Phil Knight isn't the only one with money at stake in the Portland International Film Festival. You have tough economic choices of your own. Sure, you may not have spent $70 million on a stop-motion cartoon, but you've got 82 movies to choose from at Oregon's premier cinema showcase—34 this weekend alone—and unless you're one of the diehards plunking down $250 for an all-inclusive pass, you've got to decide what screenings are worth your $9. That's why we've organized this year's PIFF coverage to give you as much help as possible in making satisfying selections on a budget. Taking a cue from CNBC's Jim Cramer, we've divided PIFF movies into three rankings: the ones you should buy now, the risky investments, and the ones where you should sell your tickets to some other sucker. Take our advice, and you'll come out flush with high-quality moviemaking.
[OPENING NIGHT, PORTLAND] Relax, everybody:
is good. Laika's feature debut tells the story of young Coraline Jones (voiced only somewhat annoyingly by Dakota Fanning), who moves with her parents to a taffy-pink apartment complex in the Cascades and then relocates again, ducking through a crawlspace door into another dimension where an uncanny button-eyed Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) woos her with a garden of unearthly delights. The stop-motion animators have prepared a bottomless visual smorgasbord—around every turn is a new wonder, from synchronized bouncing circus mice to a popcorn-defecating mechanical chicken to a theater packed with an audience of panting Scottish terriers. At its best, the movie feels like
reconsidered by Jan Švankmajer. But Other Mother's pushy generosity is hard to distinguish from the project as a whole, which is so anxious to please it crams in twice as many plot elements as 100 minutes can contain—and, worse, never pauses long enough for the atmosphere or characters to resonate. Director Henry Selick has definitively proved he has imagination to burn—next time, he and his editors might consider a few relaxation techniques of their own.
[ITALY] When the book of the same name hit Italy two years ago, it infuriated the Camorra, the modern Mafia organization whose inner workings the book revealed (earning the author permanent police protection). The movie moves the action to the periphery, focusing on a handful of unconnected lives whose entanglements with the Camorra demonstrate the depth of its reach into every aspect of Italian life. There's violence, but no action-film gloss or mythologizing (or even a film score). Everything feels utterly real, from the performances to the mise-en-scène, and the big, gorgeously gritty cinematography, whether getting in close or standing back to absorb the telling details, is borne along by the intense verve of its truth-telling mission. ANDY DAVIS. WH, 6:30 pm Friday, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 6 9.
The Country Teacher
[CZECH REPUBLIC] It's the Sam Adams scandal, filtered through a bottle of Pilsner Urquell: A gay nerd (Pavel Liska) moves into a provincial town and becomes immediately popular, only to jeopardize his future by lusting after a local 17-year-old boy (Ladislav Sedivý) whom he offers to mentor. Rarely has a PIFF entry offered such a direct mirror of local news—and, beyond that, The Country Teacher is a quality watch, showing universal empathy to the impossible longings of its characters. (A leisurely pace is enlivened by the arrival of the protagonist's ex-boyfriend, played by an actor named Marek Daniel, who pretty much answers the question of whatever happened to Judd Nelson.) What lessons it can provide Portland is hard to gauge, though it does suggest community forgiveness is easier after everybody helps a cow give birth. AARON MESH. BW, 2:30 pm Saturday, 9 pm Monday, Feb. 7 9.
The English Surgeon
[GREAT BRITAIN] With a John Cleese patois and unchecked altruism, London-based neurosurgeon Henry Marsh regularly lends his services to a beleaguered Kiev clinic under director Geoffrey Smith's watchful eye. This tight narrative documentary uses as its story arc a young Ukrainian farmer suffering from epilepsy, but packed between introductions and the young man's fate is an impressive chronicle of Marsh's efforts in a primitive medical system riddled with corruption. There's his ongoing ethical dilemma to boot: What initially comes across as Marsh's humane exploration of the God complex is, in fact, the aging and unsettled doc talking himself through an untenable situation. And who better to compose the score to this listless Soviet landscape than Nick Cave? SAUNDRA SORENSON. BW, 3:45 pm Saturday, Feb. 7. WH, 4:15 pm Sunday, Feb. 8.
