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2014: The Year in 11 Film Festivals

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

The start of the Sundance Film Festival is when film festivals traditionally reboot. A new wave of films comes in with the new year and festival films that have been trotting around the globe throughout 2014, especially the last three months of the year, will fall by the wayside.

The changing modes of distribution of recent years, and the increased number of films being released, has meant that frequently the only time to catch certain films – often the best of the year – is at film festivals. A few years ago, some were questioning whether film festivals were still relevant, especially at a time when every city in the world seemed to be launching a festival as the same films circulated. Conversely, that system now has the benefit that films that would once have been given a small but decent release — as distributors took punts on films which they hoped would break out because of their quality — are now only being played by festivals, and thus the city circuit often becomes the only chance that audiences get to see certain films on the big screen. As such, film festivals are as important as ever.

In 2014 I went to a number of festivals. What became apparent was that festivals still offered sufficient variety and eclectic programming that it still mattered which ones you attended depending on what experience you were after. Some festivals have better years than others. There is no fixed rule that dictates a festival will be good, although Cannes does usually deliver. Here is my diary of the 2014 festival year.

TROMSØ

My first visit to the northernmost international film festival was a result of being invited onto the competition jury. In previous years, the jury has been comprised of distributors and Norwegian citizens, as the prize included a domestic distribution deal. This year, with so such prize on offer, I had the honour of being the first international jury member. The festival had an interesting competition selection of international art-house films that have mainly been successful on the festival circuit elsewhere and one world premiere, Letter to the King, by Norway-based filmmaker Hisham Zaman.

My own cinematic highlight of the festival was hosting a panel discussion on soon-to-be Best Oscar Winner 12 Years a Slave organized by The Norwegian Film Critics’ Association, in which cultural commentators Bonnie Greer and Ekow Eshun and British film critic Neil Young discussed and dissected Steve McQueen’s adaptation.

BEST FILM SEEN AT THE FESTIVAL
The Tale of Iya

A three-hour run time necessitated a tiny break as the film reels were exchanged; programmers of yesteryear will dispair at the technical ineptitude of a generation trained to key in DCP machines. Yet from the opening shot of a man crawling through the snow to rescue a baby, Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s magical Japanese tale is a fantastical and intriguing comment on industrialization, urban living and Japanese culture in the post-economic boom, post-Fukushima world.

BERLIN 

In February I made my regular jaunt to Berlin, a festival that occasionally flatters to deceive but always unearths one or two gems. Alongside San Sebastián it’s my favorite festival, mainly because it’s in Berlin, marking it out as the only major film festival to take place in a capital city (although when the festival started in 1951, the city was only the de jure capital). Two of the year’s best American films played at the festival. The opening night film was the world premiere of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the festival also had the international premiere of Boyhood. (Berlin has become a good place to watch Sundance titles for those not going to Sundance, also benefitting from having had someone whittle out much of the Park City dross). It was also where I got to see Ira Sachs’ tender relationship drama Love is Strange. Less good was the screening of George Clooney’s Monuments Men; shot in Berlin, the film once again became a talking point when emails resulting from the Sony hack showed how much Clooney cares about the critical reaction to the film.

BEST FILM SEEN
Boyhood

Richard Linklater looks like he might be riding a wave all the way to an Oscar with his coming-of-age gem shot over 12 years.

CANNES

The big daddy of film festivals seems to grow in stature with each passing year. The big criticism would be that the competition seems to be increasingly pre-ordained. Cannes honcho Thierry Frémaux does seem to have favourite auteurs with an inalienable right to be on the Croisette. Even then, it was hard to argue with the decision to include Mike Leigh and Jean Luc-Godard, who delivered some of the best work in their careers. As is often the case, some of the best films appeared  in the Un Certain Regard section, such as White Dog and Force Majeure. With the Critic’s Week also taking place, Cannes is a two-week slog, running from venue to venue, with little time to eat. There is still a lot of glamour and the inevitable parties, but ever since le Credit Crunch in 2009 the big bashes in the villas have become all but a memory.

BEST FILM SEEN
Mommy

Xavier Dolan fulfills the promise of his early films with this brash tale of family dysfunction shot in an Instagram friendly 1:1 ratio. The biggest surprise of the festival.

VENICE

Venice signposted the start of a wave of film festivals that had me trotting around the globe. This year was the first sign that Venice had found its footing following both the decision to abandon building a new cinema palace because the level of asbestos on site sent costs soaring and the end of the long stewardship of Marco Mueller. After a couple of years finding his footing, Alberto Barbera put together an eclectic program that opened with Oscar favourite Birdman, as well as championing documentaries The Look of Silence by Joseph Openheimer and out-of-competition In the Basement by Ulrich Seidl. What I love about Venice is that it’s the only A-list film festival where the program is spaced out enough that you feel that you have a chance to see everything you want to. It also means that you get to take a chance on some debuts that often struggle to get noticed in the crowd. So it was in Venice that I was introduced to the work of Turkish director Kaan Müjdeci, who made the excellent dog fighting drama Sivas, Theeb director Naji Abu Nowar, and Court director Chaitanya Tamhane. The Golden Lion went to one of Scandinavia’s great pioneers Roy Andersson for A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting On Existence, the most unwieldy title of the year.

BEST FILM SEEN
H.

Taking part in the Biennale College, a scheme that supports filmmakers with low budget films, I stumbled into this adaptation of the Helen of Troy tale by American artist and filmmakers Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia. Not expecting much, I was treated to an inventive and at times macabre  sci-fi triptych.

TORONTO

The big daddy of film festivals, where the philosophy is bigger is better. This is the elephant of film festivals, a zoo filled with everything from big studio lions to Iranian experimental cinema. At the start most of the films that I saw were disappointments: The Judge, Good Kill, and Rosewater. However by the end of the week, my luck was changing with the excellent Indian drama Margarita with a Straw, the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy and Face of an Angel, as well as Oscar fodder The Imitation Game.

