Monday, December 29, 2008


The year-end lists have been coming chop-chop and chock-a-block over the past few weeks, and I've sure been itching to join in the pile-on. But with new films by Steven Soderbergh, Johnnie To, Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher waiting to be seen in the final week of the year, it seemed rude not to wait. Now that we're at the tail end of 2008, I'm finally ready to bring up the rear with my selections.

Everybody's got rules about which films qualified for their list and which ones didn't. For me, if it was first unleashed upon the world in 2006 or later – and I saw it this year – it qualified. I don't live in NYC or Paris or attend any major out of town festivals with the exception of Palm Springs, so it often takes time for things to come my way. Not that the Bay Area is any kind of cinephilic boondocks. If it were, I wouldn't have seen so many damn movies.

I watched over 250 of them on the big screen in 2008. That includes festivals, press screenings, museum programs and theatrical releases. (Roughly one-fifth were revival/repertory.) On top of that I viewed over 100 DVD screeners for various Bay Area film festivals. And on top of that I managed to knock a measly 40 films off my 400+ on-line rental queue.

So when you see this many movies in a year, how do you single out 10 for special treatment? Mostly, by not thinking in terms of "best," which is a demarcation I'll leave for critics and scholars to sort out. These are simply the ten films that rattled my cage the hardest in 2008; the ones that thrilled me most and made me happy to be obsessed with this crazy little thing called cinema. Interestingly, seven of them are by directors whose previous work I've either disliked across the board, or have only appreciated intermittently. (I'm too much of a coward to tell you which are which.) You may notice there are no documentaries here, and that's because I've relegated them to their own list. Otherwise, Gonzalo Arijon's heart-wrenching Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains would have easily made the cut. So here we go:

Solitary Fragments (Spain dir. Jaime Rosales)
A Christmas Tale (France dir. Arnaud Desplechin)
Synecdoche, New York (USA dir. Charlie Kaufman)
I'm a Cyborg and That's OK (South Korea dir. Park Chan-wook)
Jar City (Iceland dir. Baltasar Kormákur)
The Secret of the Grain (France dir. Abdel Kechiche)
The Duchess of Langeais (France dir. Jacques Rivette)
Still Life (China dir. Jia Zheng-ke)
Slingshot (Philippines dir. Brillante Mendoza)
Nightwatching (UK dir. Peter Greenaway)

The first five are films I pegged as Top Ten the moment the end credits started rolling (and their order on the list is completely arbitrary.) Solitary Fragments is the intimate account of several women's lives in contemporary Madrid which cleaned up at this year's Goya Awards, winning Best Film and Best Director (awards that were expected to go to The Orphanage). A Christmas Tale and Synecdoche, New York are incredibly rich, complex, innovative, funny– and seemed to be about nothing less than the enormity of life itself. Batshit-crazy insane asylum rom-com I'm a Cyborg and That's OK was the most fun I had at the movies in 2008 (followed in short order by Om Shanti Om and Pineapple Express). Jar City is a sublime, tightly-wound police procedural set in a wintry Reykjavik. IFC Films never released it in theaters, and thanks to their exclusive deal-with-the-devil, it can now only be rented from Blockbuster.

Films six through ten were more tortured choices, picked from a line-up of four dozen or so contenders. The Secret of the Grain is a warts-and-all portrait of a French-Arab family living in a Mediterranean port town, and it justifiably won all of this year's top Cesar awards. The Duchess of Langeais is a clever adaptation of Balzac's novel, in which a flirtatious duchess and a stolid general engage in a ferocious battle of the heart. (This is another IFC Films release that can only be rented from Blockbuster). Still Life is a melancholic meditation on the people displaced by China's Three Gorges Dam project, and represents digital filmmaking at its loveliest. Manila's wretched Quiapo slum is the setting for the politically charged Slingshot. The heart-stopping, nocturnal police raid that opens the film is the definition of bravura filmmaking. Finally, a murder conspiracy hidden within a Rembrandt painting is the nexus for the hyper-stylized Nightwatching.

