The 34th Atlantic Film Festival

The Atlantic Film Festival is over for another year and this was a particularly good year for films. It's a challenge for festivals to find and program great films. The fragmented distribution of films makes it easier to see things at home sooner, so why would someone go to a festival? But this year they met that challenge and provided a great set of films from Atlantic Canada and around the world to fill a week with stories that entertained, provoked, and soothed the soul.

It was a tiring week, but a good one with the schedule packed on the first few days of the festival. That worked well for me as I could go in to the theatre around lunchtime and emerge close to midnight. With nice breaks for conversations with friends and occasional meals and drinks, it's one of my favourite times of the year that restores my faith in the power of cinema.

Here are the films that stood out for me at the 34th edition of the festival.

Tu Dors Nicole

Seeing a film shot on film isn't too common these days so seeing Tu dors Nicole on a big screen was a treat. The quirky Québécois film written and directed by Stéphane Lafleur perfectly captures that time between finishing high school and figuring out what to do with your life. Set in a summer in a small town filled with boredom, a heat wave, and insomnia, with a quirky sense of humour, it's a great small film that never takes itself too seriously.

 

Two Days, One Night

One of the films that I was greatly anticipating as part of the festival was Two Days, One Night. Having enjoyed the earlier films I'd seen from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the inclusion of Marion Cotillard raises the profile of the film and gives an outstanding and understated performance at the heart of the film. The story is simple with Cotillard talking with coworkers about preserving her job, but the simplicity of the premise allows for a surprising depth in the stories that emerge as we follow her on her journey. Shot in the brothers' naturalistic style, the narrative emerges slowly on a deeply human level with a film filled with deep empathy with an underlying humanity, it's one of the most powerful and memorable films I've seen this year.

 

Winter Sleep

A surprise at the festival this year was the popularity of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep, a 3 hour, 16 minute film from Turkey that screened on a Monday afternoon at 3pm. I was glad for the earlier start time as it made it possible to see films that evening and the theatre was almost full, which was encouraging. With a similar pacing to his film, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, it features stunning photography and great performances as the pieces of the story gently settle. It's a Shakespearean tragedy with a central character who cannot recognize that his pride is causing the problems that he is facing. While the running time was long and it started slowly, it drew my in and became mesmerizing by the time it got to the end.

 

Mommy

Xavier Dolan is a talented director who makes virtuoso films that look great and feature solid soundtracks. With Mommy he goes back to the themes of his first film, I Killed My Mother, along with the two principal cast members, Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément. Dolan doesn't act in this one, and the young lead is played by Antoine-Olivier Pilon. Shot in a 1:1 square aspect ratio, the constrained screen space reflects the mental state of the main character Diane (amazingly played by Dorval), as she struggles with raising her troubled son with help from her neighbour, played by Clément. It's complex and moving and sticks with you.

 

Force Majeure

A different type of family drama is on display in Force Majeure, a Swedish film directed by Ruben Östlund. Carefully-constructed, it explores the fractures in a family that develop on a vacation to the Swiss Alps after a scare with an avalanche. With a darkly comic and deadpan sense of humour, we witness the breakdown of the family relationships while never being sure where it is all going. It's a film that definitely will provoke discussion.

 

Heartbeat

Andrea Dorfman teams up with Tanya Davis in Heartbeat to tell the story of a musician stuck and who unsure of what to do. In Dorfman's hands the story is a beautiful exploration of Halifax's North End as Davis figures out who she is and what she wants. With musical interludes and whimsical animations and poetry scattered through the film, it's a lovely look at how someone finds out who they are.

 

God Help the Girl

I was hoping that God Help the Girl would be good since I was one of the Kickstarter funders of the project. Stuart Murdoch took a series of songs and made a delightful musical about a group of friends in Glasgow that spend a summer forming a band and finding out more about themselves. Colourfully shot on film and with a deeper and slightly darker story than you would expect, it's a lot of fun while pushing slightly against the conventions and expectations of a musical film.

 

Another great year of films and a few more additions to my top ten films of the year. We're so lucky to have a festival filled with organizers, staff, and volunteers who create a great experience for those who love cinema every year.

Atlantic Film Festival 2014 - The Feature Dramas

It's a very good challenge picking films to see at a film festival. You look at the list and start to think of what you want to see based on what you recognize. Then you look through the schedule and see how it all fits together, and then you research things to find little gems you may have missed on the first pass or two. The Atlantic Film Festival this year is filled with many difficult choices, but in the world we live in it is becoming easier to see films even if we miss them at the festival. But it's still great to be amongst the first people to see a great film.

