SLIFF 2009 Preview | Pete Timmermann

sliff_sm.jpgBut what am I to do this year, when there is a bigger-than-usual St. Louis presence in my international film festival?







I learned a long time ago to stay away from each summer’s annual St. Louis Filmmaker’s Showcase, put on by Cinema St. Louis and featuring films with some connection to St. Louis (the filmmakers are from here, the film was shot here, etc.), because I invariably wind up hating nearly everything I see, and alienating the local filmmakers with my hostile write-ups. November’s St. Louis International Film Festival has long been my stomping ground, though; attending film festivals is perhaps my single favorite thing to do in the world. But what am I to do this year, when there is a bigger-than-usual St. Louis presence in my international film festival?

Luckily for me, St. Louis comes off pretty well, so it isn’t much of a problem. Of course, the big score for the Cinema St. Louis  team is the local premiere of the locally shot, big deal Jason Reitman/George Clooney Oscar bait movie, Up in the Air (11/14, Tivoli, 7 p.m.; this was sold out before the festival calendars were even printed, though, so don’t even think about going (unless you already have tickets). Aside from thankfully being quite good (as is not surprising, given Reitman’s track record thus far), St. Louis comes off quite nicely in it. Despite what the local press would have you believe, Up in the Air had shooting locations all over the country—Omaha, Detroit, Miami, Las Vegas. However, of these locations St. Louis definitely comes off the best. Clooney gives a weirdly passionate speech about how much he likes the Lambert Airport, for example, amid the occasional dig at the film’s other shooting locations. And looking past the film’s disposition toward our city is to see how our talent that had a hand in making it fared: See Jason Green’s profile about PLAYBACK:stl writer Kevin Renick‘s song being the song chosen to play over the closing credits (you can listen to it while seeing how many names you recognize!). I was personally partial to local actor Dustin Miles’ appearance as Ned, who, alongside Zach Galifianakis and J.K. Simmons, plays one of the hapless employees George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham has to fire. Given the scope of St. Louisans who claim to have had something-or-other to do with the film, everyone can play the Spot Your Friends game, Where’s Waldo?-style.

Another film playing this year’s SLIFF with strong local ties is Joe Leonard’s How I Got Lost (11/14 Tivoli 2:30 p.m., 11/15 Webster 6 p.m.), which was shot partially in Kirkwood, in addition to Leonard having originally hailed from St. Louis. While on the whole I did not like the film (sorry, Joe, I still like you), I did quite enjoy the locations it was shot in, as Joe and I seem to have the same taste for haunts in Kirkwood: The Custard Station, my favorite ice cream place (well, frozen custard place) in the world, turns up in a couple of scenes, and Spencer’s Grill figures in pretty prominently, too; Rosemarie DeWitt, who was so great as Rachel in last year’s Rachel Getting Married, plays a waitress there.

Getting more tenuous in the St. Louis ties department is Noah Buschel’s The Missing Person (11/19 Frontenac 4:45 p.m., 11/20 Frontenac 9:30 p.m.): it was shot by Webster grad Ryan Samul, who is known around here for having shot Steel City. Samul has been doing good work on good projects in the years since he’s left Webster (most recently, he shot the music video for Animal Collective’s "Summertime Clothes," which is great in every conceivable way), and The Missing Person is no exception. It’s a half-serious, half-not film noir starring Oscar nominees Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road) and Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone).

beeswax.jpgMoving away from St. Louis, the festival’s greatest surprise and its biggest disappointment both hail from Texas. Beeswax (11/13 Webster 7 p.m.), the newest film from Andrew Bujalski, is sadly the latter. This is only Bujalski’s third film, and his first two, 2002’s Funny Ha Ha and 2005’s Mutual Appreciation, are among the best American independent films of the new millennium. And really, Beeswax isn’t bad, but it’s a pretty steep decline from the quality of Bujalski’s prior work, which is what makes it the festival’s greatest disappointment. None of its characters are particularly likeable, and it feels more like a generic American indie rather than the honest, surprising, credible work Bujalski has done in the past. Still, I’ll be at its one festival screening with bells on: Bujalski is going to be there to discuss the film after, so maybe he can convince me that the film is better than I think.

The surprise of the festival is David Lowery’s St. Nick (11/13 Tivoli 7:15 p.m.), which the festival program guide compares to the works of Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green. Coming from a festival guide that’s usually a good reason to stay away from a film (whether you like those directors or not), but in this case it winds up being true: It’s a very light-on-dialogue and beautifully shot film following two mischievous and parentless kids trying to fend for themselves in the landscape. Imagine Harmony Korine’s Gummo if it were more affectionate for its characters, and you’re getting close. (Lowery will also be in attendance at St. Nick‘s sole screening—why does it have to be opposite Beeswax?)

Wrapping up the American indies I’ve seen already is Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (11/18 Tivoli 7:15 p.m.) and Spooner (11/14 Tivoli 7:15 p.m.), neither of which is very good. Guy and Madeline seems like it might be all right at first, despite its description (a love story with song and dance numbers? That might work for some directors, but sounds alarming given that it comes from unknowns and was made on no budget). Its high-grain black-and-white cinematography suits it well, and the two leads are likeable enough. Unfortunately, about 20 minutes in comes a very poorly executed tap dance sequence, and the film never quite recovers. You’ll spend the rest of the time noticing how the difficult footwork is conveniently left out of the frame, and when it is shown, the taps on the soundtrack don’t seem to sync up with the feet hitting the floor. Spooner is bad in a more subtle way, which is to say that it’s bad in the same way a lot of American independent films are bad: It fails at being funny and/or touching when it tries, and just rehashes clichés about dumb bosses, clueless parents and perfect girls until it’s over. Matthew Lillard is surprisingly good in the poorly written title role, while Nora Zehetner, whom I quite liked in Brick (a SLIFF 2005 alumnus), can’t save her also poorly written character.

