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Vancouver International Film Festival 2016: Voyage of 35 Years

MAUDIE - To #VIFF16 and beyond!
by Jason Whyte

It boggles my mind that we are already at the 35th edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival, an annual celebration of some of the best annual cinema from all corners of the world. This is a festival that I love and adore down to its very core, and to see it flourish every fall is simply awesome. This is my 15th year attending the festival and it is a well oiled machine every single year, bringing film-fans and industry together in many venues and opportunities during its 16 year existence.

As much as I have loved attending the Toronto International FIlm Festival, VIFF is simply more fun and easier to get around. The venues are always well attended but easy to get into, the post screening Q&A's are always engaging and entertaining, and it's even a wonderful opportunity to connect with talent. Most venues are within walking distance from each other, and the late-night venue Rio Theatre is a quick skytrain ride from downtown. Everybody wins!

On Thursday, September 29th, VIFF premieres with a gala screening of Aisling Walsh's MAUDIE, about the life and legendary Canadian folk artist Maudie Lewis. Sally Hawkins is already getting a lot of Oscar buzz for her performance in this film, and she stars along-side Ethan Hawke as her significant other. VIFF is always very wise to select a film like this to open the festival and no doubt will spark a lot of conversation among the many films that follow it.

Closing the festival on Friday, October 14th is the 70MM IMAX version of Terrence Malick's much anticipated VOYAGE OF TIME, which has been languishing in production nearly as long as VIFF has been in existence! Recently screened at TIFF to rave reviews this is a visual journey through many aspects of time although featuring all of the signature visual imagery Malick is famous for. The movie was slightly hinted at with the masterful THE TREE OF LIFE a few years ago, and it will be fascinating to see his trademark film images on the big screen where they belong.

One great aspect of the Canadian section of the festival is the annual MustSee BC section, which showcases the great cinematic talent that comes out of our end of the world. Many movies go on to see successful releases, including EADWEARD which had a gala screening last year, so I am excited to see what happens with this year's slate of movies.

This is in addition to the outstanding lineup of special presentations featuring top festival winners, the gigantic Dragons & Tigers selections as well as documentaries and short films.

Special guests this year include:

- Director Aisling Walsh, here to present the opening gala of MAUDIE
- Eric McCormack (yes, Will from WILL & GRACE) to screen Jonathan Parker's new film THE ARCHITECT
- Tatiana Maslany, ORPHAN BLACK mega-star, along with director Joey Klein for the SxSW favorite THE OTHER HALF
- Nate Parker, here with BIRTH OF A NATION which won top awards at Sundance and will be having a major release through Fox Searchlight later in the year
- Spirit Of The West front-man John Mann along with director Pete McCormack for SPIRIT UNFORGETTABLE
-Countless Canadian filmmakers, actors and talent from BC and the rest of Canada in one or the largest selection of our own films in any festival in the country.

There are so many films to choose from and if you have your program guide in your hand already, no doubt you'll notice the incredible lineup on display. I have had the opportunity to screen a few movies ahead of the festival, so read along for a tiny sample of what is to come over the next sixteen days.

DARWIN: This story suggests that if we stay in-front of our computers too long we will become totally dependent on them, which is exactly what happens to our lead character of Darwin (a solid performance from Nick Krause) who breaks from his computer-bound existence to find himself with a small family resistance in the woods, and from there learns to become himself again. Although I loved the concept, the follow-through ISN'T as original as it pans out, however the storytelling and performances stay strong (mention must go to Molly Parker in a strong role) throughout leading to a breezy climactic sequence that kept me entertained.

GANJY (Short Subject) - Benjamin Ratner, no stranger to VIFF in the past with films like MOVING MALCOLM, SEE GRACE FLY and many more, returns with a short film about a former boxer dealing with dementia and his friends who try to help him out but have a lot more than they bargained for. This short film is based on a real life encounter that Ratner and co-star Aleks Paunovic had with Ali a few years ago, and the personal experience and passion for this story shines throughout. I especially loved Ratner's performance which truly shines through here. (Note: this screens before the film MARRYING THE FAMILY, reviewed below).

HAROLD & LILLIAN: A HOLLYWOOD LOVE STORY (TOP PICK): Daniel Raim's outstanding documentary quickly becomes one of the best I have seen in years thanks to the immediate interest in its two lead subjects; legendary storyboard artist Harold Michelson and his wife, Lillian, who is regarded in the industry as the ultimate film research expert, and their lives over the decades working together and inspiring countless artists with their incredible work and contributions to the film industry. Not only a great window into the past of cinema looking ahead but such a touching and beautiful story on the love of cinema and the love that cinema can have on two amazing people. Tears of joy at the end of this film, and highly recommended even if you have the slightest interest in just how important things behind the scenes can be.

