SBIFF 2015: Festival Diary

I had a grand time at this year's 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival. I spent 7 days watching and discovering wonderful, excellent films from new and established filmmakers from all over the world. I saw 30 films and some of them were masterpieces. Many of them great films. Even those that i did not like offered something to ponder on, be curious about.... Am missing the festival already!

This is my 2nd year of going to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Last year, I only stayed for two days but this year I planned on staying for one whole week (and i did!) I arrived Saturday evening and attended my first movie at 10AM on Sunday, February 1.  

This is my diary from the festival containing all the 30 movies i saw (each with my brief review.) The standouts for me were THEEB, the beautiful and thrilling adventure-drama from Qatar, the thought-provoking THE FAREWELL PARTY, about a group of friends who banded together and built a mercy-killing machine from Israel, and the riveting adaptation 12 CITIZENS from China.

I also enjoyed CARMEN'S KARMA, an endearing and thoroughly entertaining character study from Argentina about a thirtysomething woman's travails in life, and HIP HOP-ERATION, the charming and rousing documentary from New Zealand about a group of old people (with artificial hips!) who formed a hip-hop dance group and performed at the world championship in Las Vegas.

The Boss, Anatomy of a Crime (El Patron, Radiografia de un Crimen)
Rating: 5 Stars!
This is a beautiful film about an illiterate butcher who snaps one day and kills his abusive boss in cold blood, in broad daylight and in front of countless witnesses. It's a thoughtful film that attempts to show us the humanity in every accused murderer while at the same time presents to us the harrowing abuses poor folks have to endure from men who exploits their simpleness and poverty. The filmmaking here is excellent, methodical and the close-up shots of meat being cut, grounded, chopped serve as a stark reminder of the raw and delicate nature of man. 

Rating: 4 ½ Stars. 
See full review here:

(South Korea)
Rating: 3 Stars.
This is a story of three lifelong friends who bonded together after a life-threatening incident in their youth. Their friendship would be put to a test later after a botched arson resulted in the death of the mother of one of them. The movie is elegantly photographed but it is hampered by a weak narrative and a melodramatic treatment in the middle. An attempt to provoke massive audience outburst at the end of the movie unfortunately backfires. 

Young Tiger (Bebe Tigre)
Rating: 4 Stars.
This is an interesting and unsentimental film about an underage Indian immigrant who was smuggled to Paris in hopes of finding work to help his impoverished family in India. The film attempts to call attention to the growing problem of human smuggling in France with children becoming virtual modern-day slaves. The story is fictional but the filmmakers use of non-actors for the main characters lends the film a realistic and gritty atmosphere. 

The Last Five Years
Rating: 5 Tearful Stars.
My first favorite film of the festival is this Richard LaGravenese's adaptation of the hit broadway musical of the same name! It's a wonderful, wonderful film about the five years in the lives of two lovers told stylistically from opposing perspectives -- him in forward chronology and her in reverse... the final scene, when their first and last goodbyes are combined together in one song, you will be shattered and heartbroken! Leads Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan are amazing, fantastic actors and their voices, just perfect! 

Theeb (Wolf)
(Jordan, Qatar, UAE, UK)
Rating: 5 Super Stars.
See full review here:

(South Korea)
Rating: 5 Stars.
This is an explosive South Korean film based on real events. It tells of the struggle by a group of female grocery workers in Seoul after they were unlawfully terminated because they attempted to form a union. It is quite powerful and reminds one of the kind of movies about social injustices that were popular during the 70s in Hollywood and if you are a Filipino movie buff and misses the kind of movies that the late great National Artist Lino Brocka used to make -- the kind that infuses commercial filmmaking with heavy social issues to great success-- this movie is a must-see! 

Day Release (Tercer Grado)
Rating: 4 Stars.
This is a suspenseful crime-thriller from Spain. It's about a parolee who gets a day pass after 5 years in prison only to witness a brazen and violent robbery. I will not offer any more details about the plot so as not to spoil the movie but let me just emphasize that it is one riveting film that would make Liam Neeson beg to make a remake of. Minus a few plot contrivances this film is an excellent thriller that delivers the goods! 

Songs She Wrote About People She Knows
Rating: 3 ½ Stars.  
This is a quirky film about a woman who discovers a way to express her true feelings to people she knows by writing them songs (this is not a Taylor Wwift biopic, sorry, Haha!) and the result is decidedly uproarious. Why? because her songs are horrible and her singing just atrocious. The film is a hit-or-miss affair but fortunately there are more hits than misses. 

Rating: 4 Stars
See full review here:

Cesta Ven (The Way Out)
(Czech Republic)
Rating: 5 Stars
This is a powerful but utterly grim film about the lives of the marginalized Roma gypsies in the Czech Republic. At its core is the story of a young wife and mother who just couldn't get a break. But the movie also gives us a glimpse into the challenges the Romas have to deal with every fucking (Apologies, the depiction of the struggles of the Romas in the movie will just make you shout expletives) day. From dire poverty to the discrimination they have to endure, the Romas try to survive; they try to thrive but until when are they gonna persist? Until when are they gonna fight? There isn't just an easy way out it seems... I love how the narrative was structured and i just love how the director just ended the movie; nothing is resolved, nothing is explained. Nothing, there's just nothing! Like the real lives of the real people that the characters represent, their lives seems to just run in cycles of poverty, of discrimination, of despair.

