Everyone creates their end of year list of favorite films, and that is well and good. But year after year, the most exceptional movies I watch are at film festivals. Since these films have not, in most cases, yet received theatrical distribution they are often left out of the end of year discussions. Which is frankly unforgivable. And it is the reason I have been creating a separate list of favorite films watched at film festivals.
I make it sound like film festivals are bitter medicines to be swallowed for the greater good. Perish the thought. The film festival experience can truly be exalted; I recall my first festival experience as being akin to a religious awakening. There you are getting to see a film before anyone else. Bragging rights aside, what is better than annoying your friends with recommendations of films they must watch in the future. Second, movies shown at film festivals bring the filmmakers with them. Most film screenings are followed by a Q and A with the director and often the cast. Talk about annoying your friends now, with casually tossed references to that time Tom Hardy gave a really witty answer to an audience question. And then there is the matter of access, that you otherwise just would never be able to tap into. Foreign films, independent films, commercial films, documentaries, short film programs, retrospectives, they are all part of the festival experience.
And finally, and most depressing of all, the film festival may be the only place to view some of these gems. And I am talking about high quality movies, which due to the terrible evil that is the American film distribution system, will never show up in a commercial theater in your hometown.
I know that much of this sounds terribly preachy. But if you ever have the slightest curiosity about a film festival, I would urge you to give it a try. With that PSA out of the way, let me jump into the best films I saw at film festivals in 2015:
- LAS MALAS LENGUAS (SWEET AND VICIOUS; Columbia) – Tribeca Film Festival. Have you ever felt like you are a bystander in your own life? This film, a scalpel sharp character study of a privileged girl in Columbia starts to reflect on the adolescence of nothing less than an entire nation.
- ECHOES OF WAR (USA) – San Diego Film Festival. It is hard to believe this is the directorial debut of Kane Senes. A slow burn homage to frontier era American farm life, this film is so committed to the air and light and sound and breath of that time, that the rigor with which this has been recreated will leave you breathless. You will be left breathless still by the film's sudden gallop into Peckinpah territory. James Dale Badge and Ethan Embry are stellar here; to see them unrecognized during end of year acting accolades is a crime. I take hope however in knowing that the spirit of seventies cinema is alive and well still in the work of filmmakers such as Senes.
- ANESTHESIA (USA) – Tribeca Film Festival. This is a literate, proudly cerebral addition to the genre of films involving multiple intersecting stories. Writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson has gathered Sam Waterson, Glenn Close, Gretchen Moll, Corey Stoll, Gloria Reuben and Mickey Sumner to fill in the many stories, but it is Kristen Stewart who may be the MVP here, proving yet again her ability to effortlessly convey determined intelligence.
- ELIZABETH EKADASHI (India) – Los Angeles Indian Film Festival. To watch this heartfelt film is to get lost in a story so vivid and peopled with characters so authentic as to make you grateful for being in your cinema seat. When their mother runs into a hard financial crunch, two kids in India must summon all their resources to prevent the sale of their beloved bicycle (named Elizabeth) that was gifted to them by their recently deceased dad.
- ITS ALREADY TOMORROW IN HONG KONG (USA/Hong Kong) – Los Angeles Film Festival. An American man stationed in Hong Kong for a few years meets a visiting Chinese-American girl. They walk and they talk. And they meet again a few years later. If this sounds a little like Linklater's BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET, then this film has earned the right to stand in that company. Wistful, wise and stridently romantic, this film knows that often the most authentic connections in life have nowhere to go.
- MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (China) – San Diego Asian Film Festival. Is this the best Asian film to be released last year? It lulls you first into thinking that it is an inconsequential eighties-set love triangle, until the film opens up, in every possible way: thematically, in scope, in geography, and literally on the screen with a widening aspect ratio. Featuring a marvelous last act (set in 2025!) that is inspired and dangerous and yet oddly apt, this is the work of a master.
- TAXI (Iran) – San Diego Asian Film Festival. Director and pied-piper Jafar Panahi, still under house-arrest by the Iranian government, manages to orchestrate a cast of many to create another sly, humorous and altogether humane film. It is a losing battle trying to deduce the parts that are documentary and those that are staged as Panahi drives a taxi around Tehran; at the end the film is inarguably simply a device to fill hearts.
- AYENDA AND THE MECHANIC (South Africa) – Los Angeles Film Festival. This is an earthy, ambitious, messy, vibrantly alive epic about a multitude of characters teeming current-day Johannesburg. Director Sarah Blecher said after the screening, "It is time for South Africa to be telling stories about people. We are past telling stories about causes". Amen.
- CARTEL LAND (Mexico) – Tribeca Film Festival. Having already grabbed a prestigious Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, this is the real thing, telling the hopeless, shape-shifting, inscrutable story of Mexican drug cartels. This is essential cinema.
- APPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR (USA) - San Diego Asian Film Festival. This is an acid-sweet confessional that declares writer/director/actor Desiree Akhavan as an undeniable talent. Achingly honest, conflicted, and an easy purveyor of comedy of the disquiet, the film is all those things because Akhavan refuses to turn the camera off on any aspect of her life. She stomps her way into cinema and we have to no choice but to listen to her.
- ATOMIC HEARTS (Iran) – Los Angeles Film Festival. Above genre and gleefully anarchic, this film still practices rigid structure in its story-telling. Is this a vampire film? Is it social commentary on modern day Iran by way of intentionally deflected genre confusion? Is it stream of consciousness script-writing untethered by narrative? Whatever it is, it is unpredictable and giddy and more than a little mischievous.
- HUNGRY HEARTS (Italy) – Tribeca Film Festival. There is literally nothing in the annals of cinema quite like this film. Part love story, part litmus test for the audience, this film slowly reveals it colors to present itself as a war of ideologies. And in its punishingly uncompromising look at both sides of this divide, the film stridently refuses to take sides. Even as things spiral inevitably into insanity and darkness. Adam Driver may be more famous now playing a Star Wars villain, but this film should leave no doubt about his commitment to smaller films.
- MY LOVE, DON’T CROSS THAT RIVER (South Korea) – Los Angeles Film Festival. This is the most commercially profitable South Korean film to date, and it is easy to see why. The documentary follows a couple through the last years of a marriage that has spanned 75 years. All documentaries based on real life footage are inherently untrue because the known presence of a camera fundamentally changes the behavior of those in front of it. Even so, this film somehow manages to capture the insoluble, ineffable call-what-you-want bond between any couple that has prevailed over decades. In that, the film is universal, and the audience is at once invested in the fate of the central characters.
- THE CROW’S EGG (India) – Los Angeles Indian Film Festival. Two kids in a slum go through a Quixotic quest to get a taste of the most unachievable of things: a slice of pizza from the swanky new fast food joint that has opened in the neighborhood. The film gets occasionally heavy-handed in its commentary on the establishment, but there is no denying the pleasures of a David versus Goliath archetype done with heart.