Cinequest 2013

2013 was a strong year for San Jose’s Cinequest film festival.  I saw over thirty features, and here are the highlights.  My festival favorites were two movies that will get wide US releases later in 2013 and three films that surprised me with their originality:

  • The most exhilarating moment of Cinequest has been the screening of the Danish drama The Hunt – one of the very best films of the year. Mads Mikkelsen (After the Wedding, Casino Royale, A Royal Affair) stars as a teacher wrongly accused of child molestation, spurring hysteria in his town. Mikkelsen won the Best Actor award at Cannes.
  • The Sapphires, which swept last year’s Australian Academy Awards, is not deep, but satisfying – and I think it will become a popular word-of-mouth hit later this year. It’s a Feel Good Movie set in the 60s where a singing group from an Australian Aboriginal family faces racial obstacles at home, but blossoms when the girls learn Motown hits to entertain US troops in Vietnam.
  • Ranging from wry to hilarious, the German dark comedy Oh Boy is a real gem. In his debut feature, talented writer-director Jan Ole Gerster creates a warm-hearted but lost character who needs to connect with others – but sabotages his every opportunity. The film’s music and the sense of place in contemporary Berlin are also outstanding.
  • You’ve never seen a film like the absurd Czech comedy Polski Film, in which four Czech actors play themselves banding together to make an ill-fated movie with Polish financing. Think of a film-within-a-film mockumentary made by Christopher Guest’s repertory company with the actors in their own personae – with a touch of Bunuel; then flavor the whole thing with the Czech Republic’s own unique humor.
  • The offbeat The Dead Man and Being Happy features idiosyncratic narration and sound design and a gloriously wacky road trip through the backwaters of Argentina.

2013 was an exceptionally deep year for thrillers at Cinequest, and the best were:

  • In the French thriller Lead Us Into Temptation, a middle-aged married man does a good deed for a beautiful young woman and finds himself the pawn in a dangerous game.  Inventively constructed, we see the story from the perspective of the guy, then from the young woman’s point of view and finally through the prism of another character.  Unlike in Rashomon, we don’t see different realities, but, as secrets are revealed, we finally understand the whole picture.
  • The American thriller Dose of Reality packs wire-to-wire intensity and a surprise ending that no one will see coming.  Dose of Reality will release on DVD and VOD on March 26.
  • The very dark French suspense movie Chaos is centered on a creepy character that you know is up to no good, but the audience has to wait to find out what he plans and why.
  • In The Shadow (Ve Stinu) is a Czech paranoid thriller that follows a police detective in 1953 Prague. The cop is played by the Czech actor Ivan Trojan, whose performance I admired so much in the creepy voyeur film Visible WorldIn the Shadow won Best Film at the Czech Film Critics’ Awards and was the Czech submission to the Academy Awards.
  • In the solid American drama Solace, three stories are interlinked. I thought the middle segment too stagey, but the film won an audience award.

The best comedy was the deadpan American Congratulations!, which sends up the police procedural.

The best dramas were:

  • The compelling The Deep tells the fact-based survival story of a shipwrecked Icelandic fisherman’s ordeal in frigid waters.   Amazingly, all of the footage was shot in the ocean (no tanks) without stunt professionals.  The writer-director, Baltasar Kormákur makes the unconventional and successful choice not to end the movie with a climactic rescue, but to explore the impact of the incident and the attempts to explain how it was possible.
  • In the Belgian drama Offline, we meet a character struggling to redeem himself from a prior act that isn’t revealed until late in the story.  The story hinges on ageold human feelings and the new anonymity of the Internet.

The best documentaries were:

  • In the documentary We Went to War, the filmmaker goes to small town Texas to revisit the Vietnam vets who were the subjects of his 1970 I Was a Soldier. It’s a poignant snapshot of a 40-year-old war that is still going on for the participants and their families. We Went to War is told successfully in a style that contrasts from other talking head docs.
  • The documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself shares the extraordinarily rich life of the Zelig-like George Plimpton. He was somehow able to marry the most highbrow literary world with cheesy TV celebrity.

I also caught the first half of the Lawrence of Arabia, digitally restored in Sony 4K.  The results from the Sony 4K process are very impressive, and I was able to notice wayward strands of hair and the barbs on a feather.  It’s easier to distinguish the tiny mounted figures in the vast desert landscape, and the many night scenes in Lawrence are far more distinct – even footprints in the sand are visible.

