And so we came to the end. After three days of non-stop cinema, it was time to head back home, but not before catching two more movies, each of which managed to earn an Oscar nomination this past year. The first, Boy and the World, is a Portuguese animated film that ended up getting the nomination for Best Animated Film. Of course, you could argue that just about any animated film has a chance at that nomination with so few in the running, but to assume that is to severely underestimate Boy and the World. Boy‘s art is deceptively simple, looking near the film’s beginning like nothing so much as a child’s crayon drawings, a choice that fits the mood in the early going. It’s the story of Boy, whose father takes a job in a distant city and leaves he and his mother behind on their own. At least, that’s how the film starts. But as Boy goes exploring and looking for his father, the film gets more and more complicated, until it becomes a sprawling story about modern society, global industrialization, fear of oppressive government, the power of youth, and so much more, all without speaking more than a few words. Yes, Boy is a foreign film, but the few lines of dialogue – maybe 6 or 7 – are in an intentional gibberish language, and mostly the film relies on its staggering visuals and its wonderful music to convey its story and themes. It’s an abstract film in many ways, of course, but it’s hard not to enjoy its simple charm and style in the early going, and then get swept up as the film evolves into something more complex and profound along the way. It’s a wonderful reminder of the power of animation to tell wholly original tales that don’t have to just be kids’ films (this could easily be enjoyed by any age, but I think it resonates more with older audiences than younger), as well as a reminder of how rich visual and sonic storytelling can be. Rating: **** ½
Boy and the World screened with a short film named The Maltese Guinea Pig, a 15-minute film about a 4th grader investigating the disappearance of the class pet. It’s all done in the style of classic noir, down to some unexpected black and white shots, hard-boiled dialogue, and some wonderful nods to the tics and styles of the genre. It’s a bit amateurish from an acting perspective, and it definitely leans pretty heavy on the fact that much of the appeal comes from watching little kids deliver noir dialogue…but that appeal really never lessens for any of those 15 minutes. It’s a lot of fun, and worth checking out. Rating: ****
The final film of my festival marathon was one of the ones I was most interested to see, and thankfully, it more than lived up to my expectations. Embrace of the Serpent was nominated for Best Foreign Film last year at the Oscars, and rightfully so; it’s a phenomenal, fascinating film, one that looks and feels like little else out there. Embrace tells the story of two journeys down the Amazon River in search of a specific plant with legendary healing properties. The first takes place in 1909, when a German scientist takes shaman Karamakate down the river in search of the yakruna plant; the second occurs in 1940, as an American researcher asks Karamakate to take him down the river in search of the same plant as he retraces the steps of that first expedition. Embrace is a haunting, beautiful film, one filmed in stark, stunning black and white that unfolds like a strange dream. Karamakate is in both stories, of course, but played by two different actors to represent his different ages; nonetheless, the stories blend together, with our focus changing between the story effortlessly and without clear segues, making it clear that this is not two separate stories, but rather one rich and complex one. And while it would be easy for Embrace of the Serpent to be the story of how these white men learned from these noble savage natives, or how the jungle drives men to their most bestial side, Embrace is something wholly different from either of those archetypes. It’s very much the story of Karamakate, a man who is the last survivor of his tribe, and his effort to make peace not only with the changes taking place in his land, but the legacy he will – or will not – leave behind. It’s a rich, hypnotic film, and one filled with fascinating incidents, including a pair of surreal, disturbing sequences that unfold in each story at an old mission outpost (a pairing that raises the question about whether one is connected to the other), as well as numerous other pieces along the way. It’s a beautiful, moving film, one that manages to stand out from Aguirre, Heart of Darkness, and so other films/stories that it could have simply aped. It’s remarkable, powerful cinema. Rating: *****
So, that’s my 2016 Chattanooga Film Fest experience. 17 movies, four days, and almost all of them worth seeing in some way or another. Were there some issues? Undoubtedly, especially from a technical and scheduling standpoint; I had numerous films start late, and more than one with technical problems, which often led to those aforementioned late starts. And yet, I still can’t wait until the festival next year. The selection at the CFF is second to none, delivering eclectic, exciting, interesting choices that couldn’t align more closely with my own tastes. The crew is professional, helpful, outgoing, and engaged; the selections are interesting and carefully curated; and the events and guests exciting. More than that, the whole thing just emits a love of cinema, whether it’s grungy 70’s exploitation, low-budget personal projects, epic documentaries, or unclassifiable journeys. In short, it’s a festival made by omnivorous, unpretentious cinephiles for omnivorous, unpretentious cinephiles, and it’s become one of my favorite parts of the year. Bring on 2017!
But after I catch up on some sleep first.