20 Best films from DIFF 2008

Hollywood superstars and independent artists rub shoulders in our guide to the 20 best films from Dubai Film Festival.

20 Best films from DIFF 2008

For the fifth consecutive year, the city dusts down its red carpet for the Dubai International Film Festival. This year, as with most things, DIFF is bigger than ever. Boasting 180 films, movies range from one-minute shorts to mammoth-budget Hollywood epics. The competition category has been expanded to encompass the cinema of Asia and Africa. There’s a new animation section and, in the lengthy ‘Cinema Of The World’ programme, more than 20 films representing the Festival’s pick of the global arthouse circuit.

And although Morgan Freeman seems mysteriously indisposed, we’re promised some rather famous visitors negotiating baggage reclaim at Terminal 3: Laura Linney, Brendan Fraser, Oliver Stone, Danny Glover, Abhishek Bachchan, Sonam Kapoor and the inimitable Mamootty from Kerala will all be tripping gaily down a red carpet somewhere near you.

Ed Harris, USA, 2008
December 13, Cinema of the World, 114 mins, 15.45, MoE 2
It ain’t easy being a lawman in a Western mining town like Appaloosa, home to a slimy rancher named Bragg (Jeremy Irons). For starters, Bragg just shot three deputies who tried to arrest him, and his lackeys have a tendency to test your quick-draw skills after a few whiskies. And, of course, the inevitable pretty lady (Renée Zellweger) will attempt to domesticate you, asking you to pick out curtain patterns and such. Luckily, Sheriff Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) and his longtime partner, Everett (Viggo Mortensen), are watching each other’s backs and supplying plenty of flinty masculine banter – the Wild West should be tamed in no time. Ed Harris’s oater doesn’t try to reinvent the wagon wheel so much as build a sturdy carriage from old parts.

Despite nods toward dispelling the genre’s mythology – gunshots are muted pops instead of reverbed Howitzer ka-pows – the actor, director and co-writer opts to work intimately within a meat-and-potatoes formula. The model isn’t Ford’s mournful epics or Mann’s psychological potboilers, but the sagebrush case studies of Delmer Daves, who treated the open range less as a character than as a backdrop for character development.

But, apart from the pleasure of hearing Harris and Mortensen trade old-married-couple quips (like so many Westerns, it’s really a love story between two men), there’s little to distinguish Appaloosa from its legion of ancestors. Only a brief showdown in a Mexican square suggests that Harris can use space to create tension, and the dragging pace has sucked the air out by the time the climax rolls around. These are horse-opera fundamentals; having given them short shrift, the film just shuffles down its lonesome trail into the horizon and out of your memory.
David Fear

The Aquarium
Yousry Nasrallah, Egypt, 2008
December 16, Muhr Arab Awards, 91 mins, 21.30, Souk Theatre
This feature by Cairo-born director Yousry Nasrallah is a lot like the ornamental ecosphere of its title: mesmerising, yet also impenetrable, as if the world onscreen were behind glass. While the story focuses on two contemporary Cairo residents – a doctor and a radio host – the film is really a co-dependent’s love letter to the city itself, portraying a metropolis trapped between past and future, modernity and fundamentalism, autocracy – democracy. Youssef (Amr Waked) is an anaesthesiologist who moonlights at an abortion clinic; Laila (Hend Sabri) is sort of a Dr Ruth of the night-time airwaves.

Progressive by the region’s standards, Youssef and Laila struggle separately to balance their own longings for freedom and love with familial obligations. Nasrallah was once a film critic, and it shows in his many deconstructive tangents (actors, for instance, stepping out of character to address the camera). But his gorgeous stream of imagery is too strong to resist: Like the Nile, the film flows inexorably, drawing its protagonists together – and us along with them.
Howard Halle

Luis Lopez/Trisha Ziff, Spain, 2008
December 12, Cinema of the World, 86 mins, 15.45, MoE 9
In this cheeky documentary, filmmaker Trisha Ziff humorously shows how the image of Che Guevara has become as recognisable a worldwide brand as the Nike Swoosh or the McDonald’s arches. She points out, for instance, the numerous items on which one might now find the revolutionary’s bearded visage: T-shirts, bikinis, baby socks and, of course, thousands of posters pinned to teenagers’ walls.

