[DVD highlights (and a lowlight)]

* Lars and the Real Girl. I queued this mostly because Patricia Clarkson & Emily Mortimer are basically always worth watching, and I was curious what drew them to the project. I still don’t know. It required suspension of disbelief that eluded me, and I am, honestly, a pretty credulous viewer. In this case I was constantly irritated by the things I was supposed to believe and the questions I wasn’t supposed to ask… or at least the questions the filmmakers weren’t going to bother to answer. Skip it.

* Night on Earth was a surprise arrival when Netflix decided to pass up the five ‘available now’ discs ahead of it. Which is fine, because it’s a great movie that I should have seen a long time ago. It’s totally my sort of movie, being basically five vignettes of cab rides all starting at the same moment around the (Western) world. Stick with it past Winona Ryder’s overacted LA segment for New York & Helsinki in particular.

* When I was on the east coast, friends made me watch Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. And I laughed. A lot. I feel compelled to admit this to you, the Letterboxed reading audience. Judge me if you must.

* I missed Heavy Metal in Baghdad at the film festival, but that was okay because it just came out on DVD. It tracks Iraq’s only heavy metal band, Acrassicauda. (There’s a heavy metal scene, but holding a band together, as you’ll see in the doc, is nigh on impossible.) It’s about living in Iraq, about being a refugee, about wishing you were home and that home is what it used to be. And it’s about metal. Rock on.

* Grace Is Gone is, so far as I can tell, the first decent movie John Cusack’s been in since High Fidelity. He’s the husband of a soldier killed in Iraq, and the film follows his initial grief as he tries to figure out how to tell their daughters what has happened. It’s a little unavoidably sentimental, but I also bought it enough to tear up a bit, so there you go.

* In preparation for seeing Ann Savage in My Winnipeg next week, I picked up Detour. It was really a terrible transfer, but the movie itself is classic noir — an average Joe getting caught up in a web of troubles to put it lightly — and she’s the ultimate femme fatale, hard and manipulative. Good times!

* While I was at it, I got Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee, which is an essentially silent film. It’s funny and weird (v weird) and includes hockey and a wax museum, which is pretty much win so far as I am concerned. I have to get it out again at a later date so I can watch it with Maddin’s commentary. Delicious!

[SIFF week three]

* Man on Wire is just crazy amounts of fun. It’s a documentary, with a wee bit of recreation, of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. It’s structured, appropriately enough, like a heist film, and Petite is the master teller of his own story. It’s marvelous filmmaking too, in that there’s great tension even though we know exactly how it ends.

* Be Like Others was my second documentary of the day, and utterly heartbreaking. It takes us to Iran, where homosexuality is punishable by death, but gender reassignment surgery is legal, even encouraged. It is painfully clear throughout that the vast majority of these people would never make this choice if they lived anywhere else. They’re undergoing this brutal procedure (brutal in that it is gender reassignment in *Iran*, that is, I don’t mean this to be a commentary on truly transgendered people or Western methodology) so that they can fit into the rigid societal/religious definitions of gender. Not so they can fulfill who they really are. The only thing I wish is that there had been further inclusion of women. There is one lesbian at the start of the film, and we never encounter her again. It seems like a huge gap to me. Painful & unforgettable.

* I added Becky Sharp for the form rather than the content, and was pleasantly surprised by both. It’s a Vanity Fair adaptation (obviously), and the first film done in three strip Technicolor. The color is gorgeous and the dialogue is hilarious & snappy. Good times all round. Ignore the IMDb reviewers. They’re idiots.

* Somehow I had got it into my head that XXY was a Canadian film. I blame it on mid-festival pudding-brain. It’s from Argentina, and is the story of a 15 year old hermaphrodite under increasing pressure to choose a gender. It’s just beautiful, and Inés Efron is luminous as Alex. I never remember to vote for the other Golden Space Needle categories, but I’ll try to put in a ballot for her.

* Finally, last night I had scheduled a 9:45 movie, Sukiyaki Western Django. Perhaps because I am insane. I gave serious thought to selling my ticket to someone in the rush line, and I’m glad I didn’t, because it was on copious amounts of crack. More, even, than I had anticipated. I knew it was a Japanese Western, and that Miike is kind of a nutcase director, but I did not know that it had a cameo by Quentin Tarantino, or that it was in English… phonetic English, which sounds a lot like the red room Twin Peaks scenes. It’s an excellent terrible movie, and great fun to see with a packed house.

[SIFF week two]

* Savage Grace was a late addition to my schedule, when I realized I had screwed up somewhere and needed something to fill out a 6 pack. What better than a Julianne Moore incest movie? Well. That’s how my brain works, anyway. It was disturbing, but not as much as it should have been. Which is weird. And it is, oddly, the first time I have *not* felt that Hugh Dancy was miscast. So apparently his other roles – even in Evening! – were Just Not Gay Enough. Good to know!

