Though Portland, Oregon, has upped its cultural caché considerably in the past decade, we’re still missing a lot when it comes to foreign films. Music, food, beer, literature: we’ve got these facets of culture down pat, but as far as film is concerned—both access to and infrastructure behind the making of—Portland is still in its infancy.
Enter the Northwest Film Center, whose mission, since 1971, has been to encourage the residents of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska to foster a culture of film appreciation and progressivism in their communities. Together, the Center hopes, we can cast the Pacific Northwest as a fertile, inviting locale for filmmakers and film buffs alike.
Now in its 38th year, the Portland International Film Festival is the Film Center’s foremost foray into providing locals with the variety of foreign films that cities like New York or L.A. enjoy almost as a matter of fact. Nick Bruno, Publicity & Promotions Manager at the Center, explains the purpose behind the fest: “While the educational component is most public facing in the work that we do at our School of Film, the exhibition schedule comes from a place of wanting to expose local and regionally-based audiences to cinematic experiences that would otherwise be unavailable to the Portland Metro area.”
This goes a long way to describe the tenor of the festival, which, mostly bereft of special events or workshops or press panels attended by lugubrious industry personnel, places value on access above all. “Our focus is on showcasing world class work for audiences,” says Bruno. “We’re not a market festival, so the de-emphasis on the industry itself allows us a fair amount of leeway when it comes to gathering the best possible films for each year’s lineup, rather than having to deal with the politics that emerge when running a festival where wheeling and dealing threaten to overtake the art on display.”
Kicking off with an opening night showing of Damián Szifron’s Oscar-nominated Wild Tales, PIFF spent nearly three full weeks exposing the City of Portland to over 140 hand-picked films from around the world: shorts and features both, covering animation, family-friendly yarns, mockumentaries and a whole bunch of submissions for the Foreign Language Oscar, a stark majority of which still are without U.S. distribution.
This, apparently, is what we want here: the simple chance, in and of itself, to see films we can typically only read about, played at some of our favorite local spots, like Cinema 21, the Fox Tower, the Moreland Theater and the Roseway Theater. The fact that a record 40,000 viewers attended is clear evidence of PIFF’s curatorial success. While a slim few showings were followed by Q&As with directors—Portland’s own Marah Strauch spoke of the long process of befriending one of the subject’s behind her audience award-winning base jumping documentary Sunshine Superman, and Juan Carlos Maldivia attempted to lend some clarity to his oneiric travelogue Yvy Maraey, Land Without Evil—the festival is, more than anything, a cherished glimpse at what the world happens to be up to when it comes to the concerns of cinema.
In that sense, a number of themes proliferated throughout PIFF. Most salient, it seems, is that of anxiety surrounding the end of the world. From the pre-apocalyptic ruin of 1970s Northern Ireland to the post-apocalyptic world of water imagined in 2030, no other feeling so unified the vast array of festival films than the overwhelming fear of total worldwide collapse. In fact, two other films (that we know of) were concerned with Noah-like flooding—one (Corn Island) painstakingly observing loss, and one (The Japanese Dog) wondering if we will ever be able to rebuild.
In all, the festival is invaluable to Portland, and should be hugged with both pale arms by any cinephile in the area. Attempting to cover as much ground as we could, we definitely missed a whole lot (regrettably: Conducta, The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Gabe Polsky’s Red Army and Human Capital), but we were still able to catch some exceptional highlights.
So, in order to celebrate the versatility of PIFF and show the Northwest Film Center just how much we appreciate what they do, here are our personal Top 15 favorites.
A much-loved Italian television personality—think Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert here in the States—Pierfrancesco Diliberto (nicknamed Pif) made his feature debut by writing and directing the destined-to-be-a-hit The Mafia Kills Only in the Summer. A bit of a Forrest Gump-ish chrono-travelogue of the Cosa Nostra’s rise to Sicilian ubiquity in the 1970s, the film distills practically every mafia-related tragedy of the time through the lifelong love story of Arturo (Alex Bisconti as young Arturo; Pif as adult Arturo) and his schoolmate Flora (Ginevra Antona; Cristiana Capotondi). Though Pif’s sprawling meta-fiction spars too often with farce, threatening to derail the weightier points he’s making, what he’s able to accomplish in total is something Forrest Gump just hosed down with melodrama. The Mafia Kills Only in the Summer is a testament to innocence—to believing that optimism and humor and hope are still possible, even when civil society seems ready to come apart at the seams.
