2011 SLIFF Preview | Pete Timmermann

SLIFF smI wish the programming of the non-studio films was stronger, but even so, it’s just a good environment for a film lover to be in.



Early one morning in September 2010, I rented a car, drove to Toronto, slept in the car for five hours, saw two movies in the Toronto International Film Festival, drove home in the middle of the night, and had the rental car returned in under 48 hours from when I took it out. The catalyst for me to do this was to see the Japanese film Norwegian Wood (11/11 Frontenac 3:45 p.m.; 11/12 Frontenac 3:15 p.m.), which seems like it was made just for me. Norwegian Wood is based on the book of the same name, which is one of my favorite novels of all time. Also, it was shot by Mark Li Ping-bin who, alongside Christopher Doyle, acted as director of photography (DP) on Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, which I think is probably the single most aesthetically beautiful film ever made.  

SLIFF Norwegian


Norwegian Wood was directed by Anh Hung Tran, the Vietnamese director of such great films as The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo; the score was done by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who turned in such a memorable score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. And yet, the film is pretty disappointing. Admittedly, it’s hard to like a film based on a book you love as much as I love Norwegian Wood (which was written by Haruki Murakami, who is currently on the bestseller charts for his new novel 1Q84), but the characterization in the film version of Norwegian Wood is so flimsy where it is so memorable in the book, and a lot of elements that work well in the book are forced against their will into the movie, often making it drag or feel too unnatural. Still, Greenwood’s score is gorgeous (and some awesome CAN tracks are thrown in, as well), and Ping-bin’s cinematography is beautiful, so I can’t completely dismiss it. And, hey, you should be thankful for the opportunity to see it here in St. Louis; I had to drive about 1,600 miles to be able to. (I’m also impatient when it comes to seeing movies.)


Sadly, most of the films playing in this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival are of a similar quality to what I describe with regard to Norwegian Wood. While they generally have something to recommend them, on the whole they’re mediocre at best. I’m fairly accustomed to wading through a bunch of stinkers to find a handful of gems at the festival, but of the features I’ve so far screened from this year’s iteration of SLIFF, nearly all of them are frustratingly middle-of-the-road; neither memorably good nor memorably bad.


Well, none of them are really very good at all, but a couple did strike me as particularly bad. It seems as if they were programmed not for their merit as films but more for their marketability—hey, you’re Italian? Come see an Italian film in the festival! It’s totally inoffensive and not at all memorable, but at least it won’t offend anybody! Oh, you’re Bosnian? We’ve got you covered, too! Chinese? Check. French? Check. And so on. What this means is that if you have some affiliation, be it by heritage or plain old interest in the culture of some specific foreign country, you’ll probably be at least somewhat interested by what’s representing that country in the festival. Aside from that, there’s not a whole lot of reasons to venture out and take a chance on a film you haven’t heard of and that isn’t getting a studio release.


In fairness, I have so far seen absolutely none of the big films at this year’s festival, and many of them are much anticipated by me and most everyone else. Indiewire.com recently published an article listing Michel Hazanavicius’ Cannes sensation The Artist (11/10 Tivoli 8 p.m.) as the most likely winner of the Best Picture Oscar this year, and Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (11/20 Tivoli 6 p.m.) as a lock for a nomination in the same category. I’ve so far heard nothing negative about either (and Payne has yet to make a bad movie), and I’m very anxious to see them both. Buy advance tickets if you can—they’re sure to sell out.


Other big guns include Steve McQueen’s Shame (11/12 Tivoli 6:45 p.m.), which stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, two of the most exciting modern actors (and McQueen, a visual designer from England, who bears no relation to the deceased American star of the same name, is a very exciting director), and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (which is frustratingly showing directly opposite Shame: 11/12 Frontenac 6 p.m.), is an adaptation of the great Lionel Shriver novel of the same name; Ramsay, like Payne, has yet to direct a bad movie, but she’s only got two behind her, 1999’s Ratcatcher and 2002’s Morvern Callar. Faced with the choice between the two, I’m going to opt for Shame. I’m actually more excited to see Kevin, but Shame is facing some difficulty with its rating (it was slapped with an NC-17), so on the off-off chance the festival version winds up being uncut where its theatrical release may not be (which probably won’t happen, as so far Fox Searchlight has made no attempt to fight the rating), I figure it best to see it now instead of hoping that it doesn’t get butchered before its regular run.


