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Best Films of 2015

Chris Campbell

Early in the year I was able to get to see Inherent Vice after seeing it appear on some "best of" lists for 2014. It's a strange thing sometimes making up a list of the best films since some films appear at festivals and then get released the next year. So how do you set a cutoff point for what is a film from the year and what is not. I prefer to be more literal and only include films that I saw in the calendar year. Ideally that will include most of the films that are showing up on other lists, but with many films it's a challenge to see them, especially when they don't get wide release.

The other challenge is remembering what you've seen during the year and what stood out as you see more and more. So right after I saw Inherent Vice I started my Best of 2015 list on Letterboxd and added the films that I thought were the best. The list grew with films added throughout the year and I narrowed that down to 25 films since it's better to highlight more films to see.

Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston in Queen of Earth

Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston in Queen of Earth

It was a year of nostalgia with the year ending with J.J. Abrams' sequel to the original Star Wars trilogy mirroring and reworking the style of the originals. At the beginning of the year Paul Thomas Anderson had his grainy and fun counterculture Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice with a late early 70s vibe. George Miller gave a burst of energy and creativity to action films with Mad Max: Fury Road drawing on silent films and his previous three Mad Max films to create one of the most exciting films of the year. David Robert Mitchell brought an 80s sensibility to the arty horror film It Follows with Kubrick-inspired visuals and a synth-heavy score. The ghost of Kubrick also haunted the anti-comedy Entertainment in the visuals and tone of Rick Alverson's dark road movie. Roman Polanski's psychological horror films of the 60s inspired the odd tone of Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth. J.C. Chandor crafted a tense crime drama modelled on classic 70s films with A Most Violent Year. The highlight at the end of the year was Todd Haynes' gorgeous and lovingly-constructed Carol which looked and felt like a film from the 50s.

Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge in Breathe

Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge in Breathe

Carol and Inherent Vice were two of the great adaptations of novels that made it to the screen in the past year. Phoenix was a masterful slow-burn of a film from Christian Petzold based on a novel about a woman who survives the Holocaust to return to those who betrayed her. Thomas Vinterberg brought a modern sensibility to his adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd with a strong central heroine played by Carey Mulligan. Lenny Abrahamson took the challenging source material of the novel Room and played with time and space to give one of the more memorable and moving experiences of the year with remarkable performances from Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay. Mélanie Laurent adapted Breathe into a claustrophobic coming of age story about two young women in her impressive debut directing a feature film.

Along with Laurent's Breathe, there were other great feature directed debuts with Alex Garland's clever science fiction thriller Ex Machina and John Maclean's lyrical and darkly beautiful revisionist Slow West. But there were also some interesting films where more established directors explored themes in innovative ways. Sean Baker shot Tangerine with an iPhone in his highly energetic collaboration with Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor and the streets of Los Angeles. Céline Sciamma's Girlhood was lyrically shot with an impressive ensemble cast following the coming of age of a young woman in the outskirts of Paris. Sebastian Schipper's technically impressive and surprisingly thrilling Victoria shot entirely in one unbroken take, moving through pre-dawn streets of Berlin into the morning. Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen gave Pixar's Inside Out a depth and complexity in brilliantly conveying feelings and memories in an animated film that deeply resonated with many people. Don Hertzfeld created one of the most memorable and visually exciting films in World of Tomorrow by adding new digital techniques to his minimalist animation style.

It was a great year for auteurs to tell their stories as well with Jacques Audiard having another film about outsiders adapting to life in France with his moving and complicated Dheepan. Radu Muntean brought to life another powerful Romanian New Wave film with One Floor Below concerning itself with the themes of responsibility and morality as a man deals with the consequences of not speaking up. Apichatpong Weerasethakul returned to his familiar themes of ghosts and history with the beautiful and meditative Cemetery of Splendour. The ZellnerBrothers cleverly combined urban legends and the Coen Brothers' Fargo into the haunting character study Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter. Jeremy Saulnier's tense Green Room had memorable characters in a horrific confrontation with rural skinheads as a punk band witnesses a murder and get trapped backstage. Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement made the brilliant vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows with a gentle core surrounding the humour and horror. With The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos brings his idiosyncratic style and themes to his first English language films with his pitch-black humour and intensity along with Hollywood stars for one of the most disturbing satires of relationships that you'll ever see.

