PICKS AND PANS FROM THE VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2017



A Fantastic Woman (Chile): Twenty-something chanteuse Marina is preparing to move in with her affluent and much older boyfriend when he suddenly dies leaving her in an emotional and legal quandary for as the family begins scrambling over his estate the fact that she is a trans-woman exposes her to an onslaught of vitriol and humiliation beginning with the emergency room doctor. But Marina slowly discovers she is made of tougher stuff than she first thought and even though she may not win this particular battle she is determined to walk away on her own terms… Despite a knockout performance from lead actress Daniela Vega (herself a trans-woman) and a well-meaning heart this is a sloppily made film that eschews subtlety in favour of beating its audience over the head—characters go out of their way to be extra nasty, Aretha Franklin wails “You make me feel like a natural woman…” on the radio, and Marina’s self-pitying trip to a local discotheque morphs into a tacky ABBA video. And then there’s the ghostly visions of her dead lover and a host of glaringly metaphorical background murals depicting battling dinosaurs and rabbit skeletons. An otherwise important film reduced to a mere telenovela.

AlphaGo (USA): “Go” is an ancient Chinese game of strategy in which two players maneuver black and white stones around a grid-like board in an attempt to win territory while trapping one’s opponent. Levels of magnitude more complex than chess, the number of possible permutations in Go is greater than the number of atoms in the universe which makes it the Holy Grail for those developing A.I. software—teach a computer to play Go and you are one step closer to creating a thinking machine. Enter England’s DeepMind corporation and it’s board of super geeks who set out to do just that with their “AlphaGo” program. After successfully testing the program on real life Go champions they set their sights on South Korea’s Lee Sedol, the world’s top-ranked Go master. Can a manmade machine beat the best humanity has to offer in the most intricate game ever devised? Greg Kohs’ unexpectedly riveting documentary follows Team AlphaGo as they prepare for the five-game showdown in Seoul before a worldwide audience numbering in the tens of millions. But it’s the background to the story which garners the most interest since for many people, especially in Asia, Go is not just a game it’s a philosophy of life and as the director interviews everyone from computer programmers and fans to Go masters and Lee Sedol himself you realize this is not a simple beta test but rather a benchmark in the progression of artificial intelligence and what it means to “think”. Superb!

Animals (Switzerland): Anna, an author of children’s books, and her husband Nick, a popular chef, are on a working holiday in Switzerland when a head-on collision with an errant sheep sends them through the looking glass and straight into the Twilight Zone. Arriving at the mountain chalet they rented things immediately take a turn for the bizarre as body doubles appear out of nowhere, time starts looping back on itself, and a black cat with a macabre sense of humour starts haunting the front door. Anna is convinced Nick is having an affair but she can’t decide with whom, Nick seems to be out of sync, and both spouses have one eye on the cutlery. Meanwhile back home the friend who is apartment-sitting for them is having some temporal and identity issues of her own… I love it when a director fucks with my head and then offers up a few tantalizing signposts to help me find my way out (keep your eyes and ears peeled!) and in this respect Greg Zglinski proves to be more than adept. Although rooted in solid reality his touches of the fantastic offer up giggles and gasps in equal measure, toying with our sense of propriety until the final reel. It all unfolds like a brilliant adaptation of a really bad novel—and that is perhaps the highest praise one can offer.

At the End of the Tunnel (Argentina): It is no small feat for a director to make a film so ridiculous and yet so immensely entertaining at the same time but Rodrigo Grande’s double-cross crime caper does just that. Paraplegic computer engineer Joaquín lives alone in the ramshackle Buenos Aires house he grew up in. Confined to a wheelchair after a tragic accident which took his family, he’s turned his basement into an electronics workshop where he spends his days tinkering with cables and processors. One night he hears suspicious noises coming from behind the basement wall and with a bit of high-tech sleuthing he uncovers an elaborate plot to rob the bank vault next door. With only a few short weeks before the crime takes place Joaquín suddenly has some difficult decisions to make and informing the police is not at the top of the list. And then a voluptuous stripper and her creepy six-year old daughter begin renting his upstairs bedroom and an already muddy plot becomes more tangled by the minute… Outrageous twists, improbable coincidences, and a heap of breathless close calls are the order of the day and Grande takes obvious delight in dishing them out with just the right compliment of morbid humour and suspense. Filmed in shades of grey and blue with flashes of lightning that seem to rumble on cue, his story careens along like a speeding train picking up momentum until it all ends on a note of such audacity that it left me giggling all the way home. Hitchcock would have peed his pants…

Ava (France): This is first-time director Léa Mysius’ graduate school film and that fact alone should have been sufficient warning. Thirteen-year old Ava is not having much fun during her summer vacation on the Mediterranean: her mother is making a fool of herself with a beach gigolo; her baby sister won’t stop crying; and as if matters couldn’t be any worse Ava’s just discovered she is quickly going blind. So what’s a frustrated teen on the verge of losing her eyesight supposed to do? Why get into all sorts of unlawful trouble with a local gypsy bad boy of course. Trying to squeeze an entire summer into a few short weeks, Ava and Juan steal and screw and generally raise hell. Filmed in garish technicolour shades as if to emphasize what Ava is losing, Mysius can’t seem to find a genre she’s comfortable with going from domestic dysfunction to Bonnie & Clyde to some kind of John Waters fever dream with flashes of nudity thrown in just because she can. And then there’s the inflated metaphors as Ava paints black circles on her walls and gets stalked by a black dog and black uniformed cops atop black horses. Watching stupid people do idiotic things is never easy for me, and Ava was definitely an endurance test. The music was cool though.

