Matthew Turner and Gareth Negus pick out their highlights from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.
I’ll be honest, I was expecting great things from Edinburgh’s 70th year. The EIFF’s 60th year (during which I saw 60 films in 11 days, as a sort of crazed tribute – I wasn’t of a mind to attempt 70 for the 70th, let’s put it that way) was one of my favourite ever EdFilmFest experiences and I’ve been coming every year since 2001. In the event, the 70th delivered star power (Kevin Smith in particular, see below) and it certainly wasn’t short on atmosphere (thanks, once again, to the FilmHouse bar having a 3am license every night), but, the annual Pixar aside, the programme seemed to lack the all-important big hitters. I know there were various political reasons why the EIFF couldn’t get hold of Refn’s Neon Demon, for example, but that was definitely a film whose absence was noted.
Let’s put it this way. After the success of last year, I was excited to see what Artistic Director Mark Adams would come up with, given a whole year to put the festival together. And while the festival was full of some very good films, there was nothing in the programme that really leapt out as a must-see beforehand. My contention has always been that you need at least three or four “tentpole” films (ideally the Pixar and three others) to get the non-film-fanatic public to open up the programme in the first place and then you hook them in to the smaller stuff afterwards.
This year’s Festival was bookended by two Scottish productions, both of which proved to be inoffensive but slightly nap-friendly. Opener Tommy’s Honour, directed by Jason ‘Son of Sean’ Connery, was the true life story of Tommy Morris, an early professional golfer of the late 19th century. If you are very interested in the history of golf, then you might certainly find this a worthwhile watch. Otherwise, though you do get nice performances from Jack Lowden and Peter Mullan, there’s not much to hold the attention – the film seems uninterested in drawing much of a parallel between Tommy’s determination to turn playing golf into a viable professional career and anything else that may have been happening in society at the time.
The closing film was Gillies MacKinnon’s Whisky Galore!, a remake of one of the famous Ealing comedies that I’ve never got round to seeing. More pretty scenery, and it’s all harmless froth, but its natural home felt like BBC1 Scotland on Boxing Day. I will confess to resting my eyes in the middle.
In terms of national pride, I suspect there was more excitement about the restoration of Highlander – certainly one taxi driver I met was bemoaning his failure to get tickets (he loved it so much he named his son Connor).
Normally I would spend the majority of the festival enthusiastically reeling off a list of discoveries, films I would be actively pushing on friends who asked what they should see. This year, outside of the top three (and the top two were on pretty much everyone’s list), I really struggled to come up with anything you might call unmissable. Also, Maggie’s Plan would be in the Top Five too, but I saw that in London before the Festival, so I’m not counting it.
For various reasons, I saw fewer films this year than previously – 19, including two seen prior to the Festival (Maggie’s Plan and The Commune, both very much worth a look, and would make a top ten if I was doing one). Of those 17, my top 5 are (in no particular order):
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Harold and Lillian: a Hollywood Love Story
The White King
Halal Love (and Sex)
I’m leaving out Finding Dory, because you don’t need any more telling that Pixar have made another good film (not my favourite of their stuff, but I preferred it to Nemo).
The Top Five
1) Hunt for the Wilderpeople
2) Finding Dory
3) The Commune
4) Little Sister
5) The Model
I saw an entirely respectable 44 festival films this year and, to be fair, only two of them were actively awful. Like everyone I spoke to, I loved Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople – it had been the film I was most looking forward to throughout the festival and it didn’t disappoint. A very entertaining comedy about a rebellious kid (newcomer Julian Dennison) and his foster Uncle (Sam Neill) going missing in the New Zealand bush, it had heart and humour in huge quantities. I particularly loved Rhys Derby as Psycho Sam, the Wild Man they run into. I can’t wait to see this again.
You have a point about Finding Dory – you don’t need me to tell you that Pixar have done it again either, but, well, they have. The Pixar Family Gala is an important part of the Edinburgh Film Festival every year (Inside Out was my favourite film of the festival last year) and long may that tradition continue.
You mentioned Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune already, but I hadn’t seen it before the festival, so it made it into my list. I thought it would make an excellent companion piece to Lukas Moodysson’s Together (one of my favourite films of the noughties). Set in the 1970s, it’s about a commune that gradually splits apart after one of its members (Ulrich Thomsen) begins an affair with a younger woman. Trine Dyrholm is heart-breaking as the wife trying to balance the ideal of their communal life with the reality of its impact on her marriage and there’s great support from a host of familiar Danish faces, as well as newcomer Martha Sofie Wallstrøm Hansen, who made a strong impression as their teenage daughter.