What makes this film more than just a detached joke is that Ziff also fills the viewer in on who Guevara really was and what he was fighting for. The context she provides around the famous source photo – it was taken during a moment of great sadness, after Guevara learns of a terrorist act that cost many Cuban dockworkers their lives – eloquently humanises the man and his cause.

No matter one’s thoughts about the Marxist movement in Cuba, Ziff’s doc reinstates Guevara as a historical figure, as opposed to a countercultural symbol. And if you happen to own anything with Che’s image on it, this film is required viewing.
Time Out

Country Wedding
Valdís Óskarsdóttir, Iceland, 2008
December 12, Cinema of the World, 96 mins, 16.30, MoE 6
An unconventional road movie which centres around two busloads of Icelanders as they travel to a wedding in the countryside with little clue as to the exact location of the church.

Il Divo
Paulo Sorrentino, Italy, 2008
December 13, In Focus, 118 mins, 21.45, MoE 9
Extending his role as a cinematic stylist to a place more flashy, but also more inventive and humorous than either of his two previous Cannes competition entries, Consequences Of Love and The Family Friend, Sorrentino has produced a character assassination of seven-times Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti and the culture that bore him that’s so fluid, wide-ranging and dense that it implicates whole swathes of Italian society – politics, the Church, big business, the mafia – in its accusations of institutional corruption.

Presented in a free flowing, anti-chronological style that favours thematic tableaux and symbolic episodes over story, the flood of names, places and events are such that they will run over the heads of anyone not completely informed about late 20th century Italian history. Yet somehow the density of information doesn’t matter: the film’s alignments, movements and performances are enough to get the message across. As Andreotti, Servillo is a grotesque caricature who’s grounded in a chilling reality.
Dave Calhoun

Idiots And Angels
Bill Plympton, USA, 2008
December 13, Animation, 78 mins, 18.15, MoE 12
Idiots And Angels, ‘indie animator’ Bill Plympton’s new feature, adopts a darkly humorous approach to the classic struggle between good and evil. The film’s absence of dialogue takes some getting used to, but the sound effects and an excellent soundtrack keep the viewer involved. The story follows a nameless man, whose selfish attitude is cruelly thrown in his face when he wakes up one morning with angel wings sprouting out of his back. The wings, which he removes several times, in several disgusting scenes, keep growing back and force him to perform good deeds, even though his brain is wired otherwise. The result is an imaginative and thought- provoking internal battle, externalised.
Cinzia Reale-Castello

Uberto Pasolini, Sri Lanka, 2008
December 12, Cultural Bridge, 109 mins, 18.45, MoE 12
What do you do when you’re bored and disenchanted with life in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo? When just about everyone is sick and tired of each other and their dead-end lives? Why, form a handball team and seek asylum in Germany of course!

That’s the harebrain scheme that unfolds in the mind of the hapless Stanley, a fruit seller in the city whose eternal frustrations with his life evaporate on the day he happens to hear about a handball tournament taking place in Frankfurt. Gathering up a gang of equally restless chums, he designates them as a touring handball team and sets about getting them into the tournament. But our heroes are stymied by a few minor issues – they have only the haziest idea of what handball actually is – and even less of an idea how to go about ‘escaping’ once they’re inside Germany. This charming, yet pointed, tale is based on true events, and succeeds in balancing humour, pathos and excitement in one immensely likeable package.

Three Monkeys
Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2008
December 12, The Cinema of Asia Africa, 109 mins, 21.30, MoE 12
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Three Monkeys is only very superficially about incarceration, in that the story is quickly kick-started when a local politician facing elections persuades his driver to take the rap for him after the former knocks over a man with his car; in return he’ll pay his employee’s salary to his teenage son, and hand over a large lump sum when he emerges from prison after six months or so.

But if we actually see only a couple of prison-set scenes, when the son visits his father, that doesn’t mean that imprisonment isn’t a central, almost Dostoyevskian metaphor for what happens to the driver, his wife and son, and the politician. For that lie told to the cops is merely the first – and indeed the source – of many more deceits that shape the increasingly twisted and dangerous interactions between the four protagonists, all of whom soon find themselves trapped like rats by their own fears, desires, doubts and suspicions.