Bad Day for the Cut (N. Ireland): The sins of the mother (and father) are visited upon the children in Chris Baugh’s violent thriller. After his mother is brutally murdered for no apparent reason, fortyish Donal is left bewildered. But when the killers come back for him he throws his rifle into the van and goes looking for his own answers, a personal vendetta which leads to bloodletting and traumatic revelations all around. A thin vein of absurdist humour saves this from being just another formulaic twist ’n turn bullet fest and Nigel O’Neill’s clueless but determined protagonist has the audience rooting for him all the way to the film’s beautifully ambivalent final frame. Look for Susan Lynch’s over-the-top performance as the meanest mob bitch to ever come out of Belfast.

Bad Genius (Thailand): Math prodigy Lynn manages to secure a place in one of Thailand’s more prestigious high schools where she quickly learns that there is money to be made in helping her less fortunate classmates cheat on their tests. Joining forces with reluctant fellow genius Bank and a trio of intellectually challenged cohorts Lynn sets her sights (and growing bank account) on the holy grail of all tests, the international STIC exam which is used as a yardstick to determine who gets to study abroad. Concocting an outrageously elaborate plan to distribute the STIC answers to as many Thai students who are willing to pay, Lynn and Bank set their plan in motion. But the web of deceit and lies they must weave begins to grow exponentially and before they know it they are in danger of being outsmarted by their own cleverness… An indecently entertaining film on so many levels, Nattawut Poonpiriya’s classroom caper is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. As a droll comedy its many dramatic flourishes and high-tech intrigues come across as a hilarious spoof of Mission Impossible complete with evil bikers and a mad Russian. As a straight-up thriller its feverish pacing and tension-filled close calls (choreographed to frantic drum beats) will keep you on edge regardless of which side you’re rooting for. But as a sly critique of the Asian mindset which insists on better living through higher grades it earns an A+.

Black Cop (Canada): Tired—or perhaps overwhelmed—by the demands of his job especially in the time of BLM and unprovoked police shootings of unarmed black men, a black cop (never given a name) turns the tables and begins driving his cruiser through upscale white neighbourhoods in search of caucasians to beat and harass. But as the assaults mount his grip on reality wavers and it’s only a matter of time before something either snaps or comes together… If this were a typical English Canadian feature the knee-jerk role reversal ploy would go no further than sheer irony—“A black cop is harassing white people in the same way white cops harass black people, oh my gawd!!” Thankfully writer/director Cory Bowles has a bigger picture to paint for as Black Cop (a star turn from Ronnie Rowe) sinks further into the abyss his mental fugues knock down that fourth wall to confront the audience directly on issues of racism, equality, and the many fractures which divide us—at one point he enters into an argument with his own doppelgänger and we are left to decide which is the good cop and which is the bad. A fellow black officer provides the voice of reason while a mysterious teen sporting a hoodie and smartphone injects a measure of rage. “My black is not your black…” states Black Cop during one of his stagey soliloquies and despite a few brushes with white stereotypes this film is not your typical Canadian film. Far from a white guilt trip, Bowles assured feature is both a demand to parley and a plea to listen.

Bosch: The Garden of Dreams (Spain): With his iconic “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch left the art world with one of its most celebrated yet maddeningly opaque works. Studied and debated for centuries, the phantasmagorical images of playful couplings, tortured souls, and impossible creatures have never been satisfactorily explained but that doesn’t stop director José Luis López-Linares and his assembled collection of international writers, artists, philosophers, and historians from trying. Linares traces the painting’s history as it passed from one royal hand to another before ending up in Spain’s Prado museum and along the way some learned talking heads discuss its religious implications (with the world’s creation on the left, a dreamlike free-for-all orgy in the middle, and scenes of blackest damnation on the right) while others take a purely secular delight in unraveling its underlying themes of sexual abandon, social criticism, and earthbound pleasures. Is Bosch’s work a window into the medieval mindset, or is it an ageless mirror reflecting our own fears and desires right back at us? There will never be an easy answer, but according to Linares et al it’s the questions which matter the most.

Breathe (UK): Robin and Diana Cavendish’s perfect marriage is shattered when polio paralyzes him from the neck down and forces him to rely on a mechanical ventilator—a veritable death sentence in 1959. But Diana, refusing to let him give up, enlists the aid of a local inventor and together they forge a future which not only changes Robin’s life but the lives of countless other severely handicapped patients facing a lifetime of institutionalized hell. This is what a Merchant Ivory Chick Flick would look like complete with sweeping English countrysides, stiff upper-lipped perseverance, and a rousing musical score. Claire Foy and Andrew Garfield put in convincing performances and the Brideshead Revisited sets are easy on the eye. First time director Andy Serkis does tug at the heartstrings a few too many times however (that ending!) but the fact that it is based on a true story cuts it a bit of slack.

Call Me By Your Name (Italy): It’s 1983 and seventeen-year old Elio is spending the summer in northern Italy with his parents while dad, an archaeologist of some note, does a bit of field work. Spending his days reading, composing music, and making half-hearted passes at girls, Elio’s complacency is blindsided with the arrival of Oliver, his father’s new American assistant. Somewhat aloof yet breathtakingly handsome, Oliver’s presence precipitates feelings Elio never knew he had and isn’t quite sure how to act upon. But the resolutely heterosexual Oliver seems completely unaware of the turmoil he’s causing—or could it be he’s just better at hiding his own feelings? Full of long languorous days and starlit nights, director Luca Guadagnino’s achingly tender film recalls a teen’s first crush with all the heightened emotions that only the very young and very naïve can feel—the lust, the frightened butterflies, those funny awkward moments—and he does so with the eye of an unabashed romantic. In no rush to move to the bedroom he banks the fire slowly with a brief glance here, a fleeting touch there, and in so doing he reminds us all of what it used to feel like. As passionate as a first kiss, as painful as a final goodbye—and almost indecently erotic—Guadagnino easily surpasses the confines of so-called “gay cinema” to deliver a film that every heart can relate to.