Andreas Prochaska; Germany
The term “German western” isn’t exactly a common one, but Andreas Prochaska’s violent, stylized revenge film is a convincing relocation of the genre—with overt, what-turn-out-to-be-forgivable debts to Leone and Peckinpah. Instead of the parched dirt streets of the Wild West, we get the snowcapped Alps, where the tyrannical Brenner family—seriously, they’re all raging dicks—has bullied the residents of a sleepy valley town into submission. A man on a horse known as “the stranger” (Sam Riley) arrives in the village under the auspices of photographing the region with his fancy new daguerreotype. Of course, shooting of one kind becomes another soon enough—that, and other inventive delivery methods of death. Cast in deep shadows and stark color contrasts, the German-Austrian production is absolutely gorgeous, and Riley (Maleficent, On the Road) is terrific as a man of few words and copious payback.
Hans Petter Moland; Norway
Like Fargo—a film which shares in the stark whiteness of a snow-bleached landscape, eking out a particular corner of humanity’s own little tabula rasa—In Order of Disappearance is a certifiable “black” comedy. What sets it apart from the American tale (other than Moland’s allegiance to Tarantino as much as to the Coens) is that this grim, brisk thriller finds at its core a darkness as opaque as the gravity-slurping middle of a black hole. That black hole is obviously death—the center around which the film revolves, each murder one more push of centripetal force, the whole plot spiraling into a nihilistic conclusion. While Disappearance is overt about its themes—revenge, responsibility, fatherhood, masculinity—it rarely reserves breath for any form of judgment, instead just sort of watching as an upstanding Norwegian citizen (the always great Stellan Skarsgård) works his bloody way up the food chain to figure out who’s behind his son’s death. Sleazebags with stupid ponytails abound, and everyone pretty much gets what’s coming to him, whether one’s sins are still fresh or long ago buried beneath the snow. And then there’s a final shot (fueled by a demise that also echoes Fargo’s climax) which is so unbelievably goofy it may throw into question the entire film you just watched. In a good way…I think.
Minh Nguyen-Vo; Vietnam
A post-apocalyptic landscape grounds—make that waters—this noir, set in a near future where climate change and rising water levels have set the world adrift. A happily married couple live on their houseboat, surviving on the potted veggies they grow and the fish and fresh rainwater they manage to catch. When a seeming accident claims the husband’s life, his wife takes a job at a neighboring floating farm, which just so happens to be owned by her ex. Writer-director Minh Nguyen-Vo takes her time establishing this dystopian way of life, its daily routine set against panoramic vistas of incredible beauty. There’s an elegiac lyricism at work here, perhaps too much so; Nguyen-Vo straddles a fine line between measured and “meh,” and sometimes the approach, which includes flashbacks of varying success, is simply not enough. Pacing issues aside, 2030 melds sci-fi and eco-commentary in a visually stunning, if slow-going, melodrama.
Tudor Cristian Jurgiu; Romania
A whisper of a film, The Japanese Dog, like its pre-programmed namesake, never leaves the side of elderly Romanian landowner Costache (Victor Rebengiuc). As the man puts his life back together following the loss of his wife and nearly all of his belongings in a spate of recent floods, director Jurgiu holds at a distance, marveling at how easy it can be for Costache to become lost in the imposing landscape, painting the nature of southern Romania as both attractive and forever uninterested in human affairs. To shake up the monotony of rebuilding his home, Costache’s estranged son Ticu (Serban Pavlu) and his family visit; together they slowly do their own rebuilding, forging new bonds in place of those long ago severed, helping Ticu’s seven-year-old son realize he can have a worthy grandfather if only they each let go of years of resentment. When Ticu leaves to return to Japan, all that’s left is a robotic toy, the titular dog that represents the life—and love—that exists outside of Costache’s miserably short-sighted plot of land. Like some forgotten Ozu joint, The Japanese Dog is a casually beautiful reminder that life is best endured when one looks up from the mess of tragedy to find a little perspective.
Giorgi Ovashvili; Georgia
Georgia’s submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, Corn Island is just that: a film resigned to the borders of its own utility, a full life that begins and ends within a season—before, with biblical fervor, the waters come again. At its outset, a title card tells us that every spring, on the Inguri River between Georgia and the rebel Republic of Abkhazia, flooding brings in fertile silt from the Caucasus, creating mini-havens for prime crop growth. If the peasants of the war-torn region are lucky, they can claim one such island for their own, harvesting just enough corn to last the winter. This is all we know, and from there an old farmer (Ilyas Salman) discovers a suitable island, settles it, seeds it and builds a makeshift home for him and his teenage granddaughter (Mariam Buturishvili). Throughout, as the island grows into its own, so does the granddaughter, craving attention from her protective grandfather while confusingly toying with the attention of the young, horny soldiers cruising up and down the river. Little is said throughout the film, itself a timeless no-man’s land of cinematic claustrophobia, yet in less than two hours, director Ovashvili and cinematographer Elemer Ragalyi photograph the small island with such respect for detail and the rigors of hard labor, that by the end we feel as if we too—like the grandfather at the end of the harvest, or like the granddaughter on the cusp of adulthood—are leaving our home behind.
