The fifth annual Los Cabos International Film Festival began with a film about grief, and three days later ended with a film about grief.
This counts both for people who attended the Closing Night Gala and watched Viggo Mortensen in Captain Fantastic, and for me, whose final festival film was Manchester By the Sea. In between, throughout every film we watched and every interaction we had, grief pooled around our ankles like a mild but urgent annoyance—but, since those of us from America especially (though financiers and distributors and, in much smaller numbers, critics hailed too from Canada and the UK) were for the short-tem away from what had occurred in the short-dark hours between November 8th and November 9th, we could stay distracted, procrastinating on being sad. No matter whom anyone supported, no matter how anyone pretended, absolutely no one felt good about how everything played out.
A film that spends the whole of its run-time in mourning, Jackie opened the festival. It served as dreamy punctuation on a workmanlike Opening Gala, during which Roberto Prieto, who the festival referred to as “the Mexican master of light,” received a whale-shaped statue from Mexican director Carlos Carrera, recognizing Prieto’s contributions to world cinema. A tribute series showing Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street served as examples of said contributions. Festival Director Alonso Aguilar Castillo introduced the festival competition’s jury members, made up of Latin American film stalwarts such as the aforementioned Carrera, Ciro Guerra (director of Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpant), screenwriter Gibrán Portela, and Mexican critic Ernesto Diezmartínez, as well as entrenched festival figures like Cannes’ Charles Tesson and TIFF’s Cameron Bailey. Professionalism permeated—the festival meant business.
Literally: LCIFF was really geeked on what they’d prepared for their Marketplace section, in which industry folks and buyers and banks shopped around deals—a serious boon for Latin American films in dire need of exposure, especially when they’re typically overshadowed at more prominent international festivals—or attend seminars and panels roundtabling methods and ideas and habits for getting ahead. I didn’t attend any of these, but I did sit next to a financier on the flight from LAX to Cabo. He admitted casually that his company passed on the Swiss Army Man script back when Robert Pattinson was attached. “We didn’t think it would work,” he explained. I responded by saying that I thought it did, in the end. “I guess it doesn’t matter,” he said, trying to finish our conversation. The first film his company ever financed was Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage. “With Richard Gere,” I said excitedly. “With Richard Gere,” he confirmed. Four days later, we sat together on the way back to the U.S., though not on purpose.
So, barely 12 hours removed from the calling of Election Night in America for Donald Trump, with the festival’s people introduced and the press’s cameras hustled out—mostly local Mexican news and entertainment anchors—with half the room cleared, Jackie had its Latin American premiere.
Pablo Larraín’s latest film wallows. In myth-making, patriotism, loneliness, sympathy, in faith— Larraín strands Jackie in liminal space, denying the audience and its historical characters the relief of knowing whether such concepts are good or bad, whether they’re paths to or barriers in the way of actual progress. Following the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) drunkenly wanders the private quarters of the White House, chainsmoking, buoyed forward on both sides by the demands of planning an international spectacle of a funeral.
Though it wanders, sometimes aimlessly, it isn’t a slow film, or even ponderous, so much as it is Larraín’s approximation of a what it’s like to whole-sale spin out. The fulcrum to Jackie’s centrifugal pain, Stéphane Fontaine’s camera (he also shot, it’s worth noting, Captain Fantastic) abandons typical spatial or chronological cues, warping her grieving process into something that no sense of time or dimension or logic can get a grip on. The film follows in kind, floating from place to place, from time to time, trying to stay away from the undertoe sucking Jackie ever-inward toward the point at which everything ended for her and for the dynasty she was concocting—whether she knew it or not—a historic moment of tragedy, rendered in brief but graphic detail.
Maybe Larraín’s broadest revelation is that grief is an inherently selfish thing, and that mourning involves little more than pushing fiercely against the vortex of that realization. Maybe that’s not much of a revelation at all, but it felt for some of us, who spent maybe two hours in the fallout of one of our country’s most divisive political debacles, like a perfect kind of relief: No matter whom this past American election validates, benefits, hurts or even horrifies—granted, it didn’t seem like there were any Trump supporters in the press corps, let alone at the resort in which we all stayed—we all had reason to feel like shit.
