2013 SLIFF Preview | Pete Timmermann

 

SLIFF 75Many people will be missing A Touch of Sin due to the JFK screening, and while I can’t blame them, that’s a shame.

SLIFF 500

For six years running, the St. Louis International Film Festival has held the local premiere of at least one film and as many as three that went on to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and twice in those six years they’ve screened the eventual winner (Slumdog Millionaire and The Artist). The streak extends to seven years if you’re counting the iterations of SLIFF that have screened one or two of the films that eventually wound up on my personal year-end Top Ten Films list, with three taking the #1 position (Juno, An Education, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). So which films in the 2013 festival are likely to find themselves amongst the list of Best Picture nominees, and/or on my personal list of the best films of the year?

The most likely Best Picture nominee is the new Alexander Payne movie, Nebraska (11/15 Tivoli 7 p.m.); Payne’s previous two movies, Sideways and The Descendents (the latter of which also being a SLIFF alumnus), were both nominees in that category, and Nebraska has been picking up steam since its premiere at Cannes back in May.

At least one film from the festival likely to end up on my Top Ten Films list at the end of the year is Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (11/16 Tivoli 6:30 p.m.). I’ve written in the past about how Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation) is probably our very best young American independent film director, and Computer Chess is a reminder of why I say things like that. It’s a very fun and smart throwback that feels at once like a million things you’ve seen before yet also seems completely original; it’s set in a competition in 1980 where computer programmers are trying to write a program that can beat a human player at chess. It’s a comedy, shot in black and white and mimics the reality of watching a film from a VHS tape (to include having been shot in the standard aspect ratio) and is endlessly inventive and a lot of fun. Also, it stars a grown-up Wiley Wiggins, who played the freshman Mitch Kramer in Richard Linklater’s classic 1993 film Dazed & Confused.

Another solid picture with a good shot at winding up on my year-end list is the new Jia Zhang-ke, A Touch of Sin (11/22 Frontenac 8:30 p.m.); Zhang-ke is one of the best modern Chinese directors, and Sin is one of his best films yet. It’s based on four unrelated true stories of violence from modern day China, which Zhang-ke goes on to link thematically; he doesn’t intercut between the stories (meaning that he shows all of story one, then all of story two, etc., so the film watches like seeing four half-hour films back-to-back), but each is so immediately engrossing that it will never lose your interest.

But A Touch of Sin points to a concern regarding this year’s festival: the evening of Friday, November 22 has a lot of the best stuff all programmed opposite each other, with no other screening times for any of it, so you have to pick the event you’re most geeked to attend, and try not to think about what you’re missing out on. For most people, the big draw will be the screening of the director’s cut of JFK (11/22 Tivoli 7 p.m.), which takes place on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK, and at which director Oliver Stone will attend and hold a post-screening discussion with the Post-Dispatch’s Joe Williams. This screening with Stone is a huge coup for the festival; it’s one of those things that it isn’t surprising to hear is happening somewhere, but it is very surprising to hear that it’s happening here. Tickets are bumped up to $25 per for this event (from their usual $12, assuming you don’t qualify for any discounts), but it’s easily worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime event such as this. This is of course to say that many people will be missing A Touch of Sin due to the JFK screening, and while I can’t blame them, that’s a shame.

Worse still is that, again, at this exact same time is the one and only screening of the new Asghar Farhadi film The Past (11/22 Frontenac 8:15 p.m.), which I have not yet seen and am dying to. Farhadi is the director behind 2011’s modern classic A Separation, and, like Nebraska and A Touch of Sin, The Past premiered at Cannes this past May to great acclaim. It’s being released by Sony Pictures Classics this holiday season, so if you skip it in favor of JFK, it won’t be too long before you can see it in regular release, except that historically SPC isn’t all that quick to bring things to St. Louis, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s February or March before it works its way back here.

There’s yet another film from the Cannes 2013 competition screening at SLIFF: Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (11/16 Frontenac 4 p.m., 11/24 Frontenac 6 p.m.). Sorrentino seems mostly unknown to U.S. audiences, but is one of my favorite modern Italian directors. If you know him, it’s likely for 2011’s Sean Penn vehicle This Must Be the Place (his only English language film to date) or 2008’s Il Divo. Unfortunately, The Great Beauty is my least favorite film he’s made so far; it’s being touted as a throwback to La Dolce Vita-era Fellini, and I’ve never been a Fellini fan, so perhaps that explains it.

The Great Beauty and The Past are Italy’s and Iran’s respective submissions to the Best Foreign Language Film category for the upcoming Oscars; it seems like each year the programmers at Cinema St. Louis (the organization that puts on the festival) grab as many of these foreign film submissions as they can get their hands on. Elsewhere this year we have Belgium’s The Broken Circle Breakdown (11/20 Tivoli 6:45 p.m.), Croatia’s Halima’s Path (11/19 Frontenac 2:15 p.m., 11/21 Frontenac 7 p.m.), Singapore’s Ilo Ilo (11/20 Frontenac 4:30 p.m., 11/23 Frontenac 6:30 p.m.), and Cambodia’s The Missing Picture (11/24 Webster U./Moore 4 p.m.), the latter of which is also a strong contender in the Best Documentary Feature category.

