Attending this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival was like reacquainting with an old friend. Being gifted a press badge was something of a dream of mine. It opened me up to so many more films than the typical three that I can afford outright. Every year I would eagerly await the program and spend that night in a feverish frenzy, losing sleep while whittling down my selections to the elite few. Now, with a badge and a purpose, I had the blessing/curse of being able to see whatever I wanted to see. The burden of freedom. For that reason I feel qualified, for the first time ever, to assert an opinion about a Best of Fest.
Seeing 16 films in 10 days (perhaps conservative compared to some seasoned festival goers), and conducting two interviews, while balancing a full time job was a challenge…. one I was more than willing to meet. All told, the festival was great fun, but it was also exhausting. Getting back and forth between theaters is tiring but a manageable feat, however the emotional tole of dipping in and out of different worlds has proven significant, and on one occasion I had to skip my late film in order to recover my senses. I wasn’t prepared for that cumulative effect, yet it was my own selections that were the cause. The fact of this strain is a resounding proof that cinema still has power, still has the ability to shock, surprise, challenge, and enliven. Cinema is as vital as ever.
I feel better for having regained a scope of the state of cinema. I’ve been recycling names and titles for far too long, looking back, complacent in what I had accumulated up to that point. It is a joy to be adding names like Michel Franco (After Lucia), Cate Shortland (Lore), and Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair) to the pantheon. It was also a treat to see familiar names like Christian Mungui (Beyond The Hills), James Marsh (Shadow Dancer) deliver upon all the promise of their previous works, as well as seasoned names like Ken Burns (The Central Park Five) finding opportunity to defeat expectations. The Masters Of Cinema section was relatively strong. It provided occasion to see Yossi And Jagger (a film I regret having missed a decade prior), and Lynch’s Lost Highway on 35mm, which I consider a highpoint of my filmgoing period.
The only disappointment I felt about this fest was the under-representation of Asia. With Shion Sono’s Himizu, Ki-duk Kim’s soaring Venice winner Pieta, Miike’s Hara Kiri 3D, Gu Su-yeon’s Hard Romanticker (the rights owned by Philly based Artsploitation films), Koji Wakamatsu’s final work Petrel Hotel Blue floating around, I was loath to see none of them snatched up. But if their absence did anything, it was push me into regions and subjects I would normally have overlooked. Lore and After Lucia might have stayed below my radar, and I’d be the worser for it.
This year’s fest flipped the ratio of film v. digital, with around 10% of the features shown on 35mm. Appropriately, the Masters Of Cinema sidebar garnered most of the prints, and I found myself elated when I saw small scratches and cigarette burns. Somehow the proof of the object, that is film, is of comfort. To be fair, a large portion of my selections were documentaries shot digitally, so their digital presentation only made sense. Still, the paradigm shift was in full swing with the Philadelphia Film Fest, but it wasn’t something I let bother me. Ultimately it was immaterial.
Now that I have learned some lessons on how to manage bulk film watching, I look forward to taking in even more films next year, while bracing for the emotional toll.
My personal picks:
Best narrative feature : Lore
Best documentary : The Central Park Five
Shanghai : Shangai unfolds like an eastern Casablanca, but has enough variances in character motivation to distance the comparison and make for a fresh experience. Cusack does his recent best as Paul Soames, the gruff yet suave agent investigating his friend’s murder in pre-Pearl Harbor Shanghai, but the more he investigates the deeper he finds himself in the thick of local politics. Director Haftrom’s politico-noir exercise gets a few things right, namely that it is physically transportive, has a fantastic historical backdrop, takes place mostly at night, and boasts a promising cast. It also has a sense of classic Hollywood. It gets just as many things wrong though. The narration is often self-conscious of its hamminess, the flashbacks are hollow and don’t generate a critical sense of the relationship between Soames and his deceased friend Connor (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) which motivates the entire drama, and it never journeys far enough into the convolution of its environment to really make it count. A non-linear narrative would have been a step in the right direction. Hafstrom shortchanges many opportunities for richness of character. Rinko Kikuchi (a fearless actress who should have gotten the Oscar for Babel), is virtually given the role of an extra. Franka Potente never had a chance, and Chow Yun Fat was barely allowed to rise above caricature. Such a bevy of talent untapped! Shanghai makes a good-but-not-great film that’s easy on the eyes, but it could have made an excellent epic mini-series, were character, story, and place might have had the room to expand while maintaining the classic Hollywood noir aesthetic. Ultimately, Shanghai feels like an homage of an homage.
American Meat : An honorable little documentary. I say little, not to condescend, but as a recognition of its homespun quality. It’s the kind of documentary that anyone with the initiative and the time could make. It has heart as it dissects the industrial farming system in the US, and generates a sense of hope towards more sustainable methods like those of Joel Salatin. Salatin approaches his practice with a complete eco-system technique that renders high quality pork, poultry and beef through sensible, clean, and economical animal welfare. American Meat isn’t just a pat on the back to Salatin though. It takes an intelligent, transparent, and questioning look at how things are in the meat industry, the alternatives, and the pluses/minuses of both. What it does encourage, above all, is that the consumer be conscious of, and invested in what they buy and put into their bodies.
From the Shadows : This is a film that needs to be seen. For me personally, it was the first time I found a Japanese subject distasteful and it helped bring a little perspective into my adoring eyes for that rich culture. Japan is under a great deal of criticism for its non-compliance in international parental abduction policy, and this film underscores the ineptitude of their family court system in such cases. A Japanese parent bears a child with an American spouse and then, whether following a divorce/separation or not, absconds with the child back to Japan. There are no laws that force the child to be returned to their country of origin, and what’s more is that the American parent has literally no rights to see, contact, or retrieve their child, and can even be arrested for attempting to do so. This is the nightmare of over 2000 parents. Shadows follows a handful of victims of this reality over the course of several years, building a powerful sense of drama while illustrating two vastly different cultures’ views on custody rights. It also depicts Japanese domestic cases, in which one parent abducts their own child away from the other parent. In these cases, the reality is the same because in Japan, physical custody equals custody. Furthermore these are considered domestic disputes and the police are powerless to intervene. Progress in “parental visitation” is being made, but it’s only a start. The filmmakers and subjects were in attendance for a Q&A which really brought the impact of the film home. An exemplary and incendiary documentary.
Yossi & Jagger : A ten year anniversary gem that I missed the first time around in ’02. It’s a concise film, clocking in at 65 minutes. Within that short span it proves to be an emotionally intelligent story. Yossi and Jagger are two Israeli soldiers stationed with a small platoon at a winter outpost on the Lebanese border. They also happen to be in love, but director Etyan Fox creates a small network of human relationships around this secretive relationship to give the narrative real depth. The two leads almost feel like precursors to those in Weekend (2011), dealing with conflicting degrees of “outness” and general attitudes towards life. Their affections are honest. In fact everyone in the film garners an immediate sense of character that helps make it so enjoyable. Y&J has a slightly dated aesthetic, mostly due to the cinematography which has a video quality, but there is no detriment to the articulate and yearning drama that is as much about soldiers’ routine as it is about the pains of fearing what we want. Had the follow-up film Yossi not been playing at the same time as another in my schedule, I’d have stayed in my seat and likely left smiling.