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Friday, January 8th, 2016
12:19 pm - Top 25 narrative features, 2015
I posted my list of favourite docs yesterday. Here are my 25 favourite new feature-length narrative films watched for the first time in 2015.

1. Son of Saul [Saul fia] (László Nemes, 2015).

2. Magallanes (Salvador del Solar, 2015).

3. Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015).

4. Inside Out (Pete Docter, 2015).

5. Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015).

6. No Men Beyond This Point (Mark Sawers, 2015).

7. Into the Forest (Patricia Rozema, 2015).

8. A Copy of My Mind (Joko Anwar, 2015).

9. The Second Mother [Que horas ela volta?] (Anna Muylaert, 2015).

10. Our Loved Ones [Les Êtres chers] (Anne Émond, 2015).
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Thursday, January 7th, 2016
4:28 pm - Top ten docs, 2015
These are my ten favourite feature documentaries seen in 2015.

1. Uyghurs: Prisoners of the Absurd (Patricio Henríquez, 2014)
2. The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014)
3. P.S. Jerusalem (Danae Elon, 2015)
4. Tim’s Vermeer (Teller, 2013)
5. Deep Web (Alex Winter, 2015)
6. Invention (Mark Lewis, 2015)
7. Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (Chuck Workman, 2014)
8. The Visit (An Alien Encounter) (Michael Madsen, 2015)
9. GTFO: Get the F&#% Out (Shannon Sun-Higginson, 2014)
10. Sam Klemke’s Time Machine (Matthew Bate, 2015)

Honourable mentions (alphabetical order): Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, 2015); Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (Alex Gibney, 2015); Hurricane (Andy Byatt and Cyril Barbançon, 2014); Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (Jafar Panahi, 2015); and Topophilia (Peter Bo Rappmund, 2015).

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12:36 am - Movies watched in 2015
In 2015 I watched 366 feature-length films. I wanted to post the full list, but LiveJournal keeps telling me it’s too long. They break down as follows:
  • 57 documentaries
  • 2 “docufiction”
  • 307 narrative features

and by year of first release:
  • 1920s: 2
  • 1930s: 4
  • 1940s: 15
  • 1950s: 14
  • 1960s: 20
  • 1970s: 22
  • 1980s: 17
  • 1990s: 18
  • 2000s: 30
  • 2010: 1
  • 2011: 8
  • 2012: 8
  • 2013: 17
  • 2014: 69
  • 2015: 121

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Thursday, September 24th, 2015
1:27 pm - TIFF 2015 final report
I enjoyed the films seen in the second half of TIFF much more, in general, than those I reported on in my previous post.

Overall at TIFF this year I went to 29 screenings comprising 17 shorts, 3 TV episodes, and 26 features. (That includes one walkout.) I don't have time to write about everything; below are some comments on my favourites from what I saw in the last five days of TIFF (Sept. 16 to 20).

A Copy of My Mind (dir. Joko Anwar). I just loved this understated Indonesian film, where the first hour or so is just a slice of life of a young woman in Jakarta, working at a salon, buying monster-movie DVDs, getting a boyfriend, and so forth, and then it pivots as she accidentally gets involved in a high-level political conspiracy. Of course this general theme has done before, in for example North by Northwest, Polanski's Frantic, or even the underrated Kim Basinger thriller Cellular, but Anwar's film is nevertheless full of surprises. He takes the time to introduce his characters and the setting, before the intrigue begins, so even though it might sound implausible, everything in the film occurs organically. Shot largely handheld (with some scenes apparently even shot clandestinely on an iPhone), Jakarta looks gritty, even ugly, with occasional moments of cinematographic beauty.

11 Minutes (dir. Jerzy Skolimowski). A clever and dynamic film, 11 Minutes shows eight or so different stories taking place in Warsaw, all within the same 11-minute period. I love movies like this, that have a nonlinear timeline and give the audience a bit of a puzzle. While watching 11 Minutes, I was reminded of Mystery Train and Vantage Point, although 11 Minutes has a unique rhythm and unpredictable plot(s). This is a movie I want to re-watch and diagram, just to see the brilliance of the film's construction. The director's Q&A following the screening was also interesting and entertaining; I don't know whether the video is on YouTube but here's a photo on Instagram.

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Wednesday, September 16th, 2015
1:33 pm - TIFF 2015 half-way point report
At the midpoint of TIFF, I've been to 16 screenings, and am still waiting for a film I can get really excited about. Most of what I've seen so far has met my expectations but not exceeded them. Here are short comments about some of what I've seen. Links are to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine because TIFF tends to break all the links on its festival site within a few months.

Short Cuts Programme 7. This year TIFF merged the “Short Cuts Canada” and “Short Cuts International” sections, so that each screening has a mixture of shorts from Canada and other countries. All nine shorts in this programme are great; my favourites were “Exit/Entrance or Transumanar” by Federica Foglia, “The Boyfriend Game” by Alice Englert, and “Concerning the Bodyguard” by Kasra Farahani.

Son of Saul (dir. László Nemes). An intense, unrelenting look at the horror of Auschwitz. Stark and powerful.
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Thursday, January 15th, 2015
2:06 am - 2014 movies
The Oscar nominations will be announced in a couple of hours. To be eligible in the Best Picture category, and in most of the other categories for feature-length films, a film needs to have played a “qualifying run” in Los Angeles in 2014. There are a few other conditions, and the producers need to formally submit an eligibility form. The Academy <a target="_blank" href="http://www.oscars.org/news/323-feature-films-contention-2014-best-picture-oscar">has announced</a> that 323 features are in contention. Of course, most of them stand no chance of being nominated because there is no “For Your Consideration” campaign behind them. I went through <a target="_blank" href="http://www.oscars.org/sites/default/files/2014_reminder_list.pdf">the reminder list [PDF]</a> of eligible films and noted which films on the list I had seen (the total came to 45) and which I still want to see (57). First, here's the 2014 Oscar-contending films I have seen, along with my rating of how much I liked the film.

