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AFI Fest 2011: Day Seven (Thursday)

And this completes the festival for another year. All told, I saw 21 features and about the same number of shorts, which is probably my highest festival total ever. A few of them will likely be on my best-of year lists, a few are hovering way down at the bottom of my Flickchart lists, and that’s the way a festival should be. Overall, I judge it a major success, and I’m already looking forward to the next time I can gorge on films to the point of exhaustion (likely to be April’s TCM Classic Film Festival). Until then, I return to the ranks of ordinary cinemagoer.

The Kid with a Bike

I’ve never seen a film from the Dardenne brothers before, but I know them by reputation, and they seem to often do stories that deal with unwanted or unwelcome children. In this case, the main character is an eleven-year-old kid whose dad puts him in an orphanage (“temporarily”) but then ends up abandoning him totally. A kind neighbor takes him in, despite a rather inauspicious meeting, but they’ve got several bumps in the road left to go, not least of them the kid’s temptation to fall in with a bad crowd. It’s a bit on the sweet side, but doesn’t stray too far into saccharine territory – really good turns from Doret and De France help a lot, making an unlikely relationship realistic and meaningful. There’s not enough in the film to really push it over the edge into “loved” territory for me, but it’s solid for what it is. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
2011 Belgium. Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Starring: Thomas Doret, Cécile De France, Jérémie Renier.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

This is one I went into with really no quality expectations whatsoever. I chose it because I’d never seen a Turkish film, and because I like slow burn procedural films – to a point. I was a bit concerned that this would go past that point, because it is very long and I was perfectly prepared to be bored stiff. But even though it is very slow, it is never boring, and I ended up liking the film a whole lot more than I thought I would. A caravan of police and army officers are escorting a pair of suspects in the middle of nowhere, trying to find a body that one suspect says is out there, but can’t remember exactly where. This odyssey takes all night, and along the way, different groupings of the police and suspects talk. The topics of conversation are as mundane as anything, but over time, this mundanity becomes the real focus, and takes on in importance even greater than the body they seek. It’s a narrative subversion that only works because of a really solid script and believable acting turns by the whole cast, and it’s a welcome one – by the end, you care more about these people’s individual lives than the mystery itself. There’s a lot more dry humor in it than I expected, too, which actually made the nearly three-hour runtime go by rather quickly. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
2011 Turkey. Director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Starring: Muhammet Uzuner, Yilmaz Erdogan, Taner Birsel.

The Loneliest Planet

I’m not entirely sure what to say about this film, even after having had a few weeks to think about it. It’s an extremely slowly-paced film, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that – unless it’s 10pm the last day of an exhausting festival, which, oh wait, it was. It was difficult to stay awake in the film, but again, that’s not the film’s fault, and though I struggled while watching it, thinking back about it has made me appreciate a lot of what it was doing more. Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal play a couple about to be married who are vacationing in the mountains of Georgia (the country, not the state), backpacking and camping along with a mountain guide. A lot of the film is just them walking around, maybe taking a few minutes to wander around an abandoned house or interacting with village locals before heading out into the wilds. They converse some, trying to learn about their guide (who is actually played by one of the premier mountaineers in the world) and practicing bits of Spanish, but a lot of it is also wordless. Somewhere in the middle a traumatizing event causes Furstenberg’s character to start distrusting Bernal’s, which leads to some darker places in the rest of the film. A lot of this is pretty subtle, and I was frankly too sleepy to catch all the acting nuances all the time, but the Q&A and thinking over the film in the subsequent days has definitely made me want a rewatch at some point. Reaction: LIKED.
2011 Germany/USA. Director: Julia Loktev. Starring: Hani Furstenberg, Gael García Bernal, Bidzina Gujabidze.

AFI Fest 2011: Day Six (Wednesday)

After a day of disappointing features on Monday and a day of mostly shorts on Tuesday (albeit very excellent shorts), I was ready for some features to blow me away, and that’s exactly what happened on Wednesday. These were two of my most highly-anticipated films of the festival, and they both actually turned out to be even better than I was hoping. Both of these films are in my top ten for the year right now, and We Need to Talk About Kevin is pretty much guaranteed a spot on it, sitting in the #2 slot right now. That’s what I call a good day at the festival.