we-live-in-public.jpgSo far I haven’t gotten to see many documentaries from this year’s festival. The big draw for me is Crude (11/15 Tivoli 6:15 p.m.), the new film from Joe Berlinger, who (alongside Bruce Sinofsky) has made some of the greatest documentaries I’ve ever seen, including Paradise Lost movies and Brother’s Keeper. He will be in attendance to do a post-screening conversation with Mike Steinberg, and also to receive this year’s Lifetime Achievement in Documentary award. In terms of documentaries I actually have seen is We Live in Public (11/19 Tivoli 7 p.m.), which has been making the rounds and gathering up praise in other cities lately, including winning the Best Documentary prize at this year’s Sundance. We Live in Public focuses on Josh Harris, an all-around visionary in the realm of the internet, and also the guy who pioneered the whole 24-hour webcam movement. I found Harris to be entirely dislikeable and the film to be surprisingly boring, given the subject matter, though I agree with many of its theses. Also in we have For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism (11/14 Tivoli 11 a.m.; free), which is an illuminating (if shoddily made—ha!) film about American film critics and the American film criticism scene. Filmmaker Gerald Peary got most of the country’s biggest names to participate (Roger Ebert, A.O. Scott, J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, etc.), and the film serves as both a nice history of and love letter to film critics, which is of course a profession I’m rather partial to.

The only foreign documentary I’ve taken in so far is also sadly the only Japanese film in the festival, Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (11/17 Tivoli 5 p.m.). Come on, Cinema St. Louis, let’s have a better Japanese presence next time! Anyway, Beetle Queen starts off interestingly enough, as its title implies: It is about the ongoing bug craze in Japan, where you can buy live bugs from vending machines, where people own bugs as pets, etc. You even meet one guy who bought a Ferrari with money he made from catching and selling bugs. At first the film goes down smoothly enough; it veers toward being unfocused, but it suits its meditative camerawork and strange subject matter well. About half an hour in, though, I found that I was ready for it to be over—when it lasts for another hour after.

an-education.jpgThe foreign language fiction films I’ve seen fared a little better. Three big names in international film festivals of the past decade have been Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan, France’s Claire Denis, and China’s Jia Zhang-ke, all of whom are represented in this year’s festival. All three films are worth seeing. Bilge’s entry is Three Monkeys (11/20 Frontenac 9:15 p.m., 11/21 Frontenac 2:30 p.m.), for which he won the Best Director prize at Cannes last year. It’s shot beautifully, but is a little dry and removed, as Bilge films tend to be. The Denis film is 35 Shots of Rum (11/20 Frontenac 7 p.m., 11/21 Frontenac 9:30 p.m.), which is inspired by the great Yasujiro Ozu film Late Spring. 35 Shots is of course nowhere near as good as Late Spring, nor is it near as good as Denis’ best work (that being Beau Travail, which also screened at SLIFF some years ago), but it is certainly worth seeing nonetheless. Best of the three is the Zhang-ke, 24 City (11/16 Frontenac 7 p.m., 11/19 Frontenac 9:30 p.m.), which follows Zhang-ke’s funny tendency to make works of fiction inspired by documentary about contemporary life in China.

Up in the Air aside, I have not yet had the opportunity to screen many of the festival’s big-ticket films. I’m anxious to take in An Education (11/12 Frontenac 7 p.m.), which opens in regular release the day after its festival screening, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (11/22 Tivoli 5:30 p.m.; I’m told that this is sold out already); which is the new Terry Gilliam film and Heath Ledger’s final role (it also stars Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, with Tom Waits as the Devil; needless to say, it has an awesome trailer); Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire (11/14 Hi-Pointe 7:30 p.m.), and the aforementioned Crude. Opposite Parnassus, if you were sold out of it, is the new Richard Linklater film Me & Orson Welles (11/22 Tivoli 6:30 p.m.), which I’m also quite anxious to see, and opposite Crude is Youth in Revolt (11/15 Hi-Pointe 8 p.m.), the new Michael Cera movie which was directed by Miguel Arteta, who directed an episode of Freaks & Geeks, an episode of The Office, and some unfairly overlooked feature films, including The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck.

shorts-2-1.jpgAnd finally, let’s not forget the shorts programs which, given that they are often very hard to see elsewhere, are some of the most vital things at film festivals. I’ve already been roped into attending the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase Shorts 1 program (11/13 Webster 9:30 p.m.); hopefully its standard of quality is higher than what I’ve gotten used to in the past. More exciting is the fact that instead of the usual one, this year there are three programs of animated shorts: the confusingly named Shorts Program 2: Animated Shorts 1 (11/14 Frontenac 5 p.m., 11/22 Tivoli 9:30 p.m.) and Shorts Program 7: Animated Shorts 2 (11/21 Frontenac 7:15 p.m., 11/22 Tivoli 7:30 p.m.), which each have a new Bill Plympton short apiece, among other things, as well as a program called The Hollywood Cartoon (11/21 Brown Hall 7:30 p.m.; Free), which features a handful of classic Disney and Warner Brothers shorts, which I’m always quite happy to watch, especially on a big screen.

That is to say, this year looks to be the best installment of SLIFF we’ve seen in quite some time. The average quality of the films screening both big and small is high, many worthwhile guests are attending, and a focus on the things that film festivals do best is more apparent than it has been in years past. Here’s hoping that the Cinema St. Louis crew can keep up with this trend. | Pete Timmermann

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