Few film festivals can boast as many distractions as San Sebastian, in Spain's Basque Country. From the world-class cuisine (several of the world's best restaurants are here - the local McDonald's probably has a Michelin star), to the beautiful beaches and, ahem, sumptuous spas, it seems almost impossible to prioritise the viewing of films.
So it's just as well the San Sebastian Film Festival programmes up a storm of top titles to ensure the distractions can be kept in check. Festivities wrapped last week with the presentation of the Golden Shell award, the festival's top honour, to Peter Mullan's Neds, the tale of teenage gangs in working-class Glasgow. It's a rare British winner of the prize, which has gone to directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Terrence Mallick and Elia Kazan in previous years.
In addition to a stock of world premieres and festival favourites, titles that will no doubt be making headlines in the weeks and months to come, the festival also treated audiences to a retrospective of works of the late Don Siegel. The American helmer's classics, including Dirty Harry, Escape from Alcatraz and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, were screened as part of a programme of 36 of his shorts and features.
I took in just two of that sidebar. The first was The Black Windmill, starring Michael Caine and Donald Pleasence, one of Siegel's later works. A thriller about a British agent (Caine) whose son is kidnapped in a devilish plot that sees him implicated in the crime. It's not one of the director's finest and is let down by a slew of shoddy performances - including a lead from Caine that may be one of his worst - but the problems begin with the plot, which is far too convoluted and riddled with holes to really work.
Riddled with holes of a different kind, and far more enjoyable, was Baby Face Nelson. Released in 1957 and starring Mickey Rooney as the titular prohibition-era gangster, the film suffers from many of the clichés affecting early-era biopics - clip show storytelling, a preference for fiction over fact - but those quirks wind up making it all the more endearing. Rooney steals the show as Baby Face, and while I've not seen a great deal of his work, it's certainly one of his more memorable performances, particularly in scenes he shares with his moll Sue, played by Carolyn Jones.
In the main sections - the official selection and Zabaltegi sidebars - I stuck mostly to the small number of American offerings and was rather let down by the films that made it to San Sebastian. The first was Beautiful Boy, which promised real power on paper. Starring Michael Sheen and Maria Bello, it's the tale of parents who wake up to the news that their son (Kyle Gallner) has slaughtered dozens of students in a college shooting and taken his own life.
But while the premise suggests an intriguing analysis of parental grief mixed with outrage at their son's actions, the script never scratches the surface and all too often indulges in cliché and theatrics. What we're left with is an acting exercise for Bello and Sheen, who certainly have fun channelling raw emotions, but since the story is so weak we're never really caught up in it. And poor Kyle Gallner, who seems increasingly stuck playing the quiet creepy kid in any number of feature films.
Barney's Version provided more to latch onto, though it may not have won my heart entirely. It stars the always-engaging Paul Giamatti as TV producer Barney, recounting the details of his life as he reflects on the disappearance of his best friend Boogie (Scott Speedman). He's surrounded by an all-star cast including Rosamund Pike, Minnie Driver and Dustin Hoffman, and all have fun engaging with the charming comedy of the script, based on the novel by Mordecai Richler.
Rachelle Lefevre certainly made the right choice - you might remember this as the film that forced her to drop out of Twilight when Summit wouldn't change her Eclipse dates to allow her to do both. Hers is a small but powerful role in this, and she makes a big impact on the story.
Overall, though, the complexities of the plot mean the film doesn't quite come together. It's like an exceedingly unbelievable biopic in its course-of-a-life approach, but while the untrustworthy first person narrative of Richler's novel was its unique approach to the story - Barney remembers his life through the haze of Alzheimer's - in making the film necessarily more conventional, most of the book's potency is lost.
The most enjoyable film I saw at the festival wasn't American but rather Polish gangster film The Christening. The plot follows a young soldier (Tomasz Schuchardt) who reunites with an old friend preparing to christen his new baby. He nervously accepts the offer to be the baby's godfather, but soon realises that there's a darker reason for his friend's request.
Schuchardt puts one in mind of a young Matt Damon, in both looks and presence, as he commands the screen for most of the film. In the film's early moments he comes across as something of an innocent, but we soon learn of his dark past and his performance takes a powerful turn.
The film's finale ties in a little too neatly with its opening to feel natural, but that's a small complaint for what is ultimately a gripping and engaging drama. Here's hoping this is one foreign-language film to make an impact on audiences this year.
My time in San Sebastian was brief but plenty enjoyable, and the festival is certainly one of the most laid back and most pleasant of the ones on my calendar. I'm counting the days until next year's.