Nurse Bob's Film Festival Reviews

PICKS AND PANS FROM THE VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2016




After the Storm (Japan): Fathers live on in sons while mothers abide in this beautifully realized slice of life from Hirokazu Koreeda. Unable to repeat his past success, the author of a solitary bestseller now works for a fleabag detective agency as he waits in vain for his next big break. His ex-wife, whom he has never truly let go of, is ambivalent about her engagement to a successful businessman, and his son is a contented underachiever puzzled by the unhappiness adults seem to carry with them. Even his recently widowed mother looks back on fifty years of marriage with a mixture of sadness and resentment, for like her son her husband never truly became the man he had hoped to be. As a powerful typhoon finds the four of them holed up in grandma’s apartment memories come to the surface causing both adults and child to reassess their priorities. Never one for bombastic sermons, Koreeda uses gentle humour and some clever visual tropes to reflect on the joys, disappointments, and thousand little regrets that make up our lives: a tangerine tree the author planted as a child yields no fruit but it attracts the occasional butterfly; mother and child play a half-hearted board game of “Life” which goes downhill when dad tries to join; and windblown lottery tickets provide a wry metaphor. Serene and chockfull of poignant moments, After the Storm is not so much about living one’s dream but rather the importance of having one in the first place.

A Good Wife
(Serbia): A soft-spoken, comfortably middle-class wife adores her children and loving husband until one day while cleaning the house she happens upon a videotape which reveals a horrible secret dating back to her husband’s days as an army officer. Thrown into the middle of a monstrous moral dilemma, as well as facing health problems of her own, her indecision over what to do with the tape comes to represent the guilty conscience of an entire nation. Brilliant performances all around with a believable script that ends with one of the most haunting images I’ve seen this year.

All of a Sudden (Germany): After everyone else has left his house party, Karsten finds himself alone with the remaining guest—a beautiful young woman. In the next frame she is dead on the floor and he is desperately trying to summon medical help. With a police investigation attempting to uncover what happened that night and the girl’s family bent on revenge, Karsten suddenly finds himself a pariah among his mates, his girlfriend, and his boss despite his insistence that he had nothing to do with the woman’s death. But when the case finally come to court he discovers that the truth is not only liberating, it can also be a very powerful weapon when wielded by the right person. What starts out as a lacklustre thriller unexpectedly morphs into a very sly satirical jab at hypocrisy and social convention.

American Honey (UK): Star (amazing newcomer Sasha Lane) is an 18-year old living in squalor with a past best forgotten, no present to speak of, and a future as bleak as the fly-specked windows in her bedroom. That all changes when she joins a group of fellow losers and misfits as they travel cross-country selling magazine subscriptions by day (their leader, Krystal, is basically a retail pimp) while wasting their nights fucking, getting high, and engaging in tribal rituals of violence and delinquency. But as she settles in with her new ersatz family Star comes to the slow realization that dreams deferred often die and shared pain is still pain. Writer/director Andrea Arnold’s nihilistic road movie grabs the American Dream by the throat and proceeds to beat it to death, and she does so with the mastery of a poet. Sticking mainly to handheld cameras and natural sounds she steers her van full of lost causes through the heart of America, their radio blaring non-stop urban beats, to reveal the promised land as a blur of faux mansions and truck stops, trailer parks and oil fields, where gaudy displays of wealth grate against crushing poverty and images of weeds, fireworks, and birds in flight only heighten the alienation. Raw and without hope, yet possessing a desperate tenderness as her outcasts gather round each other for whatever human warmth they can muster. This is the type of cinema that leaves you feeling cold inside. Could it also be a contemporary anti-masterpiece?

Another Evil (USA): When supernatural forces begin invading their posh mountain hideaway Dan and Mary employ Os, a hard-drinking eccentric ghostbuster, to put things right again. But as Os’ interventions become increasingly unorthodox Dan begins to wonder which is more terrifying: the ghosts in the woodwork or the unhinged kook trying to exorcise them. A few good jolts and a few cheap laughs make this haunted house spoof worth a look. But wait for the DVD.

