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The Best Films of the 2008 Vancouver International Film Festival

VIFF 2008 - See ya next year!
by Jason Whyte

Over the last couple of weeks I have been through 106 films, five parties, many cups of coffee, countless trips to cheap pizza and poutine joints along with countless lineups to bring you my choices for the absolute best of this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. It was far from an easy task as there were many good to excellent films – more than any year I have attended – and getting down to just ten films was a very hard task (there’s even a tie in here).

Many of the films on this list are getting distribution later this year or early in 2009 and are worth seeking out. Following this list I have some choices for my least favorite along with some notes about the festival in general. Without further ado:

The Best Film of VIFF 2008:

Il Divo (Italy)

Easily the best film at this year’s VIFF, “Il Divo” blasts across the screen in a mere 117 minutes and reminded me of the first time that I saw “Goodfellas”; that kind of feeling where you knew you were witnessing the birth of a new classic. Divo gets you right into the life and times of Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, who has been in the government for decades. He also may have ties to the Italian mob, as since the 90’s he has been accused of many illicit charges involving conspiracy and murder. Director Paolo Sorrentino, instantly on my Director’s Power List, has such a keen eye for detail and keeping the pace lively while also keeping the information coming. It also probably helps matters that Toni Servillo (also in “The Girl by the Lake” and “Gomorrah” at VIFF this year) gives a legendary performance as Andreotti. This is an unflinching, dense masterpiece that I believe will have a long and bright future.

2. Welcome to the Sticks (France)

You could call this fish out of water comedy “In Bergues”, but this gem is even better than the early year Colin Farrell flick. One of the best things about any film festival is discovery, especially finding a time and a place that you never knew existed before. Such is the case with this gem from France, the most successful in its box office history, about a manager of a post office who has no choice but to move from his comfy Paris setting to the North of France for a temporary post office position. Everyone along the way (including his lovely wife who he leaves behind) thinks it is a horrible decision, but as he arrives he finds out that the place turns out to be a joy, the people speak an altered version of French called Ch’ti, and the best place to eat in town is a French fry stand on the street. It’s rare to find a film so full of life and one that defies conventions; it is refreshing to see a person who assumes the worst and is pleasantly surprised and has a good time discovering a new place. This is a movie that delivers its big, strong laughs all the way to the joyful end, as is one of the most fun experiences of the year.

Note: The program book mentions that a remake is already in plans starring Will Smith. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing as it is damn good source material, but this film is still worth looking out for.

3. Let the Right One In (Sweden)

I first heard about this film by fellow efilmcritic writer Jason Seaver, who raved about this film at this year’s Fantasia film festival where it won the Best Cinematography award. Mr. Seaver was dead on correct, as I also loved every inch and curve of this film as it defies pigeonholing into a category. This is a vampire film but it isn’t, a story about the pains of childhood but not really, and a love story between two children…but you know what they say about childhood love. To brush lightly on the setup, it is the story of the relationship between an outcast boy and a girl who just might have some supernatural powers, and the two are in the slums of Stockholm which certainly doesn’t help matters. I wasn’t totally high on director Thomas Alfredson’s “Four Shades of Brown” (VIFF 2004) but he completely reinvents himself here with an unforgettable piece of work that finalizes on one of the best shots in cinema history (you’ll know it when you see it). If I only had one gripe, I wish the festival booked a 35mm print to bask in the incredible visuals. Still, I was happy to see the film and hope you do too upon release.

4. The Rest is Silence (Romania)

When you hear the word “Romanian Cinema”, you instantly think of the abortion of “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days” or the medical drama “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”. I was unprepared for this fun, lively look at Romanian cinema and its filmmakers in the early 20th century who were just as passionate then as filmmakers are today to get their vision across. From the film’s director to producer to cinematographer, every aspect of the movie magic is brought to the big screen in this widescreen epic. Even at its long 140 minute time, not a moment is spared to bring this unique vision to the screen.

5. Wendy & Lucy (United States)

The best indie-American film of the year (with “The New Year Parade” and “Dance of the Dead” close behind it), Kelly Reichardt’s bold, unforgettable picture is set in a small town in Oregon where Wendy (Michelle Williams) is lost. Why she is lost is anyone’s guess, but she has her adorable dog Lucy in tow as she falls asleep in her car with limited finances as she strives to get to her sister’s house back east. I’d like to think that Wendy had money and success at one point but somehow, somewhere she lost her way. Reichardt is brilliant in how her camera just simply watches and observes a woman who uses her skill and wit to get out of this town, and Michelle Williams gives one of the best performances of the year as this woman in struggle.

