Portland International Film Festival 2011
“Good movies are notoriously fickle about the audiences they choose to please, but not where they choose to please them.”

2011 is year 34 of the Portland International Film Festival. Once again, our art museum’s Northwest Film Center is putting on the fest in February, the rainiest, gloomiest month for us Portlanders. But it’s also a time when the music scene, better known but more weather-dependent, is least likely to try and compete. As always, the timing seems more than appropriate: a three-week glut of the best new movies on the planet in the middle of a town known for music should happen in the middle of that town’s rainiest month, when staying inside in the dark all the time is a virtue, done for the sake of great movies, not a vice, done to avoid the nonstop dive bars and outdoor festivals. If you only know Portland for its music and draw a blank on its film, this is for consideration of PIFF 34, a movie geek’s fantasy in a music geek’s town.

We’re not Sundance, Toronto, or New York; we’re not where the biggest American names bring new work, seeking distribution. Although we do have big filmmakers calling Portland home — Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Matt McCormick — our fest has an overwhelming tendency towards foreign films — hence the name. While many of them have screened and been written up elsewhere, Portland is one of those cities (the major one, if you ask me) where movies that might not stand out in the giant New York/LA markets get a chance to find an audience. And when a small film sells massive amounts of tickets at PIFF, it almost invariably gets a run at a local theater later in the year, when critics can lavish upon it full-length reviews and those film fans who can be discerning without being obsessive (non-festival goers) will have a chance to check it out.

Good movies are notoriously fickle about the audiences they choose to please, but not where they choose to please them. Portland shows great movies; people who want to see them come. Good movies tend to get seen somewhere, no matter the odds against them. Here are the ones that forced their way through the rain of bands to get to me.

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The Big Names List:

Impressive as always, we’ve got new work from Apichatpong (Weerasethakul, but nobody uses his last name), Abbas Kiarostami, Takeshi Kitano, Francois Ozon, Bertrand Tavernier and Carlos Saura. These are the guys whose films you gravitate towards when the other 83 movies are potentially great but too many to base concrete viewing decisions on.

Apichatpong and Kiarostami, who directed Uncle Boonmee and Certified Copy, respectively, did not let me down. And how could they? They’re both unmitigated artists and genuinely great filmmakers, and not a frame from one of their films has ever been slack or unintentional. I’ve yet to check out the Tavernier, Saura, and Kitano movies (the latter’s Outrage is my most-anticipated film), but Ozon’s Potiche — starring big French names Deneuve, Depardieu, and Jeremie Renier — was the big festival opener (at a gala in a fancy theater to which I snagged a free pass), but it’s a no-holds-barred disappointment — a stylish, glossy ode to femininity that would have seemed old-fashioned in 1977, the year its adorably framed business-labor/man-woman conflicts take place. Its biggest problem for me was a big energetic need to please, combined with a pretty slight awareness of where it was headed, with scene after scene of the aging Deneuve exchanging bubbly dialogue in a well-furnished, pastel room. This is for older audiences — unfortunately, the festival’s bread and butter — but given its cuteness, it shouldn’t be a geriatric letdown.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was seen as somewhat of an upset when it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, reportedly because it’s so resolutely arty, but unlike some of the Cannes writers, I won’t use that word pejoratively with this movie. It’s arty, sure, but also clearly great, even on first viewing: a haunting yet true-to-life story about a family that welcomes the ghosts of its past relatives into its house to help ease the passing of the titular uncle. Apichatpong is one of the world’s most thematically consistent filmmakers and here remixes a few of his pet themes — death and ailments, the lives of people on the very edge of the jungle, the lines between animal and human nature, a sober view of the transmigration of souls — but he injects them with a fuller sense of the mystical, a more overt way of dealing with death than usual. Where spirits and strange transformations are usually ethereal, threatening to impose on the lives of his characters, here they by and large are the characters, and he treats them no differently than he does the living, which is not to say ordinarily. Along with Blissfully Yours, this is my favorite Apichatpong movie and deserves the wider audiences it’s in for.

In Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, a handsome silver-haired British writer (William Shimell) visits Tuscany to give a reading from his new book about the nature of originality in art. A French woman around his age (Juliette Binoche) takes him for a drive to see the region. As they talk, they become embroiled — almost imperceptibly — in a role-playing game wherein they act as husband and wife. The game is taken so far, and goes into so much detail, that the audience is asked to question whether the real game may be that they were pretending not to know each other in the first place, and whether the details they seem to be making up are what is real. The dialogue is rolling, flowing, endless, and heartfelt — both actors are magnificent, and Kiarostami, the only Iranian director to have achieved great success outside of his native country, handles things more than deftly — his assured direction and pacing create a sublime tone. He’s one of the world’s great filmmakers, has been since the 1970s, and his obsession with originality and forgery, authorship and subterfuge in the cinema has always been present in his movies — from Close-Up, in which a Tehran man is brought to trial for impersonating the real-life director Mohsan Mahkmalbiaf (Kiarostami’s mentor), to his best-known film, Taste of Cherry, in which the cinematic wool is mercilessly removed from the audience’s eyes at the very end. I’ve yet to see a movie in which a simple conversation between a man and woman, where nothing threatening or violent is so much as hinted at, is this unsettling. This movie is everyday life brought into question: Is the commonplace a worthy subject for art? Does it ever really exist? Kiarostami is curious and patient enough to ask these questions slyly, within a movie that never dips its hand to reveal what it may or may not really be.

As I said, skip Ozon’s Potiche if you’re not an AARP member. He’s got big stars and quite a bit of style, but his new movie (which I expected a lot from, after the truly creepy Swimming Pool) is a dead-to-rights crowd-pleaser without much forward momentum. It’s content to rest on the broad jokery of a musical and the easy skill of old pros Deneuve and Depardieu.

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The Good (and most of them were):

Uncle Boonmee and Certified Copy belong in this category.

As does the first film I saw at this year’s fest, Silent Souls, from Russia’s Aleksei Fedorchenko. My first thought after this screening was that this film’s melodrama, heavy-handedness, and lack of irony do not have to be considered silly or naïve. The film may seem that way at first, but maybe it’s better for irony-accustomed Western viewers like myself to at least admit that they feel this way. Once the suspicions of irony are dealt with, it should be easy to see that this is a genuine, somber movie unabashedly broadcasting its themes (through voice-over, flashback, and sometimes off-putting symbolism: a typewriter sunk into a frozen lake, birds trapped in a cage). And that’s refreshing. It’s also particularly Russian. Silent Soul’s plot centers on two men driving the corpse of the older’s wife across a large expanse of land in order to bury her in the sea as their ancient culture (the Meryans of Western Russia) requires. The younger man, it’s revealed, may have had an affair with the now-dead wife, and the older, as well, may be aware of this — but nothing about this revelation changes things for the men, who are more interested in the sad ritual of honoring the dead than in what they can no longer change. The younger brings along two birds he purchased in a town much bigger than the one he’s from, the town in which the wife has died. The birds seem to represent her spirit, and when they fly away, causing the film’s elegaic climax, everything seems to come full circle. A simple, refreshingly genuine movie that is photographic flawless besides.

I’ve written a full-length TMT review for Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, but in short: if you’re a fan of South Korean movies — and for cinephiles it’s been hard to avoid them in the past couple of years — this film will not let you down. Just don’t expect any sequels to Oldboy or Mother. (Actually, if you’re looking for that, check out The Housemaid, which follows in the Asia Extreme tradition and is essentially hollow despite being impeccably stylish. You could do worse than a sexed-up excuse for a big, climactic Grand Guignol, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Oldboy, which has always been, for me, deeply unsettling.)

If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, from Romania’s Florin Serban, is another that got a full-length TMT review (coming soon) and was my favorite festival surprise, because I went into the screening not even knowing the name of the film that was going to show, much less what it was about. It turned out to be an intense prison movie about a kid, Silviu, suffering through the final two weeks of his juvenile sentence in a minimum security work-farm for rough, troubled teens. When family problems arise for him just beyond the prison’s razor wire, Silviu — clearly a bright kid who’s just never had the right kind of guidance — takes his life into his own hands, desperately, which provides the movie’s insanely intense final third. The way Serban contrasts the layout of the prison — in the open-air, surrounded by beautiful country just out of Silviu’s reach — is masterful, as is the tension of the third act. I can easily see If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle gaining an art-house audience in the US if it plays enough festivals to gain at least a slight foothold.