The top ten:

Inherent Vice

A shaggy dog of a story with a grainy look, oversized performances, and a fantastic soundtrack, Inherent Vice was the first film added to my list and a film that I enjoyed more each time I watched it. The quirkiness of Paul Thomas Anderson is a perfect match for Thomas Pynchon's novel and it's another outstanding performance from Joaquin Phoenix as the stoner detective at the centre of the film.

Victoria

Even if it wasn't one of the most technically impressive films of the past few decades in happening in one unbroken take, Victoria would be a great film. But it is a masterful film as well as being a monumental achievement for the actors and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen. With a story that becomes clear as the film progresses, the one-take approach gives a real and kinetic energy to what we see as we follow a woman through a night where her life changes dramatically after she gets caught up in a bank heist.

Entertainment

An anti-comedy shot with dedication and craft with carefully composed frames, unsettling subject matter, and a strong central performance from Gregg Turkington as a bad stand-up comedian on a tour that doesn't seem to be going well at all. It's a film filled with existential dread and understated humour that makes it more of a reflection on the human condition.

Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter

A Japanese woman unhappy with her life finds hope in searching for the buried money from the film Fargo and tries to figure out where it is. Blending an urban legend, a classic film, and a cross-cultural clash results in a powerful film about determination, loneliness, and the search for meaning in the world. The soundtrack is dark and ominous as we see the landscapes of her surroundings in Japan and in America as she goes on her quest and meets a series of odd people. As the central character Kumiko, Rinko Kikuchi brings a remarkable depth and warmth to her portrayal of a woman lost in the world.

It Follows

A deliberate and artistic horror film with innovative shots and a synth-heavy score, I loved the retro feel of the story of a young woman followed by creatures who seek to kill her. An understated metaphor about sexually transmitted infection that embraces and extends the themes of many 80s horror films, it's cool, calculated, and brilliant in the control and the telling of the story in a timeless way that never clearly establishes the time period where it is happening.

Ex Machina

exmachina.jpg

A science fiction film that explores the idea of artificial intelligence in a clever way that plays on expectations built from other films in the genre while subtly subverting them. More psychological thriller than science fiction, it's a fascinating film in that the whole thing plays out differently the second time you watch it. The story and situations are carefully constructed and with great performances from Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and the always reliable Oscar Isaac, it's a thoughtful film that makes you think.

What We Do in the Shadows

A mockumentary about vampires living in New Zealand that uses the premise to tell a story that is also surprisingly sweet. Lovingly directed by Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement (who also star in the film), it bases the story in reality within the fantastic premise along with a seamless blending of effects to build a dynamic world of interesting characters.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Visually compelling with a breathtaking pace, the best action film of the year is an almost wordless chase through a desert wasteland. The universe of the film feels worn and logical and the carefully crafted and practical stunts and effects add a level of excitement to a non-stop journey that plays with colour, sound, and expectations to show that it's still possible to create a great film that is both popular and has a bit of thought behind it too.

The Lobster

One of the oddest premises of the year and one of the most brilliant and dark combination of an auteur sensibility with more mainstream stars, The Lobster is a satire about relationships with a relentless commitment to the ideas of the film that is deeply disturbing. Integrating many of his regular contributors with bigger stars in an elaborate world filled with arbitrary rules and a dream logic brings a strange coherence to everything that we see as the ideas go to their extreme and inevitable conclusion.

Carol

Lush and beautiful with a story from the 50s that feels present in the look, wardrobe, and even dialogue and performances, the style is an integral part of the effect of the entire film. With Carter Burwell's best score since Fargo and some stunning cinematography from Ed Lachman, it's a film that feels like a great Hollywood classic even upon the first viewing.