Elsewhere there’s the Jennifer Garner-vehicle Butter (11/19 Tivoli 6:30 p.m.), Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus (11/11 Tivoli 7 p.m.), and David Cronenberg’s supposedly great A Dangerous Method (11/11 Frontenac 7 p.m.). Not to mention the Evan Goldberg and Jay Baruchel-scripted Goon (11/12 Tivoli 4:30 p.m.), which stars Seann William Scott and will have director Michael Dowse in attendance, or Jeff, Who Lives at Home (11/18 Tivoli 7 p.m.), which stars Jason Segel and Ed Helms and whose director, Jay Duplass, will be there to speak about it. This also goes for Duplass’ documentary Kevin (11/19 Webster U./Moore 6 p.m.). Duplass is here to accept the SLIFF “Contemporary Cinema Award.”

SLIFF plymptoons

There are a lot of interesting programs at Webster’s Winifred-Moore Auditorium this year, most notably the St. Louis premiere of the long-thought-lost Rainer Werner Fassbinder sci-fi epic World on a Wire (11/13 Webster U./Moore 6:30 p.m.) and the tribute to animator Bill Plympton (11/11 Webster U./Moore 7 p.m.), at which everyone in attendance will receive a Plympton drawing. This is not to be ignored, as Plympton is one of our best and most reliable modern animators (he of such Spike & Mike favorites like “How to Kiss” or the Oscar-nominated “Your Face” and “Guard Dog”), and it is sure to be a fun night. Also showing is the pretty strong documentary on Plympton, Adventures in Plymptoons! (11/12 Webster University/Moore 5 p.m.), at which both director Alexia Anastasio and Plympton himself will be in attendance (though no free drawing at that one).


As for the rest, well, hopefully I was just unlucky in the sample of films that I saw. It’s nice that we have a higher-than-normal number of films from Eastern Asia. The Japanese documentary Peace (11/17 Tivoli 9:30 p.m.) is drifty and sort of unfocused but pleasant enough, and the fiction film Hospitality (11/15 Frontenac 2 p.m.; 11/17 Frontenac 4:30 p.m.) starts off pretty well but poops out toward the end. Stay away at all costs from Quill (11/14 Frontenac 2:15 p.m.; 11/20 Frontenac 1 p.m.), though. I have half a mind to stand outside the auditorium as this lets out and punch anyone in the face who looks like they’ve been crying on account of this cloying, manipulative piece of shit about a seeing-eye dog who wins over a cold-hearted blind guy. And if you prefer Chinese movies to Japanese, Empire of Silver (11/13 Frontenac 8:30 p.m.; 11/15 Frontenac 9 p.m.) is an ably made epic of the sweeping Chinese style that never gets anywhere near the heights that a film by, say, Zhang Yimou does, but it’s not too bad, either.


Rounding out the perhaps-slightly above-average category is Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame)’s 3 (11/11 Frontenac 2 p.m.; 11/12 Frontenac 9:45 p.m.), which is his return to his native Germany after a not very successful jaunt through Hollywood; 3 is a sometimes surprisingly graphic account of an unusual love triangle. The Ethiopian film The Athlete (11/15 Frontenac 7 p.m.; 11/20 Frontenac 6:15 p.m.) isn’t too bad, either; it is a fictionalized account of the real marathon-running Olympic gold medalist Abebe Bikila, whom you might recognize if you’ve ever seen the great Kon Ichikawa documentary Tokyo Olympiad. The French farce The Fairy (11/18 Frontenac 4:30 p.m.; 11/19 Frontenac 6 p.m.) has an agreeable Aki Kaurismäki vibe, though it drags at some points, and the French film about the life of Serge Gainsbourg (whom I love), Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (11/18 Frontenac 7 p.m.; 11/20 Frontenac 3:30 p.m.) starts off well, but my screener of it crapped out halfway through and I can’t attest to the end. If its second half is as good as its first, it is probably the best film I’ve seen so far from the festival.

