SFIFF 2013 Round-up


The SFIFF can be a last chance to see last year’s festival films before the new ones begin, since the cycle truly starts over in mid-May with Cannes. I watched nine of the ten New Directors award nominees. Of these I particularly liked the touching little sci-fi film of Lima, Peru, after a plague, The Cleaner, but the Brazilian film, They’ll Come Back, is also great and the cinematography in the Turkish film Present Tense is hauntingly beautiful.

My most memorable viewing experiences were the most lengthy ones, two made-for-TV mini-series: Mika Niskanen’s 1972 Finnish saga of an alcoholic farmer, Eight Deadly Shots, starring the director, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s intricate five-part psychological thriller of murderous women, Penance.

Of the nine films I’d already seen before I’d recommend A Hijacking, the Danish feature film about Somali pirates, a significant real phenomenon, and Sarah Polley’s autobiographical Stories People Tell is a strong documentary debut for the Canadian actress-director. Also the weird, oppressive, memorably fish-eye doc, Leviathon.

In their stylish opening and closing films, Siegel and McGehee’s What Maisie Knew and Richard Linklater’s third in the talky Ethan Hawke-Julie Delpy romantic two-handers, Before Midnight, the festival organizers struck a very good balance of quality and audience appeal.

In my other choices I’m pleased to say that though it may not sound like it, I did well enough, so everything was decent: none that rocked my world, but no duds. I got as much variety as possible with an emphasis of fiction over documentary but with some good documentaries. So I got to range around from one language to another constantly, seeing films in Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Turkish, Farsi, Italian, French, Chinese, Finnish, Danish, and an African dialect I never previously heard of. At least a third of these may not come available on DVD, and that’s the value of festivals.

I’d also single out Andrew Bujalski’s uniquely nerdy 1980-set video recreation of an early Computer Chess convention. Similarly I discovered a talented super-indie American director, Mike Ott.

I hope you enjoy my reviews and through them discover some films to watch later on your own.  As usual, I have written about every film I saw.

Capsule reviews (with links to full reviews where the films are out of embargo)…

The Act of Killing (2012)
This is a harsh documentary about massacres in Indonesia and I did not like its tone, but it has been widely admired.

After Lucia (2012)
A Mexican fiction film about brutal bullying at a posh high school. It has occasioned much comment, but as a treatment of the theme it is weak, and has a vague ending.

The Artist and the Model (2012)
A beautiful black and white film about an aging sculptor (Jean Rochefort) who’s momentarily revivified by finding a beautiful, vibrant young woman model. Nice enough but the theme is hackneyed and the action is bland. Rating: 4/10

Before Midnight (2013)
Julie Delpy’s character has become peevish and crabby in this sequel where the couple are finally married. The romance has gone out of it but the talk is still as energetic as ever. Rating: 6.5/10

Chimeras (2013)
A new documentary by a Finn long resident in Beijing contrasting and linking two contemporary Chinese artists. Beautiful and elegant, if inconclusive.

The Cleaner (2012)
A touching, perfectly pitched little Peruvian first film about a city employee and a little boy he rescues in the wake of a virus wiping out the male population of Lima.

Cold War (2013)
A new Hong Kong gangster flick by two new directors with some big name stars. Very slick, but in two halves that don’t fit together enough.

Computer Chess (2013)
Well beyond mumblecore, its godfather recreates the mood, look, and ultra-nerdiness of 1980 when computer chess was still rudimentary. This one is unique. Rating: 7.5/10

Ernest & Célestine (2012)
By the guys who did A Town Called Panic, this time adapting a popular French comics series with lovely watercolour style animation. Rating: 7.5/10

Eight Deadly Shots (1972)
Finnish 5-hour 1972 TV miniseries about an alcoholic farmer’s gradual meltdown is deeply memorable and a remarkable tour de force by director-star Mika Niskanen. Should become a Criterion DVD set.

Fill the Void (2012)
This was in the NYFF 2012, about an ultra-orthodoxwedding in Israel. Much admired and well done (with short NYC release), but it’s like an advert for a very retro style of living.

Frances Ha (2012)
Black and white talky improv drama debuted at NYFF 2012 is like mumblecore for young white New York hipsters. Greta Gerwig is in her element but I don’t think Baumbach is.

Il Futuro (2013)
I loved Chilean Scherson’s debut Play. Here she adopts a hitherto untranslated Roberto Bolaño novel (his last) set in Italian in Rome. An oddity. It’s got Rutger Hauer.

Habi, the Foreigner (2013)
An extreme form of cultural tourism, a young woman temporarily pretends to be a Muslim in Buenos Aires to escape her drab life. Good cultural details but it doesn’t quite add up.

A Hijacking (2012)
Excellent, highly realistic evocation of what it’s like for a Danish shipping company and a crew to be victims of Somali pirates.

