It’s already been a year, and Love & Anarchy is back with a vengeance. With a whopping 140 features and 170 short films screening over the course of 560 screenings (out of which 51% are directed by people not identifying as men), the wealth of visions from around the world is stunning – one might even say too much even for ten days of festivities.
Some of the films at the festival I’ve already reviewed on this site. KELET and LADY TIME are both hugely touching and life-affirming films that rank among the best of the year. The stunning NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS will be reviewed here next week.
Same as last year, I’ve gone and curated 25 films (and look for a short film selection later this week!) that you shouldn’t miss. Love & Anarchy kicks off on September 17.
Any Day Now
Hamy Ramezan’s biographical debut feature ANY DAY NOW is a strikingly important addition to the conversation Finland has been having with itself for the last decade. Through the personal memory of a summer that’s long since gone, ANY DAY NOW depicts the lives of Bahman, Mahtab, Ramin and Donya Mehdipour as their routines are fractured by a negative decision to their application for asylum by the Finnish Immigration Service. Ramin, at the cusp of becoming a teenager, is about to enter junior high. As the summer begins to fade, the Mehdipours make one last appeal to stay in their new home.
Based on the trailer and the subject matter, Ramezan’s coming of age tale has all the hallmarks of a great family drama, but it’s the biographical elements that make it stand out. Finland is desperately in need of new voices, especially ones that will allow us to reflect on how our society is perceived by those coming from elsewhere.
Kuala Lumpur airport, 2017. A man arrives in the country from a long-distance flight. He collects his bags, goes through security, and heads for the exit. He is followed by two Jakartan-born women who, with practiced efficiency, circle around him, and douse his eyes with the deadliest nerve agent known to man. The traveler begins to cough and quickly falls down dead. He is Kim Jong-Nam, the brother of Kim Jong-un. Leader of North Korea.
The women are quickly arrested and news begins to spread about a daring assassination taking place in broad daylight. Only the women are not politically affiliated, or even that highly educated, and their reaction to the incident is one of confusion and fear. Soon word on the streets is that they believed to have been a part of a Japanese prank show, with Jong-Nam as just another unsuspecting target for a quick laugh.
What follows is an incredible, absurd, and utterly terrifying web of lies and deceit. At the center are two women, surrounded by a world of espionage and brutality where their lives mean very little. Directed by Ryan White, ASSASSINS is part court drama, part spy thriller, and so riveting and bizarre it could only have happened in real life.
Milla is a precocious 16 year old girl who has just found her first love in Moses, a petty drug dealer six years her senior. Her parents are naturally horrified, but see quickly how much the two broken kids mean to each other. Any other time this would be a story about them trying to break the couple up, maybe even teaching them a lesson or two along the way. But Milla is dying, and this isn’t that kind of a story.
In her debut film, director Shannon Murphy establishes herself as a force to be reckoned with. Effortlessly balancing between funny and sad, drama and irony, BABYTEETH feels like a product of someone with a decades-long career behind them. It finds humor in the tragedy, and gentle warmth at every step towards the inevitable.
For those tired of slow death cinema, where we sit around in hospitals waiting for the next set of anguish to grace the screen, BABYTEETH feels like a panacea. It’s heartbreaking, yes, but it’s not misery porn. There isn’t a single clinical hallway in sight. Instead we linger in the long twilight hours of Australian summer, one that will be Milla’s last, and the first of many for something new entirely.
After the Second World War, Russia did not have a good time for many years. The Holodomor left the country in ruins, with millions dead in horrific conditions around the land, and no social contract to protect anyone seeking help. Into that despair arrives BEANPOLE, directed by Kantemir Balagov, a tender, minimalist portrait of friendship in the aftermath of a war of men.
Dealing in loss, violence, and the generational trauma left behind by the decimation of society, BEANPOLE finds solace in simple things that feel momentous considering their surroundings. The friendship between Iya and Masha is hugely affecting, not least because they’ve already suffered so much. Balagov doesn’t sensationalize or wallow in the misery, but he doesn’t shy away from it either.