Aquarius (Brazil): Feisty matriarch Dona Clara (the impeccable Sonia Braga) has lived in the same seaside apartment building her entire adult life…raising a family, surviving cancer, and becoming a widow in the process. But times change and her building has been bought by a firm which intends to tear it down and build a modern high-rise. Now the building’s sole inhabitant—the other tenants having already sold out—Clara must not only deal with pressure tactics from an increasingly unethical corporation but her own children are torn over whether she should stay or sell. Passionate memories and harsher realities mingle in this beautifully poignant piece about an aging woman’s steadfast refusal to go softly. Free of the usual bombast one would expect given the subject matter (this is Brazil after all) Clara’s quiet defiance is a study in dignity and grace, with a big obstinate grin thrown in for good measure. Wistful without being saccharine, romantic yet firmly rooted, this is truly cinema of the heart.

A Quiet Passion (UK): Legendary director Terence Davies sinks to the level of Victorian weeper in this gushy-wushy biopic tracing the life of poet Emily Dickinson from headstrong Finishing School graduate to frail and embittered spinster to sunlit cadaver. All of Davies' cinematic tricks appear here as so much affectation—sunlight spews through every chink and windowpane; a fantasy lover ascends the stairs in agonizing slo-mo while the orchestra suffers a meltdown—and a hopelessly uneven cast emote with all the conviction of wooden marionettes. Lead Cynthia Nixon chirps out endless bon mots in between bouts of hysteria while everyone else takes a turn either crying or dying. Only Jennifer Ehle's portrayal of Dickinson's abiding sister carries any emotional punch but her performance just serves to highlight how awful everything else is. Avoid.

The Bacchus Lady (South Korea): An aging prostitute starts to feel her advancing years as one-time friends and acquaintance begin to succumb to old age. And then she discovers a new calling... A funny-sad, sometimes raunchy slice of life with an unexpectedly bitter twist.

Being 17 (France): First gay love is given the chick flick treatment in André Téchiné’s overdone teen romance. Classmates Damien and Thomas come from different worlds—Damien lives a comfortably middle-class lifestyle with his physician mother and army officer father while Thomas lives with his adoptive parents on a mountain farm hours from town. Taking an instant dislike to one another they are forever grappling until circumstances find them awkward roommates when Thomas moves in. But as they forge a precarious truce angry glares become uncomfortable stares and punches turn to hesitant caresses—a development which excites Damien even as it terrifies Thomas… Not much rings true in this opposites attract scenario, neither the ongoing pissing contest between the boys nor the abrupt switch to affectionate giggles (as Winter turns to Spring…awww!) nor even their first fumble fuck beneath the Aladdin Sane poster. Furthermore a wholly predictable tragicomic ending is as fabricated as Damien’s loud and flowery “My Dream is Alive” t-shirt. Derivative and much too long.

Beyond the Mountains and Hills (Israel): Having just finished a stint in the army, David Greenbaum is finding the vagaries of civilian life frustrating. Meanwhile his wife Rina, hungry for validation, is straying from the straight and narrow; his activist daughter Yifat is having her left wing political leanings put to the test; and hotheaded son Omri is embarking on a personal vendetta without first thinking things through. In fact everyone in writer/director Eran Kolirin’s remarkable feature is in a state of disconnectedness—not so much divorced from reality as simply so preoccupied with their own small slice of it that they are unable to see a bigger picture. Everyday presumptions, prejudices, and crossed purposes come to represent a larger, national lack of effective communication with all the social and political consequences it engenders. Heady stuff brilliantly realized—the music alone is amazing.

The Confessions (Italy): A secretive cabal of economists and industry leaders meet at a posh German hotel with one goal in mind: maintain their stranglehold on the global economy even if it means sacrificing a few poorer nations. Their plans are thrown into disarray however when their leader commits suicide shortly after confessing all to a soft-spoken monk who mysteriously showed up on the invitation list. With their futures at stake the remaining members do everything they can to find out what the good Father knows including making their own confessions—but the monk has other plans in mind... Teeming with images of God, Eden, and (most importantly) Christ, this brilliantly stone-faced satire on the economics of greed and those who perpetuate it could only have come from the mind of an Italian director. In the lead role Toni Servillo is magnificent as the calm centre of a growing tempest and the seven deadly sins never looked so good.