In the Fog (2012)
Much admired festival film about men in WWII Bellarus wandering through a forest mired in moral ambiguity. Metaphor over action. Rating: 5/10

Juvenile Offender (2012)
Well-written and acted little Korean film about a parent and child both victims of a judgmental and exclusive society.

Key of Life (2012)
A gangster and a failed actor switch identities. Regarded by some as clever and witty, but this gets bogged down in detail and the pace lags. Rating: 5/10

La Sirga (2012)
A young woman takes refuge in the Andes with a cousin and helps repair his crumbling shack of a tourist inn in this metaphor for Colombia’s national condition. Beautiful location, draggy action. Rating: 5/10

The Last Step (2012)
Witty and convoluted Iranian film about jaded artist intellectuals and what did and didn’t go right in their lives, with the actress who starred in Farhadi’s A Separation.

Leviathan (2012)
NYFF 2012 Harvard ethnography doc centre product fish-eye view of Mass. fishing tanker, exhausting to watch, one of their most immersive experiences and most admired efforts. Limited NYC release earlier.

Memories Look at Me (2012)
A young Chinese filmmaker goes to visit her parents and shoots herself talking to them. Much admired at fests (NYFF 2012) but I find it hopelessly drab and obvious.

Museum Hours (2012)
Cohen received the POV (Persistence of Vision) SFIFF award this year and this shows his elegance and subtle humanism as a documentary filmmaker blending a view of Vienna’s Kuntshistorisches Museum with the viewpoint of a low-key couple. Rating: 6/10

Nights with Théodore (2012)
Young Paris couple meet at a party and start spending the nights inside a park. A big creepy and not much to it. Original premise, though.

Night Across the Street (2012)
Too complicated to explain here but this acts as a kind of summing up of the late master’s themes.

The Patience Stone (2012)
A very handsome but overly symbolic and theatrical film based on the director’s own novel about an Afghan couple trapped in the war in Kabul. Rating: 6/10

Pearblossom Highway (2012)
A young ultra-indie US director worth knowing about, he focuses on marginal young people in a nowhere SoCal town. His previous Littlerock you can watch on Netflix instand play.

Penance (2012)
In between Tokyo Sonata and the new Real Kurosawa made this elegant 4-5-hour TV miniseries about murderous women based on the novel by Kanae Minato. This is going the rounds and was in Film Comment Selects. Rating: 8/10

Present Tense (2012)
A divorcee getting by barely in Istanbul as a fortune teller. Captures marginal survival strategies well and has lovely cinematography.

Rosie (2013)
Little film about a gay writer who returns from Berlin to deal with his alcoholic, ailing mom. Sibylle Brunner won Best Actress at the Swiss awards. Grade:

Sofia’s Last Ambulance (Ilian Metev 2012)
Three HD cameras stapled onto the dashboard made a chronicle of exhaustion. Rating: 5/10

Something in the Air (2012)
Assayas, attractive, but shapeless autobiographical feature about kids chasing the revolution that vanished after May ’68.

Stories We Tell (2012)
(New Directors 2013 entry). Polley’s strong doc debut is about her own life and investigates her confused patrimony.

The Strange Little Cat (2013)
German first film is more a logistical game than a film but very clever and precise as a Swiss watch.

Tall as the Baobab Tree (2012)
A young American’s gorgeously shot drama about teenage girls in revolt in a village in Senegal profits from his excellent rapport with all the people. Ultra low-key action though. Rating: 6/10

Thérèse Desqueyroux (2012)
Claude Miller’s last film is the Mauriac novel redone with less verve than Georges Franju’s 1952 version and Audrey Tautou instead of Emanuelle Riva.

What Maisie Knew (2013)
Typically cold-blooded and un-fun, this Siegel-McGehee remake of the Henry James novel fits its plot neatly into cotemporary Manhattan. Their best since The Deep End. SFIFF opening night film.

Youth (2013)
Alas, Louis Malle’s fictionalised study of her father’s last days and what she was doing at the time seems too little, too late and in the protag role Esther Garrel hasn’t at all her brother Louis’s charisma or sex appeal.

  1. Kevin Matthews says

    Oh man, you’re really throwing the gauntlet down for future festival coverage, Chris hahaha. It’s great that you’ve packed in so many viewings, though I agree with you that it’s always good to make the most of festival screenings of movies that may not otherwise be available to view.
    Thankfully, I have found a FEW of the lesser-known gems from past festivals have started to appear in the Netflix selection so streaming services might be a good way for people to play catch up, at least with a small sample of the many titles usually on offer.

  2. Chris Knipp says

    I had already seen some and saw others in press screenings and on screeners. I did watch them all though, needless to say. I will try to update info if some not bought yet are going to get a release. I think EIGHT DEADLY SHOTS may have been shown at the BFI recently. I would watch for that and also Kurosawa’s PENANCE, among others.

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