Close-Knit (Japan): Obviously meant as a plea for tolerance in his native Japan, Naoko Ogigami’s alt-family drama tries a little too hard at times to sweeten the harshness of reality—however he does it with so much charming subtlety one wonders if that’s really such a bad thing after all. When her mother takes off on yet another weeks-long bender eleven-year old Tomo once again bunks down with her uncle Makio. But this stay-over is going to be a little different for Makio has a new girlfriend, Rinko, who just happens to be a post-op trans-woman (a brilliant turn from Tôma Ikuta). At first fascinated and a little nonplused by this strange turn of events, Tomo quickly warms up to the towering Rinko (she brushes Tomo’s hair and makes awesome bento boxes!) and the three gradually settle into the kind of domestic security she’s always longed for. Unfortunately she also experiences firsthand the prejudice that goes with being different. And then her biological mother stumbles back into the picture and the loving bond she’s developed with Rinko is put to the ultimate test… To his credit Ogigami keeps things low-keyed, avoiding preachy bombast by allowing his characters to evolve as human beings rather than representatives of either the left or the right. As negligent as she is, Tomo’s mother still has legitimate reasons for her poor maternal instincts while an otherwise demure Rinko channels her unexpressed rage into creating a very unusual collection of knitwear—a habit she passes on to Tomo and Makio with amusing results. And in a related thread one of Tomo’s classmates undergoes his own private hell after his uptight mother discovers he is gay, yet when his story intersects with Tomo’s it’s presented as a natural progression rather than a forced set-up. With a soundtrack of wistful piano and violins and cameras which focus on sunbeams falling onto intimate spaces, Ogigami’s film unfolds like a gentle haiku right up to its believable conclusion, a bittersweet lesson in life that would have made Ozu proud. If his underlying plea for acceptance is stressed at times it is only because it deserves to be heard. And that final frame is priceless!

The Desert Bride (Argentina): “Is love better late than never?” is the question posed by this December-December romance filmed in Argentina’s stark desert region. When the family she’s worked for all her adult life falls on hard times, aging maid Teresa is shipped off to another household 600 miles away. However, while en route her bus breaks down and she loses the bag containing all her possessions. Enter gruff roadside vendor Julio who takes her on a road trip in search of her stuff—and you can pretty well guess what happens next. A simple tale about two lonely people crossing paths that also touches on politics (she’s from Chile, his nickname is “El Gringo”) and identity (her entire life til now seems defined by other people’s domestic chores). Stars Paulina Garcia and Claudio Rissi set off a few sparks as the restrained spinster and loveable slob but an unremarkable script’s finer points are lost on foreign audiences and the film’s tedious pace had me nodding off. A touch of the supernatural—apparently the local saint will do anything for a bottle of water—provided some needless Catholic voodoo.

Directions (Bulgaria): A small business owner forced to drive a taxi after the bank refuses to extend his loan kills his crooked financier and then unsuccessfully turns the gun on himself. An apt beginning to Stephan Komandarev’s fascinating ensemble piece which follows a handful of cab drivers as they navigate the mean (and oft times pathetic) streets of Sofia over the course of one single night. With a public radio show weighing the pros and cons of the murder playing in the background—“…bankrupt people used to kill themselves now they kill the bankers!” gloats one caller—the motley assortment of fares will include underage hookers, cheating husbands, and pretentious ex-pats all of whom share their views on what went wrong with Bulgaria. A moonlighting priest has his faith kicked to the curb by a pragmatic atheist, an embittered female cabbie evens a decades old score, and a grieving driver makes friends with the only creature to show him any empathy. Komandarev’s earthy script and impressive cast serve up a long lonely night of soul-searching and angry critiques which run the gamut from heartbreaking to sardonic comedy while his camera glides effortlessly from one cramped dashboard to another. It may not do much for Bulgaria’s tourism industry but for the price of cab fare it’s a ride well worth taking.

Disappearance (Netherlands): Director Boudewijn Koole confuses style and substance with this mopey navel-gazer in which a woman with a terrible secret tries to reconnect with her estranged mother only to dredge up a lot of raw sewage from the past instead. Icebound winter scenery makes for some beautiful backgrounds, the piano music is lovely (mom is a virtuoso) and ambient sounds are put to clever use (kid brother likes to play with microphones). But Koole is no Bergman and if you’re going to spend 90 minutes staring into someone’s belly button you’d better have something interesting to pull out of it. The ending went beyond the pale. Pass.

The Divine Order (Switzerland): The social and political upheavals raging in 1971 have bypassed a small Swiss village where husbands still bring home the bacon while their dutiful wives wash socks, prepare dinner, and suffer in silence. All that changes however when Switzerland’s outdated and sexist law denying women the right to vote is itself put to a vote and one mousy housewife suddenly finds herself thrust into the eye of the storm when she takes up the cause much to the consternation of the men (and some women) of the village—including her chauvinistic husband. With friends and neighbours passionately taking sides it’s anybody’s guess as to who will blink first…Alternately funny and infuriating, Petra Volpe’s wonderful period piece captures the zeitgeist of the time and fashions it into one of those heartwarming crowd-pleasers which nevertheless has brains to go with all the tacky decor and women’s lib catchlines.