HELLO DESTROYER (TOP PICK) -- Opening with a vicious close-up of a hockey attack, lead Jared Abrahamson wowed me right from the start as a junior hockey player who is ostracized by his small team and goes on a personal journey of discovery in Kevan Funk's outstanding human drama that is less a hockey movie and more a tale of where a personal mind can go when constantly confronted with rejection. Refusing to take the easy way out at any point in the storyline, the small-becoming-smaller town character study gets more claustrophobic as unravels; its minimalistic, score-less, nearly wordless at times approach only gives its finale even more power.

KEEPERS OF THE MAGIC (TOP PICK) - Filmmaker Vic Sarin, also one of the best Canadian cinematographers working today, gives us a stunning documentary on the history of cinematography but in an inviting way to all film fans. Opening with a Conrad Hall quote that made me fall in love with the movie instantly, we are treated to a terrific selection of interviews, clips and even Sarin himself as we move through many eras of different types of cinematography. My favorite sequence, without giving too much away, was how the center-weighted framing of MAD MAX FURY ROAD, a personal favorite, was achieved in an easy to understand description. I was also deeply moved that he was able to interview and feature the now-late cinematographer Gordon Willis, who gives some of the best content.

KEDI (TOP PICK) - If your all time favorite movie is funny cat videos on YouTube, get a ticket for this adorable documentary about the life and times of street cats in Instanbul, Turkey almost told entirely from the feline point of view, right down to paw-high street photography that was equal parts relaxing and spiritual for this animal fan. There are a lot of stories from both the cat and humans around them, from cafe-owners who pride on their feline friends bringing in customers to some wonderful individuals whose job it is to take care of these street cats with no home. A brisk and entertaining story, simply told, and would make a great double bill with PRISON DOGS, which is reviewed below!

KING DAVE - In what seems like an entirely unbroken shot with many visual effects and transitions within it, Daniel Grou's Montreal set thriller, about the titular character Dave (Alexandre Goyette, who also wrote the screenplay) on a violent yet personal odyssey through the dark streets of Montreal to seek revenge is a visually stunning piece of work, even when Dave's constant narration throughout the picture, right from the opening scene in a subway station, got on my nerves at times. Also, the filmmaker in me kept looking for the seams in the one-take setting, even though I wasn't supposed to be noticing it! Still worth a look at the festival to make you wonder how they all did this drama.

KONELINE: our land beautiful (TOP PICK) - Last year I called the stunning HADWIN'S JUDGEMENT the best photographed Canadian documentary at VIFF and this year, by far, it is Nettie Wilde's spiritual and unforgettable look at the land of the Tahitan First Nation in Northern BC and has a telling look at man versus nature. Shot in 4k digital resolution and mastered for the wide, Cinemascope 2.39:1 frame, you simply fall into the dream-like wonder of its surroundings but are also reminded at just how beautiful our planet is and the absolute importance of keeping our planet balanced and safe. And this is ONLY made for the big screen, so get your tickets and enjoy.

LAVENDER (TOP PICK} - Director Ed-Gass Donnelly, who wowed me years ago with SMALL TOWN MURDER SONGS and a surprisingly better-than-the-first sequel to THE LAST EXORCISM, is here with his best film to date, a stunning piece of horror and drama that features Jane (Abbie Cornish) whose family past starts haunting her after a car crash. As the film progresses the tone becomes very nightmarish and uneasy as we learn more about what exactly leads her back to confronting her past, and Donnelly certainly has enough visual, kinetic flair to match the edgy storytelling. Definitely a film you want to catch at one of the late night screenings at VIFF, this is an extremely memorable piece of genre cinema.

LITTLE SISTER: A truly whacked out movie that changes gears constantly without warning, Zach Clark's hilarious and endearing comedic drama features a wonderful lead performance from Addison Timlin, a now-nun-but-former-goth who returns to her wacky family after a long period of time and quickly falls back into her routine. To reveal what happens is something this writer would never do, of course, but Timlins' nun-look and persona quickly develops into her wearing a pink hair wig and there's also a lot of drug-induced sequences. And all in good fun.

MARRYING THE FAMILY - BC's own Peter Benson, who impressed in WHAT AN IDIOT when it screened at the Whistler Film Festival in 2014, is back directing a mocku-style comedy about a wedding in chaos, but in such a weird tone throughout...right down to Nicolas Carrella identifying by a certain pronoun. Anchoring the film is Benson's hilarious lead performance as a total modern-day and aged Stifler; fully confident and hilarious in every scene that he is in, it makes for a slightly un-even at times but ultimately hilarious tale in where we wish everyone would just get along. And stay for the end credits!

