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Final look at the Vancouver International Film Festival

VIFF proves cinema is alive and well
Toni Erdmann, directed by Maren Ade.

Anyone who declares 2016 as the year movies died obviously didn’t attend the Vancouver International Film Festival.

There has been such ridiculous talk in some film criticism circles (Twitter), mainly lamenting the poor quality of this year’s tent-pole movies (mostly true) and claiming that television and other mediums have taken over as the more relevant forms of expression.

Poppycock, I say!

The media landscape (ugh) is obviously evolving, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room at the table still for film, so long as it continues to evolve too. And if the outstanding selection of films screened at the 35th annual VIFF is any indication, film is doing just fine, thank you very much.

I only managed to catch one week of the two week festival this year, and saw a measly 20 movies, so this “best of the fest” list in mostly just for fun, and shouldn’t be taken as a definitive summation of VIFF. For one thing, I missed out on many highly acclaimed festival favourites including Moonlight, I, Daniel Blake and The Girl with All the Gifts.

That being said, I was honestly blown away by the quality of films I did see. Even having seen only 20, picking a top five was difficult. I left many a screening inspired and energized by what I’d just seen. Even the middle-of-the-road movies I saw seemed to have a performance or something else worthy of praise. I only saw one film I actively disliked, which is really saying something.

So with that in mind, I present to you my picks for the best films of the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival. Keep an eye out for these ones in theatres, on iTunes, on Netflix, wherever, in the near future.

5. Manchester by the Sea, dir. Kenneth Lonergan (USA)

Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t break new ground when it comes to his highly regarded dramas, such as You Can Count on Me and Margaret. What he does do, however, is make the best version of a drama you can ask for. His films are like the best rendition of a bluegrass tune; you already know the song, others play it pretty well too, but he somehow just nails it. Manchester by the Sea is a family drama about a broken man (an outstanding Casey Affleck) returning to his hometown after his brother dies. So yes, it’s a heavy, grief-centred drama, but Lonergan shows an uncanny sense of character in his writing, and knows just how to use humour, music and patient pacing to give the story its most rewarding possible impact. His films, and Manchester by the Sea in particular, are cathartic without ever feeling manipulative. The movie earns its tears honestly and they’re all the sweeter for it.

4. Elle, dir. Paul Verhoeven (France)

I’ve said this before, and I don’t think this is a popular opinion, but I am getting a little tired of hyper-realistic Euro dramas filled with handheld camera work and characters trying to do the right thing in a morally dubious world. I just find this style of filmmaking is getting a tad stagnant. Which is why Elle, a film I’m now mostly convinced is intentionally satirizing this style of filmmaking, stood out among the other European offerings I took in at the festival. Elle is not an easy film to enjoy, in fact it is an extraordinarily uncomfortable viewing experience, mostly due to the fact its story centres on a rape. But it is an easy film to admire, as Verhoeven asks some tough questions of his audience and demands you tackle what he’s getting at. I’m still not sure I’m there. I think I’ll be unpacking this movie for a while to come. But the very fact I want to reckon with it, that the film has a lot to say about gender, violence and the nature of evil, and does so in surprising and unique ways, is enough to earn it a spot on this list.

3. A Quiet Passion, dir. Terrence Davies (UK)

From this point on, you can basically consider this a tie for first place, because up until I started writing I thought A Quiet Passion might be my number 1. Ask me tomorrow and it might be. Quite simply, I adore the style of Terrence Davies’ direction. There is a pace to his storytelling and a beauty to his composition that hits me right in the soul. And this year he’s done it twice, first with Sunset Song and now this. Cynthia Nixon is sublime as American poet Emily Dickinson, a fierce, complicated, unconventional woman for her time, who writes her poetry at night and fights with her contemporary societal expectations during the day. As usual Davies injects this patient, seemingly gently flowing film with subtle beauty and raw undercurrents of pure emotion to create a staggeringly beautiful work.

2. Paterson, dir. Jim Jarmusch (USA)

To me, Paterson came across as a great American folk song. I suppose a poem might be a better simile, but something about its repetitive storytelling, its search for the sublime in the simple and its calm demeanour, made it seem like a page from the great American songbook. Adam Driver plays a bus driver/poet named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey with his unflappably bubbly and loving girlfriend Laura, played by Golshifteh Farahani. The movie takes place over the course of a week, with Paterson spending his days at work and his evenings at home and a local bar. Nothing big happens, but that doesn’t mean nothing happens, and it’s this variations on a theme approach that makes the movie so engaging and warm.

1. Toni Erdmann, dir. Maren Ade (Germany)

There comes a point during any film festival where you think to yourself, ‘I sure could use a laugh.’ Luckily for VIFFsters, there was Toni Erdmann, one of the funniest, and oddly sweetest, movies I’ve seen in some time. The premise is simple: an aging father travels to Romania to reconnect with his overworked daughter. Sounds pretty saccharine, right? Well it might be were it not for the absurd humour and almost Pythonesque approach both the father and the film itself take to injecting some old fashioned fun back into life. There are a couple of scenes in particular I was glad there were subtitles for, because I wouldn’t have been able to hear what was happening over the laughter of the audience. This movie, from director Maren Ade, is as surprising as it is delightful, and is one of those rare festival films I can’t imagine any audience not enjoying. I have for this film the greatest love of all.


Honourable Mention: American Honey, dir. Andrea Arnold (UK/USA)

I really wanted American Honey to make the list because it’s a tough, captivating movie from the extremely talented Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) that has been pretty divisive in the critical community. I found it enthralling and a clear eyed vision of the state of the union through the eyes of young people, who have come to expect so little from their country and their lives that getting high and selling pyramid scheme magazine subscriptions is something worth celebrating. Far from being the ‘poverty porn’ some have labelled it as, Arnold never asks us to feel sorry for these kids, instead filling her film with loud music and baked smiles, and allowing audiences to draw their own conclusions. It’s oddly celebratory, and I dug that uneasy approach. (By the way, American Honey opens in Victoria this Friday, October 21)

Best of the Rest: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki (dir. Juho Kuosmanen, Finland), Tanna (dir. Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, Australia), Being 17 (Andre Techine, France), Gimme Danger (dir. Jim Jarmusch, USA)

Thanks for following my coverage folks, and don’t forget I talk about movies pretty much constantly on Twitter @CineFileBlog.