It seems docs won out for me at this year’s Windsor International Film Festival which concluded Sunday. I was blown away by Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof & Charlie Siskel) and 20 Feet from Stardom (Morgan Nevill). The first about such an obscure subject it barely made me want to see it. But then I saw it! Anonymous in life Maier turns out to be an extraordinary still photographer in the class of Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus. 20 Feet from Stardom’s look at rock music’s backup singers was powerful both from the personal stories and the music. But these aren’t the only reasons these docs sizzled. You can reveal a great artist, as does Finding, but your own work can become art in the telling and Finding certainly is that. Maier is revealed through innovative scene set ups and fast-paced cutting that captures the breath and complexity of her astonishing work. In 20 Feet Nevill should be
congratulated simply for getting access to the array of famous musicians including Stevie Wonder, Sting and Mick Jagger, an intimidating prospect. Through heartrending interviews and breathtaking performances the doc shows the multi-faceted reality of back-up singers, who toil in obscurity but whose performances are often the most memorable parts of songs, to the singers’ own ambivalence about anonymity and stardom. The film’s powerful music washes over you like a tidal wave and you’ll be forgiven if you shed a tear or two.
Here are some pocket reviews of other films in descending order of how much I liked them:
A Hijacking (Tobias Lindholm). I’ve never really seen a bad Danish film so, no surprise, this was a tour de force when it comes to depicting the personal strife of sailors hijacked by Somalian pirates. But it ain’t just adventure, folks. It’s also about what takes place back in the ship company’s boardroom and the anxiety of executives negotiating with AK-47-wielding bad guys.
Bright Days Ahead (Marion Vernoux). Veteran French film star Fanny Ardant gives a great performance of a suddenly-retired 60-something who is betwixt and between about what she wants to do with the rest of her life, including vanquishing boredom in the romantic department.
Call Girl (Mikael Marcimain). Another Scandinavian film that doesn’t disappoint. It’s about political corruption, and rare for filmmakers (who tend to be left wing or liberal-minded) a dissection of the hypocrisy of Sweden’s socialists during the 1970s, when legislation proposing more sexual liberation coincided just a tad too much with the politicians’ own unsavory prurient lives.
Young and Beautiful (François Ozon). Like Ozon’s other pictures this is an exploration of the complexity of personality and the questionable roads to which it can lead. In this case youthful trauma gives way to sexual experimentation and a seemingly dead end.
Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg). The story of cross-couple attraction has been told before but this gives a fresh coat of paint. Members of two friendly couples are romantically attracted to those in the other. This kind of thing never ends well of course. But the story, which takes place among workers in a hip craft brewery and stars Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, is a Millennial Generation take on the old tale.
Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas). Unless you really dig (get it?) into the early Beat movement you probably had no idea of such a seemingly seminal event in the life of poet Allen Ginsberg and novelists William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. The film has good performances and there’s interesting stuff about why these guys were literary outlaws but overall my reaction was ho-hum.
Good Ol’ Freda (Ryan White). This story of The Beatles’ secretary Freda Kelly is warmly told and a trip back in time to screaming fainting teenagers and the Fab Four. (Was the Cavern Club that small?) And just because one brushes with fame doesn’t mean your life has been completely changed. Freda still works as a 9 to 5 secretary in an office far removed from show business.
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino). This was hit and miss. Toni Servillo as Jep, an aging journalist and member of Rome’s smart set, has seen it all. The film at turns can be interpreted as a comment on the corruption of Italian bourgeois society, the ennui of life itself, even the vapidity of avant-garde art. And, yes, it’s Italian, so there has to be Felliniesque touches - or does there? But this journey, at more than two hours, is way too long. And I was turned off by the almost grotesque images of the supposed beautiful people, which ironically I suppose was Sorrentino’s point.
Devil’s Knot (Atom Egoyan). I was expecting more from this edgy director but all we got is a Hollywood courtroom drama about an admittedly horribly botched police investigation into a notorious 1990’s Arkansas triple murder. The film shows that Egoyan, normally abstract and layered, can do straight ahead moviemaking with the best of them. But the question is why. Or maybe Hollywood is where the big bucks are.
Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont). If you don’t know who Camille Claudel was (one of the art world’s most neglected female artists) you wouldn’t know what this film is all about. The director makes no attempt to provide any context for Claudel (a great performance by Juliette Binoche). How about some flashbacks to working in her studio? Even some still shots of her sculptures would suffice. To the uninitiated this is simply a portrait, albeit searing, of another mental patient.
Bastards (Claire Denis). Made by one of France’s greatest contemporary filmmakers this murder-revenge saga is more convoluted than penetrating. And ultimately who cares?
The Double (Richard Ayoade). I was really expecting to like this. And it starts off well with its depiction of an alternative society that seems both antiquated and totalitarian. And despite the fact it stars Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska this theme of a double personality (based on Dostoyevsky novella) just never gains traction.
Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry). It’s too bad Gondry went to so much trouble to make a film chocked full of bizarre scenes and prop devices in a magic realist world. And it stars Audrey Tautou to boot. But like Ayoade’s The Double (above) a surreal universe does not guarantee audience fascination. After 10 minutes this left me utterly bored.