This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival came to a close on Sunday. Gareth Negus, Matthew Turner and Sam Osborn pick their favourites from the programme.
“Ah, the Film Festival,” said the man behind the counter in the burger place. “Three, four years ago it used to be very good. Not any more.” He shook his head sadly.
That’s the prevailing opinion of the Edinburgh Film Festival: it’s not as good as it used to be, though whether that decline dates back to a big funding loss, some dreadful Board decisions in 2011, or the move from August is a matter for some debate. What’s not at issue is that it has slipped off the radar of the London-based media (though not Europe’s Best Website, naturally) over the last three years, and possibly some UK film distributors, who don’t see it as the ideal launch pad for their upscale product that they once might have – though artistic director Chris Fujiwara claims those relationships have been largely restored.
Indeed, the 2014 Festival had a number of credibly high profile UK premieres, including the out-now Cold in July (great), Eli Roth’s cannibal horror The Green Inferno (excellent if you like that sort of thing), Snowpiercer, and Set Fire to the Stars (sadly tedious); this also meant some proper celebrities (Don Johnson and Elijah Wood) were around for red carpet duties.
Said celebrities were also interviewed on stage, in the hideously titled ‘hero hangouts’, provided by Empire. I caught the Noel Clarke one, which had a high number of empty seats; while Clarke’s film output can be of questionable quality (I haven’t forgotten The Knot) it was an interesting interview that deserved better attendance. I imagine that Johnson, Wood and Simon ‘Big Bang Theory’ Helberg sold better.
It was certainly pleasing that the majority of the public screenings I attended seemed busy, even allowing that I wasn’t the only person there on an industry freebie. I found the films themselves to be a mixed bag. The Festival opened with Hyena, and writer/director Gerard Johnson’s thriller about police corruption, sex trafficking and East European gangsters was certainly a striking choice. Introducing the film, Fujiwara warned against criticising the film with the easy cliché of ‘style over substance’; fair enough, but I found the substance had an unpleasant taste. Watching a film where the nominal hero is only moderately less unpleasant than the villains is usually a dispiriting experience, and such was the case here, though I liked the film’s refusal to give the audience the expected catharsis at the climax.
I was very excited to attend my second festival as I had such a fantastic time last year; I was however surprised that the level of enthusiasm and buzz of the films was lacking. It felt like quite an effort to get anyone to recommend anything to you! True to form EIFF was in full bubble mode which allowed me to have a well-deserved break from reality and just enjoy the business of watching movies. This year I was a little more strategic in my selections trying to hit a lot of the UK films along with some animations and shorts. This resulted in me managing to see 6 out of the 9 films nominated for the Michael Powell Award for Best British Film; it was a strange bunch, that’s for sure, with no clear front runner. Hide and Seek was the choice of the Jury; it was easy enough to watch although nothing much really happened in it. I was sad to not be doing the whole festival this year and consequently missed titles that I would have liked to have seen. As well as missing out on the free stuffed Lemurs given away at The Island of Lemurs: Madagascar!
The opening night film was Hyena , another home grown effort. It was a bold choice for the Gala film with strong themes of violence and rape running through it. The Festival Theatre is a wonderful place to screen your film if you are lucky enough to be sat in the stalls. Unfortunately we were sitting in the Gods in unbearable heat!
I was entranced by a beautiful performance in Jack by young actor Ivo Pietzcker, who carried the film which focused on his desperate attempts to reunited him and his little brother with his delinquent mother. The story was wonderful and heartbreaking, a super little gem. Sticking with the young actor’s vein another good story was Uncertain Terms about pregnant teenagers going away to stay at a facility until the baby is born. The story, although predictable in places, was engaging enough to keep you entertained, the characters had real flaws rather than Hollywood ones which again made the film more appealing.
My surprise favourite film was The Skeleton Twins. I was put off initially by the title and description but found so much to enjoy about this bittersweet comedy. The story focuses on the suicidal thoughts and struggles of the brother and sister protagonists, which sounds heavy and depressing, but it is done with such charm and wit, helped by the two leads Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader being excellent improv actors. I would highly recommend this one to anyone!
The worst of the worst was A Practical Guide to a Spectacular Suicide, listed as “Whoever would have thought suicide could be funny?” Clearly not the writer of this mess. The acting was awful and made the film almost unwatchable for me. During the screening I attended 21 people walked out and I would have joined them only I don’t really like to walk out of films.
Top Five (in no particular order):
In Order Of Disappearance
The Skeleton Twins
Also in no particular order, here’s my top 5:
The Cat. One area where Edinburgh has been particularly strong over the past few years is in its retrospectives. This was true again in 2014; I missed all the Iranian strand, but did manage to catch two from the Dominik Graf retrospective. Graf, whose latest film Beloved Sisters was also in the Festival, is best known for a string of thrillers, many for German TV. The Cat is a gripping heist drama; it’s amazing it never received a UK release.
Coherence. My favourite film at Edinburgh is always one I went into completely blind. This year’s example was this low-budget SF drama; comparisons to Primer were many, but it’s really a different kind of film (you can follow the plot, for a start). A group of friends meet for dinner as a comet passes overhead; odd things start to happen. The cast of semi-familiar faces (Nicholas Brendan from Buffy is probably the best known, and he hasn’t exactly been prolific) are excellent: fingers crossed for a UK release.
