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Nurse Bob's film reviews

PICKS AND PANS FROM THE VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2020


A Life Turned Upside Down: My Dad’s an Alcoholic (Japan): “The father I remember was always drunk.” So begins Kenji Katagirl’s beautifully envisioned film based on her autobiographical manga. Living with an alcoholic father is not easy for little Saki but it isn’t without it’s small flashes of humour. While mom retreats into the empty embrace of religion, she and her younger sister somehow manage to deal with the drunken monster who passes out on the kitchen floor every evening. Eventually developing a talent for cartoon illustration, an older and slightly embittered Saki begins a comic book based on her childhood memories and in so doing discovers that art allows her to take something she hates and turn it into “something awesome”. But her father’s legacy of abuse and neglect is not always so easy to write off… True to its manga roots, Katagirl’s film is a beautiful melding of tragic reality and child’s eye magic wherein a simple wall calendar delivers a daily reprimand, thought bubbles reveal hidden feelings, and a little girl’s literal leap of faith ensures there will not be a dry eye in the house. Superb.

Another Round (Denmark): Alcohol culture is lampooned in Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, touted as a black comedy but played out like a primal scream. All too conscious of how ineffectual they’ve become, high school history teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and a few of his faculty buddies decide to test out a theory which states that maintaining a minimal blood alcohol level will actually improve one’s life both personally and professionally. After preliminary results seem to confirm the hypothesis they conclude that when it comes to imbibing if a little goes a long way, a lot will go even further… A dark and despairing film whose few laughs soon lapse into uncomfortable silence thanks to an amazing cast and a script that toys with the allure of addiction before pulling the rug out from beneath its characters for one final stumbling fall from grace.

Bad Tales (Italy): The children of a small bourgeois neighbourhood have grown inured to the little tyrannies suffered at the hands of their overbearing fathers and emotionally frozen mothers. But kids learn from what they see and apathy can sometimes mask deeper, more destructive impulses just waiting for the right trigger. Alternating between harshly lit reality and surreal passages of psychological pain, the D’Innocenzo brothers’ shocker can be taken as a study of preadolescents caught in the throes of family dysfunction, or as a bitter metaphor of what happens when entire societies cease to care. Taking place over one summer and broken down into pint-sized chapters, the directors take an almost clinical approach to chronicling the petty humiliations and imploded dreams of their school-aged protagonists yet we are never made privy to the reasons behind the abuse, nor is it germane to understanding the film. Whether it be a teenaged mother who can’t differentiate between her crying newborn and a howling dog, or a father who has his son’s pet put down for the sake of convenience, cruelty exists, period. And cruelty exacts a price, full stop. But as disturbing as those closing scenes are, it’s what gave rise to them in the first place which added that final touch of horror. Yorgos Lanthimos couldn’t have said it better.

Beauty Water (Korea): When her childhood dream of becoming a ballerina was sidelined by her plain looks, Ye-ji pretty much gave up on dreaming altogether. Now an overweight and perpetually depressed make-up artist (irony!) she has grown used to living in other people’s shadow. And then her life abruptly changes when she’s introduced to “Beauty Water”, a revolutionary skin care product that can turn frogs into princesses…..or dumpy chicks into real-life anime sweethearts. Now envied and lusted after, Ye-ji enjoys the newfound notoriety her flawless skin and perky breasts afford her—but if beauty is only skin deep, the happiness it brings is even shallower. As the old adage goes “Nothing in life is free”, and when Ye-ji receives the final bill it turns out to be far more than mere money can ever cover… Crisp animation and a palette of crayon colours make for a visual feast and director Kyung-hun Cho takes some delight in shifting gears so that you never know what the next scene will entail: an admonishment against body-shaming and the cult of beauty? A sugary teen pop romance? A softcore hentai complete with bitch fights and chains? He ultimately settles for salacious horror with a dash of kitsch thrown in for an excessive finale that hits its mark (our obsession with appearances can be deadly) before flying past it and straight into the realm of overkill and exploitation. Pity.

Black Bear (USA): Screenwriter Allison (one-woman dynamo Aubrey Plaza) heads to a rural B&B in the hopes of getting her creative juices flowing. Inadvertently driving a wedge between her hosts—Gabe and his pregnant girlfriend Blair—a night of drinking and heated philosophical bullshitting leads to indiscretion which leads to tragedy which leads to……….something else entirely. Truffaut would have been amused with writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s razor sharp riff on both the creative mind at work and the tangled webs the artistically bent so often weave as they pursue their craft. Dialogue is tossed about like hand grenades, overreaction becomes the accepted norm, and Aubrey gives the screen one of its more memorable (and funny) non-stop meltdowns. Best of all an elusive muse makes the odd cameo, shuffling and snuffling on four big paws. A truly enjoyable, multi-tiered treat and one of this year’s gems.

The Calming (China): Bullet trains, overpasses, and mountain trails—each one alluding to journeys made and those yet to come—figure prominently in Fang Song’s quiet, reflective character study of a young Beijing filmmaker coming to terms with the break-up of her relationship. Snatches of seemingly ad-libbed conversation and lots of silent introspective post card moments set against snowy mountain villages and neon cityscapes certainly make for ravishing visuals yet fail to add up to anything greater than the sum of their parts. Beautiful to look upon anyway, and star Xi Qi certainly knows how to stand still and stare into the distance with great import—but the film’s glacial pacing demands more patience than it’s worth.