Here are the rest of my top 25 films of 2015 with links to my Letterboxd diary entries for each of them: - Cemetery of Splendour - Inside Out - Slow West - Room - One Floor Below - Tangerine - Dheepan - Girlhood - Phoenix - Breathe - Green Room - Far From the Madding Crowd - World of Tomorrow - A Most Violent Year - Queen of Earth

What are some of your favourites from the previous year?

The Time and Space of Chantal Akerman

Chris Campbell

Chantal Akerman in Je Tu Il Elle

Chantal Akerman in Je Tu Il Elle

For me cinema is time and space. – Chantal Akerman

A filmmaker who put herself deeply into her films and changed what was possible cinematically, Chantal Akerman redefined how time and space are depicted on screen. The distance and formality of her approach to her films resonated with me as I explored her work over the years. Always uncompromising and bold and feminist, she followed her own path and cinematic interests. Her influence on other filmmakers is profound with elements showing up in the work of filmmakers such as Gus Van Sant, Sophia Coppola, Bèla Tarr, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

I had an intuition that if I was going to only write, I will stay in one room all the time and never go out. I felt that if I was going to make movies, I would have to communicate with people and it would be good for me. – Chantal Akerman

Captive

Captive

The first film by Chantal Akerman I watched was Captive (2000)which I remember as being strange and unnerving. But with Akerman the central film and will always be Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). She was 25 when she made the film with a largely female crew. Bold and remarkable in approach and style, it's an influential film and singular achievement. The ambiguity of parts of the film keep it interesting to me after multiple viewings and I keep noticing new things every time I watch it. It's an experience that carefully establishes routines as it deliberately progresses with small glimpses into the emotional life or Jeanne delivered obliquely. Building a world through small, ordinary details.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

I remember saying to myself, how can I make a better film? But it was also exactly the film I had to make then. It says something about a woman, about a way of living a life, about life after the war. It was the first thing I had to pour out of myself. – Chantal Akerman

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

While Jeanne Dielman is her crowning achievement, there are many other fascinating and innovative films that Akerman made in both fictional and non-fictional forms. It's a challenge to find some of them with the complexities of film distribution, but luckily there are the Criterion releases of Jeanne Dielman and the box set of Chantal Akerman in the 70s which gives an important glimpse into her development as a filmmaker. Combining an intellectual approach with strong, stylized approaches, she explores ideas with a passion and dedication that is rare and resulted in some film that worked incredibly well and others that don't work as well, but commit to the ideas that inform them.

We were just going to the movies to kiss and eat ice cream and eventually look at the movie. But I didn’t care. I was much more interested in literature; I wanted to be a writer. Then I saw Godard’s film, Pierrot Le Fou, and I had the feeling it was art, and that you could express yourself. – > Chantal Akerman

La Chambre

La Chambre

With La Chambre (1972), an early experimental short, the camera slowly pans around an apartment, revealing Akerman in bed, looking at the camera. The pattern is established and it continues to rotate around as she does various things as the camera comes back to her and then reverses direction. It's strange and unnerving.

There always seems to be a tension in the films of Chantal Akerman between confined spaces and the outside world. More than any other filmmaker for me, she explores spaces with a startling intensity and confidence so the most ordinary objects take on greater significance. While a filmmaker like Wes Anderson has elaborately art-directed rooms, Akerman fills her rooms with ordinary, everyday objects. With a focus on the interstitial spaces between where dramas traditionally focus, she shows us hidden worlds and strips out melodrama leaving the reality of our own lives staring back at us.

Hotel Monterey

Hotel Monterey

She takes a similar static approach with her silent film Hotel Monterey (1972) with a largely static camera in various positions around a cheap hotel in New York City. The spaces are fascinating as we watch them and see people move through them not knowing who they are or what they are doing. Some of the scenes feel strange and later David Lynch would have shots in many of his films that echo the sense of unease that a lamp in a room can evoke.