A Fuller Life. The most interesting of the film documentaries I saw, this is a kickstarter-funded look at the life of director Sam Fuller, made by his daughter Samantha. It consists largely of various actors reading extracts from Fuller’s autobiography, along with clips and photos shot by Fuller over the years. It’s a fascinating look at a colourful life, and I guarantee you’ll want to seek out the book (A Third Face) afterwards.
The Skeleton Twins (by a whisper: this spot could as easily have gone to John le Carre adaptation A Most Wanted Man, or I Believe in Unicorns).
I will counter Gareth’s man-behind-the-burger-counter with the tale of the enthusiastic bus driver, who, on spotting my press pass, started gushing about how much he had enjoyed Doc of the Dead and how much he was looking forward to Life After Beth (hmmm…I’ve only just spotted the zombie connection…let’s not go there right now). At any rate, this makes a nice change from last year, where it felt like the general public in Edinburgh didn’t even know there was a film festival on. We should also add that, without question, this year had the best weather Edinburgh has ever had, at least in my 14 years of attending the festival. So there’s that.
Programme-wise, I think we can agree that, like it or not, the Edinburgh Film Festival has settled into a new groove and we should celebrate it for what it is, not lament what it used to be. Generally speaking though, the star power this year was head and shoulders above last year, which bodes well for the future. I stand by what I’ve said for the last few years, which is that Edinburgh needs at least a handful of big-hitters to make the public even want to open the programme in the first place and they didn’t really have one this year, not even a centrepiece animated feature (I don’t think The Nut Job or The House of Magic are quite in the same league as WALL-E, Toy Story 3 or even last year’s Monsters University). In a different world, Snowpiercer would have been that big hitter, but as Snowpiercer doesn’t appear to have a UK distributor yet, I don’t think we can count it in the traditional sense.
Personally speaking, it was a much slower festival for me this year in general – I only saw 29 films in total (as opposed to my usual Edinburgh goal of 42) and only did 9 interviews, which is a huge reduction from the 27 I did last year. I also found time to finally climb up to Arthur’s Seat, something I had never managed to do before, in 14 years of coming to the festival. It was totally worth it.
I do have a few regrets, such as missing out on the sight of Mark Kermode and Eli Roth getting jiggy with it at the Ceildh and I also completely failed to get to any of the interviews or interesting-looking industry events. Part of the blame for that lies with some hideous stomach trouble that I had for about a week, though the details of that are not suitable for a family blog.
Still, within my 29, I saw a handful of really great films, although it’s only fair to add that while I agonised over the top five, it was significantly easier to pick a top ten. The Top Five are as follows:
1) Snowpiercer. Bong Joon-ho’s train-set sci-fi masterpiece is the film we have been waiting for Terry Gilliam to make for the last 20 years. Exciting, political and bursting with ideas, this was a treat from start to finish. A must-see for fans of movies with snow and movies with trains and movies with trains in the snow. Incidentally, I went into this completely cold and it really paid off – all I knew going in was the director and the fact that Chris Evans had a beard.
2) Uncertain Terms. I really enjoyed writer-director Nathan Silver’s Exit Elena (yet another great film without a UK theatrical release) two years ago, so I was looking forward to his latest film and it didn’t disappoint. A simple story of a relationship tangle unfolding at a rural home for young single mothers, this didn’t put a foot wrong.
3) Coherence. I’m a sucker for films like this. I went in completely cold to this too and it was an absolute delight. I liked how, alongside its compelling sci-fi story, it also tossed around some interesting ideas about identity and how well we really know each other.
4) Finding Vivian Maier. A riveting documentary, telling the extraordinary true story of Vivian Maier, an eccentric nanny who took incredible photographs in her spare time and whose name deserves to be up there with the great professional shutterbugs, but whose work (including over 150,000 photos) remained undiscovered and unseen until after her death.
5) Zip & Zap and the Marble Gang. Yes, I’m putting Zip & Zap in my top five. It was that good. A well made, sharply written and nicely paced Spanish children’s story with likeable characters and a genuine sense of adventure and fun, not to mention a strong female character alongside the male leads. It’s a crying shame that this almost certainly won’t get a UK theatrical release, because it’s head and shoulders above any comparable made-for-children British film I’ve seen.
The top ten would also include: Norwegian revenge comedy In Order of Disappearance, religious drama Stations of the Cross, Australian coming-of-ager Galore, suicidal siblings comedy The Skeleton Twins and a tie between Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto and Leah Meyerhoff’s I Believe in Unicorns. I’ll also put in a good word for The Infinite Man, which was a fun time-travel mind-bender that, like Coherence, reminded me a lot of Primer: I can see a devoted fan doing one of those time-lines for the movie that explains it all. Also, I didn’t include Club Sandwich, Cold in July or We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, because I saw them all outside of the festival.
One final thing – there was a bizarre trend this year towards ending films by cutting to black mid-scene. The trend was first spotted by film journo Rob Girvan, but it quickly snowballed – I counted at least five films that did it and I’m sure there were more. The Sopranos has a lot to answer for, if you ask me.