movies seen (as of 2015-01-14)


rating from 0 to 10

Abuse of Weakness

4

Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas

5

Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

7

The Blue Room

6

Citizenfour

8

Dear White People

6

Devil’s Knot

8

Edge of Tomorrow

9

Finding Vivian Maier

9

A Five Star Life

7

Force Majeure

10

Foxcatcherr

7

Fury

6

The Gambler

8

The German Doctor

7

God’s Pocket

8

Gone Girl

7

The Grand Budapest Hotel

5

How to Train Your Dragon 2

5

Human Capital

9

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

9

Ida

8

The Imitation Game

9

Inherent Vice

3

Interstellar

9

Jodorowsky’s Dune

7

Leviathan

5

Lucy

8

The Lunchbox

10

A Most Wanted Man

5

Night Moves

6

Nightcrawler

10

Obvious Child

7

Only Lovers Left Alive

5

Rocks in My Pockets

5

Rosewater

9

St. Vincent

9

The Salt of the Earth

6

Stranger by the Lake

5

The Theory of Everything

6

Tracks

8

Two Days, One Night

3

Under the Skin

8

Wild

8

Wild Tales

10


Here are the movies from the Oscar Reminder List that I have not seen but still want to:

Anita [documentary] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2481202/combined

Antarctica: A Year on Ice [documentary]

Bad Words

Belle

The Best of Me

The Better Angels [Diane Kruger, Brit Marling]

Better Living Through Chemistry

Big Hero 6

Black or White

Boyhood

Cake

Cesar Chavez

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

The Double

The Drop

The Equalizer

Fort Bliss

Frank

Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

The Good Lie

Guardians of the Galaxy

The Homesman [?]

I Origins

The Immigrant

In Secret

Kill the Messenger

The Lego Movie

Life of Crime

Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed

Locke

Low Down

Million Dollar Arm

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Minuscule – Valley of the Lost Ants

Miss Julie

A Most Violent Year

My Old Lady

Non-Stop

The November Man

Pompeii

Pride

The Quiet Ones

The Railway Man

The Rover

Selma

The Skeleton Twins

Still Alice

3 Days to Kill

Top Five

Tusk

The Two Faces of January

Veronica Mars

Walking With the Enemy

Wetlands

Whiplash

X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Wednesday, January 14th, 2015
11:41 pm - Four trailers and a feature
My new year’s resolution is to keep track of what trailers I see at movie theatres. Today, before Inherent Vice (on which more later), the first trailer was a movie with Vince Vaughn and that guy, the aging British guy from In the Bedroom and Michael Clayton, whose name I can never remember. The movie takes place mostly in Berlin, but during the trailer I thought I recognized some Vancouver locations. For a Hollywood movie set in Berlin, they wouldn’t shoot it in Vancouver, would they? Maybe Montreal. Chris Pine is also in the movie, there’s a funny gag involving wheelbarrows, and then at the end of the trailer, Vince Vaughn is on the plane, he’s upgraded to business class, and then a soldier in uniform walks past, and he apologizes for not giving up his seat “because this is the first time I’ve ever been upgraded”. I’m sure I’ve heard that joke before, but I can’t remember where. Maybe I’d seen this particular trailer? Or some stand-up comic had a similar bit in his routine? Or did Larry David say it? It sounds like something from Curb Your Enthusiasm, maybe that was it.

The second trailer was for Hot Tub Time Machine 2, which looks pretty silly, but I’m sure I’ll still see it because I have a weakness for any time-travel movie.

The third trailer was a con-artist movie with Will Smith and Denise Richards, which looks pretty good although just from the trailer I can sense what the twist ending will be. At the start (of the trailer, and presumably of the movie) she is totally hopeless, then he trains her how to pull a con, and so forth. I imagine that at the end, it will turn out that all along, even before we first see her, she was actually an expert con-artist and she was the one conning Will Smith. So if I’m right, then sorry for spoiling the movie for you, but I couldn’t really put a spoiler warning since I don’t know for sure if I’m right about that. I hope I’m wrong, but even if that is the twist ending I bet I’ll like this movie. The title is Focus, but that’s weird because I distinctly remember a William H. Macy movie with that title, a few years ago, and I thought there was some formalized system in Hollywood where the studios don’t repeat each other’s movie titles.

The fourth (and final) trailer, it began with a ship that has a run-in with a monster: a big whale or leviathan. It looked like maybe it would be an Anaconda-like thing, a campy horror-comedy, but then cut to title: “From Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard”, so we know this is going to be something with the pretense of true heft, and I was thinking, this isn’t Moby-Dick, is it? Has Hollywood ever done a movie of Moby-Dick? I never read it, but isn’t the novel supposed to be long and ponderous? But no, Moby-Dick is famous for the white whale, and this whale was very dark in colour. So then we get all sorts of scenes of disaster at sea, and then the text, “comes one of the greatest true stories ever told”. Okay, so definitely not Moby-Dick. And then, the text on screen: “Moby Dick”. What? I’m just surprised I hadn’t heard that this movie was coming out. And since when is Moby-Dick considered a true story? Then there’s another shot of the whale and this time it does look white-ish. But then at the end of the trailer, it says “In the Heart of the Sea”. Huh? I thought the movie was called Moby Dick. Why wouldn’t you use that title? In the Heart of the Sea just sounds like one of those boring last-minute title changes that can kill a movie, like Playing by Heart or Edge of Tomorrow.

As for the feature, it was bad. To begin with, there’s this narration, which always strikes me as a bit lazy in movies adapted from novels, just to have some voice-over of the best passages from the novel, and here, it seemed pretty jarring to have the voice-over read by Kristen Chenoweth (I know it wasn’t actually Kristen Chenoweth, but it sure sounded like her), when the novel was written by a man. Anyway the narration never gelled with the action. Much of Pynchon’s dialogue, while I’m sure it seemed clever on the page, was just ridiculous when you hear characters speaking it. But then I started thinking, maybe there’s one level of irony here that I’m failing to appreciate, maybe P.T. Anderson is parodying himself, or possibly parodying filmmakers who emulate him. So for example, there’s a bit early on where a character is described as “technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi”. Is that line supposed to be hilarious? Or is the idea, that a screenwriter might think the line is hilarious, supposed to be hilarious? I have an easier time believing the audience is intended to laugh at the latter level of irony, not the former. For a time I really thought the movie was on that level, but then, sometime at the 90-minute mark when the film is barely half over, I realized that the whole thing is so boring and drawn out, the characters’ weird names (Penny Kimball, Japonica Fenway) not clever but merely precious, that no irony was intended, I mean beyond the obvious irony. It isn’t P.T. Anderson parodying his own style, it’s P.T. Anderson employing his own style for material not suited to it, with terrible results.

