Best Film Festivals

The Very Best Films of La Biennale di Venezia 2018

Venice Film Festival had an incredible line-up this year, with films directed by the Coen Brothers, Cuarón,  Greengrass, Guadanino, Lanthimos and Mike Leigh, starring famous actors such as Tilda Swinton, Nathalie Portman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, John C. Reilly and unexpectedly, Lady Gaga, who debuted in a leading role in a film presented out of competition – A Star is Born, with Bradley Cooper who also directed the film, a remarkable debut. 
Bradley Cooper e Lady Gaga

Bradley Cooper & Lady Gaga

All in all, it was a thrilling edition. Most screenings have divided the press and the public, a desirable outcome actually since it makes for more passionate conversations. I haven’t seen all the movies in the official competition because I also watched a parallel section, Orizzonti, from which I can recommend this intense drama from Uruguay, The Twelve Year Night. Unfortunately I missed Rome, Cuarón’s Mexico-set drama, a personal film that took the Leone d’Oro this year, awarded by a jury chaired by Guillermo del Toro. Roma will also be screening at London Film Festival in October and will be out on Netflix in December.
From all the movies I saw in Venice, there are three that stood out and that I critically embraced without a shadow of a doubt:
I saw The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos on the second day of the festival and I knew immediately that it would be one of my favourites. The visual pleasure this film provides is hard to describe (may Laura Mulvey forgive my saying so!).
I wasn’t at all surprised that it took the Grand Jury Prize. If you’re not a fan of the macabre fictional universe the Greek director got you accustomed to, I understand, it’s not to everyone’s taste, but this film is very different in tone, being based on an original script signed by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara whose screenwriting career I’ll have to follow closely from now on. At the same time the film retains the same technical virtuosity, sublime camera movements and mise-en-scène with which Lanthimos impressed in his previous creations, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. And the result of this collaboration is an astonishingly sumptuous and scrumptious film.
In short, the action takes place around 1700 at the court of Queen Anne, played with extraordinary flair by Olivia Colman who took the prize for Best Actress.  Rachel Weisz is Lady Sarah, the queen’s right hand and her favourite, for reasons that become clear after 30 minutes of viewing time (do not read the synopsis!). Lady Sarah struck me as the strongest female character in the history of cinema, her strategic skills in conducting the war with France only surpassed by her cunning in the way she leads her personal life. Lady Sarah is omnipresent in the film and conquers you by always saying what she thinks, to the dismay of most males at the court, whom she humiliates without the slightest hesitation. Asked why she does this so consistently, she answers bluntly: “A lady must have her fun.”
But the fun starts to turn sour when Lady Sarah realises that her cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), whom she takes under her protection at the beginning of the film, is even more cunning and skilful than she is, something that this powerful character couldn’t have foreseen in her blinding arrogance. What follows is a fierce personal duel between these two different types of femininity for the place of Queen Anne’s “favourite”. We are humorously entertained to see the different strategies the two rivals use to achieve their goal. It’s like a game of chess.  Abigail, more rudimentary, goes straight to the target by directly fulfilling Queen Anne’s physical and emotional needs, while Lady Sarah tries to upstage her by more sophisticated manoeuvres, her tactful deploying of humour in the bathing scene being one example. In the end, Queen Anne seems to regain her strength and mental faculties  and with them, her dignity. Unfortunately, it’s all an appearance as long as there’s a favourite!
stone coleman venezia 2018

Emma Stone & Olivia Colman

I’m not much into Westerns but this film was top of my to-watch list in Venice being a big fan of Jacques Audiard, one of the best directors working today in my opinion.  You must have heard of A Prophet (2009) or Dheepan  for which he took the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2015.
His latest film and the first one in English, The Sisters Brothers, is, at least on the face of it, a Western whose action takes place in 1850 in America, a period known in history as the Gold Rush, a very fertile source of inspiration that makes you think immediately of Charlie Chaplin’s film from 1925, The Gold Rush.
Bu why would Audiard, who is an auteur, be interested in tackling the Western genre? Here’s why I think he was interested. The classical Western is a tool America used to explain itself. Who makes the law and what does the law stipulate? Where is the frontier? Who are the good guys, who are the bad guys? Each Western was a national ritual dramatising the triumph of civilisation, the victory of a socially responsible individual towards the Indian “savages”, a very hypocritical narrative, hence the amount of revisionist Westerns, such as the one under discussion.
In contrast to the classical Western, there is no Indian savage in Audiard’s film. The Sisters Brothers are two notorious assassins working for a mobster in Oregon City known as Commodore. Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) is the elder brother and the more responsible of the two, while Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) is a rebel and a drunk. Their mission is to catch Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a prospector who invented an effective way to find gold, based on scientific methods. But they are not the only ones on his trail, there is also John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a well-educated detective who writes them regularly. At some point, the letters become implausible and the Sisters brothers start to suspect that something is wrong. Should they go ahead, at  the risk of losing their lives or should they return home and change careers? But what kind of life could they build for themselves, wonders Eli Sisters, very keen on re-inventing himself. Perhaps they could open a shop? Huh?His brother Charlie is not so sure.
audiard reilly venezia 2018

