Hard to Be a God
The Salt of the Earth
German Concentration Camps Factual Survey
Antoine et Colette
The Epic of Everest
Fish & Cat
Goodbye to Language
I Hired a Contract Killer
Before my head and hands settle down fully into work mode, here is my list of top films and documentaries seen at MIFF 2014.
Top 8 films seen (in order seen):
1. Locke (Director: Steven Knight)
Behind the wheel of a BMW, an ordinary evening commute sees an average life fall apart in Steven Knight's solo-protagonist, single-setting, real-time thriller. As Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) takes phone calls hands-free en route from Birmingham to London, his chances for personal and professional happiness crumble with every revelation and confession that complicates his conversations.
With a Welsh accent and a weathered brow to match his war of words, Hardy channels the greats of the stage as he monopolises the screen, restrained in physicality but brooding with intensity befitting his star-making turn in MIFF 2008's Bronson.
2. Goodbye to Language (Director: Jean-Luc Godard)
A dog explores a forest. A naked couple, in the midst of an affair, discuss the modern world. A windscreen wiper shifts water off laminated glass.
One of the most anticipated films at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language shows that the 83-year-old auteur is as keen to push boundaries as ever, with his use of clips from cinema's history, 3D split screen, poetry and avant-garde sound design ensuring a perplexing and radical cinema experience. A legend of cinema's past and present, Godard may have presented us with a window into its future.
3. Manakamana (Directors: Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez)
From the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, responsible for Leviathan (MIFF 2013) and Sweetgrass (MIFF 2010), comes this quiet, rhythmic meditation on pilgrimage in the age of mass transportation.
A procession of individuals – some in pairs, some alone – take a cable-car trip to Nepal's Manakamana temple. Over the course of each journey, these passengers talk, move around or gaze out at the landscape. The result is a unique cinema experience, not least for the spectacular views of central Nepal's mountains and jungles.
4. Joy of Man's Desiring (Que ta joie demeure) (Director: Denis Côté)
Clanking and shuddering, various machines fulfil their purposes, waited upon by human assistants. For a while, the workers silently complete their duties; later, they speak about what they do. What is their relationship to the apparatuses they attend to? Are they masters, slaves or equals?
An exploration of humankind's interaction with machinery, Joy of Man's Desiring is the latest work from uncompromising Canadian director Denis Côté (Bestiaire, MIFF 2012; Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, MIFF 2013). A deliberately observed cine-essay and paean to work, it is as formally rigorous as it is subtly — and subversively — humorous.
5. Jauja (Director: Lisandro Alonso)
In Incan mythology, Jauja was a land of impossible plenty, where all man's material wants could be satisfied. For 19th-century explorer Captain Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen, in his first Danish-speaking role), the lure is too hard to resist, yet when his daughter runs off with a young soldier, Dinesen must confront the brutal wilderness and the dangerous wild man Zuluaga in order to find her.
Argentinean director Lisandro Alonso (Fantasma, MIFF 2006) returns with another accomplished, mind-bending filmic reverie in Jauja, winner of the Un Certain Regard FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes. A meditative, hallucinogenic and thought-provoking enigma of a film, it revels in the sonic and cinematographic potential of cinema, both mystifying and enticing even as it burrows deep into the unsettling marrow of human love and cruelty.
6. Fish & Cat (Director: Shahram Mokri)
An unsettling score, an experimental approach that follows a dozen characters without cutting, and a jet-black sense of humour … These are just a few of the remarkable elements that have seen Shahram Mokri's Fish & Cat garner multiple awards overseas, including the Venice Film Festival Special Orizzonti Award for Innovative Content, paying tribute to the film's unique composition: a daring exercise in perpetual motion, it is shot in one 134-minute, nonlinear take by A Separation (MIFF 2011) cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari.
Inspired by genre films, Mokri focuses on a group of students camped by a lakeside forest for a kite-flying festival, choreographing a cryptic time warp as the camera weaves seamlessly between characters and perspectives, building an atmosphere of ominous tension. Just what is going on in this forest, and what are the men in the nearby hut cooking?
