Friday, December 18, 2009

The Best Festival Films of 2009

New Yorkers are fortunate to have so many festivals offering the chance to see many distinctive films from around the world. When fate smiles, the right people attend the right screenings and eventually offer a select handful of festival films legitimate theatrical distribution. The following list is the top ten films that played New York Film Festivals, but have yet to be distributed conventionally, in alpha order.

Equal parts speculative fiction and magical realism, Kanji Nakajima’s The Clone Returns Home was easily the finest genre film to play any New York Festival. Screened by the Imagine Science Film Festival, was a surprisingly metaphysical selection for the fest, but a challenging and deeply moving film.

Happily Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse has a shock at making next year’s list of top ten theatrical releases, having been picked up by Magnolia after its successful Tribeca screenings. While it delivers some truly eerie chills befitting an Irish ghost story, it is really a moving meditation on how closely grief and love can intertwine and reinforce each other, featuring a tour de force performance from Ciarán Hinds.

If I fell I love with anyone at a festival screening this year, it was Zhou Xun as cab driver Li-Mi in Cao Baoping’s awkwardly titled Equation of Love and Death, which screened during the New York Asian Film Festival. Though the beautiful actress was glammed down for the hardboiled but vulnerable character, her uncannily expressive eyes owned the film.

Russian cinema still seems to be coming to terms with the Stalinist era, producing some surprisingly honest films, including Rustem Abdrashev’s The Gift to Stalin, which screened during both the New York Jewish Film Festival and Russian Film Week this year. Gift is an unabashedly sentimental story of sacrifice and thanksgiving that honestly earns its emotional pay-off. Also to its credit, the film does not whitewash the realities of life under Stalinism, particularly regarding ethnic minorities banished to the Eurasian republics.

One should not lightly compare directorial debut features to John Cassavetes’s ground-breaking independent films, but Damien Chazelle’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench truly has a similarly uncomfortably intimate style and gritty black & white look, accompanied by a cool jazz soundtrack featuring co-stars Jason Palmer and Andre Hayward. Its swinging music helps relieve the tension of its closely observed drama, preserving a sense of life’s freshness that really distinguished Bench from the indie pack at Tribeca.

Seen during New York DocuWeeks, N.C. Heiken’s extraordinary documentary Kimjongilia recorded harrowing first-person accounts of North Korea’s nightmarish concentration camps, acting as a needed corrective to western naivety regarding the rogue regime. It is also presented in a remarkably classy package, with classical music and vignettes of interpretive dance enhancing the emotional impact of the survivors’ testimony.

Gao Qunshu’s unconventional police procedural Old Fish, another selection of the NYAFF, hardly idealized the Harbin police department, showing all the inglorious corruption and bureaucracy. De-emphasizing the traditional elements of the crime thriller, its drama and tension derive entirely from character, particularly its laconic veteran protagonist, memorably played by Ma Guowei, himself a former police officer.

What started as a reasonably interesting survey of Tibetan song became a riveting examination of the occupied nation when exiled Tibetan director Ngawang Choephel was imprisoned while filming Tibet in Song, a selection of the 2009 Asian American International Film Festival. Though it all too obviously illustrates the unpredictable nature of nonfiction filmmaking, Ngawang clearly illustrates the Communist government’s chillingly Orwellian campaign to obliterate one of the world’s oldest cultures.

Seven Minutes in Heaven, Omri Givon’s powerful drama of the aftermath of a Palestinian terrorist atttack starts as a survivor’s search for cathartic closure but delivers audiences a metaphysical curve ball in its third act. Challenging but deeply affecting, Heaven was Tribeca selection that made a return appearance at the 2009 Israel Film Festival.

Stalin’s demise in 1953 should have been reason enough for celebration, but it leads to further suffering at the hands of the Soviets in Horaţiu Mălăele’s Silent Wedding, which premiered at the 2009 Romanian Film Festival. Deftly juggling flashbacks, magical realism, political allegory, low comedy and high tragedy, Wedding hits a lot of notes without ever causing a whiplash effect.

There were many films on the New York festival circuit this year. It would be nice to see many of them proceed to an extended theatrical life, particularly the ten films listed above.