The Films of Cinequest 2014

March 22, 2014

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. Hunting Elephants: This Israeli comedy had some good moments, but suffered from cartoonish characters (all but the lead character) and an inconsistent tone.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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.
  19. 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.
  20. Cheatin’: This animated film by Bill Plympton had some great images and a few engaging sections, but would have been better as a short.
  21. 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.
  22. 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.


Oscar® Predictions for 2013

March 1, 2014

Here are my predictions for the Oscar winners for films made in 2013:

  • Picture: 12 Years a Slave
  • Director: Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity
  • Actor: Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club
  • Actress: Cate Blanchett for Blue Jasmine
  • Supporting actor: Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club
  • Supporting actress: Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave
  • Original screenplay: Her
  • Adapted screenplay: 12 Years a Slave
  • Cinematography: Gravity
  • Editing: Gravity
  • Animated feature: Frozen
  • Documentary feature: 20 Feet from Stardom
  • Foreign language feature: The Great Beauty (Italy)
  • Production design: The Great Gatsby
  • Costumes: The Great Gatsby
  • Makeup: Dallas Buyers Club
  • Score: Gravity
  • Song: “Let It Go” from Frozen
  • Sound mixing: Gravity
  • Sound editing: Gravity
  • Visual effects: Gravity
  • Animated short: Get a Horse!
  • Documentary short: The Lady in Number 6
  • Live action short: Helium

My primary sources were GoldDerby and Awards Daily.

Oscar® Predictions for 2012

February 24, 2013

Here are my predictions for the Oscar winners for films made in 2012:

  • Picture: Argo
  • Director: Steven Spielberg for Lincoln
  • Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln
  • Actress: Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook
  • Supporting actor: Robert De Niro for Silver Linings Playbook
  • Supporting actress: Anne Hathaway for Les Misérables
  • Original screenplay: Django Unchained
  • Adapted screenplay: Argo
  • Cinematography: Life of Pi
  • Editing: Argo
  • Animated feature: Wreck-It Ralph
  • Documentary feature: Searching for Sugar Man
  • Foreign language feature: Amour (Austria)
  • Production design: Anna Karenina
  • Costumes: Anna Karenina
  • Makeup: The Hobbit
  • Score: Life of Pi
  • Song: “Skyfall” from Skyfall
  • Sound mixing: Les Misérables
  • Sound editing: Skyfall
  • Visual effects: Life of Pi
  • Animated short: Paperman
  • Documentary short: Open Heart
  • Live action short: Curfew

For the first time in 17 years, I have not seen all of the Best Picture nominees before the ceremony, though I have seen seven of the nine. My primary sources were Awards Daily and GoldDerby.

Play and The Island President

March 10, 2012

Play is a slow film. There is really no way to sugarcoat that. It also relies primarily on static camera shots. I checked my watch a few times. The strange thing is, despite all of those strikes against it, when the film ended it really seemed like it had kept my attention and meant something. It was definitely more than the sum of its parts.

One reason it kept my attention was a sense of dread. The main characters were all children (I suspect they were newcomers, since all but one of the main characters had the same first name as the actor), and there was a chance of something bad happening very frequently. And by the end I felt like I got a better sense of both bullying and of native/immigrant relations, so I’ll give it a strong  out of .

The Island President is a pretty depressing documentary. Oh, sure, there is gorgeous footage of the Maldives, which is a nation off the coast of India, consisting of 2000 islands surrounded by beautiful waters, reefs, and fish. We learn that the well-loved President (Mohamed Nasheed) survived being a political prisoner, becoming a world leader in the area of climate change. The focus of the movie seems to be the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009, where Nasheed speaks eloquently about how climate change could completely wipe out his country (the average elevation is only 1.5 meters), and how even now it is having a major effect. But, and these are possibly minor spoilers, the outcome of the conference is far from what was hoped for, and the film’s epilogue is a major downer.

