Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival Preview

It’s common practice, at this point, to say this year’s SLIFF improves upon last year’s, and for good reason. The generalization rings so true that you may as well consider it a maxim. With each successive festival, I get more and more disappointed that I cannot be in multiple places at once to see everything. This year, the amount of films I wanted to see increased per usual, though I only got to see a handful ahead of time. On a bright note, the few I did get to preview were uniformly excellent. That said, I’ll be filling a lot of my free time this month haphazardly juggling various obligations with time in the theater to catch the rest. And believe me, there are many.

I kicked off my round of previews with the documentary The Sentence (11/09/2018, 7:00 pm, Missouri History Museum), a sort of personal diary and condemnation of the U.S. justice system which garnered the Audience Award at Sundance and, according to one source, “ten minutes of extended sniffling and even sobbing”. Spanning ten years, filmmaker Rudy Valdez documented his family’s struggle when his sister, Cindy, became incarcerated under a 15-year sentence due to mandatory minimum laws. His focus on Cindy’s three daughters— evidence of a life turned around and redirected towards goodness, and the washing of time over past mistakes—drives home the injustice and devastating consequences of such inflexible policies.

Following The Sentence , I pressed on to my two narrative screeners, Good Manners (11/02/2018, 9:30 pm; 11/11/2018, 8:20 pm, Plaza Frontenac)and The Great Buddha + (11/03/2018, 7pm; 11/07/2018, 6:35 pm, Plaza Frontenac). Both of these films had brief write-ups in some form or another; most notably, in my recollection, being a short but very positive festival preview of The Great Buddha + from a past issue of Film Comment. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to see them. They did not disappoint.

In Good Manners, meek personal assistant Clara begins a relationship with her free-spirited but suspicious employer, Ana. The unborn child of Ana assumes a dark presence as Clara suspects it may be inhuman, based on Ana’s carnivorous bouts of sleepwalking and the circumstances of the baby’s conception. Co-directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas bend fantasy and horror around touching themes of motherhood, alienation, and the challenges of femininity that successfully manages to balance the grotesque with the heartwarming.

The Great Buddha + pulled me in even more. The film’s dark comedy premise is elevated by idiosyncratic cheekiness, a cynical approach to class relations, and a covertly surreal atmosphere. When statue manufacturer Kevin Wang’s security guard and the guard’s vagrant friend (Pickle and Bellybutton) get ahold of his dash cam footage, we see a rich man’s world through the blue-collar perspective, which breaks into realistic digital color from the otherwise chrome black and white aesthetic. These voyeuristic sideshows turn grim when they show the boss committing murder, and from then on an enigmatic crime drama plays out in a strangely lackadaisical manner. This may turn out to be one of my favorite films of the year. The story breaks convention and form, most notably in the director himself interjecting via fuzzy voiceover to explain unseen events and allude to the greater meaning of it all. Additionally, the black and white photography stands out as the most gorgeous I’ve seen in recent times. This is a film you can really chew.

Before I got any of my previews, I did get to see one film that has already been released on DVD: Lucretia Martel’s Zama (11/06/2018, 9:00 pm; 11/09/2018, 9:30 pm, Plaza Frontenac). In 18th century Argentina, corregidor Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) spends his life restless and impatient as he indefinitely waits for a better assignment from Spain which never seems to come. Completing task after arduous task, he hopes the satisfaction of whatever superior he currently serves will be his ticket to a higher ranking and more important work. Wonderfully existential and low-key absurd, Zama oddly strikes me as the Office Space of 1700s South America, only less lighthearted and a lot more understated, with a sardonic view of colonialism to boot. Along with The Great Buddha +, Zama has exquisite cinematography, especially in some of the final shots.

