Thursday, June 11, 2015

SIFF 2015

Wow, I can't believe I haven't made any posts since last year's SIFF! I had a few posts in mind, but obviously they never came to fruition. I guess planning a wedding in between working a full time job takes its toll. My special someone and I still managed to jam in find time to watch 14 movies this season from the largest film festival in the nation, so I wanted to give my somewhat arbitrary awards. I tried to keep most of the same awards from last year, but I decided to swap one of them out given the makeup of the films we saw. While I think as a while I enjoyed the slate of films we had last year at SIFF better, when I look back at this year I still thought there were some real gems to be enjoyed.

Best Documentary
Winner: The Birth of Saké

The Birth of Saké official trailer from erik shirai on Vimeo.

This was a clear winner to me because I think it is the most impressive documentary I've ever seen. I honestly can't think of a documentary I've seen before that I enjoyed more. What really grabbed me about this film was that it felt so honest. It felt less like a documentary and more like real life was scripted and adapted into a movie. There's no forced talking heads or awkward flashbacks to terrible quality footage - the director and producer actually spend multiple weeks living at the Tedorigawa brewery just like the normal set of about a dozen employees do for half the year. This gave them unprecedented access into the lives of these men and into their process. The process of making quality saké isn't exactly a secret, but the laborious manual process is so rarely practiced nowadays (compared to using modern machinery) that this movie gives you a glimpse into something not only steeped in tradition but deeply enriched by Japanese culture. I believe this is Erik Shirai's first feature film, which makes it all the more impressive. If you get the chance to watch this movie please do. Though I personally find saké to be delicious, I really don't think you have to in order to enjoy this documentary.

Best Eye Candy
Winner: Henri Henri

I can't overlook a film that took the high bar set by Amélie and decided that it was going to produce an equally satisfying film that has a completely different plot. While this movie was made in Quebec, there are clear parallels in some of the overall set of characters and style of the movie compared to Amelie, but other than that it really takes a life of its own. The film follows the somewhat naive Henri, an orphan who is being evicted from the convent he grew up in and has to find his footing in the real world with his only marketable skill being that of a rebulber (i.e. changing light bulbs). With that simple premise, a tale of romance, hopefulness, and a bit of magic takes shape. It's as sweet as it is beautiful with strong visual sense that sticks with you after you leave the theater. While it doesn't create quite as rich as a world as Amelie does (in part due to its modest timeline, in my opinion), it does make effective use of the imagery it's trying to convey. While at times I felt the imagery was a little on the nose, I had to put that aside because so much was right about this movie. It's a feel-good movie that you should really want to see.

Runner Up: The Birth of Saké

I've already spoken about this film above, but I did just want to add that the cinematography in this film is ridiculous. I cannot fathom how they got such crisp visuals when only Erik Shirai and his producer were at the brewery making the film. They had a great editor, too, but the raw footage had to be high quality to produce such jaw dropping visuals. So many scenes would look good plastered on the wall of my college apartment's bedroom (heck, there are stills I would frame and put on my wall now).

Most Touching
Winner: Good Ol' Boy

I had a hard time deciding on this one because I had a few movies that I felt could've met this category. I decided to give it to Good Ol' Boy because I loved the breadth of emotions it brought out of me. I think it affected me on a personal level because I somewhat identify with the lead character since I, too, grew up in an immigrant Indian family (although my family isn't Hindu and I wasn't born in India in the 70s). It's not a sad movie necessarily, but I did find it to be very evocative. It's a style of movie that you don't see enough of nowadays - a small town coming of age story. There's plenty of movies targeted at teens/tweens nowadays that capitalize on melodrama culture, but this movie juxtaposes real life problems for children in the 70s along with cultural differences. Even though I wish we could've spent more time with these characters you get quite a bit about them from a pretty concise script and it's just enough to keep you satisfied without overwhelming you with subtext. To top it off, lead actor Roni Akurati steals the screen as a really endearing Indian boy. I enjoyed this film thoroughly and really hope it gets picked up. Also, SIFF is showing it this Sunday again for any locals who didn't catch it.

Runner Up: I'll See You In My Dreams 

Blythe Danner, where have you been all my life? What an amazing leading lady for a really cute film. The humorous situation we found ourselves in for this movie was that at least three fourths of the people in the theater were 50 years old or above. That shouldn't indicate that the movie is only for an older crowd - it's actually not cheesy like a lot of films that pander to this audience are. It's very honest and heartfelt. It follows widower Carol Petersen who has become somewhat numb to life in her twilight years and is trying to make sense of it all. It's never preachy, but it has so many scenes with interesting implications that I really appreciated. What I think I found most surprising is that Blythe works as an actress not just as being very talented but still having this air of being sexy. She's not slutty, she's just very human and very endearing in a really fresh way. Her performance is wonderful and really stuck with me. Sam Elliott is also perfect as the love interest and in real life he seems exactly as his character on the big screen (personality-wise), which I thought was kind of fun to see.

Best Short Film
Winner: The World of Tomorrow

Don Hertzfeld, of Rejected fame, has a really strong offering in this short. It's the story of the future self of a young girl going back in time to reveal the girl's long and quirky future as technology advances. It's funny, sweet, and at times a little eerie, but always provocative and interesting. I can't say too much more about it without giving away important details, but I think of it as if XKCD and sci fi movies got together and had a short film baby. You can actually buy this film for a few bucks online, which I recommend doing. It's a worthwhile way to kill 15 minutes and be totally entranced.

Runner Up: Live Fast Draw Yung

There were so many great shorts this year that picking just one runner up was hard, but I have to give it to this really fun short documentary about Yung Lenox, a 7 year-old with a penchant for doing hand drawn portraits of rappers and their albums. His Instagram account has generated a cult following and his father's love for him really shines through in this documentary. The kid is really cute and fun, and the short had just the right amount of everything.

Best Overall
Winner: Love & Mercy

When I walked out of this movie, I didn't expect that it would be my favorite film of SIFF 2015. As time has progressed though, it has clearly emerged as the film that I've thought about the most. This almost haunting portrayal of the life of Brian Wilson at the peak of his career and probably the lowest point of his life is a very unique experience. I didn't even want to see this movie because I'm so tired of the formulaic big name biopic movies that have been getting churned out every year or two like clockwork. This film has a twist though - Paul Dano portrays Brian Wilson towards the latter part of his time with the Beach Boys (around the time when Pet Sounds was recorded and released) while John Cusack portrays Brian Wilson in the late 1980s when he is under the care of psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) and in a budding relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). The movie is so bizarre at times that I wouldn't have believed it was true if I didn't see interviews with Wilson that confirm it. In fact, I probably watched at least half an hour of old footage from Beach Boys performances and interviews because the film got under my skin so much. It's pretty surprising how much the faces on screen mimic their real life counterparts.

Paul Dano clearly puts it all out there in his portrayal of Wilson. While Cusack's performance may not have been quite as nuanced, I still found it to be an effective dramatization of Wilson's time under Landy. Paul Giamatti as Landy was also a powerhouse in his performance - truly incredible and at times truly frightening. This movie also has made me look at Elizabeth Banks in a whole new light. I'm used to seeing her in comedies and less heavy material, but this movie shows that she's ready for more serious material like this (this isn't her first drama by any means, it's just a good demonstration of her abilities). You don't have to be a Beach Boys fan to enjoy this movie, you just have to be a lover of music and good storytelling and I doubt you'll be disappointed here.

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