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Best of the Fest: Victoria Film Festival 2017

Happiest Day of Oli Maki - Photo courtesy of The Victoria Film Festival
Happiest Day of Oli Maki
— image credit: Photo courtesy of The Victoria Film Festival

Another year, another Victoria Film Festival on the books. Over 10 days, Victorians were treated to films from around the world, of all genres and subjects, from the big and loud to the small and soft. Always one of the best times of the year for local cinephiles, VFF delivered another great year of screenings. I’d like to share some favourites with you.

5. The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, dir. Brett Story

I know this wasn’t a popular one, but that disappoints me, because over the course of the festival this was the only documentary I saw that prioritized capturing a mood, an atmosphere, over delivering information. Not that there’s anything wrong with an information-heavy, insightful documentary (for instance, see Ava DuVernay’s 13th for a different approach on the same topic), but I’m also impressed when a film not only presents me with information, but changes my state of mind. And The Prison in Twelve Landscapes did just that with its meditative approach to capturing how the United States’ judicial system can touch the lives of so many people both in and outside of prison walls. The film takes viewers on a trip to various corners of the country, using informal interviews and ethereal cinematic explorations of American urban and rural landscapes to offer a portrait of a culture in decay. The film offers no comment, no central thesis, instead inviting viewers to soak in its atmosphere and reckon with what they’ve witnessed on their own, offering an experience, rather than a viewing.

4. The Sun at Midnight, dir. Kirsten Carthew

Part of the Indigenous Perspective program, The Sun at Midnight is a gorgeously filmed first feature from Kirsten Carthew that tells the story of a city girl who must travel north, far north, to live with her grandmother. A series of events ends up with her having to travel across the tundra under the guidance of a wise bushman, played with grace and humour by Duane Howard (The Revenant). Not enough can be said about the beauty of this film, care of cinematographer Ian MacDougall. Among many things, it is a love letter to the north and to a way of life that is in danger of disappearing along with the caribou that support it. The story itself mostly avoids the clichés of its fish-out-of-water premise, and in the end proves a heartfelt tale of discovery, perseverance and companionship.

3. My Life as a Zucchini, dir. Claude Barras

You know it’s not going to be a typical children’s movie when a parent dies before the opening credits. A complete 180 from the shiny happy Disney/Pixar kid’s movies we’re all used to, this Swiss claymation movie doesn’t hide the often grim realities of life from its young target audience, instead approaching some hard topics with honesty, bravery and a well-earned sense of reassurance. This beautifully animated tale is about a group of kids living in an orphanage, each with their own challenging background to cope with. Our protagonist, named Zucchini, comes into this home damaged from his past and discovers friends with similar experiences who he can find a new sense of family with. Frequently touching but never cheaply sentimental, you could see this movie having a real impact on some young people who haven’t perhaps had the best start in life. And despite how I’ve described it, it’s also very funny, I swear.

2. Frantz, dir. Francois Ozon

Francois Ozon is something of a chameleon as a director, which makes it hard to know what to expect from him. Luckily, he’s on a winning streak lately that continues with the beautiful and heartbreaking Frantz. The film, about a Frenchman who visits a German family following the end of the First World War, is on one level a compelling melodrama about grief and love, and on another an insightful look at the costs of war on all involved. To have a French filmmaker produce such a tender portrait of a German family’s sacrifice is in itself a beautiful gesture, one which the film thankfully lives up to through its humanity and grace. Using a compelling, if sometimes puzzling, mix of colour and black-and-white and featuring haunting performances from Paula Beer and Pierre Niney, Frantz is a rich experience delivered with poignancy and humanity.

1. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, dir. Juho Kuosmanen

Some may steer clear of boxing movies, but in the case of The Happiest Day in the Olli Maki they would be doing themselves a great disservice. Less about the sport itself than a bought between glory and love, this quirky, sweet black-and-white Finnish film is about a real-life match that while a national disappointment, was a small blip on the road to a personal victory for our film’s hero. The film avoids the large, fist-pumping emotions normally associated with the genre, and puts history in its place as something that happens with lots of other personal stories happening around it, just as important to those involved. With plenty of humour in the mix, this sweet film achieves its inspiring tone without being loud or showy, and features a wonderfully low-key performance from its lead.

So there we have it, until next year. Please share your favourites from the festival in the comment section or find me on Twitter at @CineFileBlog.

 

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