Blow Up My Town

Blow Up My Town

In her first film Blow Up My Town (1968) she's confined to one room. It's Akerman in a kitchen and she's trapped in the room and wants to escape her life and eventually blows herself up. Experimental and terrifying, this early film by her starts the pattern and tension between spaces and people and their lives. The long takes increase the tension as we watch, unable to help, or change or influence what we see. We are voyeurs witnessing something horrible, powerless to do anything other than witness.

Je Tu Il Elle

Je Tu Il Elle

The filmmaker is present again in Je Tu Il Elle (1976) as we're again inside with Akerman in a room. It's painfully voyeuristic at times as we watch her in her apartment after a breakup, rearranging furniture, painting the room, and eating sugar. Her voiceover giving a glimpse inside what she is thinking and feeling. She can't seem to leave the room, but when she runs out of sugar she leaves to visit her ex-lover by getting a drive with a truck driver who asks for sex and tells her about his family and his sex life. The camera is handheld and jittery contrasting with the fixed framing inside the apartment. She eventually gets to her ex-lover and she's hungry and eats and spends the night and has sex with her explicitly on screen. Startling to watch, but shot with a distance that shows an emotional disconnection that is within Akerman's films.

News From Home

News From Home

While most of her films have rooms and small spaces, there are also stunning long takes outside exploring the larger world. In News from Home (1977) Akerman reads letters from her mother as we glimpses of New York in the 1970s. Shots from outside of vehicle windows as they drive through streets moving and moving, showing us incredible detail of the city as personal details emerge from the letters. It's a blending of her earlier films with the silence of Hotel Monterey along with the personal aspects of Je Tu Il Elle. An inner emotional space blended with the city of New York. The long tracking shots of the city stick with me and echo in later films. I think of Steve McQueen's Shame with the long scene of Michael Fassbender running through the darkened streets as a quintessential example.

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

In Les rendez-vous d'Anna (1978) the personal aspect is lightly disguised, but it's about a filmmaker who is on a tour of Europe to promote her latest film. The placement of the camera is always key to the work of Akerman and the filmmaker played by Aurore Clement looks at the camera at times while strangely separated from everything surrounding her. While Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles confines the protagonist to a rigidly defined space and routines in her apartment and a few locations outside, Les rendez-vous d'Anna has the same carefully composed frames, but Anna is always going from one location to another. We're in the interstitial spaces in her life with the major events cut out. We see her before and after what you'd traditionally make a journal entry about, or a scene in a film. Seeing the times we don't usually see are the elements that make the film so compelling.

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

Her interactions with people in Les rendez-vous d'Anna are odd with a stylized dialogue and flat delivery that reflect her emotional disconnection. The frames are deliberately composed at right angles and centered with jump cuts within a scene changing the angle by 90 degrees. A slightly more emotional interaction occurs with a man she almost sleeps with, but then talks with before deciding to attend his daughter's birthday party. We see her arrive at the house where the party is happening, but we only see Anna and him outside talking (where he has a long monologue about how his wife left him, how he is unhappy, and a short summary of 50 years of German history) and then he says, "Let's go inside, they're waiting for us." We never see the party and we cut to them outside later as she leaves where they talk about what happened inside.

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

Les rendez-vous d'Anna

The tracking of characters and the omission of traditionally dramatic scenes is something explored up by other filmmakers and cinematic movements later. Fellow Belgians Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne use similar strategies with their films as we follow their characters. The emotional distance and careful framing in the films of Sophia Coppola draw upon Akerman as well. We see characters unguarded in intimate takes that run longer than traditional filmmaking rules would suggest. Routines and patterns emerge and when small things change it takes on greater power. It pushes cinema into new directions, away from melodrama and into new emotional spaces.