The Death of Louis XIV (Portugal): A sumptuous costume piece about the final days of Louis XIV, dubbed the “Sun King” by his loyal subjects. No palace intrigues or political slant here, director Albert Serra instead shows us a feeble old man surrounded by wealth and doting servants as he tries to maintain some sense of decorum between bouts of delirium and excruciating pain. There’s an underlying sense of fading glory to the film made all the more poignant by a portrait of Louis in more robust days hanging just above the sick bed while physicians and robed priests hover in the shadows. Gorgeously framed with rich brocades and candlelight that turn every scene into a classical oil painting, this is a small masterpiece that slowly unfolds with all the gravity of a final breath.

Dolores (Germany): A miniature model artist is hired by a gorgeous movie star to make a detailed replica of her European home so she can take it with her when she moves to America. Already in love with the screen siren the man is at first horrified, and then delighted, to discover that his work is far more lifelike than anyone could have imagined... Take the macabre humour of Hitchcock, Sirk's candy-coloured evocation of mid-century modern glitz, add a huge dollop of retro 1950s sci-fi/horror and you have a cinematic treat that grabs you right from the clever opening credits. Bravo!

Elle (France): Paul Verhoeven’s moral corkscrew of a film begins with successful businesswoman Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert, amazing) in the middle of being sexually assaulted by a masked assailant—far from being traumatized however, she casually goes about her day after her assailant’s abrupt departure. All is not what it seems however for Michèle’s life has been one big trauma from the time she was a child and this rape is merely setting the stage for one of the most twisted takes on revenge and dysfunctional empowerment to ever grace a movie screen. The laughs come fast and guilty while the violence and small tragedies provide structure: everyone is hurting in one way or another, but Michèle has become so inured to her own pain that she’s lost all sense of perspective, a fact that becomes evident as Verhoeven’s film races towards its diabolical climax. Not for the easily offended.

Frantz (France): Shortly after WWI Anna, a young German woman who lost her fiancé on the battlefield, is surprised to discover a French soldier laying flowers on her loved one’s grave. Now living with her fiancé’s parents she brings the Frenchman home where he tells them all of his friendship with the deceased—a story which brings comfort and a sense of closure to everyone. But there is a deeper secret he is not telling them, and when Anna discovers the true reason behind his visit it opens new wounds she never knew she had. French enfant terrible François Ozon shows his human side in this beautifully crafted tale of remorse in which harsh reality and comforting lies play out against a backdrop of priggish nationalism. A beautiful musical score and sublime use of B&W with segues in and out of pastel colours aims this one straight for the heart. Ozon’s films may not revel in happy endings, but Frantz has compassion to spare.

The Giant (Sweden): A severely deformed young man given up for adoption while still an infant only has two dreams—reconnect with his mentally ill birth mother and win the Nordic Pétanque championship (a cross between lawn bowling and curling). But when life gets a bit too harsh he escapes into a favourite daydream in which he is a towering giant lumbering over the Swedish landscape in search of.....something. Unapologetically sentimental, as if Steven Spielberg directed The Elephant Man.

The Girl With All the Gifts (UK): Just when you thought every possible zombie angle had already been exploited comes yet another fresh spin on an old mainstay. This time around it’s an alien fungus that has invaded England turning the population into hordes of teeth-snapping flesh-eating “Hungries” and mankind’s only hope rests with a group of hybrid children. Infected with the spores yet still able to function (almost) normally, the children may hold the key to a vaccine. And then all hell breaks loose once more and a ragtag team of survivors (including a miscast Glenn Close as a ludicrous mad scientist) find themselves on the move with a very personable young Hungry named Melanie who, despite a messy habit of devouring cats and birds, just wants to help. The usual parade of guts and exploding heads is toned down somewhat in favour of a genuinely novel story with humour, compassion and a WTF? ending that left me smiling.

