2012 SLIFF Preview | Pete Timmermann

sliff sm_copyA scene in The Institute where someone is instructed to dance by a person he’s talking to on a pay phone may be the best scene you see in a SLIFF film this year.

 

sliff beautiful-day

Two things that might help to know going into my St. Louis International Film Festival preview: (1) In years past, a common complaint of mine about SLIFF programming is that while the studio films they screen are often among the best of the year, the non-studio movies (which make up the vast majority of the festival) tend to be mediocre, at best. (2) When this year’s SLIFF lineup was announced in mid-October, I was hugely underwhelmed. My initial impression was that it was the least exciting SLIFF schedule that I can recall, and I’ve been attending the festival extensively since 1998.

Knowing that, let me tell you much more important information. At the time of this writing, I have seen about 25 films at this year’s festival (of the over 400 they are screening, assuming you’re counting everything: narrative features, documentaries, shorts), and very nearly all of them are good. That’s something I don’t recall ever being able to say at this point before. What’s more, I haven’t yet had a chance to see some of the more exciting films in the lineup, such as Rust & Bone (11/16 Frontenac 7 p.m.), the new movie by Jacques Audiard, the guy who made the excellent and criminally underseen A Prophet a few years back, or This Is Not a Film (11/13 Frontenac 9 p.m., 11/14 Frontenac 1:45 p.m.), the Cannes sensation by the Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who made the film despite being banned by the Iranian government from making films and being under house arrest when it was made (the movie had to be smuggled out of the country).

Of the films I have seen, easily the best one is It’s Such a Beautiful Day (11/13 Webster Univ./Moore 7 p.m.), the animated Don Hertzfeldt (of Rejected fame) feature, which combines his trilogy of shorts about his character Bill into one long movie. The first third is 2006’s Everything Will Be OK, which, if you ask me, is one of the best films of the past decade, and Hertzfeldt’s best work to date. (Random factoid: If my information is correct, the second place OK ever screened was in the 2006 iteration of the St. Louis International Film Festival, which scooped its Sundance premiere by about two months.) The second third is 2008’s I Am So Proud of You, and then the final third is the brand new It’s Such a Beautiful Day, which premiered late last year and has yet to play in St. Louis. The assembled feature film, also titled It’s Such a Beautiful Day, just started touring the country a few months back, and it’s about the best thing you can hope to see in this or any film festival.

SLIFF silver-linings_300Last year’s opening night film was The Artist, which of course went on to win Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. SLIFF has a good track record on that front in recent years—they had the St. Louis premiere of Slumdog Millionaire a few years back, as well—and this year their opening night film is a doozy: Silver Linings Playbook (11/8 Tivoli 7:30 p.m., 11/10 Frontenac 6:30 p.m.), which was the Audience Award winner at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and is getting Oscar buzz out the ass (including for its female lead, Jennifer Lawrence, who you probably saw earlier this year in The Hunger Games). If you’ve seen the trailer and were put off by it, don’t be. Yes, the trailer is awful, but hopefully you caught that it was directed by David O. Russell, who has directed five previous films and has yet to make a bad one (his most recent was 2010’s The Fighter). I have seen Silver Linings Playbook, but publicists generally frown on extended analysis of films prior to their release, so for now we’ll leave it at this: It is good, and you should see it.

You may have noticed that in years past, the festival programmers have shown a predilection for screening foreign movies that were their country’s submission to the Academy for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar; each year they show five or so. This year we have six: Germany’s Barbara (11/16 Frontenac 9:30 p.m., 11/18 Frontenac 6:15 p.m.), Italy’s Caesar Must Die (11/17 Frontenac 4:15 p.m., 11/18 Frontenac 6:30 p.m.), Thailand’s Headshot (11/14 Frontenac 9:15 p.m., 11/15 Frontenac 8:30 p.m.), Switzerland’s Sister (11/17 Frontenac 9:15 p.m., 11/18 Frontenac 3:30 p.m.), Slovenia’s A Trip (11/10 Frontenac 7 p.m., 11/11 Frontenac 8:30 p.m.), and the Congo/Canadian co-production War Witch (11/13 Frontenac 7 p.m.). I’ve seen all six of these movies, and all are varying degrees of good; I’d rank Headshot and A Trip as the best and Sister as the worst, but Sister’s perfectly watchable, so that is to say that you can’t go wrong with any of these six films.

Headshot might be recognizable to hardcore SLIFF wieners, as it was directed by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, whose Ploy, Invisible Waves, Monrak Transistor, and 6ixtynin9 are all alumni of previous years of SLIFF programming. Meanwhile, Barbara is getting some groundswell of support; it’s starting to open in regular release on the coasts, and director Christian Petzold’s previous film Yella (which shares its lead, Nina Hoss, with Barbara) is held in quite high regard. Caesar Must Die is an interesting documentary/fiction film hybrid, about a group of real-life Italian prisoners staging a production of Julius Caesar in prison; the structure to the film reminded me of Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street. And War Witch is a sometimes quite powerful story of a 12-year-old girl forced into becoming a soldier.

