2013 Nashville Film Festival Reviews

The following blog entry is an article I wrote for TheFilmTalk.com in 2013. That site removed all of their content, so I am gradually reposting my articles here.

2013 Nashville Film Festival Reviews

Day 1

Nashville may be internationally-known for music, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: Our film community is top notch. We have one of the best art house cinemas in the country, The Belcourt; a strong film and television industry that produces shows like ABC’s Nashville; and residents such as director Harmony Korine and actor Nicole Kidman. And then there’s the Nashville Film Festival, which at first glance appears to be a nice little regional festival that caters to those who can’t make it to Sundance or Toronto. But a closer examination reveals a well-run, accessible (one location) MAJOR festival with a top notch set of international, U.S., and regional films.

The festival began last night. I watched the first two of over 30 films on my schedule, and over the next seven days, I’ll be writing daily updates about the fest. I scoured the schedule, watched all the trailers, and read every review I could find to chart out my docket. Here are the films I recommend (my rationale for each in parentheses).

A Band Called Death (Doc about legendary Black American punk band, stellar reviews.)
A Letter to Momo (Anime by Hiroyuki Okiura, dir of Jin-Roh. 7 years in development.)
A River Changes Course (Cinema-verite doc about over-development in Cambodia from the cinematographer of Inside Job.)
After Tiller (doc about doctors who perform third-trimester abortions, great reviews.)
All the Light in the Sky (Mumblecore director Joe Swanberg’s new film, surprisingly positive reviews.)
Flicker (Swedish black comedy that’s been getting great reviews, filmmaker to watch.)
Grave of the Fireflies (Classic heartbreaking anime from Studio Ghibli.)
I Killed My Mother (Retrospective screening of Xavier Dolan’s breakthrough film.)
In the Fog (Epic World War 2 drama from Russia, some calling it a classic)
It Felt Like Love (Coming-of-age Brooklyn love story that’s been getting great reviews.)
Kick Off (Retrospective screening of classic Kurdish film about war and soccer in Iraq)
Laurence Anyways (New film by Xavier Dolan)
Mekong Hotel (New film by Thailand auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul. ‘Nuff said.)
Nairobi Half Life (Kenyan rise-through-the-ranks crime drama, positive reviews.)
NASHVILLE 2012 (Locally-made doc about colorful characters in Nashville, including musician-turned-wrestler Jocephus Brody)
Paradise Trilogy (Faith, Hope, Love) (Austrian trilogy, each about a woman on vacation searching for happiness.)
Persistence of Vision (epic documentary about Who Framed Roger Rabbit animator’s 25-year quest to complete his magnum opus)
Pieta (From Kim Ki-Duk, director of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… And Spring.  ‘Nuff said.)
Post Tenebras Lux (From Carlos Reygadas, direct of Silent Light. ‘Nuff said.)
Rhino Season (From Bahman Ghobadi, director of Turtles Can Fly. ‘Nuff said.)
Safety Last! (Retrospective screening of Harold Loyd’s silent comic masterpiece.)
Sightseers (UK comedy that’s been getting great reviews.)
Stories We Tell (documentray by actor Sarah Polley about her lineage, stellar reviews.)
The History of Future Folk (Intergalactic banjo comedy that was the hit of Fantastic Fest last year.)
The Kings of Summer (Coming-of-age comedy that was a hit at Sundance.)
This is Martin Bonner (won 2013 Best of NEXT Audience Award at Sundance.)
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (New film by legendary French director Alain Resnais. ‘Nuff said.)