The Farthest (Ireland): In 2012 Voyager 2 became the first manmade object to leave the solar system after a forty year exploratory mission that took it past Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It is now travelling through interstellar space like a message in a bottle where it will remain long after our sun ceases to exist, its precious cargo—a golden disc carrying encoded images and greetings from the human race—there for any alien eyes and ears that happen upon it. In Emer Reynold’s enthusiastic documentary a personable cadre of talking heads including people who actually worked on the project, contemporary scientists, and even Nick Sagan, son of the late Carl Sagan, (whose seven-year old voice can be heard on the gold record) wax scientific and philosophical as they discuss the mission and what it means for the people of Earth. CGI effects combine with video footage to give a truly awe-inspiring look at a chapter in scientific history that often flew beneath the public radar but which never ceased to produce a childlike exuberance in the men and women who were part of it, an exuberance which Reynolds conveys with skill and compassion. Using technology that is primitive by today’s standards (Voyager’s “brain” is comparable in complexity to a modern key fob) these men and women proved what human beings can do with a will and a vision and in doing so they gave us what is perhaps one of the most striking images thus far, a snapshot of our solar system taken from several billion miles out wherein planet Earth is reduced to a tiny blue speck almost lost in a shaft of sunlight. Viva science!

God’s Own Country (UK): Life on the family’s Yorkshire farm is stifling for twenty-something Johnny especially since a series of strokes have left his dad unable to pitch in with the chores—and trying to relieve the tedium with drunken pub crawls and anonymous gay sex is only making his sullen mood worse. And then dad hires rugged Romanian immigrant Gheorghe to help with the livestock and a trek with Johnny into the highlands to fix a sheep pen marks the beginning of a sensual odyssey for both men. As a documentary on rural farm practices in northern England Francis Lee’s movie is fascinating as he films the actors actually assisting in live births or else tending to the sick and dying. However, as an unlikely rural love story all those windswept hills and “inspirational moments” melodies failed to convince me while the simulated sex was as devoid of passion as the simulated heartbreak. I didn’t care much for this story back when it was called Brokeback Mountain and if anything this redux is even less engaging. The little lamb was cute though.

Good Manners (Brazil): São Paulo is transformed into a gothic netherworld in Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas’ dark and brilliant fairy tale which combines elements of Little Red Riding Hood, The Changeling, Frankenstein, and Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby. Single and pregnant thanks to a macabre one night stand, well-to-do Ana is in need of some assistance so she hires former nursing student Clara to help her around the condo and act as nanny once the baby comes. Drawn to one another the two women end up sharing more than housework and that is when Clara starts noticing Ana’s bizarre behaviour—the peculiar cravings, the sleepwalking, the mysterious stomach cramps—all played out in the dead of night. And then baby Joel is born and a discomfited Clara suddenly realizes her troubles are just beginning… Rojas and Dutra’s campfire tale is a giddy mix of horror conventions, bedtime lullabies, and storybook archetypes with painted murals depicting a deep dark forest and an elderly landlady’s cluttered apartment standing in for grandmother’s house. Sad and creepy in equal measure, and presented in painterly widescreen sweeps, it is ultimately a poignantly twisted tale of love in the face of intolerance. One of this year’s “must sees”!

Gukôroku: Traces of Sin (Japan): A year after the Takou family were brutally murdered in their home investigative journalist Tanaka decides to reopen the cold case and his inquiries take him down a very dark road indeed. Meanwhile his younger sister is preparing to stand trial on charges of abusing her baby girl—charges that might have some connection to Tanaka’s story… The devil is in the details in Kei Ishikawa’s overly long and needlessly convoluted whodunnit in which family secrets crawl out of every corner and no one is quite what they seem. But repetitive flashbacks continue to fill in the blanks long after the audience has stopped caring and the big reveal is just too much. Very stylish presentation however with sombre blues and overcast greys bringing out everyone’s bad side.

Happy End (France): Michael Haneke pays homage to himself in yet another stab at the bourgeois middle class which contains subtle and not so subtle allusions to every film he’s made in the last ten years from white ribbons to clandestine video. Life isn’t easy for the Laurent family: Anne (Isabelle Huppert) must oversee the family construction company currently involved in settling a potential lawsuit; senile patriarch Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is harbouring a death wish; brother Thomas is busy sabotaging his current marriage; and son Pierre is just sick of the whole thing. Only Anne’s thirteen-year old niece Eve sees things clearly (through the eye of her smartphone) and it’s enough to drive her to her own distraction. Lies, hypocrisy, and deep-seated privilege abound and Haneke is there to gleefully film it all with his signature deadpan candour and just a twist of the absurd. He’s said it all before but for some reason I never tire of hearing it one more time.

The Insult (Lebanon/France): The mideast conflict is reduced to a simple day in court in writer/director Ziad Doueiri’s masterful drama. Yasser is a Palestinian refugee working as a construction site foreman in Beirut. Tony is a hot-headed Christian who runs a nearby garage. When the two men get into an argument over a simple drainage pipe Yasser hurls an insult at Tony and that is all it takes to set fire to fuse for Tony demands an apology, Yasser waffles, words come to blows, and both men end up in civil court. But the animosity between Moslem Palestinians and Lebanon’s Christian majority runs very deep and both men are already carrying emotional scars…and so are their wives…and so are their lawyers…and so are their neighbours…and so are the people in the street…and so are the politicians… Using a tense courtroom as a microcosm of Lebanon’s bloody past, Doueiri’s trial escalates beyond “Tony vs Yasser” to point an accusatory finger at forty years of war atrocities and subsequent cover-ups while greater powers looked the other way. Now with all of Beirut appearing to side with either the plaintiff or the defendant what started out as a withheld apology stands poised to burn down the house yet again. Too brutal in its honesty to be satirical, Doueiri’s powder keg of a film still holds up the smallest glimmer of hope in a world otherwise preoccupied with its own pain and darkness. Completely engrossing.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (UK): Guilt can be crippling and divine vengeance arrives in a convenient family pack in Yorgos Lanthimos’ brilliantly profane retelling of Artemis and Agamemnon set in contemporary bourgeois Cincinnati. The comfortably upper class life of cardiac surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is set on its ear when the sixteen-year old son of a deceased patient begins insinuating himself into the family. Quiet yet obviously disturbed, “Martin” is at first content to meet Steven for lunch dates and walks which the good doctor obliges mostly out of pity. But when the boy starts befriending Murphy’s wife (Nicole Kidman) and two kids as well his real motives become frighteningly clear—he blames the doctor for his father’s death and has devised a macabre plan for evening the score. Mixing elements of horror, the supernatural, and a hefty dose of Old Testament retribution (by way of Classical mythology) Lanthimos ice cold approach delivers as many laughs as it does shudders—and does so with consummate skill. His signature technique of having actors mouth their lines in a passive monotone, relying instead on jarring music and almost surreal visuals for emotional cues, gives the impression of an ancient Greek tragedy with a bit of kinky sex and absurdist humour thrown in for diversion. It all ends in the same flamboyant manner as it began leaving you to wonder whether you should laugh out loud or gape in disbelief. Euripides would probably be rolling in the aisle.