This fifth feature is arguably the most ambitious film yet from the maker of Uzak and Climates. It has the dry humour, assured pacing, astute psychological insights and sharp sense of moral and dramatic irony that has been conspicuous in all his work, but in many respects the film feels like an expansion upon Climates, not only in extending that film’s clear-eyed, unsentimental assessment of male-female relationships from a couple to a whole family and its acquaintances, but in exploring the rich potential afforded by digital technology; if you thought Ceylan’s photographer’s eye produced stunning images in Climates, Three Monkeys pushes the envelope still further.
Geoff Andre

F.W. Murnau, Germany, 1922
December 12, Rhythm and Reels, 82 mins, 20.00, DMC Amphitheatre
FW Murnau’s 1922 silent masterpiece of horror, Nosferatu remains terrifying over 80 years since it first scared the pants off cinemagoers in Germany. Based on the legend of Dracula, it reflects the German cinema’s fascination with Expressionism, through its gorgeously creepy cinematography and scenery.

The tale is as close as Murnau could get to Dracula without rousing lawyers from their crypts. The sinister (and unintentionally hilarious) Count Orlok, of the desolate
Carpathian mountains, needs a fresh infusion of human blood. For reasons too scary to go into here, he summons a fresh-faced estate agent from a distant city to come and visit, on the pretext of transacting some business. But wwhen young Hutter arrives at Orlok’s castle, he soon realises that a cosy coffee over a few glossy property brochures is not what his client would really like.

The film that launched a thousand clichés, Nosferatu remains a hugely enjoyable slice of cinematic history. Arsalan Mohammad. December 13, 20.00
SalamandraPablo Agüero, Argentina, 2008Six-year-old Inti has seen more than his fair share of crazies, freaks and dangerously unhinged adults – despite being only six years old. When his mother Alba is released from jail, she reclaims her son from relatives and proceeds to plunge him into a world of danger and fear, starting with her own fractious, fragile state. Mentally instable, Alba’s complete lack of conventional maternal concern leads her precocious son to try to fathom the world out on his own terms, with some truly ghastly experiences along the way – not least encountering the sinister Dick Winter (a grizzled John Cale).

Slingshot Hip Hop
Jackie Salloum, Palestine, 2008
December 12, Rhythm and Reels, 83 mins, 20.00, DMC Amphitheatre

The words ‘Palestine’ ‘hip’ and indeed, ‘hop’ rarely come together in the same sentence. However, after watching this superb documentary by Jackie Reem Salloum about the activities of small network of hip hop artists in Palestine and occupied territories, the true original spirit of hip hop – as a socially empowering medium, giving a voice to the forgotten and oppressed – is shown to be alive and well, amid the misery and hardship of life in refugee camps.

The documentary follows the activity of some of the region’s best known performers, including quasi-gangsta rappers (who advocate anti-violence) DAM, whose community work with the children in their home city of Lyd inspires their near-iconic status amid the young population. They, in turn, inspire young artists such as Palestinian Rapperz, who we visit in their barricaded neighbourhood.

The enthusiasm and positivity of the groups and their immediate policy of trying to improve the lives of their young fans is, in that over-used term, inspiring. Salloum takes us through a series of neighbourhoods, meeting youngsters living in impossible situations, for whom the activities of DAM and their ilk are a lifeline and sole ray of light, in increasingly miserable and gruelling lives.

Jens Jonsson, Sweden, 2008
December 13, Cinema of the World, 99 mins, noon, MoE 4

Bosnia, 1997. Four women, two old ladies, four girls, an old man and a boy return to the war-torn village of Slavno, following heavy fighting. Their families have been killed, so the surviving women have created a sort of alternate world, in which they find the security and mutual support they need to survive their recent experiences.
Although the village is pretty remote at the best of times, the impending prospect of winter is terrifying. Led by the headstrong Alma, the women band together, forlornly selling fruit, vegetable and jams on a deserted road. But when a couple of businessmen show up with an unexpected offer for the villagers, the women find themselves facing a difficult decision.

