Every year, in anticipation of the Bergen International Film Festival, I ask myself a variation of the same question: What do I want out of it this year? Last year was a special case, and more than anything I needed the festival as an escape, when everything around me seemed to fall apart. This year, I could again approach the festival focused on the movies themselves. As I believe I described in a post a couple years ago, over the last few years my way of putting together my personal festival schedule has changed slightly. I no longer put as much of an emphasis on diversity in terms of geography and genre, instead I go with gut reaction; do I want to see this movie? (As opposed to, say, “Would it be good for me to see this movie? Would it be the right thing to do?”, etc) If I need a tie-breaker between two movies, I am likely to prioritize a piece of fiction over a documentary (mostly because documentaries seem to be more easily available on television and through other outlets). Finally, there is the numbers game. This is once-a-year event, and many of the movies are getting their sole theatrical screening during the festival, so I will try to cram in as many movies as I can take. Sure, there are risks inherent in this strategy, as there is a possibility that fatigue will set in at some point, but I figure that if a movie is strong enough, it will overcome even such persistent obstacles.
This year’s tally stopped at a record-setting 27 movies, and in total this just might be the best festival yet, quality-wise. First and foremost, I saw very few truly awful movies (actually just one; Roger Alverson’s The Comedy, although Mexican zombie comedy Juan Of The Dead and Rodney Ascher’s grossly overhyped The Shining doc Room 237 were decidedly underwhelming). This pleasing haul of thought-provoking, genre-anarchic, moving and amusing cinema has led me to gather the following list of ten favorites from the festival, roughly in order of preference:
1. Holy Motors (Directed by: Leos Carax, France)
On the face of it, style trumps plot in the audience favorite from this year’s Cannes Film Festival. That said, ideas trump style, and mood trumps ideas. If this leaves you confused about the true nature of Holy Motors, that’s sort of the point. If anything, this is a film about role-playing, gorgeously shot, at the same time disorienting and weirdly moving. Denis Lavant’s contract hitman/father/bum/romantic interest will disgust and fascinate you, and probably make you laugh. There is also a good chance you’ll hate the movie. I’ll take that debate. With time and repeat viewings, this could turn out be a Mulholland Drive-style masterpiece.
2. The Hunt (Dir: Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark)
For most people, this will most likely be the real comeback of Thomas Vinterberg, the co-conspirator behind the Danish Dogma-95 wave, and director of 1998’s The Celebration, a modern classic of Scandinavian cinema. Granted, I was one of maybe a handful of people anywhere who loved 2005’s Dear Wendy (to the point that I included it on the upper half of my list of favorites from the previous decade), but you’re forgiven if you didn’t even know it existed. His first attempt at English-language filmmaking, the apocalyptic It’s All About Love (2003) was atrocious, and the comedy A Man Comes Home (2007) is better forgotten. This brings us back to the movie at hand, in which Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) plays a man who is accused of sexually abusing his best friend’s daughter. The movie examines the societal pressures of a tight-knit community, and makes you care for all characters, even though the question of “guilt” is not its prime concern. Mikkelsen’s performance earned Mikkelsen a well-deserved Best Actor award at Cannes.
3. The House I Live In (Dir: Eugene Jarecki, USA)
Last seen with the lukewarm documentary Reagan (2011), about the Republican icon, Eugene Jarecki returns with a powerful documentary in the vein of Charles Ferguson’s masterful Inside Job (2010). Where Ferguson investigated the reasons behind the financial meltdown of 2007-08, Jarecki takes on the intended and unintended consequences of the American forty-year “War On Drugs”. I’m generally not a fan of talking-head-heavy docs, but I do admire passionate documentary moviemaking that nevertheless values thoroughness over quick point-scoring. Jarecki interviews people on the lower steps of the drug trade ladder about the social, economic and racial consequences of the business; he talks to a police officer and a judge frustrated with how the focus on the “War on Drugs” drains the police force of resources, and how mandatory minimum sentencing ties the hands of the court system, which cannot take certain factors into account. Finally, he also investigates whether the fight against methamphetamine risks repeating the same mistakes that was made in fighting crack cocaine in the eighties and nineties. I want more documentaries like this one, unafraid to take a stand, but committed to where the evidence takes it.
4. Chronicle Of My Mother (Dir: Matsuro Harada, Japan)
This is a deeply moving and surprisingly funny chronicle of a large family, centered around a patriarch author and his unexplained bitterness toward his mother, who is slowly worn down by dementia. In the middle of this there is also a sweet love story involving his youngest daughter. It took me a while to get into the movie because of its pacing and a somewhat puzzling penchant toward verbal exposition. That said, this narrative strategy contributes to the movie’s unique rhytm. In its best scenes, the movie reminds me of the warmth I usually find in Hiyao Miyazaki movies like My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Ponyo (2008).
