10 Films You Need to See at the Philadelphia Film Festival
Traveling to film festivals throughout the year, I’ve seen some of the best and most intriguing films of 2015 in theaters all over North America. Now it’s Philadelphia’s turn to get a crack at ‘em. Running from October 22nd to November 1st, the Philadelphia Film Festival has culled an exciting and varied line-up for its 2015 edition. My list is by no means comprehensive (there are some 100-plus features playing at the fest, many of which could well be tremendous) but it does represent a batch of films you absolutely should be adding to your screening calendar. Here, 10 films not to miss, in alphabetical order:
British director Andrew Haigh (Weekend) has made a luminescent and powerful film about marriage and the passing of time. Based loosely on a short story by David Constantine, the film finds an elderly couple (played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, both absolutely brilliant) about to celebrate an important anniversary and suddenly questioning their choices after one of them receives a startling letter in the mail. Quietly reverberating, the film shimmers with life, and the performances are nothing short of thrilling. It might sound staid, but as with the aging couple themselves, there is a lot of daring vitality in its ancient bones.
Very adult stop-motion animation story from Charile Kaufman and Duke Johnson — a designation I make not just because of a surprisingly graphic sex scene (the first time I have ever witnessed stop-motion cunnilingus), but also because the emotionally sophisticated story — an older customer service expert spends a night in Cincinnati to speak at a convention, and tries to assuage his perpetual loneliness — would absolutely bore the pants out of anyone under 10. For the rest of us, it’s a hauntingly sharp observation on the long-suffering human condition. Kaufman can sometimes go a bit too Ziggy Stardust for my taste, but here he’s completely on-point.
It’s a masterful, sweeping drama about a young Irish woman (Saoirse Ronan), who travels alone to America in the early ’50s in order to make a better life for herself, even as she desperately misses her mother and older sister. Eventually, she meets a kindly young Italian man (Emory Cohen) and falls in love, but has to return to Ireland, where she ultimately has to make a fretful decision between staying in her beloved home, or returning to the life she only half-began across the ocean. It’s the kind of emotionally driven story that you could imagine Hollywood snapping up — and thoroughly botching. Fortunately, the screenplay, based on the novel by Colm Tóibín and adapted flawlessly by Nick Hornby, never loses sight of the potency of the small, well-observed detail. It doesn’t demand that emotions well up in you, it just goes about the business of telling its story, and the wonderful acting and sharp screenwriting do the rest.
If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Todd Haynes, the director often works in ways to challenge his audience in one form or another. How much you enjoy having your basic assumptions and expectations challenged goes a long way as to whether you’ll appreciate his oeuvre. His new film, which premiered just a few weeks ago at the NYFF, stars Rooney Mara as the young, slightly mousey Therese, a counterperson at a fictional New York department store in the early ‘50s, and the brilliant Cate Blanchett as the titular older debutante woman with whom she falls desperately in love. Haynes pitches his story as a romance, but one in which we are genuinely worried for our protagonist’s emotional care. Carol is many engaging things, but there’s the nagging sense that she’s simply not going to be good for Therese, no matter how much the latter may hope otherwise. Strong performances and a provocative undercurrent — Carol’s ex-husband tries to invoke a moral condemnation clause in their protracted custody battle over their daughter — power the film to fascinating heights.
Christopher Abbot stars in this devastating film from writer/director Josh Mond, as a well-meaning, but hugely irresponsible young man who has a knack for making the wrong calls and forcing everyone around him to live with his bad decisions. This is especially true of his long-suffering but loving mom, played by Cynthia Nixon, who’s been sick with cancer. When the disease comes back with a vengeance, it forces James to face the world a little more head-on, but not without it exacting a pretty horrific toll on his life. Quick tempered and hugely impulsive, he has no place to put his anguish except upon everything else around him. For those of us who have lost a parent, the film’s unrelenting intimacy is very nearly unendurable, but I have nothing but mad respect for a filmmaker who can look into that particular abyss so unflinchingly. This is a monster of a film, and the announcement of a phenomenal young actor, suddenly proving his earlier career choices were more than justified.
If Kafka had been born later and become a filmmaker rather than a writer, this is the kind of thing he would have enjoyed making. Yorgos Lanthimos continues his captivating and peculiar vision here with a wild-eyed conceit played as drolly deadpan as a chamber comedy. At a special hotel somewhere outside a large city, single people are given 45 days to find a partner with whom to share their lives, or be turned into the animal of their choice and set free in the nearby woods. Lanthimos’ film is ostensibly a comedy, but because of his visceral acuity, and penchant for disturbing violence, the whole enterprise has a gritty edginess to it. He doesn’t want you comfortable; he wants you transfixed. Mission accomplished.
The story of how three young friends came to make a faithful adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark is absolutely delightful: Mere 11 year olds at the time of the film’s initial release back in 1981, the trio filmed their version of the movie over the course of seven arduous years, and somehow through their ingenuity, hard work, and stubborn dedication managed to capture a version of every scene in the film save one. Raiders! is a documentary which covers the making of this labor of love — and how the three came back together decades later to film that last shot (Indy’s fight with a German boxer over and on a twirling flying wing). The Adaptation is the result of their tireless efforts to bring their adoration of the film on the big screen. For Raiders fans, this is a kind of essential DIY love letter to Spielberg’s original movie, and to the film industry that made it possible in the first place.
Emma Donoghue’s screenplay, based on her own novel, addresses the issue of a child narrator in an interesting way: Our main character portal in the film is a 5-year-old boy named Jack (played magnificently by Jacob Trembly). Jack lives with his Ma, Joy (Brie Larson), in a small, soundproofed shed with a lone skylight to serve as their window on the world. Quickly, we learn that Joy and Jack have been imprisoned there by a male captor they only call Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), a quick-tempered sort, who brings them food and other necessities in the evenings, where he also takes the opportunity to bed down with the long-suffering Joy. Everything Jack knows about existence is between his Ma and the small details of their 15-by-15-foot box (measurement approximate). A good deal of scenes in the early going of Lenny Abrahamson’s film is devoted to watching Jack as he stares up at the skylight, or across the dirty, linoleum floor of their dwelling, eyeing frayed carpet fibers, or a mouse skittering from behind the refrigerator. I’m not sure the entire thing hits quite as hard as it wants to, but it’s a fascinating study of both childhood and parenthood.
How this fascinating doc came together is a story unto itself, but suffice to say, Cabral and Sutcliffe’s procedural of an undercover FBI sting, shot without the knowledge of the superiors in charge of the operation, is a riveting look at the inner workings of the agency charged with protecting its citizens from terrorism. After two decades of working as an FBI informant, Saeed Torres starts to question the nature of a surveillance mission he’s sent on and allows the filmmakers to capture what happens when he’s on the job. The problem is, Torres himself turns out to be pretty seriously compromised, and the resulting chaos proves every bit as engrossing and dramatic as something a Hollywood screenwriter could dream up. How the FBI have allowed the film to be screened publicly is yet another interesting question in a film absolutely chock full of them.
No film got more pre-festival hype at TIFF this year than Sebastian Schipper’s bravura one-take drama about a young woman who befriends a group of guys outside a Berlin club and eventually drives the getaway car from their bank heist. Logistically, it’s a marvel — reportedly it took three takes over successive nights to get it just right — and the camera work, by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, is astounding (apart from everything else running all over the city and holding a single camera shot for 138 minutes should win a special award unto itself). Underneath its technical achievements, it’s fair to question how much else there might be going on, but in any event, it’s well worth seeing for its daring chutzpah as much as anything else.