Following my second of five SIFF screenings one recent Sunday, and after a quick glance at a highlighted Excel printout detailing my movie-packed upcoming week, an accompanying friend asked me this: "So, honestly, don't you get tired of seeing all these films?"
I get (some variation of) that a lot these days. And the answer is no, because at any given moment there are few places I'd rather be than in a darkened roomful of strangers, witnessing a cinematic miracle… be it failure or triumph. But — and I'm sure anyone who's ever attended any kind of heavily-populated festival can relate — film isn't all there is to SIFF. There are also long queues, inane conversations by the components of those queues, unfavorable restroom conditions (especially for pee-shy boys like me), pre-flick SIFF promos (sorry, but most stopped being cute after two viewings), mid-movie texters (screening announcers are finally starting to tell people to turn off their mobiles rather than just silence them), etc., etc., etc.
Those, and not the films, are the things I get tired of.
But — cinema gods strike me down if I'm lying — it's all worth it.
SIFF 2006 started out nicely, if predictably, with the lovely-looking but not-very-challenging opening night film The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton, Paul Giamatti, and Jessica Biel, the latter of whom was in attendance with director Neil Burger. There was a gala soiree afterward, but I think my imaginary girls in tow (Char and Dana) will agree that the best part of the evening happened before the film even began, when mighty (and mighty hilarious) SIFF Marketing/Promotions Director Gary Tucker gave shout-outs to every single sponsor and partner lined up for the 2006 fest. (Not to toot our own imaginary horn, but TIG is a SIFF media partner for the second year running.)
Screenings got started in earnest on May 25, and that night I caught Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Worldly Desires (a lovely, short companion piece to the wondrous Tropical Malady; the similar audience walkouts made me love it even more) and the droll-to-hysterical lefty documentary Al Franken: God Spoke. Other intriguing nonfic flicks would follow in the coming days, including The Giant Buddhas (about the destruction of a pair of legendary statues in Afghanistan, and the search for a rumored replica at a Chinese theme park), and Wordplay (spirited and engaging look at crossword puzzlers, a recent annual competition, and the adorable NYTimes puzzle editor and NPR contributor Will Shortz). My favorite of the doc offerings so far has been This Film Is Not Yet Rated, a rousing and funny investigation into (and indictment of) the shrouded-in-mystery ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America. Director Kirby Dick, pictured above, attended the screening and stuck around for an informative, sometimes infuriating, Q&A.
On the fiction side of the cinematic spectrum is Romanian critical fave The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a best-of-the-year contender that shows us one hellish night (in seeming real-time) in the life of the drunken, ailing title character (Ion Fiscuteanu) as he seeks urgent medical care. It's unrelenting, well observed, and extremely moving, with brilliantly naturalistic performances by Fiscuteanu and Luminita Gheorghiu as the longsuffering (though far from heroic) paramedic assigned to his case. Look for it in local theaters soon.
Another piece of hard urban realism, also very documentary-like in its shaky telling and gritty subject matter, Half Nelson stars Ryan Gosling in a career-best turn as an addiction-addled inner-city teacher. Strong young newcomer Shareeka Epps is one to watch as a little student with some big obstac les of her own. Powerful stuff, and I haven't even mentioned Gosling's revealing undies-shot early in the film. (Let's put it this way: there's nothing 'half' about his nelson.) Director Ryan Fleck and editor/producer Anna Boden (pictured above) were in attendance.
Bosnian director Danis Tanovic pays brilliant homage to the late, great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski with the French-language L'Enfer (Hell), an Inferno-esque story of three adult sisters slowly coming to terms with traumatic childhood events. I loved the Kieslowskian tone and visual texture, and I could barely contain myself when one particular thread from the well-known Blue/White/Red series (also co-written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz) made a prominent re-appearance here. Kieslowski left us before he was able to make his afterlife-titled trilogy (Tom Tykwer made Heaven four years ago, and Purgatory will come round eventually), but I couldn't be more thrilled to witness his ghost still haunting European cinema ten years after his passing.
I should also mention the strong short films on display this year, either playing with features or slotted into theme programs. Local offering I Am (Not) Van Gogh (which played with The Puffy Chair) is my favorite so far, with its astonishing animated elements embedded into painstaking stop-motion outdoor photography. I also loved the beautifully-drawn fairy-tale feel of Fable (part of a very enjoyable animated package); Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini's My Dad is 100 Years Old, a delightfully weird tribute to Roberto Rossellini accompanying an archival presentation of his 1950 film The Flowers of St. Francis; and the crazy (and, come to think of it, Guy Maddin-esque) Radium Follies alongside the heavily-buzzed adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's horrifying The Call of Cthulhu.
These are but a few highlights. As of this writing, I've just hit the 30-feature mark. And I still have almost two weeks of queue annoyance and cinematic bliss to go.