Thursday, 10 July 2008

Edinburgh International Film Festival –
Top 5

It’s almost two weeks now since Edinburgh’s Film Festival wound up its first year as a June event. By all accounts it was a success, although I must admit that it didn’t feel quite as busy as the organisers are claiming it was, despite what I thought was a really good selection of movies. Yes, there were some disappointments – The Wackness, Stone of Destiny and much-hyped British debut Better Things were the biggest let-downs – but overall I got to see a lot of very good films; in fact, compiling a top 5 has been a little harder than I initially anticipated.

After much internal debate, here’s my pick of the five best films of the Festival, and more importantly, why they make the grade:

1. WALL-E – It may have been the most mainstream movie of the Festival but Pixar’s new film was also the best, representing another step forward for the already impossibly high-standard-setting animation studio. Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton takes the story of a cute little robot, left on earth for 700 years to clean up after humans have pretty much destroyed the planet and done a runner, and crafts a tale of loneliness, friendship and adventure that is both profoundly moving and bursting with stunning visual creativity. Added to this, WALL-E is a movie in love with the movies, packed with references to classics of the silver screen, with each homage incorporated as a relevant storytelling element, never feeling self-indulgent or unnecessary. It’s a true masterpiece, and my favourite film of the year so far.

2. The Visitor – Much smaller in scale than Pixar’s animation behemoth, this character-focused comedy-drama is equally accomplished in its writing, confirming Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) as a writer-director of considerable human insight and compassion. Eternal support actor Richard Jenkins is perfect in the lead as Walter Vale, a bored Connecticut University academic whose life takes a turn for the interesting when he discovers a refugee couple living in his New York apartment. After initially throwing them out, Walter has a change of heart and begins an unexpected friendship with the djembe-playing Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and his girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). Things are complicated when Tarek is arrested and threatened with deportation, but while the film does tackle political issues, it is primarily about people, and McCarthy handles the balance of personal and political masterfully. Also featuring a brilliant performance from Hiam Abbass as Tarek’s mother, The Visitor is a true gem, and I would highly recommend seeking it out, as it’s in UK cinemas right now!

3. Man On Wire – The best of an excellent selection of documentaries at the Festival, James Marsh’s film presents a man and a feat that both have to be seen to be believed. The man is Philipe Petit, a French tightrope-walker of singular vision and enthusiasm, and the feat is an almost unbelievable wire-walk that he accomplished in 1974 between the newly-constructed World Trade Center towers. The fact that Petit and a handful of friends managed to break into the towers and successfully set up and carry out the illegal act is jaw-dropping enough, but the way it is retold here clearly conveys the profound emotional impact it had on everyone involved, and the film itself becomes more than just a historical document; it’s a powerfully inspiring piece of cinema.

4. Let The Right One In – This is a low-key Swedish character drama with a difference; it’s also a vampire movie. Almost sluggishly paced in its first hour, director Tomas Alfredson takes his sweet time in building the atmosphere in this story of a bullied 12-year-old who befriends the slightly odd girl next-door, but patience pays off as he uses the very low budget to stunning effect. It’s a film of creeping unease rather than high pitch scares, and concludes with a final set-piece that made me want to stand up and applaud. Apparently that’s exactly what happened at the critics’ screening, which is an event largely unheard of at film festivals. The film doesn’t seem to have UK distribution at the moment, and appears to have already been snapped-up for an English-language remake, but hopefully this original version will find its way to cinemas soon, as it’s really quite special.

5. Summer – Robert Carlyle is an actor that I’ve always found likeable but never amazing, but in Summer he gives, for my money, the best performance of his career. He picked up the Festival’s Best Actor award for his heart-breaking portrayal of Shaun, a man who we meet in a beaten-down state, brought low by the hand life has dealt him. Kenny Glenaan’s film flits back and forward in time to build up a picture of Shaun’s life, and occasionally the story is almost too sad to bear, but Carlyle brings such a recognisable warmth and longing to the character that we can’t help but stay with him. A much-needed note of hope at the conclusion slightly softens the film’s emotional wallop, but overall this is a deeply moving tale of loss and frustration, and Carlyle deserves heaps of praise for his amazing work in it.

So that’s my verdict. Just missing out on inclusion were Shane Meadows’ new one Somers Town, the lovely Amy Adams comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and an excellent British debut called Dummy, all of which are well worth investigation too. For now though, that’s my Festival experience wrapped up. Roll on London…

WALL-E (U) is released nationwide on 18 July.
The Visitor (15) is out now in selected cinemas.
Man On Wire (12A) is released nationwide on 1 August.
Let The Right One In and Summer have no scheduled UK release date.

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