The voiceover of Je Tu Il Elle is absent in both Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and Les rendez-vous d'Anna, leaving the audience to construct the inner emotional world of the central character. We need watch their movements and their faces for clues to how they are feeling and what they are thinking. The smallest details take on greater significance. We see Jeanne forget to button a button it creates a sense of unease. We see Anna smile when she sees her mother and don't hear their initial exchange as they embrace. The emotional details are provided by us and paradoxically these omissions create a rare intimacy as we fill the gaps in from our own experiences and expectations.

In her later films Akerman tried many different things, switching genres and shooting styles always with a thoughtful approach and a fierce dedication to combining the personal with the cinematic. She was always present in her films either on screen or in the ways she explored the space and time of the people and places she looked at. We have lost a thoughtful, generous, and innovative filmmaker who left a rich body of work that will continue to inspire filmmakers and viewers for generations.

Best of the 35th Atlantic Film Festival

Chris Campbell

In anticipation of a film festival you create impressions of films based on the past work of the directors and actors and don't know what to expect. When the films are first announced there are things that you have heard of and things you haven't and as you dig in to the details things emerge and the excitement builds. It's a challenge for a festival to secure a range of films that appeal to all audiences and this year at the 35th Atlantic Film Festival they did a great job. Now with a few days to reflect on a busy week here are the films that are sticking with me.

There were some great looking films. The development of digital imaging technology and the experience and development of techniques to use it is bearing some gorgeous fruit. When you combine better cameras and sensors with colour correction you have a wider palette of possibilities for the look and approach that you take with a film and that was clearly on display this year. Viewing a film on a large screen with an audience is a privilege and joy and that's always a highlight of any festival.

Dheepan

The film that I anticipated the most was Jacques Audiard's Dheepan which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. As with his other films it's about outsiders and crime and trying to fit in and have some sort of family relationship. With Dheepan and a new cast (including novelist Jesuthasan Antonythasan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, and Claudine Vinasithamby) and a new cinematographer (Éponine Momenceau) he does something that is recognizably Audiard, but feels a bit different. Moving outside of his regular collection of actors and collaborators makes for a film that is more vital and unpredictable.

Cemetery of Splendour

My favourite informal slot at the festival is the weekday afternoon slot with more esoteric foreign films. Last year it was the mesmerizing 3 hour plus Winter Sleep and this year it was Cemetery of Splendour. Apichatpong Weerasethakul crafts meditative and beautiful films combining Thai legends, geography, and people with his own cinematic techniques to create truly unique films. His Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is one of my favourite films and in his latest film he makes something similar, but with a distinctive internal logic. The best approach to take with his films is to be present and let the film wash over you. With minimal exposition and repetition the story and themes emerge over time as the film confidently moves forward. It encourages you to look and listen to follow details and see things. It's a transcendent cinematic experience.

The Lobster

I wasn't so sure if Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster would be part of the lineup for 2015 at the festival and was happy to see that it was. Lanthimos is an acquired taste with a deliberately alienating approach and use of violence to show the strange nature of relationships. In Dogtooth and Alps with a small cast and crew he crafted challenging and memorable films that I appreciated more after thinking about them and discussing them. With a bigger budget and bigger stars, The Lobster retains the power and challenge of his earlier films along with a higher profile. Tweaking and adjusting his approach (and improving it in many ways) makes for a film that is simultaneously more accessible and still deeply strange in terms of the mainstream.

Entertainment

Anti-comedy is a challenging thing as there is a meta level to what is going on. The jokes are not funny and that is why they are funny. It's elaborate and easy to misinterpret and shares a common thread with surrealism and the work of Luis Buñuel. I'm a big fan of that type of comedy from the surrealists to Andy Kaufman to Kids in the Hall to Alan Partridge to Garth Merenghi's Dark Place to name a few examples. Entertainment is almost the 2001: A Space Odyssey of anti-comedy with Gregg Turkington as Neil Hamburger, a bad stand-up comic on a tour across the American desert. It's definitely not for everyone as it blends pain and bad jokes with some stunningly beautiful photography to create a cool and depressing portrait of a man who is not happy in his life.