mud-matthew-mcconaughey-tye-sheridan

Mud

My two opening night flms were MUD and FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY. MUD is Jeff Nichol’s follow-up to his acclaimed TAKE SHELTER. It stars Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, a bunch of other weighty adult actors, and two child actors. Tye Sheridan, the poetry-whispering son-of-Pitt in TREE OF LIFE, plays Ellis, a hard-scrabble river rat. Jacob Lofland plays Neckbone, Ellis’ sidekick and the most realistic and entertaining performance in the whole picture. Too bad he’s only the sidekick. The plot of MUD is basically THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE meets STAND BY ME. The two boys befriend a wanted man on an island on the Mississippi River in rural Arkansas and help him elude capture, in the process learning about life, love, and magic shirts. I would have sworn Nichols was a big city director trying make a “Southern” film because the characters came off as dimensionless Southern caricatures (except the aforementioned Lofland). But Nichols grew up in Little Rock, so search me. The plot feels forced at every turn with a few too many “What’s that, Lassie?! Timmy’s fallen in the well?!” moments. The denouement is so absurd I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. But I haven’t been able to find anyone who didn’t love this film, so maybe I’m missing something. The Film Talk’s own Gareth Higgins screened the film as well, and I’m looking forward to hearing his take.

Next up was FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY. I was not prepared for how much I would enjoy this documentary about the children’s book writer and illustrator of subversive erotica. The film follows his childhood in Nazi-occupied France to the brights lights of 50s and 60s New York City, to banishment in Novia Scotia, and semi-retirement in Ireland. What’s remarkable about Tomi is that he was able to lead a triple life of children’s book author/illustrator, anti-war poster propagandist and erotic artist for so long without one vocation threatening the others. Of course, his insular fan-bases did finally discover each other, and as a result, he wasn’t able to sell another children’s book for over two decades. Tomi coined the phase, “Expect the unexpected,” and his work was a principle inspiration for Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” Director Brad Bernstein’s pacing is just right, and I was never taken out of the film, save for the occasional slick-and-gimmicky animation of still-drawings and photos that for some reason is so popular in documentaries these days. FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH plays again Friday at 4:00 PM. Don’t miss it.

Days 2 and 3

I’m starting to feel the mid-festival shakes — that period when I realize my eyes were way bigger than my stomach. It’s one thing to sit down at the computer and work out a schedule. It’s another thing to live through it. Some of today’s insights:

“Interesting. I forgot to schedule lunch and dinner breaks.”

“Where did I put that damn audience award rating slip?”

“#NaFF, #NaFF2013, or #NaFF13?  Why can’t we all just agree on a Twitter hashtag?”

These last two days, I’ve seen six films, and for many, I’m still processing my feelings. Because of that and because it’s 1am, I’m just going to give you a quick rundown:

I found Reygadas’ POST TENEBRAS LUX to be ineffable and absolutely mesmerizing. It did for me what some people claim Terrence Malick does for them. I don’t understand anything that went on, but I enjoyed every beautiful minute of it. This is a deep film that requires study, reflection and repeat screenings.

Laurence Anyways

Laurence Anyways

I enjoyed Xavier Dolan’s LAURENCE ANYWAYS, but I can’t help wondering if it would have been more impactful at two hours instead of three. The style and use of music is reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai, yet the endless conversationing felt very Denys Arcand. There are very few films about being transgender, and I think it’s wonderful that Dolan is telling this story and holding a mirror to our faces. Since I myself am cisgender, there are doubtless aspects of the film I fail to appreciate. And yet, Dolan is cisgender, and I wonder how well his film resonates with transgender people. What does it say about institutionalized transphobia when the transgender experience is continually told by cis artists?

I admit, the Japanese animated feature A LETTER TO MOMO made me cry a little. This is a wonderful film about processing grief and letting go of guilt. See it any way you can.

The Harold Lloyd silent film SAFETY LAST is still a classic, yet this time around, I was disturbed by racist stereotypes. What disturbed me more is that the score — written in 1989 for a previous restoration — plays up the racist stereotypes. We could say the film’s stereotypes are a product of its time, but we can’t deny that the score’s augmentation of these stereotypes is a product of ours.

I really enjoyed the Kurdish film KICK OFF, which deals with Arab and Kurdish relations through a soccer tournament.

I’m still processing Alain Resnais’ YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET. My gut reaction is that it’s an inconsequential story wrapped inside an inconsequential story, starring icons of French cinema playing themselves. But I need to think on it more and research what the master filmmaker was trying to accomplish.

More tomorrow!