And what of the hundreds of other films I saw in 2008? I couldn't sleep at night without acknowledging them is some small way, so here's my extremely indulgent list of runner-ups. These didn't end up in the Top Ten, but my movie-going year would have been considerably diminished without them:

12 (Russia dir. Nikita Mikhalkov)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Romania dir. Cristian Mungiu)
Antarctica (Israel dir. Yair Hochner)
Baghead (USA dir. Jay and Mark Duplass)
Battle For Haditha (UK dir. Nick Broomfield)
Che (USA dir. Steven Soderbergh)
The Class (France dir. Laurent Cantet)
El Custodio (Argentina dir. Rodrigo Moreno)
The Dark Knight: The IMAX Experience (USA dir. Chris Nolan)
Desert Dream (China dir. Zhang Lu)

The Fight (Canada dir. Anais Barbeau-Lavalette)
Fraulein (Germany dir. Andrea Staka)
Gomorrah (Italy dir. Matteo Garrone)
Hamlet 2 (USA dir. Andrew Fleming)
I've Loved You So Long (France dir. Philippe Claudel)
JCVD (France dir. Mabrouk El Mechri)
Lady Jane (France dir. Robert Guédiguian)
The Last Mistress (France dir. Catherine Breillat)
La León (Argentina dir. Santiago Otheguy)
Let the Right One In (Sweden dir. Tomas Alfreson)

Mataharis (Spain dir. Iciar Bollaín)
Milk (USA dir. Gus Van Sant)
My Father, My Lord (Israel dir. David Volach)
My Marlon and Brando (Turkey dir. Huseyin Karabey)
My Winnipeg (Canada dir. Guy Maddin)
Om Shanti Om (India dir. Farah Khan)
Persepolis (France dir. Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi)
Pineapple Express (USA dir. David Gordon Green)
The Pool (USA dir. Chris Smith)
The Pope's Toilet (Uruguay dir. César Charlone and Enrique Fernández)

Secret Sunshine (South Korea dir. Lee Chang-dong)
The Secret (France dir. Claude Miller)
Sleep Dealer (USA dir. Alex Rivera)
Stuck (USA dir. Stuart Gordon)
Takva: A Man's Fear of God (Turkey dir. Özer Kiziltan)
Transiberian (USA dir. Brad Anderson)
Traveling With Pets (Russia dir. Vera Storozheva)
Two Ladies (France dir. Philippe Faucon)
Waltz With Bashir (Israel dir. Ari Folman)
Wind Man (Russia dir. Khuat Akhmetov)
You, the Living (Sweden, dir. Roy Andersson)

* * * *

Last year at this time I had a pretty rotten attitude towards documentaries. That's because all the Bay Area arthouses which used to exhibit foreign films were now showing the handiwork of anyone with a digital camera and an axe to grind. During one particularly dismal week in the fall of 2007, there was exactly one foreign film to be found in San Francisco theaters (Lust, Caution) and 13, yes 13 theatrically distributed documentaries.

The glut appears to have produced a backlash in 2008, as there were far fewer docs occupying local screens. The ones that did, however, seemed to be of a higher caliber and did a better job of attracting audiences (Indeed, as I write this, Man On Wire is in the 21st week of its phenomenal SF run). I watched over 60 documentary features in 2008 (the majority on DVD or festival screeners). Here's a list of the 16 which impressed me most:

Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains (France, dir. Gonzalo Arijon)
Man on Wire (UK, US, dir. James Marsh)
Slingshot Hip Hop (US, dir. Jackie Salloum)
Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait (France, dir. Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno)
Taxi to the Dark Side (US, dir. Alex Gibney)
At Home in Utopia (US, dir. Michael Goldman)
Encounters at the End of the World (US, dir. Werner Herzog)
Trouble the Water (US, dir. Carl Deal and Tia Lessin)
In a Dream (US, dir. Jeremiah Zagar)
Patti Smith: Dream of Life (US, dir. Steven Sebring)
Urban Explorers (US, dir. Melody Gilbert)
Forbidden Lie$ (Australia, dir. Anna Broinowski)
Bridge Across the Wadi (Israel, dir. Tomer Heymann)
Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake (US, dir. Michael Albright)
Bigger, Stronger, Faster (US, dir. Chris Bell)
The Wrecking Crew (US, dir. Danny Tedesco)

* * * *

As I mentioned above, of the 250-some films I saw in a public setting this year, over 50 were revival/repertory screenings – a testament to the Bay Area's passion for the history of cinema. A million thanks go out to the Pacific Film Archive, Castro Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF MOMA and all the individual festivals who were willing to dig up the past. For me, these were the most memorable:


Distant Voices, Still Lives: Shot by Shot (PFA, Terrence Davies in person, finger ready on the remote control pause button, offering a piquant running commentary to his 1988 classic)

Bones and In Vanda's Room (PFA, Still Lives: The Films of Pedro Costa, a rare opportunity to see parts one and two of The Wanda Trilogy, the films which preceded 2006's astonishing Colossal Youth, with the director in person.)

The Patsy (Castro Theater, the SF Silent Film Festival closed its red-letter 2008 edition with this screamingly funny 1928 Marion Davies/Marie Dressler comedy)

The Maelstrom: A Family Chronicle and The Danube Exodus (Castro Theater, this year the SF Jewish Film Festival gave its Freedom of Expression Award to Péter Forgács, a Hungarian director who's made a career of transforming the forgotten photographs, diaries and home movies of European Jews into a singular form of documentary filmmaking. These films were from 1997 and 1998 respectively).

The Exiles (Castro Theater, Kent MacKenzie's acclaimed 1961 docu-drama depicts 24 hours in the lives of a group of urban-Los Angeles Native Americans. A memorial to an L.A. that no longer exists, featuring perhaps the most beautiful nocturnal B&W cinematography I've ever seen.

Six in Paris (Landmark's Clay Theater, a highlight of the SF Film Society's French Cinema Now series; the surprise of this 1965 omnibus was that my three favorite segments were by directors I was previously unfamiliar with: Jean Douchet, Jean-Daniel Pollet and Jean Rouch.)

Tractor Drivers and Carnival Night (PFA, Envisioning Russia: A Century of Filmmaking, what could be more delightful than an evening of communist musicals!)

Trapeze (Castro Theater, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster and Gina Lollobrigida, all of whom never looked more beautiful than they did in 1956, woo and wage war under a Parisian bigtop; in Cinemascope with Color-by-Deluxe.)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Castro Theater, Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 silent classic as it's rarely seen…with a 200-member orchestra and chorus performing Richard Einhorn's Voices of Light).

Blue (SF MOMA, Derek Jarman's final feature, in which there's nothing to watch but an unchanging, solid blue screen, was the perfect film to see while recovering from the flu. I simply laid on the floor of the Phyllis Wattis Theater, closed my eyes, and listened intently to Jarman's sound collage of music, ambient sounds and the director's own caustic, poetic discourse on the indignity of going blind from AIDS.)

And here are a few other revivals worth mentioning: Gun Crazy and Jeopardy at Noir City. The Velvet Hustler, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and Days of Wrath at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Last Year at Marienbad and The Wild Bunch at the Castro. Night of the Hunter and Victims of Sin at the PFA. If…at SF MOMA. The Adventures of Prince Achmed at the SF Silent Film Festival.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Berlin & Beyond 2009 Line-up

The 14th edition of Berlin & Beyond (B&B) , the Bay Area's annual week-long festival of new films from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, will take place at the Castro Theater from January 15 to 21. I walked into Tuesday morning's press conference hoping to find three particular films in the line-up – Christian Petzold's Jerichow, Götz Spielmann's Revanche and Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex. I'm happy to say that two of my three wishes came true.