Joshua Oppenheimer; Denmark
Like The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion film—the syntactically similar The Look of Silence—asks you to contemplate the literal meaning behind its title. Again returning to Indonesia, a country languishing in the anti-communist genocides of the 1960s, Oppenheimer this time sets his eye on Adi, a middle-aged optician whose brother was murdered by the men who were the focus of the first film, people today treated as local celebrities. Without question, the film is an interrogation of what it means to watch—as those who led the genocides; as those who are loved ones of those who led the genocides; as those who must repress the anger and humiliation of living beside such people every day; and, most palpably of all, as those of us who are distant observers, left with little choice but to witness such horror in the abstract. As in its predecessor, Oppenheimer’s patience and ability to acquaint himself intimately with the film’s subjects make for one gut-scraping scene after another—the sight of Adi’s 100+ year-old father, especially, is harrowing: blind and senile, the man is abjectly terrified as he scoots around on the floor, flailing and screaming that he’s trapped, having no idea where, or when, he is. Yet, moreso than in The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer here demands our undivided attention, forcing us to confront his quiet, sad documentary with the notion that seeing is more than believing—to see is to bear responsibility for the lives we watch.
Signe Baumane; Latvia
“In this crazy world, how do you heal the mind?”, asks Signe Baumane’s ballsy look—she calls it “fun”—at depression. “Fun” may be pushing it, but there’s a surreal whimsy to this animated (yep) self-examination of Baumane and five women in her family. The writer-director-animator-narrator traces the life of her grandmother, whose struggles with mental illness followed her through eight children, the Great Depression and various invasions in her native Latvia. As Baumane considers her gene pool, which includes cousins of similar psychological afflictions, she crafts a laudable, dare-we-say-enjoyable portrait of depression—and, it should be noted, the accompanying gender stigma. Her over-enunciated Latvian accent and cadence call to mind a bedtime story, aided by a blend of hand-drawn and stop-motion animation, as well as a delicate score. Don’t let the film’s supreme sense of irony fool you; Rocks in My Pockets is achingly sincere, neither patronizing nor shying away from the realities of the disease. It’s smart, sad and often hilarious.
Christian Petzold; Germany
They don’t get more heartbreaking than Christian Petzold’s post-WWII drama, in which a disfigured concentration camp survivor (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin, her face having undergone appearance-altering reconstructive surgery, to find her husband—who may have been the person to have turned her in to the Nazis. Even more wrenching, hubby Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), noting a resemblance but not recognizing wife Nelly, asks her to pose as his believed-dead spouse to cash in on her inheritance. The tragedy turns back on itself as Nelly plays house, and is taught how to essentially play herself, at great sacrifice to what’s left of memories of what and whom she (thought she) knew—herself included. Petzold muse Nina Hoss is remarkable as the scarred Nelly, desperate to regain some sense of normalcy, even if that means pretending with the last person on earth she should have to. You won’t forget this one anytime soon.
Oliver Assayas; Germany/France/Switzerland
Probably the festival’s highest-profile pick next to Wild Tales, Clouds of Sils Maria is a lyrical catch-all of the many half-notions that accompany getting older—especially if you’re a celebrity. Decay, loss of memory, insecurity, arrogance: Assayas boils these monolithic themes down to a near-pyrrhic partnership between an aging French actress (Juliette Binoche) and her American assistant (Kristen Stewart), following their commingling of generations (and cultural heritages) as they traipse through one fiction after another. With a younger figure of stardom flitting throughout the mix—Chloe Grace Moretz as the undoubtedly talented but disastrous representative of the Internet Age—playing the foil to Binoche’s ideas of relevance, the film rarely adheres to a consistent structure or confident reality. Instead, the core of Clouds of Sils Maria is a single feeling, encompassed within a single image. In the titular clouds, which are only observable at certain times, under certain conditions, there is the intuition that there is so much else in this world to see. And the film aches with this sentiment, that no matter what we accomplish, we will always miss out on something equally worth accomplishing: some other dress to wear, some other star to fuck, some other part to play. Such, Assayas claims, is the bitter sweetness of life.
Taika Waititi; New Zealand
Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement co-stars in and co-directs this clever mockumentary about the banal bummers of the afterlife, when vampires stop being polite and start getting real. As “documented” by a camera crew, Clement and collaborator Taika Waititi (Boy) share a flat with fellow bloodsuckers who, when they aren’t bickering over dish duty and rent, are schooling a green new vamp—who in turn brings the centuries-old creatures into the technology age. The New Zealand-made horror-comedy is deeply self-aware, reveling in its silly practicalities: It’s tough to go clubbing when your undead identity requires that you be invited inside. When you’ve got nothing but time, the mundane becomes even more ridiculous, and Shadows’ way with the absurd is spot-on. (And that’s before we meet a pack of smug rivals who refuse to lower themselves to “swearwolves.”) What the genre- and cliché-bending film lacks in plot it more than makes up for in tongue-in-cheek charm. Who would’ve thought vampires were such dorks?
