ArtsWatch looks ahead to the 38th Portland International Film Festival

The Vancouver International Film Festival gave us a great jump on the best films coming to PIFF and beyond

Film festivals are complex, multifaceted, logistical nightmares… (almost) as much for the audience as for staff. However, if one distills them down to their essence, an inherent bifurcation is revealed. They are the final bastion for a not insignificant crop of smaller, foreign, arthouse, documentary and independent films to be seen in a cinema with a crowd. They’re also an odd microcosm of all that’s wrong with the industry today.

I’m willing to bet almost every reader here already agrees with the former, but the latter? Not so sure. Perhaps it’s our dirty little secret. Gasp! There are just as many bad movies produced every year in world cinema as Hollywood, probably even more.

Which is why you, dear movie lover, need some guidance. Some good, old-fashioned curation. After all, Portland is rife with endless festivals. It has a deep bench of specialty, indie and arthouse theaters. We’ve got choices. Too many, perhaps. In a way, though, it’s a good problem to have, but it’s all too easy (and understandable) to take for granted such privileged access to films far and wide, strange and square, big and small, and nearly everything in between.

portland_film_festival_2015_posterWe’re here to help Portland moviegoers: I attended the 2014 Vancouver International Film Festival back in October. Now’s the perfect time to repurpose this piece and even add more recommendations of films that will be at the upcoming 38th Portland International Film Festival, put on by the Northwest Film Center February 5-21.

[Full disclosure: I’m a projectionist and manager for the Film Center. During the festival season at the beginning of the year, I take on more stressful duties as an Assistant Print Traffic Coordinator. It’s relatively simple: I make sure each film gets where it needs to be so it can be shown to the audience at each respective theater. Of course, it never works out that simply, but that’s a topic perhaps for another day/article altogether. The point is, I have a stake in the success of PIFF, but that has little to no effect on the following recommendations.]

What follows is a guide for anyone—be you a hardcore cinephile or a casual moviegoer—looking for some of that aforementioned curation. Because it’s easy to be overwhelmed with all the choices out there. Especially with PIFF around the corner, when the choice of what to watch comes with more pressure to choose correctly. Catching a dud can be a bummer.

These are simply films worth your time. Descriptions are bite-sized, for a reason. There’s a lot to discuss and dissect with most these titles, but that for now is better left discovered after you’ve experienced them. Don’t have time to read the whole list? Fear not, we’ve got you covered. At the bottom of the post, you may download or stream a bonus edition of my podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, where my co-host and I run down nearly all these titles. Enjoy!

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PIFF-BOUND

Wild Tales (Argentina)

wild talesThis hilariously disconcerting and often violent anthology film, the opening night title for PIFF 38, is quite possibly the most successful of cinematic short story collections. There’s not a dud in the bunch. Young Argentine filmmaker Damián Szifrón’s highly entertaining work is like six calling cards in one movie. Each story (only related by themes) proves the filmmaker can pull off different styles and genres. The freeze frame shot just before the opening credits is one for the ages. It received rapturous applause from the audience. [NOTE: Wild Tales will open at Cinema 21 on March 13, so look for it there if you miss opening night]

The Tribe (Ukraine)

the-tribe-cannes-2014We need more bold, purely cinematic films like The Tribe, one of the best of this year’s festival but also the most challenging. Playing like an even more disturbing combination of City of God and Lord of the Flies, debut director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy takes a potentially gimmicky conceit — all dialogue is spoken through sign language with no subtitles — and infuses it with dread, political subversion (it directly comments on current Ukrainian politics) and incredible filmmaking bravado. Nearly all scenes play out in impeccably choreographed long takes, with a camera that rarely stops moving — its style is akin to Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown and features a similar foreboding, disquieting sense that things are going to end badly. And what’s so impressive is that although its formalism is so rigid, it rises well above gimmick to become a truly great, unique piece of cinema (and a very fine crime movie to boot), conjuring its own world, commenting on ours and giving the audience something actually, palpably new.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (China)

20143347_4_IMG_FIX_700x700Do not miss this brilliant, funny and chilling noir tale about a detective looking for a murderer dumping body parts in coal trucks around his city, portrayed here as a harsh, urban winter nightmare. Especially of interest to fans of Memories of Murder from South Korea and David Fincher’s Zodiac.

Jauja (Argentina)

jauja2This slow-paced, gorgeous and totally immersive films is arty with a capital-A. Shot in an old-fashioned boxy aspect ratio, with even the edges rounded off on the sides to give the effect of glimpsing into another world through a viewfinder. Viggo Mortensen stars as a 19th century Danish engineer on a desperate search for his missing daughter, who may not actually want to be found. Becomes weirder as it goes, evolving into a Jodorowsky-esque hallucinatory, metaphysical and existential Western-inflected journey, all the way through to an inexplicable climax.