The one that didn't,
The Baader Meinhof Complex, seemed like such an obvious choice for this year's B&B. It's Germany's 2008 Oscar submission and was just nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Foreign Language Film. Festival Director Ingrid Eggers explained that B&B tried hard to secure the film, but regrettably couldn't make it happen. The movie depicts the 1960s/1970s German terrorist group RAF (Red Army Faction), and Eggers assures us it will arrive in the Bay Area later this year.

Nonetheless, there's a lot of great stuff in this year's line-up. Director Christian Petzold makes his fifth B&B appearance with Jerichow, which garnered great reviews at this year's Venice Film Festival. The film stars Petzold regulars Nina Hoss and Benno Fürmann, and shares a plot with The Postman Always Rings Twice. Revanche is Austria's Oscar entry for this year's Best Foreign Language Film, and tells the tale of a Ukrainian prostitute, her boyfriend and the aftermath of a bank robbery gone horribly wrong. Friends who saw it at Toronto came back raving. Speaking of Oscar submissions, Switzerland's 2008 entry The Friend, will also screen at B&B. The film's director Micha Lewinsky, has also won the festival's MK Award for Best First Feature, which carries a $5,000 cash prize.

The big name at this year's B&B is Wim Wenders, who will receive the Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing. Wenders will appear at the Castro Theater in conversation with German film scholar Gerd Gemünden, following the U.S. premiere of his latest film Palermo Shooting. The version that will screen at B&B is about 20 minutes shorter than the original Cannes edit, which received possibly the worst reviews of any film in this year's competition. We were shown this new version after the B&B press conference, and I'll be writing about it later. As part of its tribute to Wenders, the festival will also show a new 35mm print of the director's 1976 New German Cinema classic, Kings of the Road, as well as a new documentary, One Who Sets Forth: Wim Wenders' Early Years

The festival's Opening Night feature is Cherry Blossoms, Doris Dorrie's latest film – and her sixth to appear at
B&B. It's a bit of an odd choice considering it just screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October. The Closing Night feature is the stylized quasi-musical rom-com Melodies of Spring.

Five other narrative features have caught my attention. Cloud 9 caused quite a (positive) stir when it screened in Cannes' Un Certain Regard, and was frequently referenced as the "old people having sex" movie. The Wave recreates a classroom experiment in autocracy and fascism that took place in a 1967 Palo Alto high school. Ron Jones, the local teacher on whose social experiment the film is based, will appear at the screening. Evet, I Do! is a comedy about four couples in pre-wedding turmoil, whose common link is the same bridal shop clearance sale. It appears this may be the only B&B narrative feature of LGBT interest. The setting for The Invention of Curried Sausage is Hamburg near the end of WWII. Based on a well-known novel, the film stars the always superb Barbara Sukowa and recounts a May-December romance. Finally, Come In and Burn Out concerns three young people caught in the hamster-wheel existence of call-center work.

One of the highlights this year is sure to be a special presentation titled Hollywood Speaks German. When sound film arrived in Hollywood, so did the problem of how to export films abroad. During the silent era, movies were simply given new intertitles to overcome language barriers. In the early sound era, however, dubbing was still an insurmountable technological challenge, so films were shot in several languages. This program features clips from 14 German-language Hollywood films from 1930-31 (including Anna Christie and The Lauren & Hardy Murder Case) and will be followed by a Q&A with film historian Russell Merritt. Conversely, this year's B&B Film Classic screening will be Josef von Sternberg's 1930 Marlene Dietrich/Emil Jennings-starring The Blue Angel – only it'll be the rare, German-made English-language version.

