In the mad dash to cover as much of the now-waning fall festival season, it’s easy to take for granted just how many other films aren’t reviewed here at The Playlist. Even with our writing staff that stretches across the globe and then travels even farther to attend all the major fests — Sundance, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Toronto, Telluride, and plenty of other smaller-scale, but no-less vital cinematic gatherings — we still have blindspots. There are too many movies. And that’s just the way it goes.
But lest I get all cynical about the state of modern world cinema, there’s almost always another festival around the corner to pick up some of the scraps left behind by my intimidatingly well-versed (and well-travelled) colleagues here. Because of its proximity to where I live, I’ve been able to attend the Vancouver International Film Festival for several years now, and though it comes a month after the big premieres and awards push at TIFF and Telluride, it’s no less important to those of us who have a big movie appetite. It’s a great place to catch up on most of the biggest films from all the aforementioned festivals, and also features the occasional hidden gem or premiere that’s yet to be covered outside of (maybe) Variety or The Hollywood Reporter.
I dug deep and came across a hat trick of diverse offerings as yet undiscovered at The Playlist. You can find them below, and if they sound of interest make sure to bookmark them as they’re not due to hit screens outside festivals any time soon. And on the next page you can find my top 5 films from this year’s VIFF, with links to our original reviews, where I basically add to the chorus. If you frequent this site, my favorites should ring a bell, as many of us on staff are big fans of these films and have championed already. If nothing else, I’m hoping this will only add to your enthusiasm in catching up with them when they’re released. Thanks for reading, and happy movie watching.
3 Under the Radar Gems To Look Out For:
Deservedly taking several awards at the Locarno Film Festival earlier this year, where Bi Gan won the Best Emerging Director prize and got a Special Mention for Best First Feature, this heady deep dive into a mystical China that’s only slightly left-of-center from the everyday reality (echoes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Carlos Reygadas abound) is a slow burn, but the rewards are ample as the circuitous and supernatural narrative loops back in on itself. At first, the story seems fragmented, made of disparate parts. It’s actually a little tough to access at first, but like the two aforementioned master filmmakers, the storytelling lulls you into an odd dreamspace that allows for its emotions and intentions to slowly seep in and take hold. It’s undoubtedly gorgeous to look at, with an array of circular pans, super slow dissolves, and layering of images to create a truly cinematic piece of work. There’s a great balance on display of man-made decrepit buildings — all crumbling cement and metal — invading on the natural environment, which is gorgeous, green, and bursting with life. But the real reason this is a must see for cinephiles: an incredibly well-choreographed, 35-minute long continuous shot near the film’s climax that merges past and present versions of characters and slams them together (in fact, it could be a short film all on its own). The heavy reliance on style here is pitch-perfect, as the way the film is made helps deepen and in many ways tell the whole story. Ostensibly a time travel movie, but not like any you’ve seen before.
“Above And Below”
Easily one of the best documentaries I’ve seen this year so far, and one of the most cinematic. Thankfully, Oscilloscope is distributing, which means it’ll make it to at least a few arthouse theaters sometime in 2016 (with a VOD release as well). It’s the rare documentary that demands to be seen on a big screen, with the sound turned up nice and loud. The picture follows five characters, credited only by their first names April, Dave, Cindy, Rick, and the Godfather, and loosely connected (though Rick and Cindy are a couple) by their chosen way of life — they all live off the grid. Three of them are but a few who inhabit an entire underground world that exists in the massive tunnel systems under Las Vegas. One man lives alone in an abandoned military bunker in the California desert, and another ex-military vet is enrolled in the Mars Desert Research Station, a remote research/training facility in Utah where students simulate life on Mars so they’re prepared to fulfill their dream to live there someday. There are plenty of documentaries about people living on the fringes, but almost none of them sound this good (the sound design and soundtrack are top notch) and are made in such a visceral, immersive way. Swiss director Nicolas Steiner, editor Kaya Inan, and DP Markus Nestroy, with more than five credited sound artists, have crafted a great film that further blurs the line between how fiction and documentary films are constructed and told.
“The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers”
We reviewed Ben Rivers and Ben Russell‘s last feature length film, “A Spell To Ward Off Darkness,” last year, and found much to like, even if, as our critic stated in the opening line of his review: “Ben Rivers takes an academic approach to filmmaking, which makes [it] either one of the most intellectually engaging films of the year or an experience full of cramps, fidgeting, and eye-rolling, depending on who’s talking.” So yeah, ‘Spell,’ the latest solo outing from Rivers, can be trying for most audiences, especially those who simply want to be entertained. But for a particularly patient and passionate cinephile, Rivers’ work is worth discovering and experiencing. ‘The Sky Trembles’ is a film of two halves, the first part focusing on a film production in rural Morocco (taken from Rivers following Oliver Laxe’s “The Mimosas” during filming), and then takes a hard left as Laxe’s director character is captured, de-tongued, and turned into a dancing clown for some twisty locals’ amusement. There’s little in the way of context, especially in the beginning, but as the film (literally, Rivers shoots here on gorgeous color 16mm) detours away from the production, the story in total becomes something greater than the sum of its parts, mashing together a making-of doc with a kind-of stranger in a strange land tale. But that really doesn’t do the film justice. You probably already know if this is something you want to see. Personally, I rarely find much to enjoy in this kind of avant-garde, experimental cinema, but Rivers is up to something very interesting and has a style all his own.