Red Army (USA/Russia)

red armyThis entertaining documentary about the greatest hockey team of all time (the Soviet Union completely dominated Olympic and world hockey from the mid-50s through the early 90s) should be a big hit at the festival this year. [It will open soon after at Cinema 21, on February 27)]. That’s exciting for several reasons: it’s actually good; totally accessible even for non-hockey fans; it’s a fascinating look at how this team was built into the powerhouse it became, through a very particular regime and country that demanded excellence. (Read my highly personal, much longer take on the film here).

Alleluia (Belgium/France)

AlleluiaThe more twisted, less overtly comedic cousin to the great British serial killers on a road trip film, Sightseers, which played at PIFF 36. It’s another take on the infamous Lonely Hearts Killers case, the basis for several films already. For fans of extreme pulp cinema, Fabrice du Welz’s latest works best late at night, where the spindly tendrils of its bizarro narrative can seep into a less lucid, exhausted brain, one that’s far more susceptible to its (anti) charms. The promising writer/director seems more at home in the broader confines of modern exploitation, or what Manny Farber described as “termite art.” He could, based off the strength of “Alleluia” and his prior work, grow into a truly singular voice in pulp world cinema.

Clouds of Sils Maria (France)

1196789_Clouds of Sils MariaFormer critic turned director Olivier Assayas (CarlosSummer Hours) is an established name on the arthouse/festival circuit, and one of France’s preeminent modern auteurs. His last film, Something in the Air, was a big hit at PIFF 36. This latest is along the lines of his Irma Vep and a little like Demonlover; it’s awash in meta industry in-jokes and asides, following a brief period in the life of a famous actress (the luminous Juliette Binoche) revisiting a play that made her career when she was younger, but now she’s being asked to play a different part, much to her chagrin.

Haemoo (South Korea)

f91895263b8bd79e277100da237a2ba1South Korea is, cinematically speaking, more often than not reliable for something odd, interesting and occasionally brilliant. There’s still a lot of good work coming from this part of the world, even if three of its most famous and possibly most talented auteurs (Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon) have now dipped their toes in English language films. This picture is by first-time feature director Shim Sung-bo, and its a typically South Korean mix of genres. It starts out as one thing—a crew on a failing fishing boat takes on a dangerous and potentially illegal job, only for things to take several turns for the worst—and gracefully becomes something else.

Horse Money (Portugal)

300_promo1_112254_cmykDirector Pedro Costa’s work has been supported and shown for some time by the Northwest Film Center. His latest is a ghostly tale about the past and present merging together. Every image filling up its beautiful, old school 1.33 aspect ratio is a work of art unto itself. The narrative is open-ended, to say the least, but one that will have the adventurous cinephiles talking after they stumble out of the theater. It’s a challenging watch, but worth it. Even if in the moment it doesn’t blow you away, it could happen down the road as the movie lingers in your memory.

Nuoc 2030 (Vietnam)

nuocThis one made it in one of the last slots available for PIFF. And a good thing too, because while it’s by no means perfect, it’s just the sort of promising work from an as yet undiscovered talent. Writer/director Minh Nguyen-Vo crafts a lo-fi but totally convincing sci-fi tale set in a much more troubled, dystopic and challenging future, one where mass floodings around the globe have transformed the geography and left people to do their farming via floating vessels on the ocean. The sentiment and narrative are solid as well if not a little boilerplate, but the greatest accomplishment here is the world-building. 

Phoenix (Germany)

Phoenix_size_1000Director Christian Petzold is no stranger to PIFF or other festivals around the world for that matter. He struck big last year with this latest picture, starring his muse, the phenomenally talented Nina Hoss (who also starred in Petzold’s last film, Barbara). Phoenix is sure to be a big hit at this year’s fest, as its Hitchcockian leanings and compelling thriller/mystery narrative works likes gangbusters. Hoss is the standout again, here playing a concentration camp survivor after World War 2 ends. After her face is surgically reconstructed, she looks for her husband to find out if he betrayed her to the Nazis. The memorable, effective and satisfying final scene will leave the audience gasping no doubt.

The Fool (Russia)

1408458864editor_image_1-resize-375x210Since Russia’s foreign language Oscar nominee, Leviathan (totally brilliant), is opening at the end of this month at Fox Tower (more info on that below), that leaves this film as the top choice of the Russian work at this year’s festival. A thriller with a ticking time clock narrative that sees its naive, sympathetic lead trying to do good amidst a swarm of corruption, governmental and more. It’s got a tough ending, but its worth it and never veers too far down the oft-taken path of miserablism seen in a lot films of its ilk.

