Best Festival Films of 2011

Midnight Son

Electric Sheep writers review the best films seen at festivals in 2011.

Midnight Son (Scott Leberecht, 2011, Film4 FrightFest)

A vampire movie with a melancholy indie feel, Midnight Son was one of the best films seen at Film4 FrightFest this year and is an outstanding feature debut by Scott Leberecht. Jacob is a night security guard with a skin condition that prevents him from going in the sun and who starts experiencing physical changes after he blacks out at work. He meets Mary, a girl who sells cigarettes and sweets outside a bar. They are attracted to each other, but Jacob’s deteriorating condition and Mary’s drug habit conspire to keep them apart. In addition, Jacob starts getting troubling flashbacks of a young woman who was found dead in the underground car park at work. The film uses the vampire motif to evoke the tenderness, heartache and destructiveness of two outsiders’ tormented love. Like Let the Right One In, it is sweet and creepy in just the right amounts. The moody feel, the hazy look and a low-key soundtrack all combine beautifully to conjure Jacob’s strangely detached, dreamlike life in a shadowy, oddly empty LA. Virginie Sélavy

Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, 2010, Cannes)

Takeshi Kitano returns to the cut-throat world of the yakuza for the first time since Brother (2001) with this darkly humorous thriller. Outrage concerns a misunderstanding between two organised crime syndicates that becomes a feud, then a fully-fledged war when neither side is willing to back down. Scenes of torture and murder ensue, as enforcer Otomo (Kitano) finds himself caught in the middle of a rapidly escalating situation that causes shifts in organisational structure. Outrage delivers all the grim laughs and sudden violence that one would expect from a Kitano crime saga, but also serves to comment on the gradual legitimisation of the underworld as bosses have business meetings and subordinates await instructions in anonymous ‘company’ offices, while the killing of civilians is strictly forbidden. Codes of honour are frequently cited, but this is a fiercely modern world where such traditions are reduced to sake toasts and conveniently forgotten when an opportunity arises for advancement in the ranks. Kitano seems to have lost his status as an essential international auteur of late - Outrage has been relegated to a direct-to-DVD release in the UK - but this typically cool genre exercise is one of the best entries in his considerable yakuza canon. John Berra

Keyhole (Guy Maddin, 2011, Toronto)

What’s not to love? Blending Warner Brothers gangster styling of the 30s, film noir of the 40s and 50s, Greek tragedy, Sirk-like melodrama and odd dapplings of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, it is, like all Maddin’s work, best designed to experience as a dream on film. The elements concocted in Keyhole to allow for full experiential mind-fucking involve the insanely named gangster Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric as you’ve never seen him before - playing straight, yet feeling like he belongs to another cinematic era), who drags his kids (one dead, but miraculously sprung to life, the other seemingly alive, but not remembered by his Dad) into a haunted house surrounded by guns-a-blazing. Keyhole is, without a doubt, one of the most perversely funny movies I’ve seen in ages and includes Maddin’s trademark visual tapestry of the most alternately gorgeous and insanely inspired kind. But as in all of Maddin’s work, beneath the surface of its mad inspiration lurks a melancholy and thematic richness. All the ghosts of the living and the dead (to paraphrase Joyce) populate the strange, magical and haunting world of Keyhole - a world most of us, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, live in. Greg Klymkiw

The Glass Man (Cristian Solimeno, 2011, Film4 FrightFest)

An excellent mid-recession British take on one of David Fincher’s finest movies (I won’t say which one or you’ll get the twist immediately), The Glass Man concentrates on the travails of Martin (Andy Nyman), a businessman who has been fired from his job for an unknown reason; the film implies some kind of whistle-blowing. With a mortgage to pay and a lifestyle he and his wife have become accustomed to, he has been lying to her about still going to work for some time and amassed crippling debts when a hitman (James Cosmo) comes to his front door and gives him a choice between becoming his accomplice for the night or waking up Martin’s wife and… A belated addition to the ‘yuppie in peril’ sub-genre that flourished briefly in the mid-1980s (Into the Night, After Hours), The Glass Man‘s relentless atmosphere of impending doom and Nyman’s constant nervousness about unarticulated peril keep the audience transfixed even though not a lot happens on screen for much of the running time. A terrific directorial debut by Cristian Solimeno, who proves himself to be an actor’s director, in a film dominated by the interaction between Nyman and Cosmo, judged exquisitely well. Alex Fitch

Once upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011, Cannes)

The winner of the Cannes 2011 Grand Prix, Once upon a Time in Anatolia (a nod towards Leone) stands as one of acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s finest achievements. With a filmography including Uzak and Climates this is no small feat. Full of piercing insights, dark humour and a finely tuned wit, this is an epic and rigorous tale of a night and day in a murder investigation. Beautifully photographed in the Anatolian steppes by Gökhan Tiryaki, this meticulously constructed police procedural concerns bickering police and prosecutors grimly locating a buried body following a local brawl and a hasty confession. As the corpse is exhumed, many long-buried thoughts and fears are disinterred in the minds of the hard-bitten lawmen, one of whom happens to bear a passing resemblance to Clark Gable. Replicating the ebb and flow of human life, Once upon a Time in Anatolia unfolds like a fascinating game of chess with clues and gestures ambiguously revealed. A film interested in the concept of truth, and the manner by which we arrive at it, it is fascinating and flawless filmmaking. Jason Wood

Killer Joe

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2011, Toronto)

