This will be my third year attending the venerable Fantasia International Film Festival here in Montreal, and this year’s slate does not disappoint. I was asked to pick the five movies I was the most excited to see. This proved to be a difficult task, seeing as how my original list had upwards of thirty titles. But here are the five that have got me the most intrigued.
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If Cube (1997) was writer-director Vincenzo Natali’s crack at a gruesome, Sartre/Kafka-tinged Twilight Zone episode, then his 2003 film Nothing is his take on the Theatre of the Absurd, a stripped-down character study about two losers interacting with little more than each other and the vast emptiness of the infinite. It’s as if Waiting for Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon were farting around one day and discovered that they had the power to edit reality. It’s also a funny and ultimately warm film, the clear product of work made among friends. But as light and comic as it is, there’s plenty of pathos to go around; friendships falter when people change, making the world go away doesn’t help a lick, and even in a fantasy world where you can take yourself completely out of all systems, you can never get the systems themselves out of you.
There is such a thing as “pre-critic” movies. These are the films that had a major psychic impact on a writer or thinker way before they have even considered (or even imagined) the possibility of having cinematic sensibilities or intellectual engagement with movies as art-objects. These movies tend to be pop culture touchstones; movies like the first Star Wars film or Ghostbusters or Pulp Fiction are common ones in part because of their ubiquity. But as with all generalizations, there are always outliers and oddities. One of my pre-critic movies, which I saw as a young man of fifteen on Canadian cable on a sunny Saturday afternoon, was Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 sci-fi horror film Cube. To this day, it remains one of my very favourite films, a scrappy little piece of government-funded genre weirdness that gets by on crack direction, weird acting choices, and spectacular sound design.
Donald Shebib’s landmark 1970 drama Goin’ Down the Road was a watershed moment in Canadian national cinema, in part because it proved that there could be one. The very notion of a Canadian national cinema was relatively new when the film was released. Though the National Film Board (NFB) was establish in the late 1930s, it was only in the 1950s that its focus shifted from war-effort propaganda to a very specific form of national soul-searching, wondering aloud who we were and what our place in the world was. The collective attempt at pinpointing Canada’s national identity would reach a fever pitch with the Centennial just around the corner, but ended up yielding precious few concrete answers (though it wasn’t for lack of trying, as NFB-produced works like Helicopter Canada, commissioned specifically for Canada’s 100th birthday, can attest).
I’ll come right out and say it: Takashi Miike’s Ace Attorney, based on the first entry of the popular Capcom video game series, is the single-best cinematic adaptation of a video game property of all time. Now some of the more snide readers out there will no doubt think that this a pretty low bar to clear. There’s at least a partial truth to that: the current all-time champion of video game (henceforth VG) movie critical acclaim is 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, coming in at a cool 44% on Rotten Tomatoes (not that the RT metric is reflective of quality in any capacity, but that’s another discussion for another time). While the movie was a watershed moment from a technical standpoint (it had some of the most impressively detailed CGI in movie history up until that point), the consensus was the the film wasn’t engaging enough on an emotional level to be any good. The fact that it went way over budget and single-handedly killed off Square’s film production arm certainly didn’t help matters. As with anything, numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole truth either.
Pouvoir intime, or Blind Trust if you’re of the Anglo persuasion, is a film that has more or less fallen through the cracks of time. It was issued on home video once upon a time, in the long-past age known as the VHS era, and hasn’t been seen in a newer format since. Luckily, some enterprising folks at the Fantasia International Film Festival got together with the Cinémathèque québécoise and got them to dust off their 35mm print of the film. Showing these kinds of movies serves a very specific purpose: they add depth and texture to a film culture that was still figuring itself out even in the mid-80s.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one already: a low-level cog in a comically large bureaucratic environment in a grotesque-looking “future” dystopia struggles in the face of obsolescence and oblivion. The character in question is fundamentally good, but incredibly weedy, their resolve and spirit having been ground to stumps by the world around them.
There’s a moment in Planes: Fire and Rescue where one of the sentient vehicles is prompted to “drop the needle.” The request is followed by a series of quick cuts: a small anthropomorphic forklift pulls out a record from its sleeve, slams in onto a turntable, and lowers the tonearm. Then, the unmistakable infinite-hammer-on riff to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” appears on the soundtrack, accompanying a getting-ready-to-slay-a-fire montage sequence.