Instead he paints a picture of the futility of war, the cost of posturing, and how strong the will of spirit is for those who endured the violence of others.
Beasts Clawing at Straws
Like its closest western equivalent, FARGO, BEASTS begins with money. A misplaced suitcase filled with a small fortune falls in the hands of a small-time crook who finds it in a sauna. Soon an entire cavalcade of equally downtrodden miscreants are after the money, and nobody is safe from those with nothing to lose.
Blending pitch-black humor with fierce societal satire, BEASTS promises to be hugely funny, absurdly violent, and yet another strong entry in the long line of Korean cinema that does exactly what it wants without apology or permission.
Collecting books (or movies for that matter) isn’t about owning things. It’s about posterity, about preserving the past and the memories and lessons contained within them. As more and more things move to streaming or digital services, the less we actually own. At best we’re glorified renters, moving from one vaguely promised loan to another that can be taken away from us at a moment’s notice.
In THE BOOKSELLERS, the new documentary from D.W Young, we dive into the world of antique collectors and dealers in New York City who are barely holding in a changing landscape. Narrated by Parker Posey (who also produces), THE BOOKSELLERS promises to be charming if melancholy look at a fading industry. One that, when gone, will signify a major change in the way we deal with ownership in the future.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
When my grandfather died, my uncle went to his local watering hole to deliver the bad news. Word is they all had a drink in his memory and went about their day after careful reminiscing. At his wake, which was held across the street from said bar, people were served copious amounts of his favorite alcoholic beverages and Karelian pies.
Like it or not, bars serve an important societal function for those who’ve fallen through the cracks. People who don’t have a support network or safety net, or just those who don’t want one. In this fly on the wall docudrama, directors Bill and Turner Ross allow for their subjects to carry the story as they reflect on their concentrated universe within the confines of the establishment. Friendships are mended, the past is romanticized, and the future is pushed away into a corner where no one dares visit.
Caught in the Net
The internet is a brilliant invention gone astray. We have all the information of the world at our fingertips and we use it for hurting others and spreading lies. For adults it’s a daily struggle to avoid fake news and toxic people, but it’s children who are most vulnerable. Only just learning to deal with reality at large, the internet presents a whole other frontier with very real and present dangers that seem too far removed to actually be a threat.
Enter CAUGHT IN THE NET, a sociological project devised by Czech filmmakers Barbora Chalupová and Vít Klusák, where the hunters become the hunted. Casting actresses who can pass for twelve year olds, Chalupová and Klusák construct a TRUMAN SHOW style reality where these fictional pre-teens are set loose on the net.
Immediately they’re preyed upon by an organized community of pedophiles searching for unsuspecting victims, eventually totaling some 2500+ individuals.
Chalupová and Klusák don’t offer solutions, because the problem extends beyond the immediate. Instead they clearly, dispassionately, and accurately portray a problem that has festered and grown the moment it became digital. It’s enough to scare any parent for good.
During her first semester at MIT, Shalini Kantayaa got a computer vision software that was supposed to track her face. Only it didn’t register her face until she put on a white mask. Kantayaa is a black woman.
After the bewilderment faded, questions began to rise. Most technology today is designed and sold by an extremely small group of middle-aged white men. Even in the best scenario the amount of bias here is massive. How bad does it get as technology becomes more eponymous with social control?
Kantayaa’s documentary forces us as consumers to take a closer look at the technology we use on a daily basis, and really ask ourselves what is the cost that we’re buying into as we allow the few to dictate normality for the future. It promises to be not just a fascinating look behind the curtain, but a thought-provoking and important call to action before it’s too late. If it already isn’t.
Jan Komasa (WARSAW 44) directs this bleak and meditative story of redemption and forgiveness in a world built for neither of those things. Convicted of second-degree murder, petty criminal Daniel has a spiritual awakening while serving out his sentence in a youth detention center. Sent to work out the remainder of his sentence at a remote sawmill, Daniel instead cons his way into assisting a local parish, and eventually finds himself working as interim priest of the tiny convent. But he’s not the only one harboring secrets, and soon the tight-knit community begins to circle their wagons against him.