(New Zealand)
Rating: 5 Joyful Stars
This feel-good (extremely feel-good!!!) and exhilarating doc from New Zealand about a group of geriatrics from a small island off Auckland who have had hip replacements and who took up hip-hop dancing as therapy --- and they end up at the world hip-hop championships in Las Vegas is one of the pleasant joys I have ever had at this festival! 
The movie is brimming with infectious energy that I was just completely filled with overwhelming joy watching it! And, of course, tears (tears of joy, that is) flowed freely! The audience must have applauded for some 30 seconds after the movie ended! I would not be surprised if this wins the Audience Award for documentary.

Rating: 4 ½ Stars.
This is disturbing and chilling psychological thriller from France. It is an exploration into the psyche of a criminal. The exposition is breathtaking and the filmmaking lyrical. Jean-Jacques Lelte plays Pierre, the lead character with ruthlessness and intensity of a cold-blooded serial killer and a surprising tenderness and aloofness of a lover in love. You are not a sick person if you find yourself enjoying this movie. It is very well-made and it deserves to be seen. 

They Have Escaped (He Ovat Paenneet)
Ratings: 4 Stars
This is contemporary fairy tale about two teenaged misfits who decided one day to escape from their "forced" confinements to search for a fabled treasure hidden somewhere. Their escape takes them literally into the woods and into the wild, into a new world where they can roam unconstricted and free. The filmmaking in this movie is fabulous. The director employs various ways to enhance the fantasy element of the film -- from how the scenes are staged, how the cameras are used to the music and score used. There is a specially memorable sequence halfway through the movie when the two main characters shed their clothes, run wildly naked across and island refuge that they discovered and when they eventually don the stuffed animals they found in a cottage. 

(United Kingdom)
Rating: 4 Stars
This is a strangely erotic British comedy-drama about a mother and a daughter who are trying to resolve their differences in a commune patterned after the tribe of Bonobo monkeys of Africa and where free and uninhibited sex is part of the problem-solving process. The film offers ample scenes of nudity but never too gratuitous and the ultimate takeaway from the movie is that it's not about forcing solutions to any problem but about just trusting one's instinct to follow what your conscience and your heart dictates... Great and promising directorial debut from Matthew Hammet Knott!

12 Citizens
Rating: 5 Stars
This excellent remake rivals the original for its intensity and passion. The setup is almost the same, there's a crime and twelve men are assigned to determine whether the accused is guilty of the crime or not. What differs from the original is the way the screenwriter transferred the setting to a Chinese city and infused the narrative with local issues. The performances by the entire cast are amazing and incredible. The resolution of the case is almost an afterthought because we all get so engrossed with the personal dramas each of the jurors brought to the room. The final sequence, a twist, if you will, further strengthened the film and gave it a power that makes it a uniquely chinese story based on an American tale. 

One Night in Oslo
Rating: 4 Stars
This movie tells an absorbing story about two immigrant best friends in Oslo on the eve of the Constitution day in Norway. It details the contrast in their characters when a conflict arises between them. This film shows us how the youth in Oslo could act immaturely, impulsively and sometimes violently similar to other youths in other parts of the world. They are not special although they appear angelic compared to the kids in Larry Clark's highly-inflammatory movies about growing-up in America.

The Chambermaid Lynn (Daz Zimmermadchen Lynn)
Rating: 3 ½ Stars.
This erotic drama is about an obsessive compulsive hotel chambermaid who derives a strange pleasure by laying under the bed and peeping on the hotel guests. On one occasion, she witnesses an S&M act and becomes obsessed with the dominatrix she saw. She later strikes a friendship with the dominatrix (sexual, of course) and she is forced to examine her true nature and what really ails her. It's a wickedly interesting film that drags a bit in the middle but still satisfies in the end.

Kebab & Horoscope
Rating: 3 ½ Stars.
This is a dramedy about a recently fired horoscope writer who teams up with a former waiter in a restaurant that serves kebab after his horoscope told him to leave his job. The duo passed themselves off as "Marketing Specialists" and worked in a crumbling carpet store with the promise to bring in more sales. The setup is rife with lots of comedic opportunities but the dramatic arc of the characters mostly overwhelmed the narrative making one think that sometimes the saddest movies are those that present itself off as a comedy --- and that is a compliment.

The Farewell Party
Rating: 5 Stars

This is a grand comedy about old age, dying and death. It's about a group of friends who banded together and created a mercy-killing machine to help their dying and terminally-ill friends transition. The movie has the perfect balance of clever comedy and tender moments of drama. It's a wonderful, thought-provoking film that invites reflection on what is really the consequence of death -- to the dying and to those left behind.

