Recap: 2011 Philadelphia Film Festival

Hits, misses and a joke about Michael Fassbender's penis

The Philadelphia Film Society ended its 20th annual film festival yesterday. As usual, it was an opportunity to see unique foreign films, small local films, affecting documentaries, and Oscar-contenders months before their release. Of the 140 films and shorts I was only able to see 17. Well, actually, 16 ½. (After having already seen three movies in one day, Coriolanus was not, in fact, a wise movie to see at 10 p.m.!) But what I saw—and heard—was a festival filled with many bright spots, and a few low spots. There were films that far succeeded expectations and those that disappointed. The festival was filled with surprising performances, and lots and lots of nudity. (Michael Fassbender’s penis should get a supporting actor credit in Shame.) Of course I can’t highlight everything I saw. So here are a few of my choices for The Best and The Rest of the film festival.

The Best

The Descendants
Tentative release date: Nov. 18

It took Alexander Payne seven years to release his follow-up to Sideways, but The Descendants was worth the wait. Starring George Clooney—in a career-defining, heartbreaking performance—the film follows a Hawaiian family dealing with the mother’s coma. It is a simple, devastating, joyful film that also boasts a tremendous debut from Shailene Woodley, who plays Clooney’s wild daughter. Oscar Watch: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress
My grade: A

The Artist

Tentative release date: Nov. 23

Yes, it’s in black and white, and yes—for the most part—it’s a silent film, but The Artist is no pastiche; it bubbles with energy and originality. Starring the dashing, charismatic Jean Dujardin as a silent star in the brink of “talkies,” we watch as he is pushed aside for the talking, younger talent, namely the beautiful Peppy (played by Bérénice Bejo). In the hands of French director Michael Hazanavicius, the Oscars may see a silent film win Best Picture for the first time in 82 years. Oscar Watch: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress.
My grade: A

Martha Marcy May Marlene
In theaters

Elizabeth Olsen shines in this sparse thriller about a young woman who leaves (escapes?) a modern cult. There aren’t many answers to be found in the narrative, but Olsen’s is the debut performance of the year. Oscar Watch: Best Actress
My grade: A-

Tentative release date: Nov. 11; Available on iTunes and On Demand

From his notorious comments at this year’s Cannes to his films that seem to torture and punish its characters (e.g., Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, Antichrist), Lars von Trier and his work aren’t always palatable. But in Melancholia, he has created an overwhelming, astonishingly (and surrealistically) beautiful work—especially the opening sequence with thundering Wagner and surrealistic, haunting images (like the image of a smaller planet, Melancholia, smashing into Earth)—examining the final days of our planet. But it is Kirsten Dunst’s fine, sorrowful performance that gives life to this sorrowing film that’s like an amalgamation of Kubrick’s 2001 and Malick’s Tree of Life. Oscar Watch: Best Actress
My grade: A-

Tentative release date: Dec. 2

The sophomore work from director/writer Steve McQueen (Hunger) was the “love it or hate it” film of the festival. Spare at times and sexually explicit always (it will have an NC-17 rating), Shame examines the life of a sex addict (Michael Fassbender). Perhaps people wanted to see Fassbender’s character struggle more with his addiction. Perhaps people wanted more back story on him and his sister (Carey Mulligan). Perhaps people didn’t see why a successful, handsome, well-endowed man who constantly has sex with attractive woman was a problem. But those who can get past the movie’s lack of resolution or character growth will marvel at Fassbender’s daring, exposed performance. Oscar Watch: Best Actor
My grade: B

The Rest

A Dangerous Method
Tentative release date: Nov. 23

David Cronenberg (The Fly, The History of Violence) is a singular artist, his work running the gamut of horror, thriller, and drama. His latest, A Dangerous Method, the cinematic examination of the professional relationship and rivalry between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen), is a disappointment. It is an interesting story, but except for a few scenes with a disturbed young patient, played by the scenery-chewing Keira Knightley, the movie is often too monochromatic, too monotone.
My grade: C+

My Week With Marilyn
Tentative release date: Nov. 23

Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh are already getting buzz for their portrayals of Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, but the sum of their performances cannot overcome the whole film—which feels like a lesser King’s Speech. It has plodding storyline, a treacly film score, and many criminally-underused actors (Judi Dench, Julia Ormond, and Derek Jacobi). Oscar Watch: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor
My grade: C-