MostlyFilm goes to Edinburgh

Gareth Negus, Matthew Turner and EK McAlpine report from the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2012

Gareth Negus

There was a much more positive vibe in Edinburgh this June. After the critical bashing the 2011 Film Festival received, the organisers at least had the sense to sort out one of their most fundamental errors. They appointed a new Artistic Director, Chris Fujiwara, and gave him the time and  the authority to put his own stamp in the programme.

You could see the difference immediately.

The retrospectives lived up to the Festival’s sometimes uncomfortable ‘festival of discovery’ tag, with a comprehensive selection of work by the unknown (in the West) Japanese director, Shinji Somai. A return to the Cineworld immediately made the Festival look more expansive and confident, as did bringing back the Michael Powell Award for best new British Film, along with a new international award. Although some of the individual programming choices were, as ever, a bit on the questionable side, the programme had a markedly more curated feel than last year. Pixar’s Brave was, of course, the ideal crowd-pleasing closer (though the opening film, William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, received a mixed response).

Matthew Turner

I think that this year showed that Edinburgh doesn’t need “big” films to survive. I’ve heard that Chris was resistant to the idea of having bigger films, which suggests next year may also restrict itself to just a big opener and a big closer. I thought Killer Joe (which I liked a lot) was a really bold choice for opening night and it seems to have largely paid off – I was actually surprised at the overall reaction, as I thought it would be much more controversial. Maybe everyone just really likes chicken.

Brave is more interesting, because Pixar have a relationship with the EIFF and usually have a centrepiece film that plays in the middle Saturday, though even they were absent from last year’s festival. This year, however, Pixar were back and Brave turned out to be the perfect choice for the closing night film. However,, although the festival can survive without big films, I still think you need a sprinkling of them to draw people in, so I’m hoping to see a few more next year. This year, I felt John Hillcoat’s Lawless – the surprise film – would have been worthy of an official slot, even if the politics behind surprise film inclusion are a law unto themselves.

As for the festival overall there was definitely a much more positive vibe,  and everyone seemed to be really willing it to succeed – certainly a few nervous comments early in the week about tickets not selling well quickly got replaced by stories of sell-out screenings (Rent-a-Cat, the surprise hit of the festival, was a particular hit. Every screening was completely rammed). On a purely hedonistic note, it was very much Edinburgh-as-usual in terms of the constant supply of parties: a highlight was Jim Broadbent whooping it up at the ceilidh – a sight I will not soon forget.

EK McAlpine

As a true Edinburgh virgin, I’m unable to comment on last year’s events, but I agree the general feeling was that 2012 was an improvement on 2011. On arrival, I was a bit bewildered by everything and it took me a few days to orientate myself. However I think that as a newbie, the atmosphere was incredibly welcoming. Nothing felt over-exclusive (despite efforts on behalf of the party organisers so make everything feel like a bash at Elton John’s) and I never felt out of place.

The range of subject matter  in the films was pretty wide, ranging from domestic abuse (Unconditional) to raging hormones (Sexual Chronicles of a French Family – aka The Sex Film) and Amelie-like cuteness (Rent-a-Cat) to competitive sport (First Position, Leave It On The Track). But I agree with Matthew that there weren’t enough “big” films. Then again, no-one I met outside the festival knew it even existed, so maybe we’re not as important as we thought…

Gareth Negus

Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio

My top ten:

Berberian Sound Studio
First Position
California Solo
The Mirror Never Lies
The Unspeakable Act
Grabbers
Brave
Unconditional
The Imposter
Flicker

My major frustration with many films in the running for the Michael Powell Award was how much they felt like TV movies. The likes of Flying Blind – even Shadow Dancer and Day of the Flowers, both of which at least looked good – all felt like something produced for BBC Two. And it was a mystery why far more interesting British productions like Unconditional were excluded from the nominations. So it was a relief to discover my favourite film of the Festival, Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio: a film which is actually about film, as an art form, a medium of communication, and a physical object. Toby Jones is excellent as the timid sound engineer going nuts while working on a 1970s giallo, in a film which resonates with the best of Argento, Polanski and Lynch.