6. The English Surgeon (United Kingdom)

This was one of the first films I viewed at this year’s festival yet its subject and images never left me. My favorite documentary at this year’s festival as it contains just as much drama and excitement as a fictional narrative, we follow Dr. Henry Marsh who is the neurosurgeon of the title. Deeply talented at his work, he also makes trips to the Ukraine where he does free surgery work for financially strapped patients. Director Geoffery Smith is like a fly on the wall with his camera while at the same time giving careful interviews with Marsh as well as his patients. I should also probably mention at this point the surgery scenes; while handled with care and tastefully done, the images might be a bit too harsh for some. This is a minor gripe, however, as this is an Oscar worthy doc across the board.

7. I’ve Loved You So Long (France)

Here is the deserved winner of the audience award at the film festival this year. Kristin Scott Thomas continues the year of great female performances as a woman who has just been released from prison after fifteen years, and may or may not have killed her son. Thomas’ character is one that has to find a way back into into society despite everyone around her knowing about her prison sentence and life problems, and it is brilliant in how the film simply watches her as she tries to reinvent herself.

8. Mothers & Daughters and Real Time (tie) (Canada)

I am forced to tie these two films as I want to spotlight a surprising resurgence in independent Canadian cinema by way of filmmakers Carl Bessai and Randall Cole, two filmmakers who have been making films for years and have equally made their best works yet.

Bessai’s triumphant Mothers and Daughters, which brings the director’s cred to the top of the independent game, is his loosest and most improvisational work yet, and this is a damn good thing because he has structured a group of actresses (among them Babz Chula, Tantoo Cardinal and Camille Sullivan) who absolutely know what they are doing. The film focuses on a few different mother-daughter relationships in Vancouver over different ages and race groups, and it is great to see that everyone can share the same problems. There is also a dinner scene halfway through the film that just defies description, but I’ll give it a shot anyway: it’s a dinner conversation between actors such as Ben Ratner, Tom Schlote and Babz Chula that is one of the funniest things that I have ever seen. Don’t miss this indie gem when it is released (next mother’s day!).

Heading east to the run down streets of Hamilton, Ontario we find “Real Time” by director Cole. I was a fan of his earlier film“19 Months” and this new film, which opened this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, is his best work yet. Randy Quaid and Jay Baruchel star as two gangsters; Quaid is assigned to “take care” of Baruchel, who has had too much bad luck. Told over the course of real time to give us more immediacy into the characters, we follow these two as they discuss and rationalize over life and work as we lead to Baruchel’s likely demise. What’s fascinating about the film is how wrapped up we get in these two wildly different characters, and Quaid gives a quietly amazing performance as a man who carries out his mission to the tee.

9. Largo (United States)

While I may be a bit biased as I am huge fans of the likes of Aimee Mann, Michael Penn and Andrew Bird, “Largo” is a beautiful documentary about a time and place, in this case the small, limited seating bar of the film’s title which is located in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. Filmed over the course of many nights, the black and white shot pic brings us up close and personal with all the aforementioned talents along with Jon Brion, John C. Reilly, Fred Armisen and so many others that I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul Thomas Anderson was in the audience. Whatever the case, these are all unique, individual talents who normally perform in much bigger venues yet seem so much real and honest in this smaller one.

10. The New Year Parade

A hit at this year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, Tom Quinn’s heartbreakingly real human drama is among the best indie dramas this decade. A working class family in urban Philadelphia is going through some pretty tumultuous times; the parents are breaking up, the twenty-eight-and-still-living-at-home son is trying to take that next step in life, and his teenage sister is experimenting with losing her virginity. Spanning the course of a year and utilizing a kind of documentary style filmmaking that feels like we are voyeurs in the lives of these people, Quinn is able to make us feel like this domestic drama is really happening, but it is also thanks to great song selections from Elliot Smith and amazing, real performances from his leads (Jennifer Lynn Welsh as the precocious daughter is a knockout) that makes this film very unique and brutally honest. I also admire the fact that this film was made for nearly no money yet is so rich in scope and drama that it is easy to overlook. It’s kind of awesome to see.

