When you're used to plunging into film festivals at the 5-movie-a-day pace I try to maintain at SXSW, Telluride, and (when I'm lucky enough to go) Toronto, taking it easy at your hometown fest seems a little like dereliction of duty. It is also, in some ways, more rewarding: without constantly having to rush to the next show, I had some time to digest and reflect (as well as eat lunch and dinner which, unless you're at SXSW where the theaters feed you, is a festival luxury).
The best of the eight films I saw was Maren Ade's Everyone Else, which I reviewed here -- it won't likely come to your hometown, but you should look for it on DVD; it's a lock for my year-end top ten list. The second best was Vincenzo Natali's Splice, which our Kevin Kelly reviewed at Sundance. I could go on at length about it but won't; suffice it to say that while the genetic-experiment horror flick makes a fine creature feature it's also, like Natali's other films, a mesmerizing plunge into the vast unknown. There are plenty of genre filmmakers who are out to evoke terror and disgust, and a bunch more who have made tension and unease their stock-in-trade, but Natali is one of the very few (I can't think of another currently working) whose goal is to instill a sense of awe.
Splice was not the only movie at this year's SFIFF that concerned an oddly attractive female who shouldn't, by all rights, be walking the earth. Air Doll, from Japanese grandmaster Hirokazu Koreeda, is about a blow-up sex doll that magically comes to life and goes traipsing about Tokyo looking for love, identity, and the meaning of life. The movie is a wistful departure for Koreeda, who's known for languid character dramas like Nobody Knows and Still Walking. It's not, sadly, a positive one; Air Doll is too cute, too long, and too enamored of its own cleverness to actually acknowledge that it's a movie about a blow-up sex doll that comes to life -- a fact that other characters treat like no big deal, just another day at the office. Mileage may vary if you're more tolerant of self-satisfied quirkiness than I am.
Back on the genre film end of things, I checked out Bodyguards and Assassins, last year's expensive, elaborate martial arts epic starring Donnie Yen and set in 1906 Hong Kong, in the thick of the Chinese fight for independence. The problem with the film is summed up in an incisive IMDb user comment, which complains, forlornly: "I came to see ass kicking." Indeed. The movie does eventually get there, with Donnie Yen and co-star Leon Lai both partaking in some impressive bone-crunching action. But this is a reward for sitting through well over an hour of convoluted, lovingly assembled, but undistinguished and kind of boring historical detail. For hard-core ass-kickery fans only.
Similarly not for everyone, though quite a bit stronger from where I'm sitting, was I Am Love, an Italian film starring Tilda Swinton (who speaks not a word of English in it). By all means do take that insanely pompous title at face value; in fact, whether the title repels you is probably a pretty good predictor of whether the movie will have the same effect. It's a lush, fevered melodrama set among a group of Italian aristocrats, who fall in and out of love, come out of the closet, offend patrician sensibilities in various ways, etc. With an over-the-top orchestral score, steamy sex scenes, and a big climactic plot twist involving soup, it's a caveat-emptor kind of movie, and more high pulp than high art. But if you love a good soap opera, as I do, you'll be wanting to seek it out.
Finally, the festival honored writer, producer, and frequent Ang Lee collaborator James Schamus with one of those mystifying lifetime-achievement-type awards that smaller festivals like to give out to entice attendance by big names (though Schamus is certainly deserving regardless). Following the on-stage interview, the festival screened the 160-minute director's cut of Ang Lee's 1999 Civil War film Ride with the Devil, which Schamus wrote. With the caveat that I've never seen the original cut, I have to say I find the lukewarm original reception for the film -- which is ceaselessly engaging, beautifully shot, and morally thorny -- rather odd. Hopefully the new cut (which recently got a Criterion DVD release, and which Schamus claims has a better rhythm and moves faster than the theatrical edit) will reignite some interest in what might be Lee's most underrated movie.