The Four Times, from Italy’s Michelangelo Frammartino, would have a harder time gaining an American audience, which is a problem, because many people should see it. It was so entrancing that even the film fest’s requisite horde of loudly whispering old people somehow found it in themselves to hold off saying out loud the first things the movie made them think until after the screening. It’s a nearly wordless and quietly hilarious meditation on the unseen connections between people, animals, and nature There are four characters: an old goatherd, a newborn goat, an evergreen tree, and the smoke that comes from the tree when it’s burned. The movie is as straight-faced as that description is outlandish, but the intricate humor is not actually the point here. It isn’t easy to say what is, but my closest guess is that Frammartino feels an intense natural connection to his region of Italy and has thus spent time making this film because he wants to recreate those feelings as closely as possible for other people. Sounds lofty, but the movie is a breeze and a joy to watch. Anyone who can point out another film that makes a live-action tree (Lord of the Rings doesn’t count) an active character in an engrossing narrative might not be as impressed as I was, but then even if you could, there would still be the photography and the astounding amount of orchestration to keep you interested.

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The Not-as-Good (though worth seeing, especially if it gets distribution):

Like Silent Souls, The Human Resources Manager, from Israel’s Eran Riklis, is a story about the transportation of a body across the country of an ancient culture in order to bury it properly. But The Human Resources Manager is a good deal slicker and more by-the-numbers than its Russian festival-mate, which is not to say that it’s a bad movie. The HR Manager of a giant Jerusalem bakery tries to do right by the family of an employee killed in a terrorist bombing by taking her coffin across Israel to a proper burial. A cast of idiosyncratic characters and a barrage of roadblocks, real and metaphorical, make the journey an ever-worsening nightmare for the manager. The story recalls movies as disparate as After Hours and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and while it doesn’t quite combine the best attributes of those two excellent movies, it has a feeling for the culture it’s looking at that elevates it beyond its standard plot. I saw this one on a television, with a screener the festival supplied me, so I completely leave open the potential impact that the photography of Israel might have if seen on 35mm.

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The Not-Good:

Potiche and The Housemaid left me feeling dull, a lot of style in the service of what are essentially banal, cynical movies.

Finally, I caught the disappointing Son of Babylon, about a Kurdish boy and his grandmother travelling across broken, burning Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the American takeover. They’re searching bombed-out mosques and mass graves for the boy’s father, the grandmother’s son, and every encounter they have is rigged to demonstrate something or another about the non-functionality of US-held Iraq. This is one of those odd movies with its heart in the right place, but without the finesse to bring its large-scale Tragic Message home powerfully. It’s intended to be a visceral look at the horrors Saddam Hussein wrought on the people of Iraq, but it’s instead stilted, rushed, and clichéd. As far as details, political or cultural, they’re not here, nor is much lyricism. It’s curious to have such a prescient story come across as unaffecting as this, but then well-meaning amateurs regularly secure funding for their portentous opuses, hoping to make the world pay attention by showing them horrors that they can easily recreate from the wreckage of whatever country they’re shooting in. However sincere, that doesn’t make it a good movie.

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Notables that I’ll be catching over the course of the rest of the fest, which should be playing in art-houses around the country over the next year:

Rubber, an insanely-plotted film, to be reviewed by TMT (also look for an interview with director Quentin Dupieux soon too).

Incendies, a large-canvass family/war film from Canada

Of Gods and Men, from France, another big winner at Cannes (along with Uncle Boonmee), about a group of monks defending against Islamic extremists in North Africa. To to be reviewed by TMT as well.

Outrage — film fans everywhere should know better than to miss a new Takeshi Kitano film. I’ll be seeing this when it plays a midnight show near my house in a few weeks.

The First Grader, from the UK but set in Kenya, about an old man’s attempt to wring some education out of the government he’s spent his life fighting for.

Revolución, a Mexican omnibus featuring one of my favorite working directors, Fernando Eimbcke (Lake Tahoe), celebrating the success of the Mexican Revolution a hundred years ago.

Honey, from Turkey, winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, about a boy living a secluded life in the forest with his father.

The Princess of Montpensier by the well-regarded, sometimes derided Bertrand Tavernier. A period drama set during the French Catholic-Protestant Wars. TMT review, too.

Flamenco, Flamenco by the great Carlos Saura, whose influence over Spanish film is often clouded by the showier Almodovar. This is his semi-documentary tribute to the dance.

…and a few dozen others I’ll be pissed off if I have to miss.