So it is a few days into the Seattle International Film Festival, and I think I may have seen my favorite movie. It's always difficult to say "the best," seeing as this is the biggest film festival in the country, in terms of the sheer number of films -- over 200 in just shy of a month. Grueling to be sure, but some films just stand out.
My favorite so far is a prime example. Entitled "Hukkle" -- which means hiccup in Hungarian -- it was a foreign films Oscar submission, and it's easy to see why. This movie was amazing. It opens with a man who hiccups thru the whole movie. From there we see ants, plants, local farmers, sheepherders and sheep, horses and more all in a random, stream-of-consciousness way. Eventually sifted from all this is a story about someone in the small town poisoning the water, causing people to die. With stunning cinematography and subtlety, the film builds.
One man's death, for example, is conveyed with a shot of a pig wandering aimlessly down a street. Here to fore the movie was a weird comedy, but in one shot, it turns into a serious drama about serious subjects. Along the way are breathtaking shots of simple Hungarian country life, nature and technology, in a way that makes the whole story not just about the mystery at it's center, but about where this world is heading. I can't really oversell this movie. It's just a crying shame most people won't ever see it, let alone hear about it. That's why film festivals are so important.
Another film screening at SIFF, a Korean comedy called "Jail Breakers," is quite a kick in the pants. Comedies from Korea are usually a little over the top, but so winsome that they are pretty much irresistible. (My favorite, "Barking Dogs Never Bite," still stands as one of the best comedies I have seen in the last three years.) This one follows two prisoners who break out of a prison only to discover they are on a parole list and have to break back in.
One of its stars, Sol Kyung-gu is in two other movies at the festival (although had someone not pointed it out to me I never would have known). In "Public Enemy" he plays a cop with a temper problem on the trail of a killer with a temper problem. I am not sure whether to call it a comedy or not. It's not that it isn't funny -- it's hysterical. But it also has some grisly killing scenes, which are handled perfectly (director Kang Woo-suk keeps the violence brief and bookends it with comedy), and Kyung-gu is completely magnetic. I missed the screenings of "Oasis," the third entry starring this dynamic actor, but from what I heard, he was absolutely wonderful -- again. That film won the Best Director and Best Young Actor/Actress awards at the Venice Film Festival last year.
Another festival entry that could make my list of favorite films for all of 2003 (never mind just the festival) is the multi-leveled "American Splendor." In a year of comic book movies ("The Matrix Reloaded," "The Hulk"), this beats 'em all by a mile -- without any use of CGI effects. Using the autobiographical story of struggling comic book writer/clerk/personality Harvey Pekar, it weaves a beautiful, sad, wry tale of the pain and joy of living -- brilliantly weaving reality (the real Pekar) and comic book story (featuring Paul Giamatti as Pekar). If you liked the movie Crumb, Splendor does it one better.
One film I was looking forward to this year ultimately disappointed me, the Pang Brothers' supernatural thriller "The Eye." Two years ago I saw the Pang's "Bangkok Dangerous," which, while not flawless, had enough exciting high-octane thrills to make me curious about what they would do next. After the big splash of "Ringu" (remade as "The Ring" by Hollywood) everyone is now looking for the next great Asian horror film (the rights to this one have been bought by Tom Cruise's company). "The Eye" one isn't bad -- it's just average, which is saying quite a bit. There are so many good movies in this genre (the best I've seen is "Séance," also from SIFF 2001). This picture does have genuine spooky stuff -- it's about a blind woman who begins seeing ghosts when her sight is restored by a corneal transplant -- but once its mysteries are explained it begins to sag.
The same can be said about "Double Vision," an eerie serial killer/thriller that involves twins with double pupils, psychedelic killer mold, bizarre deaths and cults. Its skin crawling special effect had my jaw on the floor, but it's parable ending left me seeing red.
Nothing good can be said about "King Of The Ants," which had me muttering for hours afterwards, "This is a stupid, stupid, stupid movie. It starts out interestingly, and then after its premise is set, just seems to go where it wants to, common sense be damned. The idea is that a slacker is contracted to kill a man. All well and good, but when he moves in with the slain man's wife and child after what seems like a month, possibly two, it was all I could do not to walk out.
I felt the same way about "Northfork," made by the Polish Brothers, who gave us 1999's "Twin Falls Idaho." If you liked that film or are obsessed with David Lynch, you might like this. Ostensibly concerning a town that is to be flooded by a new dam, it veers from the Joe Friday-esque eviction scenes with James Woods, to we're-so-zany-wacky-and-weird Lynchian fantasy scenes with Daryl Hannah and Anthony Edwards, to dumb wannabe tear-jerky scenes with Nick Nolte and an orphan angel. It reminded me of "Naked Skin" (a silly mid-'80s cult film with Julie Delpy and vampires on hot rods), which I detest as much as this film. "Northfork" has a great cast, but it's silly over-punched punchlines felt more like the corny jokes dad used to tell. At least the filmmakers thought they were funny.
On the other end of the spectrum was the Brit flick "The Last Great Wilderness," which really stuck in my mind as a truly original film. Starting out as a loopy road movie, it metamorphoses into something else entirely. It becomes dark, unsettling, funny and unpredictable. This is what I love in a movie. You think you know where it's going, then it takes twists and turns that you never could have imagined. One of my favorites of the festival, definitely.
Speaking of road movies and unpredictable, I have to mention the Argentinean entry "Suddenly." Like "Wilderness," it starts with the get-out-of-town thing -- in this case two lesbians kidnap a girl as a date taking her to the beach. From there you are kept guessing until it's beautifully bittersweet end. Shot in black and white with an almost entirely female cast, "Suddenly" is reminiscent of the films of Jim Jarmusch in the best of ways.
Another good "chick-flick" -- if you want to call it that -- is "Marion Bridge," which I wish I could give a higher recommendation. A good, quiet film in which Molly Parker ("Max," "Kissed") goes back home to take care of her dying mother and deal with her abusive father, troubled sisters and the daughter she gave up for adoption. It's the kind of small indie with so much heart that it deserves a wider audience. So why do I hesitate? The worst case of "boom fishing" on record. The boom microphone dips into the scene so far and frequently it couldn't have been just bad projector framing -- and the problem is so pervasive that it ultimately becomes too much of a distraction. This is a terrible, terrible shame because "Bridge" is otherwise a really good movie that has been ruined by a small technical detail.
In our next installment: "Demonlover," "Devdas," "Overnight," "The Gift," "The Last Scene," "Unprecedented" and "Wild Dogs."
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