Jacques Audiard & John C. Reilly

What’s interesting about this movie is not what happens on the screen, even though the action does not disappoint for a second. What really captivated me is the characterisation of the brothers of the title. Their psychological profile is the opposite of what you expect and it gradually emerges from their incessant chatting and mutual teasing in times of peace on screen. Although they come across as two macho males armed with all the arsenal of guns and pistols to decimate an entire brothel within seconds, the last scene of the movie marvellously captures their psychological essence: the two skilled assassins are in reality two tired  little  boys who can’t wait to go home to their mum! And with this very funny story of two homesick brothers that challenges obsolete notions of masculinity in cinema, Audiard took the Best Director Award at Venice Film Festival this year.
This extravagant, baroque creation from Brady Corbet (who distinguished himself on the Lido in 2015 with The Childhood of a Leader and whom you saw as an actor in Haneke’s Funny Games as well as a host of independent American films) is the most daring piece of cinema I saw in a while. The film could have been a total fiasco due to the unusual narrative techniques it adopts and the tendency to combine somewhat disparate ideas. But it’s not, quite to the contrary, it’s phenomenal!
Structured as an opera, with a prologue, two acts and epilogue, Vox Lux is the furthest away from classical cinema, with its strict rules of building a story. The film actually seems to draw more from literary techniques. The result is seductively agile, highly effective and surprisingly cinematic. Just when you expect the movie you’re watching to engage in a certain direction, it suddenly changes course and drags you down a different, but equally delirious, path.
With a stellar cast (Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Stacy Martin), the film tells the story of Celeste, a child with an innocent air and musical talent, who, after a traumatic event in childhood, becomes famous overnight and turns into an extremely anxious diva / pop star with a behaviour that borders on the ridiculous. But the film has a greater ambition than to trace the birth of a celebrity in the making. The director uses Celeste’s character to illustrate how key events of contemporary history impact her personality. These events are succinctly dealt with, Corbet doesn’t bore you with a detailed socio-political dissection. Moreover, he carefully selects a handful of contemporary events that intersect the story. Thus, the narrative is punctuated by numerous intrusions in voiceover and filmed in fast-forward, from a commentary about Abba’s importance on the Swedish music scene, to the shock of 9/11, a terrorist attack on a beach in Croatia, in relation to which Celeste is being interviewed by journalists in a memorable scene in the film. It all culminates in an adrenaline-inducing music performance worthy of Grace Jones and you leave the cinema dizzy and enthralled.
Natalie Portman, Brady Corbet, Stacy Martin e Raffey Cassidy

Natalie Portman, Brady Corbet, Stacy Martin & Raffey Cassidy

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I would have also liked to include Guadanino’s Suspiria, with a superb Dakota Johnson in the main role and a most powerful performance from Tilda Swinton, but something was a bit awry in it – the film is so overloaded with symbolism, it brought to the mind’s eye a heavily adorned Christmas tree that’s about to fall over.
I also had high expectations from Werk ohne Author (Never Look Away) from German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck but it lacks the impact of his debut film, The Lives of Others and it also packs in some strange inconsistencies in the portrayal of some of the characters.  I enjoyed watching it though, and this was mainly due to mesmerising performances from Tom Schilling Sebastian Koch and Paula Beer.
Tom Schilling

Tom Schilling

 

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New Horizons Film Festival, Poland – The Place to Catch Up on the Buzziest Titles of the Festival Circuit This Summer

New Horizons Film Festival, taking place every July-August in the beautiful city of Wrocław, Poland (home to the oldest restaurant in the world, legend has it), is the perfect example of what I would call a boutique film festival catering for a discerning audience. Unlike most film festivals, that are usually spread out all over a city, almost all the Nowe Horyzonty film screenings take place in one venue, making it possible to maximise on your viewing time, a precious asset for a film journalist.

The programme is diverse and bold, as far away from conventional cinema as possible, with a penchant for personal, provocative films from all over the world, experimental and hybrid works,  films made by artists from other artistic disciplines, forgotten and underrated works, yet atypical and searching for something fresh and innovative.

Nowe Horyzonty

If you’re lucky to be invited, the festival will put you up in a nice hotel (I stayed at the delightfully minimalist Puro Hotel last year) and invite you to all kinds of exclusive film gatherings & art/music events every evening. Last year I had the chance to meet some new independent filmmakers whose films were making a lot of buzz on the festival circuit, such as  People That Are Not Me, a personal film about millennials struggling with love and relationships, from Hadas Ben Aroya, a young female filmmaker I would describe as an Israeli Lena Dunham, as well as catch up with filmmakers I’d already met and interviewed before, Florian Habicht being one of them (read my previous interview with Florian here).

His latest film, Spookers, a documentary about New Zealand’s only haunted attraction theme park, is as spooky as it sounds. Set in a former psychiatric hospital, the film is a multi-faceted portrait of the fascinating people who work there. The film also touches on mental illness and includes a fascinating, in-depth interview with one of the former patients who was hospitalised there for years suffering with schizophrenia.

