With a rebrand and taking over the Park Lane cinema screens, the 2017 edition of the FIN: Atlantic International Film Festival was a solid week of films and this year I focussed on features and dove right in by seeing 24 films. There is always something great about seeing a film with an appreciative audience and seeing films that you don't know a lot about. It's the essence of the festival experience as you share films and when you immerse yourself in it, the outside world starts to fade away a bit.
The film that I talked about the most and kept thinking about was Ruben Östlund’s The Square, a dark satire of the art world that built upon the carefully-constructed and more tightly-focussed Force Majeure. Art is an easy target, but Östlund plays with expectations right from the beginning with the inciting incident showing how people respond to each other when there is a crisis. After a cleverly staged pickpocketing of the main character (an art curator played by Claes Bang) his privileged life becomes chaotic as he seeks to find those who stole his phone, wallet, and cufflinks. In a series of increasingly strange and uncomfortable interactions we see the agreements between each other for the social norms that allow us to live together start to fray.
Overall the cast is great at their deadpan and strange interactions with a memorable supporting performance by Elisabeth Moss as a journalist and Dominic West’s appearance as a boundary-pushing artist. Terry Notary is at the core of the most memorable and uncomfortable scene in the film as a performance artist who disrupts a black tie dinner. But it's Bang's cool narcissistic performance as the art curator that is at the core of the film as we watch him always stop just short of what is right as things get increasingly out of control. It's darkly funny and goes right up to the line of what is acceptable and what is not as we watch in horror with the fear of something horrible happening lurking in the background. The film is so carefully balanced that there was a twin sense of anxiety as the film progressed with my empathy for the character blending with the fervent hope that Östlund wouldn't make a misstep later in the film and thankfully he walked the tightrope brilliantly.
”Chance has always been my best assistant." – Agnès Varda
The film I anticipated the most and also loved was Agnès Varda’s collaboration with JR – Faces, Places (Visages, Villages) which was what I expected and more. Following the same casual structure of her other documentaries, this time with the perspective of JR included it allowed for some more personal moments with Varda. On the surface it's a bit of a road movie where they take portraits and print them out in large format and paste them on walls. It's about people and their stories and a fascinating glimpse at different people that is brilliantly structured as everything comes together at the end in a surprisingly moving way. Varda has an almost supernatural ability to find a story and structure it in a way that seems casual and random until the true structure emerges.
The Other Side of Hope
With The Other Side of Hope, Aki Kaurismaki covers some familiar territory, but still manages to keep it interesting. Narratively he shifts things a bit with the world outside of his quirky, colourful collection of odd characters coming in a bit more through the story of the Syrian refugee (played by Sherwan Haji)who accidentally arrives in Finland and seeks asylum. As usual, Kaurismaki takes his time and portrays the characters with deadpan scenes carefully composed and look like they are from a Technicolor film from the 1950s. The colours are offset with a sense of melancholy that seems especially poignant with this story which was one of the highlights of festival for me. It’s a skillful and unique melding of current events and the distinctive world and approach that the director has developed over decades.
Robin Compillo’s directorial debut is the impressive and powerful BPM, which tells the story of ACT UP-Paris in the late 90s as they fight to get action taken by the French government and pharmaceutical companies. The film is skillfully and brilliantly constructed with a bold and non-traditional approach right from the start. The film begins with a protest that goes wrong and then moves into a meeting where the action is dissected at length after we find out what the rules are for discussions at the meetings. It's a way to casually introduce the world of the characters and the intellectual scene is reflected later in the film where the bureaucracy disappears and the characters are all assembled again in a radically different context. It's a film that takes its time and resists the cliches of the issue drama with scenes extending far beyond the points when most films cut away, which results in a surprising depth and complexity. This approach makes the long film rewarding for those who stick with it. It also features some remarkable transitions between the scenes as the film moves from a intellectual mode to a more impressionistic one. With a large cast and a perspective that moves between the characters, it becomes a powerful look at the people and processes of activism.