I also really liked Little Sister, an American indie about a soon-to-be nun (Addison Timlin) visiting her estranged family, including her strung-out mother (Ally Sheedy) and her recently-returned soldier brother (Keith Poulson) who’s been left severely disfigured after an IED explosion. Writer-director Zach Clark made one of my favourite EIFF discoveries of recent years (Modern Love Is Automatic) and I liked his second film, Vacation, too (also at EIFF), so I was really looking forward to this. Clark has a knack for caustic dialogue and occasionally close-to-the-bone humour, but he’s also adept at portraying fraught, but loving relationships and that really shines through here. He’s a dab hand with a synth score too.
For my fifth film, I went with Danish drama The Model, perhaps because it was one of the last films I saw at the festival and it ended up staying with me when it came to list-writing time. It’s a fairly predictable story about the horrors of the modelling industry when you’re very young (the lead character tells everyone she’s 18, but she’s 16), but it was well acted by the lead (Maria Palm) and it had possibly my favourite final shot of the festival.
I’d also like to single out five other films I really liked, any of which could have been swapped with The Model for that fifth slot. They were: Swedish old comedy A Man Called Ove (very touching performances and a lovely story about an old man gradually being softened by the kindness of his neighbours), Danish thriller A Conspiracy of Faith (the third in the Department Q series, with Nikolas Lie Kaaj and Fares Fares – to my mind better than the second film, not quite as good as the first), French children’s comedy The Canterville Ghost (featuring ginger goddess Audrey Fleurot as a sexy ghost), American teens-bonding-over-a-mutual-love-of-slash-fiction indie Slash and Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader, which was simultaneously the best possible film to see on the morning of the Brexit result and the worst possible film to see on the morning of the Brexit result. (Speaking of which, that really put a downer on the last few days of the festival, so thanks for that, Britain).
Documentaries about film are usually among the treats of Edinburgh, and so it proved to be with Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story. This tells the story of the long marriage between Harold and Lillian Michelson: respectively, a storyboard artist turned production designer, and a film researcher who for many years ran one of Hollywood’s most respected research libraries. The film mixes poignant stories from their six decade marriage with fascinating Hollywood anecdotes – how Harold’s storyboard’s came up with iconic shots for which directors are usually credited, how Lillian nearly went to South America with a drug lord while researching Scarface, how the pair inspired the King and Queen in Shrek. A UK cinema release might be too much to hope for, but keep an eye on your VOD platform of choice for this one.
The White King is an adaptation of György Dragomán’s novel about Djata, a 12 year old boy in a future dictatorship; it’s a fairly episodic tale of his, and his mother’s (Agness Deyn) attempts to discover the fate of his father, who has been arrested for criticising the regime. At the time, I was only moderately impressed, but the film has stayed with me – maybe it’s the look of the film (it was shot in Budapest), maybe it’s the open ending that refuses to offer you the comfort of thinking things will get better (it feels like the first of a YA trilogy, but isn’t). Maybe the news at the moment is putting me in a funny mood.
So, for something lighter: Halal Love (and Sex), Assad Fouladkar’s Beirut-set romantic comedy that interweaves several stories about Islamic couples looking for love. A sharia Richard Curtis, of sorts – and while for all I know it may be as unrealistic a portrayal of Beirut as Notting Hill is of Notting Hill. But what’s important is that it’s not only funny (a sex education lesson is an early comic highpoint) but that it offers a different insight to a culture and community that we normally see in very narrow terms. That’s what I go to Festivals for.
Outside of the programme, there were plenty of great highlights this year. The Ceildh was enormous fun, as ever. One of the Ceildh highlights is seeing incongruous celebrities joining in with the whole thing and this year Kim Cattrall impressed everyone with her ability to do some pretty exhausting dance moves in high heels. Also spotted on the dance floor: Clancy Brown, Jodie Whitaker, Dougray Scott, Dominique Pinon and Denis Lavant (the latter two not together, sadly).
Similarly, Kevin Smith turned out to be a superb guest, staying most of the week and doing lengthy, crowd-pleasing Q&As after each Yoga Hosers screening, as well as doing three hours and ten minutes instead of the billed ninety in his Evening With Kevin Smith event. And on a personal note, three of my festival highlights came in the wonderful retrospective section, namely, a midnight screening of Modesty Blaise (which I hadn’t seen in 30 years and only then in a pan-and-scanned TV version – it was absolutely wonderful on the big screen), a screening of Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala (which I’d never seen) and weird Japanese sex-manga Belladonna of Sadness, which really has to be seen to be believed.
So, all in all, a damn fine Edinburgh, even if it perhaps wasn’t quite what I was expecting from the 70th year.