[GREAT BRITAIN] I'm almost certain I won't see a better film than Hunger at PIFF this year (although, to be fair, I have yet to screen the two documentaries about haute cuisine). First-time director Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen) makes the leap from video art to feature filmmaking with an unflinching account of Irish Republican Army hero Bobby Sands' 65-day hunger strike and the fraught months leading up to it. This is filmmaking in the rigorous tradition of Robert Bresson: Nearly every shot is imbued with religious devotion to the sounds and surfaces of the depredations and degradations of prison life. McQueen masterfully builds to a hectic crescendo of violence, which marks the midpoint of the movie and the beginning of Sands' radical act, before the frame of the film narrows to match the central body's terrifying attenuation. It is not easy to watch, nor should it be, but there is beauty in the horror, just as there is transcendent strength in Sands' wasting shape. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 8:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 7.
[BELGIUM] A shaggy, shambling underachiever hits the road with a junkie who tried to burgle his house in this Belgian comedy directed by Bouli Lanners, who also stars. His enormously appealing Yvan is the embodiment of the film's scruffy, fleshed-out take on the dry, ironic humor that usually finds a more mannered, distant style in indies of the same ilk (although the shots themselves are composed with exquisite precision). The few tumbles into overt quirkiness are easily forgiven thanks to the good-natured vibe, a great soundtrack, and the fact that it's hilarious—until the film decides that laughs aren't what it's after, and quietly takes a leak on your shoes. ANDY DAVIS. BW, 5:15 pm Saturday, 8 pm Sunday and 6:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 7-8 10.
[AUSTRIA] A naive hooker and the ex-con looking to save her. A botched bank robbery, a cop haunted by his past, and a quest for cold retribution. In the U.S., this would be standard fare. In Austrian director Götz Spielmann's Oscar-nominated Revanche, it's anything but. From the neon-lit brothels of Vienna to the serene Austrian countryside, Spielmann's lens is a quiet observer as his shattered antihero seeks revenge, while a young family gropes with consequences in ways that are all too human. What could have been a standard-issue revenge flick becomes a character study in loss, sadness and rage for characters on either side of the law. Spielmann knows how to turn the screws of dread and suspense, but the film's most rewarding aspect lies not in acts of retribution, but quiet redemption. AP KRYZA. BW, 8:30 pm Saturday, 5:15 pm Sunday, Feb. 7-8. WH, 9 pm Monday, Feb. 9.
Of Time and the City
[GREAT BRITAIN] Director Terence Davies, best known for Distant Voices, Still Lives, looks back at his native Liverpool through the lens of a steady flow of archival footage in this, his first documentary. His droll narration, pitched somewhere between Chris Marker and Quentin Crisp, and threaded through with literary borrowings, guides us through an acerbic reminiscence, sometimes seeming to just riff on whatever happens to be unspooling on the screen. As the decades pass, Liverpool goes from a grimy industrial shell to worse, and Davies loves it like you would a parent you hate. Nostalgia has never seemed so tart. ANDY DAVIS. BW, 3 pm Sunday, Feb. 8.
Under the Bombs
[LEBANON] In crafting a film about a mother searching for her sister and son in the wake of Israel's 2006 bombardment of Lebanon, director Philippe Aractingi incorporates real footage from the attacks. That's a crafty way to get great special effects on a tight budget, but Aractingi isn't so concerned with explosions as he is the wounds they inflict on innocence in the form of its heroine and the kindhearted taxi driver who guides her through the devastation. The nonviolent war film is a road trip through a war zone, a triumph of guerrilla filmmaking and a heartbreaking examination of loss and determination. AP KRYZA. BW, 8:45 pm Monday, Feb. 9.
[IRAN] Director Majid Majidi (
) is no stranger to bittersweet melodrama, and
lays it on tenderly. The story of Karim, a poor ostrich farmer providing for his family with tragicomic results, is as light as they come—but Majidi is no softy. Heavy on allegorical imagery, Majidi's film is a quiet one punctuated by deftly comic moments. Karim's brief tenure as an incidental taxi driver in Tehran proves ample fodder for both, while the film's longer, more somber moments provide emotional resonance. Its eloquence trumps the sitcom-style setup to make a simple, touching story. AP KRYZA.
[ARGENTINA] A convalescing rich geezer lies in bed and decides, against the advice of his physician, to take saline bag in hand and go for a stroll on his Patagonian land. It goes about as well as could be expected. Meanwhile, there's some talk of memory, remorse and Borges; lead actor Antonio Larreta is an endearing mix of vulnerability and pride; and somebody brings the household's piano tuner some biscuits with jam. Also—are you sitting down?—people stare out of a window. AARON MESH. BW, 7: 15 pm Friday, 4:30 pm Sunday and 9:15 pm Tuesday, Feb. 6-7 10.
