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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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?