UPDATE 4-21-2013 11:23am:

Of course, this is why I don’t need to post when it’s 1am and my brain is frazzled. I completely missed the point of LAURENCE ANYWAYS and YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET, and my friend Marjorie was kind enough to point that out to me via her Twitter handle @brownrabbit122. What she had to say really enhances my appreciation of both films, and I hope to use her thoughts as a kicking-off point for further exploration. With her permission, I’m posting her take on the films.  In short, I think she nails it.

@tonyyoungblood re: Ain’t seen nothing yet: it’s thinking about what it means to age out of one’s prime. At several levels. Not monumental, but a small and modest human pain. Perhaps one performers (i.e., all the icons) feel particularly acutely?

@tonyyoungblood and re: Laurance Anyways–agree that it was too long. But the title character isn’t the juice of the story. His/her situation is incidental. It’s a movie about the Fred character & how her great love changes the terms on her. & her futility.

— eviscerated rabbit (@brownrabbit122) April 21, 2013

Days 4 and 5

I’m back with a few quick blurbs about the films I screened during days 4 and 5 of the 2013 Nashville Film Festival.

Part of the Kurdish cinema series, IN THE LION’S DEN explores the paths of two young men in post-Hussein Iraq. One signs up for the U.S. backed Iraqi National Guard, the other a resistance cell. Both fight out of loyalty to family and country. I really loved this movie. My only quibble is that it seemed a bit too influenced by Hollywood war films in the use of music and editing. 4/5

I really wish I had screened Xavier Dolan’s directorial debut I KILLED MY MOTHER before screening LAURENCE ANYWAYS. It would have primed me for his unique voice. In I KILLED MY MOTHER, the 19 year old Xavier writes, directs, and plays a character based on his high-school self, a gay son living with the mother he despises. This is easily one of my favorites of the fest. I wonder if the film’s economical style was a product of necessity. Perhaps with LAURENCE ANYWAYS, Xavier was given a larger budget that resulted in too many song cues distracting from the drama and an overlong run time. With I KILLED MY MOTHER, I see why people laud him as a young auteur. 5/5.

THIS IS MARTIN BONNER won a Sundance Audience award. I have never in my festival experience loved the film that won the popularity contest. In this case, I can’t say that streak is broken. I enjoyed THIS IS MARTIN BONNER, but I was a little put off by the opening scene, in which a prisoner-rehabilitation counselor tries to sell the program to an inmate who will be released in less than a year. The prisoner sees a picture of Jesus on the back of the brochure and wisely asks if religion is part of the program. The counselor gives him the usual line about “spirituality” being one of the principles but that the inmate doesn’t “have” to believe in God. The inmate recognizes the Trojan horse in the deal and turns down the program. I’m thinking, “Good move.” At this point, the camera follows the counselor to his car, and I think, “Oh man. They picked the wrong protagonist!” True, the film ends up being a very personal story about counselor Martin Bonner’s new life in a new city that never seems to advocate Christianity. And yet it’s hard for me to suspend my extreme dislike for religious prisoner-rehabilitation programs that offer assistance with a catch, effectively turning prisons into proselytizing grounds. They offer a loaded hand to people who are in a very vulnerable place with very few choices. You may argue that has nothing to do with the film, and you’d be right, but nevertheless, it was constantly in the back of mind. 3/5.

I was really looking forward to FLICKER, the Swedish absurdist comedy about employees at a large communications company. The trailer and reviews made me hopeful for something out of  fellow-Swede Roy Andersson’s playbook ala SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR or YOU, THE  LIVING. But I was aiming too high. FLICKER is a fun but forgettable comedy with weirdness that seems too aware of itself. 3/5.

I really enjoyed the American indie film PIT STOP about the separate lives of two gay men struggling to find love. UPSTREAM COLOR’s Amy Seimetz shines as one of the men’s ex-wife. 4/5.