As for the other three, Broken Circle Breakdown is already playing in bigger cities in limited release and is garnering much acclaim, but it bugged me; it’s a very political film, and one that I align with politically, for what that’s worth, but it’s ham-fisted and obvious and pretty much outright bad. The characters aren’t likeable, the situations aren’t believable, and it would have a hard time being more obvious. Halima’s Path is a more subtle failure — it shows promise in the beginning and has some good elements (some of the acting, some of the cinematography), but it’s poorly directed and poorly edited, and in the end just doesn’t really work. Ilo Ilo isn’t bad and is arguably quite good, but it will be off-putting for some because pretty much all of the characters in the film are intentionally and successfully dislikeable.

If it’s getting a jump start on the Oscars that you’re looking for in the festival, there are some other titles to consider. Remember how in 2011 SLIFF screened eventual Documentary Feature winner Undefeated, before anyone had really heard of it? This year the two most likely films to follow a similar path are Let the Fire Burn (11/23 Webster U./Moore 4 p.m.) and Tim’s Vermeer (11/21 Frontenac 7:15 p.m.). Also of note is that Ernest & Celestine (11/23 Wash U./Brown 12 p.m., free) just popped up on the Academy’s list of animated features eligible for that category this year, so it could easily wind up being the film you don’t immediately recognize from the final five, like how A Cat in Paris or The Secret of Kells have been in years past. August: Osage County (11/17 Tivoli 6 p.m.) is a likely contender in multiple categories, including, but not limited to, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress for Julia Roberts, and Best Actress for Meryl Streep. Another likely contender for Best Actress is Judi Dench from Philomena (11/17 Tivoli 3:15 p.m.); you can camp out at the Tivoli and see two likely Best Actress nominees back-to-back! Alongside Nebraska’s Bruce Dern as a favorite in the Best Actor category, another (but far less likely) possibility is Idris Elba (who you may remember as Stringer Bell from The Wire) as Nelson Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (11/23 Tivoli 6 p.m.). The animated short “Mr. Hublot” from the Shorts 1: Animation 1 program (11/15 Tivoli 9:15 p.m.) just advanced to the final ten for the Best Animated Short Oscar, so you might be able to sneak that one in as well.

In the mediocre category is Poland’s The Photograph (11/15 Frontenac 2 p.m., 11/24 Frontenac 8:45 p.m.). The American film Finding Neighbors (11/16 Frontenac 7 p.m.) isn’t too bad save the lead, Michael O’Keefe, who appears to think that all acting entails is rolling your eyes, acting put-upon, and occasionally schlubbing around. Surprisingly good is the doc Antarctica: A Year on Ice (11/16 Frontenac 1 p.m.), which combines time-lapse photography of Antarctica with a real attempt to make the viewer understand the reality of living in Antarctica for a year. It starts off a little shaky, but about 15 minutes in finds its footing and turns out to be a pretty solid effort that, if you’re like me, will make you long for the solitude afforded those who stay in Antarctica all through the winter.

Finally, the only abysmally bad movie I’ve seen so far from the festival is the British film Common People (11/15 Frontenac 3:45 p.m., 11/16 Frontenac 3:30 p.m.), which features the grating and not remotely credible stories of people intersecting in a park in south London. The characters are awful, the things that happen are schmaltzy and not believable, the film is poorly acted and directed, and there is basically nothing redeeming about it at all. It’s this kind of film you need to be afraid of when you blindly see movies in film festivals.

But to end this piece on a high note, SLIFF 2013 has a better-than-usual slate of repertory screenings. We get two Alfred Hitchcock films, one silent, Blackmail (11/19 Tivoli 7 p.m.), the other a beloved talkie, To Catch a Thief (11/17 Frontenac 1 p.m.). Blackmail features live music from two members of the increasingly and deservingly popular local group Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra, and To Catch a Thief has an actress answering post-screening questions in character as legendary costume designer Edith Head. That sounds like a bit of a head-scratcher at the moment, but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Elsewhere, we have a reprise of the great success that was the screening of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed that took place at Webster University this past spring. That screening, which was a part of the Greater St. Louis Humanities Festival, was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a movie theatre so far this year. It filled the house at Webster’s Moore Auditorium, and the aforementioned Rats & People performed a score they wrote to accompany the film. I’m glad that the powers that be have allowed this to happen again; Greed (11/23 Webster U./Moore 8 p.m.) is a tough film to see (your best bet these days is on iTunes, though you can get it on VHS and/or laserdisc, if you still have the ability to play those), Rats & People’s score is pretty great, and the whole thing is just an overall wonderful experience.

I said in multiple pieces and multiple venues last year that that festival, the 2012 edition, was the single best iteration of SLIFF I’d yet been to in my 15-odd years of attending. The 2013 fest may not be quite as strong as last year’s, but that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of good stuff to be had. Cinema St. Louis has been on a bit of a programming hot streak in the past year or two, and hopefully SLIFF 2013 will parlay it a little longer. | Pete Timmermann

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