The King’s Choice (Norway): From the outset of WWII Norway refused to enter into the fray and instead chose to remain steadfastly neutral. Unfortunately Hitler realized that its rugged coastline and vast deposits of iron ore made Norway an invaluable asset to the war effort so, in April of 1940, German warships began entering Norwegian waters under the pretext of protecting the sovereign nation from “British imperialism”. Then, with Oslo under siege and both the duly elected parliament and royal family headed by King Haakon VII on the run, Berlin delivered its final ultimatum: either negotiate terms of surrender or be invaded by force. Eventually the fate of the nation fell to two people: German envoy Curt Bräuer, a disillusioned party member desperate for a peaceful resolution, and King Haakon, a fierce patriot only now feeling the full weight of his crown. With the military might of Germany already striking and countless Norwegian lives in the balance Haakon must choose between resistance or submission… Erik Poppe’s big screen war epic is a masterful blend of sound and image which never overpowers the quieter, human elements at its core. Wintry scenes filmed in bleak washed-out shades are accented by a rousing soundtrack of chorales and tense strings (or heavy silences) while ground and air skirmishes, already frightening in their loud ferocity, are further punctuated by nearly subsonic jolts—indeed, Poppe films harrowing scenes of low-altitude bombing runs as if the planes had just flown straight out of Armageddon itself. But stellar cast and CGI effects aside, the film ultimately rests on the shoulders of Karl Markovics and Jesper Christensen who, in the roles of envoy and king respectively, put in outstanding performances as two men bound by duty yet horrified by the responsibility handed to them. Truly deserving of every award it has received, this is what filmmaking on a grand scale looks like.

The Line (Slovakia): Favourably compared to Animal Kingdom and The Sopranos, Peter Bebjak’s multi-layered drama about an honest gangster unable to change with the times hits the perfect balance between violence, contemplation, and the kind of gallows humour only Eastern Europe can produce. Adam (an intense and sexy Tomas Mastalir) is a cigarette smuggler plying his wares between the Ukraine and his native Slovakia. With crooked cops and border guards on his payroll business is booming, but his Ukrainian overlord Krull wants to expand operations to include human trafficking and narcotics and Adam’s reluctance threatens to undo both his livelihood and his family. Star performances all around, especially Mastalir and Emilia Vásáryová as Adam’s tough-as-nails mother, and a frenetic editing style that goes from bleak panoramas to edgy handheld verité make for thrilling cinema with nary a dull moment. Bebjak’s minutely observed crime drama offers a blistering critique on corruption made commonplace in a world where the value of your life is negotiable and only the dead are smiling.

Loveless (Russia): Everyone is crying out for love yet no one is able to give it let alone recognize it in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest attack on Mother Russia’s cold beating heart. While waiting for their divorce papers Zhenya and Boris pass the time sticking knives into each other with sadistic zeal. Immune to each other’s tirade of insults and abuse yet hardly stopping to take a breath between bouts anyway, their animosity does find an easy target in twelve-year old Alexey, the inconvenient son who doesn’t quite fit into their future plans—Zhenya has already found a sugar daddy to ease her pain and Boris’ girlfriend is expecting their first child. It comes as no surprise then that two days manage to pass before either one of them notice that Alexey has gone missing and by the time a search party is organized (Zhenya and Boris have more pressing priorities) the trail has grown dangerously faint… The search for a lost innocent—whose lifespan roughly coincides with Putin’s reign—is an apt metaphor on which Zvyagintsey builds his case. In his bleak vision of Russian society the media is filled with stories of war and corruption that no one listens to, the authorities couldn’t care less, and even the road to grandmother’s house is barred and gated (Zhenya’s mother could give the big bad wolf a lesson or two). Empathy has been replaced by a selfish hunger—for love, for stability, for validation—and as the first blast of winter descends upon the city Zvyagintsev hints at a chill that goes straight to the soul.

Loving Vincent (UK / Poland): One of the most visually arresting films I have ever seen, and the world’s first animated feature composed entirely of oil painting on canvas—65,000 frames by 125 artists to be exact. A year after Vincent Van Gogh’s death a young man begins delving into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the artist’s final days. Was it really suicide as stated in the official report…or could it have been murder? Featuring a fine international cast against a backdrop of glorious French landscapes all rendered in the master’s style with bold blotches of yellows, reds, and blues that swirl and bleed into one another with a fluid grace, occasionally pausing to present an iconic image, here’s “The Starry Night”, there’s “Bedroom in Arles”, and “The Yellow House”, “Portrait of Dr. Gachet”, and “Wheat Field with Crows”… Stunning colour tableaux blend into B&W flashbacks and a strong storyline manages to hold your interest until the final credits, themselves a minor work of art. Highly recommended.

