2014 SLIFF Preview | Pete Timmermann

filmfest sliff-2014_752014 has been a strong year for documentaries, and SLIFF isn’t slacking in showing a bunch of good ones.





filmfest sliff-2014_foxcatcher

Every year in my St. Louis International Film Festival preview, I inevitably point out that there is at least one night in the festival where two or three good things are showing opposite each other, thereby making the decision of which to go to overly difficult. SLIFF 2014 has a doozy in this regard. The first Friday of the festival, November 14, there are no fewer than five confirmed-as-great or much-anticipated films screening opposite one another, four of which are only screening in the festival the once, so you better select what you watch that night very carefully.

But then, that’s a good problem to have: abundance! And that’s how SLIFF 2014 is looking overall; as of this writing, I have seen 19 of the feature films the festival is running, of which only one is bad. And there are plenty more films showing that I’m dying to see, but will experience for the first time right out there alongside all of you.

One such film, and my personal selection for what to see on the crowded evening of November 14, is Bennett Miller’s Cannes hit Foxcatcher (11/14 Frontenac 8:30 p.m., on two screens simultaneously), starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo. I might still change my mind on that, though, as Foxcatcher is currently set to open in its regular run in St. Louis on 12/19, so if I miss it at the fest I won’t have to wait too much longer to catch up with it. Elsewhere on the 14th is Jean-Marc Vallee’s follow-up to last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, Wild (11/14 Tivoli 7 p.m.), which is an adaptation of the mega-bestseller of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, and which stars Reese Witherspoon (in a performance assumed to be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, as is Carell’s in Foxcatcher) and was adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby. I’m lucky to have seen the other three great films showing that night: the Nick Cave doc 20,000 Days On Earth (11/14 KDHX 9 p.m.), which was a multiple award winner at Sundance earlier this year; The Overnighters (in a free screening 11/14 SLU 7 p.m., and a paid screening 11/16 Webster 6 p.m.), another Sundance alum that you won’t soon forget, and Ivanhoe (11/14 Webster 7 p.m.), the 1913 silent, which is showing as part of the King Baggot tribute double feature. I’m quite sorry to be missing Ivanhoe, though, as it’s showing from a 35mm film print and has live music from Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra.

A few months back I wrote a Celluloid Atrocities column about the good work Drafthouse Films has been doing lately; in what I’m sure is nothing more than a happy coincidence, SLIFF 2014 is showing six (!) Drafthouse releases, to include the above-mentioned 20,000 Days on Earth and The Overnighters. One of them, Borgman (11/20 Tivoli 9:45 p.m.) was a slight disappointment, but maybe my hopes were just up too high, as many were comparing the film to Dogtooth, which I adore. The New Filmmakers Forum is screening recent Drafthouse acquisition Amira & Sam (11/22 Tivoli 7:30 p.m.), something of an indie rom-com starring the great Martin Starr (Bill from Freaks & Geeks), who isn’t in near enough movies, but here plays the lead opposite newcomer Dina Shihabi. The film starts off strong and loses some steam toward the end, but is still definitely worth seeing. Ari Folman’s Robin Wright-starring The Congress (11/14 Tivoli 9:45 p.m.—yet another good film that night) hasn’t been the critical hit Folman’s previous film, Waltz with Bashir, was, but it’s as filmfest sliff-2014_the-tribeinteresting as you would expect of a psychedelic live-action/animation hybrid based on a Stanislaw Lem (Solaris) novel. Better is The Tribe (11/16 Tivoli 5:20 p.m.), a real stunner from the Ukraine (and another Cannes hit) that takes place in a high school for the deaf, and has no sound whatsoever—no dialogue (the characters communicate through sign language, but it isn’t translated), no music, no Foley sounds, nothing. And it works—it’s compelling and immersive, and not as hard to follow as one might think. I’m sorry that my first experience with it was via internet screener, as I bet it’s amazing on the big screen. Sadly, it suffers the same fate as 20,000 Days on Earth in that its one screening is directly opposite a couple of big-ticket showings: the Werner Herzog-executive produced Cannes alumnus documentary Red Army (11/16 Frontenac 5:15 p.m.) and the umpteenth Cannes-acclaimed film in the festival, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (11/16 Frontenac 7:30 p.m.), which is viewed as being likely to pick up some Oscar nominations, most likely Timothy Spalding for Best Actor.

You may have noticed that many of the films referenced so far are documentaries; 2014 has been a strong year for them, and SLIFF isn’t slacking in showing a bunch of good ones. Apart from those already mentioned, my favorite is Happy Valley (11/23 Tivoli 12:30 p.m.), the new Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story) film about the fallout in the community of State College, Pennsylvania after the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. Going into the film I A) felt like I had a good grasp on the events of the Sandusky crime, and B) did not at all care about football, and still I found Happy Valley to be a very well-done picture about how something like that can affect the local populace as a whole.

