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Back Down The Hill: Breaking Down The 2012 Whistler Film Festival

Tatiana Malsany in "Picture Day"
by Jason Whyte

You know that moment when your favorite film festival explodes into something more? I've seen it happen at Fantastic Fest in Austin recently, and now Whistler Film Festival has joined the ranks. When I first came in 2007 it had its small but comfortable audience, yet I could feel that it was still growing and not really on the map just yet. Not anymore. Whistler Film Festival is a bustling, busy event attracting film-lovers, industry and press from all over North America to take part in the five day festival in the mountain village. At one point, festival director Shauna Hardy Mishaw beamed "We were quoted as being the world's coolest film festival," and she wasn't talking about the weather. Besides, it rained all weekend.

Rather, this is the first year of my six at Whistler Film Festival where I feel there was change for the better. There was attention. People cared for the films in the festival, the filmmakers attending. The feeling was palpable in all the screening rooms and you could feel the excitement building every day. That, and there was always something to see and do, making it for a very busy time. I was in the thick of it all, running from screening to socializing event at a breakneck pace. Under a week after the festival has ended, I can safely say I feel a bit recovered. Just a little bit.

Thanks to the hard work of the Whistler staff and press team I was able to sample a significant portion of the films at Whistler this year; 24 films, in fact, and for the first time ever in my Whistler coverage I am happy to publish my picks of the top films at the festival. This was a difficult task, as there were so many great films all over the five days of the fest, as well as films selected that I had seen at other festivals (more on that later). And if there's anything that I learned this year, is that Canadian-indie cinema is alive and strong. Without further ado...

Top 5 Films of Whistler Film Fest:

#1. Picture Day (Canada, dir. Kate Melville)

Kate Melville's incredibly strong motion picture debut, winner of the festival's Borsos Competition for Best Canadian Feature award, is not only a unique coming of age story, but also one of the smartest movies on youth I have seen since "Freaks & Geeks" aired on TV over a decade ago. You have seen stories on teens finding themselves but never presented in this way. Claire (Tatiana Malasny) has just flunked high school and must take summer classes, but instead plans on just moving on with her rock star boyfriend. She then re-connects with a high school student (Spencer van Wyck) she used to babysit and takes him under her wing, thus sparking a bizarre love triangle that we have never seen before. "Picture Day" is anchored by a performance by Tatiana Malasny that is nothing short of remarkable. Featured in nearly every scene, she is a tiny force to be reckoned with; smart, beautiful and has everything figured out just before you do, her Claire is a character that you can't take your eyes off of. The movie also has a beautiful look and feel led by director Ms. Melville; the earthy tone of the Toronto setting is gorgeous, the soundtrack really feels like the tunes playing through Claire's MP3 player, and the movie ends on an upbeat but realistic note. I leave Whistler finding a discovery every year; last year was Patrick Wang's "In The Family" and here is a film that is just as memorable.

#2. The Sheepdogs Have At It (Canada, dir. John Barnard)

One of my favorite documentaries of the year and not just because its subjects, The Sheepdogs, are incredible musicians that seem to channel the 60's and 70's rock legends. Rather, John Barnard's debut documentary is equal parts entertaining, informative and an all around FUN account of the pivotal year of The Sheepdogs after they land the coveted spot on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine after a contest. It's a make or break time for the hard working group and we follow them on tour and promoting their latest album after being signed to Atlantic Records. I admired the scope of Barnard's documentary even when showing intimate moments; combining the all-access pass to their tour bus, preparation for shows, the band's worries about being able to live up to the hype and beautifully filmed concert footage, it makes for such an entertaining experience that I hope finds a good home in theaters.

#3. It's A Disaster (USA, dir. Todd Berger)

This hilarious comedy, taking place almost entirely in the confines of a house full of bickering couples over a traditional couples brunch, sounds like a recipe for disaster (zing!) but writer-director Todd Berger beautifully handles a group of clashing personalities. It's a great mixture of folks from different ages; not all of them like each other very much, they keep leaving the table to bicker in separate rooms, and it takes forever to get everyone back in the same room. Some are carrying secrests. Oh, and apparently there were a few "dirty bombs" set off downtown, so people are dying left and right outside of their house, unbeknownst to the party. Just thought I'd put that in there. It's a great idea throughout; to show the implosion of a group of friends and all of their problems amidst an outside chaos, and I loved how each comedic talent (among them, Julia Stiles, David Cross, America Ferrara, Rachel Boston, Jeff Grace and even Berger in a cameo) brought their own unique style into the movie. It also has one of the best endings I've seen in a movie all year.

#4. Hit 'n Strum (Canada, dir. Kirk Caouette)

A movie that completely snuck on me with humanity and limitless charm including a pair of standout lead performances, Kirk Caouette's new movie is a love letter to Vancouver, warts and all. When a young businesswoman named Stephanie (Michelle Harrison) accidentally hits a street person named Mike (Kirk Caouette) in an alley, an unlikely connection occurrs. When Stephanie discovers that Mike is a musician living outside her office building, she tries to help him. Mike, however, resists fame as he is happy where he is. Undeterred, she strives to help while trying to redeem herself and a natural friendship develops. The movie gets down the Vancouver lifestyle perfectly; featuring the roadways, empty apartments and alleyways the characters inhabit, we really get a sense of the disconnection between the two leads yet we yearn Stephanie and Mike to learn from one other. It also features a soundtrack full of music I immediately want on my MP3 player.

#5. My Awkward Sexual Adventure (Canada, dir. Sean Garrity)

A sweet and likable comedy from Winnipeg filmmaker Sean Garrity (no stranger to film festivals around here), the movie features a great lead performance by Jonas Chernick as a man who has been recently dumped by his girlfriend for failing to provide for her in bed. He takes a vacation to Toronto and winds up meeting an exotic dancer (Emily Hampshire) who agrees to help him out with sex lessons in return for help on her finances. The film echoes the festival and Canadian box office hit "Young People Fucking" from a few years ago in its near unparalled depiction of sex and relationships (I guarantee this movie would be awarded an NC-17 in the United States), yet this movie stands out on its own as an adult crowd-pleaser with strong characters, memorable dialogue and great performances both lead and supporting (Vic Sahay, as one of the main friends playing the ultimate ladies man, is a highlight). It was easy to see why this won the audience award at Whistler, as you could barely hear the movie through the laughter.

Special Mentions: Samsara, Celeste & Jesse Forever and American Mary

These trio of films I have seen elsewhere -- Ron Fricke's out-of-body experience Samsara by way of a general release in Vancouver this September, Celeste during its theatrical release in Vancouver and the Soska twins' American Mary at its Fantastic Fest premiere in Austin -- all of which are excellent works and did well with their releases in Whistler.

Other strong films worth mentioning include Martin Villenevue's odd-ball sci-fi movie Mars & Avril featuring a stunning Caroline Dhavernas as a woman torn between two different musicians...and Mars, the quiet burn drama All That You Possess by festival favorite Bernard Emond from Quebec, the harsh character drama Between Us featuring Julia Stiles and Taye Diggs, and "My Award Sexual Adventure" director Sean Garrity's other entry in Whistler, the stark drama Blood Pressure also featuring Jonas Chernick in a memorable performance.

With many more films seen this year than in previous, I was blown away by the programming at Whistler Film Festival and I am very thankful to festival director Shauna Hardy Mishaw and programmer Paul Gratton for going above and beyond in putting together such a strong lineup for the 2012 edition. I look forward to seeing what happens at the 2013 edition of Whistler, and I'll be the first one making the journey back up the hill.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 12/08/12 07:19:31
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