Caught in the Net (Czech Republic): Using an arsenal of sobering statistics regarding underage girls and sexual predators on the internet as an excuse, directors Barbora Chalupová and Vít Klusák launch an impressive, if ethically suspect, sting operation of their own. Hiring three adult actresses able to pass as 12-year olds, the directors use a soundstage to build three girly bedrooms equipped with three computers and three memberships to various social media chat sites. The results are almost instantaneous: over the course of ten days the “girls” rack up almost 2,500 hits from dirty old men looking for nude photos and offering everything from money, chocolate, and dick pics to verbal threats and harassment if their demands are not met. But when they arrange to meet in person things actually get creepier. This is not a new topic, nor is this a novel approach since police departments all over the world have been using similar stings with some success. Despite an impressive supporting cast of outraged lawyers, child psychologists, and sex therapists the entire production itself carries the taint of exploitation even with the more contentious content pixillated. A line is finally crossed when the directors start sending out nude pics of the underage girls (in actuality adult female models photoshopped to look like preteens with the actress' faces superimposed on them). Social intervention—or grandiose virtue signalling? Ctrl+Alt+Del.

Cured (USA): What is homosexuality? Up until the Stonewall riots that question was answered by the religious right which saw it as an abomination, conservative governments which viewed it as a national threat, and most damning of all the American Psychiatric Association (APA) which labeled it a curable mental disorder thereby justifying the first two definitions. Approving everything from lobotomies to shock therapy in an effort to turn gay patients straight, the ruling board of psychiatrists was dominated by narrow-minded white male homophobes. Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer’s timely and long overdue documentary traces those early gay pioneers, some of them actual psychiatrists themselves, who fought not only to have homosexuality officially removed from the APA’s list of illnesses but also paved the way for gay men and women to finally define themselves. News footage, eye witness accounts, and interviews (some posthumous) bring that bygone era to life once more and one can’t help but want to stand up and cheer. How infuriating then to note that almost 45 years later the old prejudices are still rearing their ugly heads.

Dancing Mary (Japan): In order to make way for a new housing development, a small town council okays the demolition of a long abandoned dance hall. Trouble is, the place is haunted by one very angry ghost and it falls to a hapless office clerk to get rid of the spirit so the gangsters hired to blow up the building (no legit contractor will touch it) can proceed. Joining forces with a teenaged clairvoyant and a dead yakuza hitman, the clerk will have to journey between the colourful world of the living and a B&W netherworld in order to find the key to exorcising “Dancing Mary” once and for all. What could have been a promising short film is dragged to feature length with fight scenes, both natural and supernatural, that go on way too long and a meandering script which could have been cut by several pages. Add to that lacklustre directing with a host of ham-fisted performances and you’re left with the cinematic equivalent of a snooze button.

Falling (Canada): Viggo Mortensen writes, directs, and co-stars in this biting family drama spanning decades and an entire continent. John Peterson (Mortensen) flies his father (Lance Henriksen, absolutely amazing) from New York state to his home in California with the intention of relocating the octogenarian closer to family. Unfortunately dad, already a truculent bastard, is suffering from the beginnings of dementia which give rise to angry outbursts and a penchant for long obscenity-laden diatribes aimed at John and anyone else the old man can remember—from his long dead wife, to his daughter, to his gay son’s Asian husband. Why this schism between father and son exists at all is slowly revealed one scene at a time with flashbacks from John’s toddler and adolescent years… No big revelations fly out of the closet, just the legacy of living with an emotionally abusive man who, just maybe, hated himself more than anyone else. Accompanied by a soft score of gentle riffs (composed by Mortensen himself) and never straying far from kitchen sink drama, Mortensen relies a bit too heavily on sun-dappled close-ups of flowers and baby birds to cement the mood. But that is a minor flaw in an otherwise solid piece of work which suggests that sometimes forgiving one’s parents is one of the hardest things an adult can do.

Father (Serbia): After his wife’s very public suicide attempt—she was trying to draw attention to the family’s dire financial situation—day labourer Nikola (a riveting turn from Goran Bogdan) has his two children taken away by social services who deem him unfit to care for them properly. Desperate to correct this great wrong, Nikola walks the 300 km from his tiny village all the way to Belgrade to confront the government minister responsible and submit his hand-written appeal in person. Writer/director Srdan Golubovic’s road movie is certainly one of this year’s highlights thanks in large part to Bogdan who brings the house down with his portrayal of a soft-spoken yet intense everyman swallowed up by a bureaucracy in which injustice and corruption have become standard operating procedures. Nikola’s cross-country trek, passing by ruins and piles of garbage, brings him in contact with predators of all stripes from wolves to thieving vagabonds, and Golubovic gently twists the knife with a few sad ironies along the way—in one scene a elderly man talks of being abandoned by his own kids while across the street a joyous wedding party is in full swing. But it’s when Nikola finally achieves his goal that he finds he must contend with the biggest predators of all—including some he never would have expected. Angry, unforgiving, and refusing cheap pathos, this is what world class cinema looks like.

