Though it may not get the glitzy new premieres (I’d kill to see the new Mike Leigh at Berlin for example) Rotterdam is a great place to catch up on the careers of auteurs not often feted by the New York Film Festival: not-quite household names like Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kira Muratova, Ulrich Seidl, Alexei Balabanov, Darezhan Omirbaev, and American Indie Cinema’s prodigal son Jon Jost. Despite being known as a “small” festival there were an overwhelming 240 features showing (and just as many shorts). I saw only a tenth of those and couldn’t even touch the retrospectives (Robert Breer, Svetlana Proskoerina and Kobayashi Masahiro as well as a survey of China’s Fourth Generation and an inspired programme of directorial one-offs titled Pièce Unique).
Out of the 25 films I saw, here are my nine favorites. (It would be ten but there’s one I can’t mention for now because of a conflict of interest).
PLOY (Pen-ek Ratanaruang, Thailand)
I wasn’t a huge fan of Ratanaruang’s Last Life in the Universe, despite Filmbrain’s advocacy, but Ploy really took me by surprise. Whereas Last Life, despite its great visual strengths, was overly whimsical, Ploy is beautifully precise, conveying a very concrete sense of place and time, while at the same time remaining alluringly woozy and dreamlike. The film is named for the nineteen year old girl with the Thai-fro that the jetlagged, forty-something Wit (and the film is chock-full of both ploys and wit) meets in the middle of the night in a hotel bar (shades of Lost in Translation, but the film goes in a completely different direction from that film). Since this premiered at Cannes and hasn’t found its way to any New York festival yet I assume I’m in the minority on this film, but so be it.
MOMMA’S MAN (Azazel Jacobs, USA)
It’s no slight to say that this unusual, achingly moving film feels like a throwback. To me it has the timeless feel of a lost indie classic from a previous decade, a hidden gem like Jon Jost’s Bell Diamond or Jim McBride’s David Holtzman’s Diary. Not that it’s copying anything in particular; in fact, despite the fact that it’s made by the son of one of America’s great experimental filmmakers it also seems strangely sui generis, which is a rare thing these days in any medium. The Momma’s Man is a thirty-something schlub from L.A. who returns to his parents’ Tribeca apartment on a business trip and finds himself unable to go back home to his wife and child, at first out of a need for comfort, then out of apathy and later out of something less tangible and more disturbing. It doesn’t help that the apartment, a warren of furniture and knicknacks, feels like both a womb and a trap. Since this was the actual home that Azazel Jacobs was born and raised in, and the parents are played (simply and beautifully) by Ken and Flo Jacobs, the film has additional interest as a documentary of the environment out of which was born Tom Tom the Piper’s Son and Star Spangled to Death. Momma’s Man was the toast of Sundance so it’s sure to be playing at a theater near you one day soon.
CHOUGA (Darezhan Omirbaev, Kazakhstan)
A minimalist, bone-dry adaptation of Anna Karenina from Kazakhstan’s best known filmmaker Omirbaev (Cardiogram, The Road) that reminded me of one of Kaurismaki’s pared-down literary adaptations only without the rib-nudging. I loved how so many of his simple, static frames were dominated by one brightly colored object, whether a pink sweater, a bouquet of yellow flowers, a blue train.
CARGO 200 (Alexei Balabanov, Russia)
A provocative vision of the hell that was the Soviet Union in the early ’80s. Balabanov tries to erase the current creeping nostalgia for the bad old days with this impressively grungy tale of vodka-fuelled degradation and institutional corruption that plays out like Deliverance in the USSR. I loved the film’s final coda that just throws its hands up in despair.
FOUR WOMEN (Adoor Gopalakrishnan, India)
It’s been many years since I’ve seen a Gopalakrishnan film. The Film Society of Lincoln Center screened a retrospective of the Keralan master back in 1994 during which I saw his superb Ascent (1977) and Rat Trap (1981). His new film is very fine and completely uncommercial: a quartet of Bressonian stories of women’s subjugation in Southern India. I love the green of the Keralan landscape and the film features two stunning shots in that hue: one a high-angled shot of tall grass, another of a river covered in a carpet of leaves.
CASTING A GLANCE (James Benning, USA)
Less rigid than 13 Lakes and Ten Skies, Benning’s stunning new meditation on landscape, a study of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah, features probably about 50 shots over its 80 minutes, making it positively baroque by comparison. All that and Nazareth’s “Love Hurts” on the soundtrack too.
TOUT EST PARDONNÉ [ALL IS FORGIVEN] (Mia Hansen-Love, France)
How is that young French indie directors can make such compelling, beautifully acted films out of nothing more than relationships and encounters, while young American directors, with the notable exceptions of Aaron Katz and Andrew Bujalski, rarely even try. True, Mia Hansen-Love’s film does hang its hat on a somewhat sensational plot (a frustrated young writer becomes a junkie and abandons his family) but the film itself is a series of conversations, of moments. A simple, lovely film. Great use of the Raincoats in the obligatory dance party scene.
THE END (Nicola Collins, UK)
Hugely entertaining documentary about a dying breed: the cockney gangster. Distinguished by its privileged access, The End (as in East) was directed and produced by the two daughters of one of the guvnors who were obviously able to charm their subjects into opening up about everything from their hardscrabble East End childhoods to their less proud moments of human interaction. Scored to Radiohead and Massive Attack, the film isn’t much more than a series of on-camera interviews, but these real-life Paulie Walnuts types are all so engagingly charismatic and floridly eloquent that you can’t really imagine them doing the things they guardedly hint that they’ve done.
THE SKY, THE EARTH AND THE RAIN (Jose Luis Torres Leiva, Chile)
This slow burn of a film at first seemed overly familiar, especially in the context of this festival, in the way that it goes nowhere very slowly and parses out its narrative rewards. It has an arthouse cinema view of human relationships, a world where people can be together without speaking (while in the real world people can’t seem to shut up). But it’s the landscape, a sodden forest at the southern tip of Chile, that is the star of this film (a wind in the trees film par excellence), and seeing it on the enormous floor to ceiling, wall to wall screen at Rotterdam’s Pathe Cinemas you felt you could walk right into it. A landscape film as awesome as James Benning’s.
Talking of which, I wish I’d been able to see Naomi Kawase’s The Mourning Forest, but only its press screening had English subtitles. I was also sorry to miss Peter Hutton’s At Sea (which I missed at the NYFF also), Saul Bass’s lost sci-fi film Phase IV and Roy Anderson’s You, The Living, though I hear that now has an American distributor.
Some other notes to follow to wrap things up.