There is a cinematic calculus that can help to decide which films to see when there is a scheduling conflict that involves the likelihood of being able to see the films relatively soon. With some films it's an easy choice as there may be two great films, but one of them will be released in theatres in a month or two. That makes the choice a bit easier as in my case I would (usually) pick the more obscure film. But if it is something that you really want to see on a big screen it is better to go with the sure thing to make sure you get to see it. The other factor with a film festival is you're seeing the film with an audience who really wants to be there, so that makes the whole experience better.

At first glance the lineup this year was great. The Atlantic films were announced and that is a great collection of films, then a couple of weeks later the full list came out. There is something for everyone with gentle mainstream dramas, documentaries, and challenging films on the edge. The best option if you like to change your mind (and have the money) is to have a pass as you can decide up to an hour before a screening what to see. But it's good to have a plan to start with, so based on my idiosyncratic tastes, we'll walk through some of my choices for dramatic features.

The opening gala is a film I hadn't heard of before, Elephant Song, but with a solid director, a script based on a play, and a great cast, it looks like a good way to get things kicked off. It's the easiest decision of the festival as it's the only film that is playing. So if you want to see it you can go and attend the party as well. The party is a great place to talk about film and find out about other films coming up. After opening night the decisions get considerably more complicated, so lets look through the schedule to pick out things.

Friday

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby started out as a work in progress screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last year with two films subtitled Him and Her, each telling the story during the same time period, but from the perspectives of each part of the couple. They live in New York and each of the films take place during the same period of time. The third part of the film, Them, is what is screening at the film festival. With Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy playing the couple, with a screenplay written by Ned Benson who also directs this feature triptych debut, it should definitely be interesting.

One of the big highlights for me will be seeing Andrea Dorfman's third feature-length drama, Heartbeat. Working with Tanya Davis as singer/songwriter/actor in the lead of the film and with Andrea's signature style, it should be great. Shot by cinematographer Stéphanie Weber-Biron who is the top visual stylist working in Canada today, it's going to be gorgeous and you really should not miss a chance to see it on the big screen.

Dan Gilroy's directorial debut Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhall (who is on a string of great performances), could be interesting as a look at the underbelly of Los Angeles through the eyes of crime journalists. With a writing background that includes cowriting Tarsem's The Fall, but also writing the story of Real Steel, this new film will hopefully move more towards the genius of The Fall. With a release date scheduled for October and a star like Gyllenhall, it's going to be fairly easy to see this later, so I would always go for something a bit harder to see.

David Robert Mitchell wrote and directed a beautiful gentle gem of a debut feature with The Myth of the American Sleepover which I first saw at the Atlantic Film Festival in 2010. He returns with the horror film It Follows, which should also be interesting. In his previous film he was able to take an ensemble cast of teenagers and create something that was a lot more than a typical coming-of-age film and with It Follows there is a good chance that he'll bring a lot more depth to the idea of a horror film with teenagers.

Saturday

Force Majure (Turist) has a premise and description that instantly draws me in based on the cool, dark, and deadpan Scandinavian sense of humour that I've seen in other films. Set in the French Alps with a family dealing with an avalanche, it should be challenging and darkly funny in the vein of The Bothersome Man or Borgman (an odd standout film from last AFF last year) with moral choices built in.

If you like formal challenges with your films, Stations of the Cross should be intriguing. Consisting of 14 shots with a 14 year-old-protagonist reenacting the 14 Stations of the Cross, it's a story about a young girl trying to remain true to her fundamentalist Catholic religion. It should be emotional and challenging, but if that is one of the things you look for in cinema, this could be a good choice for Saturday afternoon.

Xavier Dolan is all over the Atlantic Film Festival this year, acting in two films and writing and directing Mommy. Exploring some of the similar subject matter to his brilliant debut feature, I Killed My Mother (which played at an earlier AFF along with Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways, Mommy is shot within a square frame with his regular actors Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clement who join Antoine-Olivier Pinon as a troubled teen. Sure to be visually interesting with a great soundtrack, it's another film that should be a bit challenging and definitely worth seeing.

Love is Strange looks great with solid performances from both Alfred Molina and John Lithgow who are criminally underused in most of the films that they are in. With them together as a couple dealing with the challenges of living in New York being newly married and unemployed, it should be a treat to see. With a limited release underway now and a wider release coming later in the month, it is something that will be easy to see after the festival.