There was a short question and answer period with the director after the film (there may be spoilers here, if a documentary can have spoilers):

  • Update on the political situation:
    • Nasheed resigned on 2/7/2012, after a mutiny within the police and military
    • There is material on YouTube
    • Things have calmed down a bit since then
  • Nasheed was educated in England, which is not uncommon in his class
  • The islands stretch over a span similar to Florida, but with a total land mass less than Rhode Island
  • The director did not originally come to this material from an environmental angle, but more about the leader—this was way before the Arab Spring—Nasheed put the environment in more human terms
  • I think I heard that the film does have distribution

The film was preceded by an animated short called “Monarch,” which was fine but nothing special.

Both seen on 3/5/2012 at Cinequest.

Faust and Twittamentary

March 10, 2012

Faust is a Russian film by Aleksandr Sokurov (Russian Ark), though it is mostly or entirely in German. I really don’t know how to describe it. After some establishing scenery shots (largely if not entirely CGI, but gorgeous nonetheless), the next shot is of a human penis, which is attached to a dead body being disassembled by Doctor Faust. The setting is medieval, with dirt, rats, and general filth. It pretty quickly becomes apparent that everyone is hungry, and in general you get a feeling of hopelessness.

Things get really weird. The other main character is a very strange old man. He is listed in the credits as the moneylender, but he is really (possible minor spoiler) the devil. Things get more and more surreal as the film proceeds. Some of it works, at least enough to keep me interested, but the whole didn’t quite measure up to the sum of the parts for me. I’ll give it  out of .

Twittamentary is a different film than I expected. It followed some stories (especially the homeless woman) through most of the film rather than being purely made up of short vignettes, and it didn’t cover the real Twitter celebrities, though they would be different today than when this was filmed (mostly 2009).

It was also a trip being encouraged to use our phones to tweet during the film, though I found I didn’t tweet every interesting point since it would take my attention away from the next story, and I’m glad that most movies do not encourage that. I didn’t learn all that much, but it was fun, and I would give it  out of . An earlier showing of the film at the festival was the North American premiere.

There was a short Q&A with the director, Siok Siok Tan (a.k.a., @sioksiok) after the film (there may be spoilers here, if a documentary can have spoilers):

  • She originally hoped and expected to make a global film and to cover more Twitter celebrities, but she likes what it turned out to be
  • One story that didn’t make it was about an ex-con who wants to help keep young people out of prison
  • The road trip was in late 2009
  • The song guy was @ihatemornings, and the songs were all written in one hour
  • There was a possible story about a woman tweeting through childbirth, which might have counterbalanced the death story well

The film was preceded by a comedic short called “Zoltan: The Hungarian Gangster of Love,” which was pretty fun. I’ll give it  out of .

Both seen on 3/4/2012 at Cinequest.

King Curling and Stormland

March 4, 2012

King Curling is a Norwegian comedy. Team Paulsen, led by Truls Paulsen, is the winningest team in the sport. The sport is one where millimeters count, so his obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a benefit. Well, until he goes off the deep end and is committed to a mental institution. His wife is assigned as his guardian.

I won’t go into more of the plot. This is definitely a comedy, with more than its fair share of quirky characters. It’s quite fun, especially in the curling scenes with the over the top music. I’ll give it a strong  out of .

Stormland is an Icelandic drama. The main character is named Böddi, who is a teacher, would-be poet/author, and big fan of an Icelandic outlaw named Grettir. The film opens with him holding three people as hostages at gunpoint, and then flashes back to more normal times. He is way out of step with the locals, who are as materialistic as he is not.

I liked many moments in the film, but for whatever reason this one didn’t really connect with me. I’ll give it out of . The program says this was the North American premiere, but I think we were told this was actually the world premiere of the international version of the film.

Both seen on 3/3/2012 at Cinequest.

Sons of Norway

March 3, 2012

Sons of Norway is a Norwegian drama, but it starts out feeling more like a comedy. A couple of young boys dressed as punks, including safety pins as piercings (ouch!), throw a bottle that hits a man as he is giving a speech. Then it jumps back in time to before the young boys became punks. It’s the late 1970’s, and the parents of Nikolaj (one of the boys) are complete hippies. I loved the father’s argument that since we descended from apes, Christmas dinner should be centered on bananas. He even decorates the tree with bananas!