The one short film that stood out for me was the compelling No One Pukes In Heaven (Im Himmel kotzt man nicht), a story of a young girl and her mother facing the mom’s imminent death from cancer – brilliantly made and very moving.

Other films I saw at Cinequest:

The best aspects of the crime thriller Aftermath come from the characterizations.  There’s a  penetrating performance by Chris Penn (shortly before his death in 2006) as a hulking ex-con with a short fuse.  Tony Danza is a very funny wise guy.  Leo Burmester (also in his final performance) brings wackiness to his role as a country lawman. Two cleverly written thugs delicately pick at sushi and sleep with nightshades.  Unfortunately, the audience is distracted from the story by some oddly inserted split screens and comic book art, a confoundedly jarring sound track and an embarrassingly bad sound mix.  Disjointed to its core, Aftermath is a highly stylistic mess.

The Almost Man:  In this smart Norwegian comedy, a thirty five-year-old cut up is such a card that he’s awfully fun for us to watch.  His girlfriend finds his constant playfulness endearing.   He has rollicking good times with his sophomoric best buddies, for whom no jest can be too gross, scatological or homophobic.  But when the girlfriend becomes pregnant and he gets a serious new job, he finds that his act is wearing thin.  The thing is not that he’s immature, but that he’s been choosing to act immature, and the status quo is not going to work out.

The Believers is a well-made documentary on the heretofore respected scientists who announced a breakthrough in nuclear fusion energy and were rapidly and harshly discredited.  We see how fusion science lingers, fueled by a small cadre of true believers.

A teen friendship faces a fork in the road in the British period drama Ginger & Rosa, with a remarkable performance by Elle Fanning.

In the Puerto Rican comedy I Am a Director, a clueless wannabe filmmaker fumbles around, missing no opportunity to make exactly the wrong choice.  It would make for a hilarious seven-minute SNL skit, but, stretched to feature length, I Am a Director is unsatisfying.

Loveless Zoritsa is a successful Balkan comedy about a rural community’s fear that a beautiful woman is luring men to their deaths.

In the Turkish dramedy One Day or Another, writer-director Ali Vatansever does a better job writing than directing. The story seems to contain four threads, each about a different couple; but Vatansever cleverly reveals one decades-long romance by illustrating stages of that story with the other seemingly contemporaneous relationships. In a funny side story, a French backpacker happens upon the town and is mistakenly embraced as the new English teacher. But the directing is clunkily paint-by-the-numbers. But it is still a worthwhile and enjoyable film.

If you like romantic comedies, then you’ll probably enjoy One Small Hitch, a straight-down-the-middle American romcom with an appealing cast.

Panihida:  Moldovia is a small, impoverished country wedged between Romania and Ukraine, and the title is the Moldovan word for the mourning process, including the vigil, funeral procession, funeral and burial.  In documentary-like style, this fictional feature depicts the panihida for an old woman, which includes a long walk to the cemetery.  The film is only 61 minutes, but the several mile trudge with the coffin seemed longer than that.  Panihida is the first film by young Moldovan director who studied in Germany, and who has a good eye for landscape and human observation.  There are two or three unforgettable shots sandwiched into some far less interesting wailing.  In any case, now I don’t need to attend a Moldovan country funeral.

The Playback Singer is a smart American comedy about two very different men with the same character flaw.

Pretty Time Bomb is a bizarre Japanese comedy that has a few LOL moments.  I liked its absurdism, but there’s just not enough in there to sustain an entire movie.

In the French-Canadian The Scar, a man has been emotionally messed up by childhood bullying and has become a boring psycho.

In Welcome Home, a woman returns to Brussels after an extended vacation from her live-in boyfriend.  The relationship drama is sandwiched between two stories involving the same woman that convey the writer-director’s dissatisfaction with the yuppification of 21st century Brussels.  Each of the three vignettes is itself well-made, but they don’t unify into a good movie, despite a compelling performance by Belgian stage actress Manah De Pauw.

The festival’s biggest stinker is the supposed thriller White Lie,  with a story unoriginally conceived, inexpertly told and ploddingly paced – think Agatha Christie on Quaaludes.