Flowers of the Field (Canada): Aaron, a deeply closeted gay man, goes on a therapeutic all-male retreat aimed at reclaiming one’s masculinity (read: aversion therapy). But textbook platitudes and 12-step nonsense eventually give way to psychological abuse at the hands of the group’s charismatic leader John, a self-proclaimed “doctor” who just may be the most maladjusted man in the house. Things take a dangerous turn however when Aaron, lonely and more confused than ever by the mixed messages he’s receiving, starts having feelings for John, feelings that neither man is equipped to deal with. One of VIFF’20’s pleasant surprises, this slow-burning psychodrama from Ontario hits all the right notes in the right order. Writer/director Andrew Stanley’s look at the effects of internalized homophobia and toxic male bonding has a detached, almost clinical feel to it with the cast’s intentionally wooden performances driving home the fact that here is a group of men whose inability to face honest emotions has them retreating into scripted catchphrases (“I understand you”, “It’s going to be all right”) and mechanical bro-hugs instead. Restrained throughout and meticulously paced right up to the end—so unusual for an English-Canadian film—Stanley’s heady mix of emotional confusion, macho hubris, and just a dash of homoeroticism is an unexpectedly powerful brew.

Here We Are (Israel): Ahron left his job as a successful graphic artist in order to raise his autistic son, Uri. But now Uri is an adult and Ahron’s estranged wife is determined to have him placed in a group home where he can receive the specialized care she feels he needs. With their close relationship thus threatened Ahron takes his son on a road trip which, despite his best intentions, doesn’t quite go in the direction he intended. And Uri, in the meantime, is discovering a few things for himself. Nir Bergman’s two-handed family drama is a skillful blend of humour and heartbreak, never romanticizing the roadblocks inherent in raising a mentally challenged child yet still finding small delights in the everyday trials and tribulations—Uri’s inconvenient erection at a local pool has dad diving for the deep end and his obsession with Charlie Chaplin leads to some clever parallels with 1921’s The Kid. As father and son, leads Shai Avivi and Noam Imber couldn’t be more perfectly matched with Avivi’s patience and paternal fortitude perfectly complimenting Imber’s many idiosyncrasies and childlike naïveté (with a temper to match). A low-keyed slice of life film that rings true from the first frame to the last.

In the Name of the Land (France): Based on his own father’s story, Edouard Bergeon’s quasi-biopic uses three generations of a French family to highlight the plight of modern day European farmers. After a stint in Wyoming, Pierre Jarjeau (Guillaume Canet, amazing) returns to France to take over the family’s crop and livestock business. Unfortunately, twenty years later his progressive ideas are clashing with those of his old-school father who still believes that hard work and determination are enough to overcome EU regulations, mounting debt, and the stiff competition posed by an emerging breed of mechanized entrepreneur. It will only take one unforeseen disaster to tip the balance and turn their already rocky relationship into something destructive. And meanwhile, Pierre’s son is studying agriculture so that he too can someday take the reins… Highlighted by vast backdrops of sunset skies and waving grain, Bergeon’s tale of one man beset by fate and circumstance hits with the impact of a Shakespearean tragedy nor does it offer much in the way of silver linings. A perfectly executed ensemble piece whether taken as a straight-up political critique or a contemporary analogy for this mortal coil.

Jumbo (France): In 1996’s Crash, David Cronenberg sexualized automobiles, specifically car crashes, in order to spotlight the often fetishistic relationship we have with technology. Writer director Zoé Wittock makes a mockery of this groundbreaking idea (or a bold statement if you’re that gullible) with this ridiculous tale of l’amour mécanique—an ill-advised attempt, perhaps, to spread the gospel of “It’s Okay to be Different!” Socially awkward teen Jeanne is mortified by her divorced mother’s Bohemian exploits and frigidly resistant to the amorous advances of her new boss at the amusement park where she works. She finally does meet her soul mate however when “Jumbo”, one of the park’s rides, comes to kaleidoscopic life one night and dazzles her with its neon display before giving her her first orgasm complete with hydraulic fluid pearl necklace. Smitten, Jeanne must now face the uncomprehending vitriol of her mother and her boss’ confused jealousy. At least mom’s latest bar pick-up seems to understand that different folks have different strokes… A facile script that expects us to believe a dorky virgin would start humping a crankshaft at the first sound of a whirring cog further insults our intelligence with CGI pyrotechnics obviously meant to elicit a sense of magical wonder over the limitless possibilities of love. Personally I just felt acutely embarrassed.

Kala Azar (Greece): An old woman bathes with her dog; a brass band plays a dirge for chickens awaiting slaughter; and the plight of migrants is compared to a fly trapped in a car. Janis Rafa takes the simplest of plots—a couple who earn a commission from a pet crematorium by collecting deceased animals from their bereaved owners are not above padding their income by throwing in the occasional roadkill—and uses it to emphasize the fact that in the new E.U. everyone is an animal regardless of how many legs they walk on. Interesting cinematography juxtaposes humans behaving badly with wildlife behaving naturally, but the point has been made before with far more skill.

Lapsis (USA): Stuck in a dead end job which barely supports him and his ill brother Jamie, Ray finds lucrative employment trekking through the forests of upstate New York laying cable for the latest breed of “quantum computers”—super machines which have become indispensable for high-speed Wall Street traders. But all is not as rosy as it appears for the further into the woods Ray goes (literally and figuratively) the more he becomes aware of worker exploitation and official corruption aimed at maximizing the profits of the one-percent. Standard socialist lecture wrapped up in a puzzling future-retro sci-fi yarn (why would advanced computer networks rely on hikers trudging through the mud to connect one Big Black Box to the next Big Black Box?) But Noah Hutton adds a few funny touches centred mainly on Jamie’s disease, a chronic fatigue ridiculopathy called “Omnia” (get it? LOL!) and the woo-science industry pretending to treat it for a hefty price. Was Gwyneth Paltrow hired on as a consultant?

