Saturday evening, Haifa’s upscale Carmel Center neighborhood will once again fill up for 10 days as the Haifa International Film Festival offers escapism that this year can be used to leave Israel’s depressing political situation behind.
Even if most visitors are here to watch films from all over the world, most of which won’t be shown at Israeli theaters, the heart of the festival remains the two main competitions for Israeli films: features and documentaries – even if not one feature is by women.
The guest list this year isn’t very exciting, but it’s headed by French Jewish director Claude Lelouch, who will receive a lifetime achievement award at the opening ceremony. With actress Anouk Aimée, he’ll present his new film “The Best Years of a Life,” where he once again brings together Aimée and Jean-Louis Trintignant, 53 years after “A Man and a Woman.”
Other guests to walk down Hanassi Avenue will include Stephan Elliott, the director of “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” who’s here to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Australian cult drag queens film. Also, Polish director Agnieszka Holland will present her new film “Mr. Jones,” while her countryman Krzysztof Zanussi will chair the panel of judges in the festival’s Carmel competition.
Here’s a primer for films we’ve already seen or that look particularly interesting.
“The Art of Self-Defense” / Hooray fragile masculinity
How does a humorous version of “Fight Club” sound to you? Or maybe a slim parody of “Karate Kid” and martial arts films? Riley Stearns’ movie could be described that way. Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) is the protagonist in a role that deftly employs his ability to alternate between a nerdy lack of self confidence and psychotic overconfidence.
Eisenberg’s character gets mocked for his wimpishness, so he takes karate lessons. There, he meets Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), who urges him to shed any feminine mannerisms. The golem not only rises up against his creator but places a mirror in front of the exposed chest of the concept of masculinity in the Western world. The film is a big win for the concept of “fragile masculinity,” not to mention its doses of dry and ironic humor.
“QT8: The First Eight” / Tarantino Über Alles
This documentary takes you on the journey that turned Quentin Tarantino into one of the most admired, beloved and successful directors in Hollywood. Greats who have worked with him (including Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lucy Liu, Diane Kruger, Kurt Russell, Christoph Waltz and Bruce Dern) share impressions of the man, his films (though not the last one, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), and his burning passion for cinema.
The documentary includes a rhythmic and tightly knit combination of short animated passages alongside traditional interviews, clips from his movies, cinematic scenes that inspired him and exciting reminders of the soundtracks he created. The film is a fascinating lesson on the power, sophistication and beauty that can be distilled from breaking rules, shattering barriers between high and low culture, and deploying a very broad range of cinematic tools – everything needed to surprise viewers and get them emotionally involved.
“Skin” / The whole story
The American film by Israeli director Guy Nattiv tells a story of redemption – of light that erupts from the gloomiest darkness. Jamie Bell (“Billy Elliot”) plays Bryon Widner, a neo-Nazi who opens the film with a violent demonstration of “white power” against minorities in the United States. But later on he looks for a way out of his hate-filled life; one option is human contact and the removal of the tattoos that make his body horrifying.
The film is based on a true and amazing story about the rehabilitation from evil, though only in its overall subject matter is it related to Nattiv’s short Oscar-winning film of the same name. After it was discovered at the Toronto and Tribeca festivals, it’s Haifa’s turn.
“The Souvenir” / A tale of two Swintons
Joanna Hogg’s (“Archipelago”) autobiographical film is entirely about art, though its main attraction is that Tilda Swinton and her daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne, share a screen. Tilda only appears in a few scenes, though Honor is the main character in the story about the birth of a new female artist and a toxic relationship between a manipulative man and a naive young woman who’s always the last to understand the situation.
But don’t rush to judge her, because by the end she’ll judge you. The result is as heavy as a ton of tarred bricks, but it’s as beautiful as a green meadow at sunset.
“Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles” / Merciless
The animated film by Spain’s Salvador Simo sketches the life of Luis Buñuel in the early ‘30s and reveals what happened behind the scenes of the great Spanish director’s 1933 work “Land Without Bread.” But it’s not for Buñuel fans only; Simo’s film is far more than that, mainly thanks to his straying far from the facts and flowing into a world of the subconscious, anxieties and nightmares – and in animation it sounds (that is, looks) better.
The film accompanies Buñuel to the village, documenting his dubious methods (good treatment of animals wasn’t his strong point in those days). It also does a wonderful job integrating black-and-white passages from Buñuel’s film with colorful animation, and in the dream scenes dives into hypnotic surrealism, which is called for due to the collaboration between Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.
