Shadows Film Fest 01
Double your pleasure!
Notes from the 45th London Film Festival (7-22 Nov) and the 10th St Louis International Film Festival (8-19 Nov)

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For the third year in a row, I've had two film festivals running simultaneously in the autumn, and because of London's advance press screening schedule, I was again able to attend both of them. This meant watching--and reviewing--69 films over the course of five weeks. And they say being a film critic isn't a real job....

Let's start in London, where as usual the organisers tried to outdo previous years with even more premiere films--mostly high-profile British or American productions with big names in the cast and/or crew. Swirling around their ankles were the usual selection of international oddities, the kind of bizarre gems you only ever get to see at festivals.

Hollywood biggies bowing at the LFF included, in descending order of merit, MONSTERS INC (Disney-Pixar's latest is a triumph of creativity, wit and energy), BABY BOY (John Singleton's sort-of sequel to Boyz N the Hood), BANDITS (Bruce, Billy Bob and Cate's heist comedy), HEIST (David Mamet's clever caper drama) and SERENDIPITY (John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale).

British notables featured were, in the same descending order, GOSFORD PARK (opening night film--Robert Altman's terrific, star-packed ensemble mystery set in a British manor house), BIRTHDAY GIRL (Nicole Kidman as a Russian mail-order bride), LAST ORDERS (based on the award winning novel and with a dream Brit-cast, but it's just not good enough), ME WITHOUT YOU (lushly produced but overly melodramatic tale of female friendship through the 70s and 80s) and STRICTLY SINATRA (Ian Hart in a Glasgow tale of music and the mob--ho hum).

Smaller gems I caught: MONSOON WEDDING (wonderful Indian comedy-drama), DONNIE DARKO (unsettling and thrilling teen drama), THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS (powerhouse performances from Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles), SMELL OF CAMPHOR, FRAGRANCE OF JASMINE (gorgeous Iranian mortality play), BULLY (Larry Clark's chilling look at teen murder), IN THE BEDROOM (solid drama with Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson), MAYA (powerful Indian drama about ritual abuse), NOVOCAINE (black comedy with Steve Martin), DINNER RUSH (Bob Giraldi's visual stunner), WHO KNOWS (French theatre comedy); plus mesmerising two winners from Richard Linklater: TAPE (gripping three-person one-set drama) and WAKING LIFE (eerily animated look at existence); and two Cannes winners: THE SON'S ROOM (Nanni Morretti's serio-comic drama) and THE PIANO TEACHER (Michael Haneke's too-serious look at obsession).

Among the more quirky offerings, we had MULHOLLAND DRIVE (David Lynch's otherworldly descent into Hollywood), ROBERO SUCCO (in-your-face tale of an Italian serial killer), ICHI THE KILLER (gore-soaked Japanese manga comedy) and HOW HARRY BECAME A TREE (surreal and moving Irish drama).

And yes, there were disappointments--big-name films that were well made but shoulf have been much better: Jean-Luc Godard's ELOGE DE L'AMOUR (impenetrable), Peter Bogdanovich's THE CAT'S MEOW (awkward), Eric Rohmer's THE LADY AND THE DUKE (talky), Ismael Merchant's THE MYSTIC MASSEUR (sappy) and the closing night film, Iain Softley's K-PAX (muddled).

The best film of the fest? Easy: Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX, a director's cut that redefines a classic and brings it into even sharper focus.

Meanwhile, St Louis was programming their hearts out, including a number of higher profile offerings that were also at London (TAPE, SMELL OF CAMPHOR, THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS, THE CAT'S MEOW). But their main focus is on on independents and foreign films. In addition, St Louis easily lived up to its reputation as the friendliest film festival on earth, as participants--organisers, filmmakers, jury members, volunteers, hangers on--partied themselves to near oblivion, bonded deeply and found it terribly difficult to say goodbye at the end. There's simply no comparison to a massive operation like London, in which journalists are lost in the shuffle completely.

This year's New Filmmaker's Forum had five very strong finalists, making the jury's decision nearly impossible, especially since all the writer-directors were in attendance: Rosemary Rodriguez's ACTS OF WORSHIP (New York street drama), Mia Trachinger's BUNNY (L.A. immigrant fable), Randy Redroad's THE DOE BOY (Oklahoma Native American drama), Craig Brewer's THE POOR & HUNGRY (romance, crime and music in Memphis) and Abraham Lim's ROADS AND BRIDGES (racism in Middle America). All had passion and a powerful central vision--not to mention assured filmmaking skills. In the end, Rodriguez took home the Emerging Filmmaker Award.

Elsewhere, the best films of the fest were VENGO (Spanish gypsy drama), THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE (astonishing ghost thriller), BIG BAD LOVE (Arliss Howard and Debra Winger in a poetic examination of Mississippi life) and Jean-Jacques Beineix's MORTAL TRANSFER (Hitchcockian black comedy).

Never a festival to skimp on the outrageous, St Louis programmed several films from the margins of acceptability: 6IXTYNIN9 (an unhinged Thai thriller), Catherine Breillat's FAT GIRL (aka A Ma Soeur, about the sexual awakening of 12- and 15-year-old sisters) and THE SPRING OF LIFE (Czech drama about the Nazi's attempts to create the perfect race). And there were several others I couldn't make time to see, unfortunately.

At the other end of the scale, a few awkward first features showed promise even if they never quite worked: the locally produced APRIL IS MY RELIGION (about university and drug abuse, among other things), the documentary DRIVE-IN MOVIE MEMORIES (great material, too indulgently assembled), and two inner-city L.A. dramas: Roger Roth's FOCUS and Billy Wirth's MACARTHUR PARK (both good stories, but told with just a bit too little subtlety).

Even after seeing nearly 70 films, I barely made a dent in the line-ups at both festivals, which showed nearly 300 films between them. Many of these are films that rarely, if ever, get distributed even to arthouse cinemas. Festivals are your only chance at seeing them ... so get out there whenever you get the chance!


See also Film Threat's fabulous photo diary of the St Louis '01 Film Fest!
plus: Rich's SHADOWS FILM FEST 2000 report, as well as reports on LFF 1999 and SLIFF 1999.
2001 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall