SIFF 2004 Reviews

These SIFF 2004 reviews (like all my film reviews) were first posted on the listserv  An archive of past messages is available on

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Fool Serious 2004 Awards

I am going to use the Fool Serious rating scale this year:
1 Absolute Best
2 Nearly Best
3 Truly Great
4 Nearly Great
5 Good
6 Average
7 Below
8 Way Below
9 Least Favorite

My votes were:
Best Director: Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset)
Best Cinematographer: Christopher Doyle (Hero)
Best Script: Maria Full of Grace
Best Music: No Vote
Best Actor: Luigi Lo Cascio (The Best of Youth Parts 1 and 2)
Best Actress: Anne Reid (The Mother)
Best "Guilty Pleasure": Torremolinos 73

Before Sunrise (Absolute Best) is Richard Linklater's romantic classic, one of my favorite films ever.  An American (Ethan Hawke) meets a Frenchwoman (Julie Delpy) on a train to Vienna, and convinces her to spend the evening and night with him talking and exploring the city.  The draw is pure voyeurism, the chance to spend 90 minutes with two attractive young people flirting and talking about love.  The movie's ending is famously ambiguous, so I am curious how the new sequel will follow up in tonight's showing. Richard Linklater is my choice for Best Director of SIFF 2004

Before Sunset (Truly Great) is the sequel to Before Sunrise.  It reunites the leads from Before Sunrise nine years after they first met, and follows them for a limited time just as in the original.  This sequel is less about young love and more about young-adult regret, which I don't find as compelling, but this is still a worthy successor. Richard Linklater is my choice for Best Director of SIFF 2004

The Best Of Youth Parts I and II (Almost Best) is the epic, engrossing story of a middle-class Italian family from 1966 to 2003
.  The upheavals of the period, including the student riots, Red Brigades, and other economic and social transformations, are reflected in the lives of the four Carati siblings and their friends.  It is a rare film which can keep audience interest for a 6-hour run time. Luigi Lo Cascio is
my choice for Best Actor of SIFF 2004

Busting Out (Nearly Great) is a well-constructed, personal documentary about breasts: breast surgery, breast insecurity, breasts in different cultures, breast cancer. For example, did you know that breasts are not considered sexual in the great majority of the world's cultures? Watchable, uplifting (sorry) and worthwhile. No, you won't see very many actual breasts in the film.

Checkpoint (Nearly Great) is a documentary depicting life at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. The production is completely without embellishment, just vignettes of the daily grind, the boredom of the soldiers, and the frustration and humiliation of the Palestinians. Checkpoint succeeds at the core task of a documentary -- to convey the experience of a foreign situation.

Death In Gaza (Truly Great): This is a balanced and fascinating documentary on the crisis in Gaza, Rafah in particular. A cameraman sets out to make a documentary on the lives of Palestinian and Israeli children during the Intifadeh, but the documentary changes shape when he is shot and killed near the Gaza-Egypt border. Handheld camera warning.

The Debut (Below) is a Soviet archval from 1970. Part comedy, part melodrama, it tells the story of a plain girl who lands the lead role in a film production of Joan Of Arc. It has some interesting moments but is fundamentally dated, and I suspect badly subtitled.

Everyday People (Nearly Great): Quality independent slice-of-life about a old Brooklyn diner about to close. Everyday People takes the "big stories" of corporatization and race and brings them to the street through the personal stories of the wait staff. Reminiscent of John Sayles but less polemical. I would have rated this higher if it weren't for a few draggy moments.

Facing Windows (Average): Everyone else loved this melodrama, so I feel like something of a sourpuss for considering it only mediocre. A young couple takes in an elderly amnesiac they meet on the street, and the wife is drawn into his emerging story of surviving the Holocaust. The tone is uniformly serious and somber, and I found the repetitive music a bit cloying.

A Good Lawyer's Wife (Below): I chose this film so that I could see Moon So-Ri, the star of last year's amazing and disturbing Oasis, in a more naturalistic role. She's fine, and some passholders loved the film, but I found it disjointed and pointless. There is plenty of (fairly gratuitous) sex for those who like that sort of thing, plus a few political gopherballs for the Korean home audience. Mild handheld camera warning.

Hero (Truly Great): <pending> Fool Serious 2004
 Awards: Best Director Zhang Yimou, Best Cinematographer Christopher Doyle (also my personal choice), Best Music Tan Dun.

The Kite (Below) tells the symbolic, somewhat surreal story of a Lebanese girl whose life is split by encroaching maturity and by the Israeli border. It has its moments, but the plot is disjointed, and the protagonist is sultry but not really much of an actress.