VIFF TOP 5:
“Embrace Of The Serpent”
When our own Jessica Kiang caught this stunning adventure tale at Cannes this year, she proclaimed it as one of the great discoveries of this year’s festival. “‘Embrace of the Serpent’ is simply a work of art, and one of the most singular cinematic experiences you could hope to have in Cannes, or anywhere really. It’s an absorbing, even thrilling head trip. It is a Heart-of-Darkness voyage of discovery. It is a lament for all the lost plants and peoples of the world,” she wrote. After thanking Jess for her review, which led me to catch up with the film at VIFF, she mentioned that it’s been very divisive for others to whom she’s recommended the film. That’s actually quite surprising to my mind, because even though ‘Embrace,’ the third feature from Colombian director Ciro Guerra (“The Wind Journeys”), is without doubt an art film, it’s so immensely accessible and straight up pleasurable to watch that I’m still hoping it can actually cross over in some way. This is a film that demands you see it in a theater, on the biggest screen possible.
[Read Jess’ original A review here]
“Son Of Saul”
This one just flat-out knocked me on my ass. Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’ first feature is quite possibly one of the most striking debuts of recent memory. There was a lot of talk after its Cannes premiere that it was robbed of the Palme d’Or (it instead was awarded with the Grand Jury Prize), but no matter, this is a great film whatever awards it wins (and there’s already talk going around that it could be a sizable Oscar contender this year). Alongside Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” it’s easily one of the best directed films this year. It also manages to find a new way of approaching a very familiar sub-genre: the Holocaust film. Nemes and his crew fully submerge the audience into one character’s strict point-of-view, joining a growing trend in cinema (popping up in arthouse, documentary, indie, and mainstream works) where filmmakers are using video game aesthetics — the Dardennes brothers’ films come to mind, as well as Gerardo Naranjo’s “Miss Bala” — and if the results can always be this immersive, then it’s a welcome one. Our own Oli Lyttelton had some reservations about this style in particular in his review out of Cannes, but he still recognized the film’s power.
[Read Oli’s original B+ review here]
Now having seen this English language debut from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, he’s officially one my favorite filmmakers working today. “Dogtooth” may still be his masterpiece, and “Alps” is also something special (and underrated), but with “The Lobster,” Lanthimos should now reach a whole new audience that hopefully is susceptible to his singular brand of bizarre, pitch-black satire. The entire cast is game and wonderful, the film is loaded with ideas both visually and dialogue-driven (the voice over narration at first seems like a glaring misstep, only to be revealed late in the film as perfectly calibrated, logical and organic to the story), and it’s surprising at every turn. It’s one thing to come up with a great concept, especially one as far out as this picture presents, but it’s quite another to consistently keep the audience on edge as to where the story is going and to finish so strongly. Nobody is better at creating wholly original worlds out of our own mundane reality. This may just be the funniest film I’ve seen all year.
[Read Oli Lyttelton’s original A review here]
Ok, so I liked “Blue Ruin” quite a bit, but I did not see this coming. “Green Room” is a step up for writer/director Jeremy Saulnier in every way. This brutal, tense throwback to “Assault on Precinct 13”-era mayhem is tightly constructed and funny in just the right moments to provide only brief respites from an unrelenting push forward. Performances, visuals, score, location (shot in Oregon, not too far from Portland, where I reside, and making use of the lush greenery on display there), and overall feel for the material are just right. Saulnier could be the true heir to the John Carpenter throne, if he wants it, but he’s got a promising career ahead of him no matter what he makes. I do hope he continues down this road of making indie genre films that nicely balance between subverting the common tropes but also embracing what makes them so great. As our original review out of Cannes stated, “the result is an exciting, splattery, funny genre movie that somehow never once feels disposable, and one that should prove a midnight movie delight for some time to come.”
[Read Oli Lyttelton’s original A- review here]
“The Forbidden Room”
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me at VIFF this year. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed much of Canadian auteur Guy Maddin’s idiosyncratic films, but “The Forbidden Room” feels like the ultimate, grand thesis statement on what he brings to the table as an artist. It’s indulgent, nightmarish, and almost always hilarious. His oddball brand of cinephile nostalgia is in top form here, in what plays like a long shorts program cut together by a mad scientist/uber film nerd who stumbled across piles of discarded B movies from some distant past that never really existed and stitched together random bits of broken film strips on the ground and attempted to make one movie out of the pieces. The gloriously contradictory end result feels at once disconnected but wholly of a piece. Maddin, here working with co-director Evan Johnson, has found his sweet spot indeed. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention actor Louis Negin, the best thing about the film (he plays five different roles), who in the film’s opening extols the virtues of how to properly take a bath. That man could read the phone book and it would be hilarious. Even the length, which is excessive at 130 minutes, adds to the whole. The exhaustion opened me up for all the weirdness to truly seep in. Plus, Udo Kier is in a song about loving butts, what more can you ask for?
[Read Rodrigo Perez’ original A- review here]
And a few other things:
“Arabian Nights” is just as good as we’ve been saying since we saw it Cannes this year, an epic state-of-the-nation triptych that indescribably becomes magical by the end. Tim Roth gives two very different but equally compelling performances in both “Chronic” (which brought me to tears several times, surprising for such a cold, at times distant observational character piece) and “600 Miles.” Both films are connected by the filmmakers, Roth’s involvement, shocking and revealing endings, and I think I liked both more than our respective reviewers did, for what it’s worth. The latest from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Cemetery Of Splendour,” is another totally strange but unique film from Thailand’s most gifted auteur. I’m still figuring that one out, but can’t wait to see it again. “Dheepan” may not have “deserved” the Palme d’Or, as I’ve seen better films that competed against it at Cannes this year. But for me, this is a much better film from French master Jacques Audiard than his last, the impressive but way-too-messy “Rust & Bone,” and a welcome return to what he does best, the socially conscious genre film. I also really liked “Chevalier,” “The Treasure,” and “Ixcanul.”