Nov 6, 2011

LFF 2011: Top 10

Top 10 Films
Yves Caumon's slow, meditative, film is a demanding, but ultimately very rewarding, exploration of the impact of loss. Sandrine Kiberlain gives a superlative performance, slowly allowing the details of what has happened to make her character Anne a virtual recluse who lives, divorced, in a tiny flat and shuns almost all attention, except that of a bird that she finds trapped in the wall cavity of her flat.

Kiberlain says almost nothing, but there is an ocean of feeling in her detailed and heartbreaking performance. Caumon has said that his film is about a rebirth; essentially about Anne coming to terms with life, but he manages to execute that without sentimentality, through a visual style that begins down to earth, even a little grimy, before becoming almost Malickian in its last half hour, as Anne ventures back into the world. It's a rather beautiful piece of work.

Natural Selection was a million miles from being the most original thing at the festival, but Robbie Pickering's incredibly endearing debut overcame its somewhat derivative status with a screenplay which boasted witty dialogue and specific characterisation and excellent leading performances from the, on the face of it, mismatched pairing of Rachael Harris and Matt O'Leary.

While the elements are familiar, the mix feels fresh, thanks to the fine performances; Harris as a naive Christian housewife, out in the world for the first time, O'Leary as an ex-con who happens to be the result of one of her husband's many sperm donations. The two have terrific chemistry as actors, and their relationship, which grows in closeness and complexity throughout, powers the film and gives it an emotional tug as well as a lot of laughs. Natural Selection was one of those rare films that just left me with a bit of a warm glow.

Poupoupidou has a perfect title, one that tells you everything you need to know about the film. It tells you that there is some connection to Marilyn Monroe, but more importantly it tells you about the tone of the film, which is soufflé light and fun, so of course the title is being changed - to Nobody Else But You - for its English language release.

Poupoupidou is a strange little movie; a technicolor noir comedy about a detective novelist (Jean-Paul Rouve) investigating the death of a local weather girl (Sophie Quinton) whose look and life both seem to mirror Marilyn Monroe's, and falling a little bit in love with her as he discovers more through her diaries. Director Gerald Hustcahe-Mathieu marshals the elements with assurance, combining an intriguing and well thought out mystery - and a rare one in which none of the pieces feel forced together - with some terrific character comedy.

Attention is paid in all areas, and even the supporting characters, like the receptionist at the local hotel (Clara Ponsot) who immediately falls for Rouve, feeling like real and rounded individuals with lives outside the story. Ultimately, Poupoupidou is fluff, but it's such engaging and amusing fluff that it is very hard to mind.

Among Joe Swanberg's four films of 2011, this one was the one that nearly spelt the end of his filmmaking career, and that leaks out into this film's consideration of the process of filmmaking. Two films are being shot during Silver Bullets, one a werewolf movie directed by Ben (Ti West, director of House of the Devil) and starring Claire (Kate Lyn Sheil), the other a romantic drama directed by Claire's boyfriend Ethan (Swanberg), who has cast Claire's friend Charlie (Amy Smietz) to play opposite him in the film's many love scenes. Art and personal relationships both become complicated in the course of the productions.

Swanberg is known for his improvised films, shot in a couple of weeks, and though the feel here is still very much loose and improvisatory, with four entirely naturalistic performances anchoring the film, Silver Bullets was shot on and off over two and a half years. It never really shows, and the film plays as a cohesive and convincing piece about jealousy, both professional and personal. Kate Lyn Sheil is a real discovery, and particularly stands out in a rather charming scene with West, when he puts a cheap and cheesy werewolf mask on her, as well as in the film's brilliant final shot.

A much more crafted work than Swanberg is known for, Silver Bullets shows a director expanding his range while retaining his idiosyncracy, it's highly recommended.

