Saturday, January 03, 2009

Best Festival Films of 2008

They may have only screened once or twice in New York, but they were worth making the effort to see. New York is the capitol of the film festival world, with at least one fest nearly every week of the year. The following collective top ten list (in alphabetical order) honors the best films that screened in a New York festival this year, but have yet to have a conventional theatrical release, including short films.

The UN estimates at least 5,000 Muslim women are the victims of so-called “honor killings” each year. It takes some guts for a Turkish film to address this scandalous practice, and indeed Abdullah Oğuz’s Bliss stirred up domestic controversy when it was released there. Those who caught it at the New York Turkish Film Festival would have also enjoying a compelling drama, featuring three richly nuanced lead performances, elevating it beyond the realm of simple issue films.

The December 1989 Timişoara demonstrations loomed large at this year’s Romanian Film Festival, factoring in two documentaries, including Cold Waves, Alexandru Solomon’s scrupulously even-handed documentary about the Romanian division of Radio Free Europe. Timişoara would be RFE’s shiny hour, in which nearly every Romanian turned to it for accurate news about events in their own country. Waves is a highly credible, fascinating viewing experience that deserves a legitimate theatrical run.

Happily, Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń will open at the film forum in February, following appearances this year at several festivals and the Lincoln Center’s Wajda retrospective. It may not be the director’s greatest work, but it is probably his most personal. A masterwork if not a masterpiece, its searing depiction a mass murder gives the audience no place to hide. It is a remarkable film from the world’s greatest living director.

Fandom can be weird, but Yuichi Sato’s nailed it in his idiosyncratic Kisaragi, which screened as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts. Introducing us to five very odd fans of a tragically deceased pin-up idol—guys you don’t want to be—he creates an effective atmosphere of mystery while examining the weird psychology of fandom.

The Human Rights Watch Film Festival almost exclusively programmed films that disparaged countries that you can safely criticize without fear of reprisals. One of the rare exceptions was Eric Bergkraut’s Letter to Anna, which eerily examines the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, one of the few journalists who actually reported the crimes of Putin and his lackeys. Bergkraut paints an inspiring picture of Politkovskaya, who truly embodied “patriotic dissent.”

The NYTFF also introduced audiences to Ali Osman, one of the greatest screen characters of recent years, but do not call him a mafioso. He was a man of respect, who did his time and lived to tell the tales. Unfortunately, as Omer Vargi’s Love and Honor opens, he will not remember them much longer. His mind is slowly giving way to the ravages of time. Şener Şen gives an incredible performance as Osman, making poetry of what might otherwise have been standard crime melodrama.

Many festival films were billed as topical, but a few, tragically, became even more relevant in retrospect. When it screened at the MIAAC Film Festival, Apoorva Lakhia’s Shootout at Lokhandwala was an adrenaline shot to the heart. Dramatizing the controversial career of A.A. Khan, Mumbai’s real life Jack Bauer, Lokhandwala is told in flashback during the legal aftermath of the title incident. Khan had created Mumbai’s Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS), which cut crime in the city by upwards of seventy percent. In the wake of Lokhandwala, in which Khan and his men discharged a notorious 1,755 rounds, the ATS was disbanded. Clearly, this was shortsighted, particularly in light of the reported reluctance of Mumbai’s regular police to fire at the November 2008 terrorists. You can be sure Khan and his hand-picked officers would not have such a problem. In its own right, Lokhandwala is a widely entertaining, thoroughly over-the-top action film of relentless spectacle.

There have been a raft of Holocaust films this year, but the best by far clocked in at a mere thirteen minutes. In Jochen Alexander Freydank’s Toyland, which screened as part of the Brooklyn International Film Festival, an Aryan mother cannot bring herself to explain to her young son that his Jewish best friend will be imminently transported to certain death in a concentration camp. Instead, she tells him he is going to Toyland. It is difficult to reveal much of the story given its brevity, but it well earns the emotional payoff of its elegant conclusion.

Sharia law is not much fun, even for Muslims. To keep their neighborhood bar open, the citizens of a provincial Moroccan town will resort to desperate measures, including protecting the town’s last Jewish resident in Hassan Benjelloun’s Where are You Going Moshe, which screened at the New York African Diaspora Film Festival. Wise and wistful, Moshe will screen again in New York during the NY Sephardic Jewish Film Festival.

One of the most courageous performances you will ever see came from Elena Chang as a Korean woman held captive by the Japanese during WWII in James Bang’s Wianbu—Comfort Woman, which screened as part of the NY Korean Film Festival’s short film program. It is absolutely harrowing to watch her character endures repeated violations, as she shames at least one would be tormentor with the depravity of his actions. Thanks to her performance Wianbu’s visceral impact lasts long after its screening.

We pay artificial high rent to live in New York, but in exchange we have opportunities to see the finest in world cinema. Whereas, if you live in South Dakota, you have Wall Drug. There is already action on the 2009 New York Festival scene. Look for coverage of the NY Jewish Film Festival in coming weeks.