BEST FILM SEEN
While We’re Young

Last time out Noah Baumbach made the brilliant Frances Ha. This comedy sees Ben Stiller give a marvelous performance as a one time filmmaker now working as a professor and having to cope with the success of one of his students (Adam Driver).

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO

I taught a Film Appreciation class at the Caribbean festival with a burgeoning reputation, and it was easy to see why it was recently voted one of the 25 coolest festivals on the planet. The festival has a clear philosophy of playing local Caribbean fare and international films that are unlikely to get a distribution deal to play in the commercial movie theatre in which most of the festival is housed. The international programming choices are brilliant and films I enjoyed in the Panarama section included Brooklyn gangster tale Five Star by  Keith Miller, the genre defying love story An Oversimplification of Her Beauty by Terrence Nance and the superb Nepal-set documentary feature Manakamana by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez.

BEST FILM SEEN
Manakamana

In the foothills of the Nepalese Himalayas is a temple dedicated to Manakamana; to get there pilgrims travel on a cable car over a lush landscape. Using a fixed 16mm camera, directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez film several of these journeys, the cumulative result creating a near transcendental experience. It’s easier and more fun than a yoga class.

ZURICH

I usually go to the San Sebastián film festival (a festival so good I want to keep it a secret!) but the dates clashed with Trinidad and Tobago, so for the first time I went to the sister festival in Zurich and was pleasantly surprised. While low on world premiers, Zurich’s partnership with San Sebastián ensures it gets some eclectic films from the Spanish seaside town, and its budget is big enough to entice some astute European premieres: both Gone Girl and Nightcrawler debuted there. Of the world premieres that I did catch, Northmen: A Viking Drama had its moments, and I was intrigued by Swedish director Ronnie Sandhal’s debut film Underdog (Svenskjävel), about the growing number of Swedish youth who go to Norway to work because of the better wages there. It was the first time I saw Swedes being represented as an underclass and the film has been winning prizes everywhere.

BEST FILM SEEN
Nightcrawler

An excellent central performance from Jake Gyllenhaal sees him playing a freelance video journalist loosely based upon 1930s stills photographer Weegee. It’s an interesting and at times spot-on deconstruction of news journalism today.

BUSAN

Last year I went to Busan and it was one of the most vibrant and eclectic film festivals that I have attended, including a brilliant panel discussion between Quentin Tarantino and Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-Ho. It was a celebration of cinema. This year the same could not be said; the only thing that was better was the weather. This was largely down to the fact that South Korea was still in a state of mourning after the Sewol Ferry Disaster and there was a desire not to be seen as celebrating. The festival was all business and not much pleasure. There was still a plethora of films, but the atmosphere was sedated. There was also controversy surrounding the screening of a critical new documentary about the government’s response to the ferry disaster. It’s incredibly commendable that the Artistic Director Lee Yong-Kwon stood his ground and showed Lee Sang-Ho and Ahn Hae-Ryong’s Diving Bell despite the wishes of the Festival Chairman and town mayor Seo Byung-soo. It rather overshadowed the festival, where I also saw the intriguing Italian drama The Dinner. The Korean fiction films I saw at the festival were below par, although I did miss the much admired Haewoo.

BEST FILM SEEN

Diving Bell
The cause of much consternation and behind-the-scenes wrangling, the film highlighted many discrepancies in the rescue operation that, because of the nature of international news gathering, went rather unnoticed and unreported in the West.

LONDON

My home festival, and one that has a selection that seems to be predominantly dictated by films which already have distributors attached. Coming at the end of the year, it becomes a best of the fest selection — even the recently introduced Competition strand seems dictated by the works from other festivals. Nonetheless, it’s a great festival in terms of watching films that I have missed and require only a bike ride to get to the cinema, and I can still go and watch Fulham at Craven Cottage on the weekend. Although, in recent seasons this has not been something to celebrate.

BEST FILM SEEN
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

I completely missed the buzz on the Iranian Vampire Western but with its memorable soundtrack, great cinematography and an excellent central performance form Shelia Vand, director Ana Lily Amirpour quickly became my favourite debut director of the year. Sorry Josephine Decker!

ABU DHABI

The reboot of the Middle East film festivals has seen the emphasis moved away from attracting Hollywood stars and a focus on promoting local talent. This year saw Abu Dhabi steal a march on its Dubai rival with the premieres of several films that won big at other film festivals, including the winners from Cannes, Venice and Berlin. It opened with a broad local comedy, From A to B, directed by Ali F. Mostafa and it was a festival where talent and audiences mingled. Indeed this edition was the most enjoyable that I’ve attended, with the best film selection and emphasis on quality over quantity.

BEST FILM SEEN
Difret

Ethiopia’s nomination for the Foreign Film Oscar is a tale that puts a focus on education and women rights. It’s also a harrowing tale about kidnapping and growing social tensions between traditional tribal philosophies and modern living.

DOHA – AJMAL YOUTH FILM FESTIVAL

Having ended its link with the Tribeca Film Festival, Doha Film Festival has rebranded to focus on young and emerging filmmakers. As much emphasis is placed on short films from local filmmakers as it is for feature films that have previously played at Cannes, Venice or Toronto. The discovery was the opening film Speed Sisters, a documentary about a women’s racing team formed and driving fast in Palestine.

BEST FILM SEEN
Speed Sisters

Director Amber Fares has clearly been watching the Fast and Furious franchise, as she has made a documentary on female racers where the emphasis is less on breaking traditional gender roles (there is that too), but on rivalries, friendships and winning trophies.

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