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Taking the Whistler Film Festival for a spin

Pass on the powder and pass the popcorn

Fresh powder snow, crisp cool air and some of the world’s most renowned runs awaited me as I pulled into Whistler last Wednesday. Arriving into town, I stared up at the snow-capped mountains with wonder and determination, and announced to them, “I will not conquer you.”

For you see, I planned to spend nearly every waking moment of my five-day trip to Whistler in movie theatres, many of them actually underground, as if hiding from the mountains. I wasn’t there to ski or snowboard, not to toboggan or snow shoe, really not even to get fresh air (Overrated. I mean air is air, right?). No Sir, I was there for the 14th annual Whistler Film Festival.

This was my first time at the Whistler Film Festival. I’ve heard good things for years and while I’ve attended the Vancouver International Film Festival and the Victoria Film Festival for years, I’d never managed to make it up to the snowy playground.

So with a media pass strapped around my neck and a noticeable intolerance to the cold, I hit the slopes, figuratively.

The Whistler Film Festival was different than I expected, I must be honest. I had a great time and saw a nice variety of movies, but it’s certainly a festival geared towards the movers and shakers in the local industry, more so than the simple film fan. There are a lot of receptions, a lot of after parties and a lot of schmoozing, which, for many, didn’t seem to leave a lot of time to actually watch movies.

I really don’t have a problem with that, if that’s your thing, but I felt bad at some screenings where a director had come a long way to be there, and because they didn’t have an entourage of family and friends with them, there were only a dozen people watching.

But hey, the programmers did a great job, the audiences seemed to love the movies and it seemed as though everyone got what they wanted out of it, whether that was watching movies or closing deals.

In total, I managed to see 12 films at the Whistler Film Festival, which isn’t bad for three days of movie going. A bit of a problem with the opening gala meant I couldn’t get in for The Imitation Game, despite waiting in line outside for over half an hour. Hopefully the organizers come up with a new system for next year, because there were a lot of angry, cold pass holders that night.

But once Thursday arrived, I headed full steam into movie watching.

Rather than go into all 12 films here, I thought I would highlight my top five favourites and then talk about one or two disappointments. So here we go:

5. A Most Violent Year – This was my most anticipated movie of the festival by a country mile, and it’s getting great early notices, including a few awards. To be honest, I’m still processing this film, as it was not at all how I expected it to be.

Judging by the trailers, I expected a typical mob movie. This is not your typical mob movie, and, as it turns out, that’s a strength of the film. Rather than a tale of temptation and downfall, as most mob movies are, this is a tale of a good man attempting to build an honest(ish) life in an environment which breeds corruption, sin and violence.

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llywen Davis) plays the owner of a heating oil delivery business who is attempting to grow his business and make a name for himself honestly. Everything, and everybody, is against him doing this.

With Jessica Chastain as his wife and Albert Brooks as his attorney, A Most Violent Year is filled with powerful performances and teeth-clenching tension. However, I felt that Isaac’s character bordered on a caricature, so one-dimensional was his view on how the world works and how he should make his way through it. This held me back from thoroughly enjoying the movie.

But for the most part, it works.

4. The New GirlfriendI’m new to the oeuvre of Francois Ozon, but with last year’s Young and Beautiful and, now, The New Girlfriend, it’s clear he enjoys making audiences feel uncomfortable, or at least he doesn’t care.

The New Girlfriend is about a pair of best friends, one of whom dies at the beginning of the movie. She leaves behind a husband and infant, who her best friend has promised to look after.

From then on there are many surprises revealed, which I will keep secret here, but let it be said the movie has many shocking and compelling twists and turns. Whether or not the film is an accurate or sympathetic portrayal of the lifestyle it tackles, I really can’t say. I’m sure others have and will. But as a movie, it works, with compelling performances and a unique look at love, lust and gender.

3. Still Alice – If there could be an award for most depressing movie of the festival, there could be a few contenders, but I believe Still Alice would take the blue ribbon. Luckily, it’s also a beautifully acted film and one which tackles a hard subject with open-eyed honesty and a mature understanding of the complications of family and illness, love and death.

Julianne Moore plays a woman in her fifties who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimers. She is an academic, a mother, a wife and a woman who has clearly always defined herself by her intellect. And now it’s disappearing. The film follows Alice through early symptoms, diagnoses, revelations to loved ones and the ensuing stages of such a painful and debilitating illness.

Moore is astounding in the film. Playing a sick person can almost seem like an Oscar cliché now, but Moore finds the perfect balance of playing the illness and playing the character. It is heartbreaking to watch her struggle but not give in.