Last and First Men (Iceland): The remnants of the human race two billion years hence send a message back through time—part précis of what the next 200 million centuries have in store for us (it isn’t too rosy) and part plea for a favour that only we in the 21st century can provide. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ultra-experimental visual poem drifts past in a series of misty B&W pans of distant mountains and grey clouds with huge fantastically abstract monoliths filling the foreground, some resembling organic structures and others ruins of alien temples. Are we on Earth, or have our distant descendants moved beyond their ancestral cradle? With Tilda Swinton’s meticulously accented voice providing the narrative and an original score of soft orchestral swells reflecting the hypnotic architecture, this isn’t a movie but a conceptual art piece loosely based on a sci-fi novel by Olaf Stapledon. Jóhannsson’s minimalist approach focuses on light and shadow, texture and mood, to produce something both cryptic and unsettlingly familiar. Certainly not for every taste, but if Swinton’s script occasionally lapses into overused tropes there remains much beauty in the film’s sheer stillness.

Memories to Choke on, Drinks to Wash Them Down (Hong Kong): A collection of four unremarkable films from a new generation of Hong Kong filmmakers reflect that city’s changing face. Accompanied by her foreign caregiver, an old woman suffering from dementia goes on a roundabout bus trip filled with happy memories that are just as quickly forgotten. On the eve of their mother’s toy store going out of business, two brothers discuss their separate fates. An American English teacher goes on a fast food tour with her Hong Kong guide before both part ways. A slacker tries to take a political stand in a hotly contested riding. Perhaps these shorts will strike a chord with native viewers but I was left unimpressed and none the wiser.

The Metamorphosis of Birds (Portugal): Much of writer/director Catarina Vasconcelos’ family history has been lost or forgotten prompting her to fill in the blanks with this beautiful contemplation on love and mortality that covers three generations. Her grandparents, Henriqué and Beatriz, were very much devoted to one another but since he was a sailor their marriage existed largely of passionate letters, B&W photographs, and the occasional shore leave which led to six children, all of whom eventually begat their own families. With highly formalized tableaux—some shimmering and ethereal, others as common as a kitchen sink—drifting across the screen like a succession of dim memories, and a voiceover narrative reading private correspondence as if it were purest poetry, Vasconcelos’ celebration of family ties and the mothers who bind them can’t help but touch a chord in anyone with a beating heart.

Mickey on the Road (Taiwan): One of my top picks for 2020 is a bittersweet road movie which packs such an emotional wallop it’s hard to believe this is director Mian-Mian Lu’s first theatrical release. Taciturn and of questionable sexuality, Mickey (star performance from Pao-Wen Yeh) leaves Taipei in search of the father who abandoned her and her now alcoholic mother so many years ago. Joined by her best friend, pink-haired and outgoing club dancer Gin Gin who is also searching for the Chinese boyfriend who dumped her at a most inconvenient time, the two women end up in the sprawling city of Guangzhou where having their luggage stolen is just the beginning… With vibrant cinematography that ranges from neon dance halls to neon temples to neon cityscapes, Lu demonstrates a keen eye for form and substance while keeping her characters grounded with a string of heartbreaks and revelations which ultimately reveal strengths they never realized they had. Aside from her two fierce leading ladies and a script that never hits an improbable note, Lu sweetens the experience further with images of gods and goddesses (and fish and birds) that always seem to crop up at the most opportune time. Two thumbs up!

Moving On (Korea): After their parents’ bitter divorce, teenaged Okju and her little brother Dongju move, along with their dad, into grandpa’s house. It’s here, over the course of one summer vacation, that the maturing Okju will learn some valuable and often painful lessons in love, mortality, and those family bonds which may chafe but never break. Grandpa is beginning to show his years, dad is faced with tough decisions, and when the family is joined by a paternal aunt writer/director Dan-bi Yoon seizes the opportunity to show two generations of sibling interaction under one roof. A sweet and compassionate family drama which has drawn favourable comparisons to the works of Hirokazu Koreeda in its ability to address some hard truths in the gentlest of voices. Pink mosquito netting becomes an emotional barrier, a pair of sneakers awakens a sense of ethics, and a visit from mom marks the beginning of one young girl’s journey to adulthood. Sublime.

My Donkey, My Lover & I (France): When her married lover has to scuttle their clandestine holiday plans in order to go on a six-day hike in the mountains with his wife and daughter, schoolteacher Antoinette decides to tag behind them. Not one to keep a secret, her big mouth soon has all the hikers talking about the 3-way affair unfolding along the trails and just to make matters worse, the obstinate donkey she rented proves to be a bigger challenge than finding her elusive boyfriend. A very unfunny comedy that tries to find humour in the antics of a manic obsessive stalker and her four-legged sidekick—a braying jackass who winds up having more sense than anyone else.