My first foray into the new wave of Greek cinema emerging over the past couple of years was an unmitigated success, at least for me. I have yet to see either of Yanthos Lorgimos’s films (which I need to do, especially Dogtooth, as it’s a frontrunner in current Greek cinema), but I pretty much loved Attenberg, from his friend and collaborator Athina Rachel Tsangari, from start to finish. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but what I got is something very similar to a Czech New Wave film, closely focused on a single twenty-something character and her struggle to come to terms with her father’s impending death and the way that’s all tied up her late-blooming sexuality. On the surface, not a whole lot happens here, but there’s a lot underneath, and that’s what I like to see. Right now this is in my top ten for the year. We’ll see if it can hang on through the final month of big-name releases. Reaction: LOVED. Full review on Row Three.
2011 Greece. Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari. Starring: Ariane Labed, Yorgos Lanthimos, Vangelis Mourikis, Evangelia Randou.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Now here’s one that will DEFINITELY be on my top ten list his year – I was expecting a lot from this film based on the buzz from other festivals and advance screenings, and it delivered even more than I could’ve hoped. Almost a psychological horror film, delving into the disturbed psyche of a mom whose son seems to be a child of the devil. But whether the boy really is astoundingly fiendish or whether she’s an incapable mother (or more likely, somewhere between those two extremes, as they both bring out the worst in each other) is left ambiguous, as Lynne Ramsay builds a portrait of a woman who’s lost everything and vascillates between blaming everyone else and assuming blame herself. The film is structured with a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, keeping the audience in doubt as to the exact chain of events until a chronology starts building up to a terrible end – this structure, standout performances from everyone involved, and an enormously effective soundscape combine to make this one of the most terrifying pictures about parenthood ever made. Reaction: LOVED.
2011 UK. Director: Lynne Ramsay. Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly.

AFI Fest 2011: Day Five (Tuesday)

Tuesday was almost a day full of shorts (it could’ve been – they ran all four shorts programs back to back in the same theatre without reticketing, a very tempting prospect), but I punctuated it with a quiet little feature from Korean director Hong Sang-soo. Unfortunately both that and some of the shorts in the later program suffered a little due to my own tiredness. By this point in the festival, it was getting hard to ignore. But I still had a great time and saw some fantastic shorts. Next year I may just plan to see all the shorts programs. I enjoy them a whole lot.

Shorts Program 2

This shorts program turned out to be one of mostly long shorts – 25-30 minutes each. That’s longer than most shorts I’ve seen at festivals, but these were all really strong. Really, I wish more filmmakers would just make shorts like this instead of features a lot of the time – a lot of indie features are stretched longer than they need to be just to attain feature length. I realize shorts longer than 10 minutes are often difficult to place at festivals, so I’m really glad AFI stepped up and made room for shorts of this length. These all have the production values of theatrical-release features, just at a shorter length. Clearly I’m not the only one who appreciated them, either, as several of the shorts from this section featured in the audience and jury awards at the end of the festival.

Unmanned – A young Air Force drone pilot blows up enemy targets remotely by day, then returns home to his wife and son in sunny LA at night – a pretty good gig for the former video game addict until a few events transpire to make him rethink how easy it is to blow up the wrong target from thousands of miles away. The film isn’t preachy, though – it’s obvious, but sincere in the way it makes its points. Very high quality production all around, too, from the cinematography and direction t to the screenplay and acting. This was a senior project for AFI conservatory students, and these students are definitely ready. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
Broken Night – A Korean film balanced between tragedy and comedy, as a man who practices insurance fraud (getting into planned fender-benders with accomplices in order to get insurance payouts) ends up trapped by his own game when a pair of motorcycling kids pull the same trick on him – except things get bloodier and more effed up as the night goes on. Some really solid acting, especially from the main actor, and a lot of “whoa, holy crap!” moments. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
Frozen Stories – A droll Polish comedy, as dry as dry can be, about a pair of bored and lackluster grocery store employees (declared by the manager as “worst employees of the month”) who join forces to try to win a spot on the TV program “Who is the World’s Most Unhappy Person.” The whole store pitches in to help them (assigning them the worst tasks, refusing to help them get things done, etc, to make them more unhappy), at the behest of the manager, who hopes that having a goal, any goal, will help them out. Shot in a very bright, overexposed style that only increases the bleakness of the situation, this film turned out to be one of my favorite shorts of the festival. Reaction: LOVED.
Babyland – At first I thought this was going to be another abortion drama (like Another Bullet Dodged from Shorts Program #3, which I didn’t care for very much), but there’s a lot more to it. The main character isn’t pregnant, but she wants to be, and pretends she is to try to hold on her (married) boyfriend. She’s kinda messed up, but believably so once you see her home life. There’s one overly convenient twist, but it works for the narrative, and the end is a total shock, in a good way. It genre-hops more than you’d expect in a 25-minute film, but I really enjoyed how it approached its story. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
Infinite Moments – A circular story, which I always like, showing a bunch of hospital workers and what they’re doing at a specific moment in time – so you see/hear the same events from about six or eight different perspectives. I don’t think the timing actually works to bring it back around at the end, but it’s still a lot of fun to see pieces you only vaguely knew about from previous perspectives fall into place later in the film. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.