After opening night, two films from esteemed Iranian directors will make their St. Louis premieres. Those are Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces (11/02/2018, 7:30 pm; 11/07/2018, 2:15 pm, Plaza Frontenac) and Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows (11/02/2018, 6:45 pm; 11/04/2018, 9 pm, Plaza Frontenac). 3 Faces, completed secretly in spite of Panahi’s 20-year filmmaking ban, combines documentary and fiction to tell a story of tradition versus ambition in a small Iranian village. Farhadi’s film takes place in Spain and encompasses just about every factor in a film about family disintegration: weddings, ex-lovers, missing children, sibling rivalries, etc. Both filmmakers have received scrutiny at home and accolades abroad and are likely to pop up during awards season.

A high number of studio films made the list this year, two of which star Nicole Kidman: Boy Erased (11/04/2018, 8pm, Tivoli), which depicts the controversial gay-conversion therapies inflicted upon LGBT youth from religious households; and Destroyer (11/01/2018, 8 pm, Tivoli), which opens the festival and contains a much anticipated performance from Kidman. On-set pictures of her character give off a spellbinding sense of grit and intensity remnant of lauded method roles of the past. Award winning directors Barry Jenkins and Steve McQueen have their films in the lineup with If Beale Street Could Talk (11/10/2018, 5:30 pm, Tivoli) and Widows (11/11/2018, 5:35 pm, Plaza Frontenac), respectively. Lastly, the civil rights themed musician biopic, Green Book (11/11/2018, 6:15 pm, Tivoli), will have a showing. The trailers look good and the performances promising (from what little I saw, stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali have good chemistry), although feel-good biopics of this sort can be hit or miss, especially miss if they lay on too much sentimentality. That, and the director happens to be one half of the gross-out Farrelly brothers (Peter, to be exact). I don’t know that I’ve ever seen either of them attempt something serious, and after Movie 43 I don’t know that Peter can rise from that depth of shame.

Of the many documentaries to be screened, I am extra drawn to two in particular. Bisbee ‘17 (11/07/2018, 7:30, .ZACK) initially screened at True/False in Columbia earlier this year and has popped up from publication to publication ever since, always in the form of praise. Similar to films like The Act of Killing, Bisbee ‘17 contains reenactments of past atrocities with reflexive and haunting results. Bisbee, Arizona has a dark episode in its past called the Bisbee Deportation where 1,200 immigrant miners were rounded up, taken to the desert, and left for dead. The current townspeople come together to reckon with this haunted past, and the resulting film has had people talking ever since. The other, Minding the Gap (11/04/2018, 7:30 pm, Washington U./Brown) examines a multitude of topics such as race, class, domestic violence, urban decay, and parenting through the friendship of three skateboarding friends. Directed by one of the three friends, Bing Liu, the film offers a portrait from a truly inimitable perspective, which is bound to be personal, emotional, touching, and sometimes biting and devastating.

Outside of these groupings are two films I want to see the most based on sheer attraction to the filmmakers and festival buzz. Those are indie-legend Andrew Bujalski’s Support the Girls (11/08/2018, 7:15 pm, Tivoli) and Chinese newcomer Gi Ban’s second feature, Long Days Journey Into Night (11/08/2018, 9:15 pm; 11/10/2018, 8:30 pm, Plaza Frontenac). Both of these films have had a particularly large buzz. Support the Girls, starring the wildly charismatic Regina Hall, entices with a comedic slice-of-life comedy in customer service hell with a feminist bent. Long Days concerns a troubled protagonist in a dreamlike, experimental film noir touting an impressive 55-minute single-take, in part with the use of a drone camera.

These are but sample of some of the tantalizing selections from this year’s festival. Be sure to catch some of the repertory screenings if you can. I am delighted to see both Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (11/02/2018, 7 pm, Webster U./Winnie Moore) and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (11/04/2018, 1:30 pm, St. Louis Public Library) playing on the big screen.

To check out the rest of the lineup, go to cinemastlouis.com to see the entire schedule of films. You won’t find a better festival in St. Louis until a year from now. | Nic Champion

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