Lucky (USA): Harry Dean Stanton saved the best for last in his final role as a crusty ninety-year old loner whose failing health forces him to come to terms with life, mortality, and the yawning abyss that awaits us all. Austere desert locations underscore his inner journey with wide open skies looking down upon sere cacti (and one determined old tortoise) and a vision of “Eden” which taunts him from a distance. A literate script blends gentle humour with sobering insights and a cast of aging familiar faces (Tom Skerritt, James Darren, Ed Begley Jr.) prove they still have what it takes.

The Nile Hilton Incident (Egypt): Described by some as “Arabic Film Noir”, Tarik Saleh’s politically charged murder mystery certainly borrows from the genre. In a grim Cairo of teeming slums and garbage-strewn streets, police commander Noredin is called in to investigate the murder of a beautiful young singer at the upscale Nile Hilton hotel. Sensing something is amiss almost from the beginning, Noredin’s inquiries will lead him into a very dangerous world of government corruption and deadly cover-ups. It appears the victim was not entirely innocent herself and as Noredin gets closer to the truth he runs into one official brick wall after another while his star witnesses begin to meet untimely deaths… Set against a backdrop of political upheaval (the story takes place during the waning years of Hosni Mubarak and the Arab Spring) Saleh’s film is tainted with ice cold cynicism and a sense of outrage with the chain-smoking Noredin—not above accepting a bribe himself—becoming an Egyptian everyman figure watching his country continually circle the drain. Chaos and criminality seem to be the order of the day and only money and family ties offer any chance of survival. And those ties can prove tenuous even at the best of times. Strikingly composed and surprisingly frank in its depiction of casual sex and drugs, Saleh has indeed produced a standout example of contemporary noir.

Okja (Korea / USA): Thirteen-year old Mija and her grandfather have been caring for Okja, a giant hippopotamus-sized “super pig”, on their mountain farm ever since she was a dog-sized piglet. Best of friends, Mija and Okja have a special bond that goes far beyond that of any ordinary pet. But alas, unbeknownst to Mija, Okja is actually part of a nefarious corporate breeding program designed to produce cheap pork by the ton and when the corporation’s American owners come to cart her off to their New Jersey laboratory it’s up to Mija and a band of high-tech animal rights activists to rescue her and expose the breeding program for the GMO nightmare it actually is. Starting out like a pastoral Studio Ghibli feature film with babbling brooks and CGI sweetness, director Bong Joon Ho sours his production with enough anti-carnivore anti-corporation venom to make even the most forgiving vegetarians cream their pants. It seems that meat-eaters are the real pigs and anything in a suit is pure evil (enter Tilda Swinton in a dual role as two competitive CEO sisters). Or was he actually aiming for irony? Certainly the tomfoolery of those activists borders on parody. The special effects are flawless however and cutesy stuffed Okja dolls are sure to be a hit on Christmas shelves, but a slew of F-bombs and a slaughterhouse showdown definitely puts this one off limits to young children. If you can handle some atrocious overacting and an overplayed vegan eco-warrior schtick (think Greenpeace meets Mission Impossible) you might find it entertaining but I’m not about to give up pork sausages anytime soon.

Paradox (Hong Kong): A grand old gravity-defying chop-socky policier albeit with brains and an acute sense of tragedy to go with the flying kicks and rapid fire fisticuffs. After his daughter disappears while visiting a friend in Thailand, Hong Kong inspector Lee travels to Bangkok where he teams up with local detective Kit to help track the girl down. Gleaning what they can from a few enigmatic clues and some CCTV footage, Lee and Kit find their simple missing persons investigation suddenly morphing into a labyrinthine conspiracy of crooked cops, crooked politicians, ruthless gangsters, and a harrowing secret that goes all the way to the top. Moving along at a breakneck speed, director Wilson Yip never lets up on the tension despite the few maudlin flashbacks and overpowering dramatics that seem germane to the genre. The story is cohesive, if somewhat fantastic, but it’s the choreographed bedlam that keeps you in your seat. Yip’s cast flip, fly, and spin in one martial arts scrap after another grabbing everything from beach umbrellas to fire extinguishers in order to beat the crap out of one another yet he never wavers from the storyline for very long. A fast and exciting no-brainer that whizzes by like a stray bullet (or butcher knife).

The Party (UK): It’s difficult to pin down Sally Potter’s side-splitting opus: is it an evil comedy of manners? a blackhearted political satire? a merciless send-up of all those petty bourgeois values à la Buñuel? Or perhaps it’s all three and more. After she wins a seat in parliament Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) decides to throw a dinner party for her small circle of friends. Among the invitees are a platitude-spouting new age enthusiast (Bruno Ganz), a cynical post-modern bitch (Patricia Clarkson), a mismatched lesbian couple with an announcement to make, and a coked-out investment banker (Cillian Murphy) with an even bigger announcement. But before the festivities can even begin Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall), whose stunned expression and slow-witted interactions have already caused some concern, makes the biggest announcements of all causing the whole evening to suddenly head south. Everyone, it seems, has either an axe to grind or dirt to dish and as the verbal sparring becomes all out war it’s only a matter of time before the first casualty hits the floor… With the action limited to a few rooms and one small backyard, Potter’s unbelievably funny soap opera rakes in the laughs with a razor sharp script and a dream cast able to deliver their lines with perfect timing. As characters fume and hiss while doors are slammed and the phonograph spits out incongruous cha-cha music, one gets the feeling this comedy for adults would make a grand stage play some day. And it’s all filmed in deliciously decadent black and white!