Glory (Bulgaria): When a simple railroad worker turns in a pile of cash he found along the tracks, a ruthless bureaucrat with the Ministry of Transportation decides to exploit his honesty by using him for a series of inspirational photo ops meant to draw attention away from corruption charges aimed at her office. But when an equally ruthless newshound decides to use the naive man for his own purposes the bureaucrat defends herself any way she can. A truly funny political satire with a wicked sting at the end.

Godspeed (Taiwan): A Taipei cab driver is in for more than he bargained for when he picks up a bumbling drug mule on his way to deliver a cache of cocaine with his gangster boss hot on his tail. What follows is a night of shootouts, screw-ups, and narrow escapes which would have made a great sixty minute short film. Too bad the director stretched it out to almost two hours and padded it with droning monologues and violent non-sequiturs.

Goldstone (Australia): A disgraced police detective’s search for a missing Chinese girl leads him to a remote mining town deep in the Aussie Outback. Asking one too many questions, the cop finds himself embroiled in graft, corruption and human trafficking which extends from the corporate offices of the mega-rich mining company to the offices of the mayor and chief of police. Clever camera angles and breathtaking scenery fall prey to every genre cliché in the book not to mention some horrid acting which at times sounded like the cast were trying to parody themselves. Loud music, loud gunshots, and direction that practically demands the audience gasp and cheer on cue.

Graduation (Romania): An otherwise honest family man will go to any length to ensure his daughter aces her highschool exams in order to be accepted into Cambridge (and get the hell out of Romania). But in a society which already runs on bribes and corruption one moral compromise always leads to another…

The Handmaiden (Korea): Chan-wook Park’s devilish kimono-ripper, based on an English novel but set in 1930’s Korea, is a triumph of both form and substance. Filled with ravishing technicolour visuals it tells the story of cheap con artist Fujiwara who, posing as a Japanese count, has set his sights on wooing the emotionally fragile and very wealthy Lady Hideko. To this end he employs Sook-Hee, a professional pickpocket and all around thief, to pose as Hideko’s new handmaiden thereby gaining the Lady’s confidence and convincing her to ignore the advances of her perverted uncle in favour of marrying Fujiwara. But in Park’s erotic house of mirrors nothing is quite what it seems and as the two women begin sharing a bed we are in for a bumpy ride of double-crosses and skewed allegiances. Sensual and seductive, Park excels at ratcheting up the sexual tension with a whispered moan, a lingering touch, a passage of pornographic poetry, so that when the softcore lovemaking actually begins it’s somewhat of a letdown, like a classier offering from the Playboy channel. But titillation is not upmost on the director’s mind for in the film’s blatant symmetries (luxurious silk screens divide the foreground; hallways are perfectly aligned; a pair of writhing bodies is framed by two portholes, two chairs, and two lamps) you can see he has more than a few things to say about yin and yang (including a little bit of female cross-dressing). Furthermore, Lady Hideko’s mansion is a study in psychological metaphors with its mixed architecture, shuttered chambers crammed with sexual knickknacks, and a nasty secret room straight out of a psychoanalyst’s wet dream. Rich and evocative, this is a perfect blend of the steamy and the cerebral.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Finland): The story of accomplished Finnish boxer Olli Mäki who, in 1962, was one bout away from winning the World Featherweight Championship. Shot it evocative B&W this charming feature spends most of its time outside the ring, concentrating instead on Mäki, a quiet small town boy bewildered by his sudden celebrity. Think of it as a kinder, gentler Raging Bull.

Harmonium (Japan): A woman is puzzled when her husband invites an old friend to move in with them. But when she finds out he's an ex-con with a checkered past her life takes a series of U-turns. An ultimately uninteresting take on the pitfalls of revenge that has nothing new to say yet still takes two hours to say it. Nice cinematography though.