Werner Herzog is a brilliant interviewer, his seemingly odd questions and statements elicit an incredible response from his subjects. In this film Herzog takes on the death penalty in the US, using a triple murder case to explore it and talking to victims friends and relatives, death row staff and the perpetrators (one on death row, one imprisoned for life) and their friends and family. It's a pretty comprehensive film, and a pretty comprehensive indictment of the death penalty, even though Herzog, though he takes sides, hasn't made a campaigning film.

Into the Abyss is overwhelmingly a film about pain, be it the pain of a jailed father seeing his son go the same route, the pain of a man who has spent 10 years (guilty or, as he maintains, not) knowing that the state is going to kill him, the pain of the family of a murder victim, the pain of the death house chaplain or the pain of a former guard, who had a breakdown after unstrapping his 121st executed body from the gurney. Violence is everywhere in this film, and Herzog shows us the hopelessness of trying to solve it with further, albeit clinically executed, violence.

That said, Into the Abyss also has its moments of light; a friend of the killers recalls being stabbed with a 14 inch screwdriver, and then going to work as though it were nothing, and the wife of the jailed killer gives Herzog an interview that is both funny because she seems so deluded, and sad because she seems so sweet. This is an intelligent and important work from a filmmaker who could be described in the same terms.

The American indie début that has really set tongues wagging this year has been Martha Marcy May Marlene, that's a good movie, but the one you should really be talking about is Without. Newcomer Joslyn Jensen plays a 19 year old girl, hired to look after a catatonic old man for two weeks while his family are on holiday. Isolated, Joslyn's behaviour becomes odder and more troubling as time goes on, there seems to be something haunting her from her past, and she's becoming convinced that the old man may not be so much of an invalid as he seems.

Without is a film about questions. The uncertainty over what exactly is causing Joslyn's behaviour is more interesting than the answer (the film's only major flaw), but the film is packed with striking moments, most of them from Jensen's remarkably assured performance. She can be delicate and moving (as when she films herself singing a T-Pain song with only a ukulele as accompaniment), she can be disturbed and frightened (as when she finds her mobile phone gaffer taped to a table), and she can be strange and chilling (as in her increasingly uncomfortable interactions with the old man).

Director Mark Jackson instills a creeping sense of paranoia in the film with his spare style, but this is really Joslyn Jensen's show all the way. For me, she was the breakout performer of the festival.

The Artist is perhaps the most likeable film you'll see this year. Okay, so it hardly seems mainstream; a largely silent black and white comedy with two unknown (at least to most English speaking audiences) leads, trying to recapture a form of filmmaking last prevalent over 80 years ago. It not only works, it works completely, irresistibly.

Set in the late 20's and early 30's, The Artist is about a silent comedy star (Jean Dujardin) who finds his career ended by the coming of the talkies and the newly popular ingénue (Berenice Bejo) who seeks to repay him for giving her first break by using her power to get him a comeback vehicle. Director Michel Hazanavicius takes a brave approach here; many have made films set in this period, but few have emulated the style, whether through study or simply through skill, Hazanavicius captures the style of silent film beautifully (right down to the tone of the black and white). While the film is mostly silent, at least in terms of dialogue and sound effects sound is still key to its success; the score communicates what dialogue might in an ordinary film, giving a sense of how the characters are communicating, and setting the mood of each scene beautifully. Two key scenes, one of which gets perhaps the biggest laugh in the film, also use sound in a slightly more traditional way.

The whole cast is excellent, with sterling support provided by John Goodman (yelling silently), James Cromwell (avuncular even in silence) and Penelope Ann Miller (who it's just nice to see again, to be honest). The Artist is a joyous experience; funny from the very start, and performed with comic grace and dramatic assurance by Dujardin and Bejo, oh, and the dog nearly steals the film. If you don't like it you may not have a soul.

So from a film everyone will love to a film half of you will hate, and I can't say that I don't understand, because Damsels in Distress; Whit Stillman's long, long awaited/dreaded (delete as appropriate) third film, following 1998's Last Days of Disco is pretentious, and stagy, and whimsical, and potentially incredibly annoying. I loved it. I think the longest I stopped laughing for was about 45 seconds.