STILL PLAYING OR COMING SOON TO A THEATER NEAR YOU

Whiplash

Whiplash-5547.cr2Portlanders are going to really love this one, about an ambitious young jazz drummer (Miles Teller, excellent) who falls under the at times insane, no-BS tutelage of a professor (J.K. Simmons, deservedly Oscar nominated, and should win) at a highly competitive New York music school. It’s visceral, high-sensory and alive with blood pumping through its veins. [LISTEN: audio interview I conducted with Oscar nominated writer/director Damien Chazelle, during the release of his first feature, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench]

Force Majeure (Living Room Theater)

Ruben Östlund's film Force MajeureAnother of the year’s best films, from Sweden. Based off this, the director, Ruben Östlund (a new, exciting discovery), looks to be a member of the Michael Haneke (Amour) school of deeply clinical examinations of social structures, but with a brilliant sense of humor that constantly leavens the awkward tension. This one will have couples debating and arguing for hours after the credits have rolled. [NOTE: In March, the Northwest Film Center is showing a retrospective of the director’s work. All films including Force Majeure will screen as part of IN CASE OF NO EMERGENCY: THE FILMS OF RUBEN ÖSTLUND]

Foxcatcher

carell foxcatcher2This year’s Zero Dark Thirty, but even more bleak, tragic and powerful. As expected, it received a number of Oscars nominations, deservingly, but it’s almost certainly too dark and depressing a statement on these modern United States to win over the more feel-good Academy (they even passed on giving it a Best Picture nomination, which is kind of shocking even though the film is a total downer). I love it, seen it twice and it deepens with each viewing. One of 2014’s very best.

Winter Sleep (Living Room Theater)

winter-sleep-cannes-2014This year’s grand-daddy behemoth of arthouse cinema, from highly-touted Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia). It won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and though it wouldn’t have by my personal pick, it’s certainly deserving of the high praise. Running a butt-numbing 3 hours, 16 minutes, it never bores and even finds the typically dead serious filmmaker diving into long, volatile, highly-discursive and often quite funny banter between his characters, set in and around a gorgeous hotel built into the rocky Anatolian foothills

Mr. Turner (Jan. 23 , Cinema 21)

mr-turnerMike Leigh is one of the UK’s most gifted filmmakers. His films flow organically and often follow prickly characters, but there’s always a complex web of emotions and themes at play. This gorgeously-lensed biopic of famed Brit painter J.M.W. Turner is no different, mostly rising above its stuffy prestige movie roots and featuring a knockout lead performance from Leigh regular Timothy Spall, grunting, huffing and puffing his way into your heart, even when he’s being awful.

Leviathan (January 30, Fox Tower)

leviathanNo, not the abstract, experimental documentary following a fishing vessel off the North Atlantic you may have walked out of during PIFF 36. No, not the 1989 Alien meets The Abyss monster movie starring Peter Weller. The third film named after the biblical sea monster is the best of the bunch (to be fair, they’re totally different films), is directed by Russian master Andrey Zvyagintsev (Elena, The Return) and is a Job-like tale examining the deep, destructive corruption permeating a small coastal Russian town. One of the year’s best, it’s equal parts The Godfather and The Wire. Lofty comparisons, I know, but it works on a similarly ambitious, multi-faceted scale.

Two Days, One Night (January 30, Fox Tower)

Two Days, One NightAnother of the very best of this year’s films. The Dardennes brothers (The Kid With a Bike) return with perhaps their greatest, most accessible film to date. Working with star Marion Cotillard, who in a just world would win every acting award available for this gut-wrenching, highly-complex performance, the brotherly filmmaking duo create searing, at times unbearable tension in heightened but always realistic situations, avoiding staid melodrama at every turn. An emotional roller coaster in the best way possible.

…And make sure to look out for this gem after PIFF

Li’l Quinquin (France)

downloadTransgressive filmmaker Bruno Dumont’s work is often labeled as challenging. On the basis of this funny, strange and subversive TV miniseries (but it’s cinema all the way, trust me), my first exposure to him, it would appear he left most of that behind and instead went for a Twin Peaks in rural France vibe that works on nearly all levels. The two leads (a rascally boy and a goofy detective with a Hitler mustache) couldn’t be better cast, guiding us through a 200-minute long murder mystery with no answers at the end. A surprising charmer.

Coming soon leading up to PIFF 38, we take a much deeper plunge into this year’s coming festival. We’ll be reviewing more titles to help you decide on the right films for you. Make sure to check back in with us a lot in the coming month. Thanks for reading!

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