Now that the 67th edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival has come to a close, all that’s left is to report on the highlights of this year’s eclectic program. Showcasing 146 features from 53 countries, including 14 world, 6 international and 10 European premiers there was certainly plenty to chose from at this year’s incarnation. Despite opening with “Breathe In,” Drake Doremus’ follow-up to “Like Crazy,” and boasting a succession of high profile festival hits such as “Stories We Tell,” “Upstream Color” and “The Conjuring” we thought it would only be constructive to focus on some of the festival’s undiscovered pleasures.
The festival’s most prestigious prize is the Michael Powell Award for ‘Best New British Feature’. Comprising of a diverse pool of locally sourced movies, this year’s deserving winner was, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s dialogue-devoid and narrative-less oceanic opus “Leviathan.” A cinematic eulogy for the men who risk their lives on a daily basis to farm the ocean floor, this exceptional maritime mood-piece (‘documentary’ is too simple a description) serves as an eye-opening and viscerally prodigious insight into the North Atlantic fishing industry – a truly mesmerizing and immersive experience.
While “Leviathan” was fully deserving of its victory, you’d find it difficult to argue against the award going to the competition’s other maritime-based nominee, “For Those in Peril.” Paul Wright’s ethereal Scottish drama tells the story of Aaron (George MacKay), a troubled young man who’s the only survivor of a fishing accident that claimed the lives of his brother and five other crewmembers. A tense and captivating mood is sustained throughout this strikingly original, sorrow-drenched maritime fable and whilst the film’s message of how ‘the sea must be respected’ is poetically depicted; it’s the raw and inherently vicious nature of humanity that emerges as the tale’s most hazardous foe.
Anther bold and visually striking British film was Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s “Mister John,” a challenging, yet rewarding thriller that wields a compelling ambience of discomfort over its astute study of grief and self-discovery. A tonally unhinged thriller about a man traveling East for his brother’s funeral, Mister John imbues gritty British drama with an almost Lynchian degree of surrealism – culminating in a film that feels dirty and used yet strangely rhythmic and alluring. Although also focusing on the difficulties of engineering a new identity, Chad Hartigan’s “This is Martin Bonner” is a far sweeter and unassuming character study. A minimalist tale about a caseworker who becomes an “It’s A Wonderful Life”-style Clarence Odbody-esque ‘guardian angel’ to a shy and retiring ex-con, Hartigan’s sophomore feature is an undeniably small and delicate film, yet this finely crafted indie boasts a charming heart of gold.
The Edinburgh International Film Festival is split into numerous categories, one of which is the ‘film on film’ strand. Dedicated to films about various aspects of moviemaking, the strand often feels like bait for movie critic approval, pandering to reviewer’s cinematic interests and eliciting a myriad of encouraging reviews. However, this year two of these films managed to tap into the public consciousness more than any other. First of these was Sophie Huber’s unobtrusive glimpse through the smoky veneer of Hollywood’s most pre-eminent character actor “Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction.”
A fascinating and long overdue portrait of this cinematic chameleon, Huber’s beautifully visual profile has made this enigmatic star even more allusive and endearing. However, the most eye-opening documentary to grace the program this year had to David Cairns and Paul Duane’s ethereal requiem for one of cinema’s most important, yet curiously forgotten figures, “Natan.” Illuminating the truth that often gets lost in the dark this sensational tale mines through stock footage, talking head interviews and filmic flights of the imagination in an attempt to resuscitate the ghost of Bernard Natan. One of the pioneering forces in pre-war cinema and a man who despite conceiving the principles of ‘national cinema’ found himself persecuted for his Jewish heritage and early dalliances with pornography. Natan sadly died in a German concentration camp, with his name erased from history except for his alleged involvement within the porn industry – a must for anyone with even the faintest interest in the history of cinema.
Continuing this celebration of cineliterate filmmaking, whilst also spearheading the festival’s focus on ‘films for the young and the young at heart’ was Mark Cousins’ “The Story of Children and Film.” An abridged appendix to his five-hour essay, “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” Cousins’ latest opus is a voyage through the annals of cinematic history, this time focusing on the role of children. Collating a vivid mosaic of some of the finest child performances to ever grace the silver screen, Cousins takes films like Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” and Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive” and plunges them under his probing lens. Informative as ever and genuinely enlightening, this deeply personal pathway of discovery will provide even the most cultured cinephile with an abundance of films to add to their watch-list.
The festival’s focus on the confusion of adolescence takes a natural progression to the post-graduate malady of a despondent generation of young adults. Headlined by Noah Baumbach’s delightfully twee metropolitan fairytale about the difficulties of growing up when you’re already fully-grown, “Frances Ha,” there were two further standout portraits of the despondency of generation Y. “Oh Boy,” a monochrome German slacker comedy that epitomized the irony-tinged drollness of the mumblecore movement was the first. This deadpan portrait of today’s cultural cynicism is a surprisingly heartwarming excursion through the street of Berlin, using humor to encapsulate the continuous evolution of German identity. Taking a more verbose approach to youthful disenfranchisement was “Viola,” a subtle tapestry of a generation caught in a state of perpetual motion mirrored through a narrative that communicates like a tape caught in a loop. Full of characters observed rehearsing, each of them attempting to nail the natural rhythm and nuanced beats of modern life, “Viola” is ostensibly an unassuming tale about a girl working for her partner’s pirate video delivery service in Buenos Aires. However this deceptively simple drama about the tedium of arrested youth is a fascinating treasure trove of rich ideas and intelligent storytelling techniques.
Finally; this wouldn’t be summary of the Edinburgh International Film Festival if we didn’t touch upon the festival’s commitment to discovery and promoting cinema from all across the world – boasting films from every corner of the globe, including; North Korean oddity “Comrade Kim Goes Flying,” Kazakhstan’s “Constructors” and Georgia’s indictment on reality TV “Keep Smiling.” However the most anthropologically intriguing inclusion in this year’s program had to be Aleksei Fedorchenko’s “Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari.” A beguiling and perplexing expedition into the myths and rituals of the Russian Mari told through a collection of 23 peculiar cinematic vignettes. Destined to bemuse more viewers than it’ll ensnare, “Celestial Wives” is a truly unique and unforgettable experience. Fans of Fedorchenko’s “Silent Souls” will no doubt welcome this deeper examination of the Mari race; whether they’ll appreciate this markedly eccentric approach is another question entirely. However any anthology in which one of the more coherent segments includes a lady’s genitals becoming the temporary nest of a raucous bird demands to be viewed – if only out of morbid curiosity.
Here’s my Edinburgh Top 10:
2. For Those in Peril
4. The Story of Children and Film
5. Oh Boy
7. Mister John
8. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction
9. This is Martin Bonner
10. Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari