Histoire(s) du Cinema

Notes on the 2009 Vancouver International Film Festival:

Adrift For me, this year's best out-of-the-blue surprise (Teresa picked it more or less as a time-slot filler) is Vietnamese director Thac Chuyen Bai's moody, seriocomic ensemble piece. The cast of characters includes a sexless newlywed couple, his fawning, overbearing mother, her semi-closeted lesbian friend, said friend's arrogant fake boyfriend, a woman in un-reciprocated love with him, and a young girl whose pops makes no secret of preferring his cockfighting rooster to her. Sounds ripe for cheap quirk, no? Admirably, Bai mostly steers clear of the inherent quirk bait for what, on paper, reads rather like Little Miss Sunshine II. Instead, we get an elegantly assembled and gorgeously shot slice-of-life in which style never overwhelms, and often smartly compliments, substance. Specifically, the use of shadows and light in defining public versus private space feels key to what Bai and his uniformly impressive cast are up to here; this is a movie about the fluidity and unpredictability of human relationships, equal parts illuminating and elusive. I look very forward to seeing where Bai heads next.

Antichrist The sole dud I encountered at this year's fest, and the only Von Trier effort to date that I don't admire to at least some degree. From the ludicrous slow-mo prologue (which looks uncannily like those ubiquitous Stella Artois commercials) to the sub-Bergman early stretch to the "art"-Saw shock factor, this really doesn't work on any level. Cinemascope editor Mark Peranson hit the nail on its head in his Cannes report when he called it flat-out stupid. The fox portentously warning that "chaos reigns" and Cannes prize-winner Charlotte Gainsbourg coaxing a splash of blood from Willem Dafoe (spelling out the details of the scene would mean mentally revisiting it--no thanks!) are particular low points--or perhaps high points, when audiences outside its immediate demographic (art-house/festival-goers) fittingly reassign Antichrist as some morbid drinking game.

Eccentricities of a Blonde Hair Girl Short and sweet, Manoel de Oliveira's latest is another welcome commentary on the culture and traditions of previous centuries filtered through the lens of the modern-day. Where 2003's underrated A Talking Picture (maybe my favorite de Oliveira film from among the half-dozen or so I've seen) erupts the leisurely rhythms of such meditations with a stunning reminder of clear and present danger, Eccentricities offers more subtle signifiers of which millennium this comedy of courtship is technically set in: laptop computers, current car makes, the Euro. It's further proof that, at 100, Oliveira has lost neither his wry sense of humor nor his singular skills as a cinematic storyteller.

For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism In film critic Gerald Peary's tremendously affectionate documentary, the on-screen heroes don't have names like Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, or Bruce Wayne; rather, they're called Manny Farber, James Agee, and Andrew Sarris and their super-abilities include explanation, edification, dropping the perfect turn-of-phrase, and championing movies that deserve to be seen and, more generally, the possibilities of film as a uniquely expressive medium. This is a must-see for any aspiring film critic, though I'd recommend it even more strongly for casual fans who think the only requirements for good criticism are a functional thumb and a blog.

Forbidden Door Indonesian auteur Joko Anwar's follow-up to his 2007 Dead Time (aka The Secret, which we caught at VIFF a couple years ago) is even more fun (and more accomplished) than his earlier genre-bending effort. Forbidden Door borrows liberally from Cronenberg, Lynch, Tarantino, Park Chan-Wook, and Fruit Chan's provocative Dumplings, among many other sources, and yet the result is something rather unique--a film rich in ethnographic detail minus the World Cinema pretenses, a polemic that can't quite make up its mind regarding its own politics, a horror movie that thinks horror movies are black comedies in disguise. If Anwar fails to ever become a huge name on the festival circuit, it's only because he refuses to take himself too seriously; if he's never quite embraced by mainstream horror fans, it's because he's too weird for a formula where weirdness is more often ostensible or perfunctory. But film fans who hold titles like Videodrome and Mulholland Drive especially close to their heart, need to seek this guy out before they lose cred for sleeping on the next cult hero.

Mother Following Memories of Murder and The Host, Bong Joon-ho is progressively perfecting a certain strategy, executed slicker yet with Mother. He uses the appearance of a light touch to greatly intensify the audience impact of violent bursts or abrupt plot developments--an approach Von Trier should take notes on, judging from Antichrist. It's almost Speilbergian, except Bong's sentimentality is less an integral part of his aesthetic than a cunning angle from which to further twist his knife. Kim Hye-ja, as the titular matriarch, gives the most powerful and multi-faceted performance from the slate of films I saw at this year's fest.

Nymph Slight if you must, but also a beguiling enough way to spend the better part of two hours; if it begins to evaporate like mist about as soon as the credits roll, well, maybe that's a compliment of sorts to the ethereal poetry of Pen-ek Rataruang's latest effort. Comparisons to meditation-on-nature masters like Malick and fellow Thai countryman Apichatpong flatter Nymph in print, but do little to beef up the film's philosophical-weight-in-lieu-of-narrative-substance game-plan (a mode that, to be sure, works much less rewardingly here than in, say, Blissfully Yours or Days of Heaven). And unhappy-couple-in-the-woods movies go, I breathed an appreciate sigh of relief, since we caught this one right after Antichrist.

Rembrandt's J'Accuse The most thoroughly, almost exhilaratingly enjoyable hour and a half I've spent watching a movie in a long time. Peter Greenaway's breathless investigation into the secrets lurking in plain sight in Rembrandt's famous The Nightwatch is, above all, a call to visual literacy. It's compelling from start to finish, and I repeat my recommendation of For the Love of Movies: see it for sure if you're a passionate admirer of art; see it twice if you think the genius of a painting like The Nightwatch can be unlocked through a quick glance or through a basic textbook introduction.

The White Ribbon 2009's Palm d'Or winner at Cannes was, by a comfortable margin, the best film I saw at this year's VIFF. This is quintessential Haneke material, and yet also something quite new from the Austrian auteur. Despite the decidedly dark territory Haneke is treading in here, his film's most violent on-screen moment involves a young man furiously destroying a cabbage patch; even a scene of corporal punishment is glimpsed from the outside of a shut door, though we do overhear the young cries of pain. Hauntingly restrained, The White Ribbon, at times, calls to mind Bela Tarr in its austere black-and-white compositions and its microcosmic view of a small, remote village. There are also echoes of Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons as an exercise in nostalgia gone sour, memories curdling even as they materialize. The story of our narrator's romance is purposefully overwhelmed by the terrible, mysterious events transpiring around it as well as, of course, the looming thunderclouds of war(s) on the horizon.