Deanne Foley directs the adaptation of Lesley Crewe's novel in the romantic comedy Relative Happiness. With a colourful look, great cast, and set in rural Nova Scotia, it will be a rare treat to see a local story on the big screen. A love story built around a woman in her 30s who runs a bed & breakfast and needs a date for her sister's wedding, it should be a delicious treat.

Continuing the strong thread of Atlantic feature films at the festival this year, Cast No Shadow is Christian Sparkes' feature directing debut with a script by Joel Thomas Hynes. Hynes wrote and directed the brilliant short Little Man which played previously at the festival. Cast No Shadow is a coming of age story set in a seaside Newfoundland town with a 13-year-old boy at the centre of the story and it should be a great drama that combines Hynes writing with the dark whimsy that Sparkes also brought to his festival short A River in the Woods.

A rare 3D event is Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language, which is a 3D film from the French auteur. This definitely won't be for everyone with Godard willfully avoiding plot and cinematic conventions in his most recent films, but what would you expect from the man who inserted "cinema" as his middle name in the credits of one of his films. If you've seen recent Godard you should have an idea of what to expect, if you don't like that, I suspect that the film could be a bit of an ordeal, but if you want to see something unique and challenging that will not be coming soon to a theatre near you, it's the place to be Saturday night.

Sunday

Moving on to Sunday and starting relatively early, is the Québecois black & white film Tu Dors Nicole, which looks beautiful and quirky. Shot on film, Stéphane Lafleur's film is about a young woman in her 20s spending time at home when her parents are away and her brother wants to record an album with his band. Watching the trailer makes me want to see it, even if only to see the images projected on the big screen.

Jordan Canning's feature-length debut, We Were Wolves promises to be as great as his shorts were. Having seen Seconds and the delightful Oliver Bump's Birthday at previous festivals a longer drama holds a lot of potential. The film cowritten by Canning and Steve Cochrane (who also costars in the film) is the story of two brothers dealing with their father's death and who they are over a weekend at the family cottage.

On Sunday night the latest feature from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night is a film that has been on my list to see for a while. The Belgian brothers create naturalistic portraits of characters in challenging situations that are powerful and moving. With L'enfant, Lorna's Silence, and The Kid With a Bike they have made beautiful statements with moments that are breathtaking at times. Since 1999 all of their feature films have won awards for them at Cannes, with them winning the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury this year. Starring Marion Cotillard, it will be another memorable and very human drama.

Monday

Monday has a long and languorous Turkish drama from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Winter Sleep, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this past year. His previous feature, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is an amazing drama that slowly and compellingly builds a powerful story by following characters through one night as they search for the body of someone who is murdered. With long takes and a naturalistic style, Ceylan has an incredible grasp of cinematic language that manages to keep me interested even when his films have long running times. With a 3 hour and 16 minute running time, Winter Sleep will not appeal to everyone, but I look forward to immersing myself in one of Ceylan's films again.

Tuesday

The early evening Tuesday slot has some solid-looking feature films and a great free outdoor screening as well. Foxcatcher is getting great reviews and with Bennet Miller (Moneyball) directing, and with Channing Tatum and Steve Carell in the cast, it's going to be easy to see later. Screening outside as part of the Outdoor Film Experience at the AFF is Shandi Mitchell's film The Disappeared, which played to acclaim at the festival in 2012. Seeing it next to the water in Ferry Terminal Park in Dartmouth should be perfect as you watch the compelling film about six men lost at sea.

The final film of Tuesday night looks quite interesting as it is the latest from Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria. He has a range of films from the fun cinematic love letter Irma Vep, to the sparse character drama Clean, and the ensemble dramas Summer Hours and Something in the Air, as well as the docudrama Carlos. With a screenplay written by Assayas and French actress Juliette Binoche as the lead dealing with aging as an actress with Kristen Stewart playing her assistant, it is sure to be filled with metacommentary on the film industry itself along with some solid drama.

Wednesday

Wednesday night should pose the biggest scheduling challenge for many people with a lot of possibly great films overlapping. I have a pretty good idea of what I am going to see that night, but in my mind it keeps switching around as nobody wants to miss out on something that everyone else will be talking about.

Mike Leigh has a gift for assembling great casts and working through an improvisational process for crafting great dramas. With Happy Go Lucky and Vera Drake he has made complex stories that are engaging and surprising. His latest film, Mr. Turner is about British painter J.M.W. Turner and with Timothy Spall winning at Cannes for his portrayal of Turner, it should be a safe bet for fans of British drama.