* Strangers, the love story of an Israeli man & Palestinian woman who meet during the 2006 World Cup, is flawed but endearing. The leads are wonderful & the politics are complex, but there is the occasional plot-wise suspension of disbelief that gave me pause. Still, one of the better romances I’ve seen in a while.

* Sparrow was the first of three Johnnie To movies I seem to have scheduled for myself. I am a sucker for Hong Kong action; I’m not gonna lie. This one is a lot of fun — it follows a team of four pickpockets as they all get involved in the life of a mysterious beautiful woman. Happens to the best of us. When the team works together, particularly in the final heist, as it were, it’s like a dance. Good times!

* It’s impossible to watch Mad Detective (my second Johnnie To flick) without wondering how long it’ll be before some American studio buys the rights to it for a crap remake. Because a remake will be crap. Mad Detective was much darker than Sparrow. It’s a dirty cop story with a twist — the detective of the title has a most unusual investigative method, as he can see people’s inner personalities. The ending was a little much for me, but the ride to get there was great.

* Finally, another local documentary, Good Food is about organic farming in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps not earthshattering — we can probably all agree that organic, local food is better for us and better for the planet — but beautiful and inspiring. And as it was the world premiere, it was pretty awesome to see a group of farmers taking the stage to a well-deserved round of applause.

[SIFF week one]

* The Red Awn still doesn’t exist on the IMDb, apparently. It’s written and directed by Cai Shangjun, the writer of Shower and Spicy Love Soup, both of which I also enjoyed, particularly Shower. This was a father-son reunion story of sorts, set among migrant harvesters in rural China, and a beautifully-shot trip into a world that I really don’t know anything about. Which is part of the point of film, yes?

* My first animated feature was Nocturna, part of the Films 4 Families portion of the festival. It’s a Spanish & French film that’s been described as a cross between Monsters, Inc & Miyazaki, which is a pretty fair assessment, actually. It’s an utterly charming story about an orphan who loses his star, and discovers the system that makes night as we know it happen. The version I saw was dubbed, but I thought it was well cast. And how can you not love a movie where one of the characters is a cat shepherd? I ask you.

* The only midnight movie on my schedule this year was Epitaph. It’s a little disjointed, but it had some really great scares, and is beautifully filmed. It’s a solid first film from the directors, who have scads of potential.

* Sita Sings the Blues is, hands down, my favorite film of the festival so far. I need it out *now*, so I can force everyone I know to see it. It’s the Indian epic of Ramayana as told from memory by friends of the director, animated, turned into a musical with tunes performed by Annette Hanshaw from 1929ish, with an autobiographical thread from the director. The interplay between all of the texts, the way the epic comments on the music, it makes my toes curl. Plus it uses several different styles of animation, and the most mindblowing thing? It was animated over the course of five years by the director alone. It is full-on amazingness. I need to own it, like, yesterday.

* There’s always a few revival features at the festival, and this year we have the 40th anniversary of Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, which I hadn’t seen since I was in high school, and certainly never on the big screen. Obviously the amazing thing with this film is it does what you could never do in a theater — cast the leads crazy young. Editing and ADR enable the creation of a performance that could never exist on stage. And the effect is heartbreaking. (Also, oh man, Mercutio! I have so much love always for that role.)

* Finally, my first documentary was a local piece, A Wink and a Smile. It follows a group of students through a burlesque class in Seattle. Our screening was the world premiere, and though it was not *quite* as insane as last year’s Blood on the Flat Track premiere (for one thing, no one took photos of the screen), it was pretty amazing. The documentary itself was fabulous, blending history, the Seattle scene, and the development of the class as they worked their way towards their graduation performance. It almost made me want to try burlesque. Almost.

[Pre-festival round-up]

Tonight I see my first movie of the festival, so let’s clean out this Google Doc so I’ll be ready.

* Senator Obama Goes to Africa does not exist on the IMDb, so have the Senator’s page instead. It’s not any sort of grand campaign document, but I found it interesting. It is pretty PBSy. My favorite moment was when he was visiting the jail where Nelson Mandela was held, and he’s told of how the prisoners missed being around children. All throughout, really, the way he really listens to people is great, but that was a particularly striking moment.

* I only went to Then She Found Me because it was a SIFF members screening & I was a little intrigued by the cast. It’s really just an elevated Lifetime movie. The interesting thing about it is the direction of the actors, which is a natural result of actors directing. For example, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen such an ugly performance out of Colin Firth. Still, easily skippable. I think it’s already out of theaters here.

* The Counterfeiters was this year’s winner of the Oscar for a film in a foreign language. I’d like to think that if The Band’s Visit had qualified (how I rage against that disqualification!) it would have at least been close. The Counterfeiters was solid, but not great, though it did cover a little-known part of Nazi history.

…that’s all for now, folks! I have twenty two SIFF films lined up, which is, I think, the same as last year. I will try to keep relatively on top of posting about it. I know you’re all excited.