History’s Future (Holland): Choppy editing, shifting time streams, and multi-media bombardment are the main tricks writer/director Fiona Tan pulls out of her sleeve in this oddly watchable little curio. A man wakes up in a German hospital with no identity and no memory. Eventually reunited with a wife he doesn’t know he wanders off once more on a Quixotic trek across the European Union where, oddly enough, he seems to speak every language he encounters. Intercut with images of protesting mobs as well as one-on-one interviews, Tan’s protagonist traverses a landscape of chaos and unhappiness as portions of his memory slowly, frighteningly, return. Take it as a highly subjective expression of madness…or a snapshot of a disintegrating EU drawing its last breath…or a scathing attack on capitalist dictates…or all three. Definitely not for every taste, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Human (France): In much the same vein as Reggio’s 1982 impressionist masterwork Koyaanisqatsi, this high-flying meditation on the many faces of humanity starts off with great promise. Huge widescreen panoramas of bustling humans at work and play are set against natural landscapes where solitary nomads are dwarfed by mountains and dunes—all played out in glorious slow-motion while heavenly arias burst forth in waves of dolby surround. In between these stagey episodes of grandeur a global village of talking heads sporting everything from tribal headdresses to business suits offer solitary dialogues on what makes them happy, what’s love all about, and the ultimate meaning of life—some genuinely sincere, others sounding as if they’re reading from cue cards. A old woman talks glowingly of her grandchildren, a grizzled man accepts his gay son, and a poor farmer ruminates on how wonderful 24-hour electricity would be. And then you realize that director Yann Arthus-Bertrand is merely setting you up for some ultra-left bombast and New Age nonsense while the onscreen visuals go from bucolic to third world blight. Wealth is demonized, poverty is waved about like a sacred lamb, and “God” gets way more credit than any imaginary friend deserves. This is the type of simplistic knee-jerk guilt trip that Western liberals just love to lap up before heading home in their SUVs.

Julieta (Spain): A woman’s obsessive search for the grown daughter who inexplicably walked out of her life thirteen years ago forms the backbone of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest opus. Culled from three Alice Munro short stories it explores the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship made brittle by guilty secrets and unspoken resentment. Like all Almodóvar’s work the colours are ravishing, the dialogue pure Madrid melodrama, and the narrative is given added meaning through the use of strategically placed artwork. But one can’t escape the pervasive sense of déjà vu that hangs from every frame as all those trademark close-ups and dramatic voiceovers take on a tired familiarity. It would appear the master’s creative engine is revving in neutral—but even so Julieta still stands taller than most multiplex offerings. Perhaps the world is finally ready for that Women on the Verge… sequel?

The Last Family (Poland): Polish surrealist Zdzislaw Beksinski compiled over three decades worth of photographs, videos, and tape recordings detailing the daily minutiae of his dysfunctional family including his ongoing martyr of a wife, violently erratic son, and two aging grannies. Using this vast supply of archival material for inspiration, director Jan Matuszynsi has produced a fractured mosaic of life in the Beksinski home from the early 1970s until well into the new millennium. A highly kinetic study of contrasts and contradictions where banality coexists with madness, moments of joy give way to anguish, and 80s club music competes with Mozart. But it is the paintings which define this family more than anything else with gentle seascapes and moonlit castles hanging beside lurid canvases of stitched corpses and apocalyptic tortures. Alternately fascinating and repulsive but never...ever...boring.

Lost in Munich (Czech Republic): What do a foul-mouthed parrot, WWII's Munich Agreement, and François Truffaut have in common? More than you think in this satirical film-within-a-film that attempts to revise Czech history.

Manchester by the Sea (USA): When the sudden death of his brother requires Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck, remarkable) to return to the fishing village where he grew up his arrival opens old wounds that had barely closed. Something awful happened there years earlier and the aftermath is still haunting Lee…especially when he discovers his brother appointed him guardian of his teenaged son. Humour and tragedy balance this subtle film about one man still haunted by the past even as his world moves ever forward. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s use of shifting timelines and wintry seascapes to reflect Lee’s mental state is superb.

Moonlight (USA): A gorgeous, lyrical film about a timid young man growing up poor, black, and gay in one of Miami’s tougher housing projects. Divided into three chapters following Chiron (pronounced “shy-rone”) from frightened child of a crackhead mother to sexually confused adolescent and finally an adult who discovers he has more growing up to do, director Barry Jenkins sidesteps audience expectations and tired old stereotypes to deliver a mature piece of work glowing with compassion and humanity. A gay love story like no other I’ve ever seen.

