After the borderline-disastrous 2011 Festival, the 66th Edinburgh Film Festival seems to have found its feet again – to a degree. The awards were reinstated, the guests lent a touch of class, there were a broader range of venues and, in terms of the films I saw at least, the quality of the programme improved. These adjustments (last year, the phrase ‘This was always our intention’ was repeated like a mantra) gave the sense – absent last year – that a proper film festival was taking place.
That doesn’t mean the Festival was perfect; improving over last year wasn’t going to be terribly difficult, but generally things took a step in the right direction. I do not know to what extent this was down to the appointment of a new artistic director, Chris Fujiwara, but he brought to the Festival a depth of film knowledge coupled with a hands-on enthusiasm. There is, however, a caveat: the Festival was moved a few years back from August, where it competed with Edinburgh’s other art festivals, to June. I have been told this saved money, and since the Festival’s budget has subsequently been cut the transition back may be difficult. However there’s no getting round a simple fact: the quality of the films has dropped and there’s no sign that this will be reversed unless the Festival moves back to August. Cannes used to give a good indication of what to look out for at Edinburgh, but now the Festival comes too soon after Cannes to get any of the films that makes headlines there.
The Awards were announced at the Filmhouse on Saturday. The most prestigious award at the Festival is the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature, named after the great British filmmaker (Powell’s widow, the legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, was at the Festival for a discussion on film restoration). I had seen most of the nominees, but didn’t think there was a clear winner: I was a little surprised, but not displeased, that the award went to Penny Woolcock’s documentary One Mile Away, following two members of opposing Birmingham gangs as they try to work towards a truce and an end of black-on-black violence in the city. It’s a powerful, insightful documentary showing the continuing struggle going on between headline-making news stories (the film also screened recently at Sheffield’s Doc/Fest).
Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise: the favourites to me seemed to be the much-talked about (and missed by me) “The Imposter” and Festival favourite James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer. At the risk of sounding like I’m having a go at “One Mile Away” (I’m not) I was put in mind of John Hurt, who headed the Jury a few years ago. At his Q&A he mentioned having been on a Jury before, and was candid about the deliberations. ‘Half of us wanted one film to win,’ he said. ‘And half of us wanted another one to win. So we compromised, and gave the award to a film none of us wanted to win.’
The prize for Best International Feature went to the Chinese film Here, Then, also unseen by me. The award for Best Performance in a British Feature was split between Andrea Riseborough and Brid Brennan, who gave strong performances as mother and daughter in “Shadow Dancer.”
Having seen around 20 films at this year’s Festival (a little under average for me) I have compiled my own top three:
1. Killer Joe. William Friedkin’s OTT tale of redneck revenge, sexual bargaining and poultry fellatio is definitely not for everyone, but the performances, direction, camerawork and general outrageousness made it the most memorable and, in its demented way, entertaining filming I saw at this year’s festival. Matthew McConaughey gives what might be one of the performances of the year as a hired killer and sometimes cop who looks and acts like a cross between Jack Palance in “Shane” and Patrick Bateman on a bad day.
2. Pusher. While most of the reviews I’ve seen of this have been fairly lukewarm – and, predictably, many seeing it as a pointless remake – I found it far more engaging and enjoyable than I anticipated. After seeing it I went home and rewatched Nicolas Winding Refn’s 1996 Danish original and did not think that the films cancelled each other out: the story is broad enough (mid-level drug dealer gets in debt with nefarious supplier) that it can work in different settings and with different approaches. Richard Coyle is a strong lead, Agyness Deyn (who is soon to co-star with Peter Mullan in Terence Davies’s adaptation of “Sunset Song”) gives memorable support and Zlatko Burik, who played the supplier in the original, is if anything better when he reprises the role in the remake.
3. Unconditional. I found this to be the hardest to choose, because while nothing completely blew me away at this year’s Festival several films were memorable low-key affairs that I may well return to (see below). However of all these films, and though I didn’t think it was perfect, this is the film that has stayed with me and one that I shall recommend to people and rewatch when I get the chance. It concerns a brother and sister – twins – who talk a mysterious, charismatic loan shark (Christian Cooke, last seen in “Cemetery Junction”) into giving them a loan. Without giving away more about the plot (I recommend you see it without reading too much in advance), I admired the way that the characters aren’t explained away easily and their motivations are ambiguous and to a degree left up to the viewer.
For the most part I liked what I saw at this year’s Festival, an improvement after last year’s slog (by week two last year I was ready to stay in bed). I also found a lot to enjoy in Chinese martial arts film Dragon, starring Donnie Yen; Mark Cousins’s documentary What Is This Film Called Love?; California Solo, which featured a powerful central performance from Robert Carlyle; Sexual Chronicles of a French Family, which was sweet and sexy and incredibly French; Eddie: The Sleepwalking Cannibal, which lived up to its title without becoming stupid; Fred, in which Elliott Gould and Judith Roberts play an aging couple facing a future in a nursing home, and Brave, the new Disney-Pixar which, though not perfect, is worth seeing for its visuals alone.
Of course there are always a few lesser films at the Festival, and I didn’t get much out of Lovely Molly or Brake, both of which were fatally lacking in suspense. I have heard good things about Berberian Sound Studios and may revisit it at some point, as I thoroughly enjoyed Toby Jones’s central performance and much of the set-up, but I felt like I was still waiting for the story and the tension to kick in when it got to the final act (at which point the film goes completely off the rails).
However the worst film I saw at this year’s Festival, and if I’m being brutally honest the worst film I’ve seen this year, is Life Just Is, a micro-budget feature about a group of twenty-somethings who sit around asking the big questions, and giving tiny answers. It’s a film whose self-importance becomes embarrassing, and whose characters and performances are less impressive than in your average slasher movie, if not your average porno. And at least you know porn is going somewhere. The Michael Powell Award has been won in the past by the likes of “Moon”, “Control” and “Tsotsi,” and having this in the competition frankly undermined the award.
It’s always worth mentioning the films I didn’t see about which there has been good buzz, and I’ve heard nothing but praise for a Portuguese film called Tabu, and was sorry to miss the much talked-about documentary The Imposter. I was disappointed to have missed the Surprise Movie as well, but only when I found out it was Lawless, the Depression-era crime drama from The Proposition-director John Hillcoat. Lawless did show at Cannes and I suspect its status as the surprise movie may have been to allow the organisers to switch to a Plan-B movie should they not be able to get hold of it. Or maybe I’m being cynical again (the two films I have seen as surprise movies were “School of Rock”-wannabe “The Rocker” and Tim Burton’s ‘reimagining’ of “Planet of the Apes,” the day before it went on release). Occasionally the Festival inspires cynicism, but this year I find myself optimistic. It’s not quite what it was a decade ago, but it’s going in the right direction.
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