Vancouver International Film Festival: 20 Selections

It is that time of year again!
The Vancouver Film Festival is in full swing and I have managed to catch the first few of about a dozen or so films that I will be attending over the remainder of the event. With so many choices out there (380 over 75 countries!), I have put together a list of twenty films with a short synopsis straight from the VIFF site, a quick rationale for the choice, and a film clip or still. Just click on the title link for each film for screening times and locations. Overall, these are films that have been on my radar or caught my eye when the program landed, many of which I will see at this year's festival and/or plan to catch in the coming months when the best of VIFF and select films get a wider release. So here, in no particular order, are my selections. Enjoy!

Something in the Air

"After the mammoth artistic triumph that was Carlos, Olivier Assayas switches gears to tell the loosely autobiographical story of Gilles (newcomer Clément Metayer), a high-school student in early 70s Paris who is torn between his artistic inclinations and the political activism favoured by his friends, especially the volatile Christine (Lola Créton)."

I adore Assayas’ cinematic vision (especially after Carlos (2010)) and have been looking forward to his latest film centered around the student movement of the immediate post-1968 era. In my lectures concerning the decline of modern art and the dematerialization of the art object in the early 1970’s, I often attempt to capture the energy of this time and make connections between the world of art and the world of political activism. This is the kind of film that I hope a new generation of artists go and see to get a better sense of how transformative this time actually was (and without all the bad hippy stereotypes that so many filmmakers end up referencing!). 

Cartoon College

"This bittersweet, charming documentary introduces us to some of the world’s greatest graphic novelists, and the extraordinary college in White River Junction, Vermont, where the comic artists of tomorrow get inspired and get to work! Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Françoise Mouly and Scott McCloud are among the many artists to take us into their imaginative inner lives and craft. The fabulous soundtrack includes an original score by Jason Zumpano."

Graphic novels and the turn to figurative art via cartooning has been a very dynamic and evolving area of art production over the past decade, and especially with the advent of cheaper and more mobile forms of digital and analog circulation. This film caught my eye right away in this year’s program and seemed especially fitting as one of my colleagues, Nancy Duff, is offering a graphic novel special topics studio course at Kwantlen. I keep hearing how much work that class is, and I think this film will help explain why that is.

Occupy Love

"In early 2011, inspired by the massive demonstration in New York City, people the world over came together to demand an inclusive redistribution of social and economic power. Going straight to the heart of the Occupy movement, Velcrow Ripper’s hopeful documentary chronicles this global paradigm shift."

The Occupy Movement has been in and out of the headlines for the past year, and on the heels of the first anniversary of the first occupation in New York, this film explores an intriguing dimension of the community spirit and shared experience of love and friendship that has become so pivotal to the sustaining energy of the movement. I have been hearing great things about this film and hope that it can shift the conversation around Occupy into a more action-oriented and positive direction.

The Angel's Share

"Upon discovering that whiskey distilleries make allowances for evaporation, an ex-con schemes to (quite literally) skim a little off the top of a premium cask and sell it to an unscrupulous buyer. A relaxed yet fully realized work from the venerable Ken Loach, this is "a freewheeling social-realist caper… an unfashionably uncynical and unironic kind of comedy…"—Guardian. Winner, Jury Prize, Cannes 2012."

Every year, I try to pick a film that will be fun to watch around the Thanksgiving festivities. This year, the Jury Prize winner from Cannes caught my eye as the perfect film to watch ahead of Thanksgiving dinner. It also has a Scottish twist which is just perfect since my sister-in-law Robyn has family roots in Scotland. So while the turkey is in the oven, this will be the film that we will be heading out to see with the family! 

Portrait of Wally

"Seized by the Nazis in Austria in 1939, Egon Schiele’s titular painting reappeared in New York’s MoMA six decades later and instigated an alley fight in the art world. Andrew Shea’s documentary "isn’t just about stolen art: It’s about cultural skullduggery, political sleaze, institutional hypocrisy and the virtues of persistence."—Variety"

The controversy surrounding Schiele’s famous painting of his mistress, and the many hands that have traded the art object since, is an example I often raise in class discussions concerning the underground art market, big art institutions, and the battle over issues of provenance and ownership in the art world. I have been looking forward to seeing a film about this topic for a very long time.