Damsels in Distress is set on the campus of Seven Oaks college; a liberal arts school. Recent transfer Lily (Analeigh Tipton) meets Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who run the campus suicide prevention centre. She befriends the girls and moves into their dorm, and Stillman follows their friendships and relationships throughout the school year.

You could accurately call this film Whit Stillman's Mean Girls, as the familiar story of school cliques and young romance and friendship is filtered through the writer/director's very particular world view. Stillman's writing is incredibly finely crafted, he's a wordsmith on the level of an Aaron Sorkin or a Davvid Mamet, with a similar gift for taking a tone that is incredibly specific to him, but making his words sound as though they are coming organically from the characters he writes. The largely young and inexperienced cast (indie darling Gerwig probably has the most extensive CV here) grab Stillman's dialogue for all it's worth, savouring the precision of the lines (Echikunwoke's delivery of the phrase 'playboy operator type is truly worth the price of admission by itself) and delivering all of the jokes with dead on timing.

Damsels in Distress is Stillman cutting loose and having fun. It's hilariously, anarchically, funny, it's packed with witty characterisation, odd ideas (footnotes before the credits) and great performances, and I found it endlessly engaging and entertaining.

Fred Wiseman has now made three films in a row about forms of dance; ballet in La Danse, boxing in Boxing Gym and now striptease/burlesque in this film about the Crazy Horse de Paris. If you like Wiseman's particular style - pure immersion in a place, with no narration, no captioning and no particular overarching narrative structure - then you'll love this latest film, if not, Crazy Horse probably won't win you over.

Wiseman is documentary cinema's great observer, and here he watches as the Crazy Horse team creates a whole new show, all while maintaining the current show that brings the punters in every night. Wiseman shows us the dance routines, of course, but he gets into everything; his camera hangs out with the dancers backstage, watching as they get ready, and as they pass time watching ballet bloopers. He attends rehearsals and creative meeting, financial meetings, costume fittings. He's along as the creative team give hilariously pretentious interviews to other crews, he observes auditions, and eavesdrops on the judges comments on the hopefuls. In short, Wiseman gets into every nook and cranny of the Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse is neither a story driven documentary nor straight reportage, instead it seems like a gorgeous patchwork of images and moments snatched from the 150 hours of footage that Wiseman shot over six weeks, designed to give us a feel for what it is like to be in this place and amongst its people as an observer. It's an incredibly diverting film; beautiful, sexy, funny, and endlessly interesting.

Having come out of nowhere with the best film of the 2009 festival (actually, I've not seen a single better film since that screening), Yorgos Lanthimos may not have delivered the sort of gut punch here that he did with Dogtooth, but Alps is another intelligent, unusual, haunting piece of work that marks him out as one of the most intriguing directors working.

Taking the idea (explored in Sion Sono's similarly mad and similarly brilliant Noriko's Dinner Table) of a group of people who work 'standing in' for the deceased relatives of recently bereaved people, Lanthimos focuses on a nurse (played by Dogtooth's Elder Daughter Aggelikki Papoulia), following her life both as part of the Alps group and - we are led to believe - at home with her father. What is best, at a conceptual level, about Alps, is the uncertainty of its story. Who are these people? How did they come to be in this group? Which of their interactions are real, which are part of a 'stand in' job? These questions and more Lanthimos leaves open to us in an intriguing and sometimes disturbing fashion.

Both performances and direction are striking too; Lanthimos often holds images for a long time, making interesting use of focus to blur the lines of reality and fantasy, just as his characters have for themselves. The acting is top notch, particularly from Papoulia and Attenberg star Ariane Labed. I love that I need to see Alps again in order to figure it all out, I love that even key relationships are troublingly blurred, I love, in short, that weeks after I've seen it, I'm still thinking about almost every aspect of this movie. That's why it's on top of this list.

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