Son Of A Lion
Benjamin Gilmour, Australia, 2007
December 15, The Cinema of Asia Africa, 92 mins, 18.30, MoE 7

When Australian paramedic Benjamin Gilmour went travelling through Afghanistan and Pakistan some years ago, he little expected his trip would inspire him to such an extent that he would return to the district some years later and shoot a feature film. Luckily, the gritty, gorgeous Son Of A Lion fully justifies his extraordinary efforts.
Gilmour realised that in order to undertake a worthwhile shoot, he would have to disguise himself as a Pashtun, to gain the trust of the villagers and tribes who control the desolate, beautiful territories and make up the cast and much of the crew of this remarkable film. Young Niaz is a sensitive little boy who lives with his fierce, ex-Mujahedin father Sher Alam in the weapons-manufacturing town of Darra Adam Khel. Sher Alam expects Niaz to follow in his footsteps and become a gunsmith. But to his father’s horror, Niaz has a dangerously subversive wish – to go to school.

Space Exodus
Larissa Sansour, Palestine, 2008
December 14, Muhr Africa Asia Awards, 99 mins, 22.00, MoE 6

Palestinian-born director Larissa Sansour takes a surreal ride through space in this charming, low-key short, chronicling her fantasy of being ‘the first Palestinian on the moon’.

Stone Of Destiny
Charles Martin Smith, Canada, 2008
December 12, Cultural Bridge, 96 mins, 13.00, MoE 7

It’s Glasgow, 1950, and a group of fiery young nationalists is fuming over the latest rejection by Parliament, for Scottish independence. Led by one Iam Hamilton, the group decides that action is necessary – and so come up with a crackpot scheme to pilfer the iconic ‘Stone of Destiny’, a 600-year old slab of rock that symbolises Scottish pride, which until 1996 resided under the monarch’s throne in Westminster Abbey. Despite Hamilton and his gang’s complete lack of burglary skills, they somehow make it down to London on Christmas Eve and to the astonishment of everyone, break into the Abbey and pilfer the rock. Now, as a completely discombobulated police force scrambles into action, an unlikely comedy crime caper unfolds.

The Story Of Mr. Sorry
Eun-mi Lee, South Korea, 2008
December 12, Animation, 64 mins, 14.30, MoE 6

A project undertaken by a group of Korean film students – six, to be precise – The Story Of Mr Sorry is a weird affair that luckily transcends the curse of the final-year show, emerging as an odd film that will burrow into the subconscious rather like the shrinking protagonist of the tale. Mr Sorry is an earwax-cleaner who has a rather varied and diverse clientele. Mr Sorry begins shrinking in size and invading the inner ears of his customers and reading their thoughts. One part The Incredible Shrinking Man to two parts psychedelic whimsy, this cheerfully, barmy tale is told with freshness and inventiveness.

Oliver Stone, USA, 2008
December 11, Cinema of the World, 129 mins, 20.15, Madinat Arena

The first attempt to assess the Bush legacy hits the silver screen, with explosive results. Read our exclusive Time Out interview overleaf with director Oliver Stone.

Young at Heart
Stephen Walker, USA, 2007
December 14,Rhythm and Rhymes, 108 mins, 20.00, DMC Amphitheatre

Young At Heart are a group of pensioners known for unpredictable covers of hits and obscurities from the rock back catalogue. The band has toured extensively, as one member dryly notes, ‘from continent to continent, till I became incontinent’. Their cover of The Ramones’ ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ even received airplay on American radio.
As a documentary, Young At Heart is perfectly adequate – interviews with very personable characters interspersed with concert footage and more intimate moments of tragedy, sickness, even death. But director Stephen Walker can’t disguise the fact that Young At Heart are a novelty act, and a pretty dreadful one. Through covers of Sonic Youth, Talking Heads and The Clash, the music is never more than limp karaoke – by which token the filmmakers’ and even audiences’ interest in the band begins to feel more than a little patronising. Sure, these ‘zesty’, ‘lively’ old folks are enjoying themselves. The question is why on earth we should be expected to watch?
Tom Huddleston

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