My Wonderful Wanda (Switzerland): The strained relationships between the EU’s East and West blocs are perfectly encapsulated in the trials of tribulations of one upper class Swiss family and their Polish au pair. Besides cooking, cleaning, caring for the elderly patriarch, and shouldering daily doses of subtle snobbish abuse, “Wanda” also provides sexual services to the old man on the sly. When the inevitable complication arises there are meltdowns on both sides of the border leading to some very funny denouements. Spread out over four chapters, Bettina Oberli’s acerbic satire takes few prisoners as she skewers everything from corporate mindsets to class privilege to the willful blindness that results when one tries to ignore the big fat elephant (or cow) in the room. A witty and oh so timely treat!

On the Quiet (Hungary): Nóri, a student cellist at a prestigious music academy, confides in fellow student Dávid that their professor has been making inappropriate advances on her. But her story, and the scant evidence the two are able to gather, is so ambiguous that it can be read many ways depending on who’s examining it. What, if anything, happened and how are Dávid’s own personal feelings for Nóri clouding his judgement? A very dangerous film in this age of “Guilty until Proven Innocent”, writer/director Zoltán Nagy only reveals enough clues to keep the question of culpability vs innocent misunderstanding foremost in our minds right up to the film’s tensely ambiguous final frame (a static tableaux that crackles with rage and anxiety). What is most remarkable however is how Nagy’s script manages to bypass clearly stated allegations relying instead on unfinished sentences, shamefaced looks, and silences that weigh heavier with each successive scene. While both accuser and accused dance around the issue, it is the reactions of the secondary characters which speak the loudest ranging as they do from troubled disbelief to oblivious banter. Lastly, the director makes beautiful use of the film’s many orchestral scenes, tying musical passion to passion of a different stripe was the icing on a very troubling cake indeed. “Spin it again…” says Nóri to Dávid as the two twirl around on a playground ride and one can’t help but wonder whose story that sentence should be aimed at—the reticent young girl’s or the quietly evasive professor. Or is it possible that both are telling the truth as they see it?

Out of the Blue (Canada): This 1980 Canadian production, helmed halfway through by Dennis Hopper (who rewrote the script over a few days, and it shows) is one of those films so god-awful you can actually fast forward through 90% of it without missing the plot. Delinquent bopper “Cebe” (Linda Manz exaggerating her Brooklyn accent in what has to be counted among the worst teenaged performances ever) spends her days worshipping Elvis, listening to punk rock, and kibitzing with her airhead mom, a waitress who enjoys bowling and mainlining heroin. But when her dad (Hopper) is released from prison Cebe’s life starts to unravel, or something, leading to a terrible (and terribly overdone) revelation. The heart tugs are pure schmaltz while the stagey decadence—mom flashes her panties, dad is up to no good—klunks along, and nothing is aided by a warbling soundtrack courtesy of Neil Young and some old ‘45s. At least the scenes of downtown Vancouver are cool in a retro way.

The Pencil (Russia): Natalya Nazarova turns a backwater village into a microcosm of Russian society in this bleak drama. Graphic artist Antonina travels from St. Petersburg to a tiny rural whistle stop in order to be closer to her husband who is incarcerated in the local jail on a trumped up charge. Taking a temporary position teaching art at the village school she immediately comes up against Misha the class bully who, along with his jailbird brother, intimidate and terrorize the locals into submission including the police and school board. Believing she is on the side of righteousness Antonina, armed with indignation and a belief in the liberating influence of art, decides to take a stand… Nazarova’s landscape of washed out colours and faded clapboard are reflected in the downcast eyes of the locals who see the young idealist as a threat rather than a rallying point—appropriately enough her biggest detractor being the school’s professor of Russian History. For this is a town where even the symbol of national pride, a soviet-era propaganda statue of a victorious mother and child, has been left to moulder away unattended. All is not entirely doom and gloom for the director offers some hope in the form of one student’s nascent defiance, but whatever rays of sunshine manage to peek through are weakened by overcast skies and smoke from the nearby pencil factory—a dreary proletarian hellhole if ever there was one.

The Reason I Jump (UK): At the age of thirteen Naoki Higashida, whose autism had rendered him aphasic, managed to write a book detailing exactly how he viewed the world thereby giving readers a first person account of what living with his condition really felt like. Travelling from Europe to America to Africa, Jerry Rothwell’s superb documentary uses Higashida’s insightful prose as a springboard, guiding viewers through what amounts to a foreign land while at the same time introducing us to the people who inhabit it. What emerges is a chaotic swirl of sensory overload, fear, and overwhelming frustration in which the autistic person’s array of defences—including outbursts, repetitive behaviour, and word salad—are misinterpreted as mental illness or even demonic possession. But the usual interviews involving parents detailing the ups and downs of trying to raise and love their children pale when the camera is turned on a pair of autistic adults who share their own feelings. Unable to communicate beyond verbal grunts and seemingly random gestures, when they begin using a “letter board” to spell out their thoughts what emerges is a string of eloquent observations and heartfelt dreams shocking in their sheer unexpectedness. An eye-opener for those of us who thought we knew what autism was all about and perhaps a long overdue confirmation for those dealing with it on a personal level. If you see but one doc this year let it be this one.

Reel Youth Film Festival 2020 (Various): A collection of short stories made by aspiring young filmmakers from around the world proves to be a motley bag of the inspired and the insipid. Of course there’s a few obligatory rants about how awful White People are (one pretentious tirade so ineptly thrown together I watched it twice just for the unintentional comedic value) but others carried within them the promise of better things to come. My personal favourites: a touching claymation piece about social anxiety, and the other a 30-second animated wonder about the importance of calling your mom.

