Well, now. The summer is almost over, and it’s time to get serious about the fall film festival lineup. I know that many of you will be spending your Labor Day weekend taking in the last breaths of the summer season by grilling at the barbeque or by attending a party, while another lucky few will be headed to Colorado for the annual cinematic feast that is the Telluride Film Festival. I, ever the vigilant planner, am hoping to instead spend my weekend doing research and more research in the never ending quest to find some diamonds in the rough; films floating under the radar at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival (nice new website, FSLC!).
As a programmer, I am always in a weird position at these festivals. On the one hand, there are the movies that I will try to find that somehow, at this early stage, seem destined for a late spring release (if they are released at all); this would allow me to make an invitation for inclusion in the Sarasota Film Festival line-up, March 31-April 9, 2006. On the other hand, those dates are so far away, I am sometimes drawn to catching advance screenings that I am really excited to see but which showcase films that will be released well before the SFF window. I consider it a test of will; can I resist the draw of big art house films in order to take a chance on an undiscovered gem?
This year, the dilemma has been made much easier by the fact that many of the films I am really dying to see will be playing at both Toronto and New York, which really liberates the Toronto line-up for me, allowing me the opportunity to find some of the films that, simply seeing listed as a title in the line-up, I would never have considered if pitted against some of the big names on display in both festivals. Last year, my first in Toronto, the line-up was so front-loaded (meaning all of the films I really wanted to see were all pitted against each other in the first five days or so of the festival) that I missed a ton of films and scrambled the rest of the year to get caught up. This year, with one TIFF under my belt, I am using the end of summer to get ready.
This is the challenge; despite finding and being able to program some wonderful films from Toronto (Ra’up McGee’s excellent Autumn, Velcrow Ripper’s amazing ScaredSacred, Arnaud Desplechin’s Rois et reine, Jia Zhangke’s The World, and many more), there were several other films I really loved that, because of the climate in the foreign film market, I missed out on, including Frédéric Fonteyne’s haunting La Femme de Gilles, and Jessica Hausner;s über-creepy Hotel; films that I would have loved to help get some domestic attention by showing them at the SFF. This year, I am hopeful of meeting some of the foreign sales agents and really getting to know them and their goals so we can share some of these undistributed films with our audience in Sarasota.
Still, there are plenty of films out there I am soooo giddy to see. As I happily bid summer adieu by throwing my arms around fall (my favorite season), The Back Row Manifesto presents a list of the films I am most interested in seeing at this year’s fall festivals.
1.Caché by Michael Haneke
Go and tell Veronica, it’s time to celebrate Haneke! (sorry, I had to!)
In all seriousness, this is the one film I am simply dying to see. I only discovered Michael Haneke’s work when I saw The Piano Teacher a few years back. Since that time, I have devoured everything that I can find and he has risen near the top of my personal list of favorite directors. There is no doubt that he is one of our greatest living filmmakers. In film after film, Haneke breaks apart the cavalier entitlements of modern bourgeoisie life and dissects (sometimes literally) the self-image of the Western world. I can’t imagine an American artist making a film like Code Inconnu, let alone the vastly under-regarded Le Temps du Loup. Whereas American artists seem to be stuck in a rut of celebrating navel-gazing whiners who derive credibility from their self-imposed outsider status, who among them has offered a cultural and social critique in a fiction film that has one ounce of the courage on display in Code Inconnu? From all accounts at Cannes, Caché is as an intense and excoriating experience as Haneke’s previous work, and that is all the endorsement I need to keep me restless for the screening at the closing night of this year’s NYFF.
I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that this will not end well: Auteuil and Binoche in Haneke’s Caché
2.The Wayward Cloud by Tsai Ming-Liang
I consider it a minor scandal that this film, directed by critical favorite Tsai Ming-Liang, has been excluded from the New York Film Festival. From the reports I have read on the film, the issue of pornographic exploitation takes center stage in the film, but I can only assume that graphic sexuality had little to do with the committee’s choice; the NYFF has long supported provocative sexuality in film, from Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris to Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl. I am pretty sure I can guess which stalwart Tsai advocate may not have appreciated this film’s theme (coughphilliplopatecough). So, there either has to be something seriously fucked up happening in The Wayward Cloud or the movie is simply not very good for Tsai not to make the NYFF line-up. Either way, the mere idea of watching Tsai’s take on intimacy, sexuality, and exploitation is more than enough for me to be captivated by the idea of the film, especially when you consider that the film is a sequel of sorts to the wonderful What Time Is It There?. Is this Tsai’s A Hole In My Heart? As gentle, humble and generous an artist as is working today, Tsai seems like a natural to take on the physical alienation at play in sexual exploitation. I am looking forward to making up my own mind in Toronto.
From Master to Outcast?: Tsai’s The Wayward Cloud
3.The Notorious Bettie Page by Mary Harron
Boys and girls, I have been salivating over this one since I heard it was being made. I have hectored my friends at Killer Films about its production timeline, festival availability, storyline hints, any information I could gather; and I still know very little about what will be on the screen when the film has its premiere in Toronto. What I do know is this; I absolutely love Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner’s adaptation of American Psycho. The script for that film took a basically ‘unfilmable’ book and infused it with a dignified, darkly comic touch that lurked beneath the controversial surface. Also, I think Gretchen Mol is underappreciated as an actress and this seems like the perfect star-making role for her. It has been far too long since we have seen a film from Harron, and the tragic life of the ultimate pin-up girl Bettie Page seems the perfect blend of gender expectations, censorship, and sexuality that Harron can hit out of the park.
4. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story by Michael Winterbottom
Two words: Steve Coogan. Say no more. He is my favorite comic actor working today. I will be glued to my seat. On a personal note, I have made about four attempts to read Laurence Sterne’s classic novel (which provides the framework for the film), and each time I have found it to be wildly inventive at the expense of its overall readability. From the sound of it, Winterbottom found his experience to be similar; apparently, the story of the film is a meta-representation of a team failing to film the unfilmable novel. That sounds just about right. Did I mention Steve Coogan?
The Funniest Man In Movies: Steve Coogan
5. Oliver Twist by Roman Polanski
At first glance, when I read about this project, I was curious to say the least. Roman Polanski and Charles Dickens are two names I never would have thought to put in the same paragraph, let alone in a sentence. But the more I read about the film, the more I see this dissociation as a result of my own shortage of imagination. Is there a more perfect person to tell the tale of Dickens’ abused little orphan than the cinema’s most bleak-eyed storyteller? If anyone can restore my faith in humanity by showing survival in the face of a complete lack of human kindness, it is Polanski. I spent some serious Netflix time on The Tenant, A Knife In water, and Repulsion recently, and it has made me excited for Oliver Twist. The preview for the film looks like a children’s version of The Pianist, but the more I think of that idea, the more I like it. This one is out soon after Toronto, so it is a matter of where the screening falls in the schedule, but I may sneak a look at Oliver Twist if I can do so without guilt of forgoing something else.
Roman Polaski gettin’ Twisted
6. A History Of Violence by David Cronenberg
Having read several reviews of this film already, I have noticed a trend at labeling the film as Cronenberg’s play toward acceptance from an oft-reluctant mainstream public. Has Cronenberg gone conventional? To me, the film’s description reads like an updated mélange of Out Of The Past and The Killers, but hey, that’s fine by me. What I find funny are critics using phrases like “lack of depth, complexity or strangeness make this a relatively routine entry for the director” (Variety) when phrases like “too weird” and “overly complicated” are usually used as a critique of Cronenberg’s work. You can’t win ’em all, but again, the idea of a ‘conventional’ Cronenberg film (with splashes of ‘hot sex’ and ‘graphic violence’) is more than enough to pique my curiosity. The film comes out in the U.S. the same day as the Polanski, so again, this will have to be a guilty pleasure if I can make it happen. Then again, it may have to wait for a screening back in NYC.
Have Gun, Will Travel: Viggo Mortensen in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence
7. Three Times by Hou Hsiao-hsien
Here is another film by a renowned master that no one seems to love. As always, that is all the incentive I need to get my ass to the theater. I have always had a somewhat difficult time with HHH. His films are so languorous yet so disciplined, I often find myself getting lost in my own mind, trying to formulate an idea of what keeps drawing me back yet what drives me mad about his work. That is precisely what I love about going to a film by Hou; anything that challenges me in this way makes me absolutely certain that something great is at work on the screen. Or maybe I’m just an egomaniac. But I can see why Bressonians love him, and why he will never be a commercial draw as a filmmaker. So, it is curious to see what this triptych holds that has elicited such muted praise. As you can see, I am drawn in by the controversy of failed expectations; there is nothing more shattering to me than to have my fantasies of a wonderful film dashed upon the rocks of hit-and-miss filmmaking. But sometimes, when the world shrugs its shoulders, there is something more at work than meets the eye. We’ll see.
Hou and Co. in Cannes
8. Le Temps Qui Reste by Fran�ois Ozon
François Ozon is the Tiger Woods of the cinema; year after year he keeps delivering title after title. The man is 37 years old and has made 26 films. I’ve seen many of them, and everything since A Summer Dress up through to last year’s lovely 5X2 has been a film I’ve admired for one reason or another. But this year’s TIFF entry, Le Temps Qui Reste (The Time That Remains), stars Jeanne Moreau and that in and of itself is more than enough reason to be excited. The film also includes Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi in the cast, a wonderful actress and director who I admired very much in 5X2. Ozon, I can count on you. Steady as she goes.
Jeanne Moreau and Melvil Poupoud in François Ozon’s Le Temps Qui Reste
9. Regular Lovers by Phillipe Garrell
Few phrases in a film festival catalogue description get my heart racing, but there are some that send me into rapturous, hopeful expectation; May, ’68, The silent films of Louis Feuillade, austere yet romantic vision of Paris by night and by day and 175 min., France usually do the trick. But all of those phrases for one film? It looks like The Film Society of Lincoln Center has written the all-time greatest Back Row Manifesto film description for Phillipe Garrell’s Regular Lovers! A three-hour poetic meditation on the failures of a French student’s romanticism in the 1960’s that echoes the films of Feuillade? Dude, you know I’m going to watch THAT. Booyah!! (Maybe this explains why I could care less about The Wedding Crashers? To each his own…)
10. 51 Birch Street by Doug Block
This one may seem a strange choice, but hear me out; back in 1998, I saw Block'[s documentary Home Page at the Sundance Film Festival. I went to the Sundance lodge to catch a late afternoon screening and by the time I walked out, my car had been buried in snow. After 90 minutes of digging my car out, I got back to Sundance alive. Later, working at IFC on the broadband cinema initiative at the network (we were showing feature films on high speed internet connections back in 1998), I got to meet Block when we acquired Home Page and showed the film on-line. I really like Block’s very personal work as a documentarian, and I am thrilled that he has made another film while still running D-Word, an on-line community for documentarians. I am eager to catch up with Block’s life on film, and 51 Birch Street, with the promise of family conflict and personal unveilings, is right up my alley.
I promise screening reports from Toronto, and I know there is a lot to see that I haven’t even mentioned. That’s the beauty of the festival, the art of discovery. I am bursting to find some great films. I know I will. Have a great holiday weekend and stay tuned!