Carried by a beautifully nuanced performance by Bartosz Bielena, CORPUS CHRISTI is a modern-day parable which, while hopelessly bleak, is filled with intense humanism in its depiction of everyday spiritualism.
Hailing from Chile and starring the hypnotically charismatic duo of Mariana Di Girolamo and Gael Garcia Bernal, EMA has garnered a wild reputation over the course of the past year. Described as a wild punk odyssey of West Side Story meets Gaspar Noé, EMA tells the story of a mismatched couple and their attempts to reconcile with a ghastly tragedy involving their son. It’s been dividing audiences straight down the middle, some praising it for its freeform narrative and devil-may-care attitude for morality and conventional wisdom, while others have found all of that too much to bear.
Whatever happens, EMA is bound to spark debate, admiration, and hostility in equal measure. In doing so it looks like the quintessential HIFF movie.
Capturing the essence of the condescending systemic racism that Europeans and the Nordic states excel at, EXILE looks to be a deeply traumatizing and disturbing look at how it feels to be singled out. Following the trials of a refugee from Kosovo as he tries to settle in a small German town, director Visar Morina wrings out influences from both the Coen Brothers and Haneke as he puts his lead actor Misel Maticevic through a Jobian wringer.
The trailer alone was enough to give me anxiety, and I’m sure that a full two hours of this is going to be a struggle to get through, but it’s all the more important to experience because this is life for millions of people around the globe. Especially here in insular countries, where we pride ourselves as open and inclusive, only to turn around and highlight how alien others are with seemingly innocent questions like “where were you from again?”
Already a critical darling of the festival circuit, director Kelly Reichardt’s (MEEK’S CUTOFF) latest has garnered praise everywhere it’s been shown for the past two years. Set during the pioneering era of the American frontier, FIRST COW depicts the arrival of the titular farmyard animal into the untamed territories, and the birth of ruthless capitalism at the same time.
Like DEADWOOD, Reichardt’s depiction of manifest destiny is tinged with satire and melancholy, as those with power brutally pave their cities over those who actually did the work. Filled with a brilliant cast of character actors (including Orion Lee, John Magaro, Toby Jones, and Ewen Bremner), FIRST COW is one of the most intriguing and exciting films of the 2020 HIFF festival.
I don’t even know where to begin with this one. Like BUTT BOY at Night Visions last month, GREENER GRASS looks to defy any rational explanation at every turn. It’s a satire, a black comedy, a horror film, exploitation, a sex comedy tinged with body horror, and none of the above at the same time.
Taking aim squarely at the insidious world of soccer-mom suburbia, GREENER GRASS depicts a world of magical whimsy polluted by narcissist classism. Written, directed, and starring the comedy power duo of Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, I feel like this will be one of the films that the less you know, the funnier the experience will be. Like THE DEATH OF DICK LONG, which premiered at last year’s HIFF, GREENER GRASS is sure to evoke some much needed hysterics from an audience that’s already had a hell of a rough year.
For those unaware, the situation at the Mexico/US border is more inhumane than ever. Thousands flood towards America daily hoping to escape their hellish conditions, and thousands more are turned back or are captured into a fascist system. Children are separated from their families, many who will never see each other again. People are locked in cages. And those are the lucky ones. Some don’t even make it as far as that. They vanish on the trail and leave behind nothing but questions.
Such is the story in IDENTIFYING FEATURES, the debut film from director Fernanda Valadez. It follows a mother on a quest to find out what happened to her son, after he and a friend vanish for months on their journey to the American border. The friend is found in a shallow grave, but the other boy remains missing. As the police refuse to help further, the mother sets out to trace her son’s steps in the inhospitable frontier in hopes of finding answers.