But also: we were in Mexico, and the weather was gorgeous. If you’re there to watch movies and write about those movies, then LCIFF offers a suitable primer to the year’s—and North America’s—most talked-about festival favorites. That all of it is set within the shiny conclave of Cabo San Lucas, neon-lit by the lights of Señor Frog’s and the Cabo Wabo Cantina and the like, serving tourists the visual manifestation of, say, a Steve Aoki song, means that while sitting in dark rooms for four days is not conducive to the Cabo experience, the Cabo experience is not conducive to any real Mexican experience anyway. One can so bask in a general ignorance of Mexican culture that little can be legitimately gathered about what it actually meant to be an American in a place our President-elect has said sources out rapists and criminals.
And yet, everyone, Mexican journalists included, wanted to know what celebrities thought about the election. Monica Belluci, who was there to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award, was asked, and her non-response matched every one of her non-responses to the project on which she’s currently working, as well as to her involvement with the new Twin Peaks season.
Oliver Stone, at the festival to promote Snowden and bask in the validation of his own persistent relevance care of the festival’s Tribute (showing JFK and Salvador, along with his latest film, as evidence of his “undisputable” mastery of “America’s political cinema”) was obviously asked, especially by the Americans hoping he’d join the chorus and denounce what the Electorate hath wrought. As Tommy Cook from Collider details, his response was less than embraced, especially after he made it clear—as all of his movies have, actually—that he would never side with an administration (i.e., Clinton’s) which would strive to further strain relationships with such superpowers as Russia.
“I think Hillary Clinton’s endgame was a regime change in Russia and then a regime change in China… So with Trump, I hope, because he’s a businessman, he has the good sense [to] make a deal with Russia and then with China. I think that’d be better for everybody than this current situation of uncertainty and cyber warfare,” Stone said. When pushed for something less conciliatory, he got openly huffy: “You’re not really paying attention to what I was saying about where Clinton was at. So what could be worse? We’ll see. Stop getting hysterical about something that’s three or four months away. You understand what I’m saying. I don’t feel like you understood a word of what I said.”
Despite Stone’s feeling, language was never a problem at the festival. This meant that at the screening of Operation Avalanche, a Mexican teenager asked Director Matt Johnson, a Canadian, about his concerns regarding a Trump presidency. The question wasn’t uncalled-for: The film, a handheld, faux-documentary glimpse into the faking of the Moon landing, bears all the paranoia of any conspiracy-charged thriller. It’s also really, nimbly funny.
“We don’t believe the Moon landing was faked,” Johnson assured, “We just wanted to make a case for the media being able to do things like this. For some reason we’re very drawn to these themes of lies, of media tricks.”
In Avalanche, Matt Johnson plays Matt Johnson, a CIA agent who talks his way into an undercover gig at NASA, posing as a documentary filmmaker (which Johnson revealed was their actual method in making the film) to report back to the CIA Director the space agency’s progress on getting an astronaut onto the Moon. When Johnson discovers that NASA is too far behind technologically to beat the Soviets to the surface of the lunar rock, he concocts a plan to fake the landing, drawing inspiration from both Georges Méliès and Stanley Kubrick.
The film devolves seamlessly into bleak territory—though not after an electrifying car chase shot with a budget that’d make the Duplass brothers cry—winding down to a smirking, if nihilistic, note. American ambition, not idealism, wins out in the end. Yet, Johnson, balking at the Trump question, which specifically dealt with conspiracy theories surrounding the media boosting the President-elect into office, answered, “The idea of conspiracy theories I think are really catchy, and they are really easy ways to explain really complicated ideas.”
He relented, “I’m sure that there will be dozens of filmmakers and Americans who will be telling the story of that election, and being in Canada, our experience is not the same. So I’m looking forward to those films as well.”
Instead of asking Craig Robinson about the election, I asked him about the idea of “fitting in.” In Chad Hartigan’s Morris From America, earning its Mexican premiere at LCIFF after a long haul in the festival circuit, Robinson plays Curtis, a recent widower whose job moves him and his 13-year-old son, Morris (Markees Christmas), to a small town in Germany. Seemingly the only teenager in the whole country with a skin color darker than whole milk, Morris struggles through one social situation after another to feel anything but completely alienated from everyone around him. It’s a tender film, astute about the terrible, lonely weirdness of growing up. And, I thought, it’s a great, writerly parable for any person feeling preternaturally left out in this new paradigm of America.
“I don’t see it as much about ‘fitting in,’ as people working together,” Robinson told me. “With Curtis and Morris’s relationship, it’s like: Hey man, we’re the only two here, we’ve got to be here for each other. I need you to work with me so we can both kick ass.”