And a couple more foreign films that fit in nicely with the above, except that they technically weren’t their respective country’s submissions for the Foreign Language Oscar: The Camera d’Or-winning film at Cannes in 2011 was the Argentinean film Las Acacias (11/9 Frontenac 2 p.m., 11/12 Frontenac 4:15 p.m.), and it’s a slow and subtle but very memorable film about a man who drives a woman and her baby across the border from Paraguay into Buenos Aires. Another good Thai film to go along with the aforementioned Headshot is P-047 (11/12 Frontenac 7 p.m., 11/13 Frontenac 9:30 p.m.). SLIFF’s artistic director Chris Clark is an aficionado of Thai film (as is sometimes program consultant RD Zurick), and as such, the Thai films in each year’s festival tend to be the most reliably good films they program. This year’s no exception; Headshot’s the better of the two, but P-047 is still absolutely worth seeing.

sliff bullhead-300One of the five actual nominees for last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar was Belgium’s Bullhead (11/9 Frontenac 8:45 p.m., 11/11 Wildey 7 p.m.), which has since been released theatrically and on home video in America by Drafthouse Films, the upstart film distributor run by the Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League; suffice it to say that he’s got great taste in movies and acquires interesting movies, and Bullhead is no exception. Drafthouse Films has a second movie in the festival this year (which is also already on home video in America), Denmark’s Klown (11/12 Frontenac 9:30 p.m., 11/16 Wildey 9:30 p.m.), which couldn’t be further from Bullhead in tone; Klown plays like a cross between The Hangover and Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s funny, but perhaps not as funny as its excellent red band trailer may lead you to believe. And moving away from Drafthouse Films releases but staying in the realm of movies you can pick up on Blu-ray if you see them in the festival and love them, there’s the new Aki Kaurismäki, Le Havre (11/10 Wildey 2 p.m., 11/13 Tivoli 7:15 p.m.), which is a pleasure and was recently released by the Criterion Collection. Kaurismäki’s films are always drolly funny, and Le Havre is as usual but is also fairly moving, which Kaurismäki movies only sometimes are.

The only real stinkers of the foreign films I’ve seen so far are France’s The Day I Saw Your Heart (11/15 Frontenac 4 p.m., 11/16 Frontenac 2:30 p.m.), which almost redeems itself by the presence of some cool X-ray-based artwork and Inglourious Basterds and Beginners’ Melanie Laurent, but not quite, and Belgium’s Come As You Are (11/15 Frontenac 9:30 p.m., 11/17 Frontenac 6:45 p.m.), a repellent movie that plays like a cross between The Sessions and Sex Drive, but way worse.

Somewhat disappointingly, the three Japanese films in this year’s festival are all animated; historically, I’m kind of a sucker for Japanese dramas, and miss their presence here. The two Japanese films I have seen, Asura (11/16 Hi-Pointe midnight) and Tatsumi (11/10 Frontenac 4:30 p.m., 11/17 Wildey 3:15 p.m.), kind of suck. Asura’s a serviceable enough anime but nothing special, and Tatsumi is the promising-looking but close to horrible pseudo-adaptation of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s autobiographical graphic novel A Drifting Life; I’ve read A Drifting Life and enjoyed it, but Tatsumi starts off boring and gets laughably bad by the end.

I haven’t seen as many of this year’s slew of documentaries as I have fiction films, but still most of what I’ve seen have been winners. The festival has two Morgan Spurlock documentaries which is kind of a big deal, as Spurlock is one of the most popular young documentarians working today. Of the two, Mansome (11/9 Tivoli 9:30 p.m.) and Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope (11/17 Tivoli 4 p.m.), I’ve only seen Mansome, which is slight and disappointing, especially considering the presence of Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman and Will Arnett. Hopefully Comic-Con is better.

sliff institute_300The two best documentaries I’ve seen from the festival so far are Casting By (11/10 Tivoli 8:30 p.m.) and The Institute (11/18 Webster Univ./Moore 6 p.m.). Casting By is a documentary about casting directors on films and the influence they have on both the finished product of the films they cast as well as the movie industry at large; it kind of has the reek of something you’d see in film school when your teacher doesn’t want to teach, but it’s interesting and informative all the same. The Institute, meanwhile, came recommended to me directly from Cliff Froelich, the Executive Director of Cinema St. Louis. I had seen it in the program guide but wrote it off on account of its being compared to the Banksy doc Exit Through the Gift Shop; I like Exit, but it’s the sort of film where I wouldn’t expect to enjoy another film that purports to be “like” it. The connection between Exit and The Institute is apt, though, as both are interesting, funny, engrossing documentaries that blur the line in terms of credibility. You’ll find yourself wondering just how much of this documentary is as true as it purports to be. The director, Spencer McCall, will be present at its screening, so maybe you can pick his brain about it. Side note: A scene in The Institute where someone is instructed to dance by a person he’s talking to on a pay phone may be the best scene you see in a SLIFF film this year.

A couple of other documentaries which aren’t quite as good but still are of interest are Unfit: Ward vs. Ward (11/18 Wash Univ./Brown 5 p.m.) and Danland: A Pornumentary (11/16 Tivoli 9:45 p.m.). Unfit is the type of documentary that isn’t really very well made, but is made see-worthy by having really incredible subject matter: It’s about a court case and its subsequent appeals that awarded custody of a child to her convicted killer and accused child molester father over her loving, lesbian mother. If you’re horrified by that description, trust me that it only gets worse. And then Danland is a documentary about weirdly romantic male porn producer/star Dan Leal (aka Porno Dan) and his quest for love while working in the porn industry. It’s an interesting film, but doesn’t add much to the discussion that wasn’t already there from pre-existing porno docs like Sex: The Annabel Chong Story, Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy, Girl Next Door, etc.

Of course, on top of all of this stuff there are all of the shorts programs (I’m particularly partial to the opportunity to see animated shorts on the big screen) and guests and free events and what have you. In terms of guests, none are of the caliber we’ve seen in previous years (e.g., Harry Shearer or Bill Plympton), but it’s cool that Joe Dante is coming and showing Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (11/10 Hi-Poine 10 p.m.; single-admission double feature), and I’m enthusiastic to see his rarely seen The Movie Orgy (11/11 Hi-Pointe 11 a.m.). | Pete Timmermann

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