MIXED MATCH (TOP PICK) - At the 2012 Victoria Film Festival I met a truly unique filmmaker in Jeff Chiba Stearns, who had a fun little documentary called ONE BIG HAPA FAMILY about mixed race families. It was such a wonderful film that I was eager to see his next feature, and it is with great delight to report that his new feature, MIXED MATCH, is an unmissable documentary at the festival. Stears tells a touching story about bone marrow donors and mixed raced issues as they look for a near impossible genetic match. What sets the film apart is the stunning use of documentary footage along with a terrific animated approach that explains the issues in a clear, detailed and also entertaining fashion. And it will be great to see what kind of change and discussion this will bring forth.

NELLY: Based on a true story, this erotic-turned-tragic tale of Montreal writer Nelly Arcan and her exploits as she recounts her life of escorting and affairs, both good memories and bad, is a strong visual and aural experience thanks to filmmaker Anne Emond's stunning use of framing and sound to show the life around Nelly, warts and all. And at times this is probably one of the sexiest movies you will see during the film festival, with some pretty gorgeous images. And yes, by that I mean the skin on display.

A NEW MOON OVER TOHOKU - I remember seeing Linda Ohama's documentary OBAACHAN'S GARDEN over a decade and a half ago at the Victoria Film Festival and wondering when I would see a feature documentary from her again. She has returned with a many years in the making account of a 2011 natural disaster that happened in the Northern Japan region of Tohoku, Japan. Some of the images of devasation are almost too much to bear at times here; Ohama's truly passionate and caring approach has tough personal interviews and footage that almost takes on a spiritual angle at times. Highly recommended for documentary and nature fans.

1:54 - Quite possibly one of the biggest downers I have seen in a motion picture this year, its subject of cyber-bullying, peer pressure and trying to grow up in a hateful world left me reeling. Antoione Olivier Pilon, who wowed audiences (and me) when MOMMY showed at VIFF a few years ago, stars as a reclusive teen who tries competitive running to try to hide his insecurities, but gets weighed down by bullying both in school as well as online. There is a lot of oustanding content in the film involving how social media has turned into a bullying tool now, and where this movie goes is almost beyond painful to describe but it is an experience that left me in tears as the credits rolled. A tough but necessary viewing.

OPERATION AVALANCHE - If you saw Matt Johnston's THE DIRTIES a few years ago at festivals, you will recall his truly twisted sense of Canadian humor and making really original content in the studio system. In his new film he moves from high school to the Space Race era of 1967, where he plays a movie geek recruited by the CIA to get into NASA to help stage the legendary moon landings. Yes, what you heard is true...they actually DO shoot footage on real NASA property in this film, and there is a unique inclusion of a particular famous filmmaker in here as well. Totally strange but endlessly watchable, and I love Johnston's goofy approach to the material.

THE OTHER HALF (TOP PICK) - I don't think there is anyone out there who is NOT a fan of the work of VIFF 2016 guest Tatiana Maslany and her endlessly fascinating work on OPRHAN BLACK along with award winning turns in Whistler Film Festival features CAS & DYLAN and PICTURE DAY. Got that out of the way? Great. She is just as stellar in Joey Klein's fantastic first film where she plays a bipolar woman in a relationship with a man (Tom Cullen) who is grief-stricken. Equal parts horrifying and fascinating to see unfold, THE OTHER HALF is a tough watch but one that left me reeling at SxSW this year. I am very curious to hear what people make of it at VIFF.

PRISON DOGS - The program "Puppies Behind Bars" is one that I had never heard of before, but in Perri Peltz and Geeta Gandbir's eye-opening doc, about a group of prison inmates who train puppies into guide dogs for veterans with PTSD is very fascinating in how we see the current prison system matched with inmmates who try to connect to their canine companions to teach them the 99 commands needed to become a service dog. It's really well made and engaging material, plus you get to see puppies and adorable dogs throughout...what's not to love?

QUEBEC MY COUNTRY MON PAYS (TOP PICK) - I have always admired the dedication and passion that long-time VIFF alum John Walker has put into his films but this may be one of his most personal projects yet. He swiftly and candidly shows not only his personal family journey but all of Quebec's anglophone culture as they started to leave the province after the referendum in the early 80s. Walker, who is typically also featured front-and-center in a lot of his films (NOT a bad thing at all; I loved his involvement in A DRUMMERS' DREAM which was another personal experience for him), pops in and out of this story as we get a lot of candid interviews along with deep, meaning visuals and get a window into a part of Canadian culture that is not typically explored. One of the best documentaries of the festival.

