by Matthew Turner
As regular readers of Europe’s Best Website may remember, this time last year I attended the San Sebastian Film Festival and had such a great time that I vowed to go back every year until death. Well, so far, so good. For the truly curious, pictures and a tweet-by-tweet account of the entire festival can be found here and here respectively, but let’s keep this blog post mostly about film. Here, then, are some notes on the ten best films I saw at San Sebastian this year (out of a total of 35). Note that a) I would have included The Imposter on this list if I hadn’t already seen it at Edinburgh and b) I deemed retrospective films ineligible for the top ten, otherwise Franju’s Judex would have been on the list too.
Hands down the best film I saw at San Sebastian this year and apparently already the front-runner for the Oscars, Ben Affleck’s Argo is nigh-on perfect. Based on a recently declassified true story and set in 1979 at the height of the Iranian revolution, the film stars Affleck as a CIA operative who comes up with a plan to rescue six escaped American hostages by entering Tehran and posing as the producer of a sci-fi film, the idea being to sneak the six hostages out as his film crew. As a director, Affleck gets everything right: from pacing to character, casting, balance of tone and period detail (a series of stills and matching shots from the movie over the end credits shows the lengths they went to in this regard), all while maintaining a nail-biting level of suspense, heightened by a terrific score from MostlyFilm’s favouritely-named composer Alexandre Desplat.
Affleck’s performance is also worthy of note – it’s easy to imagine another actor coming in and playing the part like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, saving the day and all that jazz, but Affleck plays it quiet, fading into the background and allowing his superlative and extensive supporting cast to nab the acting honours.
2) The Sessions
My second favourite film at San Sebastian is another one that has potential Oscar glory written all over it. Based on a true story, the film stars John Hawkes as Mark, a 38 year old man paralysed after childhood polio and confined to an iron lung. After a disastrous attempt at a relationship and much deliberation with his progressive priest (a long-haired William H Macy, very possibly earning himself a Best Supporting Actor nomination), Mark decides to hire a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) in order to lose his virginity. However, because of the various risks involved, the rules of the job mean that they will only have six sessions together. The synopsis of the film alone makes it sound like mawkish, sentimental Oscar-bait, like My Left Foot with a bit of sex in it. However, the quality of the performances (Hawkes, in particular, is a shoo-in for a Best Actor nomination) the warmth of the characters and the frequently hilarious screenplay make this an entirely different experience from what you might be expecting.
3) ¡Atraco! (Hold-Up!)
The poster doesn’t do it any favours, but ¡Atraco! turned out to be one of the most enjoyable films of the entire festival.
Based, again, on a true story, the film is set in 1955 and begins with Peron’s right hand man (Francesc Albiol) secretly pawning Evita Peron’s jewels in Madrid in order to finance her husband’s intended exile. However, he has reckoned without General Franco’s wife’s renowned penchant for “borrowing” jewellery from all of Madrid’s jewellers and then never giving it back. The staff manage to stall Franco’s wife for a week, so dyed-in-the-wool Peron loyalist Merello (Guillermo Francella, wonderful) and younger wannabe actor Miguel (Nicolas Cabre) are dispatched to stage a robbery in order to retrieve the jewels before Madam Franco gets her hands on them. That’s really just the beginning of the story, as there’s also a love interest (Amaia Salamanca) and two investigating cops (heart-throb du jour Óscar Jaenada and Jordi Martínez) who are essentially the mirror images of Merello and Miguel. The film boasts gorgeous production design work and a cracking score, while director Eduard Cortes pulls off an extremely impressive balancing act in terms of both tone and genre, ensuring that the film works equally as historical drama, heist thriller, romance, musical, comedy and even tragedy, hitting all the required notes for each.
4) Blancanieves (Winner: Special Jury Prize)
I admit I was sold on director Pablo Berger’s silent version of Snow White as soon as someone told me Maribel Verdu was playing the Wicked Queen role. An inspired updating of the classic fairy tale, Blancanieves is set in 1920s Spain and revolves around the world of bullfighting, so the “king” is a famous matador and when he’s gored in the ring, his saintly wife goes into labour and dies in childbirth.
The matador marries his scheming nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu), who becomes wicked step-mother to Blancanieves (Sofia Oria), who has only her scene-stealing pet cockerel for company. However, when her father dies, Blancanieves (now Macarena Garcia) runs away and falls in with – yes! – seven bullfighting dwarves, whereupon she learns their craft and determines to follow in her father’s footsteps. Whether or not Blancanieves was directly inspired by the success of The Artist is open to debate, but silent movie fans are in for a treat either way. The performances are superb (vampy Verdu is proper full-on evil as Encarna, while Garcia shared the festival’s Best Actress prize), the score is fantastic, it’s beautifully shot and the screenplay is by turns laugh-out-loud funny, powerfully moving and surprisingly dark. Also, if San Sebastian had had an award for Best Animal Performance, that cockerel (Pepe!) would have won hands down.
Based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, Foxfire tells the story of a gang of girls who form a secret society in 1950s upstate New York. Initially dedicated to revenging themselves against men who have done them harm, the group eventually falls foul of petty jealousies and the cracks begin to show. Director Laurent Cantet (The Class) adapted the script and does a terrific job with a cast of complete unknowns: stand-out performances include Raven Adamson (as charismatic gang-leader Legs), Katie Coseni (as ginger documentarian-slash-voiceover provider Maddy; Coseni also shared the Best Actress prize) and Madeleine Bisson as Rita O’Hagan, whose liking for boys doesn’t go down too well with the other members of the gang.