Sami Blood (Sweden): It’s the 1930’s and fourteen-year old Elle-Marja is a member of the indigenous Sami who eke out a living in northern Sweden by breeding reindeer. Regularly exposed to racial slurs by ethnic Swedes who consider her people to be both an evolutionary throwback and cultural oddity, she escapes the harsh conditions of her boarding school (meant to beat Sami children into being Swedish) and heads south to seek her fortune. Told mainly in flashback as an octogenarian Elle-Marja returns to her village, son and granddaughter in tow, to attend the funeral of the sister she hadn’t seen in decades, writer/director Amanda Kernell’s sad tale of hard choices and lifelong regret examines one old woman’s legacy of internalized racism—a legacy lost upon her innocent offspring who eagerly embrace their lost heritage if only for a day. Despite the need for some editing this is a beautifully rendered glimpse into a bit of history most westerners (indeed, many Scandinavians) are only vaguely aware. And Lene Cecilia Sparrok—in the role of young Elle-Marja—is a wonder to behold, her hesitant soft-spoken voice and accusing eyes brimming with pain, longing, and a smouldering anger.

Scary Mother (Georgia): Mousy browbeaten housewife Manana has only one desire in life, to have the novel she’s been working on for months finally published. But trouble arises when her family members take exception to the characters she’s written about for the boorish husband, negligent father, and thankless children all seem to have their uncomfortable counterpoints in real life even though she insists hers is a work of pure fiction. With only the suspiciously ardent owner of a nearby stationary store to serve as mentor and muse Manana must either cave in to the wishes of those in power or else finally take a stand… We all author our own autobiographies and in Ana Urushadze’s outstanding psychodrama one woman’s traumatic past is quite literally typed up and bound for all to read. The problem is, everyone considers themselves to be an editor especially when certain chapters go against their own self-image and it’s these discrepancies between facts and fancy that fuel the fire. Nightmare passages are read with all the conviction of truth, shuttered rooms reflect psychological states, and Manana’s brush with madness implies the final chapter has yet to be written. Strong stuff.

7 Minutes (Italy): With echoes of Stanley Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, Michele Placido’s all-female cast serve up one powerhouse of a film exploring corporate politics and the casualties it inflicts on those most vulnerable. When an Italian textile mill is sold to a French conglomerate the new owners guarantee no one will lose their job providing workers are willing to give up seven minutes of break time. With their livelihoods at stake the eleven women chosen to represent the mill’s 300 employees are eager to accept this deceptively simple demand. But one old-timer causes them to reconsider their decision: if they are willing to give up seven little minutes this time around she explains (which translates into 900 extra working hours/month) what will they be asked to give up the next time around? And the next? Against a backdrop of economic recession and rising unemployment what starts out as a simple yes/no vote quickly pits the young against the old, nationals against immigrants, and those with a vision against those desperate to keep food on the table. Incendiary performances all around and no easy answer in sight.

The Square (Sweden): The “take no prisoners” approach which writer/Director Ruben Östlund applied to male machismo in last year’s Force Majeur now finds targets in artistic narcissism and left vs right pretensions and no one emerges unscathed. When the curator of an avant garde museum of modern art is robbed, a hare-brained scheme to recover his stuff gets him into hot water with a truculent ten-year old immigrant. An attempt to promote the museum’s newest installation—a 4m by 4m square delineating a place where all are supposedly equal—results in an incendiary youtube video that immediately goes viral. A “primal” performance piece elicits a herd response from a banquet hall full of Stockholm’s upper crust who descend upon the artist with boots and fists… And this is only a taste of the satirical delights Östlund delivers with his usual deadpan seriousness. Hilarious tangents blur the lines and gleefully mock art and marketing, the battle of the sexes, western guilt, and the cult of political correctness. One of my top films thus far!

Summer, 1993 (Spain): Many directors have tried to capture the scary magical realism of childhood but few have succeeded as magnificently as in this gem from Carla Simón. Recently orphaned after her mother dies from AIDS, little school-aged Frida is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in the country. Not quite sure what happened back home in Barcelona and unable to express the grief welling inside her, Frida tries to break the mysterious adult world around her into child-sized bites with limited success. What are the grownups whispering about? Why are the other mothers so nervous around her? Why doesn’t that statue of the Virgin grant wishes? Spending a tumultuous summer with Anna, her little toddler of a cousin, Frida and her newly adopted family will weather an emotional squall with love, perseverance, and maybe a frayed nerve or two. One of my top films this year and those two little girls could teach adult actresses a thing or two. Bravo!

Swallows and Amazons (UK): Based on the children’s book by Arthur Ransome, Phillipa Lowthorpe’s unabashedly sentimental story, set in 1935, follows the misadventures of four siblings over the course of one magical summer by the lake. Imagining themselves a band of pirates on a deserted island it isn’t long before they attract the unwelcome attention of a pair of local girls who also share the same piratical inclinations. But when they all cross starboards with a pair of real life spies their fun and games turn into something far more serious. The soundtrack gushes, the panoramic scenes of English country life ooze nostalgia, and the Disney-style peril lets you know everything is going to be just super. A quaint little crowd pleaser which provides a welcome counterbalance to some of the festival’s darker fare. I’m not ashamed to admit I enjoyed it!

Tales of Mexico (Mexico): Using a single room in a Mexico City mansion as a starting point, a team of directors take turns giving thumbnail sketches of Mexico’s past one hundred years. Divided into eight chapters beginning at the turn of the century, the room is alternately inhabited by bourgeois elitists and revolutionaries, immigrants and drug dealers, activists and street gangs, and in one ludicrous homage to Fellini an unhappy pint-sized lesbian clown (wha-wha-whaaat?). Using an inanimate object as a vehicle for examining history is not new (François Girard’s The Red Violin comes to mind) and the idea of using a physical space as it changes hands from generation to generation is certainly a novel twist, but the differing directorial styles—Wong Kar-wai and Sam Peckinpah are definitely aped—and lack of momentum provide little more than a series of unconnected dots. Maybe they should have gotten a smaller room.