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Saturday, October 18th, 2014
12:03 pm - VIFF 2014 top ten
My experience at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year was terrific; 2014 is already an amazing year for world cinema, as far as I'm concerned. At VIFF I saw 54 feature-length films and 11 shorts. (That might seem like a lot, but there were more than 150 other feature films at VIFF that I did not see!) Kudos to the festival programmers for an excellent selection.

Here are my top ten:

1. The Fool [Дурак] (dir. Юрий Быков, Russia). A perfect movie about a powerless hero frustrated by the indifference and corruption of those in power. The plot synopsis of this film sounds contrived, but the movie unfolds with disturbing plausibility. The film had me transfixed, the moral stakes keep rising as Dima Nikitin (the ironically titular “fool”) tries to persuade the civic leaders to save 820 lives by evacuating a building, even though no alternate accommodations are available. There are some obvious analogies to environmental issues like climate change (indeed, this movie could have been titled “An Inconvenient Truth” if that title was not already taken) or more directly, the mall collapse in Elliot Lake, Ontario, a couple of years ago. Artyom Bystrov deservedly won the best actor prize at the Locarno Film Festival, and all of the supporting performances are also excellent, especially the unforgettable mayor who goes by the nickname “Mama”. The Fool (and not Leviathan, which I found very disappointing) ought to be the Russian film everyone is talking about this year. This film has so many nice touches and surprises, I am keen to seek out Yuri Bykov's previous work.

2. Still Life (dir. Uberto Pasolini, UK/Italy). The tour-de-force performance by veteran character actor Eddie Marsan ought to win an Academy Award. For some reason, Marsan has never even been nominated for a BAFTA. Still Life was the first movie I saw at VIFF this year (during the press screenings) and it set the bar incredibly high. Fascinating and heart-breaking, an absolute gem.

3. Winter Sleep [Kış Uykusu] (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey/France/Germany). The festival circuit this year is marked by filmgoers simultaneously bragging and complaining about having seen a “three-hour Turkish movie”. It won the Palme d'Or and may well get two or three Oscar nominations; in my opinion deservedly so. Despite its length Winter Sleep is not boring at all, every minute has something to hold your eye and your mind. This film has the most remarkable lighting I have ever seen in a digitally-shot movie, outdoor scenes of mountains and snow and indoor scenes of warm hearths. I am not generally a fan of long movies (I’ve even been known to fall asleep) but at Winter Sleep I did not want it to end, and I intend to watch it again when it is theatrically released.

4. In Order of Disappearance [Kraftidioten] (dir. Hans Petter Moland, Norway/Sweden/Denmark). On my top ten list for 2010, Moland’s previous film A Somewhat Gentle Man was number 6. In Order of Disappearance is equally good. (The great Stellan Skarsgård stars in both films.) Hans Petter Moland is another director whose previous films I need to seek out. In Order of Disappearance is a crime thriller about an ordinary man who, having just won citizen of the year, sets out on a murderous rampage against a dangerous gang of drug dealers.

5. 24 Days [24 jours, la vérité sur l'affaire Ilan Halimi] (dir. Alexandre Arcady, France). A harrowing dramatization of the kidnapping in Paris of Jewish cell-phone-store manager Ilan Halimi, 24 Days pulls no punches. Great performances by Zabou Breitman and Pascal Elbé as Ilan’s parents, and Jacques Gamblin as the police commandant heading the investigation.

6. Force Majeure [Turist] (dir. Ruben Östlund, Sweden/Denmark/Norway). This is the movie I was most looking forward to at VIFF, because of how great Ruben Östlund’s previous film (Play) was (#5 on my top 10 of 2011). Although not as unconventional as Play, Force Majeure is a terrific movie that asks whether the split-second decision you make in a crisis is a truer reflection of your character than your behaviour the rest of the time. Reminded me in a way of The Loneliest Planet.

7. Haemoo (dir. Shim Sungbo, South Korea). Based on a tragedy that occurred in 1998, Haemoo (Korean for “sea mist”) is a gripping, tense film that takes place almost entirely on a fishing trawler that is smuggling migrants from China. The action sequences are so compelling that it’s hard to believe Shim Sung Bo is a first-time director. This film could be a surprise nominee for the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar this year.

8. The Infinite Man (dir. Hugh Sullivan, Australia). I am an aficionado of time-travel movies, and this is the best I’ve seen since Primer. With just three actors, The Infinite Man is endearing, entertaining, and funny, while still rigorously adhering to its time-travel logic. At least I think it does; I’ll want one more viewing to make sure! The film has played numerous festivals in the US, Australia, and elsewhere, and has various reviews online as well as some feature articles (e.g. search), but I can’t find any spoiler-heavy analysis and discussion by science-fiction nerds, which is what this film really calls out for. (See, for example, the very serious dissections at Temporal Anomalies in Time Travel Movies.) But you don’t need to be a science-fiction nerd to like this film. It also works as a romantic comedy, which can be appreciated without understanding all the details of the complex plot.

9. Class Enemy [Razredni sovražnik] (dir. Rok Biček, Slovenia). Of the few Slovenian films I have seen over the years, this one is the best. Class Enemy is one of a few teacher/student films that played at VIFF 2014 (including the excellent Behavior, which would have been on this list except that I saw it at TIFF, not VIFF). Class Enemy begins with a popular high-school teacher going on mat leave, to be replaced by a teacher whose style is rather more hard-edged and traditional. Eventually, due to plot developments that I won’t spoil, the students in his homeroom class mount a rebellion against him. The film is an engrossing drama that has won at least a dozen awards at various European film festivals. It would make a good double bill with Monsieur Lazhar.

