The hype around Avatar has been building all year. It’s the first film that Cameron has directed since his multiple-record-smashing, various-award-winning Titanic (still the highest-grossing film of all time). This new sci-fi/action/fantasy epic is filmed using ground-breaking technology to make the CGI effects more real than ever – about 60 per cent of the film is CGI, while the remainder is live action – and you can even watch it in 3D. It was meant to be released 10 years ago, but Cameron abandoned the project because technology was not yet advanced enough to match his vision. It’s rumoured to have cost as much as US$300million (Dhs1.1billion) to make, although industry insiders reckon it’ll gross more than enough to cover that bill.
Still, after watching the trailer we’re not utterly convinced it’ll be worth all the fuss. The story, conceived by Cameron, seems
to be too simple and too convoluted at the same time. A paraplegic marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, last seen as human-robot hybrid Marcus Wright in Terminator Salvation), is given an ‘avatar’ – a genetically-bred human-alien hybrid body that he controls remotely. (That’s the confusing bit). As this avatar, he’s sent to infiltrate the Na’vi, the native species of the planet Pandora. The humans, see, want to pillage the planet of its natural resources. But Jake ends up with divided loyalties and a bit too much admiration for a certain female Na’vi. (That’s the obvious, unoriginal bit.)
The weird blue Na’vi look a little bit too cartoonish to us, and we find it hard to get excited about that generic-yet-still-perplexing plot. But Cameron has rarely let us down on the pulse-racing action front, and the whole enterprise seems so crazy that it might just work. Whether it proves to be a masterpiece or the ultimate over-budget turkey (think Waterworld), it’s certainly the film that’s got the industry talking this year. If you consider yourself a film fan, you can’t end 2009 without seeing Avatar. Catch it on DIFF’s closing night (December 15), two days before it’s released.
Dir Drew Barrymore, US
A ray of sunshine on screen, Drew Barrymore isn’t going to suddenly make a grungy
roller-derby movie. (Even the naughtier ex-Drew who once flashed David Letterman couldn’t swing that.) So she’s done something harder: made an intensely sweet roller-derby movie about letting your kids grow up happy. Whip It, Barrymore’s confident debut behind the camera, starts off in a desperate Texas nowheresville – an oven of blonde beauty pageants and crap jobs. Then, along with its teenage dreamer, the film sneaks off to an evocatively captured Austin and the world
of cute but callous indie-rockers and snarly girls in kneepads. Finally, it ends with a kitchen reconciliation.
Along that exuberant trajectory, Whip It rights a few wrongs. First, there’s proof here that Juno’s Ellen Page is no mere snark in the pan. She is vulnerable but comes alive as she flings herself into danger, shedding the starchy name Bliss Cavendar for the track moniker ‘Babe Ruthless’. Most substantially, the film pits parental hopes against the private ambitions of youth, and manages to take both sides. Marcia Gay Harden is the film’s treasure; watching her swell with concern at her daughter’s choices, you understand how hard it is to let go – even when kneepads are provided.
City of Life
Dir Ali Mostafa, UAE
You may remember that back in October, we joined 27-year-old Emirati director Ali Mostafa in the editing suite as he put the finishing touches to City of Life, the first
big-budget feature film to be entirely set in Dubai. Despite the fact that the success or failure of Mostafa’s film will set a precedent for Dubai’s filmmaking future, the young director seemed pretty relaxed. And now
that it’s premiering at DIFF as the Arabian Nights Gala screening, the first time an Emirati film has been given such an honour, how does he feel? ‘Confident-ish,’ he tells us. Well, it is the moment of truth: will his multi-lingual, multi-strand narrative about everyday life in Dubai – following a privileged Emirati, an Indian taxi driver and a Romanian air hostess – impress the festival crowds? Go see for yourself.
Dir Jeff Stilson, US
Good Hair is about a fascinating subject: the loaded history and current complications of African-American hairstyling. The film is especially powerful in how it offhandedly shows certain races fomenting and exploiting the desires of others – these range from the obvious (the Caucasian-manufactured longing among black women to look more white) to the illuminating (the majority of black hair products are processed and sold by Koreans). Unfortunately, our tour guide through this sociopolitical miasma, comedian Chris Rock, merely sees it as an opportunity to crack wise. Just ignore him.
Dir Christoph Heller, Germany
This documentary chronicles one man’s search for his long-lost relatives, who have been exiled from Iraq and are now living in Sharjah. Born in Iraq, Sinan was adopted at birth by his uncle Farouq and later moved to Germany, where he has lived ever since. Heller’s documentary shows Sinan preparing to meet his original Iraqi family for the first time, giving him his first taste of Arab culture. The reunion brings a complex tangle of emotions to the fore.
Dir Jacques Audiard, France
An engrossing, terrifying prison drama about Malik, a young French-Arab convict who enters a tough French jail and finds himself with even less freedom than he bargained for. The lead performance from newcomer Tahar Rahim is filled with brooding charisma, as Malik finds himself on the verge of extinction but gradually wins himself the education he needs to survive – and maybe even triumph –
in this most brutal of worlds.
Malik enters prison a keep-your-head-down, solitary sort and leaves several years later a changed character: it’s the in-between that Audiard explores. An older lag, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) – a porcine member of the Corsican mafia who is surrounded by lackeys in the prison yard and who pays off prison guards left, right and centre – forcibly takes Malik under his wing and blackmails him into killing another prisoner. This act ensures that the young prisoner enters a criminal servitude from which he can’t escape.
Initially, Malik is simply César’s puppet. But slowly Malik educates himself, both in the prison classroom, where he learns to read and write, and in the tough prison-yard arena of shifting criminal loyalties and fragile power structures.