Below is my interview with Florian Habicht from Nowe Horyzonty 2017.

Spookers Park in New Zealand is known as one of the biggest scare parks in the world. What drew you to this place?

I was actually asked by Mad Men production company if I wanted to make a film about this place.  I knew about it but I was too scared, horror is not my thing. It’s been going for 10 years, it’s open on Friday and Saturday nights, half an hour South of Auckland. It’s the only scare park in the world where the scarers are allowed to touch you.

This time I had a feeling I should go and check it out. When I got there all the performers were putting on their make-up and masks and prosthetics and…what I got was a lot of joy and excitement.

Did you get to know them before starting shooting?

Yes, on camera, I spontaneously gravitated towards certain people and they ended up being the main characters in the film. That was quite strange, out of 200 people who work there, the people I went to at the beginning, or came to me, ended up being the main characters.

200 people work there but not on the same night?

No, it’s 60 on a night.

And you focus on 10 main characters in the film. Talk a little bit about them.

I think they are a very special group of people because they are very brave, very young, honest, which makes great artists. They are ready to share very personal things.

FaceBookCoverSpookers

And they are all actors, right?

Yes, they are all actors but they haven’t been trained. They auditioned to work at Spookers and then they learnt the job by scaring people. Then they taught each other…

Some of the people in the film refer to themselves as freaks. They are very unusual characters, it’s probably what drew you to make this film.

They are unusual characters, like you and me.

And everyone else!

Yeah!

 

Who fascinated you the most?

The first who fascinated me was David, who is Zombina. When I saw Zombie Bride in the dark, we met in the dark in an alley way, I thought it was so amazing. Then I got to know him and he’s the most soft and beautiful person…He only dresses up as a female character at Spookers. The character is totally his creation, the clothes, the make-up. He’s such an amazing performer.

The dance you captured in the film is astonishing…

Yes, they had techno music for Halloween once at Spookers and he was dancing like that.

Most of them have deep issues that resonated with the film…and they opened up on camera. Did that surprise you?

Yes it did. Almost everyone has an interesting issue and then the masks, a bit like myself with my video camera, I saw a similarity there. It’s something that lets you be more free, more who you really are.

You found a former psychiatric patient, Debra, who was hospitalised there for 18 years. Tell me her story…

She’s remarkable. For me, she experienced the horror of life but also the magic of life, all in one body and soul. Right now she’s teaching mental health at an university. She lectures there and she’s also helping people who hear voices. She heard voices when she was young and was diagnosed with schizophrenia later on. Her doctors told her patients that their visits upset her and they stopped visiting. But she was not upset by that, she was upset for being there. Now they changed the whole system in the way they deal with mental health patients, now it’s community care. There are still psychiatric hospitals but it’s not for long term, only for short-term.

Debra was adopted twice. Her first adopted parents gave her back and then she was adopted again. You need so much love as a child, and being adopted is hard enough for adopted people, imagine being adopted twice!

In your interview with her, she came across as someone so vibrant and optimistic, she totally blew me away.

Me too. And she only got out because the place closed. She only got well  afterwards. The electric shock therapy didn’t help her at all, it was the community that helped her recover.

Half of the people there are Māori and islanders. As a New Zealander, I love Māori, they are amazing on camera, very natural. Most of them don’t have much money. In  New Zealand, there’s a problem with poverty. I live in a city and where I live it’s money, money, money, it makes me depressed. It used to be the colourful, artistic, cool part of town and now it’s the trendy, money people. And most of the people in the film have so little money. The park makes money but the actors work only twice a week there. But the background where they come from.

What I found interesting is that this place is a family business. 

Yes, the idea was to have a maize, then they asked the local bank manager if it was OK to dress up and scare people with a chainsaw! And there was this guy, a friend, the mayor of the city and his wife Beth, who had the brains. And when that bank manager was chasing people with a chainsaw, the people just loved it, they went crazy for it. And it was supposed to be just one show. Then they realised they can make a business out of it. So they got other friends involved, to dress up, put on masks.

So that was the pilot…which became a series…

Exactly. That’s when they relocated to Auckland and they were looking for a building.

Was it a coincidence that they chose this former psychiatric hospital as their location?

They say it was, yes.

Is it true the place is haunted?

Yes, everyone who works there experiences supernatural things. For me, I could feel the energy was very heavy, different rooms felt different, vibrations or whatever you call it. But other people hear things, see things…There were a lot of intense things that weren’t allowed in the film.

But you didn’t capture any ghosts on camera?

No. (laughing)

Ghosts or no ghosts, there’s a very dark side to this documentary. 

Yes, and come to think of this, New Zealand has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Every day, one and a half people kill themselves. And the government cut funding to mental health. There was a line you ring if you’re feeling depressed and the government took the money from them, they needed to give more money to the rich! We have a very right-wing government that is very money-focused.

I thought Scandinavia had the highest suicide rates…

Actually there’s a Scandinavian country where men live very long and it’s because every night before they go to bed they meet each other and they compliment each other: You’re so wonderful, I love your jacket…And those men live 10 years longer. That would make a good subject for a future documentary!