Special Jury Prizes: Here are some films that just about made the Top 10:

11. The Good, The Bad, The Weird

The most “fun” film I saw at the film festival this year, this South Korean import from Ji-Woon Kim (“A Tale of Two Sisters”, which I raved about at the 2003 VIFF) is a big, operatic widescreen western set in the 1930’s occupied Korea as warring cultures, thieves and bounty hunters all square off against one another. It’s a bit insane just trying to keep up with all the goings on, but it is a grand spectacle that makes perfect sense and is the reason this genre exists.

12. Happy Go Lucky

Days after I viewed Happy Go Lucky, many of the scenes still haven’t left me. Poppy (Sally Hawkins, a lead actor winner at the Berlin Film Festival) perfectly fits the title of the film, a woman who at 30 is as happy as they come. She’s a schoolteacher who can’t drive, a lovely young woman who doesn’t have a boyfriend and somewhat of a pain to her family who thinks that she’s slacking about. I think we have all met someone like Poppy in our life, and it’s an amazing thing to watch Hawkins’ near perfect performance that never overstays her welcome and never goes too far over the top. Credit director Leigh to allow improvisation and to give his characters the time to think and breathe.

Also excellent: Summer Hours, Sita Sings The Blues, Three Monkeys, The Desert Within, Hunger, The Girl By The Lake, Rachel Getting Married, REC, The Class, Dunya & Desie, A Christmas Tale, Ballast, Religulous, Eden, All Around Us, Waltz With Bashir, It’s Not Me I Swear!, Happy Go Lucky and The Young Romantic.

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Best Short Films:

Here are some quick notes on the short films that I saw at VIFF this year. Many exciting new talents to watch out for and I’m hoping that these films enjoy screenings at future festivals:

1. Ctrl Z – What if you could turn around the past by hitting the “undo” command on your computer? An office worker appears to have been given this gift, although it really isn’t much of one. This is a fun, lighthearted romp that ends with a very funny note.
2. The Brute – Tracy (“Tamimg Tammy”, VIFF 07) Smith’s hilarious and kind of off kilter new short is about the firearm-esque relationship between a big guy (Aleks Paunovic, the “brute” of the title) and a smaller, slightly older woman was done on the cheap in likely Smith’s apartment, but is still ridiculously funny and smart enough to be included on this list.
3. Sarah in the Dark – The stunning Jennifer Halley is the Sarah of the title who is suffering somewhat of a bizarre identity crisis (to say more would spoil the fun). Like many of the other films featured here, it is made for very little money, but Halley understands this and still gets the most out of her setting and performances, one of which is the talented Michael Eklund in a supporting role.
4. Reverse – For you William B. Davis fans out there, you can’t miss his wonderful short about an elderly man (Davis) who still feels young at heart and wants nothing more than to go water-skiing. Based on a true story of a similar-minded man, it is perfectly enjoyable and ends on a bittersweet note.
5. The Valet – The award winner for best short at this year’s festival, this slightly overlong comedy pits a valet into organized crime and all the chaos that ensues. You have to see this whole thing to believe all the insanity, and at 39 minutes it comes off as more of a midlength than a short. Still, it is a whole lot of fun and boy does the director save the best moment for the last.

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The Not-So-Good Films at this year’s VIFF:

1. Burned Hearts (Morocco)

An astoundingly bad film from Morocco; either our print of the film was trashed or this rough cut of a stinker shows that Ahmed El Maanouni just can not make a film to save his life. The program book reads “A young architect returns from Paris to his birthplace in Fez, hoping to settle accounts with his dying uncle and free himself from painful memories”, and I had to type that in because I could not figure anything out in this badly edited, slipshod piece of garbage.

2. The Secret Life of the Grain (France)

Despite all of the awards and shocking acclaim this film has garnered, I have no problem hating this terrible film, which chronicles a North African family who wants to open a restaurant on a boat to serve unappealing looking cous cous. Everyone yells at each other, nothing is resolved and the film finalizes on a brutally endless sequence where the odd looking daughter belly dances for over half an hour as the father runs across the city. 151 painful minutes scroll by and the only thing I felt for anyone was pity.