Early Winter

Speaking of unhappy people, one of the films that I didn't know much about at all was a pleasant surprise with Early Winter. With sparse frames, practical lighting, and unbroken takes, it's a story told through the things not said and things not seen. Michael Rowe's film is anchored by an understated performance from Paul Doucet with yet another complex acting turn from Suzanne Clément. It's a story about a marriage that isn't working. It's a voyeuristic film with key information missing and sparse exposition from dialogue. We start to piece things together in increments as time goes by and the spaces in the story start to fill in. It's bold and confident storytelling built around characters.

One Floor Below

Understated style and elliptical storytelling are the key features of the Romanian New Wave films and One Floor Below is a film about a murder that occurs off screen with two of the main characters knowing this from early in the film. We see the man who knows what happened and withholds what he heard from the police and how it eats at him. It's a slow-burn of a film that paints a portrait through the frame of everyday life and complex and idiosyncratic Romanian bureaucratic systems. Building in power as the film progresses, it's a delicate and powerful.

Closet Monster

A sometimes startling and beautiful feature debut from Stephen Dunn, Closet Monster has elements of magic realism in the story of a closeted young Newfoundland man who is coming to terms with who he is and what he wants. The witness to a horrific hate crime while young, this trauma makes him hide his sexuality as he grows up. It's a complicated portrait of a young man growing up shot in a beautiful way with a powerful central character created by Connor Jessup and a delightful voice performance from Isabella Rossellini as his pet hamster, Buffy. The winner of Best Canadian Feature at TIFF and Best Atlantic Director and Best Atlantic Screenwriting at the Atlantic Film Festival, Closet Monster should do well in the coming months.

Ninth Floor

Making some strong artistic choices to illustrate the story, in Mina Shum's debut feature documentary Ninth Floor, she adds visual and audio layers to a important moment in the development of Canadian society with the Sir George Williams Incident. Even if the film was average it would be worth seeing, but it's extraordinary with the approach that she takes. Shum makes the film even more moving as she connects the people and evokes the time vividly through filming locations in Montreal highlighting the distinctive architecture of the 60s as well as locations in the West Indies. Staging the interviews in abandoned rooms with occasional shots of surveillance cameras and tape machines adds a visual flair to the story. Skillfully weaving in music and a dramatic structure creates a memorable and emotional film that is immediate and inspiring.

Room

With Frank Lenny Abrahamson made a film about creativity and depression that blended stories and history together and in adapting Room to the screen he takes a different approach in making a film that is much more subjective. With the heart of the film in the perceptions of the child Jack, born in a garden shed where he and his mother are imprisoned for half a decade, it's challenging, but works remarkably well. The film is immersive and manipulates time and space impressionistically in a way that made the nearly two hours fly by. Ultimately inspiring after a harrowing beginning, it's a film that manages to bridge the gap between the art house and mainstream cinema in a way that is refreshing.

Green Room

With Blue Ruin, Jeremy Saulnier made a revenge drama that had a central character unsuited to the task and in Green Room, he takes a similar approach in a thriller about a punk band fighting neo-Nazis after witnessing a murder. With opening scenes that vividly and confidently establish the band and their milieu, it quickly takes a turn and increases the tension as the band is trapped and they fight for their lives. Subverting the conventions and expectations of the thriller adds a level of uncertainty and menace as things change quickly and unpredictably. Masterful genre filmmaking that pushes and changes the contours of the thriller in exciting ways.

Rams

Two strong-willed brothers who live side-by-side in Iceland without speaking to each other for 40 years face the prospect of losing their sheep herds in Rams. With a wry sense of humour and gorgeous cinematography we see the competitive brothers in their solitary environments surrounded by the spectacular Icelandic landscape. A strong character drama that carefully introduces the people before changing things, it becomes more and more engaging as it goes on and things become more complex.