In a fine bit of synergy, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (11/18 Webster 7:30 p.m.), a documentary about Japan’s great Studio Ghibli circa the production of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, is screening the same day that The Wind Rises, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and Princess Mononoke all come out on blu-ray in the U.S. Kingdom is a fly-on-the-wall sort of film, and feels like a very good extra on a DVD, but is vital on account of its showings of the day-to-day of one of the greatest animation studios in the history of cinema. In the days leading up to the announcement of SLIFF’s lineup I always compose a mental wish list for the fest, and this year’s included Princess Kaguya, which as of this writing has no St. Louis opening date booked yet. So while I’m disappointed that that film’s not showing (and that wish list is futile, anyway; most years, nothing on it actually winds up in the festival), The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness makes for a nice consolation prize.

filmfest sliff-2014_above-all-elseSome other good documentaries are as follows: Above All Else (11/15 Webster 8:30 p.m.) is about a protest movement in Texas regarding the Keystone Pipeline, which is affecting until you see that the hero of this film drives an enormous pickup truck, like a true Texan. Does he really not see that that kind of behavior is a big factor in why corporations see a need in building things like the Keystone Pipeline in the first place? Alex & Ali (11/18 Tivoli 9:35 p.m.) tells the story of the reuniting of a gay American man and a gay Iranian man, who have been in love but have not seen each other in person in nearly 40 years; this is one of those films that is questionably directed, but tells a good enough story that you won’t be bothered too much by some problematic choices of the director’s (which director is the nephew of Alex, the American man). The Spike Lee-produced Evolution of a Criminal (11/18 Tivoli 7:10 p.m.) takes you step-by-step with how the director, now an NYU grad student, became a criminal when he was young, despite being a nice boy with good grades. The film is interesting and director Darius Clark Monroe makes a compelling subject, but it is another of those films that features a few questionable choices, which aren’t so strong as to keep you from enjoying the film. Debra Granik directs Stray Dog (11/23 Tivoli 6:15 p.m.), a film about biker Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, whom she met in the Ozarks while filming Winter’s Bone. This is a solid movie, but not really one that will haunt your memory after it’s over. Finally, there’s Tomorrow We Disappear (11/16 Wash U./Brown 4:15 p.m.), about a community of artists in New Delhi who are being evicted from their homes of many decades. The films works very well as a Les Blank–style celebration of a culture, but as it gets deeper into the eviction, the ostensible point of making the movie in the first place, it loses some momentum. It also receives bonus points for having a good score by Dan Romer, who co-wrote Beasts of the Southern Wild’s excellent, ecstatic music.

As one would hope, the St. Louis International Film Festival has its share of good foreign-language films, many of which are high profile. In addition to the four already mentioned films in SLIFF that premiered at Cannes this past May, we have Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep (11/19 Tivoli 8 p.m.), the eventual Palme d’Or (highest prize) winner at the festival. I haven’t been able to catch up with Winter Sleep yet, so will see it at the fest. It’s 196 minutes long and starts at 8 p.m. on a school night; I’m interested to see what kind of crowd that one’s going to have. Winter Sleep is Turkey’s submission for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, and like most years SLIFF has the selections of many countries—six, to be specific. Apart from Winter Sleep, the most notable is probably the Italian selection, Human Capital (11/21 Frontenac 9:05 p.m.; 11/23 Frontenac 6:40 p.m.); let’s not forget that SLIFF 2013 screened Italy’s The Great Beauty, which was the eventual winner of the prize. Elsewhere we have the not-Oscar-submitted Iranian vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (11/18 Tivoli 7:05 p.m.), which I probably would have loved had it not come so soon after Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, with which it bears many similarities. One of my fondest SLIFF memories is seeing Catherine Breillat’s film Fat Girl for the first time in the 2001 festival, and 2014 has her new film, Abuse of Weakness (11/15 Frontenac 9:25 p.m.; 11/16 Frontenac 9 p.m.), starring Isabelle Huppert. It’s among Breillat’s better films, but is no Fat Girl, either, which is an impossible bar to set anyway.

And this is all skimming the surface. Of course there are plenty more films I want to see but haven’t yet, such as Oscar frontrunner The Imitation Game (11/15 Tivoli 5 p.m.) and the HBO-produced, Martin Scorsese-co-directed documentary The 50 Year Argument (11/22 Tivoli 12:15 p.m.). The one bad film I’ve seen, The Makings of You (11/13 Tivoli 7:30 p.m.) isn’t even a total bust, as it was shot here in St. Louis (and has nice cinematography besides) and stars Jay Ferguson (Stan on Mad Men) and Sheryl Lee and Grace Zabriskie (Laura and Sarah Palmer on Twin Peaks, here again playing daughter and mother). It’s just that the film doesn’t really work; I never liked nor cared about these characters, in a way I can’t assume was intentional. There’s also a lot of good repertory stuff, including a program of Alice Guy-Blaché shorts (11/16 SLAM 2:30 p.m.), Tenacious Eats doing A Hard Day’s Night (11/22 Centene 6 p.m.), and the new restoration of Hiroshima, Mon Amour (11/15 Frontenac 12 p.m.). There are also scads of programs of shorts, including two of animated shorts, which I love seeing on the big screen and are hard to see this way outside of the festival.

That all is to say, I’ve had a good last couple weeks plowing through advanced screeners of films showing at SLIFF, and I’m greatly looking forward to the next couple weeks, wherein I’ll get to see even more, but on the big screen. | Pete Timmermann

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