Finding Mr & Mrs Right: Dubai Style
Dir Elhaam Sharaf, Hind Al Hammadi, UAE
This short student documentary portrays the trials and tribulations of Dubai’s new generation as they search for romance.
Caught between tradition and a desire for ‘freedom’, young UAE nationals share their thoughts on flirting, family expectations and what they consider their ‘perfect match’. The film first premiered at the Gulf Film Festival in April, where the venue was so packed that punters lined the stairs and, when the stairs ran out, were happy to stand throughout the screening.
The Milk of
Dir Claudia Llosa, Peru
Claudia Llosa offers a stirring, magical-realist portrait of modern Peru and its post-conflict traumas. Silent and self-ostracising Fausta (Magaly Solier) has imbibed her mother’s memories of murder and rape and become socially hindered with fear. Via ethereal cinematography and a melancholy local soundtrack, Llosa documents the slow, surreal process of both personal and community rehabilitation in a film that seeks to lay to rest a nation’s civil war grief.
Dir Shaji N Karun, India
The eponymous grumpy boat navigator spends his time floating about the backwaters of Kerala. When police discover a body on the riverside, three women claim the body is Srank’s, and purport themselves to be the bereaved widow. However, each widow’s account of Srank is contradictory, and a strange and compelling character soon emerges. Directed by Shaji N Karun and starring award-winning Malayalam actor Mammootty, this should make great viewing, set against some of India’s most stunning scenery.
Checkpoint Rock: Songs from Palestine
Dir Fermin Muguruza, Spain
A guide to Palestine through the local music scene gives an alternative angle (and a refreshingly joyous tone) to this documentary, introducing us to singers such as Habab Al Deek and hip-hop crew DAM (check out www.myspace.com/damrap). Starting with a reading at the funeral of Mahmoud Darwish, the poet’s spirit pervades the whole film. The screening will be followed by a live jam, featuring director Muguruza and some key performers from the doc.
Fantastic Mr Fox
Dir Wes Anderson, US/UK
Imagine how this stop-motion animated version of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, directed by Wes Anderson, looks and sounds. Does it, like The Life Aquatic and Rushmore, offer a hyper-realistic uniform of sets and costumes? Does it, like The Darjeeling Limited and The Royal Tenenbaums, explore an eccentric family, with a father figure looming large and relatives at loggerheads? Does it trade in emotions but feel distancing at times?
Of course, the answer to all these questions is yes. This is an animation, but it’s also a Wes Anderson movie. The difference is that it’s light on its feet compared with the heavy machinery of his previous work. It’s also a kids’ film, which allows Anderson to have fun.
Dahl’s book was a short, sharp affair. The dapper Mr Fox is trying to protect his family from danger and his foes, three cider-swilling farmers called Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach have fleshed out the story so there are more characters (Willem Dafoe’s jive-talking rat is genius) and the Fox family has more personality: Mrs Fox (Meryl Streep) is the voice of reason to her husband’s impetuousness, while their son Ash (Jason Schwartzman), a moody teen, is pitched against a kung-fu-kicking cousin who comes to stay.
Mr Fox, voiced so appropriately by George Clooney, embodies the push and pull between the tame life and the wild one. It’s all very transatlantic: the setting and baddies are English; the animals are Americans. This is one crafty fox – in every sense.
To Shoot an
Dir M Rujailah, A Arce,
Documenting the human cost of the conflict
in Gaza earlier this year, this hard-hitting film features harrowing footage filmed inside Gaza by foreign journalists, local witnesses and aid workers.
Dir Mona Achache, France
This is an oddball tale about disenchanted
11-year-old Paloma, who decides to kill herself on her 12th birthday. Fascinated by art and philosophy, Paloma makes hilarious, often scathing observations about the world. But as her date with death approaches, she meets some kindred spirits – a grumpy concierge, an enigmatic neighbour – who inspire her to question her pessimism.
The Blue Generation
Dir Garin Nugroho, Dosy Omar, John De Rantau, Indonesia
Ever heard of ‘Slankers’? The word refers to fans of Indonesian rock band Slank; but it means more than liking the music, encompassing a movement of people who stand for peace, unity and love amid Indonesia’s difficult political landscape. The film is a portrait of a musical by the band
that tackles Indonesia’s political history –
criticising the government for torture, abduction of dissidents and the death penalty (among other human rights violations) – spliced together with concert clips, interviews and comic book-style animation sequences. One of the more strange, but unmissable, films of the festival.
The Last Flight
Dir Karim Dridi, France
Marion Cotillard stars in this romantic drama based on the true story of flying couple Bill Lancaster and Jessie ‘Chubbie’ Miller (Cotillard). When Bill mysteriously disappears in the Sahara in 1933, Jessie flies solo into the desert to try to find him.
The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights
Dir Emmett Malloy, US
It all sounds a bit Heima (the awesome film about Sigur Rós playing odd locations in Iceland: a mountain; a tea room), but The White Stripes’ road movie-cum-concert film is still a must for fans of the Detroit duo. Shot after the release of Icky Thump in 2007, it follows Jack and Meg across Canada as they set out to play gigs in every province of the country, in whichever environment comes to hand. Town halls and elderly Inuits are all treated to the Stripes’ tunes, and they even play a rather unusual one-note concert. Expect many aesthetically pleasing shots of the Canadian landscape thrown in.
Dir Hiner Saleem, France
The Iraqi-Kurdish director kick-started his career by secretly filming the living conditions of Iraqi-Kurds in the wake of the first Gulf War. Here, he directs a documentary-style drama about life after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. In Germany, Azad,
a Kurdish exile, invites fellow exiled Iraqis to his home to celebrate the end of Saddam’s era. But as they watch the ongoing TV coverage, underlying tensions and betrayals surface.