At two hours and twenty-three minutes, Foxfire is arguably a little too long, but I was riveted throughout. Production design and soundtrack on the film are both first-rate and the period detail is superb. Afterwards, I was gobsmacked to discover (via MostlyFilm’s own @SpodoKomodo on Twitter) that this is, in fact, the second adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ novel and that a pre-fame Angelina Jolie played Legs in the 1996 version.
6) After Lucia
Mexican director Miguel Franco’s second feature is a powerful, slow-burning drama that builds to a devastating climax, gradually and remorselessly tightening its grip until you can’t breathe. It begins with a brilliant extended take during which a man (Hernan Mendoza) mysteriously abandons a recently mended car on a busy city road. Gradually we work out that the man and his daughter (Tessa Ia as Alejandra) are trying to move on after the death of the man’s wife, Lucia: they have moved to Mexico City, he has a new job and Alejandra is attending a new school. However, when Alejandra starts getting bullied by her so-called friends at school, she doesn’t tell her father what’s happening, for fear of plunging him back into depression. The film is shot in a very stand-offish, almost documentary-like style (lots of long takes and wide shots), which makes the relentless bullying scenes almost unbearable to watch. Consequently, this is deeply upsetting stuff, but it demands to be seen. Jaw-dropping final scene too – I don’t think I heard a bigger collective gasp all festival.
Oddly enough, I saw Shell and After Lucia almost back to back, so the fact that both films are centred on an intense father-daughter relationship was particularly striking. (Also, by coincidence, they were the only films I ended up doing interviews for). Written and directed by Scott Graham (and expanded from his short of the same name), Shell stars newcomer Chloe Pirrie as 17 year old Shell, who runs a remote petrol station in the Scottish highlands with her father, Pete (Joseph Mawle). Aside from a few regulars (including a brilliantly cast Michael Smiley), Shell has almost no contact with the outside world and her close-knit, mutually dependent relationship with Pete becomes increasingly disturbing. Graham makes the wise decision not to give the audience all the answers so you’re left to fill in their back-story for yourself. The film is by no means perfect (the ending, while dramatic, feels like a bit of a cop-out), but this marks a promising debut for both Graham and Pirrie. Great location work too, not to mention some impressive deer-wrangling.
Michael Haneke’s Palme D’Or winner was one of the films I was most looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. Set in present-day Paris, it tells the story of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a pair of retired music teachers in their 80s and how they cope when one of them gradually succumbs to dementia after an initial stroke. Needless to say, this is powerfully emotional and beautifully performed throughout, with almost all the action taking place in the couple’s apartment, thereby illustrating the devastating unavailability of the outside world. One particular sequence in this film is more terrifying than any horror film I have seen all year and is destined to stay with me a long time: at breakfast, Anne suddenly freezes, eyes open but all traces of alertness completely gone. Georges at first thinks she’s joking around, then panics and rushes around trying to find a phone, whereupon she snaps back to life and nags him for having left the tap running. (There’s also a great scene with a pigeon, continuing a running theme of impressive animal-wrangling for the films in this festival). Whether by coincidence or canny programming, the film gained an extra emotional kick because the youthful versions of Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva both appeared in the films of Georges Franju, in the superlative retrospective section of the festival.
9) In The House (Dans La Maison)
Francois Ozon’s In The House (Dans La Maison), which won the Golden Shell for Best Film, is based on Juan Mayorga’s play The Boy In The Last Row and stars Fabrice Luchini as Germain, an apathetic English teacher who’s long since given up on his students. However, when one of his students (Ernst Umhauer as Claude) hands in an essay about infiltrating a classmate’s family and ends it “To be continued”, Germain is intrigued and encourages the boy to continue writing… which also means continuing his pursuit of the family. There’s a strong streak of black comedy running through the film butthe script also has a lot of fun blurring the lines between reality and fiction and toying with ideas of audience expectation. The performances are terrific too and I like to imagine that co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas (as Germain’s wife) and Emmanuelle Seigneur (as the classmate’s mother and the object of Claude’s desire) found time to reminisce about their time on Polanski’s Bitter Moon between takes.
10) The Impossible
It was a bit of a toss-up, deciding on 10th place (other contenders included 7 Boxes, Le Capital, Bypass, Summer Outside and La Sirga), but I’ve plumped for Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible, purely because it made me cry like a tiny child. Based on a true story, the film stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as the parents of three young boys who are all caught up in the 2004 tsunami disaster while on holiday in Thailand. I always say there’s nothing wrong with clichés per se, providing they are marshalled effectively and Bayona certainly knows his way around an effectively marshalled cliché – in fact, there are so many just-miss-each-other moments that I seriously started wondering whether Bayona had studied Lassie Come Home prior to filming. Essentially, this is a proper, old-fashioned disaster movie and while you can fault it for paring down the story to the experiences of just one white family (especially when the real-life family were, um, Mexican), you can’t fault either the jaw-dropping special effects work or the raw emotion on display. This is the sort of film that could easily net Naomi Watts a Best Actress nomination, though I’m not sure she deserves it, as the opening scenes are excruciatingly painful to watch, with McGregor and Watts earnestly discussing whether or not they remembered to put the alarm on at home and both behaving like the world’s least convincing married couple.
Fortunately, the acting picks up considerably once the wave hits and young Tom Holland (a Jamie Bell in the making) in particular could well be a talent to watch. This will almost certainly get a UK release at some point and when it does, bring tissues. You’ll need them.
Argo, The Sessions, Blancanieves, After Lucia, Shell, Amour and Dans La Maison are all showing at the London Film Festival.
Matthew Turner (@FilmFan1971) is the film reviewer for ViewLondon.co.uk. At the time of writing he has seen 362 films so far this year.