There are several documentary features in the festival, and the one I'm most excited about is Football Under Cover. The film documents a 2006 Teheran women-only soccer match (both on the field and in the stands) between Iran's national women's team and a local Berlin team. Football Under Cover won the Teddy Award for Best Documentary and the Audience Award at this year's Berlin Film Festival. I'm also intrigued by La Paloma – Longing Worldwide, which examines the immensely popular song (even Elvis sang it in Blue Hawaii) that was composed in the Basque country in the 1860s. Director Sigrid Faltin travels the world and discovers that although the melody remains the same, the lyrics have been continually adapted to suit nationality and culture. Lastly, Bird's Nest looks at Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron, who designed the Beijing Olympic stadium. The film also screened at this year's SF DocFest, where I reviewed it for The Evening Class.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake

Another year of inspired film and video programming at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts comes to a close next weekend with Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake. Entirely shot by high school students working under the guidance of Project Moonshine, the film documents a July 4, 2006 Reno concert by everyone's favorite post/punk/noise/avant/alt rock band.

Director Michael Albright founded
Project Moonshine in 2005 after completing an internship with famed documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles (on the Christo/Jeanne-Claude NYC art installation The Gates). Upon returning to his native Reno, Albright set up a non-profit to instruct teens on how to document important events in their community. In June 2006, a Project Moonshine staffer sent an e-mail to Sonic Youth requesting permission to film an upcoming concert, and not unsurprisingly the band said yes.

A week later, seven lucky kids found themselves playing basketball and go-carting with Sonic Youth, as a segue to shooting backstage interviews and the concert itself. The resulting B&W digital video project world-premiered at San Francisco's
Noise Pop Festival in March, 2007. It's received a bit of tweaking and played some minor festivals since then – and finally got its big push at this year's Cinevegas. That's where Variety's Robert Koehler caught it and filed this rave review.

The Reno concert was one stop on Sonic Youth's 2006's Rather Ripped tour. From what I understand, ten songs are performed in the film, including four from
Rather Ripped (Do You Believe in Rapture, Pink Steam, Incinerate, James Run Free) and some classics from the SY catalogue (Tom Violence, 100%, Shaking Hell, Mote and best of all, Kool Thing). I caught this show live at San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium later that autumn, and as a veteran of a dozen or so SY concerts I can attest that it was one of their best.

The supreme highlight of the
Rather Ripped tour – and any SY fan who saw it knows what I'm about to say – is that KIM DANCED! Yes, Kim Gordon, the band's steely, ultra-kool-kitty bass player actually set down her Gibson Thunderbird and twirled, twisted, go-go-ed, hopped, jerked and swam her way across the stage. Suddenly I knew how people felt in 1939 when GARBO LAUGHED in Ninotchka! Kim Gordon and I are the same age (55) and the other SY band members aren't far behind us. As I slide into my geezer years, it's a relief to still have Sonic Youth around to supply the soundtrack. And I can't wait to see how seven Reno teens put a fresh spin on one of the few bands I still bother keeping up with.

Here are a few related links worth checking out:

Sleeping Nights Awake trailer (big and slow)
Sleeping Nights Awake Trailer (small and fast)
A detailed techsoup article on
Project Moonshine and the filming of Sleeping Nights Awake
Dennis Cooper's blog interview with Kim, featuring six YouTube clips of KIM DANCING!

Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake screens at 8:30 pm on Friday and Saturday, December 19 and 20. Preceding those screenings at 7:00 pm will be Muppets Music Moments, a 70-minute compilation of musical numbers from the Muppets TV show, including clips featuring Elton John, Paul Simon and Deborah Harry. Single tickets are $8 regular, $6 seniors, students and YBCA members. An extra two bucks gets you the double feature.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Quebec Film Week

Do you remember Freedom Toast and Freedom Fries – America's limp-wristed bitchslap at France for refusing to join our Coalition of the Willing? Or how about John Kerry being forced to wear a Scarlet F for his ability to speak fluent French? Well, au revoir and bon débarras to eight years of francophilic xenophobia. It's time to fly our Frenchy freak flags once again.