Short Cuts I: International Ties
This first of two international roundups features Margot Quan Knight's Portrait of a Woman, which condenses Knight's 60 years (and counting) into a two-minute stream of stills, and is the best of what I could screen. Such a time-lapse trick will be familiar to anyone who's spent a few minutes on YouTube, but Portrait is more found-footage experiment than dorm-room art project (so it lacks an Aphex Twin score to guide your emotions). CHRIS STAMM. WH, 1:30 pm Saturday, Feb. 7.
[BOSNIA] Director Aida Begic has conceived a modern-day postwar village, and it's a sun-dappled place where poverty is so new it's a shock to watch this middle-class cross section of recent widows and orphans (brutalized by war in the Balkans) subsist off the land. One of their own offers to buy them out on behalf of a Serbian development firm, and the tribe is forced to bow to formula (a broken-down car and rainstorm revelations) and an easy payoff (the strong bonds of women and family). A shame, because Snow—hamfisted title notwithstanding—is an otherwise compelling character study of a world where everyone you meet is a victim of civil genocide. SAUNDRA SORENSON. BW, 5:30 and 8 pm Saturday, 1:15 pm Sunday, Feb. 7-8.
Short Cuts II: Oregon Made
Only a couple of the films in this shorts program were screened for critics, so I can't attest to the quality of the Portland-heavy lot, but you all buy local anyway, right? Good. I can use the rest of this space for an appeal. Byrd McDonald: You directed an unsettling short called The Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. It's about a woman's frightening slide into derangement, and I think it's wonderfully eerie. So please consider cutting the final shot, because it nearly ruins the gorgeously photographed 10 minutes that precede it. That said, I look forward to your future work. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 11:45 am Sunday, Feb. 8.
[SWEDEN] Director Jan Troell (The Emigrants) fashions a steady character piece from the tale of a woman who, despite meager means and a drunken, abusive husband (Mikael Persbrandt), finds her artistic calling in turn-of-the-century Sweden. Nudged into photography by a sympathetic camera shop owner, Maria (Maria Heiskanen) finds a sense of self and, somewhat paradoxically, the strength to survive a marriage she cannot allow herself to leave. The film rises fairly above the banality one might expect from the generic title and women's-pic plot, doing so through the slow and sober accumulation of mood and character, and through fine performances by Heiskanen and Persbrandt. ANDY DAVIS. WH, 4:30 pm Sunday, 7 pm Tuesday, Feb. 8 10.
The Baader Meinhof Complex
[GERMANY] A gritty political thriller from Uli Edel, director of Jonathan Lipnicki's The Little Vampire, this Oscar-nominated actioner focuses on Germany's Red Army Faction, a group of violent intellectuals in the late Vietnam era who feared the rise of a new fascist regime and countered with political assassinations and bombings. The radicals were like a highly homicidal version of the American Students for a Democratic Society, and Edel's film plays like an Oliver Stone biopic of SDS. It's exciting and violent, concerned as much with bloody action as characters losing their moral compasses. It also plays out like a film based on the RAF's Wikipedia page. It's exciting, yet only skims the surface. Like the bullets that splatter the brains of the RAF's targets, the film is explosive, but the point is hollow. AP KRYZA. WH, 7:30 pm Sunday, Feb 8. BW, 7 pm Monday, Feb. 9.
[RUSSIA] Anna Melikyan's overbearingly whimsical
opens with a cheeky take on
and only gets cuter and harder to bear from there. Mariya Shalayeva stars as Alisa, an adorable mute who fancies herself a telekinetic sprite. When her fatherless family ditches the windy seaside for Moscow, the pubescent Alisa falls for Sasha, a callous cad whose success in business and with women throws him into profound bouts of despair. Will they help each other learn how to laugh and love again? Does anyone care?
is a trite medley of prefab fabulism that desperately attempts to slough off 90 minutes of vapidity with a needlessly mean and meaningless climax. CHRIS STAMM. BW,
The Black Balloon
[AUSTRALIA] Toni Collette, who must be doing penance for being a terrible person in real life, plays yet another impossibly empathetic mother in The Black Balloon, Elissa Down's saccharine debut feature about the difficulties of being a tan, fit and handsome 15-year-old boy with an autistic sibling. Thomas (one long, bashful smile attached to the pristine skin of Rhys Wakefield) has a nearly perfect adolescent existence: His parents are saints, the cutest girl in school is come-hithering like nobody's business, and he lives in some magical Australian suburb where teenagers are not ashamed of their bodies. Problem is, his brother Charlie occasionally decorates the house with shit or tries to wipe smegma on Thomas' crush. This semi-autobiographical film is probably an accurate depiction of the joy and strife of living with an autistic person, but as frazzled as this family unit may be, its problems brake with sitcom precision and its conflicts settle into truces as tepid as an Australian night. CHRIS STAMM. BW, 8:45 pm Friday, 6:45 pm Monday, Feb. 6 9.