The directorial debut of John Carrol Lynch starts off in familiar territory with a prickly old man named Lucky, played by Harry Dean Stanton as we see his daily routine. This establishes a pattern where we can see how things change. But as the film progresses it becomes a lot more than it needs to be and that elevates it about a collection of great actors in some interesting scenes. One of the standouts is David Lynch as a man with a pet tortoise, and what seems like stunt casting is brilliant and well-considered, along with many of the other decisions made within the film. It holds together with the scenes all adding a bit more to the story and deepening the characters. It resists and challenges stereotypes and results in a beautiful and grounded film that mixes light and dark into a fitting final film for Harry Dean Stanton.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties
Not having read the Neil Gaiman story that How to Talk to Girls at Parties was based on, the only expectations that I had were from John Cameron Mitchell’s previous films. Right from the first frames I enjoyed it as the shooting style, film grain, music, and collection of strange characters created a unique world growing out of the intersection of teenage angst and punk music. It has the ramshackle feeling of many British films and tv shows of the early 80s and overall the entire film feels almost like it was made in the 80s and dropped into a time capsule for us to rediscover now. I admired the film for the sense of wonder and embrace of a low-budget, punk aesthetic combined with a Mitchell's ongoing project to look into the worlds of oddballs and outcasts who connect with each other.
Dim the Fluorescents
With a clever construction and approach, Dim the Fluorescents seems like a parody of corporate culture at the beginning with a pair of actors (skillfully played by Naomi Skwarna and Claire Armstrong) who illustrate workplace dilemmas. But as the film progresses, the over-the-top nature of the scenes at the beginning start to smoothly and slowly slide into more realism. It's skillfully shot and brilliantly acted with the direction by Daniel Warth carefully changing what we see within the precise frames established. While it would have been ok just as a comedy, it deepens as it goes with the distraction of the parodic elements allowing darker elements to appear as the film becomes a more powerful and profound look at friendship and how we treat people.
A Canadian-Iranian film directed by Sadaf Foroughi, Ava is about a young woman struggling figure out who she is as she goes to school in Iran. The film is at times intense, but carefully-constructed and framed. Visually we stay close to the main character with shallow focus and with her filmed through window frames and doorways. Characters are cut off in the frame and we only see the full picture when she is happy and playing music. It's a complex portrait of a young woman making decisions about her life within a set of constraints that she has little control over. The bold commitment to the visual style elevates the film above the usual coming-of-age story as it adds a whole other later of meaning to the film.
A Fantastic Woman
A Fantastic Woman is a Chilean film directed by Sebastián Lelio about a woman who loses her boyfriend unexpectedly when he dies and it causes her life to disintegrate as she faces prejudice and misunderstanding. Stunningly shot in a style that harkens back to Almodovar, it’s a sad and beautiful film about love and loss that takes a slightly different approach filled with sensitivity and empathy. With some magical realist elements sprinkled through and a moving lead performance from Daniela Vega as a trans woman navigating through a challenging world filled with expectations and pitfalls.
The Florida Project
When I first started reading about The Florida Project it was interesting because Sean Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, was a remarkable burst of energy embracing the small technology of an iPhone to tell a story that I hadn't seen before. This time Baker switches to film and a wide screen image and the strip of highway close to Disney World to tell the story of a child living on the edge of society with her mother. Defiantly told from the perspective of the child, the darkness of the world outside is barely observed as the days go by. Beautifully shot with a darkness just below the surface, it's a sensitive and ultimately challenging look at people on the margins of society and the resilience of children in difficult circumstances.
It was a solid year at the film festival with a great selection of films from around the world that made me think and laugh and cry. If you didn't have a chance to see many films, keep an eye out for these in the coming months as they will start to appear in theatres and on home video. It's encouraging and heartening to see films in a theatre with friends and strangers. The film festival is the highlight of the year for sharing these experiences and I am so glad that we have it.