Mother (Estonia): After an attempted homicide leaves her adult son in a coma, a mother finds herself overwhelmed by potential suspects--is it the distraught girlfriend? The best friend? The kooky new age chick? And why is her son's bank account suddenly empty? A wry and wicked whodunnit with an ending that's pure evil!

Neruda (Chile): Poet, statesman, communist agitator---in the years immediately following WWII Pablo Neruda was all these things, a fact which put him on Chile's most wanted list. In this highly stylized lyrical film a contentedly fugitive Neruda is dogged at every turn by a determined police detective who matches him in ego if not in brains. Not content for a straight-up biopic however, director Pablo Larrain takes artistic license into the realm of the surreal as cop and poet, hunter and hunted, seem to dream one another into existence. A tumultuous, often humorous dive into the heart of the creative soul.

Original Bliss (Germany): Having lost her faith in God, an already complacent housewife finds herself drifting through her own life. But all that changes when she begins seeing a self-help guru with a disturbing problem of his own—a development which doesn't sit well with her violently abusive husband. Rife with images both sacred and profane, tender and sadistic, this intense feature examines the various dysfunctional ways its three characters deal with rage whether it be from guilt, shame, or suppression (“Where are you?” the woman pleads as her hands clench in prayer). The husband projects his rage onto his wife; she swallows hers and becomes a docile doormat; the doctor fetishizes his. Above all however, this is essentially a terribly fragile love story between two damaged souls who find in each other the emotional catharsis that neither God nor pornography nor spousal beatings could provide.

Paterson (USA): Paterson lives in Paterson, New Jersey, where he makes a living driving the #23 Paterson bus. He fancies himself a poet and spends most of his idle hours scribbling prose into his “secret notebook”. His wife Laura is a slightly kooky artiste with a fetish for painting black circles and stripes on anything that stands still long enough, and she hopes to become a C&W star as soon as she learns to play the guitar. Divided into seven parts, one for each day of the week and each beginning with a stanza from one of his poems, Paterson’s life is pretty much the same—he gets up, goes to work, walks the dog, and goes to bed—but little coincidences, unexpected flashes of beauty, and neighbourhood oddballs are always there to inspire him. Writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s gentle ode to dreams and everyday magic as well as the creative souls who pursue them both is a film I really wanted to like. But despite the glowing cinematography it all boiled down to two bland and uninteresting people surrounded by bland and uninteresting eccentrics living in a bland and uninteresting hovel of a city. At least Marvin, their pet bulldog and Paterson’s animal familiar (the only grounded character), was there for comic relief. The poetry sucked too.

The Phantom Detective (Korea): The bullets fly fast and hard in this manga-style thriller which pits an elite detective with a personal axe to grind against the leader of a nefarious doomsday cult bent on destroying Korean society. Highly visual comic book cinematography and a self-effacing sense of humour help to fill in the dry spots but the plot is needlessly serpentine. Great pyrotechnical finale.

The Red Turtle (Japan): Beautifully retro animation that unfolds like a series of watercolours is still not enough to save this mediocre arthouse fodder from Studio Ghibli. A shipwrecked sailor finds himself on a deserted island, meets a mysterious woman (no spoilers please) and gets caught up in a long and uninspired “Circle of Life” metaphor involving spiritual visions, magical turtles, and an ocean full of either God or Carl Jung depending on your point of view.

River of Fables (India): By the placid shores of a country river a series of overlapping stories play out—a young mother is pursued by a determined vegetable; a new bride finds herself betrothed to a most unusual groom; an evil stepmother wreaks vengeance on her husband’s daughter; and an old man’s advice exacts a terrible price from his nephew. Pure visual delight makes this anthology of Indian folk tales a guilty pleasure from start to finish. Mother never read you bedtime stories like this…