7. Mafioso (Director: Alberto Lattuada)
Italian comic great Alberto Sordi ("an irrepressible mixture of clown, blowhard and matinee idol", according to the New York Times) plays a southerner made good in Italy's modern north. When he takes his blonde bombshell wife and children back to his Sicilian village for a holiday, his joy at being surrounded by family and the scenery he so missed takes a turn for the sinister when the local don asks for a favour to be returned.
Bouncing between devastatingly funny crime comedy, fish-out-of-water satire and mob farce, Mafioso is packed with eye-popping details, exhilarating mood switches and tons of Italian hospitality, southern style.
8. Hard to Be a God (Trudno Byt Bogom) (Director: Alexei German)
A legendary and frequently overlooked enfant terrible of Russian filmmaking, Alexei German spent nearly half his life on this incomparable film: inspired by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky's 1964 sci-fi novel of the same name, he wrote the screenplay in 1968, shot between 2000 and 2006, and died before post-production was finalised in 2013 by his wife, Svetlana Karmalita, and son Alexei German Jr (whose Paper Soldier screened at MIFF in 2009). A notorious perfectionist, German's uncompromising attention to detail lent the film a semi-mythological status for years. It is finally here and does not disappoint.
Thirty scientists are sent from Earth to a present-day planet stuck in a perpetual medieval existence, to bring it through renaissance. German's camera fixates on one burly inhabitant (or is he?), treated by the locals as a kind of god. Like him, we observe this world, in as close to documentary vérité of the Middle Ages as we're ever likely to get: it's a narratively anarchic cinematic immersion in a violent, grotesque world so palpable you can almost feel it. At 170 minutes of richly detailed black-and-white historical mimesis, Hard to be a God is a living diorama not for the weak stomached; but for cinephiles seeking a big-screen spectacle of unparalleled visual and aural grandeur, there's nothing that comes close.
Top 8 documentaries (in order seen):
1. The Salt of the Earth (Director: Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado)
Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado spent much of his life travelling around the world, capturing human life in environments beautiful and harrowing alike. Some of the hardship he saw, however, proved too discouraging, with the much-admired artist eventually retreating into wildlife photography.
The Salt of the Earth offers a wide-ranging profile of the ageing photographer, taking in his latest project: an attempt to record the natural beauty of the wildlife in his homeland. Co-directed by Wim Wenders (Buena Vista Social Club, MIFF 1999; Wings of Desire, MIFF 1987) and Salgado's son Juliano — who provides some incredible archival footage of his father at work — this documentary is a deeply human reflection on disillusionment and the artistic process.
2. The Epic of Everest (Director: Captain John Noel)
In 1924, mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine set out to conquer Everest. It was their third attempt, and their last: they disappeared on the ascent, sparking an as-yet unanswered debate over whether or not they reached the summit.
With them on the expedition was Captain John Noel, whose official film of their exploits has now been restored by the British Film Institute. Already an extraordinary document (Noel was filming in chillingly harsh conditions with a customised camera, and his images are both breathtakingly beautiful and historically significant), the restoration highlights Noel's majestic compositions, whether of the climbers, the mountain or the local Tibetan people.
The original coloured tints and tones of his images have been reintroduced and, combined with a new, suitably foreboding score by Simon Fisher Turner, they ensure that Epic of Everest is not only a moving tribute to the mountain and those who live and die on her, it's also an exhilarating tale of bravery and sacrifice.
3. The Great Museum (Das Große Museum) (Director: Johannes Holzhausen)
Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum is one of Europe's most magnificent cultural institutions – a 19th-century temple of classical paintings, books and ancient artefacts. Over the course of 2012 and 2013, as the legendary Kunstkammer rooms are prepared for reopening, Johannes Holzhausen's camera is permitted to wander the museum's corridors. From a remove, Holzhausen observes diligent restorations and stressed backroom discussions, imperial uniforms and Breughel paintings.