I had to miss the last ten or so minutes of Joe Swanberg’s ALL THE LIGHT IN THE SKY because it started late and I had another film right after. I enjoyed the character piece about about a mid-life mid-level actor struggling to find connection in southern California. Lead actor Jane Adams wrote the script with Swanberg. There are many touching moments, in particular her conversations with her aspiring actor niece. 4/5.

The documentary PERSISTENCE OF VISION tells the story of animator Richard Williams’ 25+ year quest to complete his masterpiece THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER. Beat down by his compulsive perfectionism, a lack of funds, new technology, and Disney’s similarly-themed Aladdin, THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER was taken over by investors and rushed to completion. The resulting film, which added forgettable musical numbers and scenes that did not match the original animation, is nothing like the film Williams envisioned. PERSISTENCE OF VISION can be heartbreaking to watch, even when you sometimes feel that Williams’ stubborn perfectionism is what did the film in. It should be required viewing for all aspiring artists. 4/5

Stories-We-Tell-Image

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley’s documentary STORIES WE TELL is absolutely mesmerizing,  masterfully-constructed, and easily one of the best films of the fest. Polley interviews family members and family friends in order to discover who her real father is. What does it mean to be a “real” father? Is he the one who donated half his genes or the one who raised you? That’s one of the many questions raised in this filmic interrogation. Actor/writer/director Sarah Polley is only 35 and already an auteur. 5/5

Days 6 through 8

After 30+ films in 8 days, I’m glad to say the Nashville Film Festival is officially over. But, boy, was it fun while it lasted! I had a great time, and I rated more films 5 out 5 than any year prior.

Here’s what I saw on days 6 through 8.

IN THE FOG is WW2-era film about a railroad worker accused of being a Nazi collaborator in a German-occupied Russian village. I enjoyed the film, despite a pacing that would make even Tarkovsky fidget. The video transfer was a bit rough, lacking contrast with some overscanning. I can’t help wondering if a film print would have raised my appreciation. 4 out of 5.

AFTER TILLER is a documentary about the 4 remaining doctors in the U.S. who will administer third-trimester abortions. The film was named after Dr. George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was assassinated in Kansas in 2009. I keep hearing people say that this documentary is even-handed, telling all sides of the story. I would respectfully disagree. The doctors and their staff get far more screen time than the anti-abortion protesters, and that’s a GOOD thing. Because the side of the doctors happens to be right. This is a powerful documentary that convincingly argues the anti-abortion activists are not the only ones to blame for intimidating doctors and driving away abortion clinics. Also responsible are the lawmakers and community leaders who foster a climate where it’s ok to be a bigot, ok to hide harassment behind “beliefs.” One of my favorites of the fest. 5 out of 5.

THE HISTORY OF FUTURE FOLK was a big hit at last year’s Fantastic Fest. Because of all the hype, I was a little disappointed in the “quirky” musical comedy about two space aliens who fall in love with music and therefore delay their plans to take over Earth. Any originality in the setup is lost to the trope-filled, by-the-numbers plot structure. And, I hate to say it, but the songs were generic and unmemorable (to me at least). 3 out of 5.

It Felt Like Love

It Felt Like Love

IT FELT LIKE LOVE is the debut feature film of American director Eliza Hittman. Wow. I was really blown away by this story about a 14-year-old girl’s search for intimacy. The visual style is original and poetic; one of Hittman’s most interesting techniques is cutting to a new scene in close-up and then eventually pulling back to reveal the context of the background movement. (This happens once on a carnival ride and again on a merry-go-round.) This is a refreshingly feminist take on coming-of-age stories that makes no attempts to moralize the characters’ actions, and I suspect that’s the heart of why many men in the audience left huffing and puffing. (I overheard one guy say, “Well, I’ll never get that hour and forty five minutes back!”) Perhaps they’re too used to the typical Hollywood coming-of-age stories that conveniently excise all the harsh bits (see: MUD and THE KINGS OF SUMMER). I gave this 5 out of 5, and it’s easily one of my favorites of the fest. Because of her original voice and distinctive style, I predict Eliza Hittman will develop a reputation as an American auteur. She’s a true artist. Keep an eye out for her next project.

