CIFF 2015: The UCFS Awards

If you have read any of the trades coming out of the major festivals, you’ll know that every publication worth its salt has a “best-of-fest” article. Well, despite having not actually written anything about the films I saw, I am totally legit too, so here’s my best-of-fest awards (*best-of-fest in reality means best-films-which-I-saw-at-the-festival only):
Best Cinematography
The Summer of Sangaile is a Lithuanian coming-of-age film, a type of film which doesn’t usually bring to mind exquisite cinematography. But, DOP Dominique Colin creates a floaty, effortlessly sensuous film (taking cues from Terrence Malick, perhaps?) which mirrors the intoxicating summer experiences of the titular 17-year old Sangaile.
Honourable mentions: the firsthand cinematography of mountain-climbing doc Meru, the shallow-focus and long-take poetry of Son of Saul, and the naturalistic murky shadows of Dheepan.
Best Lead Performance(s)
There were too many to count, hence the lumping together of actor and actresses in the category (but the progressive film critic in me asks: should we really make the distinction?). But by virtue of its sheer centrality to the film, Géza Röhrig’s performance as Saul in Son of Saul is our pick. Röhrig’s performance is at once incredibly kinetic and lifeless; the physicality of his performance is astonishing, but what’s more astonishing is how he subtly presents desperation, determination, and defeat in his quiet, furrowed gaze. As well, being the focal point for 1 hour and 47 minutes of close-up tracking shots is no small feat.
Honourable mentions: the Silver Bear-winning performances of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as married couple in 45 Years, the incredibly authentic performance by Rebecka Josephson as a precocious 8 year old caught in a moral dilemma in My Skinny Sister, and the naturalistic-melodramatic tightrope-walking of Paul Schneider, Miranda Otto, Ewen Leslie, and standout Odessa Young in the Ibsen-adaptation The Daughter.
Most Interesting Documentary Subject
Finders Keepers
Having only seen three documentaries, this superlative seems perhaps a little irrelevant, but regardless, I had to mention Shannon Whisnant and John Wood as the two larger-than-life combatants in the offbeat clash-over-severed-leg documentary Finders Keepers. When Whisnant stumbles across a disembodied leg (whose original owner, John Wood, had it amputated but preserved) in an old grill he buys, a comic, stranger-than-fiction clash over the ownership of that leg ensues. Both characters are personalities, but the film shines in that it goes beneath the weirdness of the characters to reveal the sadness and pain driving both men’s lives.
Honourable mentions: the inhumanly motivated (and unexpectedly humourous) mountain climbers Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk in Meru, and the charismatic elder-in-the-making Cowboy Smithx in local doc favorite Elder in the Making.
Most Filmmaking
Can this go to anything other than Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson’s phantasmagoric The Forbidden Room? Full disclosure, this category was really created just to mention The Forbidden Room in something, but the film really earns it; Maddin stuffs pretty much every film technique you can imagine into the film, from dated rear-projection running, to playful uses of sound synchronicity, to the perfectly styled intertitles, to the constant and terrifyingly hallucinatory “melting” effects periodically overtaking the film. That’s not to mention that, at 2 hours 8 minutes, it is one of the longer films at the fest. Most filmmaking indeed.
Honourable mentions: really, Maddin’s film is incomparable, although I hear Yakuza Apocalypse also had lots of stuff in it.
Best Gut-Punch Moment
Sea Fog
Full disclosure, I didn’t actually see Sea Fog during the festival, but rather, I previewed it as one of my assigned films in the summer. However, the gut-punch moment in that film has stuck with me so long that I really just needed to make sure the film was mentioned. Of course, because of the nature of gut-punches, it’s probably best to not describe it, but trust me when I say that, you’ll know what it is if you watch Shim Sung-bo’s taut thriller about a hard-pressed crew of fishermen taking on a morally dubious and dangerous cargo run.
Honourable mentions: the moment when one realizes that 45 Years may be describing the limit of the couple’s marriage, and the sudden feeling of helplessness and frustration near the end of Son of Saul.
Best Animal
This seems to have been the year of the talking animal, with two such examples in the animated steampunk adventure featuring a talking cat named Darwin in April and the Extraordinary World, and the Isabella Rosselini-voiced hamster in the coming-of-age/coming-out drama Closet Monster. But really, I created this category as a means to ask: why is this suddenly a thing? This viewer definitely doesn’t think it should be, so instead, Best Animal will go to The Lobster, a film I haven’t seen, but which I assume (1) has a lobster in it, somewhere, and (2) doesn’t have a talking animal in it. At all.
Honourable mentions: perhaps “animal” is stretching it, but in terms of sentient entity, the dreaming volcano in The Forbidden Room really has every other film beat in that regard.
Golden Globe® for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical
My Internship in Canada
Often, these lists don’t take into account achievements in comedies, because comedies are seen as somehow not worthy of festival coverage, etc. Well, my corrective is to port over the Golden Globes®’s own critical ghetto over to this blog post. And the winner of the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical is… My Internship in Canada, a Quebecois feature which simultaneously satirizes politics in Canada while also emphasizing the importance of participating in the Canadian parliamentary system. While it sounds bone dry, it’s unexpectedly droll, featuring not only the most spot-on Steven Harper-like caricature ever filmed, but also layered in-jokes to Canadian political history. As Canadian a film as it comes.
Honourable mentions: The Forbidden Room is probably the only film which qualifies under both these categories, and also neither, The Lobster should probably be mentioned despite my not seeing it because of its reception, and Band of Robbers also had a glowing reception amongst Programming Board members.
Most Genre Film
Genre is often thought of as being a tired formula in which the filmmaker can plug in the elements and still find an audience / a cheap buck. I hear that describes A Christmas Horror Story nearly perfectly, and that it is glorious.
Honourable mentions: Green Room is apparently one of the classics of the punk-band-gets-involved-in-violence-with-Neo-Nazi-Patrick-Stewart genre, although again, I haven’t seen it, so I should hold off on any canonical declarations at the moment.
Best Use of Song
Forbidden Room
Rarely does a song exist in a film which is simultaneously hauntingly melancholic, incredibly catchy, and a love letter to people’s butts. The Final Derrière in The Forbidden Room, however, is all of those things, and, like the rest of that gloriously weird film, quite astonishingly executed.
Honourable mentions: the traditional Tamil fighting songs sung by the titular character in Dheepan is a high-point of that film, and the inspired use of a Pet Shop Boys cover of Village People’s “Go West” in Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart is also very thematically resonant.
Most “European” Film
By European, I mean 1960s art-house European. And could anything other than Gasper Noe’s Love 3D? Featuring sex, sex, and curiously, not very much actual love, Love 3D would probably make art house Europeans proud. Or blush.
Honourable mentions: in any other year, Summer of Sangaile would have won the award, but alas, it only features lesbian sex which grows increasingly abstract and sensual; and, using a completely different definition of “European”, Son of Saul features not only a babel of languages, but is perhaps the best example of a truly European co-production.
Golden Sock
Son-of-Saul
Cannes has the Palme D’or. Berlin has the Golden Bear. Venice has the Golden Lion. The UCFS has the Golden Sock (Film Soc, get it?). For being a debut film so astonishingly assured in style and form that it makes those filmmakers among us jealous, and being one of the few films to successfully tackle the issue of Holocaust representation in a respectful but still artistic way, I award the Golden Sock to Son of Saul. It’s no Palme D’or, but something tells me director László Nemes is not too far away from another shot.
Honourable mentions: the label-defining The Forbidden Room, the visceral mountain-climbing doc  Meru, the effervescent coming-of-age film Summer of Sangaile.
By Kevin Dong
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