Big films at the Zurich Film Festival 2015
In the unofficial ‘Book of Hollywood Double Standards’, only teenage boys are allowed to have sex drives. We’re up to our eyeballs with horny boys, but girls are either all virginally waiting for Mr Right or slutty tramps. So yay for US indie drama ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’, which breaks the rules with Caitlin Moran-levels of brutal honesty (and funniness).
In a modestly sized apartment on New York’s Lower East Side, an independent nation has been declared. Breaking off from the outside world, Peruvian immigrant Oscar Angulo and his American wife Susanne decided in the 1990s to raise all seven of their children – six boys and a girl, each one named for a Hindu deity – in almost total isolation. Homeschooled by their mum, the kids were allowed out only a few times a year (and one year did not leave the house at all). But in 2010, 15-year-old Mukunda went rogue, leading by a chance meeting to this disturbing, uplifting documentary.
Anyone easy-to-please and mourning the fact that Martin Scorsese hasn’t made a mobster flick in a while should take heart from ‘Black Mass’. It’s the entertaining, if limited, tale of how seriously nasty South Boston crim James ‘Whitey’ Bulger (Johnny Depp, looking like an embalmed vampire with terrible teeth and a bald patch) operated with near immunity from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Bulger cut a deal with an FBI agent, childhood pal John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who in turn was seduced by the danger and rewards of the thug life he was meant to be eradicating.
With 'Carol', the American director Todd Haynes returns us to a place similar to the repressed 1950s East Coast universe that he explored in his 2002 film 'Far from Heaven'. It's historically not long past but this is an emotionally oh-so-distant world, recreated here with exquisite craft, where the big city offers a tiny slither of hope to those suffocating in the stultifyingly conservative suburbs. This is the story of two women, Carol (Cate Blanchett, staggering) and Therese (Rooney Mara, equally so), strangers who meet on either side of a Manhattan department store counter and must choose to face or ignore their feelings for each other as Haynes examines gay desire and repression.
This small, well-coiffed and attentively designed film shows us a few weeks in the life of James Dean (Dane DeHaan) on the brink of reluctant stardom in 1955. Robert Pattinson co-stars as Dennis Stock, a Life magazine photographer from New York desperately wooing the farm boy from Indiana to give his own career a much-needed shot in the arm. ‘Life’ continues the current vogue for framing microcosmic snapshots of well-known folk’s lives in the hope that greater truths will emerge. But for every virtuoso ‘Lincoln’ there’s a pedestrian ‘My Week with Marilyn’, and this leans closer to the latter, setting up Dean and Stock’s relationship as meaningful, but in the end offering only a mildly interesting, gossipy window on Dean’s side of the tale as he hovered in limbo between the release of ‘East of Eden’ and shooting ‘Rebel without a Cause’.
Like a souped-up version of his earlier 'Frances Ha', 'Mistress America' finds American writer-director Noah Baumbach ('The Squid and the Whale', 'Greenberg') working with a manic screwball energy that has more in common with old Hollywood greats like Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks than any of his previous films. It begins on the first day of freshman year as Tracy (perfectly cast rising star Lola Kirke) moves into the dorm of her New York college. In this student world, kids are so worried about being someone that they barely have time to learn.
‘This is Boston,’ says Stanley Tucci’s seen-it-all victims’ lawyer to a reporter in ‘Spotlight’, echoing that famous last line in ‘Chinatown’: ‘Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown’. But forgetting isn’t an option sometimes: ‘Spotlight’ calmly and powerfully traces the work of a group of dogged Boston Globe journalists in 2001, who were determined to expose the systematic cover-up of abuse in the local Catholic church. ‘Spotlight’ is the story behind the story, and it’s the film equivalent of reading an especially thrilling New Yorker article: ruthlessly detailed, precise and gripping but never brash or overemotional.
