The 65th Annual Edinburgh Film Festival has had its critics. Dropping the awards aspect and suffering an unceremonious temporal relocation – just two manifestations of the well publicized budget cuts – this year’s festivities have been lambasted for their organizers lack of ambition. Fearing they might never be able to compete with Cannes or Sundance, Edinburgh appear to resigned themselves to an unfair fate which – combined with the technical difficulties which plagued the opening ceremony – appear to have lined the way for Glasgow to take over as the premier Scottish film festival.
Such negativity, however, is completely unfounded. Sure, the films this year could have been better, sourced from a greater number of national film councils, but bemoaning with hindsight when the festival is only today finishing is to do many of this year’s films a disservice. Israel. Norway. Japan. Spain. Each of these countries produced some outstanding film’s, while Britain didn’t do so bad itself. Ignoring, then, the Fast Romances, the Weekenders and the Stormhouses of the world, here are my top five film’s of the 65th EIFF.
1. Rabies (Kalevet)
Opening with a scene indicative of your average torture-porn – a bloodied woman trapped and later drugged by a deranged cat-person – the rug is quickly pulled from beneath your feet as the filmmakers take an inspired wrong turn into largely unexplored territory. We meet the usual hapless teens, the obligatory bumbling police officers and a forest ranger husband and wife, yet not once do your undoubtedly informed predictions come to pass. To say any more would be to do the innovative and whimsical script a gross disservice, needless to say Yaron Motola’s “killer” may be the most incompetent yet.
Like an earnest Scream, a softly-spoken The Cottage or a ruthlessly efficient Severence, Rabies is less a horror than a gore-soaked comedy. If this particular tonal balance is one of the hardest in cinema to achieve – Black Sheep anyone? – you wouldn’t know it thanks to the assuredly effortless direction and enthused performances that make Rabies what it is: a darkly comic joy. At times hilarious, at times uncomfortable, but always relentlessly engaging, the movie is such a constellation of memorable characters, moments and dialogue that you can’t help believe it to be the result of some serendipitous planetary alignment.
2. The Troll Hunter
Charting the attempts of a trio of students to document the work of supposed bear poacher, Hans (Otto Jespersen), it is soon revealed that the budding filmmakers have bitten off far more than they can chew. Tracking Hans down to a stretch of woodland, they are finally introduced to their subject as he flees from the trees screaming “Troll”. Believing him deluded, the group – consisting of Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck) and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen) - join the titular “troll hunter” on his mission to track down escapees from a selection of designated territories around Norway, uncovering an inept government conspiracy along they way.
The Troll Hunter’s crowning achievement, above its expert handling of tension and polished sheen, is the jaw-dropping creativity evident in the troll designs. Split between two types – mountain and woodland – and distinguishable by their choice of self-destruction, there is a truly incredible amount of variety and imagination on display. Each variation proving more ridiculous than the next, and yet steadily more horrific at the same time, the otherwordliness of the setting somehow allows these behemoths to merge seemlessly with their stark surroundings. Undercut by some note-perfect Nordic humour, and with a winning irreverence to its own stupidity, The Troll Hunter amounts to an unmitigated success.
3. The Bang Bang Club
Initially working freelance, Marinovich (Ryan Phillippe) soon finds himself under the tutelage of Kevin “forget the long lens, bro” Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Ken Oosterbroek (Frank Rautenbach) and Silva (Neels Van Jaarsveld), having won their respect with a series of provocative pictures taken inside one of the warring townships. Working for photo-editor Robin Comley (Malin Åkerman), the quartet are eventually dubbed “The Bang Bang Club” as they put their lives on the line to capture the brutality and desperation of a country nearing the end of Apartheid.
Perhaps fittingly for a film about award-winning photographers, The Bang Bang Club is itself beautifully shot. Not only does cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak rise to the logistical challenge of recreating a number of the photojournalists’ most famous shots, but also in bringing a sense of reality and authenticity to the film. The scale of The Bang Bang Club is truly breath-taking, with many of the battle scenes requiring innumerable extras. What could easily have just felt like four guys taking pictures for 106 minutes is instead a delightfully dynamic, relentlessly engaging and hugely watchable piece of filmmaking.
3. The Borrower Arrietty
The latest offering from Studio Ghibli, Arrietty follows the misadventures of its titular “borrower” as she learns to take just enough from her human neighbours so that her family might survive. When discovered by a young boy with a heart condition, the curious Sho, Arrietty Clock cautiously begins a friendship with the boy to her parents’ disquiet. The last of their kind in that particular house, it’s not long before news gets around to the meddling maid that the “little people” are back.
Like all Studio Ghibli films, Arrietty is sumptuously animated. Innocent, engaging and utterly enchanting, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi makes an accomplished debut with what amounts to one of the year’ most breathtaking animations. Ladened with the studio’s trademark wit and whimsy, the film realy is more than just a visual treat.
5. A Better Life
Set in eastern Los Angeles, the film charts one man’s pursuit of a better life for himself and his teenage son. A humble gardener, Carlos Galindo (Demián Bichir) has done his best to make a life for his family in America, struggling through his wife’s betrayal and the gang culture threatening to engulf his son, Luis (Jose Julian). When his boss informs Carlos of his plans to leave the business, Carlos turns to his wealthier sister (Delores Heredia) for the means of buying the company vehicle for himself. However, when Carlos’ trusting nature is betrayed by a new employee, Carlos and Luis must set aside their differences in order to track down their ill-fated truck all the while remaining vigilent to the threat posed by the country’s deportation office.
Weitz brings his honed Hollywood sheen to a side of the City of Angels rarely glimpsed in multiplexes, working with cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe to create a studied portrayal of life in east L.A. Having spent months researching the the city’s immigration culture and even going as far as to cast ex-gang members in relevant roles, Weitz’s paints a picture of resilience and integrity in the face of deprivation and isolation that is often incredibly moving.
You can find my full coverage over at HeyUGuys.