That Trip We Took with Dad (Germany/Romania): Idealism goes up against dogmatism in Anca Miruna Lazarescu’s sardonic road movie. Established physician Mihai and his teenaged brother Emil live with their ex-pat German father William in a glum Romanian apartment complex. Thanks to his past dedication to the socialist cause William and his sons enjoy a certain amount of leverage with the local authorities but all that changes when, en route to a holiday in the GDR, the family is offered a chance to defect to the West. Mihai is more than willing to turn his back on Ceaușescu and his ilk but Emil has roots back home (not to mention a girlfriend) and William, whose own health is waning, is harbouring a very personal grudge agains the Communists. But this is the Spring of 1968 and as the three men bicker over their individual destinies Russian tanks begin arriving in nearby Prague… With the driest of satire Lazarescu compares the insular paranoia of eastern style socialism with the myopic worldview of western capitalism where bored middle class youth play “revolution” with red flags and slogans gleaned from leaflets. As both brothers fall prey to political pressures (Mihai from the West, Emil from the East) Lazarescu makes it quite plain that ideologies are only as good as the people wielding them—and good people are in woefully short supply.

Thelma (Norway): Raging hormones and Christian guilt always make for a great story and in Joachim Trier’s paranormal sci-fi horror show they’ve never looked so good together. Coming from a fundamentalist family living in the sticks Thelma is understandably taken aback when she begins attending university in Oslo. Not used to big city ways (like alcohol and kissing) the repressed freshman is at once intrigued and ashamed by the new urges she’s feeling and no amount of lecturing from her creepy overbearing father and wheelchair-bound mother can ease her prickly conscience. But when she begins having epileptic seizures which seem to coincide with bizarre occurrences a terrible family secret is laid bare and Thelma finds out that temptation comes with a hefty price tag indeed. Like a nordic hybrid of Carrie and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Trier’s psychosexual thriller takes adolescent rebellion to a new level with erotic metaphors and an Electra complex gone wild. Healthy sensuality is twisted into reptilian visions, God the Father is not picking up, and sexual arousal is as horrifying as demonic possession. But whether this is a tale of religious damnation or Freudian integration is left up to you. Some may see the ghosts of Bergman and Tarkovsky blowing through Trier’s work, personally I favour Rod Serling and Brian De Palma.

Tom of Finland (Finland): There isn’t a gay man alive who hasn’t been exposed to the work of Touko Laaksonen (aka “Tom of Finland”) whose iconic B&W drawings of gorgeous men with impossible physiques and equally impossible endowments engaging in every sort of homosexual act—usually clad in leather or other fetish wear—pretty much defined the underground uniform and S&M scene. Weathering censorship laws and the threat of imprisonment for obscenity, Laaksonen’s art went from beefcake drawings posted in those notorious “physique” magazines of the late 50’s to mainstream gallery exhibitions before his death in 1991 at the age of seventy. Dome Karukoski’s low-keyed biopic begins with Touko as a Finnish soldier in WWII, his subsequent career as a commercial artist, and the eventual road to infamy when he started dabbling with erotica, much of it based on his experiences cruising for sex in parks and private clubs as well as his fascination with men in uniform from police and military to cowboys and bikers. And just for a touch of cheekiness the director cast a moustachioed leather hunk to personify Touko’s artistic muse. Although Karukoski doesn’t shy away from the sex and kink, he’s more interested in Touko’s private life—his troubled relationship with his sister, his reaction to the AIDS crisis, and the amusing culture shock he experienced when he first arrived in that glittery den of iniquity called Los Angeles (a wet ’n wild pool party becomes surreal when the police arrive). Nothing earth-shattering here, but as a lesson in early gay history Karukoski gives you more than enough to think about.

Western (Germany): The title of Valeska Grisebach’s slow-burner is a play on words, a fact that becomes ever clearer as the story progresses. A German construction crew is sent to the wilds of Bulgaria in order to build a hydroelectric plant on the site of a small river. At first keeping pretty much to themselves, it isn’t long before they make a series of first contacts with the curious locals where misunderstandings, lack of language skills, and differing mores lead to an escalating culture clash. One worker decides to go native however—riding horseback, learning a few words of Bulgarian—and this puts him in direct conflict with the project supervisor who feels that their mission is to save the people with a bit of technological infrastructure not befriend them, and for that they should be grateful. Grisebach’s “Cowboys ’n Indians” metaphor is an apt parallel for tensions within the E.U. with its varied cultural norms and income disparity. In Western it’s painful at times to witness the relationship between west and east sour, and the fact that both languages are subtitled allows the audience to see the mounting confusion as it develops. Sadly, the film’s glacial pacing and lack of cohesive editing makes it more of an endurance test than it should be which is unfortunate because it conveys a message which deserves to be heard.

You’re Soaking in it (Canada): Every time you access your computer, tablet, or smartphone, an untold number of corporate eavesdroppers are gathering data on where you surf, what you purchase, who you text, and how you feel about it. No, it’s not the CIA or FBI but rather silicon valley nerds who now head shadow companies hell bent on making you buy as much shit as they can through tailored advertising aimed directly at you. "This is the price of a free internet…” crows one such entrepreneur as execs from Google, Facebook, Twitter et al weigh in on the merits of free enterprise vs. personal privacy. And as technology and behavioural sciences continue to evolve unchecked the ways in which these people amass information about you is staggering—from assessing your facial expressions via the camera on mobile devices to creating monster algorithms that know what you want even before you do. Some are fighting back through ad-blocking programs and some experts state that these technological intrusions are nowhere near as accurate as their designers would like us to believe, but according to documentarian Scott Harper the future is already here and has it got a deal for you!