The Restoration (Peru): According to the set-up of Alonso Llosa’s absurdist satire, Peru’s housing boom, fuelled by a new generation of yuppy wannabes, has proven disastrous for some wealthy families rooted in old (meaning colonial) money. Tato, the black sheep of one such family has wasted his adult life partying and doing cocaine while lying to his bed-bound mother about her dwindling bank account. Now, with bill collectors banging on the door and his clueless mom refusing to sell the estate, Tato hatches an ingenious plan: drug the old lady and feign her death then sell the house and have her wake up in an exact replica of her bedroom he had constructed in the middle of the desert. Things, naturally, do not go exactly as planned… Against fairytale panoramas of downtown Lima riddled with the skeletons of half-built (or half-demolished) condos, Tato carouses and snorts his way back up the social ladder before discovering that ultimately there’s nowhere to go but down where even the illusion of wealth is better than nothing at all. The barbs fly fast and furious and the laughs are broad enough that anyone who’s ever been affected by bubble economics will be able to grimace with sympathy.

Saint-Narcisse (Canada): Avant-garde porn auteur Bruce La Bruce queers up the legends of Narcissus and St. Sebastian in this tasty bit of sacrilege that hovers somewhere between Almodóvar, Buñuel, and John Waters. Raised by his grandmother, twenty-one year old Dominic (Félix-Antoine Duval, appropriately hot ’n sexy) is shocked to discover his mother who supposedly died during childbirth is actually alive and living as a witch in the Quebec wilderness. But meeting mom (Tania Kontoyanni looking like a drag queen shaman in buckskin and bracelets) is only the first of many revelations, for Dominic also has an identical twin brother who’s cloistered at a local monastery which specializes in erotic skinny-dipping and narcotic-laced S&M. Madness, flagellation, and forbidden lust ensue which lend a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Go fuck yourself.” Guaranteed to offend congregations everywhere.

Sanzaru (USA): A Filipina caregiver looking after an elderly woman in Texas becomes uneasy when strange things begin happening in the house—electricity comes and goes, objects move around, and strange voices speak to her from the intercom system. But what does it mean and how does it all relate to the old woman’s night terrors and her emotionally fragile son? With American-style creepiness and a bit of cheese straight out of Filipino horror, director Xia Magnus slowly ramps up the tension especially after some crucial backstory is revealed that hints at darker deeds which occurred under the family roof. But when it finally arrives, the big pay-off is hardly worth the wait.

Servants (Slovakia): In the winter of 1980, idealistic young seminarians Juraj and Michal have their innocence shattered when they realize that even “God’s house” has been infiltrated by the long arm of the soviet state intelligence agency. With members of the church itself collaborating with the despotic regime in the form of organizations such as the notorious “Pacem in Terris” (a communist wolf in Catholic sheep’s clothing if ever there was one), Juraj must now either play along with the authorities or risk everything, including his life, to stay true to his conscience. With every frame a tightly composed work of art—white laundered sheets hang limp in a dingy courtyard; a funeral mass unfolds beneath belching factory smokestacks; a secret policeman’s psoriatic skin condition suggests a deeper rot—Ivan Ostrochovsky’s Kafkaesque nightmare, filmed in severe B&W, examines what happens when two incompatible philosophies collide. The fact that the secular one originates in Moscow and the spiritual in Rome makes little difference in the end. One of this year’s top picks.

Special Actors (Japan): With his side-splitting ode to zombie flicks, One Cut of the Dead, Shin’ichirô Ueda revelled in his love of both film and filmmaking as he called upon every trick in the book to blur the line between real and staged. With Special Actors he returns to this familiar territory and while the results may not be as slapstick-hilarious as the former, it still has a certain charm of it own. Hapless aspiring actor Kazuto is having trouble landing roles due to his unfortunate habit of fainting whenever he feels pressured. Then he’s introduced to the Special Actors talent agency which specializes in manipulating real life situations with strategically placed performers: a milquetoast gets to impress his girlfriend by punching out a subway station “thug”; a row of paid thespians get the audience going by continuously laughing at an unfunny comedy; sexy mourners show up at a gangster’s funeral. You get the idea. Kazuto’s first gig proves to be a whopper however—he and a group of fellow actors must infiltrate a cult in order to expose its leaders as frauds. Will he be up to it or will he spend most of his big break flat on his back? Generating more smiles than laughs, Ueda toys with our perceptions of reality, keeping us guessing as to which reactions are genuine and which are scripted before pulling that one final trick out of his sleeve. Aside from the occasional lapse into pure silliness his approach works for the most part because, like the film’s closing pop tune suggests, “We’re all acting for someone”. I, for one, was more than happy to oblige.