Other films which felt as though the screenplays had been finished before production started included the Irish monster movie Grabbers, California Solo, and The Unspeakable Act, a restrained, Rohmeresque American indie about a girl romantically obsessed with her brother. Internationally, pleasant surprises came from Sweden (the deadpan comedy Flicker), and Indonesia, with The Mirror Never Lies. This story of a 12 year old girl coming to terms with the death of her father looks beautiful, feels universal, and has charming performances from its child cast.

Matthew Turner

My top ten:

1) The Imposter
2) Tabu
3) The Unspeakable Act
4) First Position
5) Unconditional
6) Grabbers
7) Brave
8) Berberian Sound Studio
9) Eddie The Sleepwalking Cannibal
10) California Solo

I didn’t see Flying Blind, but I didn’t generally have quite the same problem with TVish films that you did – that’s often par for the course with British films, I find, and not necessarily in a bad way. I definitely agree that Unconditional (my favourite British feature) was unfairly left out of the Michael Powell line-up and I’d have personally swapped Small Creatures (which I hated) for Borrowed Time, which was great.

I saw 42 films in total (the number I usually aim for at Edinburgh) and although only two (The Imposter and Tabu) were outstanding, I saw a large number of very good or excellent films and only three outright stinkers: Young Dudes, Small Creatures and Tim & Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. There was a surprisingly large number of horror films this year four of which  will be playing at FrightFest at the end of August. Personally, I was delighted to see the return of the heart-warming competition-based documentary (which I regard as an Edinburgh staple) in the form of First Position, a lovely film in the Spellbound mode, following five hopefuls as they enter a ballet competition. I had Grabbers in my top five for almost the entire week, but it eventually got bumped to sixth place because I really loved both Unconditional (a cleverly dressed up drama about domestic abuse and sexual identity, with shades of Vertigo) and The Unspeakable Act. I have to say though, that, alongside Brave, Grabbers was undoubtedly the most fun to watch. I also want to put in a good word for California Solo, which was a really solid drama and featured, to my mind, Robert Carlyle’s best performance for a long time. There are a few films that didn’t quite make the list that I want to single out too: Exit Elena (a slow-burning American indie that, along with Kid-Thing, had the best ending of any film I saw, V/H/S (a found footage horror film about people who find footage) and raucous roller derby documentary Leave It On The Track.

EK McAlpine

First Position

I will never concur that Tabu was worth watching. I fell asleep after twenty minutes, woke up half an hour later and walked out. However, I felt that I didn’t get it, which is better than fully understanding the film and still hating it – à la God Bless America and The Unspeakable Act. The latter was a big favourite among the EIFF press corps, but I just didn’t find it that engaging.

As a pathetic young woman who is considered comatose until she’s had three cups of tea and a breakfast capable of sustaining an army, I didn’t see quite as many films as the others. I made up for it with my super-fresh party attitude though, and by eating my own weight in burgers/noodles/chicken/breakfast/tequila. Edinburgh was not a healthy period of my life, I’ll say that. But anyway, here’s my top *ahem* five:.

1) First Position
2) Grabbers
3) And If We All Lived Together?
4) Rent-a-Cat
5) The Sex Film (aka Sexual Chronicles of a French Family)

Major omissions from that list include Unconditional and V/H/S. Unconditional was incredibly well-done, inducing all the right reactions of discomfort and horror. But I just didn’t think it was that great, and I didn’t find it an enjoyable watch. V/H/S, on the other hand, just was a bit… bland. Yeah, there were some jumps, the gore went from disgusting to hilarious, and it had some interesting variations on the conventional misogyny-ridden horror narrative, but all in all it didn’t work for me.

First Position was fantastic. You found yourself genuinely rooting for all the competitors (the exception was All-American Rebecca, but maybe that was just me [It was – Frank and Matthew]. Bess Kargman captured the passion and relationships perfectly, and the whole thing was very pleasant to sit through.