Lead actress Gina Piersanti won BEST ACTRESS at the fest. IT FELT LIKE LOVE was eligible for the New Directors award but was beat out by NAIROBI HALF LIFE. I loved both, but I found IT FELT LIKE LOVE to be the superior film.

New Directors award winner NAIROBI HALF LIFE tells the story of an aspiring actor who moves from his village to the big city of Nairobi. On the day he arrives, he’s robbed, arrested, and jailed. He eventually leads a double life as the brains behind a local gang and an actor in rehearsal for an upcoming play. I loved this movie. 5 out of 5.

SIGHTSEERS is a dark comedy from the United Kingdom about a couple going off on their first caravan holiday. I knew next to nothing about this film going in, and that lack of knowledge really enhanced my experience. So I’ll do the same for you and keep mum. Writer and lead Alice Lowe — who has appeared in bit parts on such British comedies as Black Books, The IT Crowd, The Might Boosh, Little Britain, and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place – is destined to be a star. 4 out of 5.

I really admire the Nashville Film Festival for booking challenging works like AFTER TILLER, IT FELT LIKE LOVE, POST TENEBRAS LUX, and the three films next on my schedule: THE PARADISE TRILOGY. Clearly, the Nashville curators aren’t afraid of pissing some people off. A Tuscaloosa reviewer detested the PARADISE TRILOGY, I suspect in part due to the films’ criticism of religion, racism, Western cultural imperialism, sexism, rape-culture, pedophilia, and fat-phobia. Moreso, I’m guessing he was bothered that the films criticize modern Austrian society at large (a criticism easily transferable to modern U.S. society), not just isolated offenders. I think the trigger for any religious person might be the scenes in PARADISE: FAITH where the protagonist kisses, gropes, spits on, and flails a wall-hung crucifix. Since I’m not religious, for me it was no more provocative then her doing the same to any other inanimate object.

We all applaud when a film or television show holds a mirror to a past era and criticizes its faults (i.e. MAD MEN), but we’re outraged when artists hold a mirror to our own time (as in the PARADISE TRILOGY, IT FELT LIKE LOVE, or THESE BIRDS WALK). Hold a mirror to now and suddenly the directors are “just trying to be provocative,” “too sensitive,” “over-estimating the problem,” or “just hate [men, white people, Christians, etc].” Pardon my cynicism, but Hollywood has a well-documented history of  supporting social change only when it doesn’t affect the bottom line. So it’s not surprising that a film like MUD attempts a realistic portrayal of the South while sanitizing the racism and sexism still prevalent. That’s the rule, and films such as the PARADISE TRILOGY are the rare and refreshing exception.

Each film in the trilogy follows a member of the same family during vacation time. In PARADISE: LOVE, 50-year old Teresa travels to Kenya as a sex-tourist. In PARADISE: FAITH, Teresa’s sister Annamaria proselytizes door to door, leaves plastic Virgin Mary statues in her wake, and prays for strength as her disabled Muslim husband demands his “God-given husbandly rights.” In PARADISE: HOPE, Annamaria drops off Teresa’s 13-year-old daughter Melanie at a weight loss camp, where the teen is preyed upon by the camp doctor. I loved all three films, but I found the first to be the most biting. I gave them 5, 4 and 4 respectively (out of 5).

This was an exceptional year for documentaries at NaFF. A RIVER CHANGES COURSE is the directorial debut of Inside Job’s cinematographer Kalyanee Mam. It’s about a Cambodian family struggling to survive in a time when forests are being cleared at an alarming rate, farming is being mechanized, and fishing stocks are dying out due to fishing concessions and illegal fishing. This is an masterful documentary with remarkable characters, rare access, and beautiful cinematography. 5 out of 5.