Still Into You (Finland): Anu Kuivalainem’s documentary on couples and singles facing their declining years with defiance, grace, humour, and sadness, is surely one of the more moving entries in this year’s VIFF. From the gay couple who waited a lifetime to find happiness to an elderly husband losing his wife to dementia to a widow fiercely embracing the now while still holding on to her spouse’s memory, these are people as real as our next door neighbours and as vital as ourselves. Time and the ravages of age may have taken their tolls, but as one octogenarian couple lay in bed tenderly caressing each other’s nude bodies you realize that passion dims but never really dies

Summer of 85 (France): To watch a film by François Ozon (here adapting Aidan Chambers’ novel) is to set yourself up for a clever twist or two and a bit of gender-fucking. But in this story of l’amour fou set on the French coast he takes a rather banal plot and elevates it into something unexpected. Sixteen-year old Alexis is being questioned over the death of his friend David for reasons not made immediately apparent. Unusually reticent, his only way to relate what happened to the caseworker assigned to him is to write about it thus causing the film to segue into a series of flashbacks which gradually fill in the blanks. The two teens were more than mere friends, that much is made clear, but so different in temperaments that jealousy and heartbreak were almost inevitable…but what, exactly, did Alexis do? Long languorous shots incorporate blue skies, rolling surf, and endless sandy beaches while the spirit of 1985 is evoked through meticulously placed pop songs and some big hair. Being an Ozon production, transgressions are kept to a surprising minimum: David’s mom (played perfectly by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) may be a bit scattered and Alexis’ parents rather straight-laced, but a visiting English au pair who befriends the two boys provides the perfect bridge to keep things cohesive and Ozon throws in a few conceits of his own with a cassette tape ballad speaking directly to the heart and a seemingly random movie poster on Alexis’ wall signalling a quiet metamorphosis. And check out the name of Alexis' little dinghy (LOL!) “We create the people we love…” says the au pair to Alexis at one point, and that one line ends up putting the entire movie into a different focus.

Tales of the Lockdown (Spain): A retired assassin gives private lessons over the internet. A struggling actress’ taped audition goes awry. A psychic gets more than she bargained for when she has lunch with her neighbour. Five directors give five short takes on life in Madrid during COVID and the results waiver between heartfelt and heartless (and very funny), but never, ever dull. ¡Viva la cuarentena!

There is No Evil (Iran): A family man spends a pleasant day with his wife and daughter before heading off to work. A soldier has a crisis of conscience when called upon to perform his duty. An engagement proposal sours when the fiancée has second thoughts. And an uncle carries a painful revelation for his visiting niece. In Mohammad Rasoulof’s dangerous collection of shorts, four seemingly innocuous stories address the question of moral complicity under a brutal dictatorship as they revolve, either directly or indirectly, around the heartless edicts of Iran’s death penalty. With reactions ranging from collaboration and indifference to hypocrisy and impotent defiance it’s no wonder Rasoulof faced a lifelong ban on filmmaking from the ruling regime. Electrifying in its presentation and unsympathetic towards a justice system unwilling to examine its own cracks, There Is No Evil presents one of the most glaring calls for reform to be seen (or not seen) in contemporary Iranian cinema. “Iran has no law…” says one enlistee tired of arguing politics with a conscious-stricken mate, “…just money and nepotism.” A fitting epitaph.

This is My Desire (Nigeria): Directors Arie and Chuko Esiri’s street-level slice of life drama unfolds in a low-rent area of contemporary Lagos where two separate stories unfold simultaneously. Both involve people striving for a better life in faraway Europe—one a self-taught electrician nursing a personal tragedy, the other a hairdresser trying to care for her pregnant teenaged sister. Despite their best intentions however, life just keeps getting in the way whether it be in the form of needy relatives, forged documents, or the rising cost of everything. Those expecting the type of “poverty porn” Western audiences love to feel guilty about will walk away disappointed for when life hands lemons to these protagonists they’re just as likely to throw them back as make lemonade. And even if things don’t quite work out the way they were supposed to (this is not a “poverty comedy” either) the sense of two indomitable spirits and the colourful, if dirt poor neighbourhood they inhabit—where people sport names like Mercy and Wisdom, Peace and Blessing—comes through in every frame. An impressive addition to the growing treasury of African cinema.

The Town of Headcounts (Japan): Where do society’s misfits, petty criminals, and social pariahs wind up? Well, in Shinji Araki’s dystopian sci-fi opus they’re welcomed into a gated spa community where every whim—from food and clothing to casual sex—is catered to. For a price, of course, for there is power in numbers whether they be used for voter fraud or staged civil disobedience. Tetsuya, a new resident of “The Town”, is just settling into the community’s peculiar routine when the arrival of a desperate woman sets off a series of crises which cause him to question his comfortably complacent life. But if checking in is easy, checking out proves to be far more difficult. Fans of George Orwell and Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner will find something to nod about as Araki pokes sticks at a greater population grown so accustomed to sensationalized headlines that they hardly blink anymore. Meanwhile, within the town itself, life is a parody of polite society with nonsensical rules of etiquette and pointless assignments (typing happy slogans on your iPad will get you an extra cream bun). Look closely enough however and you’ll see the crumbling concrete and peeling paint on both sides of the fence. It’s an important message that unfortunately loses much of its sting due to long stretches of tedium which could have been tightened by a more ruthless editor.

