London Film Festival 2011 Part 2: Imported Gems (Oct 12th-27th)

London Film Festival 2011 Part 2London Film Festival 2011 Part 2: Imported Gems: Welcome to the second part of DVDfever’s London Film Festival retrospective.

Last time we looked at the big budget and indie movies from the US and UK. In this part we’re mining the rich seam of creativity from everywhere else in the world. From Austria to Argentina, via Korea and Iceland, you’ll find something to suit your taste. And to save you time (and hard-earned money) we’ll make it clear whether you should be first in line, would be better off waiting for the DVD, or quite frankly shouldn’t bother at all. As a bonus, we’re also going to point out some of the remarkable documentaries coming your way.

So which nations really stood out from the pack with their festival fare this year? I never thought I would say this, but quite honestly, it’s pretty much a dead heat between Norway and Argentina… closely followed by Iceland – with the usual suspects, France, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Italy also giving a good account of themselves. So, rather than looking at genres or themes, we’re doing a country-by-country rundown, to highlight not just the best from each nation… but also the odd miss.

If you can judge a comedy by the laughs-per-minute rule, then there is no competition this year. KING CURLING (right), directed by Ole Endresen, rules. Straddling the territory between Zoolander, gross-out US fare, and Strictly Ballroom – which set the standard for hilarity, warmth and sporting obsession – this shows the lengths that Nordic competitors will go to in order to secure the much-coveted curling title.

And en route it features marital, mental and physical breakdown, extreme birdwatching, dreadful haircuts and fashions, appalling interior decoration, and a gawdawful Rod Stewart impersonator. Yet somehow, every character is endearing, and it’s all topped off with a great soundtrack including the glorious Eels. Recommended without reservation.

To prove it’s not a one-trick pony, Norway also boasts the festival’s best thriller, the gripping HEADHUNTERS. Directed by Morten Tyldum, it’s the first adaptation of any of Jo Nesbo’s dark novels, from the same production company that makes the Wallander TV series. Roger, the anti-hero, begins by doing everything to annoy the audience – acting smug and self-satisfied, sporting a beautiful wife, and believing he can pull off any money-making scam, leaving no trace or casualties.

But when sets his sights on something far more lucrative, he becomes a pawn in a much bigger scheme, and is relentlessly pursued across every terrain, in all weathers. His personal, professional and criminal worlds collide, and he might not just lose his love and his job, but also his life. And by this stage we are fully on Roger’s side, as he tries to keep his head above water and escape absurd situations and a truly ruthless opponent. Again, unmissable.

The best romantic comedy is MEDIANERAS (right), directed by Gustavo Taretto and fleshed out from his original, much-praised short film. Part of its genius is the casting. Argentine actor Javier Drolas plays a stressed-out insomniac web designer who is still looking after the dog his girlfriend left behind when she walked out on him. Spanish actress Pilar Lopez is perfect as the would-be architect forced to spend her days doing window dressing in Buenos Aires, and her evenings asking herself “Where’s Wally?” while listening through the walls to her neighbour playing her grand piano very stridently.

They both live in high-rise flats in adjacent blocks, and they both go dating, but their paths never cross. In fact, the idea of internet dating is neatly summarised by Drolas as resembling the McDonalds’ menu: everything there looks larger and more delicious. So the entire film consists of the duo’s delightful, whimsical parallel lives – packaged around the director’s “love letter” to the city itself. But are they fated never to meet? You’ll have to watch to find out. And I strongly urge you to do so.

BACK TO STAY, from debut director (and screenwriter) Milagros Mumenthaler, is an altogether different, Chekhovian drama of languid pace, which meshes The Three Sisters with The Cherry Orchard in plot and tone. Its title in Argentina is “Open Doors, Open Windows”, but it seems that the spoiled sisters who live in a crumbling mansion, while mourning their wealthy grandmother, might never escape. Beautifully filmed, they are trapped, enervated and disempowered by a mix of grief and lack of ambition while bickering and siding against each other.