[NORWAY] Two film-festival requirements—the "retiree finds purpose" movie and the "funny Scandinavian man in a uniform" movie—in one cloying package! A taciturn pipe-smoking train engineer named Odd Horten (Baard Owe) is beset by endless deadpan complications: An attempt to attend a party ends with Horten babysitting an insomniac child, while Horten's effort to sell his boat results in an airport cavity search. (The hijinks could only be improved by a live studio audience shouting, "Oh, Horten!" at the end of each scene.) This is the sort of film in which the hero mentions that he never tried ski jumping, and you set your watch for the inevitable whooshing catharsis. AARON MESH. WH, 6:15 pm Saturday, Feb. 7. BW, 8:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 10.
[THE NETHERLANDS] Newest entry to the classic genre of BFFs taking a road trip that just happens to coincide with identity crises: A spinoff of a popular Dutch TV series about an alliterative teenage duo. Dunya is the understated stunner with the ethnic family, Desie her free-spirited, fast better half. When Dunya travels to Morocco to meet her would-be fiancé, Desie opts out of an abortion to join her for a holiday of personal significance. Although it adds nothing to the genre, consider it a highbrow remake of the 2002 Britney Spears vehicle Crossroads. SAUNDRA SORENSON. BW, 8:45 pm Saturday, 7 pm Sunday, and 8:30 pm Monday, Feb. 7-9.
Paper Cannot Wrap Ember
[CAMBODIA] And I cannot wrap my head around director Rithy Panh's apparent disregard for ethics and empathy. Paper Cannot Wrap Ember is something entirely new: A feel-bad documentary about suffering humans shot in the manner of The Hills. Panh's portrait of prostitutes on their days off is never less than ideally lit, and the sad subjects regale each other with woeful tales in seamless shot/countershot setups. The fabrications would be fine if Panh paused to consider the troubling implications of making a documentary that treats wretchedness as a melodramatic act. Or at least fed his subjects better lines. CHRIS STAMM. WH, 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 8.
The following movies weren't screened by
press time. Watch wweek.com for reviews updated throughout PIFF.
The Rest Is Silence
[ROMANIA] A pioneering movie director wars with his producers in 1912. BW 7 pm Friday, 1:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 6 8.
Captain Abu Raed
[JORDAN] A janitor pretends to be a pilot, entertains local children. BW, 9 pm Friday, 2:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 6 8.
[SOUTH KOREA] A pimp protects his ladies from a mad killer. BW, 9:30 pm Friday, 1:15 pm Saturday, Feb. 6-7.
Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love
[UNITED STATES] African funk singer balances Islam and Grammys. WH, 9:30 pm Friday, Feb. 6. BW, 7:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 8.
[ARGENTINA] Children leave home, parents battle depression. BW, 3 pm Saturday, 9:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 7 10.
[FRANCE] Documentary follows farmers. WH, 4 pm Saturday, Feb. 7. BW, 5:30 pm Sunday, Feb. 8.
The Necessities of Life
[CANADA] Inuit hunter contracts tuberculosis, bonds with a child. BW, 4 pm Saturday, 6 pm Monday, Feb. 7 9.
[SPAIN] Children hide a schoolteacher from Franco. BW, 6:15 pm Saturday, Feb. 7.
[POLAND] Six-year-old raised by his teenage sister. BW, 7:45 pm Saturday, 4:45 pm Sunday, Feb. 7-8.
As Simple as That
[IRAN] Housewife feels neglected. BW, 2:15 pm Sunday, Feb. 8.
[JAPAN] Family members lie to each other. BW, 7:15 Sunday, 6:15 Tuesday, Feb. 8 10.
[IRAN] Workers walk a cow to Tehran. BW, 6:15 pm Monday, 8:45 pm Tuesday, Feb. 9-10.
The Yellow House
[ALGERIA] Man retrieves his son's body after a car crash. BW, 7 pm Tuesday, Feb. 10.
Portland International Film Festival Ticket Outlet:
Portland Art Museum Mark Building, 1119 SW Park Ave., 276-4310.
General admission $9, PAM members $8, children 12 and under $6, Silver Screen Club memberships from $250.
BW: Regal Broadway Cinemas, 1000 SW Broadway.
WH: Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave.
SH: Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1111 SW Broadway.
Showtimes listed above are for Feb. 5-10 only. Some films will show again next week.