"The avant-garde Russian art collective "War" has been a persistent thorn in Putin’s side, and Andrey Gryazev’s immersive documentary on these political provocateurs more than shows why. "An oddly stirring, gripping and thought-provoking piece of work about a group of artists… whose art-actions have exposed them to arrest and beatings, and attracted the support of fellow artists from Brian Eno to Banksy."—Screen"

Simply put, one of my must-see films of VIFF, and a topic area related to more recent avant-garde art activism in Russia in the aftermath of the Putin crack-down on cultural expression in the country. I imagine that interest for this film will only grow with the recent publicity surrounding the arrest and detainment of members of Russia’s female punk rock group Pussy Riot. 

Museum Hours

"When a foreign visitor (the inimitable Mary Margaret O’Hara) enlists a museum guard as her private guide to Vienna, Jem Cohen’s film becomes a multifaceted exploration of an iconic city and the evocative power of art. "Full of charm, intelligence and dry humor… an absorbing argument that dusty old artworks have plenty to tell us about contemporary life…”—Hollywood Reporter"

This is the kind of film art historians geek out over and I already anticipate I will be working to unpack the image/narrative connection for days and months after I see it. I will also be spending time in Vienna this Christmas, so I am looking forward to a preview of one of my favourite European cities.

A Late Quartet

"Where once there was harmony amongst a celebrated string quartet, there’s now only dissonance. Consequently, their 25th anniversary performance might just be their swan song. Drawing stellar performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken, director Yaron Zilberman uses the complexities of classical music as an inspired metaphor for the intricacies of long-term relationships."

One name—Philip Seymour Hoffman. I will literally go see any movie that this man is acting in and/or a part of. I also love Christopher Walken and think this story-line is most intriguing.

Beijing Flickers

"Four twenty-something Beijingers claim the city as their own in award-winning Chinese director Zhang Yuan’s new romantic youth drama. Three guys, a violence-prone unemployed dreamer, a parking attendant, and a transvestite performer-poet, meet sultry singer-songwriter Youzi, and share their dreams, frustrations and unexpected adventures."

This film caught my eye as a kind of extended context surrounding the current state of social transformation in China, especially among the youth. I teach many students from China (and Beijing specifically), and the conversations we have about the shifts and tensions on the ground are fascinating. I am hoping to get a better look at these themes through this film, and also gain some understanding around the repressive nature of the government when it comes to open artistic expression. 

In No Particular Order

"Suspended in post-adolescence, twenty-something Sarah alternates between hedonism and ennui. Urged on by her newlywed sister, Sarah awakens to the possibility that life could be different. Directors Terry Miles (A Night For Dying Tigers, VIFF 10) and Kristine Cofsky achieve a pitch-perfect portrait of a quarter-life crisis."

In a similar sense to the previous selection, I enjoy getting inside the head space of younger people and see the world through their eyes. This film is from a Canadian female director to boot, so I think it will be a good pick.


"An about-face from Gomorrah’s Matteo Garrone, who exchanges hard-edged drama for blistering satire in this tale of a lowly fishmonger with a burning ambition to be a reality TV star. "A perceptive, unpredictable and frequently very funny critique of reality television’s ability to elevate irksome nobodies into infinitely more irksome somebodies…"—Telegraph."

I have been hearing about this film a lot since it won the Grand Prix at Cannes, and since I am something of a closeted reality TV show watcher, I can only imagine how fantastic this satirical look at the world of the genre will be!

Side by Side: TheScience, Art, and Impact of Digital Cinema

"Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, The Wachowskis, Christopher Nolan, Ellen Kuras, James Cameron, David Fincher, Lena Dunham, Danny Boyle, David Lynch and Michael Ballhaus are just some of the artists interviewed in Keanu Reeves (host and producer) and Christopher Kenneally’s thorough and fascinating documentary.

Any film that features a line-up like this is already worth taking in, but I am especially intrigued with the topic of digital cinema’s impact since it shapes a good deal of discussion in my Intro to Film Studies course. Yes Keanu Reeves hosted and produced it… what can I say… I will still go and see it.