Sieranevada (Romania): After the death of their aging patriarch a family gathers in a cramped apartment for the traditional wake and dinner. But before the opening credits finish rolling you know the day isn’t going to go well, for while they wait for the priest’s arrival the gossip and backstabbing begins as political arguments break out and one son starts haranguing the mourners with a host of conspiracy theories gleaned from the internet. And then a pair of unexpected guests arrive—a granddaughter brings home her drunken Serbian friend and the truculent Uncle Tony comes looking for a fight—and two more fuses are set to slow burn… Only a Romanian director with Cristi Pulu’s pedigree can turn an afternoon of family bitching into a sardonic powder keg aimed at his country’s social and political apathy. With a restless camera pacing from room to room and doors either being flung open or slammed shut it immediately becomes apparent that no one is interested in what the other has to say but that’s not going to stop them from saying it. A parking lot turns into a war zone, grandma’s kitchen becomes a minefield, and the dining room serves up an abject lesson in economic inequality. And all the while a savoury funeral banquet sits untouched and growing cold. Alternately hysterical and discomfiting, this is Romanian comedy served as dry as it comes. Bravo!

Staying Vertical (France): Once upon a time a frustrated screenwriter met and fell in love with a beautiful shepherdess, the daughter of a gruff ogre, and they had a baby. But the shepherdess ran away and the man was left to raise his son on his own in a world suddenly filled with big bad wolves, woodland witches, and seductive young men… Writer/director Alain Guiraudie puts the “fairy” in fairytale as he turns every storybook archetype on its ear in this decidedly queer allegory coupling blocked creativity with our innate need for love and intimacy. Appropriately dreamlike in appearance, deliberately provocative in content (genitals make a series of cameos, a baby wriggles out of the womb like an alien worm) this is a serpentine enigma of a film given substance by a few strong images not the least of which is a frozen tableau of two men surrounded by slathering wolves as they clutch a newborn lamb. ”Don’t show you’re afraid…” hisses one man to the other. The ending is up to you.

The Student [aka The Disciple] (Russia): Fanatical Christianity brings new purpose to the life of a deeply disturbed highschool student who immediately sets about proselytizing hellfire and damnation at home and at school—a situation which proves deleterious to both his divorced mother and his spineless principal. But he saves his most ardent vitriol for a certain atheist biology teacher. And all the while Putin's image smiles beatifically from the wall and the TV screen is filled with images of war and rutting animals. Whether you take it as a political metaphor or a direct attack on religious inanity, this vicious take-no-prisoners satire rips Yahweh and Mother Russia each a new asshole one sanctimonious bible quote at a time.

The Teacher (Slovakia): Set in 1983, Jan Hrebejk’s scathing satire on Communist idealism elicits cringes even as the audience rolls in the aisles. The students of Mrs. Drazdechova’s homeroom class are in for a very trying year for not only is Comrade D the very model of what a socialist citizen should be (she’s the head of the local Communist chapter; her husband was a war hero; her sister is living in Moscow) but she has a peculiar way of handing out grades based on what favours students—or their parents—can do for her. Before long cleaning her apartment has become an extracurricular activity while moms and dads are busy baking cakes, chauffeuring her around town, or delivering groceries. And woe unto them who ignore her politely worded requests. But when a formal complaint is filed reactions from the kids and their families are not quite what you’d expect. A bitter history lesson wrapped in a sugary shell with a wry coda, set several years later, which shows that even though curriculums may change some subjects never go out of style.

Toni Erdmann (Germany): Ines is a high-powered consultant stationed in Bucharest whose already complicated life becomes impossible when her well-meaning prankster father pays her an unexpected visit. Daughter gets a lesson in chilling out while dad gets a dose of reality. Smart and savvy but, at almost three hours in length, wayyyyy too long.

Under the Shadow (UK, Jordan, Qatar): At the height of the Iran-Iraq war a Tehran housewife and her small daughter find themselves alone in their apartment building after a series of nearby missile strikes (including an unexploded bomb that punches a hole in the apartment upstairs) causes the other inhabitants to flee to safer neighbourhoods. But missiles aren't the only thing threatening their lives for an unearthly presence is stalking the little girl and mom is becoming unraveled... Has the creepy music, frantic editing, and all those haunted house jolts you expect but which still make your skin crawl anyway plus there's an unexpected depth as ghostly bumps in the night find their counterpart in real life sounds of warfare. It's Poltergeist with a decidedly Moslem slant—apparently even lady demons have to wear a burqa.