Based on the trailer and the interviews, Valadez’ debut promises to be a heartbreaking odyssey into an inhuman world crafted to keep the downtrodden on their knees. Considering the state of America at the moment, it couldn’t be a more timely reminder of the human tragedy behind the statistics.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Part coming of age story, part a deeply melancholy exploration of change and loss, Joe Talbot’s beautiful and heartwarming story about two friends exploring the concept of home and family in modern-day San Francisco was one of the best films of 2019. Finally arriving on the big screen here in Finland, it’s the kind of window into a world Finns don’t usually get that is essential to experience.
Starring a winning duo in Jimmie Fails and Jonathan Majors, THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO is the kind of quietly powerful film that gently finds a place in your soul and never leaves. It’s readily available on Blu-ray, but I heartily recommend that it be first experienced in cinemas for the full effect of the gorgeous cinematography that makes it feel like you’re on the streets of the iconic city with these characters.
The Last Ones
Director Veiko Õunpouu made one of my favorite festival films of the 2000s with AUTUMN BALL, so it’s hugely exciting that he’s returning to HIFF with this visually stunning Film Noir set in the Lapland tundra. Telling the story of petty criminals chasing love that isn’t theirs, it promises to be filled with the kind of bleak humor and unsettling violence that his previous films made their mark with.
Cast with great Finnish character actors and looking like nothing else that comes out of this country at the moment, THE LAST ONES could be one of the most exciting and refreshing takes on the Nordic Noir genre that’s been run into the ground this past decade.
Lola is an 18 year old transgender woman who, upon learning that her surgery is scheduled to go ahead, loses her mother unexpectedly. Left with a hostile father who doesn’t understand his daughter, Lola must make the long journey down the Belgian coast if she is to go ahead with her transition.
I don’t know much about the new film by Laurent Micheli, but the story and cast (especially Mya Bollaers in the lead) are hugely promising. It’s the kind of film that I haven’t seen before, about a topic I know very little about, both which are things that I look for in films. The wonderful Benoît Magimel plays against type as the conservative antagonist, who feels lost in a world where the woman he presumed was his son does not abide by the gender roles he himself grew up with.
Combining some of my favorite genres (road trips and coming of age stories) with an extremely topical and sensitive subject matter, LOLA could very well be the big surprise of this year’s festival.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Thank [insert deity] for Teemu Nikki. After directing the hysterically bleak and funny EUTHANIZER in 2017 and the delightfully loopy ALL INCLUSIVE in 2018, Nikki returns with this acerbic attack on Finnish isolationism and societal hypocrisy in NIMBY.
Short for Not In My Backyard, NIMBY is satiric slang for those who on the surface promise inclusivity and liberal values, but only so long as it stays far away from their neighborhood. But what happens when the estranged daughter of a pastor’s family in a small town returns with her Iranian activist girlfriend, only to find that his superficially conservative family are in a polyamorous relationship with the neighbors? And what then when the local Nazis find out about this?
NIMBY has an incredible balancing act that it needs to get right ahead of itself, but if Nikki pulls it off this could very well be the first great satire about our country that’s been made in… decades? Ever? And even if it doesn’t fully work, at least there’ll be a lot to talk about. Whatever Nikki makes, it generates conversation and I’m 100% there for it.
America is no longer a country for ordinary people, that’s what we’ve learned over the past two decades. It’s an inhospitable wasteland of capitalism, leaving behind those who were promised a dream and sold a nightmare. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, NOMADLAND is directed by the hyper-talented Chloé Zhao, whose previous film THE RIDER is one of the best debuts in recent memory.
Starring the iconic Francis McDormand as a woman who has lost everything, and now travels the American West in her van, NOMADLAND looks to be a stark depiction of a country gone wrong, and the cost of rampant oligarchy in the modern era.
Queen & Slim
Initially released already last year and scheduled to screen at the Season Film Festival in May, QUEEN & SLIM is finally within reach. Directed by Melina Matsoukas and written by Lena Waithe, this explosive and tragic story about two young black people hounded by a system built to be against them has only gotten more timely in the last twelve months.
