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on Nov 30, 2010

For ten days every November, cinephiles of every stripe are afforded an opportunity to revel in a crowd- and critic-pleasing smorgasbord of plucky international programming at the Stockholm International Film Festival, now in its 21st season. Yes it’s cold and the sun sets early in the afternoon, but what better excuse to take refuge in one of the capital city’s well-appointed, old-fashioned movie halls? Under director Git Scheynius, who co-founded the annual festival in 1990, the main focus of the competition is to provide a showcase for rising young talent, directors like Aaron Katz (Cold Weather) or Xavier Dolan (whose sophomore effort Heartbeats opened the fest) who have no more than three feature films to their credit. With 175 films from over 50 countries screening at venues in bustling Norrmalm and the ultra-chic Södermalm district, the Stockholm fest (which ended Saturday night with Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone taking top honors and a FIPRESCI prize) comprises more than the latest buzzed-about festival films. Numerous sidebars—including Spotlight: Extreme Politics (films on how alienation informs individual and collective political action), Documania (documentary films), Twilight Zone (genre films), and regionally flavored sections like Latin Visions and Asian Images—were brimming with unusual selections such as Kim Ji-woon’s perverse serial-killer flick I Saw the Devil and Paz Fábrega’s fanciful and beguiling The Cold Water of the Sea. Curious filmgoers could also check out a 10-film program of works-in-progress by Nordic filmmakers like up-and-comer Levan Akin (Certain People) and veteran actor Ulrich Thomsen (whose directorial debut is entitled In Embryo).

Apart from such a diverse slate of films, there were seminars on extreme politics (Four Lions director Chris Morris and Videocracy’s Erik Gandini were panelists) and female directors (with Granik, Miao Wang, and other peers holding forth alongside Lucy Walker, whose two recent docs, Waste Land and Countdown to Zero, both screened for the public). “Swedes on the International Scene” gave a bit of local flavor to the offscreen events, forging discussion around the question of how the Swedish film industry is acquiring a higher profile in overseas markets (David Fincher’s upcoming take on the Stieg Larsson trilogy, for instance; remakes of Let the Right One In and box-office hit Snabba Cash), as well as drawing talent to their own shores. This year, the festival presented Ingmar Bergman muse Harriet Andersson with a Lifetime Achievement Award, a long overdue honor for one of Sweden’s film-royalty mainstays, and a further acknowledgement that the country’s moviemaking tradition continues to resonate with contemporary international audiences. Alongside one of its perennially popular sidebars, American Independents (Cyrus, Howl, Douchebag, Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here, and Gregg Araki’s Kaboom all made their Nordic premiere last week), the Stockholm fest paid tribute to a couple of U.S. film luminaries as well. Portland native Gus Van Sant was honored with a Visionary Award at the gorgeous, Erik Gunnar Asplund–designed Skandia Theater (My Own Private Idaho screened at the Sture two nights before in a special presentation), and the festival itself was dedicated to the late Dennis Hopper, a previous recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award (in 1991) who (so the legend goes) once bought breakfast for everyone who attended the last screening of his “Hopper Night” retrospective.

Certainly, there’s no shortage of young world-cinema practitioners with robust, distinctive visions. But for an event that tasks itself with highlighting new work by relatively inexperienced filmmakers, the Stockholm fest excels at anointing the most promising among them, having previously bestowed top honors on Lars von Trier, Quentin Tarantino, and the Brothers Quay. Holly Hunter presided over this year’s jury, which awarded the Best Actor prize to George Pistereanu, star of Florin Serban’s gripping Romainian prison drama If I Want to Whistle, I’ll Whistle, a Grand Prix winner at the 2010 Berlinale. Best Actress honors went to Jennifer Lawrence for her role in Winter’s Bone, while Vietnamese director Phang Dang di and DP Pham Quang Minh won the Best First Feature and Best Cinematography awards for Bi, Don’t Be Afraid, a tale of familial alienation in Hanoi. The main competition included Gareth Edwards’ lo-fi sci-fi thriller Monsters, Sergei Loznitza’s My Joy, Alicia Duffy’s All Good Children, and Hesher co-writer David Michod’s debut feature Animal Kingdom, which won the Best Screenplay prize.

The festival’s emphasis on how forms of political extremism are depicted in the movies was epitomized by Iranian director Rafi Pitts’ terse, lone-man-against-the-system thriller The Hunter. Pitts himself stars as Ali, a recent ex-convict working as a night watchman in Tehran who discovers, to his horror, that both his wife and 6-year-old daughter have been killed in crossfire between police and street demonstrators. The trauma of this sudden double loss, combined with the indifference of the authorities (he spends several days searching for his missing family before he learns their fate), makes him snap. From a freeway overpass, he fires on and kills two police officers with his rifle, then becomes a fugitive in the woods where he spends his weekends hunting for sport. Pitts gently probes the question of whether radical individual action – i.e. murder – can ever be justified, even in an environment tainted by corruption and authoritarian control, but leaves the viewer to decide that conundrum for themselves.

Another film that dealt with the emotionally scarred world of a laconic loner was Manuel Martin Cuenca’s Half of Oscar, a chilly, discomfiting story about the reunion of two siblings after the death of their grandfather. Oscar (Rodrigo Saenz  de Heredia) is an inexpressive security guard at an all-but-abandoned salt refinery near Almeria, in the wind-brushed highlands of Andalucia, who has an almost painfully solitary routine. He eats lunch daily with an older fellow who visits on his bicycle, but the two barely speak. After work, Oscar visits his grandfather–a nursing-home patient rendered vacant by dementia–letting the hours pass. At home, his silent answering machine reveals just how empty his life is of human connection. When the ailing old man takes a turn for the worse, Oscar is shocked to learn that the facility has contacted his sister Maria (Veronica Echegui), a soulful type who turns up the next day with her French boyfriend Jean (Dennis Deyri), expressing genuine concern for Oscar, who she clearly hasn’t spoken to for a long while. The siblings seem close but artificially distant, alienated by some unspoken or painfully remembered occurrence neither of them wishes to discuss. Jean’s inability to speak Spanish pushes them into closer quarters, conversationally, than either wishes to be, too. And bit by bit, certain details of their history are revealed—Oscar does not fly, ever—while a fuller picture of their difficult relationship emerges. Cuenca makes the most of the gorgeously isolating environs of Almeria, especially in a long, dialogue-free sequence where the oddly matched trio treks over a scenic bluff by the sea, underscoring the tense silence of the estranged siblings, who’re reckoning with some unknown conflict. Their final meeting early one morning in a hotel room is a controlled devastation, perhaps not unpredictable in its dramatic contours, but still an effective bit of emotional portraiture.

Over the course of a week spent ping-ponging between the city’s snug, neatly designed theaters, I found myself delighting at the Stockholm festival curators’ adventurous and eclectic programming, an enjoyable exercise in pre-holiday-season moviegoing I’m looking forward to experiencing again.

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