10. Human Capital [Il capitale umano] (dir. Paolo Virzì, Italy/France). I loved this film, which has an unconventional, tripartite narrative structure along the lines of Mystery Train or Congorama, two of my all-time favourite films. An Italian film based on an American novel, Human Capital is likeable enough to have an outside chance at an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Honourable mentions (alphabetically): Elephant Song (dir. Charles Binamé); Field of Dogs [Onirica - Psie Pole] (dir. Lech Majewski); Hope and Wire: Part 1 (dir. Gaylene Preston); Infinitely Polar Bear (dir. Maya Forbes); The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir (dir. Mike Fleiss); The Salt of the Earth [Le Sel de la Terre] (dirs. Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado); Sorrow and Joy [Sorg og glæde] (dir. Nils Malmros); Two Step (dir. Alex R. Johnson); Violent (dir. Andrew Huculiak); You’re Sleeping Nicole [Tu dors Nicole] (dir. Stéphane Lafleur); and Zero Motivation [אפס ביחסי אנוש] (dir. Talya Lavie).

I walked out of just one film (Maps to the Stars) and fell asleep during only three (Nuoc 2030, Goodbye to Language 3D, and We Come as Friends).

I am still puzzling about why The Vancouver Asahi won the main audience award at VIFF. I thought the film was just okay; it was interesting to see the reproduction of 1930s-era Vancouver but it did not look authentic, and the film was much too lengthy and slow-paced. There were many better films at VIFF. Most of the other winners of VIFF awards (listed here) I did not see.

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Thursday, September 25th, 2014
3:12 am - TIFF 2014 top ten
Before VIFF starts I want to say something about what I saw at TIFF. Of the 26 screenings I attended there, most were excellent. Here's my top ten.

1. Who Am I–No System Is Safe [Who Am I - Kein System ist sicher] (dir. Baran bo Odar, Germany)
2. The Dark Horse (dir. James Napier Robertson, New Zealand)
3. Wild Tales [Relatos salvajes] (dir. Damián Szifrón, Argentina/Spain)
4. Behavior [Conducta] (dir. Ernesto Daranas, Cuba)
5. The Tribe [Плем'я] (dir. Мирослав Слабошпицький, Ukraine)
6. The Imitation Game (dir. Morten Tyldum, USA/UK)
7. Rosewater (dir. Jon Stewart, USA)
8. The Keeping Room (dir. Daniel Barber, USA)
9. Murder in Pacot [Meurtre à Pacot] (dir. Raoul Peck, Haiti/France/Norway)
10. A Hard Day [Kkeut-kka-ji-gan-da] (dir. Kim Seong-hun, South Korea)

About those ten, I won't say too much; they all had great acting and a gripping story. (That's what I look for in movies.) The Imitation Game will get a huge release and a few Oscar nominations; it won the People's Choice Award, so is now one of the favourites to get Best Picture. Wild Tales will get a release in North America but you'll have to look for it. It should also get an Oscar nomination in the Foreign Language category. Wild Tales and Behavior are both at VIFF. Rosewater also will get a North American release; The Keeping Room is an indie American movie; I hope it gets a theatrical release but may slip under the radar, you have to watch out for it. For descriptions and so forth, follow the links I provided to TOfilmfest.ca, which will give links to the official TIFF programme note, to IMDb, maybe a trailer, and so on. Or, just Google the film title and director.

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Sunday, March 2nd, 2014
6:47 pm - Another top ten list for 2013
Here is the list of my ten favourite 2013 narrative films that were not eligible for the Oscars. I am excluding documentaries; will probably do a separate list of those. Most of these were foreign films that I saw at VIFF.

1. I Belong / Som du ser meg (dir. Dag Johan Haugerud)

2. The Lunchbox (dir. Ritesh Batra)

3. A Hijacking / Kapringen (dir. Tobias Lindholm)

4. Like Father, Like Son (dir. Hirokazu Koreeda)

5. Big Bad Wolves (dirs. Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado)

6. Burning Bush / Hořící keř (dir. Agnieszka Holland)

7. Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)

8. I Am Yours / Jeg er din (dir. Iram Haq)

9. The Exam / A vizsga (dir. Péter Bergendy)

10. Trapped / Darband (dir. Parviz Shahbazi)

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5:29 pm - The Oscars
With the Oscars tonight, I thought I would post some shallow lists and comments, my opinions on some of the films that were, and were not, nominated.

Of the nine nominees for Best Picture, I've seen only six. I have no interest at all in seeing Philomena, and I never got around to seeing Captain Phillips or Nebraska (I don't usually love Alexander Payne films). I am hoping for 12 Years a Slave to win; I would be particularly unhappy if either Her or The Wolf of Wall Street receive any statues.

There are a few categories in which I've seen all the nominees: Best Production Design (I won't predict a winner here); Best Live Action Short Film (I will predict Aquel No Era Yo, which I thought was incredibly powerful; incidentally it's surprising that none of the films nominated in this cat are American); and Best Animated Short Film (my favourite was Room on the Broom but I think it's very unlikely to win).

Several of the best films of 2013, in my opinion, were not nominated for the Oscars, either because they weren't eligible, or they were eligible but nobody “campaigned” for them. Frankly, it’s kind of weird that campaigning would even work, sometimes I think, well, if you are a member of the Academy, why wouldn't you see 150 movies a year, that's only three a week, and then form your opinion, without needing to be influenced by ads in trade publications (“For your consideration”) or screeners sent out to be watched at home.

There were 289 feature films eligible for the Best Picture nomination this year (as well as most of the other categories: acting, cinematography, and so forth, excluding the special categories with their own rules, such as foreign-language film). Of those 289, I have seen 41, and here are my top ten:

1. 12 Years a Slave

2. The East

3. Gravity

4. American Hustle

5. Trance

6. Mud

7. The Spectacular Now

8. Prisoners

9. In a World...

10. Still Mine

In my next post, I will give my list of favourite 2013 movies that were not eligible for Oscar nomination.

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Thursday, December 19th, 2013
11:54 pm - Why everyone is wrong about senatorial-election legislation

Introduction

The Canadian Senate is an unelected body. Senators are chosen by the prime minister. Under the Constitution, the Governor General appoints Senators, but by the constitutional convention of responsible government, the Governor General must take the prime minister’s advice concerning Senate appointments.

Amending the Constitution to make Senators democratically elected would require the participation of provincial legislative assemblies under the 7/50 formula. But can Parliament, by an ordinary statute, provide for the election of Senate nominees? In my view it can.

Questions 2 and 3 of the Senate Reform Reference ask the Supreme Court of Canada for its opinion whether the schemes of senatorial elections set out in Bill C-20 and Part 1 of Bill C-7 are valid. Neither of those bills would require the appointment of the winner of the election. Rather, the legislation can be read as suggesting that the PM recommend the election winner to the Governor General, for appointment to the Senate. Under both bills, however, the PM retains the power to recommend someone other than the election winner, and the Attorney General of Canada argued in court that because of this, the legislation is valid as an ordinary statute.

In my view, the legislation would be valid even if it did require require the PM to recommend the election winner for appointment to the Senate. (I would therefore go further than any of the participants in the reference case before the SCC.) Read more...Collapse )

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Thursday, December 12th, 2013
8:59 pm - Senate Reform reference case — background

Introduction

The Supreme Court of Canada heard a case last month whose result will affect the next century of Canadian history. The issue is the interpretation of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982, the procedures for amending the Constitution of Canada.

The six questions to be decided in this reference case relate to Senate reform. The SCC is being asked whether certain proposals for Senate reform can be implemented by the federal Parliament unilaterally (Questions 1 to 4), and whether the Senate could be abolished under the “7/50 formula” (Questions 5 and 6). But the SCC’s opinion will have ramifications on any major future constitutional amendment proposal (not just Senate reform), because this case will determine the interpretive approach toward the constitutional amendment procedures that were added to the Constitution in 1982. The federal government argues that the Court’s interpretation of Part V should stick close to the plain meaning of the text. Most provincial governments and other participants in the case are arguing that the Court should consider the constitutional history and the entire context, including “unwritten principles” of our constitutional system, thus giving effect in its interpretation to the underlying purposes of Part V.

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Saturday, November 16th, 2013
2:55 am - Kurt Gödel and Constitutional Amendment
In the Supreme Court of Canada hearings on the Senate Reform reference this week, one of the lawyers was asked how Canada could be transformed into a dictatorship, would it require unanimity of all the provinces, or just seven of them. (In the video, via CPAC, watch the interchange from time 71:00 to 76:20.)

This reminded me of the story about the logician Kurt Gödel studying the U.S. Constitution before his citizenship exam. Gödel (known for Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the most important result in the philosophy of mathematics) concluded that under the Constitution, it would be legally possible to transform the U.S.A. into a dictatorship. His friends Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern accompanied Gödel to the citizenship exam in 1947. As recounted in Rebecca Goldstein’s excellent biography Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel:
     ...it turned out that the judge, whose name was Philip Forman, was the very one who had administered the oath of citizenship to Einstein some years before and he ushered the three men into his chambers immediately.
     Einstein and Forman chatted for a while and Gödel, sitting quietly and biding his time, seemed all but forgotten. Eventually, though, Forman got on with the business of the day.
     “Up to now you have held German citizenship.”
     Immediately, Gödel corrected the judicial error: Austrian citizenship.
     Duly corrected, the judge continued.
     “In any case, it was under an evil dictatorship. Fortunately, that is not possible in America.”
     This was just the opening the logician had been waiting for.
     “On the contrary,” he objected, “I know precisely how it can happen here,” and he began to launch into his account of the flawed Constitution. Forman, Morgenstern, and Einstein exchanged meaningful glances and the judge called a halt to Gödel’s exposition, with a hasty, “You needn’t go into all that,” and steered the conversation round to less dangerous subjects.
Goldstein says it is unknown what Constitutional flaw Gödel had in mind. Probably he was simply referring to Article Five, the amending process. If Congress passes a joint resolution, with a two-thirds majority in each house, proposing a constitutional amendment that would cancel all elections and install a president-for-life, and the amendment is then ratified by 38 states, it would take effect as the supreme law of the land. That could happen next week, but it’s rather unlikely. (Though for Gödel, who saw Germany “legally” become a dictatorship after Hitler was elected, maybe it wasn't purely theoretical.)

In Canada, a plain reading of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982 would allow the elimination of federal elections, turning Canada into a dictatorship, under the 7/50 formula. (The amendment would repeal sections 3 and 4 of the Charter, and provide that members of the House of Commons be chosen by the prime minister and serve at the prime minister’s pleasure.)

The dictatorship hypothetical is extreme but still could be important in the Supreme Court’s reasoning. In questioning counsel at the hearing, some of the judges have pondered whether they should interpret the amending procedures by looking at the underlying principles of the Canadian constitution, and then deciding which amending formula applies to a certain amendment based on how much, in their opinion, the amendment would alter those underlying principles. Some of the provincial attorneys general (most of them, in fact) advocated that approach in argument. Counsel for the federal attorney general argued no, you don't need to go to the underlying principles, the words in the Constitutional amending provisions already take account of those principles, so you should determine the applicable formula based on the text alone.

The question we must confront is this: since the “plain meaning” interpretive approach would let Canada’s form of government become a dictatorship with the consent of only seven provinces rather than all ten, should we therefore reject the plain meaning approach as fundamentally flawed?

The answer is no.

We may think there should be a monotonic relationship between the magnitude of a proposed amendment and the difficulty of the applicable amending formula: that is, it appeals to our sense of order if minor amendments fall under “easier” amending formulas while the most major amendments fall under the most difficult amending formula (i.e. unanimity). But it is dangerous for courts to say, okay, this monotonicity seems to be the underlying logic of Part V, therefore we should disregard the text of Part V when we think it deviates from the monotonicity principle.