San Francisco Film Society got the parlez-vous party started back in October with its inaugural French Cinema Now series. On December 10 they bring things closer to home with Quebec Film Week (QFW), a five-day, eight-film mini-fest aimed to coincide with the quadricentennial of Canada's French-speaking province.

"There could be no better time to draw attention to Quebec's singular cinematic tradition. With its own awards ceremony (the
Jutras) and a vital history of regionally specific films portraying universal concerns, the cinema of Quebec offers moviegoers a plethora of riches."

QFW's alluring line-up consists of five recent narrative features, two documentaries and one beloved classic. The latter, of course, is Claude Jutra's 1971 Mon Oncle Antoine. This bittersweet, nostalgic film is set in a snowy 1940's mining town at Christmastime, and its heart lies in a general store run by Antoine and his wife Cecile. The story traces the disillusionment of their adopted nephew Benoit, as he discovers that even the most altruistic of adults are sometimes hiding a seamy side. I recently watched the Criterion DVD and the film holds up well, especially its specific sense of time and place. In one memorable scene, the whole town assembles to watch the general store unveil its holiday display window. In another, the wealthy mine owner rides a sleigh down Main Street, disdainfully tossing cheap holiday trinkets at the children of his workers (until Benoit terrorizes his horses with some well-aimed snowballs). The film's dialogue is heavy with le français québécois, and should send even fluent French speakers scurrying for the subtitles. Mon Oncle Antoine screens just once, at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday, December 14 at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema (home for all five days of QFW). If you're in the mood for something seasonal (and have already seen Desplechin's A Christmas Tale), this will be worth your while.

The QFW film with the biggest marquee value is undoubtedly Denys Arcand's The Age of Ignorance (L'âge des ténèbres). The director has made three Oscar-nominated films in the last 20 years (The Decline of the American Empire (Le decline de l'empire Americain), Jesus of Montreal (Jésus de Montréal)¸ The Barbarian Invasions (Les invasions barbares)) with the last one winning Best Foreign Language Film in 2003. His latest, a caustic satire set in a dystopian, near-future Montreal, was the Closing Night film at Cannes 2007 as well as Canada's 2007 submission for the Oscars. Unfortunately, it's received uniformly mixed to poor reviews, which explains the subsequent lack of U.S. theatrical or DVD release. Those same reviews, however, claim that the film's first act is brilliant, and have high praise for Marc Labrèche's central performance as a discontented bureaucrat with a licentious fantasy life. I've managed to miss this three times already (and not for lack of desire) at Mill Valley, Palm Springs and the San Rafael Film Center's For Your Consideration series. I'm hoping not to miss it again.

Stéphane Lafleur's debut feature Continental, a Film Without Guns (Continental, un film sans fusil) is the QFW movie I'm most looking forward to. At this year's Jutra Awards, it won four of the eight categories in which it was nominated; including Best Film, Director and Screenplay. It also took the Best Canadian First Feature Film Award at 2007's Toronto Film Festival. The reviews compare it favorably to some interesting directors. Eyeweekly's Adam Nayman says "Lafleur's arresting debut feature…suggests nothing so much as a Quebecois version of Roy Andersson's static, boxed-in comedies of despair." "A sort of cross between Roy Andersson and Tsai Ming-liang," adds Travis Mackenzie Hoover at Exclaim!. And Variety's Ronnie Scheib finds that "Lafleur's pic recalls the upbeat sad-sack ethos of a Kaurismaki film." In other words, a minimalist/miserablist rocking good time. The plot, such as it is, begins when a man awakens on an abandoned bus, wanders off into the woods and disappears. From there it's a series of criss-crossing, deadpan vignettes focused on four interlinked characters.

