The Portland International Film Festival is rocketing toward the end of its 18 days and 71 features (it climaxes over the next three nights with mutant Japanese schoolgirls and undead soldiers). But we on WW's crack squad of reviewers can't cope with our Post-PIFF Stress Disorder (PPIFFSD, in the medical community) without taking a look back on the landscape of international cinema we traversed, pointing out the most majestic sights, and the bear traps we fell into.
This year’s PIFF was, like those before it, all about walking in others’ shoes. While some films fell flat on their pretentious faces—like the adultery-sympathizing Come Undone or endless meditations on the Middle East—others made us live in others’ bodies. The electric documentary Armadillo placed us on the front lines of Afghanistan with Danish soldiers whose surprise at war’s dissimilarities to Call of Duty was conveyed simply by their looks of horror. Katalin Varga drew sympathy for both a vengeful rape victim and her assailant. Hell, Rubber made us root for a tire with the ability to make heads explode. It’s the ability to convey humanity (even if it’s the spawn of the Michelin Man) that elevated this year’s festival beyond last year’s somewhat dull slog.
PIFF's strong first few days had me convinced I wouldn't be hacking and gagging my way through any sulphurous calamities this year. Then came His and Hers, a paternalistic paean to Irish mothers and wives with a single redeeming quality: It ended. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, on the other hand, is the sort of movie that is never really over, because it sneaks into that deep place in us where dreams live. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's ravishing study of the sublime strangeness of Being is a revelation on par with Tarkovsky's Stalker and Lynch's Mulholland Dr., i.e. an irrefutable argument for the sanctity of cinema.
My favorite and least favorite films in the festival remain, somewhat frustratingly, the same film: My Joy, from the Ukraine, is a distillation of purest, pitiless anomie. Any part of me with any morality or hope despises the film for attempting to hollow life of its substance; aesthetically, however, it is perfectly, wonderfully elegant. As for my favorite play, it was Canada’s Incendies; it fails, perhaps, as a movie, because the movies’ essential physicality lends literalness to implausible, hyperformal narrative, but as a classically convoluted stage tragedy touching on war, atrocity and forgiveness, it had the best cinematography of any play I’ve ever seen.
I have good news and I have bad news. The good news: PIFF premiered three exceptionally adroit movies this year—Cold Weather, Heartbeats and How to Die in Oregon—all directed by filmmakers well under the age of 35. Aaron Katz, Xavier Dolan and Peter D. Richardson share a vibrant humanism that makes the independent-film scene suddenly far less dreary. The bad news: These guys just kicked my early mid-life crisis into warp speed. Dolan is only 21! Seriously! Twenty-one! I can feel myself dying! The somewhat compensatory news: At least I didn't make The Whistleblower, a snuff film that wants you to get off by writing your Congressman.