If Part V were drafted in open-ended language, then it would be justifiable for the courts to take a contextual approach to interpreting it. For example, if section 41 said “unanimity is required for amendments that alter fundamental characteristics of Canada, such as (a) the office of the Queen...” and so forth, then it would be clear that the specific matters listed in section 41 were just examples of types of amendment requiring unanimity, and it would be up to the courts to decide whether other types of amendment (not mentioned in Part V) also require unanimity.

But that is not the scheme of Part V. In section 41 five matters are listed, amendments in relation to which require unanimity. The list of five matters is not preceded with “such as”, “in particular”, or “for example”. There is just no basis for a court to add to this list matters that it believes are similar.

The drafters of Part V were aware that the number of imaginable amendments is infinite. They could have written Part V to empower the courts to choose which formula would apply to some future amendment proposal that had not been contemplated in 1982. But instead, they consciously drafted the provisions of Part V such that the unanimity formula would be limited (to the five matters set out) but the 7/50 formula would be the “general procedure”, covering all types of amendment not otherwise provided for — including amendment proposals that nobody contemplated in 1982, no matter how radical.

Some of the provincial attorneys general (including Ontario’s AG) cautioned against “formalism” in interpreting the amending provisions. But there is good reason for courts to be formalistic when looking at the amending provisions as compared to other parts of the Constitution. The reason is, constitutional amendment is the last resort for elected officials to overturn decisions of appointed judges. Considering the democratic rights guaranteed in the Charter, what if a future court interprets those provisions in a way so unpopular and unworkable that the public feels a constitutional amendment is warranted to reverse the court decision? Should it then be open to the courts to say, “well, even though the text of the Constitution doesn’t say that the unanimity formula applies to alter democratic rights, we will impose our opinion of what the amending formula should be.” The courts would be making it impossible to change their own interpretation of the democratic rights in the Charter, even if most of the country strongly disagrees with that interpretation.

The 7/50 formula is difficult (albeit not as difficult as unanimity). It is unrealistic to think that seven provinces, comprising 50% of the population, plus the House of Commons, would ever agree on a radical amendment proposal that would get rid of democracy in Canada. Such an amendment is considerably more difficult now, under the 7/50 formula, than it was before 1982, when Canada could legally have been transformed into a dictatorship by an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament.

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Monday, November 11th, 2013
9:09 pm - Senate Reform Reference case: chart of the participants’ positions on each issue

This week, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear a reference case about the procedures necessary to effect Senate reform. This is the first time the SCC will take an in-depth look at the meaning of Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982, which sets out the procedure for amending the Constitution of Canada.

What follows is a chart of the position taken on each question, by each participant in the reference case, based on the written arguments (factums) filed with the Court. The Court retained John Hunter, Q.C., and Daniel Jutras as amici curiae (friends of the court); they submitted a joint factum but, as noted below, took different positions on one of the points in issue. The other participants are: the attorneys general of all provinces and all territories except Yukon; Senator Serge Joyal; Senator Anne Cools; the Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne du Canada (FCFA); and the Société de l'Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick Inc. (SANB).

The reference case was initiated by the federal government, which submitted six questions to the Supreme Court of Canada for its opinion. In the chart below, I have put my own abbreviated paraphrase of each question; the complete questions can be found here (or if you prefer a PDF: English / French).

The oral argument will be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday (November 12 to 14, 2013) and the live webcast should be available here.

In a later post I will have further explanation and commentary.


Q1 [Whether section 44 of Part V (amendments enacted by Parliament unilaterally) authorizes various types of amendment concerning senatorial tenure]


Yes on all subquestions


No on all subquestions


Yes on (a), (b);
No on (c);
Mixed on (d);
Yes, with proviso, on (e), (f), (g)


Yes on (b);
No on the other subquestions


No on (a), (b), (c), (d);
Takes no position on (e), (f), (g)


Takes no position

AG Canada

Amici curiae

AG Nfld & Lab

AG PEI

AG Nova Scotia

AG New Brunswick

AG Manitoba

AG Alberta

AG BC

AG Nunavut

Serge Joyal

Anne Cools

FCFA

AG Ontario

AG Sask

AG Quebec

AG NWT

SANB



Q2 [Whether Parliament may enact legislation for consultative non-binding senatorial elections, as in Bill C-20]

Q3 [Whether Parliament may establish a framework for provincial legislatures to hold consultative non-binding senatorial elections, as in Bill C-7]


Yes on both Q2 and Q3


No on both Q2 and Q3


Takes no position

AG Canada

One amicus curiae

AG Sask

AG Alberta

One amicus curiae

AG Nfld & Lab

AG PEI

AG Nova Scotia

AG New Brunswick

AG Quebec

AG Ontario

AG Manitoba

AG BC

AG Nunavut

Serge Joyal

Anne Cools

FCFA

SANB

AG NWT



Q4 [Whether section 44 of Part V allows repeal of the $4,000 property qualifications for senators]


Yes


Yes, with a proviso about subsection 23(6)


No, with respect to subsection 23(6)


No


Takes no position

AG Canada

AG PEI

AG Nova Scotia

AG New Brunswick

AG Ontario

AG Manitoba

AG Sask

AG BC

Amici curiae

Serge Joyal

AG Quebec

AG Nfld & Lab

AG Alberta

AG Nunavut

AG NWT

Anne Cools

FCFA

SANB



Q5 [Whether an amendment under section 38 of Part V (the 7/50 formula) can abolish the Senate]

Q6 [Whether section 41 of Part V (the unanimity formula) applies to an amendment abolishing the Senate]


Yes on Q5


No on Q5;
Yes on Q6


No on Q5;
Yes on Q6 with a proviso


No on Q5;
No on Q6


Takes no position

AG Canada

AG Sask

AG Alberta

AG BC

Amici curiae

AG Nfld & Lab

AG Nova Scotia

AG New Brunswick

AG Quebec

AG Ontario

AG Manitoba

AG Nunavut

Anne Cools

FCFA

AG NWT

Serge Joyal

AG PEI

SANB

Note: I have AG NWT and Senator Serge Joyal listed together under the heading “No on Q5; Yes on Q6 with a proviso” but the two participants do not have the same proviso in the answer to Question 6. The Northwest Territories AG gives this answer to Question 6: “YES, with the added condition that the federal government must consider and represent the best interests of the Northwest Territories.” Senator Joyal gives this answer: “yes, but only after accommodating the interests of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.”