You’ve seen LA’s menacing Inglewood in the movies before – a hood of bouncing low-riders and uneasy staredowns – but not, I’m guessing, in an indie comedy that totally reinvents the teens-on-a-wacky-misadventure movie. ‘Dope’ presents a trio of lovable dorks: Malcolm (Shameik Moore), Jib (Tony Revolori, the bellboy in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons). What do they like doing? Getting good grades, listening to classic ’90s hip hop, BMX biking and playing in their punk band, Oreo. As Malcolm says: ‘white stuff’.
This eerie drama is a haunting, troubled look at marriage and what it means to love someone over many years. It gives us a retired Norfolk couple, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), who we meet in the days leading up to their forty-fifth anniversary party. It’s a contained piece, hysteria-free, but full of true emotion. It begins with the arrival of a letter at the pair's rural home: a body has been discovered. Geoff’s first girlfriend, Katya, who he knew before Kate, fell off an Alpine mountain 50 years ago while they were on holiday. Now she has been found, encased in ice. It’s a small earthquake in the couple’s lives, and the aftershocks rumble, often painfully, through the week to come.
The title makes you think of Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ – but that takes away from the specialness of this French coming-of-age-drama which is powerfully attuned to race, solidarity and the dead ends that many kids have to be smart enough to avoid. Lonely Marieme (first-timer Karidja Touré, a remarkable find) is a 16-year-old living in the Paris suburbs. Just as an impatient careers adviser begins steering her toward vocational classes, Marieme is all but recruited by a brassy girl gang of young black dropouts, a trio of women whose straightened hairdos, leather-and-denim dress code and mouthy attitudes prove intoxicating.
He’s faced off against Enron, Lance Armstrong and the Catholic Church, but now documentary master Alex Gibney is facing his toughest adversary yet: the combined power of the worldwide Church of Scientology. In this searing, eye-opening doc, Gibney offers testimony from former church members – including several from current chairman David Miscavige’s inner circle – alongside a history of the church from its mid-’50s roots in the writings of sci-fi author L Ron Hubbard to its current status as a globe-spanning, multi-million-dollar organisation.
Clawing his way up the power ranks of Directors Least Likely To Make A Romantic Comedy, Denis Villeneuve takes on the Mexican drug trade in this stern, robust, abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter thriller. And during its throat-grabbingly effective opening, it seems he may have the final word on this oft-visited genre. As an FBI team, headed by Emily Blunt's stoic agent Kate, literally crashes an Arizona drug-cartel hideout, a gruesome cache of human corpses is uncovered behind the drywall – and the filmmaking practically gives off its own vivid, indignant stench. Cinematographer Roger Deakins's dynamic camera forces us to look where we'd rather not; Johann Johannsson's score swarms with malevolent foreboding. Even as he borrows from other movies' hellish visions – some of the most arresting imagery here feels lifted from Amat Escalante's 2013 Cannes winner ‘Heli’ – Villeneuve knows how to overwhelm his audience.
Like the black monolith in 2001, late novelist David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest casts a long shadow over the chatty, sharply observed The End of the Tour. The door-stopping 1996 book inspires several running gags: It's more than a thousand pages long, so it must be brilliant. It weighs in at over three pounds and stacks dangerously high. It makes women swoon, alienating them from their jealous writer boyfriends.
A sweet, shambling, and supremely enjoyable road movie about two compulsive gamblers of very different stripes, Mississippi Grind could easily be confused for one of Alexander Payne’s wounded comedies, albeit one with higher stakes and a lower thread-count. But when it comes to the latest offering from Half Nelson directing duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, the broader source of inspiration is clearly the loose and trenchantly American studio films of the ‘70s. While seeing a contemporary star like Ryan Reynolds grin and slide his way through something so indebted to California Split and its ilk will make you miss those movies more than ever, Mississippi Grind is so good that you’ll thank Fleck and Boden for the pleasure.
Interview with acclaimed director Mike Leigh
Read our in-depth interview with the man who will be awarded the “A Tribute to...” Golden Eye award at Zurich Film Festival this year.
The best things to check out this year
Interview with Nadja Schildknecht, managing director of the Zurich Film Festival.
The Swiss ex-model reveals how she separates work and private life, and how she has made the Zurich Film Festival such a success.