sliff socialisme

Film history elder statesman Jean-Luc Godard has a new one in the festival, Film Socialisme (11/19 Frontenac 3:30 p.m.; 11/20 Frontenac 8:30 p.m.), which is basically an experimental (i.e., non-narrative) film and not a very good one at that, though it does contain some memorable imagery and has a fun final 30 seconds or so. A film with an increasing amount of hype behind it is actor Paddy Considine’s debut as a writer/director, the Peter Mullan-starring Tyrannosaur (11/11 Frontenac 9:15 p.m.; 11/13 Frontenac 7:30 p.m.), but it’s nowhere near as good as you’ve heard.


Aside from Adventures in Plymptoons!, on the documentary side are a couple of others that aren’t bad. There’s Andrew Bird: Fever Year (11/19 Webster U./Moore 8:30 p.m.; with director Xan Aranda), which is an atypical concert documentary of musician Andrew Bird, whom I love, and which film just had its World Premiere in the New York Film Festival about a month ago. It’s not as good as I hoped it would be, but it does take an interesting approach. It’s more about the strain of touring all the time than it is about just showing footage of performances, as so many other concert documentaries do. Also of note is Give a Damn? (11/12 Washington U./Brown 12 p.m.), made by three local boys where they try to address the worldwide issue of poverty in a style that seems influenced by Morgan Spurlock. While you’ve probably seen a lot of things like it before, it is still quite a bit better than it seems like it would be.


Further down the list are Young Goethe in Love (11/14 Frontenac 7:15 p.m.; 11/17 Frontenac 7:15 p.m.), a German film with high production values that opens in regular release a few days after the festival and that is not at all memorable (though, again, inoffensive); The White Meadows (11/19 Frontenac 3 p.m.), a haunting Iranian film that never quite lives up to its potential; Simple Simon (11/13 Frontenac 3:30 p.m.; 11/15 Frontenac 4:15 p.m.), a too-intentionally quirky and cute Swedish romantic comedy that is mostly just irritating; The Salt of Life (11/19 Frontenac 7 p.m.; 11/20 Frontenac 6:30 p.m.), an entirely forgettable Italian film about an aging womanizer; Restoration (11/16 Frontenac 7 p.m.; 11/17 Frontenac 7 p.m.), a pleasing enough but yet again forgettable Israeli film about an old man who restores antiques; Hermano (11/12 Frontenac 1 p.m.; 11/16 Frontenac 2:15 p.m.), a stupid, predictable, and overly melodramatic story of two Venezuelan brothers who love soccer and get involved in gangs; and Belvedere (11/18 Frontenac 9 P.M.), a beautifully shot black and white Bosnian film in part about reality TV that never lives up to its pretty visuals.


Finally, there’s a tribute to the great documentarian Steve James. James will attend screenings of both his 2002 film Stevie (11/13 Washington U./Brown 6 p.m.) and his new film The Interrupters (11/13 Wildey 1 p.m.), which played at Frontenac in a regular run earlier this year. No matter, as it is a very strong film that hardly anyone saw, and here’s your opportunity to see it with the director and some of its subjects (if you’re willing to truck over to Edwardsville, where the festival is experimenting with showing a handful of films this year).


All told, there is fun to be had at this year’s festival, as there reliably is every year. Sure, I wish the programming of the non-studio films was stronger, but even so, it’s just a good environment for a film lover to be in. No good movie is ever as fun to watch as it is in a film festival surrounded by like-minded moviegoers. | Pete Timmermann

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