The Day He Arrives

This one has been at the top of my must-see list for the festival since it was announced, since Hong Sang-soo’s film HaHaHa was my favorite film of last year’s AFIFest. And I did see it, but I’m disappointed to say that I was exhausted and zoning in and out throughout it. As such, I can’t really justify reviewing it fully, but here’s a few bits about it from my half-remembered daze. It’s got a lot less story than HaHaHa did, but similar to that film (and other Hong films, from what I’ve heard), a lot of it involves people conversing over drinks. In fact, that’s mostly what this film is, but Hong is so good at sussing out great little moments and character interactions in social situations like this that it remains enjoyable to watch, and I expect would be really good if I had been awake enough to catch more nuances. The main character is a filmmaker who arrives in a small town, intending to meet up with a friend, but he gets waylaid by a fan first, then a bunch of film students, then visits a former girlfriend (awesome awkward conversation there), then ends up killing some time with a friend of his friend, since his friend isn’t home. Eventually there are four of them, hanging out over drinks and chatting – this stuff is great, and seems to come really easily to Hong. This basically feels like a recharge film, a quickly produced affair maybe as he’s working on something more complicated. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are some really interesting conversational tacks, all carried out with aplomb by the charismatic cast. There’s also some timey-wimey stuff going on – one section of the film is repeated almost verbatim twice, but with slight differences, and the end is basically the beginning, except his friend turns out to be home. I’m dying to see it again to connect that stuff up properly, but I can’t, having dozed off enough to make deciphering timey-wimey stuff impossible. The worst part is I have no idea when, if ever, I’ll get a chance to rewatch this – Hong’s stuff is not easy to find in the US. Reaction: LIKED, might improve on rewatch

2011 South Korea. Director: Hong Sang-soo. Starring: Jun-Sang Yu, Sang Jung Kim, Bo-kyung Kim, Seon-mi Song.

Shorts Program 1

I’d planned to see Shorts Program 1 because I knew it included The Eagleman Stag, which I’d already seen at the LA Film Festival but have been dying to see again, but was thrilled to discover the whole program was animation. I LOVE animated shorts. They’re probably the most creative and innovative films out there right now, and I always look forward to seeing what people can come up with. This program had a ton of variety, in animation technique, tone, and length. It was a great way to end the evening.

Maska – Okay, I basically slept through this one, a rather long (25 minutes or so) Polish stop-motion version of a Stanislaw Lem short story. That all sounds great, and Polish stop-motion is definitely freaky (think of Czech stop motion and then think of Polish movie posters, and you’ll have the general idea), but it was a little slow and quiet for my amount of energy. Reaction: NONE
Night Hunter – Another relatively long one, but this one held my interest a little better, largely because I was fascinated that it’s basically a horror story starring Lillian Gish, as the animator used film still cutouts from Gish’s 1910s and 1920s films to create the character. It’s fairly on the experimental side, with a lot of creepy sound design and unusual animation techniques filling in for a sparse story. Reaction: LIKED.
To Die By Your Side – This one perked me up, and I was fully alert for the rest of the program. :) Co-directed by Spike Jonze, this is a jaunty stop-motion affair with a bunch of figures off book covers (in Shakespeare & Co.!) carousing after the shop is closed, with a skeleton and a girl falling in love and trying to figure out (delightfully) how to manage that given their different states of, uh, aliveness. Reaction: LOVED.
Once It Started It Could Not Have Ended Otherwise – Much more intriguing in concept than execution, this film uses cut-out yearbook photos to suggest the underlying sinister aspects of this particular high school. The idea is great, and a lot of individual elements work really well, but the script just doesn’t go far enough. Reaction: LIKED.
The Eagleman Stag – I’ve already stated above that I loved this short at LAFF. It’s basically paper cut-out stop-motion, but with an all-white aesthetic that’s really unique and lovely, but it also has an incredible script, with the main character musing on the nature of time. It’s very philosophical, but moves very quickly – the second time watching it was actually better, because I was able to concentrate on the voiceover much more. The film won the Best Short award at both LAFF and AFI, and I’m pretty sure it would’ve won an Oscar, but apparently it didn’t get submitted in time or something. Bummer. The whole film is not online, but you can see a trailer that gives a good idea of its style and tone here. Reaction: LOVED.
Libertas – This very personal film is about the animator’s childhood moving from Singapore to Australia, done in a very low-fi and scruffy hand-drawn style. There’s not a lot to it (it’s only 3 minutes long), but it was a nice and different addition to the line-up. Reaction: LIKED.
Zergüt – Part high-speed photography, part stop-motion, exploration of the insides of a refrigerator. Basically, food pr0n, but with really stylish slow-motion photography. Lots of smashing things. No real story or anything, but some nice visuals. Reaction: LIKED.
One Minute Puberty – One of the shortest films here (though slightly longer than a minute), a fast-moving hand-drawn look at a boy’s growth through adolescence. It’s fun and funny. And it’s right here. Reaction: LIKED.
Dr. Breakfast – A man gets breakfast ready then his soul gets super-excited and jumps out his eye, gobbling up the breakfast and then whizzing around the world after more breakfast, leaving the man’s catatonic body behind to be cared for by a pair of talking deer. Sound absurd? Yes. And AWESOME. This short is hilarious, bizarre, and fantastic – great high to leave the fest that night. And you can see it right here! Reaction: LOVED.