“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” / The celebration continues
Twenty-five years have passed since this film became one of the finest ambassadors for both Australia and the LGBT community. Three drag queens, two of them gay men and the third a trans woman, embark on a desert journey to a gig in the middle of the continent. On the way they learn a thing or two about what’s really important to them and shatter prejudices and stereotypes held by mainstream types they meet along the way.
It’s sad to realize that despite the 25 years, the difficulties piled up on LGBT people by the straights in this film are still with us. But it’s gladdening to discover that the quarter-century that has elapsed hasn’t undermined the celebration offered by this work. Even today it’s hard not to melt at the damaged and captivating characters, the lovely costumes, the rhythmic soundtrack and the thrilling landscapes.
“Gaza” / Crushed hope
How do you lead a normal life in a closed region where the living conditions are cruel and where at any given moment you could fall victim to more bombs, fear and killing? This Canadian documentary, first screened at the Sundance Film Festival, documents life in the region that we know almost exclusively from the TV news. It doesn’t try to analyze the political situation in the Strip, it doesn’t dwell on Gaza-Israel relations, and it doesn’t examine the advantages and disadvantages of Hamas rule.
It simply chooses a series of people, children as well as adults, and extracts confessions about the difficulties, the routine, the dreams, the attempts not to lose hope, and the reality that repeatedly crushes this hope. The lovely photography only makes the gap between what could have been and what actually exists particularly grating.
“The Lighthouse” / Go understand them
This was the most talked-about film on the sidelines at Cannes. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play two lighthouse keepers in late 19th-century New England whose sanity is tested. Judging by the promo, it’s clear that, if you know Hebrew, the subtitles will help you understand the characters’ impossible accents – and the enigmatic plot in expressive black and white.
It’s easy to understand how it ended up with a jury prize at Cannes. The director is Robert Eggers, who amazed the world of horror with “The Witch.” We can only hold our breath until we can tremble with fear while viewing his film.
“Honey Boy” / Original and crazy
This won a special jury award at Sundance, written as part of creative therapy for actor Shia LaBeouf during rehab. The film tells about the Hollywood child star’s life with his alcoholic father, who makes a living as a rodeo clown. LeBeouf plays the father, and with him on the screen is his real-life partner, singer FKA Twigs. The young protagonist is played at different ages by Noah Jupe and Lucas Hedges (“Boy Erased”).
The director is Tel Aviv-born Alma Har’el (“Bombay Beach”), who directs experimental films and documentaries in the United States. This is her first feature film, which looks and sounds original and quite crazy.
“Monos” / “Apocalypse Now”meets “Lord of the Flies”
The Colombian entry for the international Oscar (formerly “the best foreign language film”) also received a prize at Sundance and sounds like the kind of work for which film festivals were invented. On an isolated mountaintop an armed militia of children is holding a Western girl (Julianne Nicholson) hostage. In short, “Apocalypse Now” meets “Lord of the Flies.” The photography looks breathtaking and director Alejandro Landes is a new cinematic voice, if you ask Guillermo del Toro, who’s quoted in the trailer, or producer J. C. Chandor (“A Most Violent Year”).
“Varda by Agnès” / In her charming words
The last film by the Belgian-French director Agnès Varda was screened at the most recent Berlin International Film Festival about a month before her death, and since then has been traveling the world as a farewell letter that has received enthusiastic reviews. In this work she stands in front of the camera, tells part of her life story, talks about her films, and offers an epilogue to her work as an exceptionally original director who flourished in an amazingly masculine environment.
While enjoying the privilege of a last encounter with Varda’s famous personal charm and embarking with her on a journey among her films, it’s hard to think of a better way to part from one of the greatest female directors.
“No. 7 Cherry Lane” / Stealing the judges’ hearts
One of the intriguing films comes from Hong Kong and did something special for an animated film: It was accepted to the main competition of this year’s Venice International Film Festival, won instant acclaim, stole the hearts of the judges and even won for best screenplay.
The first animated film by Chinese director Yonfan takes place in 1967, at the time of stormy clashes between demonstrators and police in Hong Kong. But the plot follows Ziming, a student who gives private lessons to a pretty young woman and finds himself emotionally entangled with both her and her mother, a successful businesswoman.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote that this film “is also a stirring love letter to the cinema and its liberating effect on the audience’s deepest fears and constricting beliefs.” So how can you resist?
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