The 48th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) came to a close in the Bohemian town of the same name this weekend, with Hungarian WWII tale "Le Grand Cahier," based on the bestseller "The Notebook" from Agota Kristof, taking the Crystal Globe for best feature.
The competition jury, presided over by Polish director Agnieszka Holland ("In Darkness," episodes of "Treme," "The Wire" and "The Killing") and also including Tribeca Artistic Director Frédéric Boyer, awarded Ben Wheatley's black-and-white oddity "A Field in England" their Special Jury Prize, while U.S. indie "Bluebird" from Lance Edmands, which premiered at Tribeca, walked away with a shared Best Actress award. Local arthouse veteran Jan Hrebejk, whose "Divided We Fall" was nominated for an Oscar in 2001, won Best Director for his latest film, "Honeymoon," which stars his regular lead actress Anna Geislerova as a bride who discovers an ugly episode in her new husband's past on the day of the wedding.
The Czech festival's competition for Eastern European films, East of the West, gave its top prize to Floating Skyscrapers, a sexy gay love story from Poland that also had its world premiere at Tribeca earlier this year.
The festival also had honorary awards for U.S. director Oliver Stone, who was in town to screen yet another version of his "Alexander," and John Travolta, who presented his latest film "Killing Season," which will open this week stateside. The local recipient of the festival's highest honor was Theodor Pistek, the Czech costume designer who won an Academy Award for his work on "Amadeus" (directed by fellow Czech Milos Forman) and who also worked on "The People vs. Larry Flint," the "Dune" and "Children of Dune" TV-series as well as Czech classic "Marketa Lazarova," which Criterion recently released and is a must-see for any cinephile (its restored version screened at Karlovy Vary a couple of years ago).
Here are several titles from this year's festival lineup that stood out:
HBO doesn't only make great television in the U.S. but also, increasingly, in Eastern Europe, where several local versions of HBO have started producing their own local fare (HBO Romania, for example, has been (co-)producing some very interesting local documentaries). "Burning Bush" from Polish KVIFF jury president Agnieszka Holland is one of its most high-profile projects to date and had a special screening at the festival. "Bush" is a three-part look at the socio-political fallout after the self-immolation of Jan Palach, a Czech youth, in Prague in 1969, crossed with "The Lives of Others". Palach's actions were meant as a protest against the end of the Prague Spring caused by the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet/Warsaw Pact troupes in the summer of 1968. Basically, this is everything you'd expect from a HBO series but with subtitles; intelligently scripted and beautifully acted and shot.
Though not in competition, this comedy by local hit director Alice Nellis ("Some Secrets," "Little Girl Blue," "Perfect Days") was clearly a favorite of many, as it took the festival's Audience Award. Designed as a mainstream crowd-pleaser from the get-go, this is the story of four old retired rockers (played by Bolek Polivka, Miroslav Krobot, Karel Hermanek, Marian Geisberg) whose group Smoke split in 1972 but who need to make a comeback for several reasons. Not unlike the Macedonian audience hit "Punk is Not Dead" from a couple of years ago, though with even more laughs, this is simply a rollicking good time at the movies despite the more-than-occasional cliché, with the shaky English lyrics of these former "Czechoslovak Beatles" an added source of merriment.
"A Field in England"
One of the biggest titles in this year's KVIFF competition was no doubt Ben Wheatley's highly anticipated "A Field in England," a weird black-and-white historical battlefield movie spiced up with magic mushrooms -- literally. Written by editor and regular collaborator Amy Jump, also known as Mrs Wheatley, the film mixes "old English"-style dialogue and English Civil War costumes with more experimental methods, especially after the 'shrooms have been consumed. Though admirable for its desire to stray from the beaten path, this critic found the whole enterprise strangely mannered and uninvolving, though then again, I've never been a fan of Wheatley's much-praised previous efforts, such as "Kill List" and "Sightseers". The film was much hyped at home for the simultaneous roll-out strategy, premiering the same day in theaters, on TV, DVD and VOD just a couple of days after its festival premiere. If you're into unkempt men sputtering in barely understable English in monochrome images, this might just be your thing.
There are always some interesting Russian films in Vary and this year was no exception, with the sex comedy -- one of the first Russian examples of one, I imagine -- "Intimate Parts" also appreciated by the audience, especially for its storyline involving a politician and anti-sex crusader who's secretly addicted to dildos. But the best feature from Russia is called "Shame," and was directed by Yusup Rasykov, a Tashkent-born director who looks at the women left behind in a frosty naval base-town after their husbands have gone to work and suddenly talk of a submarine disaster starts to emerge. The heroine, played by Maria Semenova in a merciless performance, is far from sympathetic and all the more human for it.
A hit at Tribeca and now at Karlovy Vary, where it had its European premiere, Floating Skyscrapers more than confirms the promise director Tomasz Wasilewski showed in his debut from last year, "In the Bedroom." Styling himself like Poland's answer to Xavier Dolan, including the attention-grabbing glasses and funky hair, Wasilewski (who's not an actor) thankfully also has the talent to back up his looks, as this second film, like his first, is full of articulately observed small moments that rely on silence, looks and body language to advance his narrative. Interestingly, like Dolan's "I Killed Your Mother," there's an instance of gay bashing that doesn't feel like it belongs in this same-sex love story of sorts, though otherwise the struggles of the swimmer lead (Mateusz Banasiuk, impressive) to try and fit his unexpected attraction for a handsome young gay man (Bartosz Gelner, who looks like a Polish cousin of a young Alain Delon) into his well-established routine that includes a girlfriend (Marta Nieradkiewicz, equally terrific) are impressively charted.
"The Deflowering of Eva van End"
This was somewhat lost in the fray at Toronto last year but has since gained steam on the festival circuit, where it screened in festivals including Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Moscow and Transylvania. It screened in the Ten European Directors to Watch section in Karlovy Vary (full disclosure: I helped program this particular film in this section). It's basically an update of Pasolini's Teorema in Dutch suburbia, with some Todd Solondz sprinkled on top for good measure, though such a description makes it sound like there's hardly any originality in the film, which is definitely not the case. Debuting director Michiel ten Hoorn is definitely a talent to watch, as he manages to slowly reveal that his candy-colored vision of suburban bliss is actually a beautiful trainwreck. Film Movement has already required U.S. rights for this title.
"Finnish Blood Swedish Heart"
This musical documentary-cum-road trip is both fun and insightful, as a singer and his father travel from their hometown in Finland back to the Swedish town of Gothenburg, where they used to live when protagonist Kai was a child. The film's of course about living between two cultures, as the title suggests, and though some of the specifics might go over the head of non-Nordic audiences, there's enough here to enjoy, including all the songs, which were written by Finnish immigrants to Sweden and are performed in the film by second-generation immigrants, who almost form a Greek chorus of sorts.