This was my 14th year attending Cinequest, a fairly major film festival in San Jose, California. I have generally seen 20 or so films each year, except in years when I was un- or underemployed, when I saw even more. Here is my rough ranking of the feature films I saw this year:
- Kiss Me, You Fucking Moron: This Norwegian coming-of-age movie just totally worked for me. The program categorizes it as a comedy/romance, but there was definitely some drama in the mix as well. The main characters are mostly part of a youth (15 to 18 years old as I recall) theater group, plus an alcoholic actor who the main character manages to talk into helping them put on a far more gritty play than they have ever done before. This was the U.S. premiere.
- Heart of a Lion: This Finnish drama was very hard to watch and punches you in the gut, but in a good way. The main three characters are a racist skinhead, who falls for a woman, who turns out to have a black child from a prior marriage. You know bad things are going to happen with this combination, but the character transformations that happen along the way all feel plausible and definitely moving.
- The Rugby Player: This is a documentary about Mark Bingham, who was on flight United 93 on 9/11. After discovering a love of and talent for rugby in high school, he went on to play at U.C. Berkeley, and somewhere along the way he came out as gay. The film talks with the people who knew him best, including close friends and his amazing mother. I had tears in my eyes on at least one occasion.
- East Side Sushi: This local Bay Area drama may have been improved by the world premiere vibe and all the filmmakers in the row immediately behind me. It was somewhat predictable in many ways, but not completely, and I definitely enjoyed it.
- Return to Zero: This drama about a couple who suffer a tragedy early on in the film seems likely to get a release. I was very impressed by Minnie Driver‘s performance. This was the world premiere.
- Sex(ed): The Movie: This is a documentary about sex education films throughout history, from as early as 1910, and it was a lot of fun. An earlier showing at the festival was the world premiere.
- The Grand Seduction: This was the opening night film of the festival. It reminded me in some ways of Local Hero, and while it was enjoyable it definitely wasn’t as good as that great little gem.
- SlingShot: This is a documentary about Dean Kamen, best known as the man behind the Segway. This film focuses on his work to use technology to bring clean safe drinking water to the parts of the word that need it most. My ranking is estimated since I had a conflict and missed the first half hour.
- Deep City: This is another documentary, in this case about a long-gone soul music label from south Florida. It was good, but didn’t measure up to Standing in the Shadows of Motown or the recent 20 Feet from Stardom.
- Under the Same Sun: This is a documentary-feeling fiction film about a Jewish businessman working with a Palestinian businessman to both bring more solar power to the area, and to be a catalyst for peace. While it would be very good if this could really happen, it seems unlikely.
- The Farmer and the Chef: I chose this documentary because it’s very close to home, meaning where I live. It’s about a small biodynamic farm in the Santa Cruz mountains, and the well known chef who works with the farmer. This was the world premiere, and the film could not be found on IMDb when I was writing this blog post.
- Hunting Elephants: This Israeli comedy had some good moments, but suffered from cartoonish characters (all but the lead character) and an inconsistent tone.
- Bite Size: This documentary about childhood obesity was fairly good, especially in how it showed families, friends, and society all conspiring to make change difficult. The actual documentary style was fairly straightforward, however. This was the world premiere.
- Above Dark Waters: This Finnish drama seemed pretty good at the time, but it has faded very quickly out of my memory so I dropped it down a few spots.
- Small Time: This was the closing night film, about a used car salesman whose son decides to work for him. It wasn’t that bad, but somehow I never really cared about any of the characters. This might have been the world premiere, but the program is slightly vague on that subject.
- The Illiterate: This drama from Chile is probably better than I’m ranking it, but since I slept through a fair bit of the running time, I’m putting it here.
- Life is Love: This documentary is about victims of human trafficking, and an inspiring woman in Cambodia who helps them. The subject matter is very important, but the film itself felt totally uninspired, so I was checking my watch frequently. An earlier showing at the festival was the world premiere.
- Class Enemy: This Slovenian drama didn’t seem believable and therefore didn’t really work for me, though I think most people liked it substantially better than I did.
- Inercia: Through maybe 2/3 of the running I time I was on board with this Mexican drama, but it fell off a cliff (in my opinion) after that. An earlier showing at the festival was the U.S. premiere.
- Cheatin’: This animated film by Bill Plympton had some great images and a few engaging sections, but would have been better as a short.
- It’s Only Make Believe: Since I almost always like Norwegian films, I was especially disappointed that this drama didn’t work for me. It was hard to watch and totally not worth it. An earlier showing at the festival was the U.S. premiere.
- Funny Money: This Vietnamese film was nominally a comedy, but I didn’t find it funny at all and I left about halfway through. This was the North American premiere.
My top four films have what seems like a common thread, namely characters (or actual people in the case of the documentary) who grow beyond what they would have imagined possible at the start of the film.
I wanted to list a few notable short films that I saw during the festival, in alphabetical order (literally ABC, as it turns out):
- Adrift is simply a sequence of time-lapse (meaning faster than real time) shots of fog in the Bay Area. It’s beautiful, especially since most of the shots are taken in places where I have been when running or hiking, or that remind me of such places. And here’s the small world connection: I actually first saw this last summer, at an event at the Nojiri Lake Association in Japan.
- The Brunchers was recommended by an ex-co-worker, and narrowly beat out Adrift as my favorite short of the Shorts 7 collection.
- The Closest Thing to Heaven was shown before Sex(ed): The Movie. It’s about the life and love of a gay man, and the punch that put it over the top at the end (spoiler alert) was seeing a tombstone with my exact birthday (year included).
I also have an IMDb list of these and other Cinequest films, though definitely not all of them. You can find it here.
I hope to follow this post with another one about all of the beers that I tasted in downtown San Jose during Cinequest.