Alê Abreu; Brazil
The Boy and the World, like any should-be classic of kids’ cinema, is laced with images of pure, incomprehensible terror. Nearly wordless, it’s also a subcutaneous wonder: heartbreaking and sumptuous and sometimes so gorgeous you feel like you should weep in appreciation, at near microscopic levels The Boy and the World excels. As Cuca, our eponymous boy—defined mostly by his Charlie Brown head and infectious giggle—is literally swept up on a hallucinogenic journey, political iconography and economic devastation gradually devour the vibrant, weird colors that define his idyllic home. Your kids probably won’t recognize the fascistic implications of Abreu’s designs—which culminate in an actual battle between the pitch-black Reichsadler and a rainbow phoenix (birthed, of course, from the music of the oppressed lower classes)—but the feeling he wants to give them is easy enough to understand. The World may be a big and scary place, he admits, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less amazing.
Yann Demange; United Kingdom
Tim Grierson already detailed this apocalyptic vision of our pre-apocalyptic past, how well Demange’s account of the conflict in Northern Ireland bleeds so much syrupy grey over everything we seem to think we know about that time in that part of the world. Yet, it’s worth reiterating what a vision that is: dressed like a grainy zombie flick or an end-of-the-world bit of ruin porn, ’71 is a thriller with no pay-off, exciting if it weren’t for the dread carried through ever pungent moment. Jack O’Connell plays Gary, a soldier like any other, survival maintained mostly through luck and the meager kindness of strangers. He’s a cipher, Gary is, the beloved Everyman to which we cling; that, after only 20 minutes in, we feel as terrified for him as he seems to be for himself, is more than a director masterfully toying with our expectations—it’s the realization that terror of this sort is just an indelible part of who, or what, we are as a species crammed onto this too-small planet.
Lisandro Alonso; Denmark/Argentina
Lisandro Alonso’s latest is a bravura, Wenders-esque western, an epic meditation of man in nature and man among men and, conversely—or perhaps simultaneously—a dangerously sprawling, self-important art film. Shot in peculiar, old-timey 4:3 aspect ratio, complete with the rounded corners akin to a still camera, Jauja stars Viggo Mortensen, who also co-produced and composed the score, as a late 19th century Danish captain in the Patagonian desert. While on the lookout for his recently eloped teenaged daughter, Mortensen’s character sinks deeper into both his hostile surroundings and an existential crisis. As with his previous work, Los Muertos, Alonso turns a hoped-for father-daughter reunion into a journey through the end of civilization. It’s methodical and transcendent—bear with the languorous pace, and the eye starts to see and process the truncated screen differently. By the time-tripping of the third act, Jauja is in full mythmaking mode, upending the dream-state so painstakingly created in a WTF?! move folks will be scratching their heads about for years to come. A demanding watch, Jauja’s debatable rewards—and they will be debated—make the odyssey worthwhile.
Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy; Ukraine
When director Slaboshpytskiy lost this year’s Ukrainian foreign language Oscar nomination to Oles Sanin’s The Guide, he was unabashed about his indignation, making admittedly relevant but ultimately bitter-sounding claims about corruption in the selection committee. In so many words, he was probably right, but it practically didn’t matter: The Tribe is such a peerlessly angry feature-length debut, there’s little one can imagine the director accepting but uncompromising accolades for what he’s done. What he’s done, though—the reality this film proposes—feels like nothing less than prescient, his boarding school for the deaf not so much set within the fringes of society as festering at its surface, the silence of its main characters an oppressive din. For over two hours, there is no moment that passes without the threat of something or someone ready to pop, and as the plot careens predictably towards devastation, the interactions between students—told without subtitles for their sign language, conveyed via body language intuited by an audience presumably not fluent—grow desperate, as if every sound’s a struggle. That a film like this hasn’t come before is almost laughable; Slaboshpytskiy seems to be rendering the experience of a deaf person almost too literally, pushing the audience into the shoes of someone who forever seems to speak a language society refuses to. But that he then keeps pushing, acting the cold witness to one harrowing piece of these teenagers’ lives after another, makes the conclusion he’s wrought the most significantly hopeless, brutal representation of the human condition I’ve seen on film in recent memory. This is the story of Outsiders who will preternaturally turn on each other, because turning on each other is all they know. And for that? They die—totally alone and forever misunderstood.