"No longer content with simply firing embittered salvos from the stage, a misanthropic stand-up comedian adopts an extreme approach to the concept of "bombing." Joel Potrykus unforgettable debut plays like "a twisted version of Louis C.K.’s FX show Louie…"—Indiewire. Winner, Best Emerging Director, Filmmakers of the Present, Locarno 2012."

This film intrigues me. I think it has a lot to do with how I am thinking about the potential for today’s underground films shot on phones and small devices, but I am a sucker for finding out what a “a twisted version of Louis C.K.’s FX show Louie” looks like on the screen.


"Brandon Cronenberg’s (yes, son of that Cronenberg) debut is set in a dystopian near future in which obsession with celebrity has reached such neurotic levels that fans get themselves injected with viruses and diseases that once lived inside their idols… Amazingly controlled and confident for a first film, Antiviral marks Cronenberg the younger as one to watch."

I will probably not go see this movie since the trailer completely creeps me out, but I am very interested in the screenplay and associated cinematography of this film. Something about the culture of celebrity as it morphs into the future world of bio-politics rings true to me, and so I think this is a good pick for the festival (and hey, it is a film by Cronenberg’s son, so that only adds to the appeal and irony).

Midnight's Children

"Salman Rushdie did not just give Canada’s Deepa Mehta (Water) permission to adapt his epic novel—he wrote the screenplay and supplied the first-person narration! The story of Muslim and Hindu babies—born at midnight on Aug. 15, 1947, the day of India’s independence from Great Britain—switched at birth conjures images and characters as rich and unforgettable as India herself."

This film has already sold out all of its screenings, so I will have to wait to see one of my favourite director’s film on its wide release. I have not read Rushdie’s popular book, but I am trusting that Mehta’s vision of it will be divine. Also, if you enjoyed Mehta’s previous films exploring Indian history and Indo-Canadian relationships, this will be a must-see. 


"Based on fact and gorgeously shot in the South of France by cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin (In the Mood for Love), Gilles Bourdos’ wonderfully acted, lyrical period piece examines what happened when the sprightly teenager Andrée (Christa Theret) entered the lives of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) and his soon-to-be-filmmaker son Jean (Vincent Rottiers)."

I think this will be a wonderfully escapist, pleasurable, and beautiful film to enjoy…. Nothing too deep, just like a typical Renoir painting.

Garden in the Sea

"VIFF favourite Thomas Riedelsheimer (Rivers and Tides, Touch the Sound) returns with another visually transfixing exploration of art and nature, this time chronicling the efforts of Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias as she installs an environmentally enhancing and aesthetically daring sculpture in the Sea of Cortez at Candelor Bay." 

I have heard about this artist’s work for some time now and look forward to seeing how her installations come to life on the screen. I am also finding that some of the best documentaries being produced today concern the life and work of contemporary artists, so I think this will not disappoint.


"Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself) portrays 17 buildings and unrealized projects by 2011 Pritzker Prize-winning Portuguese "starchitect" Eduardo Souto Moura. Political engagement vies with a fair amount of Andersen’s dry humour as Souto Moura’s reconverted ruins and Andersen’s visual style come together in a Vertovian dialectic."

As I am teaching a History of Architecture course over two semesters this year, this film was on my radar from day one. I cannot wait to see the work of this fascinating contemporary architect on the big screen!


"With a devastating economic and social crisis laying waste to Greece, documentarians Nikos Katsaounis and Nina Maria Paschalidou dispatched 14 photojournalists to uncover the stories overlooked by the traditional media. In this visually arresting mosaic, artists, intellectuals and ordinary citizens desperately try to make sense of the chaos gripping their country."

I really enjoy watching documentaries on current and unfolding events, and this film concerning the Greek economic meltdown is right up my alley. We spent some time in Athens last summer and I recall thinking that this topic deserved a better treatment than the scattered sound bites that surround this very complicated and pressing situation at the centre of the world economy.

Crimes of Mike Recket

"Bruce Sweeney’s (Dirty) moody mystery is a rich, moving thriller in which character psychology and suspense are seamlessly merged. Watch for very strong performances from Vancouver’s Gabrielle Rose and Nicholas Lea."

I love Bruce Sweeney films—they evoke Vancouver AS Vancouver and seem warm and familiar. I cannot imagine going to VIFF and not seeing one his latest offerings.