As Americans continue to protest against the rampant violence and fascist behavior of their police force, and especially the continued murder of black Americans in the country, QUEEN & SLIM will undoubtedly feel almost too prescient and hard to watch. But it’s an important document and cry for freedom from voices that do not have the representation they deserve, and as such a vital picture to see at the festival.
Starring Daniel Kaluuya and introducing Jodie Turner-Smith as leading duo, QUEEN & SLIM is a harrowing experience made worthwhile by the poetic directing by Matsoukas, and the sharp and incisive screenplay by Waithe. As a sibling of the Springsteen songs GHOST OF TOM JOAD and 41 SHOTS (AMERICAN SKIN), this is a cinematic protest song best played loud.
After her hugely influential and brilliant debut with PERSEPOLIS, Marjane Satrapi has carved herself a unique and interesting career as a director with films like CHICKEN WITH PLUMS and the uproarious THE VOICES. After a five year hiatus, she now returns with a biopic of Marie Curie, the leading scientist in the discovery of radioactivity.
While not a strict biopic (there are no scenes of Curie as a child filled with foreshadowing), RADIOACTIVE combines Satrapi’s lush visual style with the topical themes of being a woman in an exclusively male-dominated field, and the cost of sticking up for yourself when others remain insecure and hostile.
Starring the always magnetic Rosamund Pike as Curie, Satrapi’s film promises to be a visual feast and a great introduction to the works of a prominent scientist who rarely gets the credit she deserves.
In 1991, eight scientists locked themselves away into a secondary biosphere built to sustain human life for two years as a way of understanding Earth better. The purpose was to replicate our planet in a way that such a habitat could be built in space should (and when) the worst comes to pass. Already acutely aware that our lifestyle on this planet is wholly unsustainable, the scientists pushed for the concept of the SPACESHIP EARTH, the thinking that this planet is like a giant ship and all humans on it are the crew.
What happened next is the basis for the documentary directed by Matt Wolf, as it tracks both the short and long term implications of everything that took place in the two year period. But what’s more interesting is that our knowledge of the inevitable climate change, loss of food and water, and potential collapse of the human race is not a new fad or idea. It’s been investigated and studied and proven to be true for decades and decades now. But every time the science has been buried and discredited as the work of hysterics and doomsayers.
Wolf’s documentary should be ample evidence to show just how delicate our pale blue dot really is, and what is our obligation as a species to keep it a safe home for generations to come.
The Cosa Nostra, or more commonly known as The Mafia, has been romanticized and celebrated by cinema for as long as we’ve filmed stories on the silver screen. But behind the glamorous veil is a world of violence, bloodshed, and terror that is held up by a tradition of ritual and silence. What would happen if someone were to break that?
Based on the true story about one of the first people to openly testify against his “family”, THE TRAITOR looks to be a handsomely (and expensively) crafted period piece about the world beyond THE GODFATHER. Starring the great Italian actor Pierfrancesco Favino, THE TRAITOR is nearly three hours long as it charts as many decades of betrayal and power, but if the trailer is anything to go by it will feel like mere moments.
True History of the Kelly Gang
Directed by the visually resplendent Justin Kurzel, TRUE HISTORY looks back in time at one of the most iconic and cinematically best represented outlaws in history. The Kelly Gang were a group of criminals in the Australian outback in the late 1800’s, best known for their wild shootouts and blazingly short lives that stood up against the British colonialists. Remembered now in parts of the country as Robin Hood styled freedom fighters, their story became the basis for one of the earliest motion pictures in history.
Starring George MacKay as Ned Kelly, Kurzel’s film charts the last days of the gang as they face down the inevitable, but eschews typical historical tropes with a wild, punk rock style attitude complete with strobe effects, along with modern music and colloquialisms. The result is a film that’s much less concerned with what’s true than with what feels emotionally right.
Already premiering last year in Australia, TRUE HISTORY has a blu-ray copy in circulation, but it’s the kind of visual feast that needs to be first seen in cinemas. Just be prepared that some of the effects don’t mess around, and those with a sensitivity to flashing should take care.