La Petite Lili (Almost Worst) is a dreadful Rohmer-oid talk-fest, my first walkout of the Festival.

Los Debutantes (Below): Another walkout in a 9:30 slot. Two young brothers living alone get caught in a quadrangle with a young stripper/prostitute and her pimp. Kind of "Risky Business in a gritty Santiago slum".

Love Me If You Dare (Almost Great): <pending>

Maria Full of Grace (Truly Great): This remarkable but bleak drama puts a human face to the stories of "drug mules" we read in the news. Maria, a stubborn young factory worker from a Colombian village, loses her job and resorts to drug smuggling to get money for her family. Swallowing the condom-wrapped drug packets is dangerous enough, but customs police and heartless drug-runners add to her troubles. The director and star appeared for an excellent Q&A after the showing. Maria Full Of Grace is my choice for Best Script of SIFF 2004

The Miracle of Berne (Average): Unremarkable feel-good TV-movie set in 1950s Germany. A freckle-faced boy reconciles over soccer with his father, newly returned from a long stint in a Soviet POW camp.

The Mother (Good): This film about an older woman rediscovering sex with a younger man is no feel-good Hollywood puff; it follows the British depressive realist style (not quite as extreme as Mike Leigh though). Still, it is well-acted and honest. Anne Reid is my choice for Best Actress of SIFF 2004

Nicotina (Average):  Broad caper-farce from Mexico, with a gang of criminals bumbling through a scheme involving computer hacking and a bag of diamonds.  I found the characters unappealing and the jokes too obvious.

Noise (Way Below) is an annoying "calling card" indie about a depressive Manhattanite (Trish Goff, so tall and thin that at first I thought they might have gotten the aspect ratio wrong) who moves into an apartment with a noisy upstairs neighbor (Ally Sheedy, who is not going to make her comeback based on this). I walked out, it was just too gray and depressing to sit through in a 9:30 slot.

The Notebook (Average) is an earnest, old-fashioned love story which should appeal reasonably well to a core chick-flick audience. It is also among the most predictable films I have ever seen; there was perhaps one plot element during the entire film which I couldn't have guessed in the first five minutes.

Revolution (Average): Margaret Cho's latest concert film is reasonably funny, although I wasn't falling out of my seat. I saw her previous film (Notorious C.H.O.) and liked it a bit somewhat better. Cho's potty mouth and rubber-faced antics wear out quickly. I think that pushing the envelope of good taste just isn't enough anymore, especially since the "envelope" has already been stretched beyond recognition by past generations of shock comics.

Ridicule (Truly Great) is Patrice Leconte's 1996 drama-comedy set in the French court just before the Revolution.  An idealistic country squire comes to Versailles to ask the king to drain a malarial swamp, but soon discovers that he must prove himself through epigrams, cutting remarks and romantic intrigue rather than heartfelt pleas.  Excellent period work, clever dialogue, and fine acting.

Sexual Dependency (Average):  Dark experimental film split between Bolivia and the US, about the disasterous hormone-fueled behavior of young adults.  The screen is split into right and left halves through the entire film, with two cameras tracking different views of the same scene.  This experiment is interesting but ultimately doesn't add anything to the film.

Still Doing It (Average) is a low-budget documentary about the sex lives of women over 65. There are only a few interview subjects, and not enough material for the length.

The Story of the Weeping Camel (Truly Great) is a quiet semi-documentary set on the plains of Mongolia. It tells the story of a herding encampment, in particular, the story of a newborn camel calf which needs some help being accepted by its mother. This is a National Geographic film, and looks it, but the lack of any voice-over gives it a more intimate feel.

Torremolinos 73 (Nearly Great): "Ed Wood directs porn in Franco's Spain" could be the tagline for this crowd-pleaser, which stars some of the top Spanish talent. Torremolinos 73 is my choice for Best Guilty Pleasure of SIFF 2004

The Twilight Samurai (Almost Best) is a genre samurai film, but a superlative example of the genre. The period set/costumes are excellent, the acting is superb, and the plot is subtle but poignant.

Untold Scandal (Good): This adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons to 19th-century Korea is reasonably successful, with good period work and a charismatic performance by the Valmont-analogue.

Vodka Lemon (Below): Absurdist humor from Armenia, and Really Bad Post-Soviet Cinema. This snoozer is measured, sad, deeply symbolic, everything you would expect from the former USSR.  It is also deadly slow, with stilted acting and weak dialogue.  Perhaps I just don't know enough about Armenia to get the jokes.

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