Victoria

A virtuoso film with no edits, Victoria shows what is possible with a strong ensemble and crew working with a great script. Shot around Berlin before dawn and into the early morning, it's a two hour plus roller coaster of a film that follows a woman (in a marathon performance from Laia Costa) as she meets a man (played by Frederick Lau) and becomes involved in a robbery. Brilliantly paced with a perfect balance between character-driven scenes and action, it's an immerse experience with the technique and cinematography perfectly suited to the story and never becoming a distraction. A singular cinematic achievement.

Day 8 - Atlantic Film Festival 2015

Chris Campbell

Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin in Green Room

In the midst of a cold and with the final day of the 35th Atlantic Film Festival before me, I was able to take my time, fortify myself with oatmeal and coffee and drive in to the city a little bit later for more films. With a great documentary in the morning and a thriller to finishing things off with shorts in the middle, it was a fun end to a festival that had many highlights.

Ninth Floor

When I first heard that Mina Shum was making a documentary about the Sir George Williams Event for the NFB and produced by Selwyn Jacob, I was intrigued. Shum makes great character-based dramas and moving into documentary was sure to be something interesting and Ninth Floor was. Carefully setting up the context with archival footage and staging the interviews in a visually interesting way with stylized angles and screens, the film never loses sight that every story is about people. With beautiful shots of Montreal and the subjects of the film exploring the architecture of 1960s Montreal, it's a visually lush film about racism, prejudice, and the struggle for rights. It's powerful, important, and moving and one of my favourite documentaries of the year.

With my focus on feature dramas this year it became obvious on the final day of the festival that if I was going to see more shorts I needed to dive in, so I went for it with two of the Canada and the World programs in the final evening which was a good choice.

Shorts Canada and the World 3

A more experimental and intense program at times with an understated introduction by Greg Jackson and filmmaker Darcy Van Poelgeest introducing his short The Orchard. From a noisy and ambitious Russian film called The Noise, the enigmatic The Test, the tense crime short The Orchard, the funny Open 24 Hours, the post-apocalyptic Eva, the surreal Unknown Unknown, it was a program a bit more on the edge which was just right for me.

Shorts Canada and the World 4

A program that featured stunning animation and understated drama, the fourth shorts program was introduced by Jessica Murwin who brought up filmmaker Matthew Rankin whose Mynarski Death Plummet was a highlight of the collection of shorts. The stop-motion animation Indigo was a beautiful hand-crafted animation inspired by First Nations stories with a spider constructed out of gears and metal and beautiful, flowing cloth around the heroine. 1000 Plateaus (2004 - 2014) was a stunning, colourful hand-scratched abstract animation created by Steven Woloshen in the front seat of his car over a decade. Partiu followed partying teens in Brazil on a late night filled with tragedy. Crazy House featured another strong performance from Connor Jessup in a stylized look at love and loss. The Québécois dramas Plage de Sable and Chelem featured young women and men dealing with each other in beautifully shot, impressionistic films. Mynarski Death Plummet was a full-screen historical celluloid animation with stylized colourful patterns in an intense recreation of the last minutes of the life of a World War II hero.

Green Room

The final film of the festival and my final film seen was Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room which rescheduled from earlier in the week. The only other film by Saulnier that I'd seen was Blue Ruin which is a mournful and intense revenge drama that constantly subverted expectations. With Green Room he boldly establishes the world of the characters with gorgeous overhead landscape shots and intimate close-up. Shot by Sean Porter (who also was cinematographer of Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter) and edited with a bold and precise style by Julia Bloch (who cut Blue Ruin as well), it shows the characters before becoming more and more intense. With horrific violence and constantly shifting situations that subvert the expectations of a thriller, it's gripping entertainment done with precision and dark sense of humour.

Feeling good about the films, but in the midst of a cold and sleep deprivation, I skipped the final party to head home. What a great day and a great festival it was, thanks again to the wonderful folks at the Atlantic Film Festival who once again brought the world of cinema to Halifax for us to enjoy.