Much of my time in Mexico went like this: I ached for commiseration, and instead was greeted with nuance. Money was on the line, as it always is—most people eking out public careers don’t have the same safety net as, say, Dennis Quaid, who was there, chain-vaping, to promote his super-stupid Crackle series, The Art of More, and didn’t seem to care if anyone’d seen it—but so was decency. And not the kind of decency that is fundamentally incongruous with the “normalization” of Trump’s election, but the kind that understands that grief is often more about the person grieving than it is about the grieved.
No one was going to ask 10-year-old Canadian Jacob Tremblay for his position on America’s New World Order, but the kid still offered up what details he could about Burn Your Maps, the tearjerking Oscar-bait he was promoting at the festival. Starring in Jordan Roberts’ globe-trotting tale of an 8-year-old Wes who, for no discernible reason other than that he found a picture in a library book, decides that he is a Mongolian goat herder, Tremblay continues his streak as awards season’s go-to, capable cutie-pie. In turn, the film is perfectly tuned to trigger awards talk, pitting decent turns from Vera Farmiga, Martin Csokas and Suraj Sharma against Tremblay’s endlessly endearing Everyboy.
Farmiga and Csokas play Wes’s parents with admirable depth, believable in their marital troubles, and even more believable as partners who lost an infant daughter. Roberts can’t really help himself, though, and soon any subtlety to the family’s grieving process is thrown out as Wes is whisked to “Mongolia” (played by rural Ottawa, populated, as Tremblay revealed in his press junkets, by seemingly every single person of Mongolian descent in all of Canada) to discover himself or some shit. Roberts never much trusts that his audience will sense that Wes’s obsession is sparked by grief following the death of his baby sister, and that maybe that’s actually a terrible sign of severe emotional distress, so instead he uses Wes’s psychological malady to bring his parents together again. Roberts never seems to be able to key in on just how selfish the parents’ grief is, because he doesn’t seem to think that Wes’s weird fixation is a troubling thing, more concerned with making sure that Wes’s parents learn how important it is that they let go of their pain and start consummating their marriage again.
If Burn Your Maps is treacly, predictable, emotionally manipulative garbage, it still had everyone in the theater bawling. Including me. This should come as no surprise. We all needed to vent, I guess.
I cried often during the festival. Like during the Latin American premiere of Lion, Garth Davis’s feature debut as director, when by the end—in which the people from the “true story” on which it was based were filmed doing the thing the fictional versions of them did in the movie—the sniffles rising from every corner of the theater crackled in magnificent chorus. Lion is sumptuous, which should be expected from a director on Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake series, but it’s really only half of a compelling film, curiously both a solid example of some truly lean storytelling, and about 25 minutes too long.
If Lion doesn’t nab an Oscar nod, in other words, the whole system’s irrevocably lost its way. (Odds are in favor of this movie at present, though.) Largely spare and harrowing, the film’s first act is an often wordless trek across the heart of India, tracing the path of five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) after he’s accidentally orphaned in Kolkata, 1,500 km from his tiny village. Davis finds shot after shot of astounding depth, conveying incomprehensible scale in cahoots with striking, intimate moments of suffering and relief.
It’s only once an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) adopts Saroo and 20 years pass and the Hollywood stars take over that Lion loses all sense of mundanity, dragging its pace and its raw nerve into the toilet. But still, surrounded by people so touched by Saroo’s story they can’t help but fill a Mexican mall cineplex with open displays of sadness and tragedy and grief—for Saroo’s travails, for Saroo’s family’s waning hope over 20 years, for the fates of some of the people Saroo left behind—I found something familiar to hold onto.
Feeling alright, for a dose of some real perspective I caught the Mexican premiere of Terence Malick’s Voyage of Time, this one the long version narrated by Cate Blanchette (as opposed to Brad Pitt in Malick’s 60-minute cut). Birthed from the 20-minute sequence splitting The Tree of Life in two, Malick partners phantasmagoric CGI with digital footage of addicts scuffling amidst urban detritus and the Arab Spring in medias res. It’s an overblown film, as big as its ideas, as audacious as it is beautiful, but it’s also pointless: Apparently chronicling Life, from conception at the genesis of our Sun through to the end of all things, reality receding, returning to its origins—Malick both an ever-expanding universe denier and pretty clearly religious—Voyage of Time has little in the way of ideas. Life is symmetry; everything that rises must converge; consciousness destroyed the innocence of our baser animal instincts; drugs are bad; whatever—if, in the wake of an election which revealed the worst in American politics, writing about American film felt at its most futile, then, in the wake of a film which indulges the worst of an American filmmaking legend, there seems to be nothing really left to say. Impressively, the local middle schoolers who were implored to sit still and focus actually did, except for when one kid mimicked Blanchette’s repeated, “Oh, mother…,” which, c’mon, I was pretty much thinking the same thing.