I mulled over putting And If We All Lived Together? as my second favourite, but considering I saw a screening ‘sans sous-titres’, I’m unable to truly say I knew what the hell was going on. So Grabbers got the coveted runner-up spot in my estimation, a film I really enjoyed. It reminded me of Shaun of the Dead, with laughs outnumbering the scares. The parody element was definitely less than in Shaun – there weren’t many in-jokes or references to other films- but I don’t think that was necessarily a bad thing, and it certainly still worked as a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi horror film.

Rent-a-Cat was the first film I saw at the festival, and oh my, it just made me smile. An Amelie-style heartwarmer, it does exactly what is says on the tin.  Sexual Chronicles of a French Family (The Sex Film) comes in at number 5, with a sex-positive message and a torrent of soft porn to make you feel super uncomfortable sat with your parents. It was well made, well thought out and had some great performances.

Overall, I had a brilliant, exhausting time. While I perhaps didn’t see as many movies as everyone else, I did see a fair few. Usually with a tub of ice-cream to spill over my notepad, and popcorn to just spill on the floor. Edinburgh wrecked my feet, I kept running out of clothes and there was a memorable ‘highlight’ where I decided to climb Arthur’s Seat at 4am. I’m most certainly planning on returning to annoy everyone next year.

Matthew Turner

Speaking of not getting to see everything, I am rather embarrassed by a) not getting to any of the Shinji Somai films (people were raving about them at the closing night party) and b) failing to see the Michael Powell winner (One Mile Away), the International Feature winner (Here, Then – not to be confused with Here, There) or the Student Jury winner (Sleepless Nights). This must be how Cannes journalists feel when they all list their predictions and then the jury goes and chooses a film that only played on the last Sunday after everyone had gone home.

Anyway, shall we unveil the awards?

Gareth Negus

This year, the Mostly Film Edinburgh Film Festival Awards are sponsored by Wannaburger, Edinburgh’s finest fast food restaurant.  Perhaps you could join in at home by picturing awards like giant burgers, sculpted in silver.  The four-strong Mostly Film jury met to discuss the winners over a selection of delicious burgers and shakes.

First up was the Award for Best Documentary.  Although The Imposter had originally been hotly tipped for victory, the jury awarded the prize to First Position, which follows six young ballet dancers, aged 9 – 19, to the Youth America Grand Prix.  Taking a tip from the likes of Spellbound, the filmmakers managed to feature a selection of highly able and likeable young people from a range of social and economic backgrounds to create a gripping narrative.

The Award for Best Male Performance went to Robert Carlyle for California Solo.  The role of Lachlan MacAldonich, a former Britpop rocker facing deportation from the US, was written especially for him, and it’s one he inhabits completely.

Best Female Performance, despite competition from Shadow Dancer’s Andrea Riseborough and Grabbers’ Ruth Bradley, went to Tallie Medel for The Unspeakable Act.  As Jackie, a teenager in love with her older brother, Medel is consistently restrained and convincing in a film where some of the other performances were variable.

The Best British Film saw the panel diverge from the choices of the Michael Powell Award jury, because we hadn’t seen the one they picked.  But however good One Mile Away is, it’s hard to imagine it’s more accomplished than Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio.  The film will be released by Artificial Eye in early September.

The Best International Film category split the panel, with votes going to Tabu, California Solo, and And if We All Live Together. Someone had to have the casting vote, so the award goes by a whisker to Tabu, an honour which will no doubt cap even its success in Berlin.

Finally, the coveted Jessica Brown Findlay Award for Best Newcomer.  Early bets were all on this award going to Harry McEntire of Unconditional, who is certainly impressive as a young man whose first experience of love comes with strings attached.  But in the end, a second award went to Tallie Medel for The Unspeakable Act.

Sadly, Tallie was unable to join us at Wannaburger, so we were obliged to eat her burger on her behalf.  Still, maybe next year.

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