Twilight’s Kiss (Hong Kong): Long past retirement age and awaiting another grandchild along with his wife, taxi driver Pak leads a secret life cruising a notorious rest stop in search of male companionship. It’s in this environ that he meets up with aging divorcé Hoi, already retired and living with his son’s family. What starts out as a casual hook-up slowly blossoms into an affair of the heart as both men find in each other the love that had been missing from their lives. But there are choppy waters ahead, for Pak’s wife has grown suspicious and Hoi is ever conscious of his son, a devout and controlling evangelical Christian… With so many gay movies devoted to handsome young men, Ray Yeung’s septuagenarian romance is as welcome as a glass of finely aged wine and twice as potent. From that first intimate caress to that final bittersweet gaze, Yeung neither glosses over the physicality of Pak and Hoi’s relationship (their first tryst at a bathhouse becomes a celebration of sensuality and intimacy) nor does he add too many rainbows to his script for he knows all too well that in Hong Kong the fight for equality continues to be an uphill battle, a fact highlighted by a side story regarding a group of gay seniors demanding a queer-friendly nursing home for their waning years. Subtle and beautifully underplayed—a squeeze of the hand is filled with tenderness, a downcast glance suggests unfulfilled longing—Yeung may not offer the happy Hollywood ending we’d like, but at least he leaves the door open.

Undine (Germany): There is an old folktale, immortalized by Friedrich de la Motte in his 1811 novella, about a mortal man who fell in love with a water sprite much to his regret. Using this as a springboard, writer/director Christian Petzold’s uneven mix of magical realism and contemporary romance centres on Undine, a ginger-haired historian specializing in the history of Berlin’s varied architecture, who is dumped by her wealthy boyfriend only to wind up in the arms of a commercial diver. Tragedy and mystical retribution eventually follow as Undine, true to her fickle nature, exacts a price from all who love her. Undine’s dry lectures on German reconstruction from the middle ages onward is clumsily tied into the film’s underlying mythical tropes of rebirth and transformation, and some clunky metaphors—aquarium tchotchkes become totems, god swims by mouth agape—fail to lift things above the ordinary. I’ll just stick with the Little Mermaid.

Violation (Canada): A wolf lopes away with an unlucky rabbit in its mouth, a spider devours a fly, and a sunlit forest turns deeper and darker by the minute in Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s feminist snuff film—an uncomfortable mix of slasher flick and psychotic revenge fantasy. Accompanied by her reluctant boyfriend, Miriam visits her sister Greta and brother-in-law Dylan at their cabin in the woods. With a long history of constantly being at odds with one another, the two sisters finally seem comfortable together. And then, after a night of mixed messages, Dylan sexually assaults Miriam causing her to spiral into a rage-fuelled vendetta. Relying only on Miriam’s subjective memories plus a fiery confrontation between her and Dylan in which accusations fly both ways, we are left unsure as to what actually happened that night by the fireside. Did she unintentionally give him a green light with her sexual banter? Did his hormones overcome common sense? Does a sleepy “Don’t! Stop!” ever sound like “Don’t stop!”? Natural settings give the tale a storybook feel while a soundtrack of psychotic chords and harmonizing Valkyries add a touch of horror—the directors even pit vegetarian Miriam against carnivore Greta to underline themes of innocence, cruelty, and aggression. But what is the point here? Miriam’s plunge off the deep end, full of scathing intensity, is definitely a career topper for Sims-Fewer as we watch her character try to forcefully “intervene” in another couple’s simple argument and (irony of ironies) force her partner into an unwanted sexual encounter. But does her feeling of violation justify the graphic scenes of bloodletting and mutilation that follow in its wake? In other words, is her apparent insanity cause for sympathy from the audience, or revulsion. Or maybe both? Sure to divide viewers along gender lines—and perhaps generational ones as well—I for one believe that anyone who walks away satisfied that “he got what he deserved” should seriously examine their motivations.

Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness (Iran): Joy of Forgiveness is a tragically tacky Iranian reality TV show in which a prisoner facing the death penalty is brought on stage to plead for leniency from the family of their victim. The family, on a whim, can then spare them the noose (and boost the show’s ratings) by forgiving them while viewers are able to pass their own verdict via text messaging (prizes included!). One such unlucky woman, Maryam (Sadaf Asgari bringing the house down), is accused of murdering her much older husband and the dead man’s grown daughter, Mona, is not about to let her off the hook. As the show progresses however we realize that neither Mona’s grief nor Maryam’s contriteness are as straightforward as the show’s unctuous host would have his audience believe… The serpentine edicts of Sharia Law meet prime time television in this scathing attack by writer/director Massoud Bakhshi which could have played like a dark satire were it not so grounded in truth. Bakhshi’s cameras never miss a beat as they engulf several storylines simultaneously, his script of overlapping dialogue and individual crises in transit reminiscent of Robert Altman at the height of his powers. The fact that his film unfolds during Yalda, the Iranian midwinter solstice celebration, is just more fuel on an already blazing fire. Little wonder he had to receive backing from France to make it in the first place.

Yellow Sunglasses (Ecuador): Despite finding her first premature grey hair, aspiring author Julia is still stuck in a perpetual adolescence—a fact reflected in her messy apartment and even messier social life which consists of arty dilettantes, dead end jobs, and a love triangle with two muses: a bartender-cum-poet and kindergarten teacher-cum-thespian. On a slow ride to nowhere (even taxis pass her by and her houseplant refuses to grow) her barbed critiques of other people’s work always seem to hit an ironic mark when they come home to roost. But her naïve outlook on life—the film’s title is both literal and metaphorical—is about to undergo a sea change starting with a problematic university application… Iván Manzano’s quirky little comedy of manners follows its clumsy, self-conscious heroine as she stumbles from one mortification to the next, always learning but rarely applying. And he spices it with so many clever little oddities, from a mirror which shows too much truth to a kitschy painting that hints at a newfound maturity, we can’t help but identify with Julia’s befuddled coming of age. Cute.