Take This Waltz (Canada; directed by Sarah Polley)
I have been remiss in forgetting to mention a single Canadian film in my first blog post on VIFF. Polley’s story of a woman (Michelle Williams) married to a perfectly nice guy (Seth Rogan), but who becomes drawn to a handsome stranger (Luke Kirby), is being presented ahead of what might be another awards season run. Williams received an Oscar nomination this year for Blue Valentine, and Polley’s debut feature Away From Her earned Julie Christie a nom. Polley herself has developed into an accomplished writer-director and the film received a rousing reception at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.
Martha Marcy May Marlene (United States; directed by Sean Durkin)
Ever wonder what it’s like to escape from a cult? A young woman (Elizabeth Olsen) escapes an abusive relationship with a cult (led by Oscar nominee John Hawkes of Winter’s Bone) and asks her sister (Sarah Paulson) to pick her up and take her home. She is slowly assimilated into society, but … is the cult still watching her? Do they know where she goes, who she’s with, can they read her thoughts? Winner of the prestigious Best Director prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this disturbing character study features Olsen (yes, the younger sister of the Olsen twins) in a breakthrough performance that has many already talking up an Oscar nomination for her, and plays VIFF ahead of its commercial release in late October / early November. The film also stars Hugh Dancy. (Also, the film has what might be the coolest and creepiest website domain name ever.)
Harakiri: Death of a Samurai (Japan; directed by Miike “Beat” Takashi)
The man behind the internationally acclaimed Fireworks is back with another wildly madcap feature film. Set in the peaceful Edo era of Japan in the 17th century, this 3-D(!) Japanese Samurai epic spins a tale of desperate Samurai who are now without jobs and go to the Ronin’s palace to commit seppuku, but secretly hope that they are bought off. One such Samurai embarks on such a quest, secretly hoping … to avenge his son, who committed seppuku in front of the Ronin. Takashi’s films make nearly annual appearances at VIFF, and they always remain crowd-pleasers. This film also had the honour (?) of being the first-ever film screened in 3-D at Cannes.
Buddha Mountain (China; directed by Li Yu)
While this film’s premise sounds like a pedestrian drama – three young roommates looking for a new place to live end up crashing with a former Chinese opera star – what sets the film apart is its cast. Buddha Mountain stars China’s biggest film star, Fan Bingbing, and given the ever-increasing Chinese demographic in Vancouver, it is a natural selection to play VIFF. Playing the opera star is none other than Taiwanese grand dame actress Sylvia Chang, who many will remember from her impressive supporting role in the Oscar-winning Canadian drama The Red Violin. (This is a tip for VIFF: some of these films you’ve never heard of, if it speaks to the local expatriate community, will end up being the most popular and sell out the fastest. Get your tickets early.)
Lost in Paradise (Vietnam; directed by Ngoc Dang Vu)
Billed as the first-ever gay-themed romance made in Vietnam, the film sounds at first blush like a riff on Wong Kar Wai’s acclaimed 1997 gay-themed drama Happy Together. The film opens with a naïve young man moving to Saigon from a small village and is fleeced by two gay conmen who are in a toxic relationship. When the couple breaks up, one of them meets up with the country boy and they begin a romance. As there have been almost no films on the gay experience in Vietnam, this film’s subject matter was considered groundbreaking. This is also holds the distinction of being the first-ever gay Vietnamese film released in the foreign cinema market.
18 Days (Egypt; various directors)
Earlier this year, ten directors, two dozen actors and numerous film crew members banded together with a mission: to capture the events of the Arab Spring in a series of short subjects that, together, form a cohesive portmanteau film with a common theme. Done in the style of such omnibus films as I Love New York, Paris Je T’aimes and Visions of 8, everyone on this project worked under tight constraints and, due to the highly volatile political situation, did not even tell authorities that they were making a film for fear of retaliation or interference. You’ve heard of guerilla warfare? This is guerilla art, and quite possibly the most daring entry in this year’s VIFF.
The Kid with a Bike (Belgium; directed by the Dardennes Brothers)
This year’s closing gala, presented in back-to-back screenings on October 14, is the latest by the Dardennes Brothers, who struck gold at Cannes in 1999 with Rosetta. An 11-year-old orphaned boy is taken in by a hairdresser but is coerced into committing a crime by an unscrupulous acquaintance. The film, with shades of Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief running through its name and theme, explores the hard choices and survivalist skills that one learns at a young age, when confronted by a compelling moral and ethical situation. The film arrives with considerable accolades, as it won the Grand Prix at the recent Cannes Film Festival, just behind The Tree of Life.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkey; directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Sharing the Grand Prix at Cannes with The Kid with a Bike is this Turkish slice-of-life film about different members of society – a lawyer, the chief of police, a doctor and the mayor of a small town – in escorting a criminal throughout the city and its outskirts, trying to find the missing body of a murder victim. Are their choices ethical, moral, legal, all three, none, or some combination of the above in a prism of moral relativism?
Inni: Sigur Rós (Iceland; directed by Vincent Morisset)
Attention alt-rock fans: this is a documentary about the totally out-there Icelandic band Sigur Rós. This is not for the uninitiated. If you’re a casual fan or only want to see this film because it sounds “cool” but have no idea who the band are: step the [bleep] off. For those of us who enjoy their videos, and who rival only their fellow Icelandic songbird Björk for weirdness, we will cut our way through the crowds to get tickets to this. By the way, this film is being presented by Stella Artois and just might have the single most raucous post-screening after-party at VIFF (if there is one!).
Le Havre (Finland; directed by Aki Kaurismäki)
This film’s much-lauded director has created a treatise on the human condition. What happens when a well-meaning shoe-shiner creates a safe haven for African migrants hoping to land in London after passing through the titular Normandy town? Although a Finnish production, the film is entirely in French and sounds reminiscent of 2008’s The Visitor, which brought veteran character actor Richard Jenkins an unexpected Oscar nomination.