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Wednesday, September 25th, 2013
12:22 pm - TIFF 2013
This is my roundup of the 26 films I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. First, here are my five favourites:

1. Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón). I generally avoid the Hollywood blockbusters at TIFF (because why waste a film festival ticket on something that will be released within a few weeks) but this year I admit, sheepishly, that Gravity was more exciting, by a wide margin, than anything else I saw at the Festival. This is a tour de force by Sandra Bullock — George Clooney has just a supporting role and other actors are hardly seen at all. The visual effects are more impressive than any other 3D movie, ever. Gravity is easily the most provocative, and engaging, depiction of space travel since 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2. The Past [Le Passé] (dir. Asghar Farhadi). I thoroughly enjoyed this follow-up to A Separation, set in France.

3. I Am Yours [Jeg er din] (dir. Iram Haq). Norway’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar, a moving and engaging depiction of a single mom (played by Amrita Acharia of Game of Thrones) whose life spirals out of control.

4. Ilo Ilo (dir. Anthony Chen). Singapore's submission for the foreign-language Oscar (although much of the dialogue is in English, so it might be disqualified), Ilo Ilo showcases great performances by Koh Jia Ler as a ten-year-old boy and Angeli Bayani as his nanny.

5. Amazonia (dir. Thierry Ragobert). I am in awe of this achievement; I have no idea how the filmmakers obtained such a great performance from the lead “actor”, a capuchin monkey. Humans have just a minute or two of screen time in this stunning 3D story of a circus monkey stranded alone in the wild. Perhaps comparable to The Incredible Journey or The Bear, we have a coherent narrative consisting of encounters with all sort of animals I have never before seen on film, and still don’t know what they are called. You can see this film just for the astonishing 3D nature cinematography, but the story is also compelling.

Other films I saw at TIFF that I liked (alphabetically):
  • Ain’t Misbehavin’ [Un voyageur] (dir. Marcel Ophüls). Film-lovers in particular will like this autobiographical documentary about Marcel Ophüls (known in particular for The Sorrow and the Pity) and his father, Max Ophüls (known for La Ronde and many other classic European and American movies).

  • Blue Is the Warmest Colour [La Vie d’Adèle chapitres 1 & 2] (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche). Although not nearly as good as Kechiche’s The Secret of the Grain [La Graine et le Mulet], his latest film, Blue Is the Warmest Colour, which won the Palme d’Or and attracted some controversy because of explicit lesbian sex scenes and some public sniping between the director and actors (clarified today), is worth seeing primarily for Adèle Exarchopoulos’s great performance. The plot is engaging enough but not memorable; the sex scenes are mostly boring.

  • The Dinner [Het Diner] (dir. Menno Meyjes). I tried to finish the novel before seeing the movie, but didn’t quite make it and finished the book afterward. The movie is okay, but the novel is much better. The movie falls back on using voice-over to read some of the best lines in the book, and omits some of the subplots that make the book so interesting.

  • Exit Marrakech (dir. Caroline Link).

  • Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story (dir. Barry Avrich). The only Canadian film I saw at TIFF this year, this documentary about the publisher of Penthouse was pretty interesting for a while, especially in its characterization of Penthouse as Pepsi (in relation to Playboy as Coke).

  • Friends From France [Les Interdits] (dirs. Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski).

  • Night Moves (dir. Kelly Reichardt). I thought that Peter Sarsgaard had finally broken out of his typecasting in Blue Jasmine, where he played a character that doesn’t turn out to be evil, but he sort of returns to it in Night Moves where he plays a domestic terrorist along with Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning.

  • October November [Oktober November] (dir. Götz Spielmann).

  • Of Good Report (dir. Jahmil X.T. Qubeka). A highly successful experimental thriller, Of Good Report was originally banned in its native South Africa for sex, but in fact it is more notable for its violence. I’m not saying the violence is gratuitous; just avoid this if you have a weak stomach for gore. Otherwise I strongly recommend it for the originality of its filmmaking style.

  • Sex, Drugs & Taxation [Spies & Glistrup] (dir. Christoffer Boe).

  • This Is Sanlitun (dir. Róbert I. Douglas). Mockumentary that takes place in Beijing but is mostly in English. The premise basically is, what if Ricky Gervais's character from The Office went to China to sell a hair-growth product. Watch the trailers.

The remaining films I saw at TIFF (alphabetically):

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Thursday, January 10th, 2013
12:01 am - 2012 documentaries — top ten list
My favourite documentaries of 2012; most of these seen at DOXA or VIFF.

1. Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (dir. Matthew Akers). Completely engrossing portrait of performance artist Marina Abramović.

2. Street Dogs of South Central (dir. Bill Marin). Dramatic and engaging, this great little documentary brings us into the world of ownerless dogs who must provide for themselves and each other on the streets of Los Angeles.

3. Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story (dir. Brad Bernstein). A visually stunning documentary detailing the life of outcast illustrator Tomi Ungerer from his childhood in Alsace during the Second World War to his career in New York.

4. Sex Crimes Unit (dir. Lisa F. Jackson). An amazing look at the lawyers who prosecute sex crimes in New York City, one of the standouts at the DOXA festival this year because of the deft way the film tells the history of the justice system's attitude toward rape while following real cases through the courts and letting the personalities of the lawyers and complainants emerge.

5. Side by Side: The Science, Art and Impact of Digital Cinema (dir. Christopher Kenneally). The voiceover narration by Keanu Reeves is a bit dry but the interviews he conducts are surprisingly engaging, we get the views of various directors and cinematographers (including Danny Boyle and Martin Scorsese), set beside a chronological history of digital cinema, particularly the period from 2002 to 2008. I saw this the first day of VIFF and it was one of the best at the festival.