La Pantalla Desnuda (The Naked Screen)
Rating: 4 Stars
This film details the fall-out of a sex scandal in a small town involving two young college sweethearts. The narrative style is melodramatic and writer-director Florence Jaugey skillfully navigates the intricate nuances of the story and gives us an involving and insightful cautionary tale of the dangers when modern technology and age-old envy collides. I would have loved to give this movie a 5-star rating had it given the character of Octavio an opportunity to realize the mistake he's made. When a movie is plot-driven, I require it to have an ending that anchors the plot.

A Hard Day
(South Korea)
Rating: 4 Stars
This riveting and suspenseful film from South Korea tells the story of a corrupt cop who on the night of his mother's death accidentally runs over a homeless man. How he disposes the body is something quite clever. But as title suggests, that is not the end of the story. Days after his mother's burial, he starts receiving mysterious calls from someone who alleges to have witnessed his crime and is now blackmailing him to produce the body. The movie is intensely thrilling. The narrative is not devoid of eyebrow-raising coincidences but it does not deter the audience from thoroughly enjoying the chase up to the very, very, satisfying end.

El Cordero (The Lamb)
Rating: 5 Stars
This is an excellent character story about a devout catholic man who can't seem to reconcile his guilt and his conscience after he accidentally kills a coworker. His deep faith wants him to punish himself more than what regular penance could provide. To make amends, he goes on a series of increasingly dangerous and violent acts to "redeem" himself but only to find himself even more less remorseful. The film is a masterful examination on the true virtue of faith and the promise of God's infinite grace when we offer full contrition of our sins.

Rating: 5 Stars
This leading Oscar contender for Best Documentary is a compelling and riveting film about the tense days prior to the release of one of the most explosive exposes against the American government ever. It details the one week that filmmaker Laura Poitras and investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald spent interviewing Edward Snowden in a Hongkong hotel. It works like a thrilling spy movie with real world implications at hand. The narrative does not feel forced and even if in the end you end up questioning the motives of Snowden and the filmmakers, you still can not help but applaud the incredible film that they have created. I have always been skeptical of Snowden's intention and this movie did not dissuade me from it in any way. It presented what it claims to be facts and it made for a thrilling movie experience. 

Rating: 3 Stars
This is a rather disappointing French character drama about a passive security guard who is trying to become a nurse. He gets by despite being bullied everyday by a gang of kids at work and being unable to completely commit himself to the girl he likes. The movie is almost plotless and could have used more action to be more engaging. Lead actor Reda Kateb delivers a strong and commendable performance.

Maps to the Stars
Rating: 3 ½ Stars.
Finally got to see this much-buzzed David Cronenberg Hollywood satire. It started very strongly with a classic soap-style setup but it eventually collapses under its own lofty ambitions. Like the culture that it is trying to dissect, the film becomes a victim as well as it horribly, horribly crashes down from its celestial promise to the dust of its failure. The performances are strong (Julianne Moore is better here than in "Still Alice") but the depiction of Hollywood as incestuous, fake, conniving, mad, insane would have been shocking and powerful had we not seen the rise of the Kardashians. But the movie is hugely entertaining though -- only it's not the masterpiece i had hoped it would be.

Rating: 3 Stars
This is a low-budget sci-fi about a reclusive scientist and his robot creation. It is designed to be a thriller but it did not work for me somehow. The premise is simple. A journalist is commissioned to do a profile on one of the most reclusive scientists in the world. Together with Adam, the advanced Robot, they spend one week in a loft above Los Angeles interviewing and touring the curiously bare laboratory/apartment. The movie spend a good part of its running time setting up the one big plot twist in the end. I will not spoil it here but it is quite obvious from the first scene. If you find yourself falling into the deception, then you will enjoy this film. This one gets a rating of 3 stars because I promised myself not to give a rating lower than 3 to any movies screening at a film festival out of respect to the filmmakers and artists who worked hard on their films.

El Karma De Carmen (Carmen's Karma)
Rating: 5 Stars
This is a hugely entertaining character study from Argentina. The story, told in the guise of a romantic-comedy, is about Carmen, a thirty-something single woman who is relatively content about her status in life until she is forcibly matched by her brother to a friend who just ended a relationship. It's incredibly funny and witty! It touches on the choices we all make that determines our definition of happiness and contentment. Quite superb! This will make a great Hollywood remake starring Kristin Wiig! 

Amor, Etc
Rating: 4 ½ Stars.
This is an intimate drama about a young couple's disintegrating relationship. It's an involving examination of the stages of a love affair, from the flirtatious first days and the awkward first few weeks to the eventual heartbreaks that lead sometimes to separation. In an art film, the title pretty much suggests the fate of the couple's relationship. No more spoilers. The performances and the onscreen chemistry from the two leads are amazing! 

The Judgment
Rating: 5 Stars.
This is a gripping and moving film about a poor and recently widowed father who resorts to smuggling illegal immigrants to make ends meet for him and his son. The story shares some similarities in plot to the American film "Frozen River" but stands out on its own with a subplot about a murder committed decades before representing a different wave of migration. The lead actor's performance is simply marvelous!

The festival concluded last Saturday. The winning movies were announced on Saturday morning. You can find the winners list here.

Hope to see you at the festival next year!

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