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.



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.



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.

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.

Our Dystopian Cinematic Future

One of the perplexing things to me is how so many Hollywood eggs are placed in so few baskets. It's a large-scale mass-production industry, but in the quest for bigger and bigger tentpoles, there is a blandness and safety that sands down the edges and makes it all ok. Wouldn't a better investment be to make 10 bolder and smaller 25 million-dollar films that could develop more talent and audiences than one film that can't take any chances? Sadly it seems that we'll be seeing fewer standalone films, more safe and obvious comedies, and more superheroes and series over the next decade or so. Hollywood doesn't know what to do, so they are playing it very safe.

Tilda Swinton in Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer

Tilda Swinton in Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer

The most interesting and exciting films for me in the summer this year are the small indies like Obvious Child, the unsettling Under the Skin, the ambitious allegorical Snowpiercer, or the intriguing sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow. But they're not the films that most people are seeing in the theatres and most people will see them on smaller screens at home.

So many of the conversations about blockbuster films focus on how newer films do something a bit better than the previous instalment or how they fix some of the problems from earlier versions of the series. The obsession with continuity is fascinating and it's interesting in that it seems to be important to people. With the most recent Star Trek reboot, it exists in a world that is parallel to the first series of films which has resulted in some convoluted plotting. It's a franchise or series thing. Just in the same way that you can go in to McDonalds or Starbucks and know what will be on the menu and what to expect, a film series needs to hit certain beats, include characters and situations that we have come to expect. It can be done cleverly and with skill as with the Cornetto Trilogy, or mostly ignored as the James Bond films do.

The unspoken issue at the core of much of this is that time passes and we all grow older. If you want to have an action hero jumping around being believable you need to have younger actors and if you are going to be making a series of films over a decade or two, you're going to have to replace some actors unless you show them growing older. With the most recent X-Men film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, they brought together most of the actors from two different versions of the films and it was great to see older and younger actors together, but it resulted in a lot of actors standing around not doing much at all. Logistically you want to maximize the use of actors with the constraints of a contract and schedule, so that's why you'll have bigger actors appearing two or three scenes in one location. It's easier to shoot and fast.

Instead of leaving the audience wanting more, we're given more and more and more. The Bond films would tease with "James Bond will return in..." with the name of the next film. Some characters would return, but there was an almost delightful disregard of continuity with different actors playing characters with absolutely no explanation of why they had changed. Felix Leiter was played by many different actors and it's fun to see how often they have changed him (but Bond always recognizes him).

Money is at the core of it all and it always has been. It's a business and the way that the art and the money are balanced is a challenge that is faced constantly. How do you give people what they want and have films that people will pay to see and keep it interesting. If you ask people what they want and give them exactly what they ask for they may not like it because it's a challenge to describe what you really want. The classic example in the soft drink world is New Coke which was very carefully researched based on the flavour. Apparently one of the goals with New Coke was to win in Pepsi Challenge taste tests. That happened with New Coke, but our relationship with products is complex, and people don't seem to like change, so the new formula was a failure and 2 1/2 months after it was introduced in North America, the Coca Cola Company had Coca Cola Classic bring back the original formula.

Many film series now have a secondary goal to maximize the investments in the franchise. So if you can get people interested in the earlier and future instalments it means that it's a better and safer investment. That's why the casts of so many films are large and the plots can get a bit complex as well. It's to hit as many of the potential profit-making opportunities as possible. It also plays on the nostagia of older audience members who have seen the earlier versions of the films. It's a form of selling out, which is also at the core of filmmaking. The question is really what is the price and what compromises need to be made in order to make the film.

In earlier, old-Hollywood films would be remade often based on new casts. Musicals reworked songs and plots constantly. Hitchcock remade a few of his films and many silent films were remade as talkies and then remade in colour. Foreign films are often remade to avoid subtitles and directors from around the world always have gone to Hollywood to make bigger films within the studio system, adding their own flourishes to the larger machine.

Fandom is a huge part of the marketing of films now and the endless advance speculation and teasing of images, posters, trailers, and trailers for trailers begin years before a film comes out. It changes the way that films are made and how they are written. In addition to the goal of making a film with a compelling story, there are other requirements to have secondary characters or plots introduced. This means that actors may commit to potential 6 or 9 films as that character. The contracts are worth millions of dollars, so all those investments must be maximized, so it means that the plots need to incorporate them. Then they have to work in some product placement which adds some more lines to colour within.

This isn't new and if you look at the history of Hollywood there have been all sorts of similar constraints. With the Motion Picture Production Code, many films were changed to meet the requirements. I recently watched Fritz Lang's dark film noir, The Woman in the Window which has an appropriately dark ending, which is completely undermined by a coda that Wizard of Oz-style recontextualizes the film as a dream. The modern equivalent is the Marvel coda which establishes the next film in the series, which makes the film that you've just seen and paid for into an ad for the next one (which will be better).

But the market is cruel and people are paying to see the sequels and the franchises so we will get more. Not films that we really love, but ones that we accept as being one of a series that we need to keep watching to see them get a bit better each time. It's sad that more original films that work within the blockbuster paradigm and push things a little bit like The Edge of Tomorrow or Pacific Rim don't do as well. They're more interesting to me and more entertaining, but they're a bit more challenging to watch and play with expectations more (and have slightly stronger roles for female protagonists who aren't love interests). They do eventually find an audience over a bit more time with people surprised at how much they liked that film that not many people saw. The sad thing is that with those films making less money than the safer, product-placement-heavy, and familiar character-filled films, it means that fewer chances will be taken in the future as the recycling of films and plots continues.