A few days ago I was writing my summary of the first 20 films of the film festival. Suddenly, we’re up to 40! And just as it was a strong first 20, it’s been a strong second chapter.
It was followed by Cinema Through the Eye of Magnum, a documentary on the Magnum photography agency’s interactions with film over the years. All in all it was just a little too slight. There were some pretty pictures, a few funny anecdotes, but that was it really. Similarly weak as a documentary was Suzanne Ciani : a Life in Waves. It could easily have been subtitled “how one trailblazing, innovative and imaginative woman wasted decades making crummy new age ballads”. A whole lot of self-congratulatory patting on the head but not a lot of much interest.
Gaza Surf Club was the first documentary that really lived up to that word. Fantastic stuff. We’re taken on a tour of the beaches of Gaza city where Palestinians are riding the waves. Faced with the impossibility of importing surfboards, limited materials and repair skills, social condemnation (especially of the women) and more, they keep doing what they love. It’s a touching and illuminating little documentary that crucially refuses to take sides. It never explicitly condemns anyone, which is particularly rare in the charged atmosphere of Israeli-Palestinian affairs!
Equally enthralling, although perhaps slightly less educational was the astonishing Brimstone and Glory. The story of the annual celebrations in the Mexican town of Tultepec – home of the fireworks – its one of the most impressive cinematic spectacles I think I’ve ever seen. The residents built enormous pylons to which they strap tonnes of fireworks (“castles”) and build huge bulls which they – you’ve guessed it – stuff with fireworks. Then they proceed to wander about, climb the pylons, run with the bulls etc. all while the fireworks explode in all directions. Its terrifying stuff and I never, ever want to visit Tultepec but it’s truly astonishing.
There were a lot of strong retrospective screenings in this chapter. The Wages of Fear is a fabulously tense road trip with a truckful of nitroglycerine (only let down by being too long), whilst The Man on the Roof is a film that has no real idea what it wants to be. It starts as a police procedural murder mystery, swiftly abandons that and becomes an action movie that quickly moves from being at least halfway serious to being almost slapstick. It’s a weird one.
Diva, Nikita and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo were all fab to see on the big screen, bringing international conspiracy, espionage action and grisly murder investigations respectively. Elsewhere, El Diputado brought a heady mix of post-Franco Spanish politics, homophobia and communism and The Vanishing contributed kidnapping and some seriously creepy characters. There was a good range to the retrospectives this year – a nice mix of big screen famous and unearthed Euro-thriller gems.
Which brings us, finally, to modern fiction! The Stuff of Dreams was a fantastic retelling of the Tempest on a Sardinian prison island. Simple, focused and beautiful it was one of my surprise favourites of this batch. Following that, Arcadia was an astonishingly beautiful montage of a century of BFI footage of Britain; Under the Tree a truly tragicomic depiction of loss and neighbourly-hatred in Iceland; The Teacher a small-town satire of authoritarian control and corruption in a school classroom. Better still were The Florida Project – Sean Baker’s touching tale of life in Florida motels – Bad Genius – an absurdly over-dramatic story of Thai students cheating their way to STIC exam success – and the truly fabulous Summer Time Machine Blues. This ticked every time-travel cliché in the book as it managed to make an expansive, fun and silly film despite being pretty much limited to one room and 6 characters. With heaps time-travel silliness, this doesn’t take itself too seriously at all and was a joy to watch.
It would easily have been the best of the fiction if Canaries hadn’t dropped in at number 40 to challenge it. Canaries is (mostly) British genre film done right. As with Summer Time Machine Blues they manage to make a little go along way – aside from a few shots in American hotel rooms, pretty much everything here revolves around a handful of people in one house in a small Welsh town. And yet it manages to create the feeling of global threat, of a real disaster taking place that is much bigger than what we see. An absolute gem. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they do next.
Best five new films:
- The Stuff of Dreams
- Summer Time Machine Blues
- The Florida Project
Best two re-screenings:
- The Wages of Fear
Best two documentaries:
- Gaza Surf Club
- Brimstone and Glory