It’s the end of October, and that means the close of yet another edition of the Philadelphia Film Festival. The 28th iteration brought many highly anticipated festival favorites to Philadelphia for the first time, along with some more under the radar hits from the world and indie flicks from up-and-coming directors. Compared to the past few years, it felt like a down year for a bit as I saw some of my personal favorites the first weekend; eventually, things started looking up, and I even found some unheralded gems.
For the first time, I managed to go down on each of the 11 days, cultivating a fairly hefty list. I only missed a few intriguing titles (“Deerskin”, “Dogs Don’t Wear Pants”, “The Irishman” and “Fourteen”), but many of these should be coming to theaters soon; at least one will be headed to Netflix in a couple of months. A quick caveat: because my review has already been published, I’m not listing Bong Joon-Ho’s “Parasite” here, which was easily No. 1 for a while and is surely ranking high on my list. That freed up one spot for what was quite a tough list. Below are my personal favorites from the fest. Some of these will be out by next year, some will be streaming shortly and one or two may be tough to find. All are worth a look, and a few are candidates for the best of the year.
I almost skipped this viewing until I checked a couple of reviews, and I’m glad I did. Jayro Bustamante’s second feature after 2015’s “Ixcanul” knocked me flat on my butt from the first scene. A bruising, devastating portrait of an evangelical Guatemalan father forced out of the closet in middle age, it pulls no punches as it draws out a particularly harsh dilemma. Not since “A Separation” has a film given us such a deep understanding of the logic of its characters while our emotions plead with them to make a different choice. In my mind, there’s not a single better film released this year, and I’m hard-pressed to think of anything stealing its place.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”
This critical darling from Cannes at first seems too withdrawn and icy as it sketches out the relationship between a noblewoman forced into marriage and the painter who’s been hired to make her portrait in secret. Celine Sciamma pulls a neat trick of structuring the film on the same course as its lesbian lovers; you don’t realize how much you’ve fallen for it until you crash headfirst into its arms. The final shot is a tour de force from Adele Haenel, and it’s likely to become many people’s favorite movie.
“Looper” and “Breaking Bad” director Rian Johnson uses his blank check from “Star Wars” to make this rollickingly fun whodunnit. Featuring a loaded cast, among them Daniel Craig ushering in his comedic era, it’s timely without feeling groan-worthy and twists the plot inside and out without cheating. Judging from my audience reaction, it should do great business when it releases around Thanksgiving.
Trey Edward Shults returns to the experimental style he used in “Krisha” for his latest about the trials and tribulations of a family of four in Florida. It’s two films in one: the first a tragedy about one terrible incident and the second a warm love story blossoming into a tale of forgiveness. A killer soundtrack and unique editing seals the whole deal, and Shults confirms his talent for emotional storytelling with an affecting ending. It deserves four acting nominations at the very least.
“Blow the Man Down”
A crime thriller with a unique local flair — in a seaside town in Maine, two young women who have just said goodbye to their mother soon have to deal with another body when the youngest kills a man in self-defense. The movie takes a cue from “Fargo,” switching between some very funny accent inflected scenes and the nervous tension involved with covering up a crime. It’s Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole’s directorial debuts and introduces them as a pair to look out for, especially with a unique chorus of sailors belting sea shanties that transitions the acts. Add in Margot Martindale as a crime boss, and you’ve got all you need.
“The Vast of Night”
One of my favorite parts of the festival is looking out for lo-fi indie genre fare that tends to fly under the radar, and Andrew Patterson’s debut won’t disappoint. Framing itself with an opening showing the introduction of a Twilight Zone-esque television series (something it returns back to here and there), this ’50s set suspense movie follows a couple of teens who encounter a mysterious sound coming through the radio. It’s a lot of fun, and it even pulls off some nifty camera tricks in between some wonderful sound and set design. You’ll probably guess what kind of place it’s going, but there’s a real joy in letting it take you along the journey.
“Varda by Agnes”
The final film from the legendary director who presaged the French New Wave is a neat retrospective and analysis of her previous movies, taken from talks she did in the past year. It’s much more engrossing than that sounds and enhanced by some quirky vignettes she adds in between. Even if you haven’t seen a single film by her, it’s worth watching just for the context and process notes she brings to it, and it shows a director looking back satisfied at their life.
“And Then We Danced”
A lively gay coming-of-age story set in Georgia and inspired in part by the turbulence surrounding the gay rights movement in that country, it follows a dancer auditioning to be part of the country’s tough national dance team and his infatuation with a rival. It’s magnificent watching them just move across the screen, and it resists becoming dour with some wonderful needle drops (including Robyn’s “Honey”). It is Sweden’s entry for Best International Film.
Quite possibly the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life on a purely visceral level, this weird, strange film from India follows a village slowly disintegrating after a buffalo breaks loose, and the men band together to try and kill it. From the beginning, it establishes a strong audio-visual style, synching cuts to the tick of a clock. For a movie that clocks in at 94 minutes, it might be doing too much, and by the end the sheer aural assault becomes overwhelming. Though it’s worth seeing for the gonzo energy it brings, the feeling where you wouldn’t be surprised if they let an actual buffalo loose and just filmed it.
“A White, White Day”
Iceland’s entry for Best International Film tells the story of a grandfather, renovating a house in the aftermath of his wife’s death, who becomes obsessed with the idea that she had an affair. Director Hlynur Palmason suffuses the frame with fog, making eclectic choices like the extended timelapse of the house or the opening, which follows a car before it careens off the road. In between, he provides a contrast with the warmth of the lead’s interactions with his granddaughter and his cold, toxic rage at the idea of his wife straying in a magnificent performance. The film slowly builds up tension until it explodes into ambiguity, gradually removing our sympathy bit by bit without wholly eradicating it. Overall, it’s disquieting, calling into question the idea of revenge and what the protagonist even desires, something he may not even know anymore.