Nudity and explicit sex have no doubt helped Lyne Charlebois' Borderline become a box-office smash in Quebec. That, and the fact that her source material is two cult classic, semi-autobiographical novels by co-screenwriter Marie-Sissi Labrèche. The film's central character is Kiki, a woman whose anguished story is depicted by way of three overlapping time frames. As a child she's forced to deal with an absent father, an institutionalized mother and an ailing grandmother who's raising her. Age 20 finds her addicted to sex and alcohol and emulating Courtney Love. Then, as a 30-year-old grad student still struggling with demons, she has an affair with her married thesis advisor. Actress Isabelle Blais has received praise for her brave, harrowing performance as Kiki, as has veteran actor Jean-Hugues Anglade (the poor guy in love with nutty Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue) as her lover/professor. According to a capsule for Pacific Cinematheque, Borderline "is a stunner – a compelling, visually striking work (that) tackles themes of familial madness, sexual addiction and problems with burgeoning creativity, seen entirely from a female point of view."

The two remaining narrative features explore themes of childhood vulnerability, albeit from very different perspectives. Léa Pool's Mommy is at the Hairdresser's (Maman est chez le coiffure) is set in a bucolic, semi-rural suburbia of the mid-1960s and takes place over the course of one summer. When an unfulfilled mother takes off for London to advance her career, her three children learn to fend for themselves with little help from their emotionally absent (and most likely gay) father. In contrast, the contemporary setting for Anaïs Barbeau-Lavelette's The Fight (Le ring) is a rough, Montreal neighborhood where a 12-year-old boy lives with his junkie mother, criminal father and downward-spiraling siblings. The bright spots in his life are an obsession with professional wrestling and a friendship with a solicitous homeless man. I watched a screener of Mommy during this year's Mill Valley Film Festival and found it unremarkable overall, save for its sharp period detail and a pair of fine performances. French actor Laurent Lucas, best known for his unsettling, off-kilter characters in such films as Lemming, Calvaire and Who Killed Bambi? (Qui a tué Bambi?), is perfectly cast as the father. Director Pool is known for her attuned direction of children, and Mariane Fortier is a testament to that talent in her role as the eldest sibling. A strong adolescent performance also appears to be at the heart of The Fight. In his review for Variety, Russell Edwards proclaims the film "an authentic social-realist contender that achieves must-see status on the strength of its central perf by Maxime Desjardins-Tremblay."

Rounding out the QFW line-up are two feature documentaries. A recent box-office hit in Canada, Jean Lemire's The Last Continent (Le dernier continent) follows a scientific expedition through one winter in Antarctica. As a result of severe climate change, the arrival of winter now means gale force winds and warmer temperatures that hinder the formation of life-sustaining pack ice. The film's first half is a terrifying white-knuckle ride in which the crew struggles to freeze food supplies, anchor their ship and set up base camp. Once true winter finally sets in, they set out to explore and collect data. Many of these scenes are as awesomely beautiful as anything in Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World. I saw this on DVD and can only imagine how great it'll look on a big screen. The English-language version of The Last Continent to be shown at QFW is narrated by Donald Sutherland.

Finally, we have Sohpie Deraspe's Missing Victor Pellerin (Rechercher Victor Pellerin), a straight-faced meta-mocku-docu-drama-mentary about a former star of the Montreal art world. According to legend, painter Victor Pellerin burned his entire life's work 15 years ago and promptly disappeared off the earth's face. To penetrate his enigma, Deraspe interviews former family, friends and art-world associates, each of whom leaves a conflicting impression of Pellerin. Jeanette Catsoulis of the NY Times calls it "an intellectually engaging puzzle filled with outré characters," and in the Village Voice, Charles Petersen says this is "an uncanny, uncategorizable film (that) seems as interested in creating a sense of wonder as in deflating the pretensions of the contemporary art world." Was the guy real or fake? Only a Google search will tell you for sure.

As has become de rigueur for every
SF Film Society presentation, a number of special guests are expected to attend their QFW screenings, including Marie-Siss Labrèche, co-writer of Borderline; Stéphane Lafleur, director of Continental, A Film Without Guns; Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, director of The Fight; Jean Lemire, director of The Last Continentent; and Sylvain Bouthillette, actor and artist from Missing Victor Pellerin.