Day 7 - Atlantic Film Festival 2015

Chris Campbell

Jesuthasan Antonythasan in Dheepan

Jesuthasan Antonythasan in Dheepan

The penultimate day of the 35th Atlantic Film Festival was also the longest day of the film festival for me with an early start and being able to make it to 4 screenings. From a political comedy from Quebec to a Japanese master to a French auteur and a German experimenter, it was another fascinating cinematic day. A festival is complex and large and we're so lucky to have the Atlantic Film Festival which is thanks to a dedicated staff and volunteers who manage the moving parts in rapidly changing situations so we can be transfixed by cinema for 8 days.

My Internship in Canada (Guibord s'en va-t-en guerre)

From the first frame I was enjoying this with a old map of Canada on a wall and a faux-serious disclaimer. The camera glides in, revealing the location of the story in northern Québec helpfully indicated by a finger that moves into the frame and then slowly moves out. This establishes the tone and with skillful visual storytelling Philippe Falardeau introduces the main character, the independent MP for Prescott-Makadew à Rapides-aux-Outardes, a former hockey star and local hero. Our entry to the story is through Souverain, an idealistic Haitian intern who becomes Guibord's assistant. The MP is faced with a deadlocked parliament and a bill before the House of Commons about Canada going to war with Guibord holding the deciding vote. It's a razor-sharp satire with a thread of idealism running through it. Unexpectedly the film has some gorgeous cinematography of northern Quebec as the MP travels around the riding to consult with constituents. Great fun and timely as well.

Our Little Sister

In his introduction, festival programming director Jason Beaudry aptly set up Our Little Sister as a bit like Ozu adapting Little Women, and it was a great comparison. Using Ozu's carefully composed frames with faces in the centre and a slightly lowered camera position, the story of 3 sisters who live together and discover a fourth sister is the type of family melodrama that Koreeda embraces and excels at. Beginning with a funeral for their absent father, the empty space in the frames is filled with the absent characters. Koreeda fascinatingly adds a dynamism to the frames by always having the camera gently moving, not altering the frame, but moving slightly, almost imperceptibly. It's a film filled with memories and food with patterns and repetition as we see the relationships and how the characters relate to each other.

Dheepan

One of France's most confident filmmakers who tells stories of people on the margins of society, with Dheepan, Jacques Audiard reworks elements of his other films into something a bit different and new. As with his other films there is an element of crime in France and people who don't fit into that world. But with Dheepan it's about a family that is a lie with three refugees from Sri Lanka who pretend to be a family in order to escape from their homes where they have lost their families. With nuanced and complex performances from Jesuthasan Antonythasan (in his second film) and Kalieaswari Srinivasan (in her first) as the couple, the use of actors that aren't recognizable adds another level to the film.

Thematically similar (and with a great homage through one shot) to Mathieu Kassovitz's brilliant La Haine (who acted in Audiard's A Self-Made Hero) also set in the housing projects outside of Paris, it's vital and beautiful. Along with the largely unknown cast, Audiard also boldly chose Éponine Momenceau as his cinematographer after seeing a short film she shot. An impressive feature debut for Momenceau, she creates some gorgeous lighting and memorable images for Audiard. Told efficiently and in an impressionistic style, it's visual and beautiful, moving in unexpected ways that are surprising, but inevitable. Audiard is a master stylist and the Palme d'Or that it won this year was well-deserved.

Every Thing Will Be Fine

An interesting exercise in 3D from Wim Wenders that uses locations in Quebec effectively, but hampered by a simplistic script and leaden performances, Every Thing Will Be Fine is an oddity. Without the 3D I'm not sure if it would work on any level, and I don't know what was going on, but there is a deliberate, slow pace to the film that had to have been intentional. But it didn't work for me and while immersed in the physical space of the film, there is never any depth added by the characters or the dialogue.

While I'm tired and had a bit of disappointment with one film, overall it's been a great festival with another day that will be sure to have some more great films as this celebration of stories on screen moves towards the conclusion.