Another exceptional documentary, and perhaps my favorite doc at  NaFF, is THESE BIRDS WALK, the story of runaway child Omar in Karachi, Pakistan. Directors Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq used portable and versatile Canon 5D cameras to create a level of freedom never before possible. The small Canon 5D, which is used primarily as a still camera, diffused many situations when the directors could claim to be just taking stills photographs. The small footprint also allowed them to literally run with the kids, resulting in one of the most striking images I’ve ever seen in a film: the moment when Omar dodges police officers and legions of people up the steps to a mosque. I mean it. Michael Tully from Hammer To Nail called the film, “A STRIKING WORK OF POETIC REAL­ISM,” and I couldn’t agree more. 5 out of 5.

PIETA is the new film by South Korea’s Kim Ki Duk. I enjoyed the story about a mafia debt collector’s budding relationship with his long lost mother, but it’s not anywhere near the level of Kim Ki Duk’s masterpiece SPRING SUMMER FALL WINTER AND SPRING. 3 out of 5.

THE KINGS OF SUMMER is a coming-of-age (yes, another one) comedy about three teen boys who build a house in the woods to escape their parents’ rule. It’s a high-profile picture starring recognizable names like Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, and Megan Mullally. The audience at NaFF seemed to love it, and it’s been drawing lots of positive reviews. I just couldn’t get behind it. I found the jokes stale and the plot formulaic. (Because cis white male coming-of-age stories are something we clearly need more of.) The comic-relief-creepy-outcast trope comes courtesy of a character named Biaggio, and he feels like a caricature of a caricature. It’s another example of Hollywood exploiting mental illness for zingers and cheap laughs. (In this case, I suspect the writers were going for Asperger syndrome.) 2 out of 5.

RHINO SEASON is the new film from TURTLES CAN FLY director Bahman Ghobadi, his first shot outside Iran. (He was exiled from Iran in 2009.) The film tells the story of a famous Iranian poet’s release from 30 years in prison and his search for his wife and children. I really enjoyed the film, different in style from anything Ghobadi’s ever done, but I wouldn’t put it in the company of TURTLES CAN FLY or A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES. Ghobadi said in an interview that he’s finding a new lease on life in his new residency in Turkey and that he can finally make movies without looking over his shoulder. Here’s hoping to a long run of unrestricted creativity from one of the world’s finest directors. 3.5 out of 5.

Top 10

post-tenebras-lux-3ok

Post Tenebras Lux

Here are my 10 favorite films from the 2013 Nashville Film Festival. I’m not including the retrospective screenings, otherwise I KILLED MY MOTHERSAFETY LAST, and KICK OFF would appear high on my list.

#10. NAIROBI HALF LIFE

#9. FAR OUT ISN’T FAR ENOUGH: THE TOMI UNGERER STORY

#8. PARADISE: LOVE

#7. A LETTER TO MOMO

#6. AFTER TILLER

#5. A RIVER CHANGES COURSE

#4. STORIES WE TELL

#3. THESE BIRDS WALK

#2. IT FELT LIKE LOVE

#1. POST TENEBRAS LUX

Honorable mentions: IN THE LION’S DENPIT STOPPERSISTENCE OF VISIONIN THE FOGSIGHTSEERSPARADISE: FAITHPARADISE: HOPERHINO SEASON

Acclaimed films that I did not get to screen: THE GUERRILLA SON, I AM DIVINE, ICEBERG SLIM: PORTRAIT OF A PIMP, MCCULLIN, PLIMPTON! STARRING GEORGE PLIMPTON AS HIMSELF, THE RAMBLER, IL FUTURO, I USED TO BE DARKER, THE LAND OF EB, THE SUNSHINE BOYS, TEY, DIE THOMANER – A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF THE ST. THOMAS BOYS CHOIR OF LEIPZIG, FOLK, MUSCLE SHOALS, VERY EXTREMELY DANGEROUS, WE ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS, THE BALLAD OF THE WEEPING SPRING, A BAND CALLED DEATH, THE ISLAND PRESIDENT, MEKONG HOTEL, WHERE IS THE LAND?

Tony Youngblood is a film and music snob and producer of the experimental improv music blog and podcast Theatre Intangible. His favorite films include Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray, Abbass Kiarostami’sThe Wind Will Carry Us, Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, Lee Chang Dong’s Oasis, and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap.

This entry was originally posted in April 2013.

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