This was a movie which ruined a lot of dry eyes, but it never felt cheap, pandering or manipulative.

2. Pretend We’re Kissing – This refreshing honest romantic comedy from Toronto-based director Matt Sadowski was a surprise find for me, not being familiar with his other work, which up until this has been with short films.

Pretend We’re Kissing is about a somewhat mopey, neurotic single fella in Toronto who meets a quirky, lovely girl. Sounds familiar? Sure, but instead of descending into some Manic Pixie Girl fantasy, Pretend We’re Kissing is instead an endearing look at the connections we make, both romantic and otherwise, and how they propel us forward in life; how they can be sometimes painful or disappointing, but how they are usually worthwhile.

Tommie-Amber Pirie plays the love interest, and she is a delight to watch, and she goes through the romantic stages of initial interest, spark-filled connection and then … well, I’ll leave it at that, but let’s just say this isn’t your typical love story. But that doesn’t make it any less insightful or sweet.

1. ’71 – I wish my top pick was some small undiscovered Canadian indie gem, but instead it’s a British film with up-and-coming star Jack O’Connell (Starred Up, Unbroken) and quite a bit of buzz, especially back in the UK.

And there’s good reason for the buzz, as it’s a strong, intensely watchable film about an English soldier who gets more than he ever asked for when he’s shipped out to Northern Ireland during the troubles. This young, quiet, seemingly apolitical kid has about the roughest first day I’ve seen since Fury and ends up essentially trapped behind enemy lines in the heart of a conflict he barely understands.

This is a thrillingly visceral movie that throws you into the middle of all the violence, the anger, the confusion of this time in Ireland. It’s intense, strong and has a clear, perfectly executed vision.

So there you have it, some gems to keep an eye out for.

In the constructive criticism category, there were a couple of films I found disappointing.

I Put A Hit On You has a great concept but shoots for the middle with it and falls flat. I could tell the movie had talent behind it, both with the actors and the writers, but it honestly felt like little more than a wasted opportunity.

As a movie about a relationship, it offered very little. There is nothing I would call development in their relationship. The movie is set up for the pair to either come back together, or be torn further apart, or at least come to some sort of understanding. But it is left unanswered, and the lazy ambiguous ending just makes it feel as though the filmmakers had nothing to say about this couple from the start.

And the other major plot point, the titular “hit,” is resolved in such a simple matter, it couldn’t help but feel like a lost opportunity for the movie to really go somewhere interesting and fun. Instead it ends before in even starts. I was impressed with the use of sets and how much was accomplished with so little resources, but I think the film failed in the writing and never recovered.

Elsewhere, NY was the other huge disappointment. While I admire its DIY spirit, the film is an absolute mess. I’m not a fan of the handheld, shaky cam style that is taking over modern indie films, and this film takes it to its absolute worst. In an attempt to wring some meaning out of a story of the sordid lives of three truly unlikeable people, the filmmakers insist on having every shot be jerky and out of focus, with five or six random edits thrown in for good measure, in an attempt to make nothing happening seem intensely interesting. I honestly had to look away at a few points, because it started to make me feel ill.

I get it’s trying to capture the frenetic energy of New York, but even though I’ve never been to New York, I bet it doesn’t constantly look as though it’s located in a tumble dryer. And the story itself is problematic too, with characters impossible to care about constantly making poor decisions and having nothing of any interest to say about them. All this plus a cheap and manipulative ending (why did she have her bags packed other than to try and make us think, and maybe care, she may make a decision other than the one she did?), made for a rather unpleasant film.

There’s a moment towards the end where the roommate of the female lead talks to her about her situation and offers advice. It is the only honest and interesting moment in the movie, where finally a character says something meaningful, offers a relatable moment, makes some sort of sense. It’s a gripping scene, one which proves the director can offer up an honest moment of film. It’s a shame it’s lost in a sea of incoherence and stuffing.

And so the sun set on the Whistler Film Festival. I enjoyed my time in this winter wonderland, and would recommend the festival most to those into meet and greets with industry types, perhaps while trying to sell a project. Opportunities abound.

For the rest, there are some opportunities to see some great movies, both local and international, you likely otherwise wouldn’t, as well as hear from some of the creative teams behind the films. I wouldn’t recommend WFF over the Vancouver International Film Festival, but for something smaller in scale and larger in mingling; this is the festival to be at.

So long as you’re the type of person who can spend five days in Whistler and not go skiing.