Their neighbour, and the only person who really seems to care about them, is played by Julian Tello, who also features in Laura Citarella’s OSTENDE, which is a curious mixture of seaside postcard from a windy resort, Rear Window Hitchcock-style thriller, and French drama. The central character has won a prize to stay at the beach hotel, but is she witnessing a deadly crime, or perhaps just imagining a far-fetched plot at the deserted location?

One of the major themes dominating the festival is ageing, illness and mortality – and tackling it headlong is VOLCANO (right), co-produced with Denmark, directed by Runar Runarsson and featuring a stunning performance from Theodor Juliusson as Hannes. Recently retired and looking forward to spending time with his small fishing boat, his world falls apart when his wife suffers a stroke and is unable to move or speak. His fortitude and love are tested to the limit, as the rest of the family turn against him, and Runarsson never flinches from giving us a very grown-up film about facing death.

Those who loved Country Wedding, a previous festival favourite from Iceland’s Vesturport group, will want to check out the collective’s UNDERCURRENT, directed by Arni Olafur Asgeirsson. With less humour and much more darkness and drama, it opens with a funeral, and focuses on a tightly-knit, but under-evolved group of fishermen who go out on their beaten-up trawler in all weathers, and support each other through setbacks. But how deep is the loyalty of this bunch of misfits when it’s really tested? What really happened on their previous voyage? And will tragedy strike again?

Fans of Danish crime series, The Killing (which includes yours truly) will want to know what else one of its top-notch crew, director Lisa Aschan, can do. And the answer is SHE MONKEYS, a curious coming-of-age tale of the new kid in town, Emma, who joins the local equestrian acrobatics team (a sport I never knew existed). In the midst of fierce rivalry, she gains a friend, Cassandra, who drags her into her highly-charged teenage world of high jinks, high spirits, physical challenges and petty crime. Meanwhile, young Isabella Lindquist, playing Emma’s kid sister, Sara, steals every single scene she’s in and is worth watching out for in future.

One of the very best films in the entire festival comes from those evergreen Dardennes Brothers, in the shape of THE KID WITH A BIKE (right). It stars young Thomas Doret as Cyril, the kid, and Cecile de France, whose stock has been rising steadily, as his potential saviour, hairdresser Samantha. On face value, a drama about a boy who has been completely abandoned by his father, placed in care, and is tempted into a potential life of crime could be pretty dark and unpromising. But thanks to the two exceptional and sympathetic leads, and an expertly balanced mix of grit and hope from the Dardennes’ script, this certainly equals their previous best. Surely Samantha won’t want to foster or adopt Cyril when he falls in with some dodgy characters and lashes out at her? Or can he pull back from the brink to find salvation and even redemption with her?

Another trio of remarkable kids dominate Bouli Lanners’ gently humorous coming-of-age movie, THE GIANTS. Reminiscent of Stand By Me, but with added substance abuse, swearing and peroxide hair dye (making them look like Lost Boys), the exploits of these hapless teenagers get them into deeper and deeper trouble. They rent out their home and lose all its contents to thuggish drug farmers, squabble as they become increasingly feral, and have to fall back on the kindness of strangers. All three boys are superb, but Zacharie Chasseriaud, playing Zak, is probably the name to look out for.

Although it’s a Belgian/French co-production, LAST WINTER actually has an American director, John Shank, who dovetails epic US filmmaking qualities with European pastoral sensibilities in his debut feature. The story is timeless – of one man’s Hardyesque struggle against the elements and fates – yet incredibly timely, as the central character (an impressive Vincent Rottiers) is a farmer swallowed up by economic adversity and tempted to join all his neighbours in selling up and quitting the business.

Starkly beautiful landscapes frame Rottiers’ every bit of rotten luck, as a thunderstorm threatens his crop, his barn burns down, his insurance doesn’t come through, and his sister’s health worsens. Is there any way out for him?

Go to page 2 for more from London Film Festival 2011 Part 2: Imported Gems.


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