5. Amour (Dir: Michael Haneke, France/Austria)
Deep down Michael Haneke may be a humanist, after all. But thus far his filmography has mainly explored the darker aspects of the human psyche, be it the fear impulse in Cache (2005), our fascination with violence in Benny’s Video (1992) or Funny Games (1997/2006), or the fight between innocence and evil in children in The White Ribbon (2009). With Amour, however, he has made his first piece of low-key humanist cinema, a Palme d’Or-winning drama about how a long and loving marriage is put to the test when Georges’ (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant) wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) suffers a debilitating stroke. As usual, Haneke is not one to back away from the bleak and unpleasant aspects of life, but here he adds a touch of warmth to his story, most evident in the painful scenes where Anne tries to communicate despite great pain. This way, he reminds us of the inevitability of declining health, no matter how unfair we might think it to be. Led by a bouquet of phenomenal performances, Amour reminded me of the recent Icelandic movie, Volcano (Runar Runarsson, 2011), which is also worth a look.
6. The Giants (Dir: Bouli Lanners. Belgium)
If you’ve read my pieces on The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005) or Stand By Me (Rob Reiner, 1986), or glanced at where I placed movies like Imaginary Heroes (Dan Harris, 2004) and Roger Dodger (Dylan Kidd, 2003) on my favorites-of-the decade list, you probably could have guessed that the coming-of-story is one of my definitive favorite genres. If I were to sum up The Giants (my second Bouli Lanners movie, after 2009’s wonderful roadmovie Eldorado), I’d say it’s the sort of story I imagine Gordie would tell if the guys from Stand By Me ever sat down around the campfire with the guys from Jacob Aaron Estes’ Mean Creek (2004). Capturing something essential about growing into adolescence, The Giants offers an empathetic look at a trio of boys who have to go out on their own when they’re forced to out rent their house to a drug dealer.
7. Black Pond (Dir: Will Sharpe. UK)
Just when I thought the mockumentary format had been squeezed to the last drop (it’s been 25 years since This Is Spinal Tap! (1987) and ten years since the original Office, after all), along comes Black Pond, about what initially looks like a murder mystery involving a dog. The format works wonderfully, not least because the movie takes full advantage of its strengths (playing around with reaction shots and cause/effect shots, etc.), without congratulating itself for coming up with a supposedly edgy way of doing comedic storytelling. Chris Langham (of BBC’s The Thick of It) is funny in that goofy-squirmy way in the lead role, and Simon Amstell has a scene-stealing turn as an amateur therapist.
8. Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen (György Palfi, Hungary)
Hungarian filmmaker György Palfi has been featured on the festival before, with Hukkle (a 2003 film with no dialogue but plenty of farm animals) and Taxidermia (2006), but this year’s contribution is something completely different. Final Cut is a 90 minute montage movie, consisting of hundreds of clips from movie history, elegantly capturing the wonders of cinema, be it through the dance steps of Gene Kelly, the scowls of Marlon Brando, the innocent eyes of Audrey Hepburn or the barrel of Al Pacino’s gun. More than a coherent investigation into what makes cinema work, it’s a piece of filmmaking that makes people like me tick, while at the same time commenting on the lack of funding for new films in Hungary. I can imagine rewatching a few minutes of this movie every time I lose faith in film, for years to come. But why is it so glaringly hetero-centic?
9. La pirogue (Moussa Toure, France/Senegal)
An intimate portrait of a group of Senegalese refugees trying to make their way to Europe by boat, this is not usually the kind of movie I go for, but Moussa Toure succeeded in drawing me in. It gives real depth to all its characters, and adds some sincere emotional punch to the sobering conflicts about race, religion and culture that might arise when a diverse group of people are forced to band together in a fight to survive. La pirogue is engaging on a basic human level, but I was impressed as well by the beauty of the cinematography and the understated performances, stripped of the flash and simplistic heroism that often accompanies such cinematic tales.
10. Footnote (Joseph Cedar, Israel)
How to decide what genre this movie belongs to? Well, Footnote is essentially a comedy thriller about a turf war within a family of Talmudic scholars. The father feels outshone by his son, and the movie slowly uncovers the reasons behind their falling out. Temperamentally and thematically, Footnote reminded me of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (which, considering it deals with the Book of Job is a natural reference for another movie I saw at the festival, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, which I did not particularly like), not least in its use of laconic humor, evident whenever it transitions from one chapter to the next.