Separated from the major annual Edinburgh Festival pandemonium for the first time ever, this year’s 62nd film festival wished to establish a fresher, stronger, edgier identity, exploring the nooks and crannies of new movie-making and bringing unusual treasures to its enthusiastic local and international audience. Unfortunately though, this was not a year of major cinematic breakthroughs and in spite of the promising programme notes, too many of the films turned out to be mediocre.
Without doubt, the pick of the festival was Swedish director Tomas Alfredsson’s excellent Let the Right One In (L Ã¥t den rätte komma in), an intelligent, well-paced vampire movie, which deservedly won the top award for best narrative feature at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Impressively handling familiar material and giving it a fresh spin, it has the gruesome feel and bizarre beauty of an eccentric horror fantasy, but also delivers plenty of emotionally charged drama and wry humour. Andersson slowly charts the blossoming friendship between troubled 12-year-old Oskar and vampire girl Eli through a series of poignant and near-surreal attempts at bonding that are in turn gentle and disturbing. Superb cinematography and mesmerising performances by the two adolescent lead actors (K Ã¥re Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson) make it a film to treasure.
Another Nordic find was Ole Bornedal’s Just Another Love Story, a grippingly complex and stylish contemporary noir thriller from Denmark, in which a police photographer finds himself emotionally entangled with a comatose young woman injured in a car accident that also involved himself and his family. Developing into an obscene, twisted romance, the story remains powerful and well-calibrated throughout, turning into a shocking, nerve-racking riddle played out with a brutal relish for the grotesque in the final part.
One of the festival’s most enjoyable films was the truly unsettling sci-fi narrative Sleep Dealer by young Mexican director Alex Rivera. Following in the giant steps of The Matrix or Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, this striking and hugely inventive debut feature playfully addresses the idea of humans retreating from objective reality by means of computer software that connects to their conscious minds through metallic ports inserted into their bodies. In Rivera’s futuristic fantasy, however, people use the new technology not so much to experience virtual thrills as to earn their living by controlling robots performing manual work in the US. The riveting story is served well by consistently excellent performances and is visually remarkably polished. Rivera makes a virtue of his low budget by transforming financial restraint into an aesthetic choice and this assured debut feature reveals that he is a talent to watch.
This year’s programme was dominated by realism, psychology and low-budget intelligence, which was particularly noticeable in the selection of British films. However, the excitement about new British cinema was dampened down by the bleakness and austerity that characterised most of the films. Duane Hopkins’s eagerly awaited debut feature Better Things was a lyrical yet painfully grim tale of drug abuse, sexual confusion and the cruel realities of growing up in the Cotswolds. Other critics were seduced by Helen, Christine Molloy’s slow-burning drama in which a missing girl’s persona starts to influence the girl who agrees to take part in a police investigation to help find her. Despite an astonishing performance by young Annie Townsend in the lead, the film is maybe too deliberately cryptic for its own good and not quite the revelation so many were hoping for. After all this misery, Shane Meadows’s Somers Town proved to be the most enjoyable and compelling British feature, managing to be gently melancholic, toughly funny and irresistibly charming in equal parts.
In terms of quality and innovation, the foreign-language films clearly dominated the programme and The Wave proved that German cinema is still going strong. Dennis Gansel’s smart, slick and powerful film is an adaptation of the real-life teaching experiment that originally took place in a Californian High School in 1967. What begins as a clever educational game that aims at probing the social order and reveal the roots of fascism escalates into tragedy, culminating in painful disillusionment and frightening violence in the grim last act.
The festival proved most convincing in its section of distinctive and often small-scale documentaries, the more personal films often proving to be the most accomplished and satisfying ones. The best British documentary, though not officially included in the section, was James Marsh’s Man on Wire, which recounts Philippe Petit’s staggering attempt to walk a tightrope between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974. There were also fascinating portraits of unique, eccentric men, such as Matt Wolf’s affectionate tribute Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, and Erik Nelson’s Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which offers a glimpse into the incredible mind of American cult writer Harlan Ellison. Other treasures to be found in this section included Jesus Christ Saviour, which already stood out at this year’s Berlinale in February.
Significantly, it was the excellent Shirley Clarke retrospective that ensured there was always something worth seeing. It provided the rare opportunity to watch Clarke’s magnificently stark The Cool World on a cinema screen, while also presenting the memorable and rarely-screened documentary Rome Burns (Rome Brûle – Portrait de Shirley Clarke), a collection of delightfully unpretentious interviews with Clarke shot in January 1968. Seeing the fascinating filmmaker nonchalantly talking about her work to date while Jacques Rivette and Yoko Ono hang out on a futon in the corner might have been the closest Edinburgh came to an event.
For more Edinburgh Festival coverage see: See also EIFF 08: Under the Radar, Interview with Olly Blackburn, Jay Taylor and Rob Boulter (Donkey Punch) and Standard Operating Procedure.