As the 20th annual Philadelphia Film Festival came to a close Nov. 3, Philadelphia film lovers were left once again in anxious anticipation for next year’s event. The Film Festival never ceases to keep expectations high and never ceases deliver on those expectations. There were few frills to the festival, short of a relatively modest opening and closing ceremony. There was no false flash or fluff to keep the festival an annual success, just a slew of artfully chosen movies from every corner of the world.
Considering the incredible success of last year’s opening film, “Black Swan,” it was impossible not to wonder how and if the Festival would be able to come out as strongly in 2011. It did not let the somewhat daunting task of meeting the high expectations of the Film Festival post-“Black Swan” get in the way of this year’s success. The Festival’s 20th year opened with the cheeky romantic comedy “Like Crazy” Oct. 20. This was followed later on in the week by other big “blockbuster-esqe” movies such as “Butter” (Jennifer Garner, Ty Burrell and Alicia Silverstone), “Melancholia” (Kirsten Dunst) and “The Good Doctor” (Orlando Bloom), which set the frame of more mainstream-like films played during the Festival. And appropriately, George Clooney starred in the closing-night film, “The Descendants.”
Each of these films received decent to rave reviews and were ultimately what gave the Philadelphia Film Festival its overall popularity. However, many movies fall between the cracks. Some of the best “meat” of Philadelphia’s Film Festival has been some of the more obscure, foreign films that don’t receive adequate recognition from Philadelphian moviegoers. This year, instead of spending most of my efforts with the bigger films of the festival and seeing the smaller films as side items, I decided to make the lesser-buzzed about (or not-at-all buzzed about) movies my focus. This idea turned out to be a very successful one.
One of the most notable movies of the festival was the Norwegian thriller “Headhunters.” Based on the best-selling Norwegian novel, this movie could have easily passed as a superbly made Hollywood film if it weren’t for the Norwegian dialogue and English subtitles. The story is about a successful headhunter from Oslo who has an especially keen eye in his field. Despite his talent he is not able to support the lavish lifestyle that his striking, leggy blonde-haired wife loves. Out of fear of her leaving, he showers her with gifts, homes and cars that are far beyond his economic means by stealing valuable art from his incredibly wealthy clients. He gets in over his head and quickly ends up on the fight for his life. I believe “Headhunters” is easily one of the best thrillers of the year.
The movie screened immediately after “Headhunters” was the Lebanese film “Ok, Enough, Goodbye.” Although I was ready to fall in love with the first Arabic-language film I had ever seen, I was almost lulled into my first Arabic-induced slumber during the movie. A story about a mother who is so tired of her 40-year-old life and son’s reliance on her, she packs up and moves to Beirut. The sudden move forces him to try to establish some normal relationships with other people (and eventually a parakeet, when all else fails), yet his static character dulled.
Next up, Ethan Hawke stars in a well-mastered bilingual film, leaving quite the impression on his enamored audience. “The Woman in the Fifth” is a beautifully done French and English psychological drama that chronicles an American man who travels to France to get visitation rights with his daughter. Unexpected twists make this movie much more than a romanticized drama.
The only Spanish-language film I got a chance to see this year at the Festival was “Medianeras,” an Argentinian film that ends leaving you feeling like you just played some kind of matchmaking video game. The two lead characters are perfect for each other yet have never met. The couple’s respective apartments are divided by a medianeras (wall of a building with no windows). Although the ending came a bit too late, the film still comes with a great recommendation.
The best is not always last, but it may be in this case. “Goodbye First Love” is a prime example of beautiful, romantic French filmography. This sun-drenched young romance that starts between Parisian teenagers Camille and Sebastian falters when Sebastian decides to venture to South America. Yearning to see more of the world, their relationship is prematurely forced into the adult world. “Goodbye First Love” has everything a romantic French film ought to have: love lost, new love and return of an old magic keep the film’s ending at bay. Camille, however, leaves a bit more to the imagination with her relatively static personality throughout the years. A film that left me watching the trailer dozens of times post-screening, “Goodbye First Love” is a film I cannot criticize too harshly.
Congratulations to the Philadelphia Film Festival for 20 years of bringing incredible and creative viewing experiences to our city. If you missed this year’s Festival, be sure to check it out come October 2012.