A welcome return to some sort of form for Friedkin, who has not soared of late. This neo-noir tale of trailer trash who hire a moonlighting cop/hitman to bump off their own mother for her insurance policy - the plan of course goes completely tits-up - is an over-the-top delight with Matthew McConaughey playing against type as the cop/hitman. The weirdest fried chicken leg blowjob you will see this (or any other) year. Beats this year’s efforts by other veterans like Woody or Francis. James B. Evans

Without (Mark Jackson, 2011, London Film Festival)

The debut from writer-director-editor Mark Jackson, Without features an outstanding performance from newcomer Joslyn Jensen as an unstable young woman who’s secretly coping with a terrible loss. Joslyn takes a job on an island off the coast of Washington State, caring for Frank, an elderly man in a near-vegetative state who’s confined to a wheelchair. The set-up - it’s just the two of them, alone, in a remote house in the woods - suggests a thriller, but the suspense and mystery really revolve around her perilous emotional state. As the film unfolds, Joslyn’s charming, seemingly innocent character begins to evolve into something deeper and darker. The director hints throughout the film at her reasons for taking the job, but never gives away too much at once, leaving it to the audience to try and piece together the rest of the puzzle. Jessica Dimmock and Diego Garcia’s cinematography is superb; much of the film is shot with a shallow depth of field, lending a rich, soft-focus look to the visuals, while the warm hues contrast with the darkening tone of the film. It’s a remarkable, original feature that will hopefully get the recognition that it deserves. Sarah Cronin

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011, Venice)

Steve McQueen’s second film, after his astonishing debut Hunger, surely places him at the forefront of British cinema. Despite McQueen’s day job as a renowned video artist, there is no tricksy-ness to his film, no radical inventiveness. Rather, his images reveal his artistic validity by dint of patience. Shots are held. We don’t watch this film, we stare at it. The tale itself could easily be a soap opera melodrama: Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful urbanite living an almost antiseptically perfect life in Manhattan, which is put at risk by his compulsive sex addiction and by a visit from his messy (but altogether more conventionally promiscuous) sister, Sissy, played with thrift store charm by the ubiquitous Carey Mulligan. So far, so sensationalist, as we see the would-be Michael Douglas being serviced by high-end prostitutes, prowling the streets and bars, and masturbating with painful frequency. His inability to look at a woman without immediate sexual desire makes his sister’s visit uncomfortable, if not dangerously complicated. This is not only sex without love, it is sex that is mutually exclusive to love, the opposite of intimacy. And yet, at the same time, as Hunger eschewed straightforward political argument, so Shame, despite its title, avoids a merrily reductive morality. Fassbender’s performance is at once comic and tragic, ferocious and sensitive, strange but remarkably common, the brutal buffoonery of the male face in orgasm. John Bleasdale

Carré blanc (Jean-Baptiste Léonetti, 2011, Toronto)

Harking back to the great 70s science-fiction film classics, Jean-Baptiste Léonetti’s debut feature Carré blanc is easily one of the finest dystopian visions of the future to be etched upon celluloid since that time. The tale is, on its surface and as in many great movies, a simple one. Philippe and Marie grew up together in a state orphanage and are now married. They live in a stark, often silent corporate world bereft of any vibrant colour and emotion. Philippe is a most valued lackey of the state - he is an interrogator-cum-indoctrinator. Marie is withdrawing deeper and deeper into a cocoon as the love she once felt for Philippe is transforming into indifference. In this world, though, hatred is as much a luxury as love. Tangible feelings and simple foibles are punished with torture and death. Indifference, it would seem, is the goal. It ensures complete subservience to the dominant forces. Love, however, is ultimately the force the New World Order is helpless to fight and it is at the core of this story. If Philippe and Marie can somehow rediscover that bond, there might yet be hope - for them, and the world. It is this aspect of the story that always keeps the movie floating above a mere exercise in style and makes it an instant classic of science fiction. Greg Klymkiw

Sons of Norway (Jens Lien, 2011, Toronto)

A little curiosity from Norway about the growing pains of Nikolaj, whose eccentric father encourages his adolescent rebellion, which erupts full force with his discovery of the Sex Pistols and neo-punk. Better than this plot outline sounds, the film is touching and offbeat without trying too hard (see The Future review). If you liked the Norwegian film Fucking Amål, this is for you. It was executive-produced by John Lydon, who also has a small but key role in it. James B. Evans

Night Fishing

Best short: Night Fishing (Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong, 2011, London Korean Film Festival)

The most innovative short of the year was the star attraction of the shorts programmes at the London Korean Film Festival, Night Fishing, a collaboration between Park Chan-wook and his brother, Park Chan-kyong. Steeped in Korean folklore and traditional religion, the film passes through three distinct atmospheres. It begins with a stylish musical prologue with a jerking, twisting front man and his band performing amid colourless reed beds. The camera soars away to a lone man sitting on a riverbank, his fishing rod primed and tinny radio playing, and the film takes on the air of an ominous horror film. Then, in a gloriously unexpected twist, the film makes a high-energy ascent into a colourful cacophony of mournful wailing and religious chanting. It is a strange journey, even more so because of the way in which the film was made: every single shot was filmed on an iPhone 4. It would have been a bizarre, beautiful film regardless, but the technology creates further interesting effects as the camera flips 360 degrees or shoots the fishing scenes in grainy night vision. Eleanor McKeown