AFI Fest 2011: Day Four (Monday)

Hoping to plow through the rest of these recaps so I can get to my month recap post relatively on time. Monday was kind of a disappointing day at the festival for me, as I didn’t really care for either of the features. However, there was enough goodness during the shorts program that it saved the day a bit for me. Still, ending the day with a 158-minute Russian film I nearly hated was pretty much of a downer. That’s what you get with festivals, though, gotta take the bad with the good.

Shorts Program 3

I usually try to make it to one shorts program per festival; this time I made it to three of them! And I’m really glad I did – they don’t get as much press, but short films are often the hidden gems at festivals, and it’s too bad there’s not a more visible/mainstream venue for them. This program had eight live-action shorts running around 10-20 minutes each, pretty much all of them extremely high production quality.

Juan and La Borrega – A crime drama short from Mexico, with a heavy strong-arming his way into a uniform wholesalers before they open and terrorizing the meek clerk. Really good acting, but a touch on the melodramatic side. Reaction: LIKED.
All in All – Not totally sure what to make of this one; set at a Christian summer camp, it was getting laughs from the audience purely through the characters talking about their commitment to God and such. I’m not sure what the filmmakers intended; if it was satire (as the audience was largely taking it), it was a little too straight. If sincere, the actors weren’t quite good enough to pull it off. Reaction: DIDN’T LIKE
Clear Blue – A teen starts his first day lifeguarding the early shift at a nearly deserted pool, except for the older woman who seems to have impossible breathing control and dislikes contact with other people. The two of them form a strange friendship, as the woman reveals she’s not quite what she seems. A bit of a slow burn, but gorgeous cinematography and a very sweet story. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.
Blink – This one had some stylistic over-the-topness that wasn’t really necessary, making the beginning a little offputting, but the underlying story is pretty interesting – a guy experiences weird glitches, then discovers that his girlfriend is literally editing their life in a film editing room hidden off their bedroom, cutting out all the bad parts. But who is she to decide what the bad parts are, or that they should be removed? Interesting ideas, and only a little over-indulgent. Reaction: LIKED.
Pale Flowers in Time – The most overtly experimental of the pieces, a sort of horror riff on the idea that red-eye in photographs is actually a demon in the person. Some of it is downright terrifying, both in the way music and editing juxtaposes things together, and notably in a scene with Chloe Sevigny and a little boy trying to make faces to scare each other, helped out with a little excellent makeup and CGI work. Reaction: LOVED.
Ex-Sex – Very Silver Lake hipster-esque film, all pastel-colors and indie pop music as a former couple gets back together for a one-night stand. Some sweet moments, and really good chemistry between the actors, but not really enough back story to their relationship to make it fully worthwhile. Still, some decent promise here, and I’ll check out the feature the director’s working on (okay, partially because the feature will star Lizzy Caplan and Alison Brie). Reaction: LIKED.
Another Bullet Dodged – Another hipster-esque film, but not nearly as sweet. This time, a man picks up a girl who may or may not be his girlfriend, and eventually you find out they’re headed to an abortion clinic. Not a storyline I’m a fan of anyway, but the guy’s such a dick (intentionally, I think – we’re not supposed to like him) that I found it pretty hard to sit through. Reaction: DIDN’T LIKE
The Voyagers – Back to more experimental with this one, as a narrator talks about the Voyager missions, including a capsule of earth things sent into the far reaches of space, and then connects those musings to love, and how risking everything on love is kind of like sending a Voyager capsule into space on the possibility that someone, somewhere, someday will find it. It’s a heady piece, made up of found footage and animation, but it all came together with the narration much better than my description would indicate. Reaction: REALLY LIKED.


This adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays boasts a strong cast including Ralph Fiennes (who also makes his directing debut), Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, and James Nesbit. But there’s a reason that Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. It’s frankly not that interesting, even transposing its story of a military hero double-crossed and banished into a modern setting. The acting veers from classical overblown Shakespearean antics to more minimalist approaches, giving the film a very uneven feel – only Redgrave and Cox seem to know how to navigate switching between these two as the material calls for it. Chastain is really underused. There are some great moments, particularly Redgrave’s tour-de-force scenes as Coriolanus’ mother, but the whole thing is unwieldy and uneven. Reaction: MEH. Full review on Row Three.
2011 UK. Director: Ralph Fiennes. Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain.


I so wanted this to be good – a Russian sci-fi film about a group of people who seek out this target-shaped area in Thailand with a well at the center of it that supposedly grants eternal youth. Seems like a good deal, but all is bound to go wrong. That much I figured, but it goes wrong in really offputting, cruel, and pointless ways. By the end of its two and a half hour runtime, I didn’t care about any of the characters and just wanted it to end. There are some great visuals spread throughout, and it’s shot and acted quite well, but it’s just…punishing to watch. Reaction: DISLIKED.
2011 Russia. Director: Alexander Zeldovich. Starring: Vitaly Kishchenko, Danila Kozlovskiy, Nina Loshchinina.

AFI Film Festival: Day Three (Sunday)

I am determined to get all these AFI films capsuled up, even if we are getting further and further away from the festival itself. Sunday would’ve been another five-film day like Saturday, except that I knew the Melancholia screening was going to be packed and decided to get in line super-early instead of seeing something in the slot just before it. That turned out to be the right decision, since being at the front of the pass-holder’s line only got us seats way over on the side. They turned away a whole bunch of people from that screening. But it was worth it. Great film, definitely one to see whether you’re a fan of von Trier or not, really.

The Dish and the Spoon

Greta Gerwig is an indie goddess for a reason, and this little film proves why. Taking a simple story of a woman angry at her husband’s infidelity and throwing in some adventures with a young unmoored British man, Gerwig finds a character arc and runs with it, alternating funny, awkward, raw, and quirky as needed. The film is something of a collaboration between director, writer, and stars, and though things like this can get loose and uncontrolled very quickly, that doesn’t happen here, and the film remains charming and cohesive. Reaction: LIKED. Full review on Row Three.
2011 USA. Director: Alison Bagnall. Starring: Greta Gerwig, Olly Alexander.

Cafe de Flore

Parallel stories seemingly connected only by the importance of the title song in each take place in 1969 Paris and present-day Montreal. In 1969, a mother devotes herself to her Downs Syndrome son, their close bond threatened only when the boy becomes attached to a Downs girl he meets a school. In present-day, a DJ leaves his wife of many years for a young beauty. Both stories are concerned with multiple loves, lost love, new love, and letting go, and they may be connected even closer than that. This film will sneak up on you with how good it is, rising to an amazingly edited and scored crescendo. There currently isn’t US distribution for it that I’m aware of, and that’s a crying shame. This is one of the best films of the year. Reaction: LOVED.
2011 Canada. Director: Jean-Marc Vallée. Starring: Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent, Hélène Florent, Evelyne Brochu.


It stands to reason that Lars von Trier would be a stellar director for a film with the end of the world as a metaphor for depression. It isn’t a particularly subtle film, but it’s nonetheless a perfect depiction of “melancholia” in both metaphorical and literal terms, as Kirsten Dunst gives an incredible performance as a woman struggling with depression, seemingly the only person who truly understands the import of the planet hurtling toward earth (dubbed “Melancholia”). Her sister, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, tries to help her through the depression, but when it becomes clear that Melancholia is not going to miss Earth as predicted, she falls apart – the shifting roles of the two sisters brings a dynamism to a film that can get downright stately (in a good way). No one but von Trier could make this film, but it is probably his most accessible in years. Reaction: LOVED.
2011 Denmark. Director: Lars von Trier. Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgaard, Stellan Skarsgaard, Charlotte Rampling.


A downright fun thriller with a heavy dose of dark comedy, as a mousy headhunter who uses his contacts as a way to find potential targets for his side business as an art thief ends up embroiled in a scheme way over his head and has to overcome his many character weaknesses just to survive. The plotting is intricate, but rarely confusing, and the cast (including Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known in the US for his villainous Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones) carries off all manner of ridiculous situations with believable aplomb. Reaction: LOVED.
2011 Norway. Director: Morten Tyldum. Starring: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Aksel Hennie, Julie R. Ølgaard, Synnøve Macody Lund.

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