf Skarsgard among others. The doc follows a few eccentric, visionary individuals who settled on the remote island seeking their own distinct and sometimes clashing notions of Eden. Great vintage film and photographs add immensely to the increasingly disturbing story of human behavior stripped down to our basic and basest elements.
YOUNG AND BEAUTIFUL
Writer director Francois Ozon’s frank, non-judgmental, look at teen prostitution in Paris is as cool and detached as Marine Vacth, the former model who plays the young woman with an assured confidence and innocence that is gripping, unsettling and heartbreaking. The casual, necessary nudity and sexual encounters are shot with an honest, non-exploitive eye that only creates more tension and concern. This decidedly French film plays with ideas and images that touch our collective culture in uncommon ways. But it’s Vacth’s remote, somber, inward-directed personae you will most remember. She is a child of our time.
MY SWEET PEPPER LAND
The packed audience we saw this with loved it. Set in Kurdistan, an exotic border region in a distant corner of the world we rarely see on or off screen, Hiner Saleem’s film reboots classic western cinema tropes but with volatile regional, ethnic and religious specifics. All the actors have chemistry not only with each other but the story and especially the landscape. The lead actors are fresh and perfectly cast. Not for a moment did anything take me out of this terrific film.
WORDS AND PICTURES
My favorite film of this year’s PSIFF is Fred Schepisi’s terrific romantic drama about a troubled but brilliant alcoholic English teacher (Clive Owen) at an east coast prep school who meets his match when an accomplished artist (Juliette Binoche) struggling with rheumatoid arthritis is hired to teach art. What could’ve been a maudlin, pretentious film is instead a scintillating, mentally engaging, witty and visually rich experience that informs, enlightens and satisfies on many levels. But finally it’s the wise, original screenplay by Gerald Di Pego that gives singular life to the two charismatic leads who remain in our hearts long after final fade out.
Two other films made a vivid impression. Jahane Noujaim’s incredible documentary THE SQUARE makes vivid and real the unfolding drama of Egypt’s birth pangs for a truer democracy. The Danish crime thriller THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES held a packed theater in a kind of suspended, breathless thrall for the final 30 minutes.
And new for the home theater:
UNMANNED: AMERICA’S DRONE WARS
If the high tech bloodletting that’s done in your name around the world concerns you, this terrific documentary is required viewing. Filmmaker Robert Greenwald investigates the impact that U.S. drone strikes and reveals the realities of drone warfare — the violation of international law, the loss of life, the far-reaching implications for the communities that live under the threat of invisible death strikes from drones. Greenwald, who has directed scathing documentaries on Fox, Wal-Mart and the Koch Brothers, keeps a sharp focus on the growing blowback faced by the United States. Oliver Stone said: “…essential viewing if you want to understand what’s going on.” This riveting film covers drone policy, international law, significant drone strikes, “double tap strikes” and the nebulous legal justification that allows this method of warfare that will, inevitably, soon be used by more countries as well as internal police departments and private security forces. We live way in the future — and it’s a dangerous place. Stay informed.