3. My Marlon & Brando (Turkey)

I have the sinking feeling that this film sold out a couple of screenings at this year’s festival because of its title, which actually turned out to be called “Gitmek”. This depressing, poorly made film is more about an Iraqi actress and her hardships over the war is more about the culture of its people rather than being a character study, and it also features an endless sequence towards the end of the film of townsfold dancing with sad, decrepit faces all over the screen. What fun!
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4. Good Cats (China)

Words fail me to describe this Asian character study that is shot on a zero grade budget and everything that it implies. I am guessing that it was programmed in the Dragons and Tigers as time filler, but this is something you wouldn’t watch for free on network television. I guess it just wasn’t for me, but then again I couldn’t find a single person at the festival who wanted to see it, and those that did really didn’t care for it.

5. Partithuvean (India)

“For [bleep] sake, turn it down!” These words were overheard by a middle aged woman at this noisy and depressing film about the hardships of an Indian family. While I usually balk at people talking back to the screen (as if it can hear them), the lady’s actions were warranted as she echoed the entire auditorium. This unbearable, nearly two and a half hour wall of noise is a true endurance test for any filmgoer. If it does open at the Raja in Vancouver and you have nothing better to see that weekend, bring earplugs.

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A Place To Rant:

Where I take a look at some of the key performances along with a strange audience reaction to a particular great film at VIFF 2008:

Best Actor: Tony Servillo in Il Divo, The Girl by the Lake and Gomorrah – All three of Tony’s films are right next to each other in the program book, and that’s probably because he is one of the strongest forces coming out of Italy right now. Il Divo is his masterwork as prime minister Guiliotti and has some unforgettable moments.

Best Actress: Michelle Williams in Wendy & Lucy – This is William’s best work yet as she channels the deepest channels of her soul to play someone who is lost both physically and emotionally in a small Oregon town. Williams, an actress I have always liked (Brokeback Mountain and Me Without You she gives excellent work in) gets her best, meatiest role here and one that should not be forgotten in awards season.

Best Cinematography: Let The Right One In -- As I mentioned earlier, I wish that the festival was able to book a 35mm print as we had to sit and watch a digibeta copy of the movie with subtitles interchanging between the top and bottom of the screen. I am thrilled to hear the movie is opening in Vancouver on October 31st in 35mm as there is no other way to view the stunning, flowing visuals that Tomas Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema bring to the screen.

Biggest Letdown: “Trip to Asia” -- A surprisingly disappointing followup to Thomas Grube’s wonderful film Rhythm Is It!, “Trip to Asia” follows Sir Simon Rattle as he travels with his orchestra all over Asia, and that’s really about all that happens in the film. “Rhythm” was more about the bounds between music and inspiring a group of high school students, which was intercut with awesome performance footage. While it isn’t terrible, it simply just isn’t that good; it feels too wanting and not exciting enough.

Biggest annoyance with festivalgoers: “I won’t see Let The Right One In because I’m not into horror films! They’re too scary!”

I urged so many people to see “Let The Right One In” at this year’s festival for reasons that I have already noted in this article, and the film opens in regular release in just a few weeks. Yet many people passed on the film because they aren’t into a film that is scary, horror or features anything that involves fear. I convinced a few, but I found it surprisingly ignorant of some people who claim to be into film and all that it implies, and balks at one of the very best films at this festival.

If you’re into this film festival, you have to be into all kinds of cinema, especially the kinds that are challenging and even a bit outside of your safety zone. Isn’t that why we are all here?

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Despite the people not wanting to see that notorious Swedish masterpiece, it was still an awesome time at the festival and an even better time to be a fan of film. There were so many great discoveries and films that I hope will do well at other festivals as well as when the films get their eventual release into cinemas or on video. I want to thank Festival Director Alan Franey, his great crew of programmers and staff and all of the new and old friends at the festival for such a wonderful festival experience. I can’t wait to come back next year where I promise I’ll show up on time and sit away from those coveted aisle seats.

This is the last article for the Vancouver International Film Festival. I would like to thank Melanie Thompson, Ellie O’Day as well as the many festival staff and volunteers for making this an enjoyable experience to cover. I also would like to thank Lucia Santiago Dantes of El Kisko Magazine for her assistance at the festival this year. For more information on VIFF and to check out news with the festival along with award winners, point your browser to www.viff.orgJason Whyte, efilmcritic.com


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2596
originally posted: 10/23/08 17:58:53
last updated: 10/24/08 20:12:31
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