It’s always somewhat of a rush going from a full slate of horror movies for the Halloween season directly into SLIFF, St. Louis’s biggest film festival, typically loaded with hits from previous festivals throughout the year. A mixture of major prestige artistic works, weird little midnight movies, niche documentaries, and great repertory screenings comprise the lineup. This year, the slate includes a number of highly anticipated films that generated buzz at Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, and many others. Major new films from directors like Kore-eda Hirokazu (Broker, 11/6, 7:30 pm, Plaza Frontenac) Sam Mendes (Empire of Light, 11/3, 7 pm, Galleria 6), and Sarah Polley (Women Talking, 11/13, 5:30 pm, Plaza Frontenac) will play at SLIFF before their main theatrical run, and a number of features from newer filmmakers are sure to be on year-end roundups and likely up for Oscar noms.
Notable among high-profile debuts are After Sherman (11/5, 1:30 pm, Wash U), a lyrical documentary about the echoes of slavery on the South Carolina coast and Gullah communities; The Inspection (11/6, 7 pm, Galleria 6), the first narrative feature from Elegance Bratton, whose documentary, Pier Kids, showed at the 2020 QFest; and Nanny (11/6, 4:45 pm, Galleria 6), a major topic of discussion in the festival circuit, a horror movie that explores colonialism, immigration, privilege, and the American Dream.
Repertory screenings include Ida Lupino’s The Bigamist (11/6, 7 pm, Webster), Howard Hawks’s screwball masterpiece His Girl Friday (11/12, 7 pm, Wesbter), Roger Corman-produced Scorsese-for-hire gem Boxcar Bertha (11/12 1:30 pm, St. Louis Public Library), and Lina Wertmueller’s existential political comedy The Seduction of Mimi (11/5, 1:30 pm, St. Louis Public Library). Probably the one most worth your time is John Waters’s seminal Pink Flamingos (11/13, 7 pm, Webster) with an introduction by Webster Film Series director Pete Timmerman, since there’s basically no one more qualified to talk about John Waters than Pete.
The shorts are especially strong this year (full disclosure, I was a part of the screening group and five of the shorts I recommended wound up in the final program!). The animation showcase, From Earth To the Moon (11/7, 11:30 am, Galleria 6 or virtual), features the four-minute “Reflection,” a wonderful bit of 2-D hand drawn work with echoes of the UPA style. Another bit of animation, “The Awakening of Insects,” combines several aesthetics, mostly computer animated, to explore the dwindling faculties of an aging widower. Imagine if David Lynch and Apichatpong Weerasethakul had codirected an episode of Angela Anaconda (Narrative Shorts: Outside the Lines, 11/6, 11:30 am Galleria 6, 3 pm SIUE or virtual). On the live action side there’s a program devoted to Parenthood (11/8, 11:30 am, Galleria 6) featuring “The Crimson Mercedes,” a haunting and elliptical study of sexual abuse and resulting intergenerational trauma. And the best of the bunch, in the Vive la France! program (11/9, 4:15 pm, Galleria 6), is “Lucienne In a World Without Solitude,” a brilliant, Lanthimosian exercise in magical realism that presents a world where everyone has a double and one woman tries to break free of that bond, but not without dark results.
Among the local premiers, Stand Up (11/5, 7:45 pm, Galleria 6 or virtual) may be worthy of attention. Directed by Webster University Professor Juraj Bohus (another full disclosure, I took a filmmaking course with him in college), it stars Ondrej Koval as Miso, a self-absorbed aspiring comedian in Slovakia who gets saddled with his aimless American niece, Julia (Caitlin Witty), when attempting his first tour. The two form a kind of odd couple, with Miso’s hacky and image-obsessed approach to comedy clashing with Julia’s grounded and cynical view of the world. The movie has strong bones but occasionally falters via some unnecessary storytelling choices, the most prominent being Julia’s awkward narration through the film which would have been more impactful if left unsaid. But those who enjoy a light comedy/drama about family and culture shock will find enough to enjoy in Stand Up. The main message, that one should value the love of family over the adulation of strangers, rings true throughout.
Jamie Boyle will make her feature documentary debut with Anonymous Sister (11/11, 12:05 pm, Plaza Frontenac), an intimate and personal examination of her family’s decades-long struggle with opioid addiction. It doesn’t quite benefit from the scope of other documentaries that tackle the subject at an institutional level, but as a personal story it does a good job of illustrating how everyday people without a propensity for substance abuse can fall victim to opioids like lobsters in a slowly boiling pot. The way it captures the insidious tactics of pharmaceutical companies and doctors that work with them is particularly effective. It provides a close look at how people suffer after putting their trust in these institutions that have perceived credibility.
Two quite remarkable films might just fly under the radar, and so deserve special mention here. The first, A Crack in the Mountain (11/8, 12:05 pm, Plaza Frontenac or virtual), concerns efforts to preserve the Hang Son Doong cave in Vietnam, the largest cave in the world and one of the most astounding natural heritage sites. Plans to place a railcar system in the cave in order to create easier access for tourism met with controversy. While many locals in the area rely on tourism to make a living, increased traffic in such a delicate ecosystem has the potential to be extremely damaging. The film contains both absolutely breathtaking photography of one of the most wondrous places on Earth, and also the kind of urgency that everyone concerned with conservation and environmental protection can relate to. It stirs the desire to travel and explore, but not without caution and conscientiousness.
Secondly, Our Father, the Devil (11/6, 2:15 pm, Plaza Frontenac), the narrative debut of Ellie Foumbi, stands as one of the most effective thrillers of the year. Guinean refugee Marie (Babetida Sadjo) works as a chef in an upscale nursing home in a rural part of France. When a new priest, Father Patrick (Souléymane Sy Savané) comes to the home, she immediately recognizes him as the warlord that slaughtered her family and forced her into being a child soldier and sex slave. As a simple revenge story it’s propulsive and robust while also allowing for slow, quiet moments of character development and even some electric moments of eroticism. But as a brutal, unflinching look at the experience of refugees, especially from war-torn parts of the world, it’s devastating and gut wrenching. The searing rage and contorting pain that writhes under Marie’s aloof persona comes through beautifully in Sadjo’s performance. The camera loves her, in no small part due to the bold and evocative cinematography by Tinx Chan, who also makes his feature debut with the film. Narratively and visually, Our Father, the Devil confronts the victim-perpetrator dichotomy with courageous nuance and complexity, inviting viewers to contemplate how the cyclical nature of violence throws common notions of morality into crisis.
These are but a few of the many exciting films playing at this year’s SLIFF. Tragically, the Tivoli will not be a venue this year (it has been bogarted by a church run by a former actor who was on The Shield). As a result, the schedule’s a little tighter. You’ll have to make a bigger effort to see some of these great selections, but it will be well worth that effort. | Nic Champion