It might have been bad luck at picking films or my own flagging cinephile faculties, but it was exceedingly difficult for me to sift through a pile of mediocrity at this year’s 59th San Sebastian Film Festival. Even though I stuck mostly to the official competition section – which by definition should be the strongest one – I ended up disappointed by a better half of the 19 features I saw, including the messy and borderline-inept Isaki Lacuesta’s cine-essay Los Pasos Dobles, which scooped the Golden Shell as I was gawking in dumbfounded confusion.
The most bitter disappointments included Paddy Considine’s artfully bruising, pointlessly horrific and terminally sanctimonious love story Tyrannosaur, as well as Filippos Tsitos’ faux-Kaurismäki exercise Unjust World (inexplicably awarded Best Director kudos). Many people’s favorite (but better by half than the titles I just mentioned), Arturo Ripstein’s Reasons of the Heart still failed in its attempt at updating Flaubert’s ever-aching Madame Bovary to present-day Mexico. Aimed at achieving a retro feel (but ending up stale and stilted instead), this black-and-white film still featured what amounted to the supreme female performance of the festival: Aracelia Ramírez’s portrayal of smoldering self-destructivness, wrapped in grand gestures and flamboyant phrases.
But enough with the movies I was disappointed by. Here are five films that won me over and formed the core of my festival experience.
A Beautiful Valley (dir. Hadar Friedlich)
By far my favorite, Friedlich’s first feature is a masterfully understated portrait of an aging kibbutz hard-liner, finding it hard to cope with her beloved community’s slow disintegration (which is mirrored by her ailing body, as well as by the retirement she doggedly refuses to accept). Talia Galon’s quiet performance is inscribed into a seamless succession of elaborately detailed long shots, which evoke Ozu even as they achieve a documentary-like austerity. Nothing less than a send-off to a specific way of life (as well as a particular way of making history, with Marx and Lenin looking down from the wall in one scene), A Beautiful Valley manages to bid farewell without knocking down its main character’s dreams, which have translated into a lifetime of hard, dignified labor.
The River Used to Be a Man (dir. Jan Zabeil)
Possibly the most experiential film to grace San Sebastian this Summer, Zabeil’s debut exercise in pithy editing and rapid mood-changes would play great on a double bill with Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet. A story of a relaxed German backpacker suddenly left alone in the middle of African nowhere is remarkably short on sensationalism, and recoils from manufacturing a sense of facile dread.
The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius)
No news here: people have been crazy about this fine-cut gem ever since it reportedly brought down the house at Cannes. A non-populist crowd-pleaser, this lovingly assembled pastiche, not so much of silent era filmmaking, but of old-fashioned melodrama, thrives on the director’s inventiveness and Jean Dujardin’s pearl-toothed, matinee idol appeal. He plays a silent movie star who can’t adapt to the brave new world of synchronized sound, which is itself treated as a gag half-way through the film. A rare instance of a popular movie one can submit to fully and irrevocably, without feeling one’s sentiments being cheapened or trampled upon.
Le Skylab (dir. Julie Delpy)
After Two Days in Paris, I was apprehensive of Delpy’s latest foray into directing, as I half-expected another precious and annoying celluloid-ego-trip. I was pleasantly surprised by how democratic Le Skylab is in its evocation of a 1979 countryside picnic, of which Delpy herself was a part of (among a very extended family). The movie is so populated and busy that at times it seems a mere vaudeville show played at stroboscope speed. It also indulges in some Mad Men-like smug prescience (“Did you hear about that new cancer decimating people down in Ivory Coast?”, one character asks and we in the audience are supposed to go: “A-ha!”). Still, what saves the film is its slightly jagged, blissfully imperfect form, which replaces sleekness with a brisk feeling of being thrown into a whirlpool of conversations – many of which prove to be funny and touching.
Americano (dir. Mathieu Demy)
Demy, Jr.’s trip into his own (genetic as well as re-imagined) movie heritage yields results which I found both sweet and pensive. Demy casts himself as a man looking for the truth about his dead mother’s past in the mean streets of Tijuana, where his own life is being turned into the stuff of melodrama and thriller. Generic traits hover in the air and are never fully realized (or taken at face value) – instead, we receive an unmistakingly lyrical, CinemaScope love poem to storytelling itself. Demy’s dogged screen presence – his pointed features and dark hair, laced with first hints of silver – is the film’s strongest adhesive element (at times, he looks like a bereaved Antoine Doinel). Demy’s mom, one Agnès Varda, co-produced.
Finally, I have to commend two remarkable sections that I didn’t have the time to plunge into, but whose line-ups were truly impressive. “Digital Shadows: Last Generation Chinese Films“ brought together the most distinctive voices in what has been one of the most consistently stunning world-cinema occurrences of recent years (many of the films included in the section are also available on Fandor).
“American Way of Death“, on the other hand, assembled 40 of Hollywood and American Indie’s best crime and neo-noir movies of the last 20 years, from Lynch’s Wild at Heart and the Coens’ Miller’s Crossing to the brand new Texas Killing Fields. With the preponderance of all-American murder and mayhem on screen, it was reassuring to see Frances McDormand – Fargo’s sheriff Marge Gunderson – on hand to provide a presence of law and order (if only on the festival jury).
Michał Oleszczyk is a contributor to “Kino”, the Polish film monthly and author of the first Polish monograph of Terence Davies (“Bitter Exile”, Kraków 2008).