Remarkably adept at peeking behind the scenes, The Great Museum is akin to peeling back the layers of a revered masterpiece; featuring neither voiceover nor music, it is a rhythmic, immersive experience.
4. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey
In 1944 and '45, cameramen with the Allied troops documented the horrors discovered as Europe was liberated from the Nazis. The footage was assembled for a documentary by a brilliant team that included editor Stewart McAllister, Alfred Hitchcock and Australian writer Colin Wills. But the film was difficult, progress slow and it missed its moment. By the autumn, British priorities for Germany had evolved from de-Nazification to reconstruction, and so the film was shelved, unfinished.
Nearly seven decades on, the documentary has been completed, the picture restored and the narration recorded exactly as it was written in 1945, its factual inaccuracies and political biases intact. German Concentration Camps Factual Survey is an extraordinary cultural artefact depicting the Holocaust through a 1945 lens.
5. My Name is Salt (Director: Farida Pacha)
Year after year, Sanabhai brings his family to a seasonal, saline desert, where they harvest what they proudly proclaim to be the world's whitest salt. Knee-deep in brine, in the glare of the blinding sun, they toil ritualistically for eight months, only to have their Sisyphean stone roll back down the mountain when the monsoon floods the desert and all traces of their work.
Hardship and exploitation loom large in this film, but director Farida Pacha lets this speak for itself, instead fixing her gaze on the poetry and ritual of Sanabhai and his family's existence. Exquisite camerawork and a haunting score help Pacha expose the austere beauty of the subject.
6. National Gallery (Director: Frederick Wiseman)
Prolific and celebrated documentarian Frederick Wiseman (At Berkeley, MIFF 2014; La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, MIFF 2010) has spent much of his career analysing cultural institutions, casting a patient, often critical eye on collectives and hierarchies. Here, he turns his gaze to London's National Gallery and the many artworks contained therein, poring over the intricacies of paintings while listening in to the valuable insights offered by the museum's guides.
There is a subtle political purpose to this film, too: Wiseman — as always, sans voiceover — contrasting the assertive staff with the silent visitors. Acclaimed as one of the director's most thought-provoking films, National Gallery is both quiet rumination on elitism and paean to great art.
7. Trespassing Bergman (Director: Hynek Pallas, Jane Magnusson)
One of the greatest of all filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman was also an avid film viewer, his cottage on Fårö Island containing over 1500 videotapes spanning silent cinema to some of the major art films of the 21st century (and a few surprises, including Die Hard). In Trespassing Bergman, directors Jane Magnusson and Hynek Pallas visit the great master's home, bringing along a small posse of directors — including Michael Haneke, Claire Denis, Alejandro González Iñárritu and John Landis — to examine his personal collection.
Other filmmaking heavyweights, too, are given the opportunity to talk about their personal relationships with Bergman's films, with Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, Lars von Trier, Takeshi Kitano and many more offering their (often irreverent) thoughts on the legendary auteur's output and his influence on their own. With excerpts of the master's work scattered throughout, this is a must-see for all Bergman fans.
8. Virunga (Director: Orlando von Einsiedel)
The Congo's Virunga National Park is home to some of the world's last surviving gorillas. It's also home to armed conflict and oil reserves. On this volatile turf, Emmanuel de Merode — a Belgian prince — and his fellow rangers are the last line of defence between the companies, poachers, corrupt officials and militant groups that threaten the park's endangered inhabitants.
Director Orlando von Einsiedel spent two years in Virunga, documenting the armed rangers' often life-threatening, literal fight to protect biodiversity: indeed, just days before Virunga's debut at Tribeca, de Merode was hospitalised after being shot four times. Powerful, stirring and visually spectacular, Virunga packs an emotional wallop.
(All film descriptions from the MIFF 2014 listings)
Fifty-three films in seventeen days: Gracia's top MIFF 2014 films