I don’t want to say too much more, except to emphasize how much the comedy and drama feelings are blended together, which can be challenging. It’s also a film I probably wouldn’t suggest seeing with people like parents, co-workers, a first date, etc. It worked for me, though I have a hard time putting my finger on the reason why. I’ll give it a low  out of .

I looked up the actors who played the parents, and the father was one of the two leads in Elling, one of my all-time favorite Norwegian films, and the Danish mother was a lead in Villa Paranoia, a film that I liked quite a bit several years ago at Cinequest.

Seen on 3/2/2012 at Cinequest.

Cinequest 22 opening night: The Lady

March 3, 2012

The Lady was the opening night film of Cinequest 22, screened in San Jose’s historic California Theater. Unlike opening night most years, things seemed to be operating smoothly, with the evening starting on time and no glitches in the sound system. Before the movie, the festival’s primary founder, Halfdan Hussey, spoke briefly. The other founder, Kathleen Powell, brought a group of Egyptian women up on stage, and I found out that George W. Bush may be a better ex-President than I would have guessed (the women are the inaugural class of his Women’s Initiative Fellows).

The film, directed by the unlikely Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), tells the story of Aung San Suu Kyi. Her father was a very popular leader in Burma, but he was assassinated in 1947 when she was only two years old. She lived in various places and married an English writer named Michael Aris in 1972. She returned to Burma in 1988 to see her mother, who was dying. The film essentially starts at this point, covering her dedication to the Burmese people and to her husband.

Aung San Suu Kyi is played by Michelle Yeoh, and her husband is played by David Thewlis, both of whom are quite good here. I had heard of the Buddhist monk uprising in 2007, but had never heard about Aung San Suu Kyi before, so I was very glad to have seen the film. It seemed to drag a bit in the middle, but by the end I was very invested in all of the main people in the film. I’ll give it a strong out of .

Seen on 2/28/2012 at Cinequest.

Village Without Women

March 1, 2012

[I mostly wrote this a year ago but am only now posting it.]

Village Without Women is a documentary about a small village in southern Serbia, with, if I recall correctly, eight men and no women. Apparently the older women died and the younger ones all moved to the city. The focus is almost exclusively on three brothers who live together in a small dirt-floored home without running water and an outhouse with a door that is no longer attached by hinges. The main artwork decorating the walls is carefully trimmed clippings from Playboy magazine. It takes a substantial walk to get to the nearest paved road.

So the surprising thing is not that they are single, but that there is any chance that any of them might be able to get married. Their best shot is Albanian women, since that country has so few jobs that most of their men have gone abroad to work.

The film is interesting because it shows a place and a way of life that is completely foreign to me: maybe even as foreign as women are to these three brothers. I’ll give it a lower out of .

Seen on 3/13/2011 at Cinequest’s encore showing day.

The Nobel Prize Winner, Dreaming Nicaragua, The Liverpool Goalie, and Soul Surfer

March 1, 2012

[I mostly wrote this a year ago but am only now posting it.]

The Nobel Prize Winner is Dutch and in black and white. It’s labeled in the program as a comedy, though I would say it’s closer to being a drama with frequent humorous moments. The main two characters are writers. Joachim is a poor writer who asks, unsuccessfully, for a small advance from his publisher just before he finishes a novel he’s been working on for years. Meanwhile Fabian is a famous novelist with the same publisher and writers’ block, who is expected to finish a new book any day now. There are many other characters, and the connections between them eventually all become clear.

That this is a film about writers seems fitting because to me it all meshed together wonderfully, if not always (or even often) happily. I really liked it, and give it a strong  out of , putting it very close to my favorite film of the festival so far. An earlier showing at the festival was the North American premiere.

Dreaming Nicaragua is a documentary about Nicaragua, and specifically about teaching art to very poor kids, focusing on four in particular. The conditions are amazingly primitive, including one family that makes its living scavenging from a dump—the kids in that family say that the nice part is that the family works together all day long. One other girl dreams of being on TV, and is shown interviewing people, asking surprisingly good probing questions. The film was good for the content, but fairly pedestrian in structure, so I’ll give it a lower  out of .

The executive producer was at the screening to answer questions (there may be spoiler below, if a documentary can have spoilers):

  • The filmmakers met the art teacher along the way, if I heard correctly, meaning that angle was not premeditated.
  • What has caused the poverty? Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, behind only Haiti. It is similar to Costa Rica, but hasn’t developed the tourism industry.
  • Does the film have distribution? So far the only solid plan is to play at film festivals. The film won an award in France. It is showing in Geneva at a UN meeting. And they have had some offers from European TV.
  • The Fabretto Children’s Foundation has helped to create a pine basket cooperative that has since become self-sufficient.
  • This foundation is specific to Nicaragua. Fabretto brings lunch and additional teaching, since the official school day is only 4 hours long.

An earlier showing at the festival was the U.S. premiere. They do have Facebook and Twitter pages.

It was preceded by Margarita, a dialog-free animated short that at first seemed enchanting, but turned way too treacly at the end, so I cannot recommend it.

The Liverpool Goalie is a Norwegian comedy about a junior high school boy named Jo who is very smart, watched over by an uber-cautious mother (possibly because his father died in a bathtub fall), and is somewhat addicted to collecting football (soccer) trading cards. He is also somewhat obsessed with the new girl in class, Mari, who is as smart as he is but far less afraid of the world. The title refers to the one trading card that everyone is missing to complete their sets.

The film was extremely fun, and the sequences showing Jo imagining might go wrong are hilarious. I’ll give it out of .

Soul Surfer was the closing night film at Cinequest, though there was a day of encore showings of some films the next day. It is a dramatized version of the real life of Bethany Hamilton, who was a rising star of surfing when her left arm was bitten off by a shark when she was 13 years old. In the film she is played by AnnaSophia Robb, and her parents are played by Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid. At times it felt a little like a television movie with a bigger budget, because it’s a little corny and clichéd. But after seeing and listening to Bethany after the film, it may be that the Hamiltons are kind of corny in real life. Since the whole family lives to surf and is very religious means that makes a certain kind of sense.

In the end, the film worked quite well for me, and was still in my thoughts the next day. The surfing footage is incredible, giving me a better appreciation for the sport than I have ever had before. I would give it a lower out of . This might have been the world premiere, but I was never 100% sure of that.

Presenting the Life of a Maverick award to Bethany and the Emerging Maverick award to AnnaSophia was the founder of the Mavericks giant wave surf competition.

After the film there was an interview with Bethany and AnnaSophia, lead by Kathleen Powell, one of the founders of Cinequest (there may be spoilers below):

  • Bethany is very religious in her words, wearing a cross, etc.
  • She hopes to inspire others, keep surfing, etc.
  • She is more scared of not being able to surf than she is of sharks
  • The movie is a bit of a distraction to her training
  • AnnaSophia started acting at 9 years old
  • There was a poster of Bethany at the Denver airport, so AnnaSophia saw it on every trip
  • AnnaSophia is also religious
  • Bethany was actually way happier in the hospital in real life, but that didn’t seem realistic
  • AnnaSophia took a two hour surfing lesson three years ago, then started to train when she got the role
  • Bethany did all the stunt surfing for the second half of the film
  • The family dog in the film is Bethany’s dog
  • They wrote a book and then produced a documentary before this film
  • Bethany had seen AnnaSophia is in a few films before this
  • Filmed quite a bit on Oahu, so the Hamiltons moved there
  • The Hamiltons have been very involved in the film
  • Everyone involved in the film went surfing in their off time
  • Dennis Quaid was even surfing when he could be golfing (apparently that says something)
  • AnnaSophia: The more you know about the ocean, the less scary it is
  • It sounds like Bethany got a lot of help writing her book
  • Bethany is [or was when I wrote this] 21
  • What’s next? She likes to take it one day at a time, surfing, competing, inspiring, etc.
  • She wasn’t aware of Cinequest before

All seen on 3/12/2011 at Cinequest.