6. Mr. Cao Goes to Washington (dir. S. Leo Chiang). Fascinating documentary about the congressional career of Joseph Cao, the first Vietnamese-American to serve in the House of Representatives, elected in 2008 as a Republican from a traditionally Democratic, poor, majority-African-American district in Louisiana. The film, which I saw at VAFF, is among other things an illuminating case study of the hyperpartisanship in modern U.S. politics.

7. Tectonics (dir. Peter Bo Rappmund). Rappmund's previous film, Psychohydrography, also screened at VIFF and was on my list of top 10 documentaries of 2010. His latest, Tectonics is similarly formed from thousands of still photographs, this time taken along the US-Mexico border.

8. Nuclear Savage (dir. Adam Jonas Horowitz). Fascinating, and often shocking, look at an incident in the Marshall Islands when local people were exposed to radiation from a U.S. nuclear test. The American government has always maintained it was an accident, but Horowitz argues that it was an intentional scientific experiment to learn the effects of radiation on human beings.

9. 56 Up (dir. Michael Apted). Props to Michael Apted for continuing this longitudinal documentary series, I remember watching 21 Up in high school and would never have thought I'd get addicted, needing a fix every seven years. Interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi, Apted said he would be directing 84 Up when he is 99. I saw this at Vancity Theatre in December 2012, I guess it premiered on British TV earlier in 2012 and has an American theatrical release in 2013.

10. The Light Bulb Conspiracy (dir. Cosima Dannoritzer). I'm usually very skeptical of conspiracy theories, but this film does make a good case that consumers have been cheated on a grand scale by corporate policies of planned obsolescence. Great visual style, a terrific narrative thread involving a printer that no longer prints, never a boring moment.

Honourable mentions: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry | The Ambassador | Birders: The Central Park Effect | The Castle | The Flat | Fruit Hunters | More Than Honey | Nuala | Stories We Tell.

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Thursday, September 13th, 2012
2:07 pm - TIFF Day 7
Key of Life (dir. Kenji Uchida, orig. title Dorobô no method). I loved this comedy, obviously a great premise — a down-and-out loser makes a spontaneous decision to steal another man’s identity, but then discovers he is impersonating a hitman — and then the film’s structure keeps ladling out surprises. The two male leads are terrific. 9

A World Not Ours (dir. Mahdi Fleifel). Generally an interesting documentary about a refugee camp in southern Lebanon that is a ”temporary” home for Palestinian families displaced six decades ago. This is a personal story where the director uses footage he shot himself over the last five or six years, combined with a large amount of home video from his family, dating back to the 1980s and ’90s. (The director‘s family roots are in the refugee camp but he spent most of his life in the UAE and Denmark.) I found the structure kind of confusing, however; I suppose he did not want to make it strictly chronological because then the first half of the film would be the older (and thus lower-quality) video. But in switching back and forth among various time periods, I couldn’t discern any logic to the structure. Worth seeing, however. 6

Beyond the Hills (dir. Cristian Mungiu, orig. title Dupa dealuri). So you need some patience to watch this 2.5-hour movie, the plot moves slowly, it is mostly shown with long takes and often strange camera angles, and it’s not a masterpiece like 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, but I still liked Beyond the Hills, found it very watchable and discussable. Unfortunately don’t have time to write more.7

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Wednesday, September 12th, 2012
1:06 pm - TIFF Day 6
So, more than halfway through TIFF I’ve still only blogged about the first day. My favourite films seen here so far are Amour and Midnight’s Children. I will try to say a little about all the films I see at TIFF; for now here are the ones freshest in my mind (the scores on a scale of 0 to 10 are how much I like the film):

Byzantium. I don’t see a lot of vampire movies, haven’t seen Interview With the Vampire (also directed by Neil Jordan), haven’t seen or read any of Twilight, so I can’t make comparisons but just will say that I liked Byzantium, Saoirse Ronan was understated while her costar Gemma Arterton was not, and it worked wonderfully; entertaining throughout. 8

Birds and Viola. I had been looking forward to this pairing of a short with a mid-length film in the artsy Wavelengths programme (in prior years, these would likely have been in Visions, which this year was merged with Wavelengths). Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy either of these. Viola had perhaps an interesting idea (as explained afterward by the director), but the dialogue and editing was just stultifying. This is one film for which perhaps you need to know Spanish to appreciate; seeing Shakespeare performed in a foreign language with English subtitles was just confusing, but the real problem was the parts of the film where the characters are having dull conversations about each other’s love lives. 2

Just the Wind (orig. title Csak a szél). This was only the second film I’ve seen at TIFF this year projected on celluloid, which obviously is a pity, but one of the things you really notice are the imperfections, scratches and so on. I assume the film had been transferred to digital at some point and then transferred back, because there is one scene early on where a Romany song is subtitled into Hungarian, and those subtitles have the crisp digital look to them, even though the English subtitles throughout the film are done with old-style laser-etching. Bence Fliegauf is really a director to watch. I haven’t seen his earliest work but Womb (an English-language science-fiction film I saw at TIFF two years ago) was brilliant. In Just the Wind, he works with nonprofessional actors; often that sort of movie fails completely (e.g. The Forgiveness of Blood) but when it works, as here (and as in Gypsy, which I saw at TIFF last year) it is compelling. Inspired by true events, namely vicious attacks on Romany families in Hungary, the children in this film are so believable. There was no Q&A after the screening which was too bad, but the film easily stands by itself. 8

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Friday, September 7th, 2012
1:31 pm - TIFF free screenings
Further to my last entry about the TIFF Cinematheque programme of free screenings at the festival, I might mention that the screening of Loin du Viêtnam this Sunday morning looks pretty interesting, but I have a ticket for something else at the same time. Another one, The Bitter Ash, I saw a few years ago in Vancouver; all I remember about it is that some of the (now elderly) actors were in attendance and commenting during the screening and I was annoyed but decided it would be inappropriate to shush them since it was kind of their own film.

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