SPIRIT UNFORGETTABLE (TOP PICK) - Pete McCormack, who has directed some VIFF gems in the past like SEE GRACE FLY & FACING ALI, returns in a very tearful documentary about Spirit of the West front-man John Mann (also set to attend the festival this year) who is the early stages of Alzheimer's. Not only a fine tribute to the band and its effect on Canadian music culture from the 1990's to the current year, the story builds in terrific way leading up to a concert at the Massey Hall in Toronto. What I was also surprised to see was just how open and candid the interviews were with Mann and his surrounding family, and it only adds to the anticipation at the final show. A touching and moving documentary!

SUNTAN - I certainly believe the level of nudity in SUNTAN is higher than any movie playing in the festival, too. So if you want skin, get a ticket to this one; set in Greece during the summer, a lonely doctor (Makis Papdimitriou) gets more than he bargains for when he falls in love with a younger woman (Elli Tringou) at the beach and is welcomed into her circle of friends. What hit me the most out of the film was that moment that we have all had when someone in the group just WASN'T the perfect fit but also wouldn't leave the group. The movie gets a bit high on the cringe factor later in the movie but it also is a telling story of loneliness and trying to fit in that I think a lot of viewers will relate to.

THINGS TO COME - Fans of the work of Mia-Hansen Love's (GOODBYE FIRST LOVE, EDEN) will be in for a treat and maybe even a surprise as she directs her French-language feature starring the legendary Isabelle Huppert as a teacher whose life is completely turned around after her divorce from her husband of many years. Love's style and storytelling is slow but wonderfully elegant as we see Huppert's wonderful performance as a woman who is shocked that she has to re-start her life so suddenly, and even in the final notes I was deeply moved by personal moments of reflection that nearly any viewer can relate to. A quite beautiful film.

TOWER (TOP PICK) - One of the best movies I saw at this year's South By Southwest, Keith Maitland's ballsy and unforgettable documentary does a full and intense feature depiction of the infamous Charles Whitman shootings at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966. Utilizing unique animation for re-enactments as well as interviews and as it accurately depicts the entire event, this becomes an oddly transfixing and original experience despite the horrific events.

TWO TRAINS RUNNIN' - Set in the Mississippi south in 1964 at the height of the civil rights movement, this documentary features blues musicians as they banded together in this area of the world to find a nearly-lost blues musician and get him out of retirement. This is such an interesting story that would even make for a great narrative feature down the road, and it quickly turns into a memorable documentary thanks to Sam Pollard's great flair for visual and aural storytelling along with a great narration by Common.

THE UNSEEN (TOP PICK) - A stunner of a Canadian film; mixed with the genre balance of effects and menace along with gritty Vancouver roots, Geoff Redknap has somehow taken the idea of a classic horror story but makes a totally original and courageous movie out of it. It is great to see the concept of a low-profile man (Aden Young) with a deep secret come back to Vancouver to try to make amends with his daughter while this incredible power hangs in the balance. Young is outstanding in this reserved performance, but kudos here as well to young Julia Sarah Stone, such a unique young presence on screen, who commands most of the screen time.

WEIRDOS - One of the icons of Canadian cinema in its warts and all, Bruce McDonald and writer Dan McIvor set their sights on the town of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia as two free-spirited kids (Dylan Authors and Julia Sarah Stone) try to escape their family and life and set to the road. Shot in stunning black-and-white with Molly Parker adding a lot of fun emotional weight, WEIRDOS is an adorable time capsule of a time and place that we will never see again. And as with THE UNSEEN, I am incredibly impressed with young Julia Sarah Stone's work here and I hope she gets a lot of new fans from her work.

WINDOW HORSES - A character named Rosie Ming goes through a big journey in Iran in Ann Marie Fleming's stunning new animated feature that has a voice cast including Sandra Oh (who also produced), Ellen Page and Don McKellar. It's a spiritual and emotional journey that feels much more personal as it moves along, and the use of alternating colors, quotes and amusing asides (In particular I liked a book called My Eye Full someone who has never been to France) all make for a really unique look at the world through some Canadian contacts.

MORE TO COME! Be sure to watch our site for interviews and more capsule reviews for films at the festival. Throughout the festival I will be posting exclusive interviews with many worldwide talent from. For an entire list of our Interview series, and over a DECADE of interviews, click our Live Report From The Festival Circuit series!

For more information on screening times and the countless other films playing at the festival, please visit and follow on social media!

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 09/29/16 23:21:11
last updated: 09/30/16 02:52:25
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