God Help the Girl is a project that grew out of Belle and Sebastian lead singer / songwriter Stuart Murdoch's) project of the same name that assembled singers for a band together. Later a Kickstarter project was used to help fund the film and I was a backer of that (and received a nifty little pin for that). Now it's done and with Emily Browning (who was in Sleeping Beauty, which played at AFF in 2011) starring in it, the film should be a fun musical look at a summer in Glasgow with a boy and a girl and a band. At Sundance this year it won a World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award (ensemble) for the cast of the film.

Another Sundance success on Wednesday night is the musical drama Whiplash written and directed by Damien Chazelle which won the Audience Award as well as the Grand Jury Prize. Whiplash is about a young jazz drummer who is relentlessly driven by his teacher. There is also Desiree Akhavan's comedy Appropriate Behavior (which she directs, writes, and acts in) about a bisexual woman in the Brooklyn dating scene who is searching for love as well as concealing who she is from her Iranian parents. A very edgy choice for wrapping up Wednesday night would be Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's harrowing drama The Tribe. With the dialogue taking place all in Ukrainian Sign Language without subtitles, it is set in a boarding school and follows a young man's journey into a student gang.

But for me the latest film from Kristian Levring (one of the original Dogme 95 signatories), The Salvation, is interesting as a Danish Western. With Mads Mikkelsen at the centre of the cast and with a script cowritten by Anders Thomas Jensen (who wrote In A Better World, Adam's Apples, and Levring's previous film, Fear Me Not), it should be a slightly Scandinavian take on the Western genre. Levring's Fear Me Not was an odd reworking of the ideas in Nicolas Ray's Bigger Than Life, so I'm curious to see what he does within the form of the Western which is quite far from the principles of Dogme 95.

Thursday

Finally it all wraps up with the Closing Gala film, Maps to the Stars from David Cronenberg. The Canadian director has been moving away from his earlier genre-based films into unsettling looks at intriguing characters. Working with a script from Bruce Wagner and set in Hollywood, it's the first of Cronenberg's films to actually be shot in the United States. With a celebrity cast including Julianne Moore (who won as Best Actress at Cannes for her performance), Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattison, and John Cusak, it's a high-profile film that should be a bit edgier than most mainstream Hollywood films.

Which dramas look good to you this year at the Atlantic Film Festival?

The F Word

Romantic comedy is one of the most popular genres and a genre that I don't often watch. When I was invited to a preview screening of The F Word I thought about it, and when seeing that it was directed by Michael Dowse, I was intrigued and wanted to see it. Dowse is a bit of a cinematic smuggler with many of his films on the surface being testosterone-laden explorations of masculinity with a surprisingly deep and emotional core at the heart of them.

Not knowing that there was more than meets the eye to Fubar is probably one of the reasons I hadn't seen it sooner, so the first film by Dowse that I saw was It's All Gone Pete Tong. The mockumentary about a DJ who loses his hearing starts out as a documentary and plays with the form to create an entertaining story about a man struggling to define who he is and what is important. After seeing it I sought out Fubar and enjoyed it as well. With the sequel Fubar: Balls to the Wall he explored the same ideas, but added some real depth and drama in unexpected ways and it was one of my favourite films that I'd seen at the Atlantic Film Festival in 2010.

The F Word is written by Elan Mastai and is based on the play "Toothpaste and Cigars" written by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi and the one-act play is expanded and tweaked into a much more cinematic form. Set and shot in mainly in Toronto, it looks gorgeous with some whimsical visual animated flourishes that add a nice texture to the film. With a romantic comedy the path is well-worn, but what I liked about the film is that it did play with the form in a way that kept it interesting for me.

At the heart of the film are Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan who have fantastic chemistry. Having only seen one of the Harry Potter films, I hadn't actually seen much of what Radcliffe was capable of and he has great comic timing which was a pleasant surprise. I first saw Zoe Kazan in the clever Ruby Sparks (which she also wrote) which subverts many of the romantic comedy conventions. Supported by Adam Driver (who effortlessly steals scenes) and Mackenzie Davis as another couple providing a counterpoint to the central friendship of the film.

It's funny and enjoyable with characters that I cared about and a story that kept me interested by moving between the characters and subplots. There is a sense that the film is grounded and exists in a world closer to reality than most romantic comedies. It's a perfect summer film that allows all involved to work within an established genre without being stifled by it.