Where Voyage of Time felt too unwieldy, Gabe Klinger’s Porto felt much too small, though just as indulgent. Marking both the film’s Mexican premiere and actor Anton Yelchin’s final appearance on screen, Klinger’s quiet melodrama maps out one passionate night in the coastal Portuguese city for Jake (Yelchin) and Mati (Lucie Lucas) before reality sets in and their lives continue in opposite directions. In love with itself more than with its characters or their emotions or, really, any ideas it has about behind human, Porto is a filmmaker-y film for filmmakers—alluding to the work of Jean Luc Godard and Chantal Akerman and a smorgasbord of European New Wave directors—and for beautiful people who consider their lives worthy of film. It’s hard to stomach.
Providing plenty for the dearly departed actor to chew on, but little for the audience to care much about, Porto, like Malick’s film, is deeply felt, crafted with remarkable clarity, and told with so little self-awareness it’s hard to imagine that Klinger could understand why no one could really give much of a shit about his shallow conversations and self-absorbed characters. If anything, it’s a reminder of the tragedy of losing Yelchin, and by extension the tragedy of losing so much else this year.
Worse was John Michael McDonagh’s War on Everyone, starring Michal Peña and Alexander Skarsgård as well-dressed, wit-spewing cops who extort criminals out of steady sums of money to supplement their meager salaries as public servants. Cue Donald Trump joke.
Coming from the director of Cavalry, McDonagh’s latest doubles down on the absurdity, coming up with some good bits—Peña making fun of a homeless teenager’s sign is worth admission—and giving a handsomely aging Paul Reiser a chance to use a racial epithet. Cue Mike Pence joke.
Worst, what happens when John Michael McDonagh tries to make a movie like his brother’s In Bruges is that he makes an exceptionally mean film—not nihilistic, mind, or even sad, just content admitting that might makes right. If you’re good enough at bitching, slapping, punching, fucking, assaulting, stealing and harassing your way through every inch of this world until the day you die, you’ll end up winning. Life is competition, and in the competition at the film festival, War on Everyone didn’t win anything.
Neither did any of the movies mentioned here. American Honey won the overall Competencia de Los Cabos award and the next morning, when we woke, the sun had still risen and a steady diet of Dos Equis for three days left us equipped to stave off hangovers after the festival’s Closing Night party, brought to you by Pepsi, ME Cabo and Jack Daniels.
But on that last day, watching Manchester By the Sea —maybe the reigning champ of festival favorites—I felt like I was given some relief. The film is exquisite, which is perhaps news to only those who haven’t seen Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, but it’s also hilarious and calm and so fucking precise, and none of this hasn’t already been said in other festivals’ reviews and thinkpieces and interviews—not to mention the uncommon minor miracle that every performance in the film is worth studying in the language of microgestures—but nothing that I read or heard could soundly prepare me for the way its climax extols the inevitable disappointment of grief.
Maybe we just aren’t strong enough to move forward, the film tells us, and I was ready to curl into the fetal position and go to sleep in the hushed embarrassment of that concession. Because no one in Mexico was waiting for the definitive hot take from the American press or Hollywood industry machine—not enough time had passed, and Americans were doing what we’ve always done: assuming people want to hear what we have to say. Manchester by the Sea—and movies like it, movies which help us empathize with the pain of so many others by showing how unbeatable life can be for all of us—shuts us up.
In the end, the Los Cabos International Film Festival is best measured in the variety of unseen Latin American talent it presents. To that extent, the festival is indispensable. Sebastián Hiriart’s Carroña was one of the best films I saw at the festival, a selection in the Los Cabos Goes to Cannes program and presented in-progress last year, and probably the darkest thing the festival had to offer. In it, a young Mexican couple attempt to jolt awake their waning relationship by absconding to Honduras and taking up surfing. As a hurricane-level storm approaches, a love triangle forms and, as matters turn violent, Apocalypse seems to be inevitable.
Beautiful and bleak, Carroña is what sticks with me from Los Cabos most. Not because it offered a tidy parallel to the looming doom that waited for many of us once we left the all-inclusive, worry-free compound of Los Cabos, but because it reminds me, back here in America, just how much disaster we have left to rebuild—and how all this grief has gotten us nowhere.
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. In the week since getting back from the festival, he still feels like someone died. You can follow him on Twitter if that sounds appealing to you.